Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
My new “Think Again” column is called “Think Again: The Color of Hollywood Is Green.” It is a critique of a lazy an misguided argument about Hollywood’s liberalism by New York’s Jonathan Chait and it’s here.
Since I did not post last week, I need to note that last week’s “Think Again,” is called “Political Dysfunction Summer Reading” and it’s here.
My most recent Nation column is “Paul Ryan: The Man Who Wasn't There,” here.
There’s been a bunch of talk about “post-truth politics” in discussions of how the media should handle the lies of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and their surrogates and apologists, (like for instance CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and David Gergen). Perhaps it’s petty of yours truly to point this out, that while I don't know if I coined it or not, but I did use The Post-Truth Presidency as the title of the conclusion/chapter on the Bush administration in my 2004 book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (the first half of which was also my dissertation). John Dean gave the book a nice review in The Washington Monthly which used that term as the hed... Gary Hart’s crappy review in the New York Times Book Review used the same hed.
One of my obsessions in life is when journalists offer confidentiality to people who have no reason to need it. Howard Kurtz, who is increasingly a font of practices that should not be allowed in a first semester J-School class, writes “What America wants, a Hollywood insider familiar with the syndication market tells Kurtz, is a confidante, 'She’s got to come across as relevant to people who are sitting out there. They’re like girlfriends. Oprah was everybody’s girlfriend.'"
Just who was going to blow that guy away for his brave truth-telling had he given his name?
A few weeks ago a I mentioned a new series of Jazz “best-ofs” on Concord. They are not really “best ofs” which is a silly idea when it comes to jazz, but they do make convenient cds to keep around for dinner or drinks. I see the second round includes Monk, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Vin Guaraldi, Cannonball Adderly. More here, though you’ll have to search.
The newest old Dead release Dave’s Pick’s Vol. 3, is from the “Auditorium Theater”—a really stupid name for a beautiful place--in October 1971, which was right when Keith Godchaux jointed the band as Pigpen was almost done drinking himself to death. It’s a great setlist and the first two cds constitute the whole show, while the third disc culled from the previous night's show has yet another terrific Dark Star/St. Stephen going on with lots of songs in-between. It was recorded around the same time as the splendid Skull and Roses album and my guess is that it’s impossible not to like. Jerry is particularly good here, because he is just beginning to take over the band and working as hard as he ever did and my guess is, the absence of Pigpen, while sad, was a relief for all concerned.
Being the old man I am, I’ve also been spending some time with “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff,” a 3-DVD with lots of fond memories along with people you’d expect like Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Paul Simon, Carl Reiner and Johnny Cash. Bonus features include a new interview with Martin and a 24-page booklet with an essay by my friend Adam Gopnik. A little goes a long way so it will last you a long time, I’m guessing.
Having begun seeing the Grateful Dead in 1969, these days I often find myself have to correct revisionist history of the band. Or, better yet, let Phil Lesh, himself, in his book, explain why the loss of Pig Pen was not a "relief". So, I'll settle for pointing out that the recent addition of Godchaux significantly distinguished the October 1971 edition of the band from the April 1971 edition, the source of most of Skull and Roses. Furthermore, if there was a guitarist in the band who began to assert himself between 1970 and 1972, it was Weir, not the perpetually dominant, except for 1995, Garcia. That said, now I can return to our more pressing problems. D. S
Now here’s Reed, who is great, yet again, (disproving the adage that you get what you pay for…)
The Innocence Project: Media Bias Edition
by Reed Richardson
Up until quite recently, it was a well-established principle among jurisprudence experts that a getting a suspect’s confession was among the strongest types of proof one could obtain of an alleged criminal’s guilt. After all, how many people would knowingly admit to something that they didn’t actually do when the consequences might threaten their very survival? Well, it turns out the disturbingly real answer to that supposedly rhetorical question is quite a few. In fact, through 20 years of litigating cases, Yeshiva University’s Innocence Project has found that almost one out of four of its successful exonerations have involved people who falsely confessed to a crime that DNA evidence later conclusively proved they did not commit.
This troubling disconnect between what’s being professed and what’s actually provable doesn’t just plague our criminal justice system. It’s also symptomatic of a Washington press corps that willingly confesses to a professional transgression—liberal bias—when a closer examination of the facts says otherwise.
Why this is relevant became clear last week, when ABC News’ Jake Tapper echoed a favorite right-wing trope to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, that the “media helped tip the scale” for Obama in the 2008 election. This conversation and Tapper’s subsequent admission was no coincidence, however. It was a well-calculated ploy by Ingraham, prompted by a rather damning comment made by Time political reporter Mark Halperin a day earlier. On the NBC’s Today show, Halperin had doubted the public’s interest in the saga of Mitt Romney’s unreleased tax returns and suggested the story was only kept alive due to favoritism toward the president, saying the “media is very susceptible to doing what the Obama campaign wants.”
So, within the span of 24 hours, two prominent—and ostensibly objective—political reporters had publicly delegitimized Obama’s first presidential victory and planted the seeds for doing so again if he were to win reelection in 2012. (Halperin’s also wrong on the issue at hand, by the way, as several polls have shown the public does want them to be released.) Coupling these mea culpas with a recent Rasmussen poll that found 59 percent of public thinks the president’s been getting more favorable treatment from the press, the usual conservative suspects proclaimed the case against media’s liberal bias to be closed.
But there’s a whole lot more going on here besides the inherently partisan ammunition Tapper and Halperin handily provided to right-wing conspiracy theorists. First of all, it’s not entirely accurate of me to say the pair offered mea culpas because, notably, Tapper and Halperin never admit to bias themselves. This, you will find, is a common phenomenon among these instances of self-criticism and garment-rending by members of the Beltway media. (And Halperin, it should be noted, stands out as its most unctuous and egregious practitioner.) What they are actually doing is throwing the whole rest of Washington press corps under the bus, to preserve their own reputations. Just once I’d like to hear one of these “courageous” reporters or editors offer up concrete evidence of this bias from their own body of work. But strangely, it seems that this widespread liberal favoritism on the part of the media, which is allegedly infecting everyone else, never infiltrates those journalists who have the courage to point it out.
In effect, statements like those made by Tapper and Halperin amount to conflating confession and accusation. It’s akin to cutting a quick deal with the public—or, more accurately, the right-wing noise machine—to be a cooperating witness in an indictment of the press in general. But whether one is irrationally condemning oneself or conveniently calling out one’s professional peers, the true merit of these charges shouldn’t be judged by who makes them but by their veracity. Yet time after time, the same journalists who proclaim to follow strict codes of objectivity and adhere only to the facts in their daily workload willingly abandon both when it comes to claims about the own profession’s liberal bias.
Instead, what they offer up is a lot of anecdotes, generalizations, and gut feelings. For example, Halperin loudly complained of an “extreme pro-Obama” media bias during a post-election symposium at USC in 2008. His damning proof? Two competing profiles of the presidential candidate’s wives by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor late in the campaign cycle (here and here). The one on Cindy McCain, Halperin claims, was too harsh, while the one on Michelle Obama, was too soft. Taken in a vacuum, he might have a point about a single reporter’s views, but as a sweeping accusation against the profession, it’s ridiculously inadequate. What’s more, to trade in outrageous anecdotes would be a losing effort on his part, since I strain to remember a cable news anchor speculating about Cindy McCain’s “terrorist fist jab,” or a mainstream news organization posing questions to McCain about a rumored, but non-existent videotape purporting to show his wife repeatedly using a racial slur. What Halperin is relying upon here is the journalistic equivalent of circumstantial proof, the kind that often gets innocent men and women unfairly convicted in a courtroom.
In fact, the hindsight judgment of Halperin and Tapper and other liberal bias accusers is most definitely not 20/20 when you dig into real aggregated data of the 2008 campaign coverage. For instance, the early general election coverage of Obama on evening TV network news shows was noticeably more negative than that of McCain—72% vs. 57%, respectively—according to a contemporaneous study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Of course, when these findings didn’t jibe with the instincts of Fox News conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly, he labeled them as “misleading.” This despite his having championed a previous 2006 CMPA media study that found favorable press coverage for Democrats in the run-up to that year’s mid-term elections. When the evidence disputes the theory, dispute the evidence, I guess.
Likewise, a comprehensive Project for Excellence in Journalism study during the final two months of the 2008 campaign found that the overall tone of media coverage for Obama was the picture of supposed objectivity, as positive, neutral, and negative stories were published in roughly equal amounts. Even more striking, the press’s even-handed coverage of Obama roughly mirrored that of none other than Sarah Palin. Surely, Obama couldn’t be simultaneously enjoying press favoritism when the tone of his coverage matched that of someone who prominent conservatives love to claim was unfairly persecuted by the elite media?
Personally, I don’t believe that press coverage should strive to rigidly enforced ratios of positive, negative, and neutral—that’s an editorial prescription for the same kind of false equivalence that turns individual articles into worthless, misinforming mush. So, I’m less disturbed by the fact that the PEJ study found the tenor of John McCain’s coverage eroded sharply over the final weeks of the ’08 campaign. The reason? Upon closer inspection, one finds a close correlation between the rise in negative McCain stories and his self-inflicted wounds, like the ungainly reaction to the financial meltdown, the awkward and brief suspension of his campaign, and his disastrous performance in the first debate with Obama. And lest you think this tilt was all just a plot among supposedly left-wing news outlets, consider that even Fox News was running nearly twice as many negative McCain stories as positive ones in the run-up to Election Day. To put it bluntly, that a candidate doesn’t get as much positive press coverage when they’re screwing up a lot isn’t bias, that’s reality.
Unfortunately, these same, damaging and unsubstantiated caricatures of widespread liberal bias have not relented during Obama’s first term. This notion that, in 2008, the press somehow didn’t properly report on the president has become so ingrained into conservative thinking over the past few years that even the Romney campaign has dabbled in language about how Obama “really hasn’t been vetted.” And it carries on as a bubbling undercurrent today.
That the Romney folks would exploit this meme isn’t surprising—it plays into the aggrieved resentment held by many die-hard members of their Republican base toward both the president and the press. It is nonetheless ironic, though, since a PEJ study of press coverage during the 2012 GOP primaries finds that Romney enjoyed the most favorable coverage of any presidential contender. Obama, meanwhile, spent this past winter and spring getting beat up in the press, never once experiencing a point in time where his positive coverage outweighed the negative. This pillorying is to be expected, though, as incumbent presidents running for reelection always cede many months of the political news hole to opposing party challengers, all of whom can be expected to say unflattering things about him. And Obama is no different. But if that’s evidence of liberal media bias, then the old adage that begins “with friends like these…” must apply.
The tale hasn’t changed much once the campaigns kicked into general election mode. Yes, the bloom certainly fell off the rose of Romney’s press coverage once his primary victory faded, but at the same time Obama’s hasn’t recovered. Indeed, to look at the PEJ’s master tracking of the campaign from May up through last week is to see both candidates locked into similarly ugly narratives. And the media’s role in shaping these narratives has shrunk noticeably as campaign ads have deluged the discourse.
Still, if you dig down into the media sector details the bias just isn’t there. Newspaper coverage of both candidates breaks down almost precisely the same way—two-thirds negative, one-third positive. Obama does enjoy an edge in network TV news coverage, but loses out on the 24-hour cable TV nets, as Fox News and CNN air more negative stories on the president—86% and 71%, respectively—than MSNBC and CNN run on Romney—89% and 62%, respectively. Try to build an intellectually honest argument for media bias out of these neck-and-neck numbers and it just won’t hold water.
That doesn’t stop some from trying, of course. A popular tactic right now is to assert that a kind of gaffe gap exists, and is dispositive evidence of the media’s bias toward the president. As a result, you get a contorted column that bemoans the press’s shallow obsession with this kind of campaign ephemera while it simultaneously labors to prove the “underreported” nature of these very same harmless misstatements by Obama. This kind of whinging shouldn’t be given the time of day, but the implicit stamp of approval it gets when Tapper and Halperin throw out their fact-free, faux outrage means that the media bias myths live another day.
But there’s a long-term price for this reckless self-sabotage of journalism. If the media itself accepts the fact that bias no longer needs to be proven but merely asserted, if our democracy comes to believe (as polls increasingly show is happening) that this mythical bias is simply a given, then the public’s trust in the profession will be irreparably harmed. Once defanged, the press will discover what it’s like when it can no longer effectively function as a champion of the truth—politicians will be free to brazenly campaign and govern based purely on dogma and ideology, without regard for facts at all.
