Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Politico Pitfalls, McCarthyite Mendacity

My new Nation column is called “The Proud Liar Mitt Romney Said Today…”  (and don’t miss the Barney Frank story at the end). 

My new Think Again column is called “Pearl Harbor, Another (Unhappy) Anniversary” and it’s here.

And I’ve got a new Forward column called “Israeli Theocracy vs. Diaspora Democracy,” though I don’t know if it’s up yet, but it begins thusly:
“It is becoming increasingly obvious that a break is coming between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, particularly its American variety. The reason for this is that Israel is slowly but inexorably becoming a conservative theocracy while the Diaspora is dedicated to liberal democracy.  The strategy of the “pro-Israel” camp among American Jewish organizations and neoconservative pundits has so far been one of avoidance of unpleasant facts coupled with unpleasant insinuations about the loyalties of those who insist on taking them seriously.”

Remember that when you read the Politico discussion below, please.

Politico published a particularly nefarious article this week, in which reporter Ben Smith gave free reign to a bunch of hawkish supporters of Israel’s right-wing government to cast aspersions on anyone who thinks Israel would be better served by offering more humane treatment of the Palestinians and less emphasis on its own far-right government’s ideological obsesions. The purpose of the attack, which was not coincidentally timed to the Republican Jewish meeting in Washington, was to cast aspersions on the good name of the Center for American Progress and Media Matters regarding the Middle East and hence, on Democrats generally.  The article, which unthinkingly reinforces the meme that the meaning of “pro-Israel” is to encourage it to continue an endless occupation of the Palestinians and destroy its own democracy in the process, has been proven innacurate with regard to the views of CAP, as Think Progress’s Ken Gude and Faiz Shakir demonstrates here, though of course it is being celebrated by those on the racist, violence-inciting far Jewish right, like the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin,  whose journalistic malfeasance I have discussed herehere, here, and here, as well as by Fox news and Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism site. Furthermore, the piece, which required extensive additions and corrections after the fact closed with the quote “"What is actually happening is that the discourse that a lot of people in the Palestine solidarity community and activists have been engaging in is starting to break down the walls of the Washington bubble,’ said Ali Abunimah, a longtime activist and the co-founder of the site Electronic Intifada.” This strikes me as entirely false. In fact it’s the increasingly unafraid assertion of many of the Jewish community to refuse to be cowed by the narrow (and to this view) counterproductive insistence that the only pro-Israel position is a hawkish pro-Israel position, and again, that dangerous (to Israel, and to the world) fiction is reinforced here, for the purposes of smearing CAP.

Of particular concern to yours truly, now that the hate mail has started flowing was the fact that in the original piece Smith allowed former AIPAC flack Josh Block—who is now, inexplicably, employed by the Progressive Policy Institute, once a thoughtful, centrist think-tank that has now apparently fallen on hard times both financially and in terms of the quality of its hires—to smear me as a “borderline” anti-Semite without bothering to get in touch with me for reply. When I was sent the piece early Wednesday morning, I could hardly believe it. I know Politico puts a premium on speed and dealing exclusively with insiderdom, but I would have thought that its editors and journalists would have learned the lesson of McCarthyism which is that just because someone makes an accusation against a political opponent, that doesn’t mean it has any basis in reality. 

As I wrote Smith yesterday morning, Block’s accusation is ludicrous. Here is my response: 

“The idea that my opposition to AIPAC's radical, right-wing agenda for Israel and the United States somehow constitutes "borderline anti-Semitism" is beyond ludicrous. My CAP colleagues can speak for themselves. As for me, I am a columnist for The Jewish Daily Forward, and formerly one for Moment magazine. Neither one, I think we can safely assume, is in the business of hiring anti-Semites. I am also, for the record, a member of two separate regular Torah study groups, a university teacher of two recent courses on Jewish American culture and history at Brooklyn College and CUNY's Macaulay Honors College (which I would have been teaching had Mr. Smith tried to reach me yesterday afternoon), a frequent university lecturer on Jewish topics, and the proud author of my daughter's Bat Mitzvah ceremony this past May. I am so happy to describe myself as a "proud, pro-Zionist Jew," and have done so on many occasions. AIPAC and its allies have long employed the type of character assassination present in Mr. Smith's article to those of us who love Israel but worry about the destructive path that its putative Neoconservative supporters have consistently pushed it down. Its greatest asset in silencing those opponents has been the fear that these McCarthyite tactics inspire in its victims. Well, those days are over and these shameful, unsupportable accusations are the apparent result.”

After which, we had considerable back and forth, for while Smith included a sentence in reply drawn from the above, for some reason, he repeatedly refused to identify me as a columnist for The Forward, which I think pretty much demonstrates the insanity (and nefariousness) of this Block fellow’s insinuation. At first he said that I “wrote for Jewish publications,” which strikes me as pretty meaningless. Then, after a bunch more emails from me, pointing out that “columnist for the Forward” was more accurate, he changed it to “is a columnist for Jewish publications” as if there were some blanket ban in Politico from mentioning “The Forward” in its pages.  One would think that after a reporter allows a source to libel someone in a story without asking for a response, he would be eager to try to make amends.  In this case, something else was clearly at work, though I have no idea of what.

Now as part of my “pro-Israel” credential, I could have mentioned that in the context of the Nation readership and many of its writers and editors, I am often attacked as no better than AIPAC and some sort of Zionist fifth-column. And to be perfectly honest, I find myself a little bit shamed by the fact that I rolled off my credentials as a Jew in response to the attack, though I did so as a time-saver. (In a pinch, I can still recite my haftorah if need be.) The fact is my colleagues at CAP who are not Jewish have the very same rights to criticize Israel regardless of whether they have the ethnic standing I  happen to enjoy. And I've been, I admit surprised, but admiring that CAP has been willing to try to expand the envelope on this issue. It's 
a tricky thing. I wish J Street had endorsed Palestinian statehood at 
the UN, though, it might have meant that it had no hope of being a 
meaningful political actor in the near future. But look, these people are bullies. And the only way to stop bullying is to stand up to it and hope that others join in. My tsoris aside, it's a shame that Politico allowed itself 
to be used this way.  To be honest, aside from Mike Allen’s daily email, and the occasional investigative piece, I tend to avoid Politico on purpose because I think it’s furious focus on process-driven, up-to-the-minute minutiae is part of why American politics has become so insane of late. So I can’t say whether this is typical of Smith’s work. I assume it isn’t as I noticed he was celebrated in the stellar 50th anniversary issue of Columbia Journalism Review recently and in some extremely distinguished (and much older) company. Clearly, however, this piece deserves a great big “dart.”  (Further thoughts on the Politico piece can be found here from Harold Pollack and by all means read this Salon story about who this Josh Block fellow really is and what he and his comrades are seeking to accomplish.)

I saw Ryan Adams the other night at Carnegie Hall. I only kinda like Ryan Adams and mostly because of Whiskeytown. I live with someone who loves the guy, however, and here is her report.  “It was a warm and affectionate performance for a crowd that returned that affection. He appeared with no band, alternating between accompanying himself on piano or guitar, with a mouth harmonica. Responding to a request from the audience that he misheard as 'Howard is beautiful' he made up lyrics and a tune spontaneously with a set of really funny lyrics, all about Howard's quirks and oddball qualities. He played selections from his new album 'Ashes and Fire,' interspersed with work from throughout his career -- earning his biggest applause when he played an old Whiskeytown tune 'Everything I Do.' But the crowd responded to new and old stuff with the same enthusiastic applause. Between songs, his patter is witty and knowing--a set of in-jokes and social observations by a crowd that thinks like he thinks, likes what he likes, makes fun of their younger selves as he makes fun of his younger self. But the often ironic patter in which he assumed a pose at a distance from himself, was betrayed by the earnest and passionate emotion in his voice and in his lyrics, particularly as his sang from his new album.” After getting that back from her, I replied, “Say something about the record (‘Ashes and Fire’).” She replied: “It's stripped down, spare, beautifully composed and performed album - as always his lyrics, even running over the well-worn territory of love and break-up, are savvy and sometimes surprising.” You can read the Times review of the show here

Last week, Petey and I went to see Bob Seger at Madison Square Garden. First things first: After just two songs, Bob said the single greatest three words anyone can say at a concert, “Mr. Bruce Springsteen!”  Bruce came out, guitar in hand, did a verse, a chorus and a guitar solo on “Old Time Rock n Roll,” and split. It was over so fast it was kind of like a dream. But it was also kind of a blessing on the whole night, which by the way, was terrific. Bob Seger writes first rate rock n roll songs and sings them, looking like Paul Bunyon or maybe Walt Whitman, with verve and passion. It’s a lot like a John Forgerty concert in that respect, in that it’s just one great song after another, with about at 10-1 ratio of really good songs to klunkers and about a 2-10 ratio of really great, classic songs (“Night Moves, “Against the Wind,” “Rock n Roll Never Forgets” etc.) to just really good ones. Impressive that after all these years, he can still sell out Madison Square Garden, but also heartening. And now is an awfully good time to stock up on Bob, because, as I recently mentioned, not only is there a new double greatest hits, but a remastered version of the early live classic, “Live Bullet” and also the later, once he was a star, “Nine Tonight.”  Read all about the man here. Here they are last week, and here, thanks to Youtube, they are thirty years ago.

And speaking of the past not even being past, I’ve mentioned a few times that Hot Tuna has completely rejuvenated itself with the terrific musicianship not only of Jack and Jorma but the incredible Barry Mitterhoff, a surprisingly excellent new album—possibly their best (not including “Quah”), after a 17 year recording hiatus called “Steady as She Goes” and a bunch of guest appearances by just the kind of people you want to see with Hot Tuna. This weekend, they’re doing two nights at the Beacon with charlie Musselwhite, David Bromberg, Larry Campbell, and ye old reliable G.E. Smith. I’m going Friday, trimmed and burning.

Reed is travelling this week, and so here is:

The mail:
Bill Sherman
Maplewood, NJ

Re Rockpile--Glad to see some live material from this band finally surface in an "official" release, but the sound quality of the set is disappointing (Nick Lowe's voice is really buried in the mix), and by the time they performed at Montreux, there were fewer Lowe songs in the set. I was lucky enough to see the group a year earlier at the Academy of Music in NYC, and they were terrific. Anyway, below are three live Rockpile performances (with very good sound) that you might enjoy, all from YouTube: A high-energy version of Lowe's "Heart of the City" and "They Call it Rock" from a British music show hosted by Peter Cook. A fine take of "So It Goes" from the Midnight Special series. And finally Carlene Carter singing with Dave Edmunds/Rockpile on "Baby Ride Easy"
Eric replies: I was at that Academy of Music show too, I think. The one I saw had Rockpile plugged in between Mink Deville and Elvis C. The most amazing Rockpile show I ever saw though was when I was visiting student at the London School of Economics in 1980 and they were booked to play a noon concert in the auditorium. Nick and Dave said that what, with the time,  they hadn’t really had much time to discuss what they would play and so if we called out the songs and they knew them, they would play them. It was a great show. A week later, Tony Benn spoke in the same room. Those were the days, my friend.

Matt Gelfand
You mentioned the Stones SNL performance in 1978 (after the Some Girls tour) as a lousy performance. My friends and I who saw the performance STRONGLY disagree. Yes, Mick's voice was shot by the time the tour ended, and he sang raspily that night. But the band (particularly Keith and Woody) were smoking. You couldn't be more wrong.
Eric replies: Yes, Matt, they were smoking, though I think literally, as well as snorting and shooting, etc. But that’s besides the point. You are free to disagree alas, but I “couldn’t be more wrong”? Really? First of all it’s obviously a matter of opinion. Second, how’s this. “George W. Bush was a great president.” Now what, Matt, are you smoking? Also, did you poll your friends? Maybe they were just being nice. Maybe you forgot. Maybe you were all under the influence … I still say it sucks.

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Up Against the Wall (Street)

My New Think Again column is called "Why Do the Mainstream Media Like the Tea Party More Than Occupy Wall Street?" and it’s here.

So the Grammys are out, and not that I care, but  I would just like to point out on behalf of my argument that the Allman Brothers Band are the best collection of musicians playing togther regularly, anywhere, that in the blues category, three of the five nominees are in the band. I’ll bet that never happened before. I would also like to say that while I love Derek Trucks, he is crazily overrated in the new Rolling Stone poll of the 100 best guitarists, while it is criminal that Warren Haynes would be left off all together. Also, being dead is not a good idea if you want to be high on this list (unless your name is “Hendrix, of course.”) My guess is that if Jann had to worry about getting hassled by Jerry Garcia, he would have been in the top fifteen, rather than way down, I can’t even remember where he is. There’s a bunch more about which to complain: (Lou Reed? Are you serious?) But I agree with the top five.

Chick Corea celebrated his 70th birthday with a month of shows at the Blue Note in Manhattan where he was joined by more musicians echoing more styles than I care to enumerate here. I’m not sure there has ever been a more eclectic composer and performer than Corea. And the weird thing about him is that he is not a jack-of-all trades, but actually a master of them. Part of the secret, apart from obviously, talent and longevity, appear to be egolessness. Corea throws himself into combinations with different kinds of musicians and then becomes just a member of the band. This works better with different combinations depending both on the combination in question as well as the taste of the listener.

The night I went was a flamenco night (and I believe it was Corea’s actual birthday). Since “My Spanish Heart” is perhaps my favorite of Corea’s albums, I was pretty excited about this. So too were a lot of other people as I’ve never been in a more tightly packed room in my life. I got to see some of the most renowned flamenco musicians in the world, many of whom could fill large halls elsewhere in the world (and one of whom, Concha Buika can apparently fill Carnegie Hall on her own today). It was a quite exciting night for all concerned, though alas, perhaps overly authentic for your relatively philistine blogger (in matters flamenco) than for many others in the audience, who acted as if they were witnessing their own private little miracle. I’m sure I would have felt the same way had I gone on the nights he played with the Miles alumni, or with Herbie Hancock, or Gary Burton, or the acoustic RTF, etc. In any case, if you are new to Chick’s incredible legacy, there’s a fine two-cd collection out on Concord to get you started, called the The Definitive Chick Corea on Stretch and Concord, but only as long as you promise not to stop there.

Continuing in the jazz vein, and just in time for holiday gift-giving, is the fifth collection in the “Jazz Icons” DVD series, from Mosaic Records and produced by Reelin’ In The Years Productions. This one is six discs and filmed in France from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, features performances from John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The highlights in this one, if you ask me, are:

John Coltrane—Live In France 1965, filmed at the Antibes Jazz Festival that summer. It’s the great quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones and they performed “A Love Supreme” at the show. I believe it’s the only time they ever did. I also really like the solo Monk show, which is from 1965 and filmed in a studio without an audience and the show by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers from 1959 in which we get to see a young Wayne Shorter on tenor, Walter Davis Jr. and the great Lee Morgan on trumpet. The Johnny Griffin—Live In France 1971 has two songs with Dizzy Gillespie and the Freddie Hubbard—Live In France 1973 and the Rahsaan Roland Kirk—Live In France 1972 will no doubt excite their fans more than they did me. The series also deserves kudos for the fine, informative uniform booklets that come with the DVDS. You can fine more info here.

I’ll be spending a great deal of my winter months watching dvds and blurays, alas, beginning with the newly released versions of the terrific Le Carre/BBC miniseries, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which some people think is the best miniseries ever, and its sequel, "Smiley’s People." Both are Cold War masterpieces, both in print (where you should really start, people) and on screen. Alex Guinness plays George Smiley to perfection. These new, improved transfers include a few extras, like an interview with the author and production notes and so forth but it is the dramas that are the, um, star.

