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Eric Alterman | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

'No' Was All He Said...

My new “Think Again” column is called "Bad Things Happen Someplace, Muslims Involved" and it’s here. It’s about how little conservatives care about truth.

My Forward column is called “Yale Acted Correctly in Axing Anti-Semitism Initiative” but is about more than that, and it's here.

Any my Daily Beast column is calledWhy Obama’s Base Won’t Revolt,” and its here.

I saw a pretty wild Allman Brothers show at the Beacon last night. It was a benefit for Hep C research and awareness, sponsored somehow by Merc. I don’t know the details of who got paid and who didn’t regarding the band, etc, but it featured Natalie Cole singing Change is Gonna Come, and the Weight (blowing the final verse), and the first verse of “Whipping Post.” Crosby and Nash doing about five songs, all of them except “Teach Your Children” sung by Crosby. Phil Lesh (doing Shakedown St. Sugaree, Franklin’s Tower) and Billy Gibbons for the final encore of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. It was a four hour show so, you can imagine …

I tried to make it out to see U2 last week but literally could not get out of town because of the traffic, so I consoled myself the next night by going to see Marc Cohn at Citi Winery, one of my favorite places in this or any other city. I love Marc’s album of songs from 1970 that came out last year—I recently read David Browne’s book about the music of that year but I like Marc’s album better—but the dude only played one song from it—same one the Allman’s played actually, “Into the Mystic.” So I got a crash course in Cohn’s catalogue, with which I was unfamiliar and it’s pretty damn good. His fans sure love him. It was a really strong, warm vibe in the room and  a really fine show. I was shocked to learn that that Shayne Fontane guy who jumped around too much when he was in Bruce’s non-E Street Band in 92/93 is Cohn’s guitarist and has been for 14 years. He doesn’t jump around so much and plays quite well these days. (But after seeing Derek and Warren last night, I can’t throw around these superlatives too promiscuously. Those guys are just the greatest.)

Here’s Reed.

Nobody’s Right if Everybody’s Wrong?

If the media coverage of the ongoing debt-ceiling debacle during the past few weeks has proven anything, it’s that the operating principles guiding our nation’s establishment media make it woefully unfit to serve our democracy’s most urgent needs. Day after day, the press’s general unwillingness to move beyond its overly broad and simplistic, “both parties are at fault” theme—despite almost continual capitulation by Democrats and near interminable intransigence by Republicans—once again reveals that its stubborn obsession with maintaining a pose of political neutrality renders it almost incapable of tackling complex policy issues anymore.

Instead, what news consumers get is a steady diet of superficial, empty-calorie reportage. In this case, this translates into lots of mostly useless, anonymously sourced backroom details, plenty of confusing numerical discussions about which plan cuts how much (but with little to no context of how or why), and heaping helpings of so-called analysis that merely bemoans Congress’s lack of bipartisanship. In essence, it is the journalistic equivalent of finding a man standing outside a burning building with an empty gas can in one hand and a book of matches in the other and reporting on where he bought the gas, how many matches he has left, and why the people now trapped inside the blaze kind of had it coming.

Still, when it comes to journalistic transgressions, the major media organizations’ preoccupation with breathless, behind-the-scenes, “tick-tock” stories and facile comparisons between this trillion-dollar-plan versus that one are but venial sins. More damaging is the profession’s faux-centrist proclivity for splitting the political difference on every topic no matter what the circumstances, what the New York Times’ Paul Krugman rightly called out this week as “the cult of balance.”

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating—offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent—because news reports always do that.

[…]

What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.

In other words, if you fill the news hole with enough Capitol Hill beat reporters, political columnists, and news pundits echoing the same trite, pre-packaged meme, pretty soon the public will have a much harder time telling an entitlement-slashing hawk from a revenue-generating handsaw (even if the southerly political winds are blowing in the Democrats’ favor). That despite all this media misdirection, the public still seems to grasp the larger point—that conservative Republicans are holding the nation’s economy hostage purely to advance their ideology—is nothing short of a miracle.

How did we get to this point? Well, to hear the punditocracy tell it, it’s because our political leaders aren’t strictly governing inside a wondrous, hail-fellow-well-met framework of comity and bipartisanship, which long ago became the establishment media’s gold standard for how our democracy should function. This fascination makes perfect sense, since objectivity and bipartisanship are concepts that grow from the same overly timid and blithely equivocating rootstock. Ironically, the most common characteristics of this mythical political culture—an utter disdain for heeding one’s constituents and a ridiculous mania for forging untenable political partnerships—are actually born out of strong, anti-democratic tendencies, as others have notably pointed out.

Of course, “grand bargains” are rarely struck in Washington (and are even more rarely worth the cost of striking them, especially, it seems, for liberals). But when the inevitable specter of partisanship does raise its head in the midst of a heated political battle, the establishment press all too often heads for the fainting couch. Rather than wade into the admittedly more tricky waters of assessing the merits of competing policies, the press uses partisanship as a convenient excuse to simply train its fire on the supposed failings of the political process. In fact, the press unconsciously lapses into this shallow, pox-on-both-houses criticism so often that it has become a cliché—even The Simpsons memorably lampooned the phenomenon in one episode using the pre-recorded “inane chatter” of the DJ 3000:

DJ 3000—“It looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns.”

Radio disc jockey—[chuckling in amazement] “How’s it keep up with the news like that?”

If you think no one in the press can be that dense, you obviously don’t watch enough cable news. But this stunning lack of self-awareness among Beltway media types and op-ed columnists is remarkably common. What’s more, it has disturbing and far-reaching consequences beyond that of failing journalism’s basic duty to accurately inform the public. This equal-opportunity assault on all parts of the government and all sides in a political argument actually serves to undermine democracy itself. It leaves the public increasingly bitter, apathetic, and disengaged from its duly elected representatives (which only a fraction of the public bothered to vote for in the first place). If this is the only message being repeated ad infinitum by the media—no matter which party is in charge or what policies they pursue—is it any wonder that great swaths of our nation no longer have any faith in our federal government or the political process?

Of course, a healthy skepticism regarding political power and authority is just that, healthy, but the anti-government rhetoric and increasingly incendiary behavior we’re seeing lately goes beyond this. The press, however, in its zeal to stay above the fray, inadvertently stokes these incidents and effectively picks a political side when it chooses to paint the whole of government with the same broad brush. Indeed, it is precisely the kind of incessant “Washington is broken” coverage that serves to reinforce the core message of the extreme conservative Republicans currently gambling with the nation’s fiscal future.

In other words, “nobody’s right, everybody’s wrong” may seem like an objective or balanced way for the press to cover a political issue like the debt ceiling crisis when it is, in fact, anything but. And in the long run, our democracy will suffer because of it.

The mail
Cheryl Haaker
Albuquerque
Greg Springer of Forney, TX probably IS a teacher, based on the reputation of Texas schools. His being unable to spell simple words** is bad enough, but in this century, not knowing how to click the spell check icon, or see the little red under-dots is inexcusable. Some of it may just be careless typing - but again, see "spell check": that will generally catch simple typos.

Then there's the grammar, the way he strings together cliches beloved by the reactionary right into a semi-coherent rant. Maybe he's not actually "brainwashed", but he does a good imitation.

Springer will probably argue that he's an "algebra" teacher, not an "English" teacher. I've been hearing this load from teachers for over three decades now, and it's still not funny. What Springer and those other guilty parties are saying is that they're not educated people. And, as noted, they're too stupid or lazy to use the in-your-face technology on their computer screens.

Sadly, they represent the best this country is willing to pay for to prepare our next generation. Third world, here we come!

Terry
Cheyenne
Are we sure Greg Springer's letter wasn't one of those phony send-ins by one of the Republican propaganda machines?  If Springer actually is an educator like Mr. Alterman, the word dependency would be correctly spelled and the "ideas" expressed would follow a thread of logic.

One chasing a dream backed by a little knowledge and risk-taking spirit does not always become rich.  Those who are rich may have become so by educated preparation and gambling on the dream or did not.  I am one who happens to think that patriotism may not be the only refuge of a scoundrel, because there sure are a lot of folks who seem to judge those of less means and privilege as unworthy humans who deserve to be underprivileged and down on their luck. I sure support the safety nets in America that would give people in that position a leg up.