Right here, right now, and especially after what we've seen the past few nights down in Tampa, the press is facing this frightening prospect. So, it must make a choice and make it quickly. Should the media continue to give in to a mistaken sense of professional guilt by avoiding controversy and seeking penance for partisan transgressions that it hasn’t really committed? Or should it be willing to stand firmly with the facts, whatever they are and whomever they afflict, and let the evidence ultimately prove it right?
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “News Corp. Hacking Scandal Still Hiding in Plain Sight,” and it’s here.
It’s an attempt to call attention to the enormity of the Murdoch story, which is, in my opinion, is being insufficiently investigated.
While I was out of the country last week, my long and frightening (to me) investigation of the shape and scope a potential Romney presidency, published in The Nation, is here.
The choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate only emphasizes the importance of the policies discussed in the article since Ryan’s presence in the administration—and general belovedness in the MSM—imply that these things will actually happen in a hypothetical Romney presidency. They are not just “talk” to keep the crazies happy.
Before I left I was lucky enough to catch one of the two shows Jackson Browne did at the Beacon. It was a lovely show. Though billed as a solo acoustic show, it wasn’t, which was a good thing. Jackson’s band was sufficiently familiar with his catalogue to go long and deep. There were hits, sure but fans got to hear some of the stuff they ‘ve wanted to hear for decades—proverbial deep cuts from “Late for the Sky” and “For Everyman” and even “Saturate Before Using,” though, I think Jackson’s more recent work does not get the attention/respect it deserves, in particular, “The Naked Ride Home.” It would have been nearly impossible not to leave the hall in a great mood, I imagine, and if you can’t see Jackson, the solo acoustic albums and David Lindley double live cds will help. Read all about ‘em here.
I am still making my way through Roxy Music’s ten-CD Complete Studio Recordings 1972 – 1982. It’s really a beautiful thing. Each album is perfectly reproduced and sonically improved. The box itself is a real nice compact size and Roxy Music is pretty much a perfect band for this treatment because while they did have plenty of hits, their beast stuff was actually buried beneath. There are eight studio albums plus two discs of bonus tracks. containing tracks previously unavailable on CD. Roxyites will be pleased to learn that the cds were created from the original analogue master tapes (not the 1999 remasters). Bryan Ferry’s career has taken many twists and turns but it’s hard to argue that he ever surpassed the music in this lovely box set. (Its official release date is not until August 28, by the way.)
I used to be a big Kevin Smith booster. I even loved his lousy early movies and his good ones. I thought he deserved comparison to Eric Rohmer—as a kind of bad-taste American stonger-analogue to tasteful French culture. So I’ve watched with dismay and a small sense of betrayal to see how horribly his career has gone. His last straight-to-video horror movie was both unwatchable and inexplicable. And the smug, self-satisfied shows put on in this new dvd called “Jay & Silent Bob Get Old:Tea Bagging In The UK,” are mostly just depressing. It will be a while before I can enjoy Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2, after spending twenty minutes with this horror show.
Columbia Legacy has also released a bunch of Johnny Cash collections to celebrate what would have been the man’s 80th birthday, number one hits, duets, gospel, etc, and a cd/dvd tribute concert package, called “We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash. The concert, which took place at the Moody Theater in Austin, TX., has Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, and a bunch of other people, with a crack band Don Was, Buddy Miller, Kenny Aronoff, Ian McLagen and Greg Leisz in it and a beautiful rehearsal track in the extras of Willie Nelson singing “I Still Miss Someone.”
Now here’s Reed.
by Reed Richardson
If I were a wonk, I’d be offended. To think that someone like Paul Ryan could be so frequently identified as one of us would be galling. But for a largely innumerate press corps, that often confuses simple mathematical concepts like percentage and percentage point and commonly bungles how our progressive tax bracket functions, it’s perhaps no surprise that throwing a bunch of charts and graphs into a few Powerpoint presentations can get yourself labeled things like “smart,” “honest,” “serious,” and “courageous” by the Beltway media movers and shakers.
But, as any real wonk could tell you, the devil is in the details, and Ryan’s details are routinely bedeviled by reality. So, just for the sake of the press, I’ve compiled an updated list of all the people who have publicly questioned the brilliance, honesty, seriousness, and/or courage of Paul Ryan’s policy proposals. (I stand on the shoulders of this blog’s proprietor, who detailed Ryan’s chimerical thinking a year and a half ago.)
-Analysts at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office
-Analysts at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center
-Analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
-Analysts at the Citizens for Tax Justice
-Analysts at the Economic Policy Institute
-David Stockman, former budget director, Reagan White House
-Peter Orszag, former budget director, Obama White House
-Mark Zandi, economist at Moody’s Analytics, adviser to both McCain presidential campaign and Obama administration
-Mark Thoma, professor of economics at the University of Oregon
-The Economist’s American Politics column
-Ron Paul, 2012 Republican presidential candidate
-Newt Gingrich, 2012 Republican presidential candidate, former GOP Speaker of the House,
-John Boehner, current GOP Speaker of the House
-Donald Trump, erstwhile Republican presidential candidate, stopped clock
-And, yes, Paul Ryan himself
As you can see, it is neither a short list, nor, I suspect, a final one. And yes, there are some on the above list who now embrace the policies they once dismissed. But perhaps what’s most noteworthy about Ryan’s intellectual and policy critics is that they compose a strikingly broad bipartisan coalition, the likes of which should have the objective, centrist-loving media rapt with joy. Finally, one would think, the press has found an issue to champion that most of us on both the left and the right can agree on—Paul Ryan’s math just doesn’t add up and his budget can't do what he says it does.
And yet, despite this multi-count indictment of Ryan’s not-so-rigorous thinking, the political press still regards him as legitimate expert in cold, hard numbers instead of someone whose policies amount to little more than magically adding up 2 + 2 to get 5 for rich folks and zero (or less) for the rest of us. Instead, a few dozen extreme Republican members of Congress and a small coterie of conservative pundits have convinced most of the media to agree with them that Ryan is a “fiscal analyst par excellence.”
The press’s standard for excellence clearly ain’t what it used to be, apparently. For example, on Wednesday, in his newly minted role as GOP vice presidential candidate, Ryan falsely accused Obama of “raiding Medicare” to the tune of more than $700 billion (these “cuts” are, in fact, reductions in future spending that won’t affect beneficiaries) even though, as House Republican, Ryan twice included in his own budget this very same proposal. This policy reversal, of course, further undermines Ryan’s phony claims of being a “fiscal conservative,” since abandoning these Medicare savings, coupled with the massive tax cuts proposed elsewhere in his 2013 budget, would blow another huge hole in the deficit. The political press’s reaction to this flagrant pandering? Yawn.
That Ryan’s most recent policy adversary is himself might be seem ironic, but is really not all that shocking. In fact, to read this New Yorker profile of Ryan is to see that his political career involves numerous tradeoffs of his supposed intellectual consistency and wonkish policy principles in favor of ideological expediency and political power. (His votes in favor of large, unfunded Republican programs like Medicare Part D and TARP, for example, ring particularly hollow for a die-hard “deficit hawk.”) As an early architect of a plan to privatize Social Security in 2005, Ryan’s aggressive posture was deemed too radical even for George W. Bush. Chastened by the experience, Ryan floated a slightly less radical version in his 2010 budget. Likewise, his original 2008 “Roadmap,” which attracted only a handful of co-sponsors in the House, has undergone several iterations to make its demolition of Medicare more politically palatable, even if it’s mostly just fiddling around the margins. That’s why, after another version of his Medicare voucher plan crashed and burned last year, Ryan was desperate to find any kind of Democratic cover for the next go round. That even Ryan’s liberal partner in that effort, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, subsequently voted against and is now rapidly backpedaling away from Ryan’s Medicare provisions is telling.
Indeed, Paul Ryan’s 13-year career in Washington—the legislative successes of which are paltry, to say the least—is, in many ways, symbolic of the modern Republican Party. He, like his party, refuses to subjugate dogma to logic and is willing to forego responsible governing for political posturing. That’s why, though the peripheral details of Ryan's budgets may have changed over time, the radical conservative core of the policy goals contained therein still remain disconnected from fiscal reality. Combine this fiscal intransigence with a thoroughly rock-ribbed stance on social policies and you have the very definition of an ideologue. And ideologues, as the leading lights in Washington’s media constellation agree, are anathema to our democracy. Yet for too long this same press corps has allowed glowing adjectives to disguise the real Paul Ryan, to the point where he's now ascended to the Republican presidential ticket. Let's hope before November arrives, the media and public figure out the truth—Ryan can talk the talk, but he can’t wonk the wonk.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Reed here, Eric’s away on vacation this week, enjoying the warm Mediterranean sun, I’m told. But go read his long Nation article on what America might expect out of a “President Romney.” I warn you, however, that afterwards you might need a stiff drink, or another kind of diversion.
As such, here’s my favorite, probably overlooked, performance of these London Olympic Games so far. Yes, golden girl Abby Wambach can work the refs with the best of them and, sorry my friends from north of the border, but yes, your keeper had it coming. (Let’s just hope Wambach doesn’t start using these keen powers of persuasion for nefarious purposes, like being a political spokesperson, since it seems a certain campaign might be in the market for a new one quite soon.)
Now here’s, well, me.
Forgive Those Who Press Pass Against Us?
by Reed Richardson
Recently, the folks at the Poynter Institute have been debating editorial strategies for protecting against journalism malpractice, in general, and, more specifically, identifying dangerous habits in young, promising writers before they snowball into career-wrecking episodes. Episodes similar to what we’ve seen (and, I suspect, will continue to see) with the rapid downfall of wunderkind Jonah Lehrer.
Their discussion, however, has been mostly focused on the journalistic equivalent of mortal sins—plagiarism, fabrication, lying, egregious quote doctoring, and so forth. But as Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark argues, a news organization shouldn’t bother training new reporters to avoid this kind of flagrantly unprofessional behavior, it should simply expect it, and then police them to make sure. And save for those extremely rare instances such as Lehrer, Jayson Blair, or Stephen Glass, they do. That’s why I’m more curious about the media’s more venial sins—those smaller, daily transgressions and subconscious bad habits that, while they don’t violate any laws or professional ethics codes, can still exact a reputational cost on the press over time. And there is perhaps no better crucible to observe some of these journalistic peccadilloes in action than the highly charged atmosphere of a political campaign.
So, I’m starting a kind of occasional, ongoing series to identify, document, and classify these sins as I run across them. As I am but one man, I welcome outside input, so feel free to send in the best (worst) examples you might find as well.
The betrayal of “false balance”
It was with piqued interest that I read this New York Times piece from Tuesday. In it, none other than President Obama eloquently sounds off on what he perceives as the biggest failings of the political press.
“Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a ‘false balance,’ in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.”
If I may say, it’s about damn time these faults were acknowledged by the president. Sadly, for far too much of his first term, he ignored the first while falling victim to the second in his legislative efforts. As I wrote in this space in December 2010, Obama’s continued willingness to play against his own party as well as the Republicans threatened to leave him vulnerable come reelection time, which, of course, he now is.
“I do know that that wavering resolve and hectoring, a-pox-on-both-houses language ominously left open a lot of doors to compromise down the road. To a future where [Obama’s] speeches, press conferences, and ultimately, campaign stops will have to present half a loaf, a slice or even a few crumbs as the best way, given the circumstances, to satiate the American people, while acknowledging that it actually satisfied no one. Seeking out an intellectually denuded center, whether it’s in pursuit of some falsely contrived sense of objectivity or a quixotic attempt at postpartisanship, is a prescription for more than just poor journalism or a difficult reelection campaign, it’s potentially a recipe for disaster for our democracy.”
So Obama, having finally learned these lessons, has come around. The press, as exemplified in that very same Times story still doesn’t get it, though. For example, here’s the passage that directly follows the earlier description of Obama’s media analysis:
“Mr. Obama’s assessments overlap with common critiques from academics and journalism pundits, but when coming from a sitting president the appraisal is hardly objective, the experts say.