More elaborate, expensive and worth it, is the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s”Three Colors: Blue, White, Red.” The transfers are beautiful and the movies all justify repeated viewings. A better match between director, actor, and cinematic moment would be hard to find. (This is true of all of them, but particularly so of “Blue” which stars Juliette Binoche.) This being a Criterion Collection, it has an insane amount of extras including three cinema lessons with director, interviews with composer Zbigniew Preisner; writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz; and actors Julie Delpy, Zbigniew Zamachowski, and Irène Jacob. Selected-scene commentary for Blue with Ms. Binoche.

Three new video essays, by film writers Annette Insdorf, Tony Rayns, and Dennis Lim as well as Kieślowski’s student short The Tram (1966) and his fellow student’s short from the same year The Face, which features Kieślowski in a solo performance, two short documentaries by Kieślowski: Seven Women of Different Ages (1978) and Talking Heads (1980), Krzysztof Kieślowski: I’m So-So . . . (1995), a feature-length documentary in which the filmmaker discusses his life and work, and two multi-interview programs, Reflections on “Blue” and Kieślowski: The Early Years, with film critic Geoff Andrew, Binoche, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, cinematographer Sławomir Idziak, Insdorf, Jacob, and editor Jacques Witta. The booklet has essays by Colin MacCabe, Nick James, Stuart Klawans, and Georgina Evans, an excerpt from Kieślowski on Kieślowski, and believe me, more than that.

For classicists, there’s a fancy-new bluray of “West Side Story” 50th Anniversary Edition which comes with hundreds of hours of restoration, new 7.1 digital audio, and a collection of bonus features It will be available in a Limited Edition 4-Disc Boxed Set featuring 2 disc Blu-ray, newly-restored DVD, Tribute CD and collectible memorabilia, as well as a 2-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray with extras to numerous to list, but you can find them here. See if you can keep from tearing up during “There’s a Place for Us.”

On the music front, there’s a fine new Stones DVD from their 1978 “Some Girls” tour. It was the last time they had really great new material to tour behind and you can tell they were excited to play it. It’s a show in a stadium in Fort Worth and it’s well shot. Since I have the DVD, I can’t tell you how great the sound on the Bluray is, but I’m sure it’s way better. The extras include the Stones’ absolutely awful performance on SNL that year, which I remember watching and thinking that they should have rehearsed instead of doing all those drugs with John Belushi. There’s also a few interviews.

Speaking of those days when I was young and adventurous, my backpack and I made it to the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer of 1980 and I got to see, among other things, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Rockpile do a show with Elvis Costello. Thanks to the magic of cd release, that show is available and you can relive my life. The rest of the evening was spent in the train station with, as I recall, a Swiss fellow who like to pretend he was a Hollywood-style cowboy. I thought I remembered Nick’s then-wife, Carlene Carter, singing with the band that night but I remember a lot of things from those days that never happened. Great band, though. Lowe and Edmunds could have been a mini-Lennon/McCartney if they could have gotten along better. You can read about it here.

On the book-giving front, I can get behind The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951, published by Yale, which is based on the exhibition now at the Jewish Museum and features photos 1936 to 1951, designed to stimulate a Communist revolution. It features photos by Margaret Bourke-White, Sid Grossman, Morris Engel, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee, among many others. Also from Yale, I am loving Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence. This is not hard to do, when you a) love Vermeer, and b) love women. Since Vermeer is my favorite artist, no contest, and women, my favorite sex, also no contest, this would be a great gift for me if I didn’t already have it. Perhaps you know someone for whom it might be. More here.

And if you’re buying a graduation gift for someone you don’t know that well, well, then, lucky you, you’ve got three perfect choices, depending on price points.

If you’re feeling really generous, for $200 there’s the new deluxe, boxed, break-your-back eighteenth edition of the Oxford ATLAS OF THE WORLD, which comes in a non-deluxe edition for a great deal less. (I see Amazon has it for just about fifty bucks) and you know, they’re great things to have, especially since the world is what it is. (Need a map of South Sudan, for instance?) And if you like words better than pictures, there’s a new, fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which is my favorite dictionary, in part, ironically, because of the pictures, and in part because I’m on the usage panel and I get to help decide what’s kosher and what’s not. This being 2011, it comes with a passkey code for a free download of a smartphone app that works with the iPad/iPhone/iPod or Android platform. Look up “punditocracy.”

Finally, for Hannukah gift-giving only, I just discovered “Songs of the Jewish-American Jet Set” a collection from the catalog of Tikva Records, which apparently was “the flagship independent Jewish record label of 20th century America.” 
Founded in 1947, it ranged from Israeli folk songs to Jewish-American swing, from klezmer pop to cantorial singing, from Catskills comedy to key political speeches 
of Jewish leaders. I would not go so far as the PR material, which calls it “something of a Jewish Motown” but it’s pretty great and this collection is really well done with an informative, well-produced booklet and nice packaging and some really good music. Seriously, I bought a bunch of them. More here.

Now here (finally) is Reed:

by Reed Richardson

Renowned Greek statesmen and philosopher Demosthenes once famously said: “The facts speak for themselves.” But in our modern political media environment, one saturated by vacuous cable news punditry, minutiae-obsessed media Tweets, and quick-reaction campaign spin, it’s not unreasonable to worry that whatever the facts are really saying increasingly gets drowned out.

The antidote to this incessant bloviating and partisan background noise, some now believe, is to unleash roving bands of rhetorical truth squads. With this new legion of fact checkers at its command, journalism might once again command respect from a skeptical public, now that it is so nobly documenting every prevarication, exaggeration, and outright fabrication on the campaign trail and op-ed page. Also, there will be cake for (almost) everyone.

OK, maybe that last bit wouldn’t pass for the truth. Still, it’s hard to underestimate the fact-checking fervor—dare I say, bubble?—sweeping through journalism today. (And with unrepentant know-nothing presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann to follow around every day, it's no wonder.) Beyond the big three—Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s “The Fact Checker”—there are now a number of state and local fact-check media initiatives underway as well as several non-profit/private citizen hybrids partnering to vet political speech. Even Craig Newmark, perhaps fearful that, as the founder of craigslist, he will go down in history as the man most responsible for the economic demise of newspapers, has enthusiastically jumped on board what he calls “Bigtime Fact-checking” as one way to revive a financially moribund industry.

Forgive me, however, for not having as much faith as folks like Newmark and media guru Jeff Jarvis in the idea that a fact-checking renaissance would rehabilitate journalism and reinvigorate our democracy. More accurate reporting, I’m all for, of course, and any effort at actually holding politicians and pundits accountable for their words and deeds has my deepest sympathies. But I see several problems with all this fact-checking evangelism, the first of which is a subtle, structural dilemma.

Listen to Jarvis and other fact-checking evangelists for a little while and you’ll start to notice a sort of backwards mission creep. They say they want to “restore fact-checking to the news business” but then they invariably discuss fact-checking as if it was more than just a different angle on a topic or an intrinsic part of a journalist’s daily routine. More and more, it’s clear that they envision it as a separate, standalone form of journalism, if not civic activity, one that necessitates creating a whole separate network of independent entities and/or databases. But this outsourcing of a critical function of journalism sets up a potential moral hazard within the profession.

Here’s a thought experiment:

Say the media scrum covering a Republican presidential debate hears a candidate make an obviously untrue statement, something like, oh, I don't know, the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation. That’s certainly newsworthy and worth covering in the recap. But if those same reporters implicitly know that someone else is charged with assessing the truth (or, in this case, the total lack thereof) of that candidate’s comment, how much effort should we really expect them to put into debunking such a claim? Probably not much if this kind of journalistic abdication is already happening now.

Isn’t it plausible that the existence of an even more comprehensive and compartmentalized network of fact-checkers could push regular beat reporters to be even less discerning when it comes to including dubious or false claims by politicians or pundits in their reporting? In other words, aren’t we at risk of fostering a feckless media mentality of, to paraphrase an old Army T-shirt: Print it all, let the fact-checkers sort it out?

This question is especially germane since, as recent research on the Obamacare “death panels” lie clearly demonstrated, publishing factually untrue statements in news reports without including an immediate and adjacent debunking each and every time is how myths are born and propagated among the public. So, institutionalizing a kind of bifurcated media coverage—with one group focused mainly on verifying facts and the other obsessed with "he said, she said," horserace coverage—could actually provide more rather than less fertile ground for future false memes to arise.

Perhaps sensitive to this troubling contradiction, one grad student at the MIT Media Lab is working on a technological solution that would more easily combine the two. . As detailed in a Nieman Journalism Lab story from last week, his idea is to create a kind of journalism X-ray specs, which would provide instantaneous, real-time fact-checking of individual assertions in any media story.

Schultz is building what he calls truth goggles—not actual magical eyewear, alas, but software that flags suspicious claims in news articles and helps readers determine their truthiness…If you had the truth goggles installed and came across Bachmann’s debate claim [about the HPV vaccine], the suspicious sentence might be highlighted.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is, because as any high school-level programmer can tell you, software is only as good as its source code.

His software is not designed to determine lies from truth on its own. That remains primarily the province of real humans…“It’s not just deciding what’s bullshit. It’s deciding what has been judged,” [creator Dan Schultz] said. “In other words, it’s picking out things that somebody identified as being potentially dubious.”

The somebody in this case being PolitiFact, the news project of the St. Petersburg Times that notably won a Pulitzer for its 2008 presidential campaign coverage. Linking with Schultz’s venture may be a natural next step for the site, since it has already debuted the inevitable mobile app, where for two bucks you can track PolitiFact’s true/false rating of prominent politicians just in time for the heat of the 2012 presidential race.

But since we are also talking about real humans here, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that the PolitiFact occasionally propagates some ‘potentially dubious’ reasoning of its own. Like, for example, this past Tuesday, when the site trotted out not one but two disingenuous verdicts on Mitt Romney’s political contortions over mandated-coverage health careand the federal assault weapons ban. Regarding the latter issue, I offer up PolitiFact’s alternately incoherent and conflicted conclusion as testimony to the type of fact assessment that Schultz’s ‘truth goggles’ might one day rely upon:

The difficulty of analyzing this charge is that Romney’s position on an assault-weapons ban in the 2008 debate was so muddled that it’s hard to pin down whether he actually flip-flopped. It’s more an example of an internal inconsistency than a flip-flop per se.

Sure, and the horrific act of executing someone in an electric chair might likewise be more delicately described as an example of internal inconsistency—thanks to 2,000 volts burning one’s vital organs—than getting fried, but I think the larger point is taken. This semantic parsing on the part of PolitiFact leaves the reader just as muddled as the candidate they’re trying to learn about.

Surely the proliferation of other fact-check sites would naturally correct for these occasional oversights or skewed interpretations, you might argue. That’s a fair point, but it also begs the question: Which one should the public listen to on which issue? Precisely because sussing out the truth of complex policy issues is and probably always should be a task for the human mind and not a computer algorithm, the notion that all these fact-check sites will consistently and objectively agree on the truthiness of a pundit’s statement or a politician’s policy is chimerical. And if one can easily go fact-check shopping, as it were, to find an independent stamp of approval for most arguments, then what’s the real, lasting value of all this vetting and verifying?

Even if, in some grand, future moment, we could somehow resolve all these structural, technological, and philosophical impediments, the value of all this fact-checking would still have to overcome its biggest obstacle—the irrational human psyche.

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. (italics original)

The above comes from this thoroughly engaging Boston Globe essay, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety even though it’s from last year. In it, you’ll learn about the critical importance played by the first few facts (or non-facts) the public learns about a topic or story. Once these points become internalized, like concrete, they quickly set, to the point where they become stubbornly impervious to cracking, even under the likes of PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating.

But before ye abandon all hope for the fact-checkers of the world, there might yet be a worthwhile, albeit difficult, role for them to play. Instead of an after-the-fact palliative remedy, why not employ them as preventive medicine?

Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, [researcher Brendan Nyhan] suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”

This more hierarchical fact-checking approach would no doubt prove harder to implement in today’s personality-obsessed media. Indeed, some pundits and politicians appear to have been inoculated against ever having to answer for their specious claims and intellectually dishonest arguments (especially, for some, when it comes to ‘Meet the Press’). But imagine a world in which an op-ed columnist’s continued worth to a media organization wasn’t just measured in clicks or books written but in lies told as well, or if a cable news talk show made it a policy to only invite guests whose past arguments went beyond mere bombast and withstood factual scrutiny.

Yes, these pundits and politicians would also be at the mercy of the same systemic complications and biases of fact checking that I mention above. But, unlike the public at large, they are professionals in their field, and should presumably know better. Overall, this use of fact checking to better price out the ideas in the marketplace and hold accountable the news organizations that allow them to propagate in the marketplace, I believe, would not only heighten our political discourse but help to broaden it as well. Likewise, it would rightly place more of the onus of news judgment back on those whose job it is to produce it, rather than just swamp an already inundated public with more data to slog through.

“Keeping atop the news takes time and effort,” one of the Michigan researchers pointed out. “And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting.” Demosthenes certainly understood this, since more than 2,300 years ago he offered up an observation that the fact checkers of today would be wise to heed: "The easiest thing of all is to deceive one's self; for what a man wishes he generally believes to be true."

The mail:
John D'Alessandro

Crestwood, NY

Thanks for reinforcing my determination, not yet acted upon, to see John Fogerty as soon as I can. If I had been deserving of a soundtrack for my formative years, it was all the songs that he wrote. I especially love the fact that he never saw the Bayou until years after he wrote the Credence classics, although he has said that he spent summers as a kid 'up in Cody's camp' in a swampy region of California that undoubtedly provided the inspiration for those amazing songs.
Meanwhile, this depressing story: my brother in law asked his sister, who had attended a Fogerty show in Florida, if during "Bad Moon" he sang the line "There's a Bathroom on the Right" [sic], which he has been doing in recent years, to which she replied, "It looked more like a Depends crowd."

Paul Greengross

Granada Hills

So glad you mentioned "Keith and Donna". How many brilliant versions of "Playin' in the Band" were ruined by her insufferable caterwauling? I saw them in the early 70s when she was much more restrained.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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Who'll Stop The Rain?

My Think Again column is called “Billionaire Media Moguls vs. Occupy Wall Street” and you can find it here

John Fogerty plays “Cosmo’s Factory” at the Beacon:
Twenty-three years or so ago I saw John Fogerty play Creedence music for the first time in decades in honor of the opening of the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial in Washington and as a personal catharsis over psychological issues that had prevented him from making (almost) any music at all following the bitter breakup of the band and the loss of all of his publishing rights. Fogerty was, by his own admission, a pretty sour fellow back then. Now he’s such a happy fella, it’s almost embarrassing to be around the guy. His stage patter is Paul McCartney-esque, about how wonderful his wife and kids are, and you know, sunshine on his shoulders makes him happy, that kind of thing.

But oh, the songs…. Also like McCartney, Fogerty has, in his back pocket, some of the most powerful, nearly perfectly crafted pop music and his band recreates the originals to perfection. Beginning with Cosmo-CCR’s strongest album, he made this 41-year-old-relic sound as fresh as my 13-year old kid. (Tonight he is playing “Green River.”) Given that Fogerty grew up thousands of miles away from the various southern bayous, cotton fields, nooks and crannies of American life that give these songs their inspiration, one is tempted to feel that there is a larger force of life and creativity working through him in an almost supernatural fashion. But it is not a tombstone shadow; rather it’s a good moon rising; an archetypal American artform being re-invented while so much of the rest of the world around him was immersed in psychedelic experiences that yielded mostly self-indulgence. Fogerty’s tight, locomotive-like arrangements put you in a frame of mind that makes you glad to be alive. Here’s some Youtube from the wayback machine.