But I'll play along.  Let's say that these educated, risk-takers are are more elite form of American and more admirable.  Guess your idea is that the hard-working middle class workers and working poor should bear the tax burden of the United States because I sure notice the political leaders with these the-rich-are-better ideas want only the privileged elite to get the tax breaks.  No paying a fair share or proportionate share with these hallowed few.  They need more of the all they have because their inherent "entitlement" is being blessed, having it easier, having it all, and, naturally they deserve more.  (I just had to drip with that sarcasm, sorry.)

Love that Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independance, and Constitution dearly.  I do think it best to share when you have an actual idea.  Thanks for printing that letter, though, Eric.

Sure loved the musical data this week.  I would dream of seeing Raul Malo, and you know how I love Paul.  Happy summer.

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

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Special Schadenfreude Edition...

My new Think Again is called  “Rupert, We Hardly Knew Ye,” and it’s here (with a special valentine to a Mr. Tim Groseclose).

Mark Schmitt did a longish review of lots of Obama books for the Boston Review, including Kabuki Democracy, here

(Whole lotta) Alter-reviews

Well, we’ve seen a kind of Macca-pallooza of late. Paul McCartney’s spectacular(s) at Yankee Stadium this past weekend were an awful lot like those of two years ago that opened Citi Field (minus the Billy Joel cameo on Friday’s show, but fans got it on Saturday). Like Brian Wilson’s shows—though on a much grander scale—Paul’s ambition is to recreate, exactly, the sound of his songs in the studio—and to make a case for his post-Beatles career together with the feel good/can’t fail sing along Beatles material—aside perhaps from “Revolution #9"—and so everybody goes home feeling good, and with top ticket prices near $300—richer or poorer, depending on whether you’re Paul or everybody else.

For everybody else, there’s two really sweet packages out lately, 1970’s "McCartney"—the album that announced the breakup of the Beatles and is Paul’s second or third best album—nowhere as good as “Band on the Run” and probably not as good as “Venus and Mars” but miles better than any of the others, and containing “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which is on par with any song he ever wrote though much of the rest is a throwaway; and "McCartney II," a weird, experimental CD which is worth a couple or three listens but is pretty hard to make sense of. If you read the Amazon page here you’ll get the history of both projects as well as the generous packaging and extras that make the whole thing worthwhile. And if all that is insufficient, you can stare at Paul’s face all you want—pre-work done that makes it look scarily like it did way back when—by picking up this massive collection of the late Linda McCartney’s work. It's a nice book, divided about evenly between Paul and the entire rest of the world. You’ll see some famous photographs there, of the Stones and of Hendrix, but the cover of “McCartney” is still one of my favorites of all time. I almost bought one recently for $4,500 but the little woman vetoed the purchase—wisely I’m afraid from an investment standpoint. Anyway, you can read all about Linda McCartney—Life in Photographs here. Finally, you can hear Paul rock out on this really fun new Buddy Holly tribute record which has some amazing performances, including Paul’s “It’s So Easy” along with some not bad ones. No terrible ones and most of the songs are great. (Paul owns the rights to the songs in case you were worried that he was not already making enough money.)  

I saw Raul Malo for the fourth time in the past year at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett not too long ago. It was a magnificent show. They had to cancel a Friday night show over a misssed flight but hastily rescheduled for Sunday night. He had the band with him and as the show went on both the band and the crowd—capacity is about 160—got more and more into one another. There was a lot of singing and drinking and Raul finally came across and sang my favorite song he does—the Hollies’ “Air that I Breathe”—and when it finally ended the band got a rousing standing ovation. I’ll go out on a limb here, though it’s not much of one, given that I’ve seen four shows this year and say that after a) Bruce, of course, and b) The Allman Brothers Band and c) I suppose the Stones, but they are after all the Stones, Raul Malo, particularly with band, is just about the most dependable form of musical entertainment you are going to find anywhere. The voice is a kind miracle, the muscianship first rate and the range of musical influences make it always interesting as well as fun. Trust me. And here’s the the most recent CD.

I also was happy to catch Loudon Wainwright’s annual summer show at the Talkhouse. Since he’s had a house nearby forever, and his parents are buried in East Hampton, it’s always a crowd of friends and family and Loudon could hardly be more comfortable playing his songs of difficult family moments—he’s created enough of them to launch his own country and western label—and “death and decay” now his favorite topic—before leading the crowd in a singalong of “Dead Skunk." It’s always a grand old time, though I can guaratee it would have been grander if Loudon had accepted my request to sing “I Don’t Think Your Wife Likes Me.”  The man has a new 4-CD/1-DVD box set, including a 40-page book. I don’t have it but I don’t really need it since I’ve been accumulating all the albums they’ve been on all these years, but you’ll like it if you haven’t and I’m sure the essay by David Wild is totally awesome because he used to edit me in college. About this Judt Apatow fellow, I cannot say.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with... Apparently this show was cancelled after only seven shows, which is a damn shame, since it’s the best music show to air on television since the Johnny Cash show. These seven shows on two DVDs run 315 minutes in total. Once again, they ignored my complaints of last year and make it impossible just to watch the songs, like almost every other music DVD/Blu-ray in the world. So you have to listen to the talking part over and over. This is really silly in my view. But they have their reasons. Anyway, the shows are: Bono and The Edge on the first program; Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Winchester on the second; Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson and Allen Toussaint on the third; Elvis himself on the fourth (interviewed by actress Mary-Louise Parker); Ray LaMontagne, Lyle Lovett and John Prine on the fifth; and Bruce Springsteen as the sole guest on the final two programs, which are among the greatest shows ever.

The Drive-By-Truckers have a new greatest hits collection. They are one of the greatest bands around, fun, intelligent and surprising. And anyone ought to love this album as long as they like this kind of music and don’t have all the songs already. Still, life being what it is, they left off their by-far-and-away best song: the live version of “18 Wheels of Love.” They also left off their version of “People Who Died.” What are you gonna do? Read all about it here.

Now here’s Reed:

(Republicans) Party like its 1996

I realize the folly of trying to force historical analogies on current events. No two political moments in time are ever really the same, thanks to a myriad of different circumstances. So, it’s fair to say, as others have already pointed out, that the ongoing debt ceiling debate roiling our nation’s capital differs in many individual ways from the one that we experienced 15 years ago.

Nevertheless, if one was to step back and examine the broader themes being pushed and goals being pursued by today’s Republican Party in this political battle, it’s not at all difficult to find numerous examples seemingly ripped from the headlines of 1996. To me, the striking similarities between these two eras help to dispel two popular myths about the GOP circa 2011. The first of these is the idea that its fierce obsession with the current deficit is born out of a real concern for our country’s dire fiscal situation when, in fact, it’s little more than a tried-and-true tactic of sheer political opportunism. The second is the belief that the core constituency now charting the GOP’s ideological course is some newly conceived breed of conservative heretofore unseen in American politics, rather than the same-old aggrieved, pro-rich, anti-entitlement, culture warriors from decades past.

I admit that perusing the back-and-forth news accounts below can make for a somewhat depressing read—they only serve to highlight how little progress liberals have made in shifting the debate on this issue in the last decade and a half. But the political lessons learned in the trenches of the 1995-96 debt limit skirmish are worth revisiting. The public, as my very last example demonstrates, respects and ultimately rewards those political leaders willing to stand up and fight to protect and preserve the promises made to them by their government. Willingly negotiating those social compact promises away in the interest of seeking some ephemeral ‘grand bargain,’ however, not only makes this a less vibrant and just nation for its citizens, it’s a risky (if not fatal) proposition come Election Day. So, here’s hoping that, in this last case, the current occupant of the White House understands both the real-world and political value of history repeating itself.

Theme #1: Budget experts at CBO decry the counterproductive nature of debt brinksmanship; GOP repeatedly ignores them.

1995: “In July of 1995, during testimony to the Senate Committee on Finance, CBO Deputy Director James Blum decried the use of the debt limit statute as a tool by which to achieve deficit reduction: ‘Limiting the Treasury’s borrowing authority is not a productive method of achieving deficit reduction. Significant deficit reduction can best be accomplished by legislative decisions that reduce outlays or increase revenues.’”

2011: “Ironically, [CBO Director] Elmendorf noted that one of the potential consequences of even a brief period of default would be higher federal debt, triggered by a spike in interest rates and, thus, higher interest payments on federally issued debt.” 

Theme #2: For Republicans, raising the debt limit is really an excuse to attack entitlement programs.