“‘I think we’ve learned through history to beware of presidents playing press critic,’ said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. ‘They’re not press critics—they’re people trying to advance a political agenda.’”
So, here the Times reporter dutifully notes that some experts side with Obama while others disagree, but the public never really hears the merits of his argument either way. (And the subtext here is striking: Obama’s position is tut-tutted as “hardly objective,” and, thus, to experts like Rosenstiel, is easily dismissed as inherently flawed. In other words, one cannot be trusted to both have a point of view and be right at the same time.) This exchange presents an almost laughable meta-moment—in a discussion about the political media’s penchant for enforcing balance at the expense of context, we witness the political media enforce balance at the expense of context.
Who might have a valid point about the media’s habitual behavior? What might be the consequences for the public? Who knows? But at least the reader can keep score of who’s on which side. If that sounds all too familiar, then you have been paying attention to the coverage of political Washington these past few years. Then, to further illustrate the point that making qualitative judgments about sources is often sacrificed on the altar of expediency and a snappy quote from the other side of the ideological fence, the Times reporter has the gall to innocently quote a critique of Obama’s press strategy from the chief executive of Newsmax. (For more on the ignominious history of conservative propaganda mill and birther-friendly website Newsmax, go here.)
To be fair, the article does later cite some specific examples of Obama’s disappointment over the falsely balanced coverage of the stimulus and healthcare debates. But, again, there’s no effort on the part of the author to refute or substantiate his assertions. (Even though there’s ample evidence of the latter.) And while there are a couple of more voices supporting Obama’s point included at the end of the piece, they are predictably couched within a volley of intellectual rebuttals.
Why does this matter? Well, as Eric’s piece up top demonstrates, the consequences of this presidential election, to stoop to a cliché, might be the biggest of our/my lifetime. Yet, a political press corps handicapped by the mistaken impression that fair coverage must necessarily be equal coverage will be hard pressed to live up to its civic duty. This is especially true if one campaign boldly decides to dispense with pleasantries like intellectual honesty, proof, and substance and merely run on hyperbole, innuendo, and secrecy. Or, as NYU’s Jay Rosen observed: “If Mitt Romney were running a ‘post-truth’ campaign, would the political press report it?”
Prompted by this recent and fairly typical post at the Washington Post’s “The Fix” column, the answer Rosen arrives at isn’t one we should want to hear. Indeed, the Post’s conclusion that the Romney campaign’s naked distortion of Obama’s words will still “work” as a political tactic is to almost get the sense that it presupposes the absence of an independent press corps altogether. Then, when the Post author weakly laments: “The problem is the gray area is just too gray,” one can see just how deeply a learned helplessness has gripped our nation’s “objective” news organizations. But perhaps the most damning indictment of how media misdemeanors like false balance can eventually add up to a capital betrayal of the public trust is found in the column’s final paragraphs:
“Romney may be attacked in the days ahead for running an out-of-context campaign, and some objective reporters might even say it has gone too far.
“But the fact is that these two comments further clarify a picture (or caricature, depending on where you stand) of Obama that’s already out there. And plenty of — nay, almost all — people who don’t dissect this stuff as much as we do are going to take the pulled quotes at face value.
“Is it warm and fuzzy? No. Does it work? Yes. And that’s why they do it.”
In other words, context is dead, the press corps is chronically ill, and, more and more, our democracy ain’t looking so good either.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
My new Think Again: Thoughts on Milton Friedman and Gore Vidal.
Believe it or not, I watched “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” this morning on Blu-ray as I typed this. It’s a perfect movie to watch if you’re my age and you are hardly paying attention, and the most perfect role my friend Janeane Garofalo ever had, given who she is and what she thinks. (Though I watched "Jimmy Plays Berkeley" to get the sugar out of my system, afterward.) I got it because the studio released a bunch of "anniversary editions" on Blu-ray, but the one I really wanted, I didn’t get, which was "High Fidelity". They also released “Gross Pointe Blank” which is also pretty great, together with “Adventures in Babysitting" and "The Preacher’s Wife” which you will have to judge for yourselves.
My friends at Concord put out four single “best of” CDs by Miles, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Chet Baker. I find it hard to believe that anyone cool enough to be reading me here needs an introduction—except perhaps to Wes, but if you do, you can get ‘em now, cheap. Legacy also has a new collection called I Am An Elvis Fan, a 21-song collection of Elvis songs voted on by fans in May 2012 via a campaign hosted at www.iamanelvisfan.com. Same deal.
Now here's Reed.
August and Everything After
by Reed Richardson
It was in the fall of 2004 that I found myself taking the F train uptown toward Central Park to meet Gore Vidal. I was an intern at the Nation and had been assigned by its editor, Victor Navasky, to conduct research for a speech Vidal was to give on the frightening sequel to the Patriot Act being debated at the time. Vidal had already been corresponding with me via phone from his home in Rafello, Italy, and during those few calls, two things had struck me. First, Vidal was not someone who deferred to others’ expertise on the American national security state, since most of his documentary requests of me involved compiling what he himself had already said and written elsewhere on the topic. The second, more quotidian, and rather poignant detail was that he was a man who loved his cats, since an unmistakable feline mewling—emanating from what, based on the volume, sounded like a perch on Vidal’s lap—often drowned out his voice and made our phone conversations difficult.
Upon arriving at the Ritz-Carlton, another Nation employee and I were met by Navasky who escorted us up to Vidal’s room. There was an unspoken air of anxiety accompanying us on the elevator ride up I recall, what I imagine going to have an audience with the Pope must be like. Strangers don’t just walk into a room alone to meet his eminence, in other words. With his old friend among our party, though, Vidal seemed in good spirits, although it was much more apparent in person that he was well into his lion-in-winter phase. So much so that the meeting, which was supposed to be a work session for us to prepare for his speech, turned out to be something of a hash because he just wanted to sit around and bullshit rather than talk about something as depressing as George Bush’s next assault on due process and the Fourth Amendment. In fact, we had barely sat down when he launched into a well-delivered joke about a Texan and his wife on their honeymoon (a geographical variation of this old saw). One emptied champagne flute of his later, the three of us were politely bidding Vidal adieu. Leaving with me were all the research files I had brought. The speech, like the specific legislation it targeted, never came to pass. But as we learned recently, the abuses of executive power he would have warned against still continue today.
Vidal’s passing also brought to mind his role in Tim Robbins’ masterful 1992 political satire “Bob Roberts.” In it, Vidal’s unforgettably named character, Brickley Paiste, a wizened liberal Senator from Pennsylvania, played the foil to the movie’s namesake. (Here’s the scene where the pair face off in a debate.) Played by Robbins, Bob Roberts is an unctuous conservative political candidate with a background in financial speculation whose superficial campaign platform amounts to little more than gossamer threads of laissez-faire capitalist platitudes and gimcrack right-wing populism set to music.
As is apparent, the similarities between the fictional Roberts from two decades ago and the real Republican presidential candidate of 2012 are uncanny, their vastly different abilities to carry a tune notwithstanding. Indeed, Romney could pass for a 20-year-older version of the generically handsome, perfectly-coiffed Roberts, as if the FBI had mocked up the former by digitally aging a photograph of the latter. (“Let’s add some gray hair around the temples, too.”) Likewise, Roberts’ railing against “wasteful social programs,” pleas to “cut taxes,” and promise to “bring the values of the common man to Washington” could be seamlessly inserted into Romney’s stump speech today and no one would be the wiser.
Whether this represents intellectual consistency or ossification on the part of conservatives is debatable. But it’s worth noting that the movie doesn’t let liberals off the hook so easily either. Robbins, who both wrote and directed, and Vidal combined to create a flawed left-wing character in Paiste as well. The moment in the debate where the bow tie-clad Paiste creakily abjures attacking Roberts, who circulated a scurrilous sexual rumor about him, comes across as more frustratingly naïve rather than principled. And though his ideological impulses and policy prescriptions are commendable, Paiste’s quaint notion that “image doesn’t matter” comes across as hopelessly out of step with the modern realities of what it takes to exercise and retain political power.
The Obama camp’s aggressive campaign posture this election cycle seems intent on not making this same mistake of unilateral disarmament, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the political press. But in an environment where the Beltway media is increasingly derelict in its duty (and overwhelmingly disliked), it falls to the campaigns to stake out the broader distinctions between the candidates.
Consider, for example, this scene from “Bob Roberts,” where the Robbins’ composure is momentarily ruffled when confronted backstage at a campaign event by an independent journalist, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who has pointed questions about shady financial dealings in his past. Throughout the long, tracking shot, Roberts and his minions make a searies of wrong turns while the candidate tries desperately to avoid answering any of the specific charges leveled at him. Notably, one tactic involves turning on the reporter with a short admonition about violating “objectivity.”
Now compare that admittedly fictitious episode with this sad, real-life video of journalists from the our country’s foremost media organizations ineffectually yelling out questions like “What about your gaffes?” to Romney as he glides by them unperturbed. Granted, it’s a 30-second snapshot of the campaign trail. And I’ll allow that Romney is now kept in a hermetically sealed polyurethane bubble between stump speeches, so the New York Times,Politico, and CNN reporters heard here don’t have the proximity, and thus, the time, to ask more engaging, policy questions. But still, it’s a window into the sorry, small-minded state of current journalistic thinking.
Still, the upshot of this video was that gaffes beget gaffes, as an idiotic adviser from the Romney campaign actually ginned up sympathy for the media in this case by cursing them out. Never mind that no real news was made, the press got what they needed—one more daystory about Romney’s PR disaster of a foreign trip, which everyone agreed it was. Well, almost everyone.
Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal crowed in a column that (paywall req.), in Romney’s oft-criticized response to a question about Britain’s Olympic preparedness, “he neglected to think about politics and diplomacy.” Since Romney just happens to be running for the most importantpolitical and diplomatic job in the world, her logic, I admit, escapes me. But then again maybe it explains a lot about the conservative worldview right now. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post’s resident Romney consigliere, Jennifer Rubin, actually said of the debacle: “Romney, frankly, has been at his best.” To be fair, this might yet be proven true.
Nevertheless, the media’s fascination with gaffes isn’t healthy for it or us. It encourages a vicious cycle of coverage that ignores substantive issues and merely mimics real debate. Consequently, it becomes that much easier for the press to play tit-for-tat with regard to these ephemeral diversions. That the scrutiny over Romney’s statements abroad, unfair in Republicans’ eyes, followed hard on the heels of that party’s unabashed manufacturing of a gaffe (with Fox News playing willing accomplice) out of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” line, was no accident. You live by the gaffe, you die by the gaffe.
This week, the political press was handed a big, fat storyline that could change its course, however. According to a Tax Policy Center analysis, Romney’s draconian tax plan presents a drastically different vision from the one the President champions and the Senate passed last week. Still stuck in snarky gaffe mode, the Romney team tried to laugh off as “biased” and a “joke” the Center’s politically deadly conclusion that their plan would raise taxes on everyone but the very wealthy, whose burden would notably drop. If anything, what’s laughable is how far the analysts bent over backward to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, yet his plan still ended up being little more than a time machine trip back to policies of the Gilded Age. But will the media bite on this blatant attempt by Romney to wriggle out of the policy corner he’s backed himself into and let him manipulate their fears of violating “objectivity” by pointing out the facts?
I suspect I know what Vidal’s answer to this question would be. His cynicism of the both our nation’s press corps as well as its political discourse is well documented. But he’s no longer with us and won’t be burdened with what happens in November, since he famously believed, after death: “There is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”
The rest of us, however, have three more months of this presidential campaign left to endure. Is it really too much to stop the pedantic rhetorical scorekeeping and instead focus on the very real choice America faces this fall? Do the members of our not-so-esteemed political press corps, come next year, really want to risk looking back on yet another momentous story with regret and remorse? I can already hear Vidal’s four favorite words ringing in their ears: “I told you so.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Just wanted to say thanks for the great review you posted through Eric Alterman today. Having worked at the Boston University School of Law for the past two years while finishing up my undergraduate degree, I can say that Ken Feinberg is extremely well respected in academia—if only in the Northeast. Your continuation of the point in his epilogue is really one of the more powerful things I've read recently, Keep up the good work and let me know if you need any contacts at BU Law (Cornelius Hurley is a great source for banking and housing policy and is an unabashed lefty like you and me).