New CDs/collections from The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, U2, Nirvana, The Arcade Fire, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, R.E.M., Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, The Grateful Dead and a few others:
It’s been a great season, cd-wise, for people like me, who are getting kinda old for new music but interested in going more deeply into the music we’ve always loved, and particularly enjoy getting some historical context to accompany the moment, both to deepen the enjoyment and expand our knowledge. In the past few weeks, I’ve discussed massive box sets by Pink Floyd, Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys, all of which clock in at least $100, hardly a casual purchase.  But for fans, (rather than fanatics, scholars, etc.) the companies and the artists want your money too and some of them are willing to put some time and effort into this as well.

The most elaborate of the mini-boxes is the two-cd version of “The Smile Sessions,” which comes with a nice, informative booklet, some lovely tchotkes, and the cool poster that’s in the big box set. Also excellent and well worth re-purchase are the “Experience” two cd versions of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side” and “Wish You Were Here,” which I actually like even better. Both cds come with live versions of the entire albums. Floyd also as a single cd best of called “A Foot in the Door,” which is what it says it is… this is not a “best of” kinda band but it does have the remixed versions of these songs, which means you might want to replace “Echoes,” even though there’s a lot missing given its single disc-ness. I’ve not seen the fancy version of U2’s “Achtung Baby” but I guess I agree it’s their best album. It’s pretty decently packaged and there’s a second cd of outtakes and covers, that’s not bad at all.  Ditto the pretty excellent new double cd version of “Nevermind”—a crucial album in anyone’s collection, which has been remixed and given a whole bunch of demo versions and outtakes on an extra cd and a half. The Nirvana box of outtakes was just horrible, and so are some of these particularly the “Boombox” versions, but the b sides and the “smart studio sessions” are a pleasant surprise, especially if you like the quieter side of Nirvana. I also got the new single cd expansion of The Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” which is a genuinely near-great album, and the only band I’ve been able to love since Radiohead. I think it’s got three new songs and a nice new booklet. Finally, also nicely packaged is the two cd “Sinatra: Best of the Best,” which is really a single cd “best of” that includes both the Capitol and Reprise years—an absolutely crazy idea if you ask me—and an out of print Seattle concert, along with a nice booklet and some postcards. There’s a version without the concert too. Again, nice packaging.

R.E.M. broke up and they’ve got a two cd best of, which, truth be told, is a lot like their last two cd best of—I believe thirteen songs are repeated—but if you don’t have that and also didn’t get their last three records then this one will do just fine. And Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band—one of the relatively unsung and underappreciated acts in rock despite having sold a gazillion records—also has a new, double cd collection which draws heavily on the remixed live albums, plus “Night Moves” and “Against the Wind” two of the best records by anyone of that era. Not to be missed unless you’ve got one of the boxes, also, is the two cd collection, The Essential Phil Spector which contains 35 of the sixty songs I was so excited to get years ago on the the Back to Mono box, (made more easy to choose by the absence of the absolutely crucial “Christmas Album.”  There’s a great deal of silliness on these records: that’s the thing with boy geniuses. But I think they are a pretty good bet to put you in a good mood whenever you put them on. None of these collections is anything to blog home about packaging-wise. They are relatively bare-boned attempts to capture the pocketbooks of casual, but not-that-casual fans. People who know what they should like, even if it’s not their particular fare. Since I feel rather more strongly about all of these bands, I’m not the best judge.  (Also in this year’s old-but-new sweepstakes are a new version of “Some Girls,” which, I’m willing to admit, is actually my favorte Stones album ever, I supose for having been 17 when it came out, with a cd of outtakes, a new version of “Quadrophenia,” with some demos, unless you buy the really expensive version, and a deluxe version of “Aqualung”; none of which I’ve heard yet, but all of which smart fans should own in some version, whether or not you choose to invest in the crazy editions.

As for actual new music, I really like the new Joe Henry and the Tom Waits, about which Reed wrote recently. The new Nick Lowe is also a quiet pleasure, as is the new Glen Campbell. On the new/old continuum, though I’m not sure where, I’m perfectly happy with the choice by the “Road Trips” people of the Dead show from the Boston Music Hall in 1976, since that’s about when I started seeing the band and really, so much of rock music is about that feeling. Still, it was also, in retrospect, the band’s best period; post-Pigpen (sorry, pig fans) and pre-Keith and Donna going off the deep end. The available song selection also was quite high with lots of choices from Bob and Jerry’s solo albums, which also peaked around then. It’s the last of the “Road Trips” series, but I don’t exaclty know what that means, since a new series of releases is about to commence. (I saw “Furthur” last week, and they were just fine, but it only made me miss Jerry more.)

I’m sorry there are no links above, but I think all you guys are smart enough to find them yourselves and it’s not like I make any money on the deal….

Also I’ve been doing a weird amount of reading/listening—well actually all listening--to new novels, often by new writers of late, and it’s been time well rewarded. Here are some of the results.

Audio Books I loved:
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Audio Books I liked just fine:
The Leftovers by Tom Perotta

Audio Books I liked, but with problems:
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Rules of Civility by Amor Toles

Audio biographies I liked, but did not love for reasons too various to go into here:
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My Song by Harry Belafonte and Michael Shnayerson
Malcolm X by Manning Marable
Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn with George Vescey (read by Sissy Spacek)

Baseball biographies I enjoyed for their amazing research, but felt overwhelmed by because of sportswriters’ tendencies to have never met a cliché they didn’t use and because too many reporters insist on publishing stuff that should have been kept in their notes:
Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax by Jane Leavy.

I will try to have more to say about some of the above in the relatively near future.

Now here’s Reed:

Our Democracy Could Use a Little Messiness Right About Now
By Reed Richardson
A media tragedy in three acts.

Act 1 - Right wing news outlets and pundits march to a steady drumbeat of unsubstantiated and/or sensationalized anecdotes about rampant sexual attacks, violent crimefilthy conditions and drug abuse within the Occupy protests, to drown out the movement’s increasingly popular message about addressing income inequality.

Act 2 - After awhile, this right-wing media barrage begins to seep into the minds of public officeholders and local business owners, who then cite this very same stream of ‘reports’ as a justification for cracking down on or displacing altogether the Occupy encampments.

Act 3 - And then, despite the instances of police-imposed press blackoutsarrogant, capricious arrests and excessive-use-of-force tactics, the mainstream media swoops in afterwards to happily pick up and air the right wing’s dirty hippie meme, now that it has been freshly laundered through authoritative sources like city hall and local law enforcement.

Just how badly can a supposedly objective news organization fall for this flagrantly anti-Occupy narrative manipulation? Consider this alleged news article from Tuesday’s Washington Post—rife with disingenuous generalizations, false equivalencies, and right-wing framing—as perhaps the drama’s defining soliloquy. Sounding as if were ripped from the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s Post, this two-byline, three-contrbitor ‘news’ story uses as its thesis the intellectually loaded political question: “Is this an occupation or an infestation?”

The article’s first paragraph alone gives the game away, pillorying the Occupy movement with the now acceptable recitation of right-wing talking points. Of course, if accurate, any institution party to this many transgressions would be worthy of intense scrutiny by the press. But the Post’s phony outrage here is all the more evident thanks to some unfortunate juxtaposition to current events. That’s why you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for its upcoming article on the “infestation” of college football, what with its many recent examples of unsanitary public behaviordrug overdoseoccasional deaths, and, of course, rampant sexual abuse.

To further demonstrate the Occupy protests’ widespread lawlessness, which the paper says “reads like crime blotter,” readers are presented with this rather weak list: 

A man shot near the encampment in Oakland. A homeless person dead in Salt Lake City. A suicide in Vermont. Two drug overdoses and a molotov cocktail in downtown Portland, Ore. A sexual assault in Philadelphia. Hypothermia in Denver, police brutality in California and a 53-year-old man unnoticed in his tent in New Orleans, dead for at least two days.

I admit to being no expert in jurisprudence, so maybe someone smarter than me can point out the laws against hypothermia, suicide, and dying of natural causes? And call me a cynic, but I highly doubt that the tragically common deaths of the homeless elsewhere in this country routinely garner the same level of selective indignation in the Post’s daily coverage. I am quite certain, however, that there are laws against police brutality, but adding that particular crime to the Occupy movement’s tally is patently dishonest, since the protestors were its victims rather than its perpetrators. So, by my count, that’s four non-crimes out of ten examples mentioned and one of the legitimate crimes was committed against instead of by the Occupy movement—not exactly a slam dunk case of reasoning here.  

Taking another tack, the article tries to pin the label of hypocrisy on the Occupy movement by intentionally obfuscating their income inequality message:

City officials have said that the demonstrations have cost them millions of dollars—even as the protesters call for fiscal responsibility. Denver estimates its bill at $200,000 per week. Oakland has spent more than $1 million just to pay overtime for police officers. Businesses near Zuccotti Park say protesters have cost them a combined $500,000 in profits.

To read this obtuse and stilted paragraph is to think that the Occupy movement is populated by nothing more than feckless Blue Dog Democrats intent on passing a balanced budget amendment. Using the term “fiscal responsibility” in this context is simply an outright distortion of the protestors’ actual call for economic justice. What’s more, the article’s obsession with the public costs associated with the Occupy movement exemplifies an common media blind spot, one that routinely ignores the much larger fiscal price that our country pays because of its increasing fealty to corporate America.

If just one of the story’s five contributors had thought to consider the Occupy movement’s real point of view, he or she might have found that Coloradans, for example, get very little in return for that state’s corporate tax giveaways, which annually total $75 million—an amount that could fully cover 375 weeks of Denver protests. And if the present mayor of New York City is really so incensed about a few million dollars being spent on the Occupy protests in Zuccotti Park, maybe someone at the Post should have asked him why he didn’t spent more time trying to collect the $627 million in back taxes Lehman Brothers has owed the city since 1996. Then again, characterizing as criminal former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld’s reckless financial strategies, which helped ignite the largest economic crash in four generations, just wouldn’t be professional journalism, especially since he never slept out on the street in a grimy sleeping bag.

As childish as it may sound, there’s a lot to this line of reasoning in our establishment press. The Occupy protests really bring out the ick factor in the media and this Post story is no exception. The protestors aren’t showering!, They’re making a lot of noise!, They’re sleeping outdoors!: It’s all too much for our tender country to bear, the Post implies, right before it goes and commits a gross rhetorical miscarriage of historical ignorance so great that it boggles the mind:

Democracy has rarely looked so messy.

Please. Eighty years ago, this same tired excuse was being trotted out to marginalize similar groups of Americans who weren’t willing to simply disappear into the background of a society still suffering from a previous bout of financial speculation run amok. And compared to the decades-long upheaval of civil protest and counter-violence our nation endured before it came to its senses on civil rights, the Occupy movement, whatever its faults, barely registers. (And not for nothing, but where, pray tell, was this delicate sensibility on the part of the Post a few years ago, when Donald Rumsfeld was famously dismissing the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians and coalition forces with his glib “democracy is messy” explanation?)

Whether its willing to evolve and affect real change in our economic policy will determine whether the Occupy movement is but a few harmless specks of dust easily whisked away by the status quo and a complicit media or a real honest-to-goodness mess that can’t be ignored. But hey, nobody ever said real progress was easy. It’s hard work. And we, as a nation, shouldn’t be afraid of getting ourselves a little bit dirty in the process.

The mail:
Brian Donohue

Outstanding column on Jobs (I was writing years ago about the Chinese e-sweatshops and the problems with the Nike connection, and like others doing the same, was generally ignored).

One coincidence that I think exposed so much about the idol-worship compulsion of our media was the death of Dennis Ritchie, about a week after Jobs. Dennis Who? Well, without Dennis Ritchie, there would be no iPod, iPad, OS X, or in fact, no Emperor Steve. Ritchie was the co-inventor of UNIX and the C programming language; the technical cornerstones of virtually everything of popular value that has been built in the modern techno-universe. Ritchie's vast influence on the modern world was appropriately noted in places like slashdot and C-Net; yet in the popular (non-geek) media, it was met with little more than a respectful yawn while the Adoration of the Cupertino Magus went on for weeks.

Make no mistake: Jobs deserves his place in our cultural and technological history, but only as a single player on a vast, diverse, and layered stage. The reality, well known to those who actually work in IT, is that tech is no more a kingdom than is (was?) Zuccotti Park.

Roy Hanley
Santa Margarita CA

Read the article on Jobs, very instructive and thank you for it. I am a big fan of Apple products, and I will likely continue to use them, but I do believe in reality therapy and need it regularly.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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Open All Night

My new Think Again column is called “It’s All Connected (and That’s the Problem)” and it’s here. It’s about a lot of things including Jon Corzine, Grover Norquist and Jennifer Rubin.

My Nation column is apparently called “The Agony and Ecstasy—and 'Disgrace'—of Steve Jobs” and it’s here.  

Petey and I were lucky enough to go see Bruce with Max’s band, and Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais and this other pretty funny guy, at the Stand Up for Heroes benefit at Beacon the other night thanks to the New York Comedy Festival and its Salute to benefit the Bob Woodruff Foundation for traumatic brain injuries, which was founded to benefit wounded soldiers after Woodruff’s injury.

Caroline Hirsch told me that the foundation had already raised $12 million for wounded soldiers since its founding in 2004 (whether physically, emotionally or mentally) and they certainly added a bunch to that Wednesday night. (Bruce’s guitar went for $160,000.)

Backed by Max Weinberg's Big Band, Bruce again opened his set with a rearranged, big-bandish version of "Open All Night" which went on forever. Next came a lovely surprise, of “Spirit in the Night," also-big bandish, but with Bruce sashaying down into the seats to hang with some of the ladies, who all were fainting as if this were Phoenix, 1978. Next came a long, moving, solo version of "Land of Hope and Dreams" dedicated to "all the men and woman, guys and gals in uniform.... Your service and your sacrifices humble us tonight." They closed with a real short "Long Tall Sally" that looked like it was a surprise to the band. Bruce was in great shape, but he is really bad at telling jokes. Jon Stewart was quite good, though it was less funny when I saw the same lines on the show the next morning. Jim Gaffigan (the other guy) was pretty good. Bill Clinton was there, and he wasn’t so funny, but he was much funnier than the video of George Bush. Absolutely awful, I gotta say, was Ricky Gervais, who not only did warmed over material from his HBO special, but it was the part where, for about twenty minutes, he makes fun of fat people. What a jerk. He seems to know for sure that obesity has no basis in genetics, which is of course false.  The dude went on and on insisting that fat people should just stop eating and stop whining. I was embarrassed to be part of the audience, so cruel and unfunny it was to people who struggle with obesity for reasons about which Gervais has no clue or couldn’t care less. The rest of his routine was about gay sex. It really ruined me for Ricky Gervais.  Brian Williams and Seth whatshisname came on at the end too and were not terribly offensive. Here is the lineup for the Comedy Festival and here is more information about the foundation with some Bruce video built in.

It was a big week all around for music. I got to see Crosby Stills & Nash again at the Beacon on Monday night. As my friend Danny observed, they are way better at 70 then they were at 40. The show was the same, almost uniformly excellent show they did in late August at the same venue—with beautiful covers of “Girl from the North Country” and “Ruby Tuesday” but with the substitution of “Chicago” for “Long May You Run.” It was dedicated to OWS, of course, and Crosby and Nash moseyed on down there the next day. (I was teaching or I would have gone with them. They are fun guys.) LMYR is one of my favorite songs, so well, anyway, go see them if you can.