1996: “The Republicans have used the debt limit—the need for an extension of the nation's borrowing authority—as a major club as they have sought to force Mr. Clinton to agree to a budget that would be balanced by 2002…‘We are tremendously apart on basic policy issues,’ like changes in Medicare, Mr. Gingrich said.”

2011: “Republicans in Congress will insist on real budget cuts and reforms of entitlement programs like Medicare before voting to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor said on Tuesday.”

Theme #3: Republican leaders identify the real budget problem—a Democratic President sitting in the White House.

1996:  “But [House Speaker Gingrich] said Republicans would probably not achieve a real balanced budget ‘while President Clinton is in the White House.’”

2011: “[Republican Senate Minority Leader] McConnell's proposal to allow the president to raise the debt ceiling came after he said in a Senate speech that the country cannot solve its fiscal problems with Mr. Obama as president.”

Theme #4: Congressional Republicans accuse the President of being too coy and passive about slashing the budget.

1996: “‘While we always welcome the President's support, his sincerity about working together to fulfill our goals is too often fleeting, with no real action to back up his words,’ [Republican] Senator Gregg said.”

2011: “‘Because you have not presented any written detailed proposal to raise the debt ceiling, our constituents are left in the dark as to what specific cuts you propose as well as what taxes you are planning to raise,’ the letter [to President Obama], which was signed by 64 House Republicans, reads.”

Theme #5: Doctrinaire conservatives in Congress show no compunction about blowing up themselves and the government.

1996: "Republicans and conservatives have been following a suicidal strategy for the last year," Donald Devine, a director of The American Conservative Union and a senior consultant to the Presidential campaign of Senator Bob Dole, said last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington…‘you fail if you try to run the Government from Congress when you don't have two-thirds and the President is from the other party.’”

2011: “House GOP Suicide Squad gets bigger…The House won’t pass a clean bill; it won’t pass a Grand Bargain; it won’t pass the Gang of Six proposal; and at least 80 House Republicans are prepared to try to kill the Plan B compromise.”

Theme #6: As a result, the crazy and slightly less crazy Republican factions in Congress can’t come to an agreement.

1996: “House and Senate Republicans are less in tune over the debt ceiling.”

2011: “House, Senate GOP leaders divided on debt-ceiling deal”

Theme #7: Then, Congressional Republicans whine loudly when confronted with the potential consequences of their political recklessness.

1996: “The Clinton Administration said this week that without an extension the Government might not be able to issue an estimated $30 billion in benefit checks on March 1. ‘This bill is designed to protect America's seniors from the scare campaign President Clinton is waging against them,’ [Texas Republican Congressman Tom] Archer said.”

2011: “Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) on Wednesday charged President Obama with using a ‘scare tactic strategy’ by saying he ‘cannot guarantee’ that Social Security checks would go out if no debt-ceiling agreement is reached by Aug. 2.”

Theme #8: Nevertheless, the GOP holds debt limit hostage up to the deadline, pushing for repeated stopgap measures tied to its draconian policy goals.

1996: “House Republicans will vote to give the Administration a 30-day extension on the debt limit, but only if it accepts some of the Republicans' legislative agenda on balancing the budget and cutting taxes.”

2011: “House GOP leaders have been discussing with Vice President Joe Biden a package of cuts, worth perhaps $1.5 trillion—that could be used as part of a potential deal crafted by Senate leaders that would let Obama raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit. A GOP source tracking the talks said House leaders might also use the cuts in a standalone bill that achieves a short-term extension.”

Theme #9: The public slowly comes around to the seriousness of the debt crisis and begins to realize who’s really at fault for not finding a solution.

1996: “President Clinton will address a public that is suddenly expressing new concerns about the Federal deficit but still gives Mr. Clinton higher marks than the Republican Congress for trying to break the budget impasse… His overall job approval rating among all those surveyed remained fairly steady at 47 percent.”

2011: “Voters will blame Republicans over Obama 48%-34% if the debt limit is not raised…The president's overall approval rating in this poll is 47%.”

Theme #10: In the aftermath, one party’s stand against gutting entitlements during the debt limit crisis gives it a powerful (and winning) message in the next presidential election.

1996: “When Medicare emerged as the defining issue in 1995, it allowed Clinton to run campaign ads the next year portraying Dole as indifferent to senior citizens’ fears and pains….In the post-election discussion at Harvard, Dole's campaign manager Scott Reed gave the Clinton campaign credit for ‘the way the Medicare issue was played out. It was very effectively wrapped around our neck.’”

2011: ???

The mail:
Greg Springer
Forney, TX
I'm hardly a wealthy republican.  I am an educator like yourself.  I teach at an innter city school in Dallas and in addition to teaching calculus and algebra to my students.  I try to convey the message that we live in the greatest country in the world that allows one to chase a dream and backed with a little knowledge and a risk taking spirit you can rise above generations of government dependancey.  A cornernstone of my philosophy is personal responsibility.  Your attacks on the rich, who pay almsost all of the income tax in America, is akin to bitting the hand that feeds you.  I admire these risk takers who have made this country great and have fostered many technologial and medical advances.

I imagine this message won't even be read and if it is you will assume that I have been brainwashed by the conservative media.  I hope this is not the case but I will close with this: The Country that we both love enjoys the greatest freedoms in the world.  The one most imprtant freedom is the ability to share our ideas without fear of being locked up or worse.  Keep up  your idealogical fight and I will keep mine in the trenches as well.

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

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An Exchange on 'Checkbook' Journalism

My new “Think Again” column is is called “The Murdoch Empire’s Heart of Darkness” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “The Twilight of Social Democracy” and it’s a report from the conference in honor of Tony Judt in Paris, and it’s here.

At dinner a while back, Sam Seder reminded me that I have the honor of being the only guest ever on “The Majority Report” to send a drink back on the air. We are at the HBO Comedy festival in Aspen with Janeane Garofalo back in 2005 here and the drink goes back at around 14:00. I think it had an olive instead of a twist or else it was straight up instead of on the rocks. (It’s always something.)

I have a bunch of reviews coming, I promise, but in the meantime here’s an Alter-review by Reed:

Our Media Ourselves
By Reed Richardson

I’ll be honest, I don’t quite know what to make of Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine. Gladstone, the longtime host of NPR’s weekend show “On the Media,” has written a book of media criticism that, it’s safe to say, looks unlike any other in the genre. That’s because, as she notes in the book’s Acknowledgements: “I wanted to write a comic book long before I wanted to write a book about the media.” So, when Gladstone, an admitted sci-fi geek, couldn’t make a futuristic graphic novel about the press work out, she turned back to her day job for inspiration.

That’s right, Gladstone’s book is a work of graphic nonfiction, which is a book category that has yet to reach its full potential, based on the great difficulty I had in locating it in my local bookstore and library. Illustrated in a semi-realist, two-color style by Brooklyn-based alternative cartoonist Josh Neufeld, “The Influencing Machine” delves into the history of the media in a series of set pieces fleshed out in typical cartoon balloon-text-and-panel fashion.

Some of these panels are fairly routine drawings of talking heads, but others, like the full-page image of a swirling stream of objective journalists forever stuck in Dante’s Limbo, are quite clever, well executed works of art. And, as appears on that page, Gladstone’s avatar—intentionally drawn as a plain black-haired, black-bespectacled, black-clad, and black-booted caricature—travels throughout the book as a sort of tour guide for the reader, interjecting commentary between the many experts and sources cited (the book has eight pages of endnotes), all while driving the narrative along.

Indeed, the continual presence of Gladstone’s image on the page and voice in the text strongly evokes the experience of listening to her radio show. (See what I mean?) And the fact that, at 156 pages, it’s roughly consumable in the time it would take to listen to a one-hour “On the Media” podcast only heightens that feeling. But because both radio and graphic nonfiction are, at their essence, storyteller’s media, tackling a topic comprised of abstract ideas and concepts poses a more difficult challenge. “It became a puzzle I wanted to solve,” she writes.

In terms of making the graphic images enhance the text, she succeeds. She deftly (if briefly) explores journalism’s history of both proud and shameful behavior and dissects the rise of objectivity as the American press’s governing ideal, and all the attendant problems that came with it. Or, as she points out “Everything we hate about the media was present at its creation…[a]lso present was everything we admire.” Case in point, the New York Times, where publisher Adolph Ochs’ now famous declaration of first principles about “giv[ing] the news impartially without fear or favor” was quickly (but less famously) followed in the same editorial note with a proclaimed devotion “to the cause of sound money and tariff reform…the lowest tax consistent with good government, and no more government than is absolutely necessary to protect society.”