Reed replies: Joe’s onto something here, and I say that not just because Prof. Hurley hails from my alma mater. Just last week, Hurley was writing about a clever idea for breaking up the big banks without government intrusion.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “Bad News About the News” and it’s here.
My Nation column is called “Let's Just Say It: The Republicans AND the Media Are the Problem” and it’s here.
I did a list of my favorite Springsteen covers for David Remnick to accompany his 17,000 (or so) word Bruce profile and that’s here. I did it kinda fast, so I forgot to suggest these two gems. And also the wonderful acoustic “I Don’t Want to Go Home” he did with Steve in Jersey in 1996, here.
Not everything got included. Here are the ones for which there was no room, or good audio or whatever, I dunno, but I also strongly recommend:
Back in the USA ,The Main Point, 1975
High School Confidential, MSG, 1978
It’s My Life Passaic, 1978
Heartbreak Hotel, Roxy, 1978
I Fought the Law, Palladium, 1978
Follow That Dream, Stockholm, 1981
Drift Away, Meadowlands, 1984
Across the Borderline (Christic Institute, LA) 1990
I Don't Wanna Go Home with Little Steven, Count Basie Theater, 1996
And in retrospect:
Angel Eyes from that Sinatra tribute
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with U2 at U2s Hall of Fame Induction
And any version of “Up on the Roof” and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”
And you know, if you watch the Bruce/McCartney video on backstreets, you get pretty much all of Twist and Shout. I didn’t realize that the song was pretty much over when the Live Nation guy killed the sound. Anyway, Im pleased with the song choice. I think “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist” are two of the most pristine, nearly perfect examples of what a rock song is, say for martians, that have ever been written or performed. Having Paul and Bruce pick those was right on (though I know Paul’s been doing that all over, still.) And if you want my other three nominations for this category I’d go with: Double Shot of My Baby’s Love, Do Ya Love Me, and the Beatles’ version of “Money.”
Oh, and I see new dates have dropped here (I think I’m goin’ to Kansas City…)
Columbia has been putting out a nice, relatively inexpensive series of “complete” box sets with reproductive covers and decent notes, especially for the price. The three most recent in the jazz series include Weather Report’s early, pre Jaco work. Weather Report: The Columbia Albums 1971-1975, contains Weather Report, I Sing the Body Electric, Live In Tokyo, Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveller and Tale Spinnin' with remastered sound plus Live In Tokyo, which was previously unreleased, except as part of I Sing the Body Electric and features the band at its best, in 1972.
The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums is a goldmine, bringing together Monk's Dream (1962), Criss Cross (1962), It's Monk's Time (1964), Monk (1964), Straight, No Chaser (1966) and Underground (1967). This was arguably Monk’s most fertile and creative period, and really, if you don’t have these albums, you should. Nice photos, too.
Charles Mingus: The Complete Columbia and RCA Albums Collection is a more demanding collection but intensely rewarding as well. Stretching from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the 10-CD set includes Tijuana Moods (1957) (now 2 CDs); Mingus Ah Um (1959), Mingus Dynasty (1959), Alternate Takes (1959), Let My Children Hear Music (1971) and the double disc, Charles Mingus And Friends In Concert (1972). The addition of Epitaph (1989), which captures an all-star ensemble led by Gunther Schuller interpreting Mingus's epic composition, rounds it out. The booklet features photos from the various recording sessions as well as liner notes by Sue Mingus, Charles's wife and keeper of his flame. An education in and of itself.
And our pal Harry Shearer has a new cd called “Can’t Take a Hint,” and being such a great guy and so he got Dr. John, Nicholas Payton, and the Fountains of Wayne and a bunch of other people too. Harry plays the bass on many of the songs. It’s the only album this year that has a song from the point of view of a BP executive who wants his life back after the oil spill. More here.
Now here’s Reed.
Who Gets What?
by Reed Richardson
As far as marketing strategies goes, naming one’s book Who Gets What bespeaks a rather insightful understanding of the American condition. We, as a nation, have long suffered from a love that dare not mention its salary, so to speak. “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, and that was roughly 150 years before the first collateralized debt obligation ever appeared.
Near the end of the introduction to his new book, Who Gets What: Fair Compensation after Tragedy and Financial Upheaval (PublicAffairs, $26.99), mediator Kenneth Feinberg cites a line from Democracy in America as well. But his chosen quote from de Tocqueville seeks to make the point that our country’s fondness for cold, hard cash even extends into our court system, where it has always been the preferred form of judicial redress. Righting wrongs here in America is a mostly a matter of leveling out account balances. And when it comes to putting an exact dollar figure on an individual’s tragic circumstances, one could argue that Feinberg, best known for his role as the special master overseeing the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, knows more about this unfortunate process than anyone else. There is a reason, in other words, that his book’s title is not posed as a question.
Nevertheless, Feinberg makes it clear he is no cold-eyed, green-shade-wearing automaton. In fact, he comes across as a fairly dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Of his youth growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, he says he was a devoted JFK fan and gained an appreciation for good citizenship, the collective goodwill, and a “notion of communitarian reinforcement and obligation.” Thus, by page two of his book, he has already lost the 27 percent of the country who will read those comments as tantamount to someone foreswearing the free market and insidiously humming the “Internationale” during the national anthem. Then, on page three, Feinberg no doubt makes matters worse when he speaks of “socializing in Greenwich Village” during his years attending law school at NYU.
Perhaps his strongest liberal credentials can be traced back to an interesting historical anecdote from his days working in the federal government. In it, he explains how the current Supreme Court might be much different had he not convinced his former boss, Senator Ted Kennedy, to go along with an idea of his in the last weeks of 1980. Only days after Reagan had trounced Carter at the polls, Kennedy suggested that 68-year-old Archibald Cox of Watergate fame fill a vacancy on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in the hopes that the lame-duck Congress would approve a bipartisan choice. Carter shot down the name, however. Seizing the opportunity, Feinberg says he convinced Kennedy to nominate a Senate staff colleague of his instead—the then chief counsel of the Judiciary Committee, a 42-year-old jurist by the name of Stephen Breyer.
After this brief biographical business of name-dropping, however, the book’s narrative engine takes over, driven by Feinberg’s five separate stints—organized in five separate chapters—as special master during his career. Whether it be the Agent Orange lawsuit settlement, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, whenever national calamity has struck, it seems Feinberg has been called in to sort out the aftermath and, inevitably, cut the checks.
Though the book’s emphasis remains firmly rooted in the specific, sometimes arcane, details of each case, as a whole, it nonetheless functions as an interesting prism through which to view what kind of lives and livelihoods our democracy sees fit to value. Due to their unique circumstances, each of these payout funds Feinberg has commanded should be considered sui generis, yet a common thread to their existence can be detected: Only those disasters created by the hand of man are deemed worthy of extra-judicial reward. Thus, Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina don’t enjoy additional payback, while Gulf Coast victims of BP’s negligence do.
Feinberg’s last two examples—which cover his tenure running the TARP executive compensation board and the BP Gulf Coast claims fund—provide the most compelling parts of the book, by far. This is mostly because of the grand scale involved and their ongoing relevance. (A successor to Feinberg continues to set executive pay at TARP recipients AIG, GM, Chrysler, and Ally, and a subsequent, court-managed fund still pays claims to Gulf Coast residents affected by the BP oil spill.) Still, it’s worth a brief aside to point out the sad poignancy, at this particular moment, of his work on a much smaller in scale man-made disaster—the mass shooting at Virginia Tech five years ago.
Indeed, to read Feinberg’s short chapter on running the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund is to be frustrated at the shocking sameness that incident shares with last week’s gun-driven massacre in an Aurora, Colorado theater. Then, as now, compassionate donations poured in after the fact through a variety of platforms. (For a list of those supporting the victims of the Aurora shooting, go here.) And Feinberg’s decision to distribute this money in equal amounts to victims and/or their families was a masterstroke, one that served to unite rather than divide the community and facilitated healing. Yet what he leaves unsaid is the failure of the policymakers to address the root cause of these types of tragedies and to prevent adding yet one more place name to the tragic roll call of places like Columbine and Virginia Tech, a list to which Aurora will sadly now be added.
The gun lobby will, shamefully, survive this latest outrage, as the political willpower to staunch these self-inflicted wounds simply doesn't exist. Likewise, this hunker-down-until-it-all-blows-over mentality colored the Wall Street mentality Feinberg encountered when he took over the TARP executive compensation board. Even as the nation's financial structures teetered on the brink of collapse due to rampant negligence, many of the people who had been a big part of creating the problem wanted to be paid as if, J. Pierrepont Finch-style, they thought they could still do no wrong.As a result, Feinberg explains how the seven biggest TARP-funded companies that fell under his purview “spent millions of dollars” to justify their executives’ exorbitant pay to the Treasury’s overseers. This whining from the boardroom, he notes, concluded in thinly veiled threats—give us what we want or we might just leave for the competition, either here in the U.S. or abroad. One quickly gets the sense that, if there was a market that traded on these executives' sense of honor and patriotism, one could make a lot of money selling short.
I discovered that contrary to public perception, compensation meant much more to a senior corporate official than mere material gain. Although not minimizing the benefits of wealth—a second home at the beach, a second (or third) automobile in the driveway, private schools for the children—most corporate executives who came to see me emphasized that adequate compensation was a symbol of self-worth. Compensation mirrored individual fulfillment, that without generous pay, company officials would view themselves as failures. Individual success could be determined only be comparing oneself to the competition, and dollars paid would be the deciding factor. By comparison, family, friendship, and community respect paled in significance.
This peek into a world 99 percent of us will never experience is perhaps the most powerful lesson of Feinberg's book. It reveals how our society's values have been radically skewed to greatly reward those who take excessive risks in creating impenetrable 'vehicles' that have almost no intrinsic societal value. Just how steeply the scales are tilted toward the rich is hard to fathom. In fact, a recent "Building a Better America" study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that when showed two anonymized national breakdowns of 'who gets what,' 92% of Americans (which, presumably, includes a whole lot of 'free market conservatives') preferred the actual distribution of wealth that exists in Sweden rather than the lopsided one here in the U.S.
That this broad, almost unheard of level of bipartisan agreement on a political issue doesn't generate more news coverage is, of course, unfortunate yet old news. Case in point, the overwhelming stilted and sneering tone of most of the journalism covering the recent Occupy movement. And given enough time, the well-funded forces of excess count on a fickle public, an easliy distracted press corps, and an overweening punditocracy from dwelling too long on such a substantial, but often unsexy topic. And despite coming down firmly on the side capitalism and the free market in his book, Feinberg's time dealing with corporate America has clearly opened his eyes and taught him a lesson that we all should heed:
In past times of public anger over financial industry excesses, Wall Street has played a waiting game, lying low until the political storm subsides. History is on Wall Street’s side, at least when it comes to government fine-tuning of corporate internal decision-making. Add to this the government deregulation philosophy that followed in the wake of the Reagan administration, and it is easy to see why American businesses are emboldened when it comes to pay. To most on Wall Street, the seven companies had only themselves to blame forTreasury’s interference. They assumed that such interference would never, ever apply to them. And they’re almost certainly right.
Though the "they" at hand in the passage above is more narrowly defined, the larger point can and should be taken. Perhaps, then, it is no great mystery why Feinberg entitles the epilogue of his book "A Sense of Entiltement." Seen as a microcosm of our nation's larger and ongoing discussion about wealth, his book underlines the dichotomy of our democracy: A tiny portion of it currently enjoys almost uninterrupted access to power and freedom from accountability, yet when those of us who don't find ourselves (increasingly, because of who are parents are) in this moneyed class finally do get some sort of recompense—only after having suffered horrendous tragedy, I might add—it is ironic that the latter get all the scrutiny and opprobrium for "getting something for nothing." So maybe the point here is that it's time to stop thinking about "Who gets what" in our democracy as mere statement, something that merely is and cannot be changed. Instead, it's time start talking about how our nation’s wealth should be distributed and to put the question mark back on the end of “Who gets what?”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “Our Broken Political System,” and it’s really about what a much better country Canada is than this one. You can find it here.