I saw Furthur last night at the Garden. Pretty nice set but I got there after “Scarlet Begonias” so I was kinda sad and I had to get up early and so I don’t even know if they did the Help/Slip/Frank part of the show I love so much, and I was way up high so I don’t even know who the blonde woman was that sang a little bit in the beginning.  Last time it was Diana Krall, but that was at Radio City and Elvis was there, so I doubt it this time. Also, Tuesday, I got to see Martha Wainwright do some wonderful Edith Piaf songs at a party thrown for her by Vanity Fair, and that’s a cd I’ll have to search out.

Now here’s Reed:

Earned Media
By Reed Richardson
First off, something new: a handy chart from the Pew Research Center detailing your not-so liberal media in action over the past six months.

Now if I were intellectually dishonest, I’d use this chart as Exhibit A in my argument that the press has an obvious bias toward most Republican presidential candidates and sure has it out for this Obama guy (more negative stories than even Newt Gingrich?—Ouch!), but that would be a rather superficial reading of the data. The president’s overwhelmingly critical media coverage is unquestionably related to the dire circumstances currently plaguing the nation’s economy, which his administration, it is now clear, didn’t do go far enough in addressing two-and-a-half years ago. (There’s also his troubling penchant for politically needless self-inflicted wounds). Of course, I’d argue that a not insignificant amount of this upside-down press coverage is due to a typical Beltway bias that shies away from calling out the opposition party’s intransigent governing style and downright economic sabotage, but in many respects, Obama’s unflattering portrayals in the press are of his own making.

Which brings me to Herman Cain, who one would think would have little to complain about based on the above chart, which, it should be noted, includes more than a week’s worth of news coverage after Politico first broke its story about his alleged sexual harassment. In fact, until recently, Cain was riding high atop a surge of positive news coverage that coincided with his unexpected run up the polls. But once his facile explanations and baseless conspiracy theories regarding the sexual harassment claims unraveled in the face of actual facts, the tenor of his news coverage changed dramatically.

And just like another prominent Republican who can’t abide being held accountable for her past words or deeds without lurching into persecution complex mode, Cain chose to respond to these serious allegations by first dismissing their very existence and then blaming the messenger. Like Palin, he suddenly fashioned himself a media ethics expert, decrying the press’s salacious appetite for scandal and willingness to cite anonymous sources in their reporting. (Sources, others have rightly pointed out, that were not anonymous to him, just to the public. And, really, whatsoever should these accusers have to fear by coming forward?) And when he wasn’t constantly walking back his latest excuse or hinting at dark, Democratic conspiracies, he was busy caviling about how the media should instead focus on the important problems confronting this country and his fantastic solutions to ending them.

What Cain conveniently overlooks, of course, is that all his heretofore good press was in spite of, not because of policy prescriptions like his regressive and unworkable 9-9-9 tax plan, which he was forced to clumsily modify in the face of constant criticism and thorough debunking of its claims. His unexpected rise to campaign trail prominence was in many ways a kind of media bubble, one in a series of such bubbles to have occurred in the Republican presidential campaign this year, where a brief bump in the polls ignites a flurry of positive coverage, which, in turn, leads to more favorable public opinion, which begets more media buzz, etc.

But the reality is that up until two weeks ago, news coverage of Cain, when it wasn’t obsessing over his improbably improved status in the horserace, was mostly dwelling on his biography and personal character. So it’s no surprise really that when a steady drip of news reports (and his bungling, dishonest response to them) undermined his campaign’s primary attribute, the positive press coverage collapsed as well.

Looking back, one will probably be able to argue that Cain never was a serious candidate for the Republican nomination, that his campaign was nothing more than a glorified book tour that just so happened to be the last (or next to last) gasp of the anti-Romney crowd. And his aggrieved tone, snide insults, and pedantic, one-tax-plan-fits-all answers at Wednesday’s debate in Michigan simply underscore this fact. (In re Cain’s “Princess Nancy” comment, someone will have to remind me of how many times any Democratic presidential candidate referred to “King George” on the 2004 campaign trail?)

But the real danger is that Cain’s eventual downfall somehow gets pinned on the media and not on his own self-destructive ego and ridiculously ephemeral ideas. I’m no fan of how the Washington press corps and Politico, in particular, operates, but in this case they shouldn’t bear any of the burden for how his sordid saga unfolds. In other words, Cain might not like the suddenly skeptical media environment he’s found himself in, but he sure has earned it. 

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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Smiling Through the Apocalypse

My new Think Again column is called “Dowd, Not Coulter, "Falters" and it’s here.

My Forward column of last week was called “Pernicious Attempt To Brand Protest as Anti-Semitic,” and it’s here.

Three short noticings:
1) The New York Times editorial board attacks Democrats for doing what Tom Friedman insists they must or else he’s going to join some imaginary third party, here.
2) More reasons T-Mobile is the worst customer service company in history, here.
3) More reasons this Tim Groseclose fellow is apparently among the biggest crybabies academia has ever produced, and among the least accurate, at least as when it pertains the problems with his work discussed in this excellent post.

The Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions Box Set
Once again, the folks responsible have gone a little crazy, in a good way, with a box set that does justice to an important, albeit incredibly frustrating moment in rock history. With the full participation of original Beach Boys Al Jardine, Mike Love and Brian Wilson—who are said to be planning a reunion tour around it--Capitol/EMI has, for the first time, collected and compiled all of the 1966/67 Smile sessions. The first cd is what everybody apparently decided is what the album actually is (following on the Brian Wilson version of a few years ago). That’s actually pretty great and everybody should have it. The rest of the cds are outtakes and rehearsals, and more versions of “Heroes and Villians” than anybody could listen to in a lifetime. And the extras never stop coming. They include:
-6 panel folder holding 5 CDs and singles.
-60 page case bound book features liner notes by Brian, Mike and a ton of other people
-Features photos of original session tape boxes.
- 7" vinyl singles
- "Heroes and Villains" in sleeve art
- "Vega-Tables" in sleeve art
- Gatefold 2 LPs
- Features full tracklisting of proposed unfinished album +
- Stereo mixes and session highlights (not available on CDs)
- 12" x 12" booklet created for original release features:
- Photos by Guy Webster
- Drawings by Frank Holmes
- 24" x 36" poster of Frank Holmes cover art

The box itself is something else, c
reated with and inspired by Beat-Pop artist Frank Holmes' original 1967 LP sleeve art and booklet designs intended for the SMiLE album.

Really it’s just kind of wonderfully crazy, as Brian apparently was at the time of its creation. It’s just kind of a great toy and if you’ve got the time and money, you play with it till your daddy takes your T-Bird away….But for historians of the period, especially amateur ones, it’s another (expensive) must. Here
are some places you can buy it.

Greg Trooper: Make It Through, by Ryan Scott.
Greg Trooper sings about people for whom love is an illusion but an essential one.  Beaten down by life, they have dreams that are pretty small and maybe because they’re so small, maybe, just maybe, not totally unrealistic.  Yet the magic in his songs is that even when his songs are about people who are sad and lonely, they convincingly hope for something like happiness, even when they’re self-aware enough to know it’s an illusion, and that hope is redemptive and infectious.

This is true on his latest album, Upside-Down Town.  My favorite song on the album is about a man waiting for his second wind, who holds out hope it’ll show up eventually, and is still somewhat mystified by the loss of his first one.  The man at the center of “Everything Will Be Just Fine” has dreams that are so small, it makes them seem that much farther away. All of Trooper’s skills are on display:  the great storytelling, the lovely melodies, an enviable supply of wit and charm but most of all his compassion for the vulnerable and heartbroken.

I rank Trooper’s album Make It Through This Work his best, and I’d put it up there with Loudon Wainwright’s Last Man On Earth.  Upside-Down Town falls a little short, I think, because there’s nothing that reaches the sublime brilliance of “I Love It When She Lies” or “No Higher Ground.” But this album is still full of great, great stuff.

Now here’s Reed. The fellow has a real point today.

Journalism’s Ethical Double Standard: Investing over Protesting
By Reed Richardson
This past week, after yet another NPR freelancer lost her job for publicly participating in the Occupy movement, I was heartened to see someone else in the media rise to her defense. Conor Friedersdorf’s fine essay over at The Atlantic, I’m happy to say, not only highlights the ridiculous and contradictory elements of NPR’s behavior, of which there are many parts, it also pokes numerous logical holes in the broader newsroom ethics policies that inform this kind of misguided, hidebound thinking. (Although, I’d like to point out, that I’ve been making many of the same arguments for years, whether it was in this 2009 Nieman Reports essay or many times on this blog, here and here, to cite but a couple of examples.)

Indeed, I was all ready to simply post the above paragraph and call it a week, so to speak, having trod this ground so many times before. But then I spent a few minutes re-acquainting myself with NPR’s Ethics Code and realized that no one, including Friedersdorf, has explored the singular, uneven nature of newsroom disdain for political advocacy. See if you can figure out what kind of mixed signals NPR is sending to its reporters, producers, and editors from the following two ethics policy excerpts.

From section VIII, paragraphs 1 & 2:

1. NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist's impartiality.

2. NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.”

From section IV, paragraph 3:

3. […] NPR journalists must, at the time they are first assigned to cover or work on a matter, disclose to their immediate supervisor any business, commercial, financial or personal interests where such interests might reasonably be construed as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict with their duties. This would include situations in which a spouse, family member or companion is an active participant in a subject area that the NPR journalists covers. In the financial category, this does not include an investment by an NPR journalist or their spouse, family member or companion in mutual funds or pension funds that are invested by fund managers in a broad range of companies.(italics mine)

If I were an NPR journalist, damned if I wouldn’t read all that ethical boilerplate to say that, when it comes to my private life:

Investing in, say, Goldman Sachs mutual funds = not a conflict of interest

Protesting Goldman Sachs’ corporate malfeasance = conflict of interest

In fact, as NPR’s most recent, draconian personnel move demonstrates, the latter has now been established as unforgiveable offense, whereas the former is, I guess, a harmless consumer choice? That any profits a Wall Street bank or investment house gleans off of the mutual funds/pensions it administers for an NPR employee might end up being fed back into the political process—through, I don’t know, the voracious lobbying of lawmakers in Washington—doesn’t really compute, it seems.

Still, simply piling on NPR is unfair, despite its rather unfortunate habit of summarily cutting loose any of its employees at even the slightest hint of political controversy. That’s because it certainly isn’t alone in having an obvious double standard when it comes to the policing of its editorial staff’s personal ethical behavior. The New York Times’ Ethical Journalism handbook, for example, takes pretty much the same unbalanced approach to restricting political versus financial behavior for its editorial staff.

To wit, the section of the Times ethics code on “Participation in Public Life” ominously warns that though they are entitled to vote, “journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics” (¶. 62). It goes on to specifically ban pretty much everything else except exercising one’s franchise (¶ 63-65) and then subtly encouragesTimes employees to roll up their spouses under the paper’s strict political behavioral umbrella for good measure (¶. 67). But compare that uncompromising position to the tone of the Times policy regarding private financial activity (¶ 113):

Though staff members must necessarily accept certain limits on their freedom to invest, this policy leaves a broad range of investments open to them. Any staff member, regardless of assignment, is free to own diversified mutual funds, money market funds and other diversified investments that the reporter or editor cannot control. Any member also may own treasury bills, investment-grade municipal bonds, debt securities other than speculative bonds, and securities issued by the New York Times Company. And staff members are of course free to own stocks entirely unrelated to their Times assignment. (Italics mine.)

On the one hand, the Times has basically issued a blanket ultimatum to its entire staff—not just the journalists—that they cannot be trusted to separate their personal partisan activity from their work for the Times. Full stop. End of story. But on the other, the paper’s policy generously adopts (I love that precious use of "of course") a strategy of accommodation, one offering “a broad range” of choices. It’s an upside-down ordering of principles that places more value on participating in our economy than in our democracy.

Indeed, if I didn’t know a lick about the American constitution, reading the ethics policies of major news organizations like NPR and the Times would lead me to believe that things like freedom of expression and the right to peaceably assemble were some kind of recent phenomenon cooked up by a craven political industry, while shareholder participation and the inalienable right to invest in impenetrable and under-regulated financial instruments were fundamental tenets codified into our country’s founding documents.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that one’s personal investment portfolio should automatically limit or disqualify someone from working as a journalist. On the contrary, I think places like NPR and the Times pretty much get it right when it comes to policing the investment behavior of their employees. (Of course, in narrow instances and specific beats, divestment from certain markets and/or products is necessary to avoid reportorial conflicts of interest.) I just wish these news organizations took the same uniform approach to both and erred on the side of inclusion when it came to setting reasonable ethics policies on partisan political activity.

So, what’s really behind this uneven, mismatched ethical framework? In a word, transparency. Or, to be more accurate, a lack of transparency. Since so much of political behavior is, by its nature, public, the conventional wisdom goes that any participation—on or off-duty—by a journalist or editor gives readers, listeners, or viewers a readily available partisan label to hang upon that individual’s byline. Mainstream media organizations, fearful of being likewise tarred, have therefore chosen to retreat into a tightly constructed shell in order to pre-emptively stave off any claims of bias. The one notable exception to this retrenchment is voting, which happens to be the one political act routinely conducted in secret, and perhaps not coincidentally, the one political act still universally allowed by news organizations (although even that act has been pompously disavowed by some well-known figures in the news profession).

By contrast, personal investing is a relatively private endeavor with far fewer built-in requirements for individual public disclosure. As a result, news organizations can take a more lenient approach to their editorial staff’s private behavior simply because they know fewer conflicts of interest will arise in the eyes of the public. But financial conflicts of interest among journalists aren’t inherently any less problematic than political ones (in fact, I’d argue the former are probably more of a legitimate threat to fair coverage), yet they’re treated quite differently in newsrooms simply because of a quirk of how our society chooses to regulate and disclose the two. This selective ethical approach, then, severely undermines the idea that these policies are about taking principled stands to prevent and root out actual bias in news reportage; instead they reveal that there’s a strong, self-serving element of expedience to them, where newsrooms are more concerned with covering their ass from perceptions of bias.

Ironcially, this ethical double standard could actually be inadvertently injecting bias into news coverage. Consider the initially uninterested and often dismissive mainstream news coverage of the Occupy movement. It's fair to assume that many, if not all, of the reporters and producers that major news organizations have sent down to Zuccotti Park would never consider publicly joining such a political protest out of fear of being accused of professional malpractice. Yet at the same time, how many of those same media professionals likely have financial relationships with the banks and/or investment houses being targeted? Is it just me that sees a risk in the overwhelming imbalance existing here?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I personally don’t think that any of the individual Times reporters or NPR producers who have gone down to Zuccotti Park ever intentionally slanted their reporting against the protestors out of some personal financial motivation or fear of eroding their own retirement savings. (As to the cable TV networks, however, all bets are off.) But at the same time, is it realistic to expect even the most professional of newsrooms to implicitly condone one type of behavior—while condemning another—amongst their editorial staff and then expect those same employees to never unconsciously reprise those same societal frames in their reporting? Isn’t it quite likely that the “look-at-the-incoherent-dirty-hippies,” establishment bias coloring much of the early reporting on the Occupy movement sprung from exactly that kind of insidious groupthink? Mainstream journalism may claim to be objective, in other words, but, in reality, achieving fair coverage of issues like income disparity and economic justice will remain difficult as long as the press perpetuates a skewed ethical infrastructure that values investing over protesting.