Still, to simply complain about the inherently flawed nature of the press and dismiss it as either tabloid junk or manipulative propaganda is to sorely miss the point. The media, her central metaphor goes, isn’t influencing what we think as much as it’s reflecting who we are. So, the things we don’t like about the press—unacknowledged, built-in biases, herd mentality, penchant for sensationalism, excessive fealty to power—are merely projections of the things we don’t like about ourselves. “We get the media we deserve,” she says.

Deserving better, then, involves expecting more out of both the press and the public. Regarding the former, Gladstone comes down firmly in favor of full disclosure of who’s doing the reporting and less restrictions on what they report as a way to both hold the press more accountable for its actions and keep it from becoming less timid about doing its job. We the people must do our fair share as well, however. The public, she says, must take “an active role in our media consumption,” offering up more corrections of errors to the press and occasionally clicking through to read an article’s original source materials, just to ensure what’s important isn’t being filtered out in the press.

Unfortunately, these insights, coming as they do at the very end of a graphic nonfiction book, get short shrift. Whereas in a traditional book these ideas could be expanded upon in a concluding chapter or two, Gladstone’s book only devotes a scant few pages and a couple of hundred words to where the media and—by extension we—go from here.

And that, I guess, is my chief grievance with Gladstone’s book. While it is a worthy contribution to the canon, I feel that the author undermined the impact of her criticisms and insights by somewhat self-indulgently choosing an unorthodox platform to deliver them. In other words, I suspect that the people who would be drawn to a graphic nonfiction book of media criticism are the most likely to already agree with the points expressed therein. Those most in need of reading this book, on the other hand, have been given a ready-made (if unfair and lazy) excuse to dismiss its contents because of its context.

But perhaps those of us who predominantly agree with Gladstone’s book—a distinct minority of which I am included—as well as those who decidedly do not—most media organization’s mastheads—aren’t the intended audience. Maybe it’s the next generation of the press and the public she’s aiming for, people who haven’t really thought much about the interplay between the two before and who will find the graphic platform a less daunting doorway into the worthwhile ideas inside. For the sake of our democracy’s future, let’s hope so.

The Mail
Last week we received a letter from David Westin, former president of ABC News, in response to Reed’s last post. Reed’s response follows below.

David Westin
New York
Eric,

If [Reed] had contacted me before writing, I might have been able to help [him] understand a bit more about the subject. I'll limit my post facto comments to two:

1. You confuse two things: paying someone for footage entirely apart from any interview and paying someone being interviewed for materials used in the interview. Casey Anthony was an example of the former; ABC News never interviewed Casey. Whether our paying for the Casey Anthony footage made sense or not was a purely business issue. What we licensed was three years of home video.

2. The point I was making to Bill Carter is that there is an ethical issue when a news organization pays the subject of an interview for ancillary material (the issue being that the payment may change what's said in the interview). But even when there isn't any interview involved and the payment cannot affect the news being reported, there is a legitimate business question of how you know that you made a good investment. There are some conspicuous cases that can't be questioned. ABC's licensing from the BBC Martin Bashir's interview with Princess Diana in the mid-90s is a good example. But, it's much harder to pencil out the cost/benefit when the material is incorporated into other reporting. This isn't a matter of laziness or lack of rigor -- it's inherent in the economics of television news. How do you know what the rating for a given segment of GMA would have been without the footage? During my tenure at ABC News, I became concerned that we were not doing a good enough job of looking back after the fact making sure we were making good decisions. And, yes, I'm sure that part of what made me particularly concerned was the extreme pressure we were under to examine all of our costs, which ultimately led to my re-structuring the business. So, sometime after the Casey Anthony situation, we cut back on our licensing of footage and stills, raising the bar on demonstrating cost/benefit. Again, to be clear, this was in cases where there was no interview involved.

I'll ignore the purple prose.

Reed replies:

To Mr. Westin’s first point, I think a close reading of what I wrote last week regarding ABC News’ relationship with Casey Anthony clearly shows that I did not confuse the issue. I specifically noted that the $200,000 his network paid in so-called licensing fees was for visual content only and I never said those monies were in exchange for a (non-existent) interview of Anthony.

Nevertheless, even his broader argument about the importance of distinguishing between both interviewing and paying a source for “ancillary materials” versus just licensing the latter seems a bit too narrowly drawn and flawed to me. If, as he indicates, the central ethical hazard in checkbook journalism involves a paid source’s potential to—either inadvertently or intentionally—change the story being reported, it seems a tad disingenuous to ignore the fact that said source, particularly in cases like Anthony’s, can still slant a story through the selection of which content they choose to sell. Plus, I’d submit that, to a vast majority of the American public, the fact that ABC News paid Anthony $200,000 to license three years of home video, but deliberately chose not to interview her for supposedly ethical reasons is a distinction without a difference.

Now, I’ll take Westin at this word that he found such deals less attractive and less profitable near the end of his tenure. (Still, I find that a bit hard to swallow, since the increasingly common practice of repurposing content for use across multiple news platforms—TV morning shows, online channels, primetime specials, etc.—would seem to make the bottom-line return on these often exclusive, paid-access deals more rather than less valuable.)

What’s most striking, however, is hearing Westin starkly judge the merits of these licensing-only deals in “purely business” terms. What doesn’t seem to enter into this blinkered calculus is the long-term reputational price the press pays for practicing checkbook journalism in its current, misguided form. As I said in last week’s post, it doesn’t have to be this way. If done wisely and transparently, paying sources directly for information could be a formidable journalistic force for the public good rather than fuel for a media arms race downward into irrelevance.

Stephen Carver
Los Angeles

Regarding your Daily Beast piece about Obama's new tough stand...

In the days following your piece two things have become clear:

1. He didn't mean it.
2. It's too late anyway.

In his desperation to be liked by everyone (and I don't mean his desire to be "re-elected," I mean, this guy really wants to be LIKED by everyone), Obama continually backpedals and gives concessions to the people who hate him. I see these pictures of Republicans and Democrats alike sitting around a conference table, the President included, and everyone is smiling and laughing, like there's NOT 10% unemployment; like there are NOT two wars currently draining our Treasury and killing our soldiers; like there's NOT anything wrong with people starving in our streets.

I am in despair when I look at these photos because they (the politicians, not the photos) are obviously the problem, but the problem has become so entrenched in power that there is literally NOTHING we can do.

Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada
Recently, David Brooks has done some columns that read as though they came directly from someone in the bowels (appropriately) of the Republican right. Knowing that Brooks prizes his reputation as a moderate conservative, I wonder whether he got some blowback on those columns and felt he had to shift the other way. I base this on two thoughts. One, the Allen Drury novel in which reporters say they have to "stand tall in Georgetown"--Brooks would worry about his social standing. Two, the legendary tale of the great New York baseball writer Dan Daniel. The American League easily won an All-Star Game and Daniel wrote a column warning that the National League was in danger of becoming a minor league. That year, the NL easily won the World Series and Daniel wrote that the American League was in danger of becoming a minor league. Another sportswriter asked Daniel how he could reconcile that. Daniel said, "I warned them both. Now they're on their own."

Alan Chaprack
New York 25, NY
As an unrepentant Lefty, what pissed me off most about Brooks's column was his equating having "no sense of moral decency" to those who'd let us default on our obligations.

He somehow doesn't see that in those who'd deny medical care or unemployment benefits to those in need. He doesn't see that lack in a defense budge that can be pared to take care of Americans. Brooks to me has no moral center.

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The Worst Things in Life Aren't Free

My new Think Again column is called “The Underlying Nonsense in David Brooks’s Lament” and it’s here.

My new Forward column is called “Will the One-State Solution Become the Only Solution?” and it’s here

And I did this Daily Beast piece a few days ago after Obama’s tough-talking presser. 

I’ll try to do a bunch of book and movie recommendations soon, but right now I appear to be stuck in those lazyhazycrazy days of summer, when there ain’t nothing better in the world you know than lyin’ in sun with the radio, (listening to Sly singing “Hot Fun….”). Um, I can do this forever but I’ll stop now.

Except for this: Go see “The Names of Love” if you live somewhere that shows cool movies.