I didn’t go see any live music this week, sorry. And I don’t have a time machine, but if I did, one of the things I would use it for, after killing Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and teaching the old Jews in Florida how to use their voting machines, would be go to the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago on November 22nd, 1981 at the Muddy Watters show when Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Ian Stewart showed up together with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and an unfortunately soused Lefty Dizz, who eventually gets pushed off the stage, belatedly I might add. Still, it’s all pretty cool and new you can see it on DVD and listen to it later on cd, that is if you buy the package which you can find here.
You can also watch the dvd (or bluray, in my case) and listen to the cd of Jimi Hendrix and a reformed Band Of Gypsys at the Berkeley theater in 1970. The show drove a lot of people crazy and it’s kind of a mess but I’m told it’s a big improvement, aurally, over previous editions of the same show. I’d use my time machine for this too, but it would not be that high on my list. More here.
The Low Spark of Well-Heeled Boys: How Citizens United Undermines the Press and Democracy
by Reed Richardson
Democracies as large as ours routinely suffer from an electoral paradox—voters know the least about those elections where they can have the most impact. We tend to care more about who’s running for president rather than city council or state legislator, in other words, even though the latter often has a more significant impact on our day-to-day lives than the former. How low-information voters make their choice on election day (providing they vote at all), then, can provide valuable insight as to how to make our democracy more engaged and vibrant.
This past week, David Schleicher, an electoral law professor at George Mason University, makes the argument in an Atlantic essay that many voters now rely upon national-level political cues to inform their votes in local races. The common piece of ballot box shorthand, of course, is a political party label. This is not exactly a revelation. Twenty-five years ago, a House back-bencher by the name of Newt Gingrich was utilizing his political action committee, GOPAC, to sell thousands of cassette tapes to budding GOP candidates, training them how to parrot national-party talking points in winning local races.
One consequence of this trend, Schleicher says, is that campaigns are frequently uncompetitive at the local and state level. What’s more, he points out that these electoral outcomes have become divorced from actual in-office performance of local politicians and instead ride upon the larger electoral tides at work in Washington, D.C.
“The implications of the mismatch problem are dramatic, as it leaves very little space for local accountability or representation…State legislatures are the workhorses of policy-making in this country, producing our contract and tort law, marriage policy, much of our criminal law, and lots more. But the content and effects of that policy don't have much effect on state elections.”
Schleicher offers up some interesting recommendations to counter this low-information environment, but they all suffer from being fairly narrow, structural changes. What he notably, and frustratingly, leaves out of his analysis is any discussion of the broader, two-fold dynamic that is really exacerbating this problem right now—a frightening diminution of local media coupled with a simultaneous explosion of outside political spending.
Thanks to seemingly endless cycles of corporate mergers and acquisitions as well as the ongoing staff and publishing cutbacks they inevitably produce, local news organizations across the country now find themselves in a vicious cycle of trying to do more and more with less and less. Often, statehouse bureaus are among those on the chopping block. Sure, independent state political blogs and local online media hubs have sprung up to fill the void, but they too suffer from a lack of sufficient resources. And though the press has increasingly become inured of the importance of local and state politics, well-heeled conservatives have recognized their “workhorse” nature, as Schleicher calls it, and increasingly stepped into the information breech come election time.
Weak though they may have been, the McCain-Feingold campaign reform measures passed 10 years ago had at least set a legal, if not philosophical, precedent that more money in politics isn’t something our democracy should encourage. The 2010 Citizens United ruling, however, ripped that idea apart and set it afire using hundred-dollar bills. Still, Matt Bai in this week’s New York Times Magazine tries to tell us that the conventional wisdom about the real effect of Citizens United upon our democracy is “at best, overly simplistic. And in many respects, it’s just plain wrong.” To prove his point, he cites statistics that show outside campaign spending hasn’t risen as fast between 2008 and 2012 as it did between 2004 and 2008. And there’s no doubt that, as he explains, there is a law of diminishing returns at play in presidential campaigns—what the Romney campaign will get out of spending its last $100 million this fall is probably very little in extra votes.
Still, three-quarters of the way into Bai’s article, we come across this passage:
“It’s worth asking just how much an advantage all of this outside money actually confers. The greatest impact of this year’s imbalance in outside money will be felt on the state level, where a lot of House seats and control of the Senate hang in the balance, and where a sharp gust of advertising can often blow the results in one direction or another. But a presidential campaign is different, focusing as it does on a dozen or so pivotal states and a limited number of advertising markets. There’s probably a limit to how many 30-second spots all of these groups can cram onto cable stations during late-night showings of ‘Turner & Hooch.’”
Did you catch that? Right there in the second sentence, he rockets past a critically important point, but then never brings it up again. Essentially, he stumbles over the fact that his article, its myopic gaze firmly fixed on the presidential race, has spent almost all of its intellectual energy examining the least important example of Citizens United’s long-term impact upon our democracy. In other words, when it comes to winning the White House, one can likely find enough rich liberals (like, say, Lucius Fox) and like-minded progressive advocacy groups to make the funding race competitive, but when it comes to planting our nation’s electoral seed corn, as it were, just one sufficiently generous right-winger really can sway local or state elections.
It’s already underway in every corner of this country. But for a prime example, look no further than North Carolina, a state whose political agenda is quickly being overwhelmed by one rich conservative, Art Pope. Over the past few election cycles, Pope and his family have engaged in something of an electoral onslaught, funneling millions of ad dollars through outside political advocacy groups to elect rock-ribbed, anti-government conservatives. These groups, though ostensibly independent, are little more than cat’s paws for Pope’s extreme, right-wing agenda, since they depend upon his largesse for nearly all of their funding. And as the most recent midterm elections frighteningly demonstrated, Pope’s dumping of six or seven figures into key state legislature races resulted in nothing less than an electoral coup:
“Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focussed his spending, were routed.”
In fact, the same New Yorker story finds a local Democratic political consultant from the state saying that the local Republican Party has basically become a wholly owned subsidiary of Pope. “The Republican agenda in North Carolina is really Art Pope’s agenda. He sets it, he funds it, and he directs the efforts to achieve it. The candidates are just fronting for him. There are so many people in North Carolina beholden to Art Pope—it undermines the democratic process.”
This doesn’t mean Pope is content to just dabble in state-level politics, of course. State legislatures, after all, draw Congressional districts and, by all accounts, the new Republican majorities have done right by their Capitol Hill GOP kin. (Schleicher recently authored another, interesting study that recommended including media organizations in the calculus when drawing Congressional districts.)
In addition, one of Pope’s shadow organizations, Civitas Action, which, throughout its history has received 97 percent of its funding from Pope, frequently commissions in-state polls on federal elections. Their results, to no great shock, frequently lean to the right, feeding a narrative in the press that Republican candidates’ enjoy greater support than in reality. As the internals of this recent Romney-Obama poll strongly suggest, the methodology Civitas sometimes uses to get these numbers involves some ridiculous, even dishonest assumptions. For example, the notion that Romney could be beating Obama by 29 points among Hispanics when the latter is leading the former by 50 points in another recent poll of 13 battleground states, which includes North Carolina.
When confronted in the New Yorker piece, Pope trots out the same humble shtick that colored the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling: He just wants to participate in our democracy and, echoing Schleicher’s lament above, assist voters, is that so wrong?
“Pope sees himself as a reformer. The money that he spends on politics, he said, strengthens American democracy, by providing voters with more information and more choices: “Most of the efforts that I or my company have supported have been to get the message out on the issues, so that voters can make an informed choice.’”
Pope’s actual ads, you’ll no doubt be shocked, shocked to learn, commonly traffic in ugly stereotypes, gratuitous spin, and outright lies. Absent a strong public corrective, either from a similarly well-funded opponent’s own advertising or a robust, assertive press willing to document and then take apart the distortions, this kind of ruthless messaging serves to corrode the discourse. What’s more, it chills future political participation on the part of the right-wing’s ideological opponents. After all, what challenger would want to subject him or herself to a seven-figure character assassination just to run against a conservative political benefactor’s chosen candidate?
But it’s not just budding politicos and the public that suffers. Local media organizations can find themselves increasingly threatened by all this outside political spending as well. The risk, in fact, is two-fold.
On one hand, an influx of millions of dollars of campaign advertising can provide a much-needed windfall for newspapers and local TV stations struggling with slashed budgets. And indeed, many media organizations in the battleground states are enjoying a banner year right now. But as campaign advertising begins to account for more and more of local TV station’s revenue, the age-old temptation to shade editorial content or enforce a contrived "balance" in coverage to avoid turning off that lucrative ad spigot grows. Consider this—If Art Pope calls a local TV station owner in Raleigh or newspaper publisher in Greensboro to complain about a news story and warns he might pull all of his ads unless his hand-picked candidate gets treated more “fairly,” what do you think would happen next? Would Pope be told to go pound sand or would that station owner next pick up the phone and call the news director for a conversation about “objectivity?”
At the same time, news organizations should recognize that all this ad money also represents something of a poisoned chalice. There’s a reason political ad buyers pay top dollar to run their messaging adjacent to news broadcasts. Voters who tune in during these times are psychologically primed to accept new information. But with local news providing less and less actual political news, the repetitive, right-wing messaging viewers are subjected to during the commercial breaks can begin to serve as a de facto substitute. Rather than counter-programming the news, what Citizens United has done is open the door to a tidal wave of campaign advertising that can easily supplant the news for low-information voters.
In the end, to bemoan the fact that Citizens United has transformed the presidential campaign from a $500-million endeavor to a roughly $1-billion one is to miss the point. The ruling’s real, damaging legacy is being felt elsewhere, down at local races that are not only increasingly nationalized but monetized as well and in local newsrooms that can’t or won’t keep up with the distorted information flooding their communities. But before long, ideas and principles won’t have any significant role at all in our electoral politics. Instead, we’ll have arrived at a point where the only currency that matters in our democracy’s marketplace of ideas is, well, currency itself.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “When It Comes to Bruce Springsteen, Chris Christie Is a Big, Stupid Idiot,” and you can find it here.
I saw David Johansen at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend. It was the same two man show David’s been doing around town—I reviewed it when I saw him a few weeks ago at Terminal 5—and a grand time will be had by all, even if you see it every few weeks. Out of his many personas, David has developed into a grand old man of post-pre-punk and sings mostly blues standards and old David Johansen gems, to a bunch of people who really appear to appreciate it. I can’t imagine that he ever expected to end up like this, but it strikes me as a really pleasant way to make a living.
I came to town to attend Nora Ephron’s memorial service—which was so moving I lack the words—perfectly timed and (almost) scripted by Nora herself—and stayed to catch one of the three shows that Steve Earle has organized to celebrate the centenial birth of Woody Guthrie at City Winery. I caught Steve with Diana Jones, Tim Robbins and John Hammond Jr. If you can get in tonight, he'll have Billy Bragg and Amy Helm among others. I am also hearing terrific things about the Ronny Spector show that is running there on Saturday nights—there are three more of them I believe—but I am back at the beach.
Punchlining the News
by Reed Richardson
Louie CK has one of the most nimble comedic minds in the business, yet he has rarely needed something so pedestrian as an old-fashioned punchline for his outrageously funny, and often just plain outrageous, routines to work. But what he’s now achieving on his eponymously-named TV show, “Louie,” on FX, transcends even his stellar stand-up work.
Having just starting its third season (the second season was recently released on DVD), the show, which Louie continues to write and direct, has pushed into newer, deeper, dramatic waters than in previous seasons. Indeed, to me, the short snippets of his character performing stand-up are now the least interesting part of the show. For, off the stage, he’s creating a world that combines the mundane, absurd, and crude into a sublime, why-am-I-laughing-so-hard amalgam. In short, it’s very good, though I’m not sure I’d go as far as Emily Nussbaum over at the New Yorker, whose rave review of the show is gushing, to put it mildly.
Still, there’s no denying that, as far as comedies on basic cable go, “Louie” is pretty much in a class by itself, as evidenced by the equal parts hilarious and disturbing final scene from this season’s second episode (so, so NSFW). Louie’s scene partner here, the fantastic Melissa Leo, is on fire, delivering a raunchy cri de coeur that bemoans a, shall we say, lack of reciprocity on Louie’s part when it comes to performing a certain act of sexual congress. During this tirade, Leo’s spurned character gathers up her frustration into a ball and, echoing so many rabid right-wingers, irrationally lobs it at the biggest, most convenient target she can think of. “What’s wrong with this country?” she asks rhetorically after being left unsatisfied, before concluding in disgust, “O-bahm-a.” (Oddly, the president’s name was also invoked in the season debut as well, when a fellow patient of Louie’s in the hospital—an old woman lying on a gurney in the scene’s background—incongruously screams out “What about Obama!”) It feels almost like a throwaway joke, tucked in so tight you could almost miss it, but that kind of effortlessness demonstrates the show’s pitch perfect writing and acting. And, mea culpa, this scene does end with a nice punchline, but that joke really arrives at the episode’s denouement rather than its—ahem—climax.