The mail: 
Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada

Dr. A., you hit a couple of my weak spots today.  Here goes.

First, the NPR story, as you described it, was even worse than I had read.  But when I linked to the original report on Facebook, I ALMOST quoted Abe Rosenthal's classic comment on political involvement by Times staffers:  it's fine to fuck the elephant as long as you don't cover the circus.  That's a good rule, actually, and NPR should be ashamed.  What NPR unfortunately doesn't understand is that it could replace Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne with Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and the far right would still claim the network is left-wing.  Which it isn't.

Second, I sent a letter to The New Yorker about Auletta's profile of Abramson.  I caught an error in Times history in it (we'll see if The New Yorker corrects it), but I made the point that he lumps Abramson's co-authored book on Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill with the issue of liberal bias.  I am surprised that The New Yorker, by publishing the line, took the position that truth has a liberal bias.

Finally, Hank Williams (the truly great Hank Williams, not to be confused with his talented grandson or his not-very-talented, hateful son, who apparently forgot that his daddy learned a lot of his singing from Rufus Payne, since Jr. doesn't think much of that guy in the White Man's House).  Minnie Pearl was close to Hank, and told the story that one night, he sang her a song he had written:  "Heart of a Devil, Face of a Saint."  She said it was typical Hank:  brilliant, powerful, moving.  He died shortly thereafter.  She checked around.  No sign of it ever found.  Here's hoping there are more lost notebooks.

Kenn Space

Corporate Occupation of the United States
We are at war. Our corporate controlled government (through corporate lobbying  and election funding ) is out of the peoples control. People want government control back. Makes sense to me... I feel US corporate capitalism (corporatism) is based on an economic fascism: To have a corporate being where the chain of command eventually muddles all responsibility to any human being. These corporate beings are running your life and controlling your government. (Enough to really make an individual mad and protest.) The corporate being does not exist, and when it comes to face it's corporate responsibility, it is a piece of paper. That is plain and simply wrong. Restore capitalism to individual responsible chains of command, or this war will be lost.

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Ball of Confusion

My new Think Again column is called “Why Are ‘Liberals’ Such Meanies?” and it is here.
My new Nation column is called “MSM to Liberals: ‘Eww” and it’s here.

Whole Lotta Motown Goin On…
It’s Motown’s 50th anniversary and I’ll bet nobody at Berry Gordy’s shop in 1961 ever imagined that we’d be observing it like this. I really like the packaging on the 50th Anniversary: Singles Collection 1961-1971 for both the Temptations and the Supremes. Each are three cd sets in book form featuring every single each group produced, both A and B side and a bunch more. (The Complete Motown Singles series used the same format.) Each has this box set is accompanied by a booklet filled with detailed information about each single, reproductions of their picture sleeves from around the world, and rare photos. I prefer the Tempts’ grittiness to the Supremes’ prettiness (and Levi Stubs and the fabulous Four Tops to both) but these are really handsome, information-filled packages—I really love this new trend where music consumers are being treated as amateur historians, it makes for so much richer an experience-and there’s plenty of stuff in both sets that very few people will already have. More here and here

In addition, there are some wonderful performances, but not much in the way of information on the two DVD collections, Best of the Temptations on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Best of the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show and both are pretty cheap, but if you’re the kind of person who wants either one of those, then you’d have to be really crazy not to want the double CD, and also pretty reasonable, Motown Gold From the Ed Sullivan Show. It includes performances by the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Martha & The Vandellas and Gladys Knight & The Pips, and is the best visual collection of vintage Motown you’re likely to find anywhere and a delight from start to finish. 

If you want to spend more time with music on your TV (etc.) there a new bluray of Cream’s 2005 reunion show at Royal Albert Hall and it’s beautifully shot and the sound is incredible. The music is only so-so as Cream is one of the most overrated bands in history; Clapton’s solo career has many much higher points, but the versions of “Badge” “White Room” and “Sunshine” are pretty nice and some of the other songs amost make up for Ginger Baker’s hysterical drumming. (They leave off “Tales of Brave Ulysses” for no good reason.)  I’ve also been watching new Bluray shows from Bad Company, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Peter Gabriel. They all sound terrific and all are, of course, a matter of taste. Gabriel: “New Blood - Live in London” and it will please his fans without a doubt. Bad Company live at Wembley Arena in April 2010, has the three surviving original members Paul Rodgers, Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke with Howard Leese on guitars and Lynn Sorensen on bass, and a guest appearance by Jimmy Page. In the case of both this and the Emerson Lake & Palmer - 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert, it depends on how you feel about seeing these guys about thirty years older (and pauchier) than you remember them. For me, I prefer just the music and the memories of my unhappy youth, The value of these, however, is that the music sounds better than ever, because nothing recreates as well as bluray. Your call on all concerned.

Back to history, I watched the documentary The Hollies: Look Through Any Window 1963-1975 DVD. It’s pretty great, especially for the peformances. Twenty-two of them are available for the first time. It's also narrated mostly by Hollies Graham Nash and Allan Clarke but also with  lots of other folks too. Again, I’m loving this new commitment to the historical record, combined with the great music. More here

Speaking of history, Paul Simon’s turning 70 and he’s got a handsome new collection called “Songwriter.” It’s kind of problem because there’s too many great songs by Paul Simon (post S&G) to fit on just two discs. And I’m kinda angry that he left off “Slip Slidin’ Away “ which is not on any of the other albums, which, by the way are also being remixed and released. The is the second batch which begins with the still terrific “Still Crazy” and continuing on some highs and lows—“The Capeman,” I continue to insist, is an incredibly underrated piece of work—and there’s plenty of good stuff in the rest if less consistent albums. Songwriter is here. You’ll have to search for the rest.

I am also listenging to:
* Johnny Cash: Bootleg Volume 3: Live Around the World, which is another collection of rare and unreleased shows from his days on the road at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas Texas in the 1950's through the 1970's.

* Glen Campbell Ghost On The Canvas which is just a terrific album, and will be Glen’s last as he is suffering from Alzheimer’s. They are beautiful, moving songs with guest appearances by Jakob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, Chris Isaak, and the great Dick Dale,

* The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. This album is a lot like those Wilco/Billy Bragg records of Woody Guthrie’s old lyrics. Bob Dylan organized this collection, taking the notebooks that Hank left in the back of his Caddy on New Year's Day 1953, and parceled them out to Jack White, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Levon Helm, Merle Haggard, etc. I think that ought to be enough information for anyone.

* Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie This is a more complicated affair. These are mostly not quite songs, but speechs, musings and diary entries set to much by Rob Wasserman's in collaboration with Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Kurt Elling, Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Tom Morello, Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, Studs Terkel, Tony Trischka, and Chris Whitley. The Jackson Browne song is about seventeen minutes long and really terrific. The rest are mostly interesting and sometimes quite worthwhile, sometimes, something one wants to hear once in a great while.

Finally, and perhaps most elaborate, is Sting’s new box set 25 Years [3CD + DVD] It includes songs from his solo era from each and every album since 1985's The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, to his 2010 album Symphonicities, though it’s less a greatest hits collection, of which there have been plenty, than personal statement by El Stingo of what he likes the best. It’s all been nicely remixed and comes with a previously unreleased live concert DVD and a pretty fancy and quite comprehensive hardcover book, though as classy it looks and feels, it doesn’t come cheap. More here

Now here’s Reed:

The Same Kind of Bad as Me
By Reed Richardson 
For most of his long and illustrious career, Tom Waits has never been one to get embroiled in ephemeral trappings of popular culture or, for that matter, the counterculture. After all, in 1975, the same year that disco began its unfortunate run up the pop charts and the Eagles blanketed the radio warning us about California’s self-indulgent “life in the fast lane” with its “pink champagne on ice,” Waits was off chronicling a whole different scene—seedy bus stops and downtown strip joints, where a character like “the last of the big-time losers” either ends up “rained on with his own .38” or stuck with a “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” His songs inhabited the cracks in the country’s zeitgeist, where the opposing cultural forces had either cancelled each other out, or more likely, never even gained a foothold in the first place.

Even after Waits’ performance shtick transformed from boozy troubadour to avant-garde artist in the early 1980s (thanks to his marriage to Kathleen Brennan, who has been his musical co-collaborator ever since), his lyrical focus on small towns, hard luck, lost love, ironic humor, and genuinely weird people remained pretty much unchanged. And within this broad and often bizarre pastiche of Waits,’ any hint of politics was reliably missing.

This may be somewhat surprising since Waits, in recent interviews, has cited two particular live shows he saw as a young teenager as seminal moments in his understanding of musical performance—the first was of James Brown and the second, Bob Dylan. Indeed, listening to his nearly four-decade back catalog will yield few obviously shared sequences in those three performers’ musical DNA. But on Waits’ new album, Bad as Me, ($10.99, or $12.99 with bonus tracks, Anti-) these two foundational influences—hard-working entertainer; masterful storyteller and allegorist—come to the fore as never before to create his best album in more than 10 years and one of the best studio albums of his storied career.

Of course, as any dedicated Waits fan can tell you, achieving the former isn’t saying much. For a guy who consistently churned out an album a year in his first decade recording and, then, during his second averaged one every two years, Waits now releases new studio albums on a laconic schedule approaching the gestation cycle of cicadas. In between this latest recording and his 1992 Grammy-winning album Bone Machine, Waits only released two, all-new records: Mule Variations (1999) and  Real Gone (2004). Perhaps most maddening to a Waits fan like me is that these recordings are invariably much better, at least to my ears, than his other side projects, compilations, and live album releases, of which he has had seven during the same period.

I make a point of breaking off and examining the past two decades, what I characterize as Waits’ “late period,” for two reasons. First off, the release of “Bone Machine” is his first real embrace of found or non-instrumentalized sounds—whether its buzzing saws, whirring appliances, or, as on “Bad as Me,” firing machine guns—a musical tool he continues to employ (to mixed success, I feel). Second, that album also marked the first, ever-so-subtle turn toward a larger political awareness in his music, as was seen in the environmental allegory, “The Earth Died Screaming.”

Since then, sightings of Waits the polemicist have been few and far between, but they are unmistakable nonetheless—while Mule Variations lacked anything resembling a political tone, Real Gone served up perhaps the best anti-war song of the Iraq/Afghanistan era, the intensely personal soldier’s tale Day After Tomorrow. (When I saw Waits perform this song at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in the spring of 2006, as dozens of U.S. casualties were coming home in flag-draped coffins every month, his simple lines at the end of the second verse: “They fill us full of lies / Everyone buys / About what it means to be a soldier” elicited the most powerful emotional response I’ve felt in a concert audience in years.) Then, on the Orphans album, Waits dropped all pretense and launched a direct, attack on the madness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fecklessness of our then president with “Road to Peace,” a song as trenchant in its political analysis as it is laden with hooky, bent electric guitar riffs:

Once Kissinger said / We have no friends / America only has interests / And now our president wants to be seen as a hero /
And he's hungry for re-election / Bush is reluctant to risk his future /
With the fear of his political failures / So he plays chess at his desk
And poses for the press / Ten thousand miles / From the road to peace.

On Bad as Me, you won’t find such a specifically targeted political broadside, although “Hell Broke Luce,” a heavily produced, clanging, Weill-inspired tune comes close. Sung from the perspective of a frustrated, wounded Iraq War vet—“How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess / Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk”—the song delves into the damage that remains after our soldiers finally return from war. Still, the vulgar, military voice Waits adopts sounds a bit too pedantic to me. It’s an unnecessary contrivance and its impact pales in comparison the quiet, straightforward strength of “Day After Tomorrow.” But the song’s stark conclusion does tie in with the leitmotiv of much of the rest of the album and is perhaps its saving grace: “Now I’m home and I’m blind / And I’m broke / What is next.”

Waits’ question here is no mere rhetorical flourish—it brings up a very real problem. As does the album’s other notably political song, the loping, syncopated shuffle of “Talking at the Same Time.” Backed by nine pieces, Waits condenses all that instrumentation into a subdued, stripped-down arrangement that’s equal parts social commentary and gallows humor. Waits’ tipsy, high-register vocals, the sad horns honking opposite the downbeat, and the piano tinkling out “I told you so’s” all conspire to deliver the bad news. “Well it’s hard times for some / For others it’s sweet / Someone makes money when there’s blood in the street…We bailed out all the millionaires / They’ve got the fruit / We’ve got the rind / And everybody’s talking at the same time.”

Waits wrote these lines long before this or this happened of course, but sometimes coincidence makes for the most powerful symbols. And with GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain berating the Occupy protestors as shiftless losers while dismissing any criticism of his ridiculous, screw the poor, 9-9-9 tax plan (or whatever it’s being called this week) as being about apples rather than oranges, Waits’ fruit-rind metaphor becomes scarily accurate.

With these two songs as thematic tentpoles, the rest of the album gathers underneath, once again fleshing out the lives of Americans who are struggling to get by or living in society’s interstices. Some by their own choice, sure, but many of them not. Still, Waits is careful to keep a light hand on the throttle here, content to let the listener spend most of their time enjoying some of the best writing and studio accompaniment of this career. (One caveat, however, the three bonus tracks were, in my mind, not worth the extra two bucks, with only the second song, the kind of Springsteen-like “Tell Me,” being worthy of multiple listens.)

The album’s opening song, “Chicago,” ignites from the very first note with a pulsing, pushing tempo—a hustling sax line and insistent banjo driving the melody over a rattling, El-train track of a percussion beat laid down by Waits’ son, Casey. Those who loved 2004’s Real Gone album will find much to like on “Raised Right Men.” The song’s discordant organ blasts, hopped-up bass line (played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea), and raw, accusatory vocals are all of a piece with the earlier album’s notable songs Hoist That Rag and Make It Rain.” “Get Lost,” a tight, Rockabilly tune is a bold declaration of coming-of-age independence, an expression of a uniquely American longing that might best described as “get me the hell out of here.” It’s a theme that has appeared numerous times in Waits’ repertoire and “Get Lost” serves as a kind of blunt, high-energy yang to the writerly, subdued yin of his 1977 running-away-from-home song Burma-Shave.”

Any Waits album worth its salt includes a couple of ballads and Bad as Me serves up some fine examples. “Back in the Crowd,” a pretty cowboy ballad with Waits’ voice in far more velvety than volcanic form, could easily have been cribbed from a Howard Hawks western 50 years ago. And as far as musical denouements go, the delicate and melancholy key change in the song’s final few bars is another jewel unto itself. “Kiss Me,” a half-spoken, half-sung elegy for a love that’s slowly dying, harkens back to early period Waits, its title refrain echoing the frequent pleas of “Send me” on 1978’s “Blue Valentine.” And as Bad as Me’s last song, Waits gives us “New Year’s Eve,” another example of his penchant for choosing one of the best from a batch of recordings—“Day After Tomorrow,” “Come on Up to the House,” “That Feel”—to finish off an album. A gentle march with accordions and guitars leading the way, the song offers snapshots of a close-knit New Year’s Eve celebration, but it really encapsulates what Waits does best with his music and lyrics—create characters that resonate with real humor and with real pathos:

It felt like four in the morning / What sounded like fireworks
Turned out to be just what it was
The stars looked like diamonds / Then came the sirens /
And everyone started to cuss.
All the noise was disturbing / And I couldn’t find Irving
It was like two stations on at the same time
And then I hid your car keys / And I made black coffee
And I dumped out the rest of the rum.