I've always had a (heterosexual) thing for Hugh Grant (not unlike the (heterosexual) thing I have for Cary Grant). How nice to see this and have my faith rewarded.... Today, "News of the World," Tomorrow?

Now here’s Reed:

Write the Check, Sell the Story, Pay the Price

The recently concluded trial of Casey Anthony has, as an unexpected side effect, reignited an internal media debate about the ethics of so-called checkbook journalism. Anthony, if you hadn’t heard because you just returned from a week-long submersible voyage to the bottom of the ocean, was acquitted on Tuesday of charges of murdering her daughter. And almost immediately afterward, speculation began that she might now be able to cash in on her infamy by again selling her story to the highest media bidder.

I say again because Anthony has already enjoyed the largesse of our scandal-obsessed press to the tune of $200,000. That’s what ABC News generously paid her in “licensing fees”—the profession’s favored euphemism for these payoffs—back in 2008 to get access to exclusive photo and video content of her daughter, all while Anthony was under investigation but hadn’t yet been indicted. Such an exorbitant pay-for-access deal, first publicly divulged during trial testimony earlier this year, rippled through the upper reaches of the press and occasioned much gnashing of journalistic teeth and woe-is-us condemnation from media ethicists.

Nevertheless, this media self-flagellation has a distinct Lady Macbeth-like air of protesting too much in some quarters. For example, it was hard not to notice the outright disingenuousness ABC News’ Chris Cuomo displayed during his appearance on CNN’s Reliable Sources early last month. Cuomo’s public comments on the topic were no mere happenstance as, just days before, he had produced an online and video package about the Rep. Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal that was built primarily around an exclusive interview with one of the Congressman’s online paramours.

As is now routine in these situations, Cuomo’s report quietly slid into the story’s 16th paragraph an oblique reference to the “licens[ing]” of photos and didn’t divulge the exact amount paid to his source. (Other reports, however, put the figure at between $10,000 and $15,000.) And though Cuomo chose to bemoan the “commercial exigencies” that necessitated his network’s latest deal, he nonetheless turned right around and defended the practice to CNN host Howard Kurtz:

I wish it were not. I wish money was not in the game, but you know it’s going to go somewhere else. You know someone else is going to pay for the same things. The question becomes what you’re paying for. You’re paying for these photos. Why? Because they are the key to the exchanges. And this became about photos. This became about things that had to be real, so I needed them. And that is the state of play, Howie. I wish it were not. You do, too. But it is the state of play, and to say otherwise I think is false.

This “everybody’s doing it” argument is, of course, ethical relativism at its finest—the abdication of one’s supposed high standards of conduct in order to compete with the lowest common denominator. (It was also a favorite defense among journalists who, years ago, routinely enjoyed the common practice of sources giving them “freebies.”)

What’s also striking about Cuomo’s comments is the almost desperate, rationalizing tone they take—“I needed” the photos of Weiner, which were “the key to the exchanges” for the story “to be real.” In fact, the photos are rather underwhelming and almost an afterthought, while the interview with the source, which was ostensibly granted for free, was what really advanced the story with regard to Weiner’s casual recklessness. But even more illuminating is the way Cuomo briefly alights on what I think is the most compelling question about this practice during his soliloquy only to quickly move on and miss the deeper point: What, exactly, is the value of the stories the media is paying for?

In terms of newsworthiness, the answer is often hard to say. These deals tend to gather around salacious scandals or sensational stunts that are of little lasting political or cultural value. This is not to say that the exclusive stories they generate are not occasionally interesting, but they are also overwhelmingly ephemeral and rarely seem newsworthy enough to justify the filthy lucre expended to bring them to light.

However, the financial value that these deals represent to the networks that engage in them tell another tale. Former ABC News President David Westin, in this recent Times story, tried mightily to downplay the bottom-line significance of such deals during his tenure (of which the Anthony payment was one), but in doing so he comes across as either recklessly profligate or flagrantly dishonest:

The economic tradeoff rarely makes sense, Mr. Westin said, in a time of budget and staff cuts at network news divisions. ‘If you could prove that by spending $20,000 you would make $70,000, O.K., I can justify that,’ Mr. Westin said. ‘But I’ll be doggone if you could go through any of those payments, trace them through and see if it made any sense.’

So the former president of ABC News, who in his last few years there spent nearly half a million dollars buying up content from sources (including another $200,000 licensing deal for a Michael Jackson video) while slashing a quarter of the staff, now says he didn’t have the resources to track imminently trackable things like higher TV ratings and increased ad rates that followed from such six-figure expenditures? I call barnyard epithet on that. Even worse, the Times reporter just swallows this ridiculous statement and lets it sit there unchallenged.

Fact is, most, if not all, of these checkbook journalism deals are probably profitable, as this Nieman Journalism Lab’s detailed analysis showed when crunching the potential return on investment of the Gawker empire’s pay-for-tips policy. Indeed, if it weren’t a money-maker for the media, it’s hard to understand why American journalism would have such a long and distinguished history of paying sources—an early and notable example of which involves the New York Times and a $1,000 payment to the Titanic’s wireless operator for his exclusive story.

That’s why I’m less than convinced by anyone who hyperventilates about the untrammeled evils of so-called checkbook journalism. Yes, exchanging cash for exclusive access or materials can compromise a journalist if he or she is not careful. But as Slate’s Jack Shafer points out, how is this substantially different than the potential ethical pitfalls that can corrupt (and has corrupted) every source-reporter relationship (cf. Chalabi, Ahmad and Miller, Judith and Rove, Karl and Novak, Bob)? After all, heedlessly granting a source anonymity so he or she can smear a political opponent or justify a war is certainly just as harmful and ethically impure (and sometimes equivalent to an in-kind contribution worth far more than $200,000), yet even those few reporters who engage in this kind of egregious behavior will rarely face the professional disdain reserved for those who trade in money with sources.

What’s more, in other aspects of our society, we’ve begun to understand the power of incentivizing people to come forward with their stories, even if it means they enjoy lucrative benefits of doing so. That’s what has driven the more expansive whistleblower laws instituted recently. Of course, it’s easy for someone to argue that a mother accused of infanticide hardly occupies the same ethical ground as a conscientious pharmaceutical employee fired for exposing dangerous business practices. And they’d be right. And that is precisely the point.

Checkbook journalism or paying a source to get their exclusive story isn’t bad per se, it’s what kind of story the media ends up buying and from whom that really matters. Sure, Casey Anthony’s obscene deal with ABC News gets roundly criticized, as it should, but does anyone really think Time would have encountered a similar outcry from the public if the magazine had also paid these three women to tell their compelling stories?

Unfortunately, what might be a powerful tool to coax out tips exposing corporate malfeasance and government corruption has instead become a way to mainly generate tabloid fodder. And because, like Cuomo, many media organizations still make a show of emphatically disdaining the practice of paying sources while selectively choosing to ignore their own advice, the press, as a whole, appears even more craven and unprincipled once the details of these licensing deals inevitably leak out. So, rather than take an absolute stand against so-called licensing deals on the one hand or embrace a more judicious use of checkbook journalism under full disclosure rules on the other, much of our media has unwisely chosen to occupy an untenable, hypocritical middle ground.

Why go this way? Simply put, it’s the path of least resistance right now—what’s a little public opprobrium and professional embarrassment if the overnight ratings are good and advertisers are happy? In the long run, however, devoting more and more of the newsgathering budget to the buying of sensationalist scoops and investing less and less of it into staffing a robust newsroom becomes a recipe for disaster. In time, it creates a vicious cycle, where fewer reporters available means more reliance upon paying sources, which nets more sensationalist stories, which means less justification for paying reporters…

In many ways, this pattern is reminiscent of the myopic, self-consuming mindset that often proliferates throughout the corporate world. There, corporate leaders can became so focused on tomorrow’s stock price and the next quarterly report that few think twice about sacrificing an enterprise’s long-term core competency in order to gain a short-term financial boost. Wall Street learned too late about the dangers of this ruinous strategy to prevent a crisis, but journalism has no such margin for error. To avoid a similar fate, the press can’t keep mistaking the cost of something with its value, the price of doing that is just too high.

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Days of Whines and Riches

My new “Think Again” column is called “Wall Street Wins (and Whines)” and is dedicated to the proposition that these insanely wealthy bankers should stop complaining about their hurt feelings, and instead marvel at their good fortune. You can find it here.