Sure, some might dismiss Louie’s show simply because of these moments of “obscene” humor, but it’s worth pointing out that even Sigmund Freud understood the almost mystical power of “smut,” as he quaintly called it. “Strictly speaking, we do not know what we are laughing at,” he writes in his 1905 book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. “With all obscene jokes we are subject to glaring errors of judgment about the ‘goodness’ of the jokes…but they have immense success in provoking laughter.”
Louie, of course, mines other veins of everyday life for laughs, but whether he’s examining the modern male’s selfish sexual mores in the cab of a pick-up truck or laying bare the tender, awkward, excruciating end of a relationship in a coffee shop, there’s a common thread at work. It’s an earnest need to tell what Freud termed “tendentious” jokes, where some larger societal taboo, convention, or authority is held up for criticism or mockery. It’s a kind of courageous, truth-telling comedy that is more powerful and more valuable than a three-camera, soundstage sitcom full of “trivial” or “innocent” jokes that strive just to be clever yet not to offend or antagonize.
In many ways, this intellectual dichotomy reminds me of modern journalism. While few stand-up comics still rely upon a steady diet of one-liners to feed their onstage routines, the mainstream culture of journalism—most especially that of political journalism—has now thoroughly embraced a kind of instant, constant barrage of context-free news zingers. It’s a natural progression downward, I guess. Why bother with writing up another standard campaign trail horserace story when you can just retweet competing candidates’ soundbites or stick them in scrolling screen chyron and move on to the next bit of minutiae?
What can get lost in this mad scramble, though, is the news judgment to know when trying to be first is less important that trying to be right. If ever there was a news event where this needed to be recognized, the recent Supreme Court ruling on Obama’s complex health care reform was it. Yet we still saw news organizations sacrificing analysis and insight for haste. The results, as we now know, were not a shining moment for a couple of major news organizations. Tom Goldstein, over at the excellent SCOTUSblog performed a thorough, minute-by-minute autopsy of the breakdowns in coverage, but his primary conclusion was pretty simple. CNN and Fox News stumbled because they “treat[ed] the decision as a breathless ‘breaking news’ event, despite the fact that everyone knew when the opinion was going to be released (and the mandate won’t take effect until 2014), while at the same time.”
Over at the New Republic, Amy Sullivan casts about as to why the media loves to obsess over these pseudo-scoops and nails how this seconds-matter mindset is subsuming every kind of news coverage:
"[I]f this is just about bragging rights, it needs to stop. Now. And not just because it can lead to some outlets rushing to report incorrect information, as CNN and FOX did with the recent Supreme Court decision on health care reform. But because the race to be first is no longer just a feature of news coverage but often the main factor driving it."
Defenders of the breathless, go-go ‘Breaking! Developing!’ news culture took issue with Sullivan’s column, however, in a follow-up article in Adweek. Joe Wiesenthal, deputy editor at the fast-moving news and aggregator site Business Insider, offered up a less-than-subtle riposte, appropriately, via Twitter: “Is a debate really happening about whether speed matters? NEWFLASH: News is a game of Galaga. You just effin' keep blasting fast all day.” Whereas BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith acknowledged that the public release of a Supreme Court decisions wasn’t a scoop, “technically,” he then tried to link being first to report with “great explanatory reporting.” Veteran New York Times media journalist David Carr, whose publication I think most people would prefer over BuzzFeed when it comes to reading “great explanatory reporting,” has notably said this “race to be first, especially in commodity news, is not nutritionally advantageous to readers.”
However, there is one constituency overlooked by Sullivan and most other media observers that really, really appreciates getting important news just a few seconds before everyone else—stock traders. And as the SCOTUSblog article points out, some money definitely changed hands directly because of CNN and Fox News’s mistakes:
"Because the [Affordable Care] Act is important to stock prices, stock traders will have a very rare opportunity to arbitrage the conflicting media reports and the fact that no one outside the Court has the opinion. The market had been betting against the mandate surviving. That would have been bad for hospitals (which would lose revenues) and good for many insurers (which could be more selective in their customers). [At 10:07, when first, incorrect news reports come out] hospital stock prices begin to spike: Hospital Corp. of America, the nation’s largest private hospital chain, quickly rises from $27.38 to $29.35. Many insurance stocks start to tumble: United Health Group falls from $58.69 to $55.73."
By 10:15am, however, as CNN and Fox News were finally reeling in their initial, erroneous reports, United Health’s stock price had rebounded to $59.00. While it wasn’t exactly “Trading Places”-level money, it’s worth noting that during those roughly eight minutes where conflicting and confusing news reports were both being broadcast, more than 2.6 million shares of United Health Group alone were sold off and bought as the company’s market cap swung down and then back up nearly $2.3 billion.
Nevertheless, the event’s impact upon a few health care-related stock prices is pretty small beer. The bigger picture is that the media’s need for speed increasingly feeds shallow political campaign coverage, and the campaigns know it and exploit it. Why else would the Romney campaign’s digital director, 32-year-old Zac Moffatt, say this in an AdWeek story back in May:
“I definitely think Twitter has and will have a huge impact on this election, but it has to be recognized that, even with all the talk, even if you had the greatest Twitter strategy out there, I’m not sure you would win on that alone. In fact, I know you wouldn’t.”
Well, thank goodness for small favors, I guess. Maybe voters, the overwhelming majority of which won’t have any direct or indirect interaction with Twitter, will still play an important role in the elections this November. Of course, it’s easy to chalk this kind of boastful talk up to professional hubris (and, let’s be honest, there are probably tech people in the Obama campaign who think the same thing), but Moffatt is undoubtedly right that Twitter is already having a huge impact on the upcoming election’s news coverage. Even those that exist inside the bubble say it’s plain to see.
No doubt, this evolution can seem attractive to the mainstream press, since a) it typically requires less resources and b) short Twitter posts leave little purchase for claims of news bias to take hold. But the danger for journalism lies in the fact that the atomization of the news hole into discrete, 140-character chunks makes its purpose increasingly obsolete. After all, political campaigns now have the same publishing capability on Twitter and the Internet—and often larger audiences—as newspapers and TV networks. And how much context, really, can a reporter add when retweeting a campaign spokesman?
So, political journalism is caught in something of a professional Catch-22. To satisfy a news culture that, more and more, prizes speed and brevity above all else is to embrace those same platforms that minimize, if not eliminate, the real value proposition of the media in our democracy—contextual, truthful analysis and holding those in authority responsible for their words and deeds. Parroting the pithy comments of others while adding your own doesn’t make someone a worthwhile journalist anymore than simply repeating a bunch of glib punchlines, without any set-up, makes someone a funny comedian. To reach its full potential, journalism, like comedy, must be tendentious stuff, in other words. And when it isn’t, well, that’s no laughing matter.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
J. R. Taylor
Enjoyed your "Fearmaking, Then and Now" Think Again, and was inspired by it to read Darwin Teilhet's novel The Fear Makers, which was -- legally and somewhat otherwise -- related to the 1958 red scare movie The Fearmakers that your column described. You might enjoy comparing the two without having to row through all 267 pages of the former.
From your able synopsis of the movie: Dana Andrews plays "Alan Eaton, once a PR executive, now a Korean War veteran just released from a North Korean prison camp where he was tortured by communist prison guards. In the film’s first scene, in which Eaton is flying home to Washington, he happens to be seated next to a nuclear physicist who preaches nuclear disarmament, and warns Eaton that PR companies have begun to manipulate public opinion just as often as they reflect it. He just so happens to be looking for a good PR man."
Now the novel: Published May 1945, so Eaton was of course a vet of WWII, not Korea, but he had never been a POW, let alone tortured or brainwashed. Instead he was a famous, highly decorated, and severely wounded war hero, just out of hospital after long treatment, though still sporadically amnesiac. Before he enlisted, his firm wasn't in PR; it did opinion polls only. In further difference from the movie, the man Eaton meets on the train (not plane) to D.C. is not a nuclear physicist but claims to be a "magazine representative," and is no pacifist, nor "communist fellow-traveller." Many of his remarks are racist, antisemitic, or antiunion, and though he's not heard from after page 7, he does (as in the movie) turn out to be linked to the new owners of Eaton's firm.
These owners (who did, as in the movie, murder Eaton's partner) are not (as in the movie) "[messing] with public opinion polls so that the communists can one day take over America," but busily rigging polls and organizing racist, antisemitic, and other miscellaneous whispering campaigns in support of an antiunion politician in Michigan. Nothing is said in these campaigns (or anywhere else in the book) about communism -- the preferred line of attack is to contrast "greedy" union members with selfless boys in uniform. In the end we find that the PR villains, like so many "modern-day right-wing PR mavens," are apolitical, and only in it for the money.
A couple of further facts and one opinion:
According to my copy ("Pocket Book No. 148,656, 696") of The Fear Makers, it was an April 1946 selection of the Labor Book Club, one of several attempts during that period at a left alternative to the Book of the Month Club. (As the preacher almost said: Irony of ironies, all is irony.)
Four of the book's fifteen significant characters are Jewish or black; none of these -- unlike nine of the other characters -- are in the movie, not even in WASP or other transformations.
Though his heart may have been in the right place, there are many good and tedious reasons for the obscurity of Darwin Teilhet, novelist. For more enjoyable reading of this genre and period, stick to Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, or even Cornell Woolrich.
I saw David Bromberg in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 70’s and he was good. I met my wife at Stephen Talkhouse in the 80’s and she’s better. Thanks for the memories.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
I took the week off from Think Again in honor of our nation’s 236th birthday, but Robert Parmet did a nice review of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama for the History News Network, here.
I see a talk I gave last year on Kabuki Democracy at the Kennedy school’s Shorenstein Center is up here.
One of my (many) pet peeves in the Internet age is the use of “we” when the “we” does not include me, or, indeed, most people I know. For instance, from Slate, “Why Do Hotels Turn Us Into Monsters?” with the subhed “What is it about hotels that makes us all go so bizarrely and baroquely berserk?”
Hotels do not turn me into anything other than what I was previously, much less a monster. I do not go “so bizarrely and baroquely berserk” in them, nor anywhere else, for that matter. The rest of the claims in this piece strike is odd, at best, as well. I see this a great deal.
I saw David Bromberg at Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last week. It was a really wonderful show (and was broadcast live on Sirius). I had the blues and as you may know, there’s nothing better for the blues than the blues. Bromberg is one of the world’s great (and most underrated) blues guitarist and he had another guy with him—it was a four piece band—whom he insists plays better than he does. I don’t agree but I’m not the best judge. Anyway, the musical virtuosity was impressive and enjoyable without being ostentatious. The song selection was friendly—a few oldies and bluegrass excursions—but a really funky, somewhat reworked “Sharon” and an absolutely thrilling “I Will Not Be Your Fool.” Go see him if you can and hey, let’s hear it for paunchy old Jewish guys!
Now here’s Reed.
The Dark Money Rises
by Reed Richardson
Summer has long been the season of the sequel in the movie business. But these days, by the time a blockbuster finally reaches theaters (or, sometimes, even before), the studio behind it is already talking about the next, bigger and bolder installment in the series. And, increasingly, it looks like the pro-corporate conservative movement is taking its cues—marketing-wise, at least—from Hollywood.
In true, big-time movie fashion, hot on the heels of their latest Citizens United expansion, these forces rolled out a schlocky summertime trailer about what's next. Contrasting soaring music and stock images of the D-Day invasion and Tea Party marchers against stark, black-and-white text, it vaguely teases at the Orwellian storyline to come and the momentous stakes involved. The First Amendment, they warn, is under attack by our very own president! (Perhaps COBRA is involved in this White House betrayal? We’ll have to wait till next year to find out, I guess.) But just know that brave Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is leading the charge against this outrage, helped out by some of these supposedly humble servants of the Constitution.