There’s a wary, on-the-fringe subtext working here; it’s a portrait of a family that knows it must look out for another, maybe because it hasn’t always do so in the past. But it also speaks to a feeling of isolation, as if they’re adrift alone, just one wrong turn away from losing it all—the car, the house, everything. And, of course, for many Americans nowadays, that’s exactly how life is.

That kind of living in fear isn’t much of a life, though. And on Bad as Me’s self-titled song, a rowdy, caterwauling anthem with a honking and growling baritone sax, Waits suggests the patience of some is growing thin. Part accusation, part commiseration, “Bad as Me” could easily be interpreted as an angry rebuttal to all those 1-percenters who look down upon the remaining 99 percent as lazy, no-good suckers because we never figured out how to game the system in our favor: “No good you say? / Well that’s good enough for me…You’re the same / You’re the same / You’re the same kind of bad as me.”  

The mail:
Michael Roberts

Ugh.  Friedman (just read "Mr. Friedman, Meet Mr. Obama").  I remember seeing him for the first time on Charlie Rose talking up the possible upcoming war with Iraq in front of a live audience.  He was such a cheerleader for it, but I had no idea if he knew what he was talking about.  I doubted that everything would be all sunshine and roses (as it were, considering the show) but didn't know if he had some special knowledge.  Since then I think we've become all too familiar with his special knowledge.  Who can forget the Mustache of Understanding and his most crucial period of time - the next six months (renewable, monthly), now known in some circles (Hi Atrios!) as the Friedman Unit. This time around, in the face of completely unreasonable behavior by Republicans, he wishes Obama could morph into the perfect political fairy godmother of his dreams, magic wand and all.  A cartoon about each of his essays could be made showing how stupid it is - a Fractured Fairy Tales for our times.  He is just so inane and tiresome.  He has such a persistent, fictional paradise running around in his head that he wouldn't be out of place in a padded cell, wearing a straightjacket.


Hi, Eric, Making signs.  Going to, yes, Occupy Cheyenne tomorrow.  If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.

Saw you in the movie unreasonable man with Ralph Nader and you really looked like a sniveling baby. You really got duped by obama and Nader looks exactly right. You should try reading Glenn Greenwald or somebody that actually knows what theyre talking about when it comes to the Democratic party, you pedantic lepton.

This line you use as a quote to advertise your books worthiness is great, "Presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants." Presidents can also end wars, which is what Obama promised to do...first thing in office. He didn't. He shifted some troops around and started another war in Libya. I almost respect the hours of gymnastics you must have to go through to produce that intellectually dishonest tripe and to be able to continually support a war criminal and a party of imperialist war mongers. 

Here's your girl Hillary today. After this. No humility. Nazis used to laugh while they starved and begged. That"s your democratic party.

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Relatively Speaking

My new Think Again column is called “The Continuing Curse of ‘On the One-Handism’” and it’s here.

Speaking of mixed feelings, it would be ontogologically impossible for any writing to be good enough to fully balance some of what has recently called attention to itself from the front of the book in The New Republic, but ever so ironically, the back of the book has, of late, come close. First was John Judis's review of Ron Suskind’s book, which is the only piece I've read anywhere that makes sense of both its strengths and weaknesses (though it was badly mistitled), and in doing so, does the same for the Obama presidency. Now comes this brilliant assessment not only of my esteemed colleague Jeff Jarvis by Evgeny Morozov, but also goes on to poke an ozone layer-style hole in the entire enterprise of the "internet intellectual." It also demonstrates the unhappy truth that takedowns are much more fun to both read and write than praise.

Should it make one feel guilty to enjoy so hostile a review? Well, only feel smarmy in these cases if the case itself is smarmy. I don't think either of these are, though Jehovah knows, Leon Weiseltier does publish more than his share of such takedowns. Still, when they're good, they're really good. Proof being in the pudding, etc., I rather agree with the really nice piece that Norman Birnbaum published about Christopher Lasch and I was glad to see it in The Nation, but it was not nearly as much fun to read as the above.

The question, I guess lies in the significance of the subject of the takedown. I read review in a recent NY Review—I think by David Thompson—of a book by Cary Grant's daughter which was a waste of everyone's time. So Cary Grant's daughter wrote an insignificant book about her father in which she ignored most of the questions people want to know about him, but that perhaps his daughter would prefer not to discuss. So what? Why bother with the space unless you're addressing larger issues or making a larger point.

It's true that if he was going to beat up Clay Shirkey et al, he should have done so, rather than just lump them together with Jarvis, but I thought his arguments and criticisms were all reasonable... And I think he's being perfectly reasonable here and doing the world a service.

Plus, the writing is quite good. Truly the best thing, I think, about TNR, besides John Judis and Jon Cohn and now Tim Noah, is the length of space it devotes to its reviews and unless it's one of Leon's hobby horses, their quality. Again, it does not begin to make up for Marty or the edits, but it is a compensation in terms of one's time. They are much livelier than the long reviews that appear anywhere else that I can think of offhand, excluding perhaps Ben Shwarz's section in The Atlantic, and then you have to accept Caitlin...

Jarvis is a nice guy, but I strongly disagree that "nice guy" counts for something in this realm. I think, for instance, it's a real weakness on my part that I can't be as tough on people I like than as on people with whom I have no relationship. It's one reason I like to read people rather than interview them. I worry that I will empathize with them and then can't be fair to my own vision of the truth or falsity of what they say. I think we need to do our best to try to keep these realms as separate as we can. It counts not only in terms of how we choose our friends but also in terms of how we do our jobs.

I also really like to read almost everything Adam Kirsch writes, though he writes a lot. It's a great opportunity to read someone intelligent with whom one also largely disagrees. I don't know if he calls himself a conservative, but if he does, he's one of the smartest ones I know, (and as we all know, sadly, there aren't many...) I am now reading his excellent little book on Lionel Trilling, published by Yale University Press called “Why Trilling Matters.” The series, “Why TK Matters,” was actually my idea. I was going to edit it when the current head of Yale was over at Basic. That didn’t happen though, and he resuscitated the idea over at Yale (and I note copywrote it.) Hey lawyers, can I sue them?

The world needs more of this kind of post me thinks. I have no feelings, one way or another, about Greg Easterbrook, but whoever is the editor of Reuters is the same person who edits Marty over at TNR.

Shuttling between the New York Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival, I saw approximately a zillion movies in the past couple of weeks. What can I recommend? I can strongly recommend “The Descendants” which is about to open soon and stars George Clooney. Everyone will also really like “Butter” irrespective of its alleged Michele Bachmann character. The Hamptons FF featured six Italian films, my favorite was Sul Mare, a beautiful love story. I also saw some of this crazy “Move Orgy” curated by Joe Dante at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s been cut down from seven hours to four and a half and was shown as the opening of their festival of film restoration. It was an amazing piece of work, but for historical purposes I should like to point out that probably without knowing it, Gary Trudeau—whom I count as one of my heroes—almost completely copied “Mr. Butts” from a 1950s cartoon character representing Colgate toothpaste, though perhaps it’s an homage. That same night, I saw another terrific Garland Jeffries show at the High Line. I keep saying this, go see Garland if you can. And if you can’t, pick up The King of In Between. I also saw “Relatively Speaking” this week. The Woody Allen one-act is really, really funny; funnier than Woody has been in decades. The Ethan Coen one is quite good, and wonderfully acted by Danny Hoch, and the Elaine May one is the weakest. I by and large agree with this review but I find it hard to believe anybody wouldn’t enjoy it unless you went in in a really bad mood.

Also, I keep going to receptions where I might run into Lauren Bush, but don’t. I guess she is lending her name to good causes in part to make up for all the damage done to the world by W. In the past week, she has been associated with a benefit (last night) for Cambodian anti-human trafficking leader, Somaly Mam, and earlier in the week, at the HIFF, for FEED. Good for her. Check out both causes, please.

The mail:
Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada
Bravo on The Nation column (well, bravo on many things). I do not know what Tom Friedman is thinking, but he reminds me of a story in a wonderful book, Air Time, an inside history of CBS News, by Gary Paul Gates, who was a CBS News writer--all of this back when CBS News was a legitimate journalistic organization and not the mess it has become. Howard K. Smith had become Washington bureau chief in 1961 and regularly delivered outspoken commentaries. Urged to tone it down a bit, he replied that the country had gone through eight years of poor leadership under Eisenhower, and Kennedy seemed no better. The implication was that Smith could provide leadership. Friedman thinks similarly. He also brings to mind the old journalistic question: if a tree falls in the forest, has it really fallen if The Times hasn't reported on it? I guess the tree hasn't fallen until Friedman acknowledges it, and then he announces he needs to chop down the same tree.

Steven Nelson
Kent, WA
If your readers find the collection of Kurt Vonnegut jr. irresistable I suggest that they pick up a copy of his 'Sirens of Titan'. Kurt correctly predicted the Huygen probe of a few years back. If you all remember that probe was sent to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Kurt explains how everything from the begining of life on Earth was pointed to that one single act.

Declan McGarry
New York
Professor, I've been reading your stuff since before MediaMatters. It was much appreciated in the dark years, and out of habit we kept reading during the bright months (Nov. 2008 - March 2009). I know I'm not alone in wishing that Pierce contributed still, more and often. Incidentally, could you pass along a belated <Nelson Muntz> Ha Ha </Nelson Muntz> at the Kingdom's timely and well deserved demise at the hands of the Dubs. For reference, it was like being a Red Sox fan and watching the Yankees lose the World Series. With a couple of disputed calls thrown in for good measure. Anyhoo, reason for the 'LTLFTC' note : Like a fart in a crowded elevator, the Luntzian 'Job-Creators' talking point mysteriously showed up, stank up the joint and then gradually faded. I guess what they had to work with was poor to begin with, 'Job-Creators' was the best they could do. Trouble is, 'The Top 1%' or 'The Richest One Percent' don't really resonate either. Not least because in America, we do not hate the rich. Also because we are are demonstrably not very good at math. I was moved to suggest that you might use your position (as professor, journalist, blogger, author, etc.) to help come up with an alternative. Maybe have a competition? I propose calling them 'The Corrupt Super-Rich'. Of course, I'm not Frank Luntz, so I don't know who to send the memo to.

Reed will be back next week. 

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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Time (Money, and the Media) Is on Wall Street's Side, Yes It Is

My new “Think Again” column is called “Crashing Occupy Wall Street” and it’s here.

My new Nation column on the nuttiness of Times pundit Thomas Friedman is here.

My Forward column on my kid’s Commie Humanities reading list is here.

There’s a bunch of new Library of America releases. My favorite might be The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael edited by Sanford Schwartz, though it loses points for coming outside the format of the series. I don’t know why Kael was not thought to rate the full treatment. She’s one of the most exciting writers to publish on any topic in the second half of the twentieth century. Her essay on Cary Grant, is, as I’ve said before, brilliant and beautiful. It is a model of the kind of critical intelligence that has (almost, but not quite) disappeared from our contemporary political and cultural life.

Another big ticket item from LOA this season is:

Philip Roth
The American Trilogy 1997–2000
American Pastoral • I Married a Communist • The Human Stain
Enough has been written about these books so that I don’t think I need to say too much. I like “Communist” much better than most people and “Pastoral” less than most. I’m persuaded that in Pastoral, Roth is punishing Swede for trying to pretend he’s not Jewish, which is interesting, though some might find it objectionable. For the record I should like to note that the liveliest passages in the book are the Nathan Zuckerman ones, and I happened to have gone to the exact same Mets game that Zuckerman is allegedly attending and apparently Roth did too. “Stain” has already achieved a kind of classic status and it’s pretty great.

Also out recently is:

Kurt Vonnegut
Novels & Stories 1963–1973
Cat’s Cradle • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater • Slaughterhouse-Five • Breakfast of Champions • Stories

I’ve not read Vonnegut since college, but when I saw this collection, I thought it was a greatest hits volume. Other, more devoted readers might complain, and if you’re one of those, well, here’s to you. Otherwise, this one will be enough for most people, I’m guessing. The collection I’m not so crazy about is Andy Borowitz’s alleged 50 Funniest American Writers*: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion. I don’t want to get into a fight with Andy, but a) a number of these pieces are not funny at all b) another number are funny but are not even close to being the funniest piece by the person in question (Woody Allen, Calvin Trillin, Veronica Geng). 

But hey, ¾ and you’re batting 750…

Perhaps the biggest of the big ticket items I’m happy to have in my house is part of the new trend by record companies to repackage the complete works of a single artist in a uniform package. Last week I discussed Pink Floyd, this week it’s Leonard Cohen. It’s 17 cds. Unlike the Floyd, they’re not remastered. But also unlike Floyd, you don’t need to be wasted to make it through any of them. I’ve sort of run out of superlatives when it comes to LC. Let’s just say there is literally nobody who is more worthy of this honor. And unlike many of the people one can imagine in this category. And if you listen to them in order, the dude just keeps on getting better. Like Roth, he’s an inspiration to those of us who plan to keep doing what we do until we drop. Cohen, moreover is a good choice for “complete-ists” because as beloved as he may be, most people don’t have all of his albums. You can find details here.

I’ve been going to New York Film Festival screenings for the past couple of weeks. The festival began last weekend, I believe, and so far I can strongly recommend:
“Goodbye First Love”
I can sort of recommend “Martha Macy May Marlene.”
And I can totally recommend against “4:44 Last Day on Earth.”

There were also three German movies about the same sequence of events by three different German directors told from three different perspectives. It’s a pretty cool idea, but I only saw one of them. I forget its name.

This weekend I’ll be seeing a bunch more movies at the Hamptons International Film Festival. It starts today and there’s some overlap.

Now here’s Reed:

Time (Money, and the Media) is on Wall Street’s Side, Yes It Is
By Reed Richardson
For liberals frustrated with the economic inequality plaguing the country, this past week might have engendered some noticeable optimism. First, traditional media coverage of the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement began to move beyond trite dismissals and formulaic, protestors-clash-with-police stories. Then, federal regulators unveiled a draft of the so-called Volcker rule that would roll back the kinds of reckless trades among banks and investment firms that fueled the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, the headlines that accompanied the latter must have read like sweet justice to the fed-up folks at Occupy protests proliferating cross the country.

Putting the Clamps on Banks – Wall Street Journal
Banks fume over ‘Volcker rule’ – Politico
Republican SEC official voices Volcker worries – Marketwatch.com
Volcker Rule Is Out, How Much Will It Hurt? – Forbes.com
Volcker Rule Unveiled: May Slash Wall Street Bonuses – ABCNews.com

But if these headlines sound too good to be true, well, they are. In reality, much of the media’s reportage about the Volcker rule was both short-sighted and disingenuous. Too often, the press forged ahead while ignoring or barely acknowledging the proposed rule’s draft status, which is sort of like a sportswriter filing a Mets game story without mentioning that he left the ballpark after the third inning. What’s more, the media, in giving financial industry flacks ample time and space to gnash their teeth over “slashed” bonuses and “lost” revenue, served to undermine the proposed regulations by hyping their potential impact. Critics who claimed the new regulations were, in fact, too soft on the banks received far less attention. (Even harder to find were details like the fact that the word “exemption” appears 426 times in the 298-page rule.)

Not to be outdone in subtly pushing this anti-Volcker, woe-be-the-banks narrative, Fox Business dutifully trotted out an “exclusive” on how the Republican-controlled House plans to hold hearings next month about the supposedly onerous burdens the new rules would place on the financial sector.