The Daily Beast piece I wrote in Paris about gay marriage victory and the (unhappy) transformation of liberalism has received a great deal of comment. You can find it here. I did another piece for them on the resurgence of the liberal Barack Obama, if only for the course of a press conference. You can find it here.

Most crucially, no doubt, Bruce’s eulogy for Clarence is here

Now here’s Reed: 

Fox News: “We…Decide”

Lately, I’ve had little interest in wading into the Fox News media swamp to point out how the whole enterprise is mired in bias and illegitimacy, especially since others have been doing yeoman’s work on the subject. (And with regard to that last example, perhaps it’s time the Washington Post find someone else to write their TV column if the current occupant can’t avoid using horrid clichés like “deafening silence” while simultaneously failing to grasp that Jon Stewart’s audience is not expected to laugh when he’s making a serious, insightful point about the conservative media’s victimization two-step.) Nevertheless, this week we witnessed, yet again, Fox News pushing the ridiculous boundaries of journalistic irresponsibility to new heights (or depths, as it were).

It all started last fall when Alec Baldwin sent a mock angry message along with a fruit basket to fellow actor Jim Parsons after the latter beat out the former at the Emmy Awards. Baldwin’s accompanying note read, tongue clearly in cheek: “Congratulations you talented, charming bastard.” (A joke that Parsons clearly got, by the way.)

But a story about this kind of clever, classy move wasn’t going to generate much media heat. So, Oliver Miller, a freelancer on AOL’s TV beat, decided to intentionally gin up controversy and clicks by eliding everything except the last word from Baldwin’s note. The result was one of the most egregious abuses of quote chopping in recent memory—not counting movie review blurbs, of course—and Miller’s story ended up reading: “Alec called Jim … ‘a bastard.’” (I would also point out that besides being willfully deceiving, this horrendously out-of-context quote is still factually incorrect.) Although Miller did somewhat disingenuously wonder if Baldwin was “kidding” later in his piece, he still slapped his own distorted headline on the piece, one that highlighted what he termed was a “rude message.” (The story’s gone from AOL, but archived here.)

Baldwin, clearly blindsided by this obviously unethical media behavior, rightly complained about the story online and the dishonest story was soon taken down and Miller subsequently fired. OK, AOL clearly has, or at the very least had, some editorial quality issues of their own thanks, in part, to pushing high story quotas and an obsession with buzz-worthy articles. Still, justice was eventually served, so to speak. But then, two weeks ago, this Miller fellow pops up again with a self-serving magazine article that revisits the incident and blames, of all people, Baldwin for his firing. (Though he doesn’t mention Baldwin specifically, plugging the included quote into Google turns up his and Baldwin's name in seconds.)

And that’s where, right on cue, Fox News steps in, willing to repackage the smear and feed it into a tired old stereotype about the supposedly thin skin of petulant liberal elites. This past Tuesday, FoxNews.com picked up this angry-Hollywood-celebrity-gets-poor-journalist-fired thread and rolled it into a new story by one Meaghan Murphy that doubles down on Miller’s dishonest hackery. Murphy’s lede alone twists the truth of what really happened until it’s an almost unrecognizable ball of aggrieved right-wing bitterness: “Beware the wrath of Alec Baldwin, as insulting him, even by accident, may cost you your job.”

Of all the distortions offered up in this one sentence, the topper has to be introducing this notion that the lowly, hard-working Miller merely had the misfortune of running afoul of a powerful liberal like Baldwin. Particularly since nothing Miller did was “by accident,” as he himself admits later in that very same Fox News article when he acknowledges: “The title I wrote was sort of purposely misleading.”

In a just world, getting that kind of incriminating quote would have been the point where Murphy decides to tell her editor she has to shut down her story and move on to the next topic. But, alas, that world is not the one inhabited by Fox News. Still, there’s an understandably attractive upside-down logic at work here, one that clearly appeals to Fox News’ conservative audience. After all, it must be much more comfortable to say something like “Bush led us into invading Iraq by accident,” than to have to confront the ugly reality that their much admired president had been purposely misleading the country.

Murphy’s awful piece wraps up with Miller continuing to intentionally miss the point, then sympathetically gives him the last word: “I’m really sorry—I was just doing my job.” Of course, when a journalist at a reputable media organization flagrantly distorts a quote and slants a headline to manufacture controversy that is the very opposite of doing one’s job, which is precisely why Miller lost his. Murphy, on the other hand, probably knows her employer well enough to realize that her story, wracked though it may be with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, represents no threat to her own job security.

And in the end, that is the larger, more important point of this thoroughly unimportant kerfuffle. If the pathological need to “balance” the so-called liberal media drives Fox News to warp and contort even the most insignificant of stories to suit a right-wing worldview, there’s really no telling how far they’ll go to push their agenda when they decide the “news” they’re “reporting” actually matters.

The Mail
Jim Moran
Nashville, TN
Hi, Mr. Alterman:

Long-time fan of your work, before the first days of Air America. You comment on a number of musical artists, makes me wonder if you're familiar with Anais Mitchell? Brilliant young singer/songwriter from Vermont. Wonderfully melodic and literate songs, she studied Middle Eastern languages abroad. Her father is a novelist and professor of English, she grew up with no TV, just a library of books and albums. Lots of folk artists, and the Beatles and their contemporaries. Her first CD, "Hymns For The Exiled", was released in 2004 when she was only 23 years old. Very lovely and brave piece of work, took on the whole GWB terror war meme, right at the height of that administration's lying and public manipulation. One great song "two kids" has a verse sung in Arabic, written by a Turkish acquaintance of hers. Beautifully done, she delivers heavy political/cultural stuff in a very accessible and musical way. Signed with Ani DiFranco's label for her next CD, "The Brightness". I think it exceeds "Hymns", much as "Sgt Pepper" exceeded it's brilliant predecessor, "Revolver". Less overtly political, but very provocative and engaging. Includes an amazing song from her subsequent project "Hadestown", a folk opera telling of the myth of Orpheus and Persephone, set in a post-apocalyptic world. I hope you check her out, you'll thank me. A small repayment for your fine work over the years.

Best,

Jim Moran

PS: How about Richard Julian?

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Take Down the Union, Jack

I'm in Paris, attending (and writing about) a conference in honor of Tony Judt, sponsored by The New York Review of Books. I am without wireless, and so am literally posting this from my Blackberry.

I must, therefore, be brief.

My new "Think Again" column takes up some of the holes of Jon Stewart's critique of Fox News, as well as the overall lameness of Chris Wallace's response, and can be found here.

One more thing. Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But sometimes we can recall, and appreciate, all that we miss. Here are three places to enjoy, and appreciate the magic and the majesty of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, featuring the big man on sax, here, here and here.

Now here’s Reed:

Take Down the Union, Jack

I’m not sure what persuaded the New York Times to run this thinly veiled hit piece on public union pensions this past Wednesday, but if you read this lengthy story by Charles Duhigg you’ll come across more than a few right-wing talking points, glaring omissions, and misleading financial numbers. What’s even more surprising is that its author, Duhigg, was among a team of Times reporters that produced “The Reckoning,” a 2008 Pulitzer Prize-finalist series on the roots of the recent financial meltdown, yet Wall Street’s gross incompetence gets no mention as the proximate cause of much of the ongoing public pension shortfalls.

Instead, right upfront, we get the not-so-subtle framing that public unions essentially enjoy an inherent conflict of interest when dealing with their management counterparts:

But public workers have a unique relationship with elected officials, because government employees are effectively negotiating with bosses whom they can campaign to vote out of office if they don’t get what they want. Private unions, in contrast, don’t usually have the power to fire their members’ employers.

This “unique relationship” framing has become a fundamental plank in conservative opposition to public sector unions. So much so, that David Brooks might suggest to Duhigg that the latter buy the next round at the bar for so closely appropriating the language of an anti-union Brooks column from this past February:

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

Perhaps we should at least be grateful the Times story stops short of accusing public unions of staging a “silent coup” or agitating to strip them of their right to vote as other right-wing figures have recently.

Still, Duhigg knows that any politically sensitive piece of objective journalism like this must include a cover-your-ass “to be sure” section, which typically contains some artificially weakened contradictory evidence or a stunning lack of proper context with regard to the entire premise of one’s story. Here, Duhigg shows you how’s it’s done:

Public employee unions are hardly the only group involved in bare-knuckles politics. Businesses lobby fiercely and executives make hefty campaign donations.