What’s that? You can’t recall President Obama stumping for the revocation of our free speech rights? Well then, you just aren’t paying attention or, more likely, aren’t a vast, multi-national corporation that really doesn’t want its extensive lobbying and political donations aired publicly. But make no mistake, according to conservatives, Obama, by supporting the allegedly heinous DISCLOSE Act and his idle talk about
instituting martial law passing a Constitutional amendment to roll back the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United case, is undertaking a “radical” attempt “to expose [his] critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies.”
Hold on, didn't we just see this same campaign finance movie not too long ago? (But as Tobey Maguire can tell you, a few years is “a lifetime in the movie business.” And politics too, apparently.) Back during the George W. Bush administration, Republicans, including one Sen. Mitch McConnell, were precisely challenging the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (otherwise known as McCain-Feingold) on the grounds that rigorous disclosure would act as an antidote against corporate or oligarchic money overwhelming into our political process. That first legal challenge to McCain-Feingold—McConnell vs. FEC—got shot down by the then Rehnquist Court in 2003, however. But that effort nonetheless offered a sneak preview of the strategy the right-wing plans to employ in the coming months and years.
As explained by this 2004 Brookings Institute analysis of the McConnell ruling—written by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, they of the recent notable book about extremist Republican intransigence, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks—conservatives trotted out a number of myths about the BCRA to discredit it. And what’s more, the Beltway media effectively bought into these talking points and propagated them.
“Throughout the year-plus since BCRA has taken effect, and especially since the Supreme Court’s decision, critics, allied with political reporters who are generally cynical about any institutional reform and with the political consultants who were the conduits for and recipients of much of the soft money in the pre-BCRA era, have pursued a series of themes perpetuating myths about the law and its impact.” (italics mine)
We saw much the same dynamic play out during the run-up to the Citizens United ruling two years ago and once again with the current DISCLOSE Act. To be fair, though, neither the press nor the litigants involved probably ever envisioned the former turning into the landmark ruling it now is. Originally, the case might have been best thought of as a right-wing-funded indie film with modest ambitions, hoping to carve out a small legal victory for big-money conservatives like the Koch brothers. But thanks to Justices Roberts and Kennedy, Citizens United was transformed from a vanity-project bomb (a la Atlas Shrugged) to sleeper mega-hit status (like, say, Paranormal Activity) almost overnight.
Last week’s legal sequel to that case, a kind of Citizens United 2: State Election Boogaloo, was, like many sophomore efforts, uninspiring yet, born along by its predecessor’s momentum, ultimately quite successful. Buoyed by this latest success, the right is now pivoting to a complete the trilogy of its efforts to undermine campaign finance law.
Some might point out that there is a gaping plot point from the original Citizens United case that would seem to throw a big wrench into the plans for a third installment. In that 2010 ruling, a majority of the Court voted—8–1, no less!—that disclosure must be a necessary part of their newly created campaign finance framework. Even Justice Scalia—playing against type here, no doubt—came out in favor of transparency and, in a subsequent decision involving a similar case, wrote:
“There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which…campaigns anonymously…and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”
Undaunted, the right pushes on. This should come as no surprise, though. After dumping $235 million into a two-year, big-budget flop of a campaign to overturn Obamacare (let’s call it “Heaven’s Mandate”), the same people decided this past week to just keep writing seven-figure checks even after the law was ruled constitutional.
In March, the Wall Street Journal
leaked the script published an editorial (paywall req.) laying out the intellectual framework of the right’s new antipathy toward open disclosure of corporate political donations. To read it is to peer into an upside-down world where corporate “free speech rights” are threatened by progressive allies and the media (if only it were so!), and where humble companies like ExxonMobil are unfairly discouraged from dumping untold millions of dollars into our electoral system (and other nations') to essentially buy favorable political outcomes. From the WSJ editorial:
“Businesses are arguably taking more risk by trying to dodge policy debates. When government of one kind or another controls 40% of the private economy, a business that doesn't participate in politics either directly, or indirectly through a trade group, is a patsy for the next Congressional or regulatory shakedown. And it is leaving the policy field open to domination by unions, the Sierra Club and billionaires like George Soros and Peter Lewis.
“Corporations are not democracies. They are businesses organized for the purpose of making money to increase value for all shareholders, not to serve the narrow goals of some shareholders.
“The political left is using this disclosure campaign not to serve the interests of shareholders, but to further its own policy agenda. It is an abuse of the proxy process, and companies would be wise to resist it in the interest of their business, their shareholders, and their country.”
So much for that whole ‘marketplace of ideas’ shtick the right likes to crow about all the time. Here, the Journal is essentially saying that consumers and watchdog groups are big meanies because they might hold corporations up for public scrutiny and accountable for their political activities through the likes of public relations efforts and boycotts. Never mind the integrity of our electoral process, such disclosure could hurt their bottom line, so let’s just agree to keep all that stuff hidden instead, OK? You know, for, um, democracy’s sake or something.
Ominously, the establishment press hasn’t really caught on to this ideological reversal. Sure, it made a lot of campaign trail hay out of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s clumsy “corporations are people” gaffe. But few, if any, news organizations connected his ridiculous statement with the broader thinking behind it and how that is now coloring conservative plans for our democracy to function as a kind of unregulated financial free-for-all. (Fox Business, naturally, gave his comments a rave review.)
A notable exception, and one that happens to coincide with my movie business analogy, is the coverage of this issue by the Los Angeles Times. In May, Times reporters Matea Gold and Joseph Tanfani thoroughly documented the secretive archipelago of conservative groups that spent an astounding $55 million in the 2010 midterm elections, yet is run out of a post office box in a Phoenix suburb. Yeah, nothing out of the ordinary there. The pair also put out a handy spreadsheet of the other right-wing front groups that this euphemistically named Center to Protect Patient Rights funnels money to. Then, last week, Tanfani shared a byline with Melanie Watson on an excellent Times story further highlighting the right-wing’s about face on campaign transparency and its nationwide effort to dismantle existing disclosure rules and electoral spending caps.
My only quibble with the Times reporting, though, is that I think it remains too sanguine about the chances of those champions of campaign disclosure winning the day. As proof of their optimism, the pair note the strong Court majority supporting transparency in the Citizens United case and quote Scalia’s strong defense of campaign finance openness from two years ago (see above). But as we’ve learned in the past few weeks, the respect this Court shows for established legal precedent can nonetheless often rest on a knife’s edge, particularly when the right-wing’s long-term political goals are there for the taking.
In a way, the right-wing’s embrace of so-called dark money in our political campaigns reminds me of this classic scene from what may be the best movie sequel of all time. There is an important difference, however. Today’s political godfathers are more than willing to shell out untold amounts of corporate money to influence our political system. But when it comes to how much they think our democracy deserves to know about it, well, then their answer is still the same as Michael Corleone’s: nothing.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “What Howard Kurtz Thinks You Don’t Need to Know” and it is here.
My Nation column is called “On the Other Hand... Nothing,” and it’s here.
I have a longish article in this week’s Nation on the Washington Post's conservative blogger problem focusing on the misdeeds of one Jennifer Rubin and that’s here.
I will be speaking about liberalism and The Cause at Bookhampton on Main Street in East Hampton, Saturday, at 8. More information here.
Two things: John Kenneth Gailbraith once proposed a law that every time an economist made a prediction, his or her previous predictions should be published alongside it. I thought of that wise advice when I received this press notice from Time: “TIME's Mark Halperin: "Republicans Look Like A Very Solid Bet To Retain the House…”
But remember when, in the run-up to the 2006 Congressional elections, Halperin predicted that Bush would be "back over 53% any day now" and warned "If I were them [Democrats], I'd be scared to death about November's elections." Well don’t feel bad, neither does Halperin.
Also, don’t ask me why, but we are still waiting for The New York Observer to publish a retraction and apology for misleading its readers with this silly column.
Who does this man look like minus ten years and I’m guessing more beers etc., than I can imagine? Also, why is Southside putting out an album with the same title as an album by Steve van Zandt of about twenty years ago? I dunno. But it’s called “Men Without Women,” and when I caught a show by Southside and the Poor Fools at Stephen’s Talkhouse in Amagansett last week, I had—like everyone else there—a great time. The Poor Fools are a ragtagish looking group of excellent and enormously versatile musicians. Four different people played the drums at one time or another. Three played the trombone. The songs were a mixture of old soul standards, some serious deep cuts and a few Southside numbers, including “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” “The Fever,” “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” I got my request which was “Walk Away, Renee,” and a georgous version it was. (Nobody requested “Into the Mystic,” which would have been number two, unfortunately.) We had a nice little talk after the show (with my nephew Adam) and I put up Adam’s slightly doofusy photo of us both wearing orange shirts after the show on Facebook here.
— Oh wait: here’s the answer to the “Men Without Women” question, thanks to Southside’s site on the Intertubes:
You have a new CD coming out. Can you talk a little about that?
There’s a number of things I’m working on, but [the CD] is based on an album that Stevie Van Zandt … put out in the 1980s with [his solo band] Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. He put that out about 25 years ago and I had forgotten that we recorded a number of those songs as the Jukes, but then we scrapped them and didHearts of Stone[the Jukes’ third album, whichRolling Stonemagazine placed in the top-100 albums of the 1970s and ’80s] instead. Then I heard the record for the first time in years and thought, ‘God, this is great,’ so we did the whole thing live [at Asbury Park’s venerable Stone Pony last July] and we’re going to put out the record. Stevie came down and sang some songs, and kind of gave us his approval of the project. We had six horn players and it just sounded so good I thought ‘We might as well put it out.’ I don’t normally think that way because I’m never really that happy with what I do live. I always think it sounds frantic and crazy, but this really sounds good. It’s 10 songs from his record calledMen Without Women— which comes from a compilation by Ernest Hemingway — and then there’s three that Steve and I do.
Let’s all buy it.
And here are Bruce and Southside doing “Talk to Me” in Madrid.
Also, I wanted to put in a plug for Jonathan Franzen’s new essay collection, Farther Away, to which I’ve been listening to on CD. Ok, so I skip a lot of the bird watching part. But my admiration for Franzen’s prose just grows and grows. His musing on the death of David Foster Wallace is tough-minded and soft-hearted at the same time. There’s nobody writing today I’d rather read, and nobody who captures the various psychological complications of our political moment more accurately to my mind, which is why the final cultural portrait in The Cause—the one after the one on Bruce—is on Franzen.
Now here’s Reed.
Odor in the Court
by Reed Richardson
So it is decided—I, like many others, was wrong about guessing the outcome of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. (Which just goes to show that one doubts Nancy Pelosi’s predictions, if not her exact vote-counting skills, at one’s peril.) Three cheers for that and, in this lone instance, two for John Roberts, who didn’t roll over quite as easy as one thinks. In reality, though, that there was ever even a doubt about Roberts’ vote shows how far the discourse, both in this country and in this current Court, has shifted to the right.
Undoubtedly, it is a victory for the president. More importantly, though, it is a victory for the tens of millions of Americans who might have lost or never gained health coverage due to Obamacare’s repeal. This is especially true since the esteemed opposition party has unceremoniously dropped two-thirds of its three-word health care legislative strategy. But what remains clear from this Court’s legal emanations this past week is that it still has the unmistakable whiff of unabashed, right-wing score-settling about it.
Originally, I was going to entitle this post “When Nino Met Sammy” for two reasons. First, it was to honor the passing, this week, of a great writer. Although I can’t say I was a huge fan of Ms. Ephron’s films, I still have a soft spot in my heart for this hilarious, spot-on scene of hers (“TRI-NI LO-PEZ?!”), one of the few redeeming moments in “Sleepless in Seattle.” But mostly my title's play on Ephron's most famous movie made sense because history will mark the beginning of this current Court’s hard-edged lurch to the right as that moment in 2005 when Samuel Alito joined with Antonin Scalia on our nation’s highest bench.
I mean, just look at what else we got from the Court this past week.
On Monday, we were treated to Justice Scalia’s fire-and-brimstone, anti-Obama rant about the Arizona SB 1070 case. You know, the one where he found salient the 19th-century emigration patterns of freed blacks and appeared convinced that our country was still governed by the Articles of Confederation.