Many on Wall Street have criticized the impact of the Volcker Rule for squeezing bank profits, and causing layoffs. Others question whether practices like proprietary trading and hedge-fund investing were at the heart of the Wall Street risk-taking that led to the 2008 financial collapse.


“The hearing will be looking at the economic impact and the competitiveness of this rule,” said Marisol Garibay, the communications director for the Financial Services committee. “No one has looked at the cumulative impact of these regulations.”

Of course, these same unnamed critics of the Volcker rule would rather the public forgets what a lack of sufficient regulations in the previous decade hath wrought, when ethically compromised and criminally negligent financial institutions ran amok and ultimately wrecked our economy. And lo and behold, some of these transgressions included securities fraud involving proprietary trading, the very thing the Volcker rule is trying to curtail—and that this Fox Business report is trying to excuse.

Ominously, this journalistic amnesia is increasingly widespread. And while Fox News’ muddying of the waters regarding the causes of the 2008 financial crisis no doubt leans more toward overt, political propaganda and less toward the editorial laziness that grips much of rest of the establishment media, the “cumulative impact” of this coverage, to borrow a phrase, can’t be overlooked.

Then again, it’s probably a fool’s errand to expect either Fox News or the current GOP House leadership to do anything but apologize for the very architects or our nation’s ongoing financial crisis. After all, it’s no secret that the deck is stacked in favor of Wall Street when the House committee chairman in charge of bank oversight, Rep. Spencer Bachus, is also known for saying: “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve.” This business-friendly rhetoric isn’t just the result of pure, conservative principles, one strongly suspects, since Bachus has an uncanny tendency of putting his mouth where his money is. It seems the big banks and investment houses are at least getting a good return on their investments somewhere.

Still, the prospect of a Congressional committee chairman being a wholly owned subsidiary of the industry he or she is charged with regulating is certainly not a new phenomenon on Capitol Hill. A presidential candidate inexplicably calling for the imprisonment of the namesake sponsors of a piece of Congressional legislation does take a new, low road, however. And that’s exactly what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did at the latest GOP presidential debate Tuesday night. Even more disturbing, perhaps, the rest of the Republican presidential field appeared similarly untroubled with the idea that the only people worthy of being imprisoned in connection with the vast financial crisis of the past three-plus years happen to be the two Congressmen who shepherded through democratically-passed legislation to prevent the next financial crisis.

Now, I grant that Gingrich’s decade-long, on-again, off-again presidential campaign/book tour represents one of the longest cons in American political history (making a certain, former half-term Alaska governor look like a two-bit grifter in comparison). Likewise, I get that his shtick in these recent GOP debates has been to play the role of the most articulate crazy person on stage. But still, the media’s collective shrug over such an incendiary charge as well as the noticeable absence of any objections from the other GOP candidates is inexcusable. Debate moderator Charlie Rose actually interrupted Gingrich in order to give him a chance to immediately disavow his provocative comments, as if to say: “Surely, you’re not this crazy?” To which, Gingrich, batting Rose away, essentially replied, “Surely, I am.”

It is this unadulterated strategy among the Republicans to absolve the financial sector of as much of the blame for the Great Recession as possible, and the mainstream media’s seeming acquiescence with their quest, that makes the long-term prospects for real financial reform so dim. For example, as the major headlines this week fixated on the banks’ very public poor-mouthing over the Volcker rule, the Wall Street Journal’s MarketBeat blog, to its credit, found that, in private, the financial industry strikes a much more sanguine tone. As one major market advisor observed in a MarketBeat post from Wednesday:

Why is working through this doc largely pointless? Because it is unlikely to ever be implemented in anything that resembles the current form. The rules are meant to be in a final form by July 21, 2012. Assuming that deadline is met, the banks then have 2 years to conform with the provisions and can petition the board for up to 3 additional 1-year extensions. Which brings us to July 21, 2014 at the earliest, and possibly July, 2017. Whether or not there is a new government in place before the 2014 deadline, there will certainly be another administration and president in place by 2017. Whatever the banks ultimately have to live with, it is highly unlikely that it will resemble this. [emphasis in original]

Time and Republican intransigence is on their side, in other words, as is money and complexity. Besides all its “exemptions,” the Volcker rule regulations contain, by one estimate, 1,347 unanswered questions. Who, pray tell, do you think will have the resources to come up with 1,347 laissez-faire answers for regulators? The usual, well-funded suspects. And though the Occupy Wall Street movement may own the public sidewalks for the near future, this Journal article (full article behind paywall) from Wednesday, stuck inside the same section that had the Volcker rule “clamping down” on banks on its front page, provides plenty of proof that the real battles over financial reform and income inequality are still taking place in the private backrooms of power:

Financial-industry representatives met with the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Securities and Exchange Commission or Commodity Futures Trading Commission 350 times, according to Ms. Krawiec’s analysis and meeting logs reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Representatives of unions, consumer groups, other Volcker-rule proponents and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker have met with the same agencies 20 times since the Dodd-Frank law passed in July 2010.

Ms. Krawiec, the Duke law professor, said the numbers show financial firms “won hands down” in terms of regulatory face time. “The meeting logs paint a picture of a very one-sided lobbying campaign, with Wall Street’s influence, information and pressure crowding out all the other voices.”

Outlobbying, outspending, and outlasting—these are the advantages that Wall Street will retain if the only forces arrayed against it are the street protestors occupying Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. To affect real financial reform and reverse the growing income inequality in this country, it will take a more concerted political effort across a larger, public stage. But without a more intrepid press exposing the truth along the way, reality, I fear, will never match the headlines.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this post suggested that the anthology of the 50 Funniest American Writers did not include a contribution by George W. S. Trow, which it does. This post has been revised to correct that mistake.

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99 and a Half Just Won't Do...

My new "Think Again" column is called “The Era of the 'One Percent'” and it’s here.

There’s a Le Monde Diplomatique podcast about my new article in that paper, here.

Oh, and this for The Guardian on "Occupy Wall Street."

I went to a few events at The New Yorker festival last weekend. By far the most interesting was David Remnick’s interview of Jonathan Franzen. (I am a big Franzen booster.) Anyway, it was all pretty interesting, but the moment of actual drama came when Franzen was discussing David Foster Wallace and told Remnick that Wallace felt free to make stuff up for his non-fiction, including, particularly his famous cruise piece for Harper’s. Assuming that’s true, it makes my not-nearly-as famous cruise piece for The Nation (“Heart of Whiteness,” about the National Review cruise to Alaska) perhaps the funniest piece in recent history about a cruise that is also true. I know that it’s not for me to say, but it was funny, thanks in large measure to how funny those National Review folks were. But anyway, I’m not sure Franzen should have said it, and Remnick appeared awfully surprised, but he also mentioned that Wallace never published any non-fiction in The New Yorker.

The other news is that Franzen is writing a four-season, thirty-year version of The Corrections for HBO.

So I went to see George Thorgood last week at BB King’s, for the first time since I saw him at the Bottom Line in 1977 or so. First thing that happened was the guy next to me wanted to discuss Neitzsche, I swear. (He was ABD in German intellectual history, I think.) When I told him I was partial to Gramsci in certain circumstances, he lost interest. Anyway, Thorogood. Well, the set has hardly changed since I last saw it.  That was just fine with me, the old songs are still great and George still plays ‘em like they’re new. Still, he’s got a new cd which is a tribute to Chess Records, appropriately called “2120 South Michigan Ave” which could have used a bit more love, since it’s pretty great too.

But on to the main events. This being the season when the record companies are readying their holiday big ticket items, there are a quite a few of them. So get your wallets ready for:

Pink Floyd: The Discovery Studio Album Box Set 
I have done my due diligence, people, and listened to every single one of these. 14 albums—all of their studio work-- digitally remastered by James Guthrie. They sound just incredible and are, believe it or not, rather modestly packaged to fit into a nice box with a booklet devoted to Floydish artwork and full lyrics to all the albums in the sleeves. (Packaging and booklets created by the band’s long-time artwork collaborator Storm Thorgerson).

All of the albums have stuff worth listening to on them. And one aspect of Floyd’s music that has often been overlooked is the quality not only of their musicianship, but also of their melodies. This turns out to be true on the soundtracks, which most people probably have not heard—I hadn’t—but is most evident on the masterpieces, Dark Side, Animals and Wish You Were Here. (The Wall has some of their best work—“Comfortably Numb” is by far my favourite song—but also some of their worst and most self-indulgent.) “The Division Bell” and “Meddle” also turn out to be totally underrated. There’s been an awful lot of Floyd re-releases, but this clears up all the studio albums for you,...well, except for:

All these other new releases that are coming out, “Immersion” versions and “Experience” versions of the key albums, or so they say. The first of these being the insanely over the top The Dark Side Of The Moon - Immersion Box Set. This album was on Bilboard’s top 200 for pretty much my entire adolescence and then some. (Fifteen years they tell me.) I don’t know of any album that’s ever been given this kind of treatment before but I suppose given its complexity and central place in the canon, it’s the right one. (A personal note: My predecessors in my freshman dorm room actually painted the whole room with the Dark Side cover. I don’t want to draw any conclusions, but I think they might have been taking drugs.) In any case, this set comes with 6 discs of rare and unreleased audio and video material, plus a new 40 page oversized bound booklet, a book of original photographs edited by Jill Furmanovsky, and a bunch of other stuff. The highlight, besides the album is the live at Wembley version from 1974. There are also other mixes, quad mixes, bluray and DVD, early mixes, later mixes, concert films, documentaries... it all gets a little crazy, but it shines on... I think my predecessor roommates will really dig this, if they are still alive.

Elvis Presley, Young Man With the Big Beat 
This box set is really a beautiful thing. Oversized, like the Dark Side box, it contains five cds documenting the Elvis explosion of 1956 with two cds of digitally remastered RCA masters, another of live performances from that year, including a complete  previously unreleased show concert from the Municipal Auditorium, Shreveport, Louisiana, another of outtakes and an interview cd and advertisements. What is most striking about this set, however, is the care that’s been given to the lovely 80-Page color 12 x 12 book with 12-month day-by-day chronology of that year, which is filled with pictures and momentos and historical artifacts and documents. It’s a kind of Elvis historian’s dream, and there’s a ton of other stuff too, including an original size replicas of: RCA's first ever poster for Elvis YOUNG MAN WITH THE BIG BEAT; Mosque Theater Poster; Venus Room Flyer for The New Frontier Hotel Appearance 1956; original RCA order form for Heartbreak Hotel; unique Colonel Parker letter and Cotton Bowl Ticket Stub. Really, it’s as wonderful and crazy in its own way as six cds of Dark Side of the Moon. And hey, the music, well, hey, if you’ve got the Original Fifties Masters (as I do) you still could justify it on the basis of the packaging alone. As a gift, well, it’s an awfully safe bet for anyone with any taste at all.

Another big ticket item for the season is:

Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Episodes I-VI) [Blu-ray] 
I like the classy, understated packaging. The movies, if you ask me, are rather hit and miss. A significant portion of the dialogue is actually embarrassing. (I am a “Star Trek” man myself.) If you read the Amazon comments, the base is furious about this set, but as a casual viewer, it’s pretty cool in surround sound. There are a gazillion extras on the two bonus discs and again, these fall inside an imaginary galaxy of people sufficiently fanatic to watch them but not sufficiently fanatic to complain. Good luck with that. Still a nice gift, if a slightly risky one…

Less elaborate, but hardly less central to contemporary culture is the bluray/DVD release of:

The Lion King
This is my kid’s favorite movie, which I find amazing because she’s all into horrible rap music and Justin Bieber and I would have thought much too sophisticated for a Disney cartoon. But I watched it with her and it’s pretty good. Apparently though, it’s different from the original and Lion Kingers are upset with that too. I can’t really get involved.

More next week…

Now here’s Reed:

How the Wall Street Protests Occupy the Media’s Blind Spot 
By Reed Richardson       

At times, you almost have to pity our establishment media. Whenever it encounters events that defy easy political or cultural explanation, like the ongoing anti-corporate occupation of Wall Street, its standard objective journalism playbook turns out to be more hindrance than help, leaving it stumbling and scrambling to catch up.

Step One in this media playbook is always the same: Ignore it. Not reporting on an event is, of course, the most fundamental editorial decision a news organization can make and, in many ways today, it’s also the safest. After all, thanks to the mainstream press’s unfortunate habit of stampeding from one soon-to-be-unembargoed “scoop” to the next, there exists little risk in avoiding more complicated stories that nobody else is bothering to cover either. Just as an above-the-fold, front-page exclusive can trigger untold gallons of ink and terabytes of content in follow-up coverage, so too can the noticeable absence of a story convince the rest of the press that it's OK for them to overlook it as well.

Translated, this means that the dearth of Occupy Wall Street news coverage during the protest's first few days was not the result of some corporate conspiracy to stifle radical thought. The reasons were more mundane than that. Instead, the protests simply fell into a gaping blind spot in modern journalism’s objectivity-based viewpoint, one where the inherent biases don’t tilt toward the political left or the right as much as they favor things like authority, celebrity, hostility, and brevity. Perhaps NPR executive editor Dick Meyer best summed up the conventional wisdom when defending his organization’s continued disregard for the Occupy protests well over a week after they’d begun: “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.”

With this as the governing calculus for newsworthiness, it’s no surprise that a people-powered, grassroots movement like Occupy Wall Street failed to generate much in the way of media attention initially. Indeed, only after the second and third criteria in Meyer’s aforementioned four-part test began to be met did the press begin covering the protests, and then only as little more than an idle curiosity. (In NPR’s case, their belated interest in the protests coincidentally emerged right after “prominent person” Michael Moore made a visit to Zuccotti Park and then went on CNN to talk about it. For other media outlets, it took several flagrant and well-documented incidents of excessive use of force, or “great disruption,” by the police, which show little signs of abating, before they took real notice.) By that point, the public and some critics were already questioning the relative paucity of news coverage of the protests. But because our mainstream press is far too supercilious to admit that it has overlooked an important story, it tiptoed into the story late through another time-honored media tradition, or what I call Step Two: Covering the non-coverage.

This meta-navel gazing by the press is essentially a further hedge against really reporting on the story itself. This isn’t about looking outward to answer the questions “Who are these people?” and “What are the protests all about?” Instead, it’s about looking inward, as a profession, and obsessing over questions like: “How coherent is the movement’s messaging?” and “Are these protests worthy of the media’s time?” The problem with seeking out answers to the latter rather than the former is that these leading questions are where real journalistic bias creeps in. For, it is but a short trip from this conceited stance to Step Three: DiminishDisrespect, and Dismiss.

This phase is all about reflexively rationalizing the earlier absence of coverage, sometimes spitefully so. And right on cue, the evolving tenor of the Occupy Wall Street coverage began to transfrom from one of restrained curiosity to one of almost sneering condemnation last week. Of course, the media’s modus operandi of utterly marginalizing alternative viewpoints is, by now, well known (cf. Iraq War, run up to): Single out one or two extreme positions for the day story, send a cameraman out to film some of the more fringe characters for cable talk show B-roll footage, add in some scornful commentary from the pundits and thoughtful tut-tutting from the talking heads back in the studio and, voila, a “dirty hippie” meme is born.

But again, it’s a mistake to view this phenomenon through the narrow prism of the left-right political spectrum. Indeed, such a construct makes for some laughable claims, like Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto’s weak attempt to paint the New York Times as being liberally biased toward the Occupy protestors based on the slender reed of one retweet by an assistant managing editor. This ridiculous assertion is especially hard to square since the Times has engaged in some creative front-page editing with regard to police clashes with the protestors and that it let one of its prominent business columnists take his reporting cues on the protests from a CEO acquaintance who was worried for his “personal safety.” These examples are journalistic tells, surely, but certainly not liberal ones. It’s the side of authority, power, and the establishment that is getting an extra finger on the scale here from the Times. The Daily Worker, it surely ain’t.