And there you go. In a several thousand-word piece that no doubt took weeks to report and edit, that is the extent of the article’s contextualization of the contractual obligations due to public union members like teachers and firefighters versus those of, say, the traders and executives at TARP recipients Goldman Sachs and AIG. In terms of shining examples of retirement excess, someone like this irresponsible bank CEO, who still collected an $18-million golden parachute in the midst of the economic meltdown, just doesn’t rate a mention, not when Duhigg can find a Laguna Beach lifeguard who retired in 2008 at age 57 and is now raking in $113,000 a year. OK, so the latter actually had to save lives as part of his job and all, sure, but other than that what did he really contribute to our society that deserves such lucrative pay?

Of course, you could argue that both of the above examples are egregious cases of cherry-picking to support an argument, and you’d have a point. In fact, this retired-public-employee-with-six-figure-pension segment, which is fast replacing the welfare queen stereotype as a popular conservative trope, makes up less than one percent of all of California’s pension recipients. A vast majority of that state’s retirees earn far less, as even Duhigg acknowledges in the story. Nevertheless, Duhigg clearly thinks he scored a hit on the outrage meter with his retired lifeguard earning a six-figure pension example, so much so that he makes a point of including another one later in the story.

The broader pension data notwithstanding, the subtext of the illustrated examples is clear—public unions have run amok. But to support this implication of reckless pension-stuffing, Duhigg doesn’t cite examples of union corruption, bribery, or labor leader kickbacks; instead, he provides examples of public union employees doing dastardly democratic things like organizing, campaigning, attending public meetings, and holding elected officials accountable to ensure they live up to their promises (or switching their allegiance when they don’t). Perhaps the silliest moment comes when his reporting lays bare a sinister sounding plan “informally known” as “Operation Domino:”

[T]he goal was straightforward: persuade one city to increase salaries and pensions for workers, and then approach neighboring municipalities and argue that if the increases weren’t matched, the city’s police, firefighters or other employees might quit, in large numbers, and go elsewhere.

The gall of these union workers, using things like the free market, collective bargaining, and the law of supply and demand to get higher wages, benefits, and pensions for their members. And in a capitalist society, no less? I mean, who do they think they are, multinational corporations? No wait, strike that, union members at least pay taxes.

However, it’s not just the anecdotal examples of political power being used to push for higher pensions that matter, according to the Times. Instead, it’s the “ever escalating payouts” themselves that are causing financial hardship in state after state. However, when it comes to digging into what actually led to these pension deficits all around the country, Duhigg glosses over long-term systemic problems, leaving readers with a skewed sense of what caused these crises.

For example, in a story that spends so much time scrutinizing how pensions payouts are affecting state and local budget deficits in California, the complete absence of any mention of that state’s onerous Proposition 13 is a striking oversight. This self-inflicted budgetary millstone, which is considered a crowning achievement among starve-the-beast conservatives, strictly caps property tax increases, making it extremely difficult for the state, and cities in particular, to adapt to financial shortfalls. As a result, all parts of the public sector—not just state pensions—have increasingly fallen under the budget axe.

Likewise, in my home state of New Jersey, the current pension deficits are thanks, in large part, to a long-running history of political negligence and mismanagement. Certainly, if the public employee unions enjoyed so much influence, one would think that they would have forced the state to pay its full share into their pension system more than just two years out of the last 17. But alas, this is not the case. Starting with Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman, skipping out on pension obligations in favor of tax cuts to the wealthy has become favorite New Jersey budget gimmick, one that current Governor Chris Christie—for all his supposed fiscal discipline—has similarly repeated.

But taken individually, even these systemic state pension problems might have been easily navigable had not Wall Street malfeasance imploded the economy three years ago. (For more on how even the current state pension crises are “overblown,” check out this Huffington Post article.) Here, though, Duhigg chooses a noticeably vague, almost act-of-God type phrase to briefly describe what happened: “When the financial crisis hit in 2008…” Without any qualifiers regarding the man-made causes of the financial crisis, this passive language has a sense of natural disaster inevitably about it, as if the public union’s pension plans were the equivalent of building a straw house on the wrong side of Mississippi River levees. They were bound to be “hit” and fail eventually, in other words, and so the unions have no one to blame but their own greedy selves for the political attacks and benefit cutbacks they now face.

This, in a nutshell, captures the strong headwinds that blow against more than just organized labor these days. Simply put, the media has grown weary of rehashing the ethical (and surely criminal) activity that nearly bankrupted this country and is instead now preoccupied with how much sacrifice can be wrung out of poor and the middle class in terms of cutbacks to union pensions, Social Security, and Medicare. Those who paid their dues (both literally and figuratively), worked hard, and looked forward to a comfortable retirement are now being bullied into shouldering a share of a financial burden that was recklessly manufactured by others.

The final scene in the Times story clearly demonstrates how this ongoing debate continues to play out on a personal scale all around the country. In it, Duhigg depicts three union firefighters—“all of whom declined to give their names,” he says somewhat ominously—sitting at a town meeting where a conservative city council member lays out his plan for massive public employee layoffs. “‘I’m not here on anything official,’ one [firefigther] said. ‘We just like the council to know that we’re watching them.’” As well they should, particularly if the national media becomes increasingly complicit in the systematic dismantling of their future. 

The Mail
Carl Cole
Muscle Shoals
Finally, reason for you to visit the fly-over state of Alabama (or commit to a pilgrimage to the R&B landscape that is Muscle Shoals):  The Drive-By Truckers will be performing as the celebrated performer at the annual W.C. Handy festival on July 30.  Also on the bill is Pat Hood's dad's band, The Decoys.  Everyone knows about DBT but The Decoys are truly a hidden gem and David Hood is the last of the original Swampers to be actively playing. (actually, The Decoys play in town pretty often and for very little compensation. And they are terrific!) Spooner Oldham and Donnie Fritz will also be on board. If this show isn't great, we will all be shocked.

Tickets are here. The venue is the concert hall of our local university.

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Four Reasons I Suck

My new Think Again column is called “The FCC’s ‘Local’ Focus; Too Little, Too Late?” It’s about the shortcomings of the big new staff report the agency issued, and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “The Ingrates of Wall Street.” It’s here.

I must say, I suppose to my shame, that I wrote three Anthony Weiner pieces this week. The newest one came out Thursday afternoon, here. The other two are here and here.

And here is Danny Goldberg’s memoir of his late friend, Gil Scott-Heron.

Four Reasons I Suck:

1) My “entire career has taken place within the top 1% intellectual aristocracy. As a result, [my] solutions for anything are tops-down, institutional solutions.” Also, I claim my “education has given me ‘historical context for understanding what is going on,’” yet my “arguments are absent an understanding of history.” 

2) I am an “Agent of Falsehood.” 

3) I think “You’re an idiot.” Let me be clear. I do think this Matthew Vadum fellow is an idiot, though the above is all I know about him, so for all I know, he could be a hoax. As for “you,” I don’t know you well enough to say, but perhaps this Mr. Vadum does, if in fact he does exist.

4) I am the problem, not the solution, to the problems I diagnose. (Actually, Josh Rothman wrote this nice, not-entirely-uncritical piece about my Academe article, The Professors, The Press, The Think Tanks—And Their Problems. But Will Wilkinson, late of the Cato Institute, you may recall, wrote a nasty piece about it. I replied at considerable length last week here, but apparently, this Wilkison fellow found my responses unanswerable (and I can’t say I entirely blame him).

Alter-reviews:

Garland Jeffreys is pretty close to the top of my list of most talented/least famous musical artists alive. His first album in more than thirteen years, “The King of In Between,” is cause for celebration. A wonderfully mongrel mix of rock, salsa, reggae and soul, Jeffreys is an incredibly energetic performer both of covers—his “No Woman, No Cry” approaches the original—and has written some of the greatest songs of all time. His album “Ghost Writer” is probably one of the ten best albums of the seventies and his next few albums are all pretty decent as well. His version of “96 Tears” is one of the most fun songs I’ve ever heard, and his own songs, “Wild in the Streets” and “R.O.C.K.” are classics—well at least in my house they are.