A more modern twist on Scalia’s backward thinking came in the form of Justice Alito’s icy oral dissent(via Pierce) in a case about the propriety of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. That’s the one where Alito complained that the 14-year-old complainant was too sympathetic and not typical of the many murders being committed by "thrill-killing" 17-year-olds, the grisly statistics of which he was all too willing to fearmonger with. That neither of these arguments didn’t win the day in those particular cases are welcome news, but it wasn’t all legal peaches and cream for liberals.
For good measure, the Court’s five usual suspects summarily imposed their money=speech Citizens United dictum onto the states this week and, in that decision, Scalia’s vociferous defense of state’s rights and the Tenth Amendment, somehow, didn’t come into play. To be fair, the conservatives on the court might have been a flummoxed by that case, as it pitted two of their favorite causes against one another. In the end, though, they kept their anti-democratic streak intact by siding with corporations instead of the state legislature of Montana.
Though Roberts has drawn much of the spotlight in recent big cases as the swing vote and author of the majority opinions, Jeffrey Toobin deftly explained a couple of weeks ago in the New Yorker that the Citizens United case became the landmark ruling that it is thanks to the seeds planted by Scalia during oral arguments. Long known for his pugnacious style in grilling respondents, Scalia’s tone has been amped up since like-minded colleague Alito replaced moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Then, in the last few months, Scalia has surpassed even that, transforming into something like the Court’s unchecked conservative id, spewing right-wing radio talking points and not so subtly signaling to potential conservative litigants that his ‘originalism’ is nothing but a pretense and his vote for their pet causes is all but assured.
Ordinarily, one would expect this kind of raw partisanship to draw plenty of opprobrium from the Beltway crowd, but since Scalia is a) a conservative, b) on the Supreme Court, and c) enjoys a reputation as a ‘brilliant’ mind, the likelihood of him getting called out for his naked intellectual dishonesty was low. Fortunately, I was wrong again this week.
Indeed, something seems to have gotten into the water over at the Washington Post. Before executive editor Marcus Brauchli gave a mighty stiffarm to the Romney campaign’s mewling about a story on Bain Capital’s fondness for shipping jobs overseas, it was putting some much-deserved rhetorical screws to Scalia. First, liberal Post columnist E.J. Dionne, not known as a bomb-thrower, went all-in on the Court’s reactionary justice. (The no-beating-around-the-bush headline: “Justice Scalia Must Resign.”) Then the Post’s editorial page got into the act, noting that Scalia’s recent “sneer[ing],” “muddled riffs,” and “lapses of judicial temperament,” serve to endanger “the legitimacy of the high court.” Sure, the Post is just playing catch-up to the American people here, but it’s heartening to see nonetheless.
My only fear is that the Roberts Court’s ruling on Obamacare will lull the press back into complacency. But to dismiss Scalia’s increasingly political approach to jurisprudence as the mere rantings of an often-harmless eccentric Justice is to underestimate his broader influence—which he exerts even in cases where he’s in the minority. Scalia is playing to win a long game in the Court in an almost unprecedented way, and which no liberal Justice is trying to match. For the media to go back to blithely ignoring this is to for it be asking to be caught by surprise once again, when, for example, the “Constitution in Exile” folks start taking on the policies of the New Deal. Perhaps most ominously, Scalia has one particular fan whose appreciation for his judicial style could end up re-aligning this nation’s social compact forever. His name? Mitt Romney.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “Fearmaking, Then and Now.” It was inspired by all the time I spend watching TCM and it’s here.
Kinky Friedman in Concert
I caught one of the twenty-five shows Kinky Friedman is doing in twenty-six days on his current “BiPolar” tour at the always raucous Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend. It was my first Kinky show ever, but I assume most of them are like this one. He plays the old hits (“Sold American,” “They Sure Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus…,” “Asshole from El Paso”), tells some of the worst and most tasteless jokes imaginable, and reads from his latest book. That last part, which turned out to be about his dad, was actually deeply moving. And the shtick, well, it’s a matter of taste. It works better with lots of alcohol—I think Kinky thinks so too, since he was hawking tequila from the stage. Having had a little too much Grey Goose myself, I can’t remember the name of his opener, who was pretty good, but I do remember the woman called Dr. Love, who is apparently an alternative medicinist of some type, but also a terrific singer who accompanies herself on ukulele. She really should have an actual musical career of her own. (The song she sang, which she wrote, was pretty good too.) And yes, while they sure don’t make Jews like Kinky anymore, that’s OK: one is plenty. And he was a friend of Molly’s, so that’s good too. His site is here. (I’ll be seeing my new doppelgänger, Southside Johnny, there this weekend and the great David Bromberg the next.)
Now here’s Reed:
Batten Down the Hatches—the Obamacare Media Storm Is Coming
by Reed Richardson
It’s no secret—the media love a good hurricane.
OK, maybe members of the press don’t really love the whole devastation-and-potential-loss-of-life parts of it. (Although, at times, one kind of has to wonder about this guy.) Still, there’s no denying that a hurricane’s slow-to-develop, varying-in-intensity and stubbornly hard-to-predict nature is practically tailor-made for today’s Twitter-fied and event-packaged news cycles. What’s more, the drama surrounding a major storm making landfall has an almost refreshingly real, newsworthy quality to it in a media landscape otherwise awash in mindless manufactured debates and breathless obsessions over the minutiae of the day.
Of course, just because hurricanes, heat waves and blizzards lack any ideological affiliation doesn’t mean that weather and climate coverage can’t or shouldn’t be viewed through a political prism. Reporting on how our government prioritizes funding for disaster preparedness and plans for climate change are perfectly legitimate, even if the counterproductive and absurd solutions proposed by a certain political party seldom are. Sometimes, however, the public gets nakedly partisan spin—for example, the specious schoolyard logic behind recent right-wing news memes such as “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse.” (Funny how that same reasoning didn’t occasion wall-to-wall Fox News chyrons decrying “Droughtastations” and “Heat Tsunamis” this past spring.)
Right now, the American public is sitting in the quiet eye of another momentous oncoming storm: the Supreme Court’s imminent Obamacare ruling (which, according to the this Court-tracking blog, is likely to arrive next Monday or Thursday). And though this event is wholly man-made, the two-year build-up, swirling intensity of both supporters and opponents, and difficult-to-pinpoint outcome promises to unleash a similar hurricane-force level of news coverage.
I say "difficult to pinpoint," and it is—if you want to an excellent analysis of the many different scenarios that might play out, check out Jonathan Cohn. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t already have a good idea of what broad ideological grounds the Roberts Court’s ruling will land upon. (And while I appreciate the optimism, Nancy, I just don’t trust your vote-counting skills with these jokers.) For, if the oral arguments weren’t enough of a giveaway, and Scalia and Ginsburg’s public comments since then didn’t clear it up, the intellectual contortionism the former displays in his new book should all but end the uncertainty:
Justice Scalia writes, for instance, that he has little use for a central precedent the Obama administration has cited to justify the health care law under the Constitution’s commerce clause, Wickard v. Filburn.
Justice Scalia’s treatment of the Wickard case had been far more respectful in his judicial writings. In the book’s preface, he explains (referring to himself in the third person) that he “knows that there are some, and fears that there may be many, opinions that he has joined or written over the past 30 years that contradict what is written here.” Some inconsistencies can be explained by respect for precedent, he writes, others “because wisdom has come late.”
Methinks the “wisdom” he speaks of coming late here is something much more mundane. Since the 2005 Gonzalez v. Raich case, where Scalia came out as a firm believer in a strong commerce clause, the Court’s dynamic has tipped noticeably in favor of conservatives thanks to Justice Samuel Alito replacing the much more moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And lest you think Scalia has any judicial self-respect left, he goes a step further, writing that he “does not swear that the opinions that he joins or writes in the future will comply with what is written here.” We’ve got the majority now, in other words, so you ain’t seen nothing yet.
That the news media make little to nothing of such blatant ideological signaling on the part of a Supreme Court justice is troubling. But not surprising, I guess. From the get-go, the press bungled the coverage of healthcare reform, focusing too much on process and horse-race stories, ignoring the policy aspects of the bill, and letting the right-wing distort and hijack the language of the debate. As this Pew Research Center study reminded us once again this week, it was not a proud moment for our nation’s press. From the original 2010 report:
A study of the concepts and rhetoric that found their way into the media narrative from June 2009 through March 2010 revealed that the opponents’ leading terms appeared almost twice as frequently (about 18,000 times) as the supporters’ top terms (about 11,000 times.) Boiled down to its essence, the opponents’ attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters’ attack on greedy insurance firms.
Forgive me if I’m not confident the press will do any better the second time around in avoiding superficial, who-wins/who-loses horse-race coverage, since the Court’s decision will come amidst a presidential campaign in full swing. (Here, at least, Politico is completely upfront about it.) I expect we’ll also see a lot of media and pundit hay being made about how a partial or total unraveling of the Affordable Care Act is in keeping with public opinion, in which a majority has consistently favored overturning the law since its passage two years ago. Likely lost in the "Obama is rebuked" deluge, however, will be a number of more nuanced metrics that don’t make for such an easy analysis of Obamacare and what Americans truly think about it. For instance:
That last point should be of particular interest to the press, because it is abundantly clear that the champions of overturning Obamacare still have no serious plan to replace it anytime soon. This is partly because Obamacare is, at its essence, a policy co-opted from Republicans. And it’s no doubt a bridge too far to hope the media would go back and dig into leftover Republican alternative proposals like “selling insurance across state lines” and “medical malpractice reform.” If they did, they might discover what these proposals really are: policy red herrings that, at best, would have a negligible effect on rising healthcare costs and, at worst, would send consumer and employer expenses spiraling upward (along with healthcare companies’ profits, I might add).
The simple but inconvenient truth is that, whatever happens next week, the GOP’s central plan for healthcare reform remains the same: do nothing. Indeed, for right-wing conservatives like Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and others, the idea that we should return to the status quo, where a pre-existing condition could make you practically unemployable and wreck you financially, is no big deal.
“Does that employer have the right [not to offer coverage for cancer]? I would say yes they do if they want to keep their health care costs down but it also means it’s less likely you’re going to want to work here. If that employer wants to get the best employees coming in the door he’s going to offer the best insurance possible.”
That Mourdock later explains he wouldn't personally support such a move would be cold comfort to the millions of Americans who could once again find their lives permanently upended by an unforeseen health crisis. (Not for nothing, but Mourdock probably owes Rand Paul a first-edition copy of Atlas Shrugged or something for repurposing Paul’s faux-compassionate libertarian shtick on racial discrimination.) And what of those employees who make the stupid mistake of getting cancer after they're already working for a company that chooses not to cover it? Mourdock, conveniently, doesn’t say, but I suspect his answer would be heavy on soaring words like “freedom,” “personal responsibility” and “marketplace,” and light on more pedestrian terms like “forgoing treatment,” “skyrocketing emergency room expenses” and “medical bankruptcy.”
This is perhaps the most important role the press has to play next week and in the weeks that follow: explaining the very real impact that striking down part or all of Obamacare would have on the millions of actual Americans who don’t exist inside the Beltway bubble. Whether it’s college graduates who still can’t find a job and need insurance through their parents, or entrepreneurs who for the first time would be able to purchase care for their employees through a small-business health exchange, or those people (like me) with a loved one who has survived a serious illness such as cancer, which prompts an employer to eliminate that pricey coverage, the Court’s ruling next week deserves much more scrutiny than simply a craven list of political winners and losers and campaign-trail stories packed with dueling soundbites.
Successfully scalping Obama’s landmark achievement will have consequences that reach far beyond his latest standing in the polls or even his prospects in November, and the public needs to see what they are. To allow the notion that this Court ruling against Obamacare is a mere one-off would be tragic; it is, in fact, part of a larger orchestrated campaign by conservatives to redefine our country.
Sadly, I fear that on this most important point, the media will fail yet again to live up to their duty. But it doesn’t have to be this way—for all the hits and misses in their weather coverage, the one thing news organizations can’t be accused of is willfully ignoring the costly, destructive impact that natural disasters leave in their wake. There’s a lesson to be learned here for the rest of the news media's coverage. When the Roberts Court’s Obamacare hurricane finally hits next week, the press needs to stick with the story until all the initial hot air and flood of opinions are gone, to really see what’s left of our democracy.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.