Likewise, when Foxnews.com publishes a similar “expose” about Philadelphia Daily News newsman Will Bunch’s ties to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters—which is publicly available information—there’s no there there. Bunch’s recent Daily News coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests certainly reads as sympathetic to the protestors but his nuanced airing of their concerns only looks unfair when compared to the rest of the media’s jaundiced eye. (It also occurred to me that the Foxnews.com author might not have even read past the headline of the Daily News article in question, since she later shows off her exhaustive research skills by quoting from the cover flap of Bunch’s most recent book.) Bunch’s boss, editor Larry Platt does get quoted, but it’s not exactly helpful to the article’s premise either: “Our pages should never be home to 'he said/she said' neutrality. Instead, [reporters] will be explicit adjudicators of factual disputes, and [they]’ll be free to draw conclusions from [their] reporting.” That’s a starkly different attitude than you’ll find at the Times or most other news publications and I submit that the Daily Newsreaders are better served because of it.

Now that the Occupy Wall Street movement has ticked off the final two boxes of the establishment media’s definition of newsworthiness—by spawning large, spinoff protests all across the country and rallying around a concise, media-savvy slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent”—more of the press is finally beginning to explore both the protests and poignant tales of the protestors in earnest. But the vicious media cycle and the lingering stigmas that still mark the Occupy Wall Street were not random chance. Indeed, it’s important to understand that they are a feature, not a bug, of how mainstream objective journalism now functions in our democracy. It will keep happening again and again until something changes. And that really is a pity, for more than just the press. 

The mail
Delmar, NY

It's been a long time since I've written. But following the recent coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests had me shaking my head and has prompted me to write. . . .

At first, it seemed there was little to no coverage of the protests at all. But then, the stories seemed to follow the usual arc:

"A group of mainly young, unkempt, disorganized protesters shouting grievances over everything from the execution of Troy Davis to the treatment of animals to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan camped out in downtown Manhattan this week, ostensibly to "Occupy Wall Street." Some, dressed as "undead corporate zombies" complete with pale makeup and fake blood smeared on their faces marched slowly down Broadway. However, their purpose seemed uncertain, with their message incoherent and the protesters themselves splintered into a variety of sub-groups, some protesting foreclosures, others touting the benefits of going vegan, many shouting anti-war slogans and still others, citing a vast international financial conspiracy, calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve Bank and the IMF. In some cases, protesters preached the destruction of government entirely, to be replaced by "direct democratic action" through the use of the internet. As one protester told me, 'we are each our own government. And together we can govern ourselves. We don't need corporations to tell us what to eat.'"

The above is fiction. I made it up myself, including the quote at the end. But it sure looks a lot like many of the stories I had seen on the protests (for a great example, check out Sorkin's piece in the NYT this week).

But then I came across this, by Will Bunch, on HuffPo. This caught my eye:

"Now I'd successfully lobbied my editors at the Philadelphia Daily News to send me up here, but they loaded me down with questions. What do the protesters want, exactly? Why is this different from all the other left-wing protests? Why now? And be sure to write about all the fringe people -- the Ron Paul fanatics and the bandana-wearing anarchists and what not."

And then I realized why all the stories seem to be the same:  there's already a "narrative" in place; a template, if you will, for covering protests in America. Lazy reporters (and their editors) go out looking for facts that support (or fit) that simple narrative: Disorganized? Check. Incoherent message? Check. Young, dirty and unkempt (this one applies only to left-wing protests; in the case of right-wing protests, such as Tea Party events, point out instead that the crowd was "mainly white" and/or packing heat)? Check. Odd costumes (zombies on the left, Paul Revere colonials on the right)? Check. Weirdos spouting bizarre conspiracy theories? Check.

This template serves to belittle the protesters ("He-he - look at all those dirty hippies saying all sorts of crazy things") and discount their efforts ("they're  disorganized and incoherent; they don't even know what they want"). And, of course, since we've all seen this movie before, and know how it ends - that is, with nothing changing - why should we bother paying attention now?

This "coverage" by the Fourth Estate is nearly as much a problem as the corporate influence and political corruption that is at the center of Occupy Wall Street. . . . I don't know if it's laziness, stupidity. . . or if they've been bought out and corrupted as well, but reading Sorkin's report and watching what (little coverage) I've seen on TV underscored that the way a "story" is reported (by a supposed "liberal media" no less) can be as important as the story itself.

Anyway, I found it refreshing (and enlightening) to read Bunch's reporting - not only on the OWS protest, but on how he was directed to report it. . . .

P.S. Should you decide to post this publicly on your blog, I'd prefer to keep my name out of it. Call me "KC" if you'd like, but I have mouths to feed and a job I'd like to keep. . . . Thanks.

P.P.S. I'm with you on too much Pigpen in the E-72 shows. Haven't bought the new release, though I would like to hear that "Dark Star>Other One". . . .

Joseh Colangelo
St Catharines, Ontario

Boy what a great life you have and I love your long term perception-we're never to old to rock n roll.  Having been recently disabled I decided I had to start doing something before I hit the deep six or go crazy in the meantime so I clipped a coupon from a local Music conservatory that had a special on lessons and at 56 am beginning to do something that I wanted to do since I saw Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan's show 50 years ago.  So given that everything old seems to be new again or I think I am finally doing the right thing guitar lessons are in order.  I have had one class and can't wait to develop callouses on my finger tips-those strings hurt when you have the soft hands of a typist. Heard any tips about how to harden finger tips in your travels?  In any case I just hope these short stubby fingers can stretch out enough to play a c chord.  Is that asking for to much?
Eric replies: “No on the C, yes on the F, I’m afraid..”

Eric Paul Jacobsen
West Saint Paul, MN

I agree with nearly everything Reed Richardson says, but I don't believe the word "objectivity" has been debased beyond redemption, despite the appalling civil cowardice of corporate journalistic professionalism.

A lie is a lie, and there is nothing subjective about it.  If you can prove that a statement conflicts with the facts, then that statement is false - objectively false.

It is a bad idea to propose that journalists be "fair" rather than "objective" - as if these virtues were in any way incompatible, which they are not.  Indeed, every time I hear somebody on Fox News repeat that PR firm's vacuous trademark, "Fair and Balanced," I shudder to imagine what would happen if we rejected objectivity altogether and replaced it with a subjective esthetic of "fairness."  This is where we get the "fairness" of equal time for centrists and right-wingers - to the exclusion of the left.

The notion that one cannot be both "fair" and "objective" at the same time is a central feature of false objectivity.  This is why journalists are expected to pretend that they have no opinions, because it is assumed that being "objective" means not to have any opinions at all.  On the contrary: We all have opinions, and journalists should not pretend otherwise.  Being objective means not the absence of opinion, but the presence of research and an honest, thorough investigation of the facts on the ground.  Presenting a many-sided treatment of the facts and having an honest opinion about them are not mutually exclusive.  On the other hand, pretending that you have no opinion - or affecting a carefully triangulated pose between the center and right goalposts of establishment opinion, which amounts to the same thing - is no excuse for failing to do any investigative research, though I suspect there are many lazy corporate journalists who believe it is one.

Like Richardson, I am sure, I mourn the demise of the Fairness Doctrine and the failure of public broadcast media to provide diverse and challenging points of view, according to their original mission.  However, even if we expand the principle of fairness to include a robust commitment to diversity and to alternative visions, it is still not enough to replace the principle of objectivity in its original, honest sense.  Fairness without truth is nothing but a good intention.  We discover what fairness really is, or ought to be, only when we know the relevant facts.

Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada

Dr. A., heaven knows, I agree with your policy positions.  But I think of the many Democrats who spent the entire health care debate beating up Obama for not introducing a more liberal bill.  What ended up happening?  First, he got the best bill that he could have gotten, period, and anyone who doesn't know that is so ignorant of what was going on and what these members of Congress do and think that I really don't have the patience to deal with them.  Second, while the left busily bashed him, the Tea Party sprung up, and rather than attacking them, we stayed in our circular firing squad.

Now, that is not to say that I expect or want you just to go along with what Obama wants.  It is to say that when my friends on the left criticize him for not sticking with the policies we want, it might be useful first to look in the mirror, because then they will see who bears far more responsibility for the failures they now decry.

Ken Kirby
Junction City, Oregon

I won't be so gauche as to dispute taste with you, but every time you express your dislike of Pigpen it just makes me wonder what's up with that.  I have a theory that a big part of the band's core sound and style emerges from the musical interaction between Garcia and Pig, starting in their jug band phase and extending right up through to the end of Pig's life.  This interaction seems especially important for the process of Garcia finding his own distinctive voice as a guitarist.  Moreover, friends who saw the band in the old days have told me that Pigpen's numbers were the show-stoppers, that when he came to the mic a the front of the stage you knew you were in for it.  Obviously there's more to the story than that - like the Pranksters, for starters - and much musical development beyond 1972.  But honestly I just don't get your disaffection.  I can't make sense of someone liking the Grateful Dead but not liking Pig, the guy once introduced quite aptly by Bob Weir as the "dog-suckingest man in show business."   Amidst all the extravagant psychedelia, he's the heart and soul of the band up through mid-1971 at least, which is when he first got too sick to travel.  I think there's a quote from Phil in some interview from the 80s where he says that the band's live performances had been ossifying since Pig's death.  Interesting notion to reflect upon.  I hope you can go back to the early years and give him another chance.

By the way, I caught Furthur in Eugene this evening and was pleasantly surprised by their energy and musicianship.  Great songs, great singing.  Thanks for listening.

Steven Nelson
Renton, WA

In my perusing the Fox news site I ran across this editorial on the front page.  When I went back to find it again it was buried a few links down.  I couldn't believe it.   It is the only balanced editorial that I have ever found.



Oh, and an easy fast to those who are fasting…

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Too Bad to Be False

Greeting Altercators, Reed here. Eric's off today for Rosh Hashanah, but his latest column for The Nation on Obama's by now all too familiar willingness to abandon liberal principles (at his own electoral peril), can be found here.

Too Bad to be False
by Reed Richardson

Psychologists have long identified a human phenomenon known as the negativity bias. Broadly defined, it essentially means that we humans are intrinsically hard-wired to give more credence to negative rather than positive information. (Although, as we age, this bias does seem to subside.) One constant result of this bias, psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo notes in his book “The Watercooler Effect,” is that we will always suffer from a larger universe of negative rather than positive—what he labels “dread” and “wish”—rumors floating around us.

This past week was nothing if not further proof that this negativity bias also impacts the all too human practitioners within our “objective” press, and distorts our political discourse in the process. For Exhibit A, look no further than the media tempest kicked up by the $16 muffin myth. The latest in a long line of allegedly outrageous examples of wasteful government spending, this story was little more than a case of imprecise invoicing and, once it was actually examined for veracity, it fell apart faster than dry cornbread.

That, from the beginning, the story sounded dubious didn’t really matter. Spurred on by our innate bias toward bad news, the supposed luxury-priced muffins’ unmistakable symbolism perfectly dovetailed with a popular (conservative) meme and so the story, along with the predictable bloviating from right-wing pundits and Republican politicians, rapidly propagated itself across the airwaves and headlines. The truth finally did get out, but as Mark Twain noted, it will never catch up. And in the interim, these muffins got served up often enough that their tale no doubt burrowed into the subconscious of plenty of unemployed and poverty-stricken Americans who are already none too happy with a federal government that can’t seem address the real problems plaguing the country.

Granted, this story wasn’t some anonymously sourced backroom whisper—the anecdote did, after all, come out of this report from the Justice Department’s own Inspector General’s office. But since when has the press been so willing to abdicate its role as skeptical critic of claims by the government, whether they be good or bad? OK, dumb question. But the accretion of sloppy news reporting like this erodes the public’s confidence in both the press and in government. In this case, the press gets pilloried, and rightly so, for once again hyping a story that turns out to be grossly exaggerated and, even worse, easily identified as such. But the target of this negative story doesn’t get off scot-free either. That’s because of another psychological phenomenon that DiFonzo discusses in his book:

This tendency to interpret things according to the ideas that are currently active in the mind is called the law of cognitive structure activation. Cognitive structures are ideas, stereotypes, or mental frameworks. They are ‘activated’ by simply bringing them to mind.




In a similar way, hearing a negative rumor can activate a generally negative framework—despite disbelief in the rumor. That is, a negative rumor can lead us to appraise the target of a rumor more negatively—regardless of how believable we think the rumor is.


So, even if this tale about the Justice Dept.’s $16 muffins had its detractors from the outset, it will have “activated” a certain “government spending is out of control” mindset in many Americans. And no amount of after-the-fact or on-air corrections will ever compensate for the press’s unfortunate credulity. What’s more, when such an uproar gets ignited smack dab in the middle of a protracted political fight about the direction of the federal budget, it’s not hard to see which side of the debate gains an advantage from such cognitive prompting.

That the rabidly anti-government right-wing benefits from this particular incident is no mere coincidence, of course. Take a step back and examine the whole pantheon of inaccurate reporting and unsourced rumors that this President and his policies have had to overcome in the past several years and the pattern of fabrications and smears becomes all too clear. Rhetorical whoppers like the Obamacare death panels lie, the Birther conspiracy spinoffs, and many other similarly-sized myths may never convince majorities of Americans that they are true, but they aren’t supposed to. Instead, their over-the-top, Grand Guignol nature gives politicians, the press, and the public easy intellectual cover. It lets them pointedly dismiss wild, conspiracy theories only to then embrace less fantastic, but no less false, claims like the stimulus created no jobs or Obama isn’t really a Christian. When coupled with human nature’s aforementioned negativity bias, this constant, bewildering barrage of bullshit acts to delegitimize the White House even if the most outrageous allegations don’t weave their way into reasonable-people-disagree-type conventional wisdom. These big lies still work, in other words, because they make the small ones that much more believable by comparison.

How the media can avoid falling into this trap isn’t that difficult to figure out, though it requires real editorial endurance to make it happen. It starts, of course, by being less credulous in reporting, taking the time to independently verify stories and confirm their details, especially if they seem too good to be true.

Outright falsehoods that even the media recognize pose a different problem, however, and, as such, necessitate more of a concerted effort to counter them. That’s because the age-old journalism workaround of disingenuously bringing up a rampant rumor or common misconception in order to debunk it often backfires. Such a strategy, particularly when executed in the timid, euphemistic tone found in most objective journalism, can inadvertently validate rather than repudiate the claim in question. Of course, if a patently untrue claim continues to be pushed by a “reputable” figure, say, there are times when it will inevitably make it on air or in print. In those cases, the press must be both unabashed and diligent about calling out the lie each and every time it appears, as it most spectacularly did not with the Obamacare death panels claim.

Sadly, as the recent health care reform coverage showed, a full-throated dedication to calling out the truth (or its opposite) is in short supply in the newsrooms of today. No doubt this is no accident, as the idea of ceaselessly labeling a demonstrably false claim as such would be tantamount to violating the press’s chaste vow of objectivity in the eyes of many top editors and producers. But, of course, members of the press are biased, just not in a way that they seem to acknowledge. And that is precisely the point. Until the media owns up to its inherently flawed nature and starts to change its underlying philosophy from one of rigid objectivity to one of transparent fairness, the public will continue to believe the worst about it, and, in this case, they would be right.

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