Much more popular in Europe than in the US, Jeffreys’ new record reflects his musical chops, intelligence and syncretism. In many ways, it’s a reflection of much of what’s great about this city, with “Coney Island Winter” as its centerpiece. Jeffreys is 67 and much of this album is about getting old; but he’s got a fifteen-year-old daughter and a rock n roll band to keep him young while he does. My guess is that you’ll want this album around to help keep you young while you get old too. I know I do. More here

Wednesday night I caught Eilen Jewell at Joe’s Pub and felt really lucky I did. I went on a whim, but was sold from just a few minutes in. First off, there was this crack band with a guy named Jerry Miller on Link Wray-like guitar. But most of all there was Jewell’s voice, supple and sexy as she combined blues, rockabilly and jazz, with a pretty fair sense of humor to boot. She was rather energetically pushing her new CD called “Queen Of The Minor Key.” I haven’t had the chance to spend much time with it but I am rather fond of her Loretta Lynn tribute, “Butcher Holler.”

I’ve also been spending time with this new CD “Heartless World” by Stewart Francke, who writes serious, sensitive songs about Afghanistan and the like. What attracted me, you will not be surprised to hear, is the appearance of Bruce Springsteen. In the liner notes, Francke writes, "it was always [Bruce's] voice I heard in the call & response of the chorus but I figured it would remain just a dream. So I asked, he said yeah, and sang it as he sings everything — with great passion and emotional clarity. A dream come true." And hey, you can download the song for free at Backstreets.com.

In re-release news, I was thrilled to find a two CD “Red Bird Story” from Charly records in England. Founded by Lieber and Stoller—they did not understand payola or much else about the business—and so the company only existed for three years. But this collection has sixty songs alone, many of which were written by the pair and performed by the Dixie Cups, Shangri-Las, Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann. Really nice packaging and excellent liner notes too. More here. Charly has also released a similarly elaborate 2 CD colletion of the Shangi-Las. Personally, I think that is an awful lot of Shangri-Las, but perhaps you don’t. Read all about it here.

Almost finally, if you’re missing any of the classic Paul Simon albums, well now’s the time. Sony Legacy is releasing them with cleaned up sound and few additional cuts and the like. The one I needed a new version of was “Live Rhymin’” which is a wonderful thing to have, if you don’t. They’re all pretty great and a little depressing. Reggae folk will be excited also about the new “Legacy” versions of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” and “Equal Rights.” The latter one is the great one.

Now here’s Reed:

Reason Me This

The ability to reason has certain, undisputed evolutionary advantages, not the least of which involves figuring out how to get that last pickle out of the jar. But according to two French social scientists, what has propelled reason's advance over the centuries is not the potential for deep, philosophical self-examination as was previously thought. Instead, its impetus may have come from something much more practical and mundane (and near and dear to the hearts of Altercators)—the ability to convince that Fox News-addicted, conservative uncle of yours, when seated next to him at Thanksgiving dinner, that Obama is not, in fact, a foreign-born, closet socialist bent on undermining the Constitution at every turn.

Or, at least that’s what the pair says in this very interesting write-up about their “argumentative theory of reasoning” in yesterday’s Times:

Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose: to win arguments…According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.

Certainement, non? Indeed, whatever this theory’s failings may be as social science, it’s conclusions certainly ring true to those of us who watch with abject disappointment as our political leaders and national media stand idly by while our country remains mired in an ongoing economic crisis. This theory, at least, offers up fresh insight into explaining the grinding legislative dysfunction and overly timid journalism that plagues us.

But wait, there’s good news! Over time, the theory goes, as large groups of people are exposed to many more differing viewpoints, they will achieve a greater collective sophistication in ferreting out bias and misinformation. Eventually, the best ideas and soundest arguments will rise to the top. If this happy ending sounds too good to be true, however, well, it is. That’s the bad news. Indeed, much like 220-volt household appliances and the movies of Jerry Lewis, the French researchers concede that their theory, “doesn’t seem to work in the U.S.”

Why is that exactly? What makes us, as a nation, so quick to swallow weak or patently false arguments and willfully (and sometimes enthusiastically) gum up the gears of our political process? Is our affinity for reliving these same old mistakes time and again just an unfortunate side effect of so-called American Exceptionalism?

The Times article certainly doesn’t solve this reasoning riddle, concluding as it does with the French theorists essentially throwing up their arms at us and vaguely blaming “America’s high-decibel adversarial system.” But this seems to be a bit half-hearted. After all, don’t elected officials and news pundits in the U.K., France, Italy, and almost every other Western country routinely “seek to score political advantage rather than arrive at consensus?” Sure, our political process suffers from some uniquely American structural problems—filibuster abuse and the hodge-podge redistricting process, come readily to mind—but something else, something larger, must be at work.

Could it be that the argumentative reasoning theory runs aground on American shores because its a priori givens aren’t accepted here as they are abroad? For example, the notion that everyone–including journalists—carries around their own set of personal biases may be readily acknowledged in media capitals like London, Paris, and Rome, but in the objectivity-obsessed newsrooms of Washington and New York such thoughts amount to journalistic heresy. The media-as-umpire analogy remains a shibboleth of our mainstream media, and the naïve myth that a news story or broadcast can “play it exactly down the middle” still endures.

This rigid pose of institutional neutrality saddles our press with unrealistic, if not impossible, expectations and makes calling out flawed reasoning more, rather than less, difficult. Likewise, it does a disservice to honest journalists as it effectively forces them to report with the equivalent of one arm tied behind their backs. As a result, it leaves the profession, as a whole, increasingly ill-equipped to keep pace with unprincipled political leaders and well-funded interest groups who have no similar qualms about routinely exploiting bias, straw-man arguments, and irrationality to advance an agenda, spin a news story, or pass (or repeal) a bill.

Still, the press has developed some coping mechanisms to counter the daily deluge of bias and flawed reasoning. Recently, one of the most popular of these mechanisms is the creation of separate “fact-checker” columns and standalone websites. While, at times, these platforms can play a valuable role in separating out the rhetorical chaff that clogs much of our political discourse—the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact won the national reporting Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 presidential election—they also indicate how tough it will be to achieve that collective sophistication of thought and reasoning.

First off, the very existence of these fact-checkers should cause a news consumer to wonder what value they’re getting out of reading, watching or listening to Washington’s daily beat reporters. By so publicly compartmentalizing the “fact-check” function, these news entities implicitly acknowledge that most of the press corps just doesn’t have the time (or perhaps the inclination or knowledge) to do more than give a cursory explanation of what happened. But now more than ever, what we need is for our media to analyze why and how something happened and the reasoning behind it.

Second, though these fact-checking entities make a show of assertively challenging flawed reasoning, this boldness can be deceiving. Some of it amounts to little more than clever marketing—PolitiFact reserves its “Pants on Fire” rating for the biggest supposed lies while the Post’s Glenn Kessler maxes out his analysis of unsubstantiated claims at “Four Pinocchios.” Indeed, these fact-check sites remain firmly entrenched in the ethos of objectivity. And while hewing to this conventional wisdom no doubt has little impact on their judgments in the most egregious cases, larger, more complicated issues make these platforms susceptible to the same reflexive, he-said, she-said “view from nowhere” that colors much of the rest of the national media.

Case in point, the recent political debate characterizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to “reform” Medicare. Democrats, recognizing the popularity and effectiveness of Medicare, have variously said Ryan intends to “kill”, “end,” or “end as we know it” the currently public, single-payer health care plan by turning it into a privately administered, voucher-based program. Ryan and the Republicans dispute this claim by saying that the plan won’t affect anyone currently older than 55 (but it will) and noting that the vouchers would be funded by a government entity still called Medicare. The latter is a classic bit of inductive logic, the absurdity of which Atrios summed up by saying “when we replace the Marines with a pizza, we’ll call the pizza the Marines.” Nevertheless, all three of the main fact-check sites flinched in the face of this shoddy reasoning and denounced the Democratic claims as overkill, misleading, or downright false. (The specific details behind why their analyses are inherently flawed, I’ll leave to others.)

But the larger point here is that, in the long run, achieving a more honest political discourse in our country probably won’t be determined by the number of journalists or fact-checkers we have, or how many claims they examine. Instead, what might ultimately make the difference would be removing the limits of hidebound objectivity and intellectual timidity that we’ve imposed upon ourselves. Lighting the candle of subjective reasoning may create a whole new world of shadows, yes, but it’s a far better fate than continuing to safely curse the darkness.

The Mail:
Frank Lynch
Hometown: 
Really Not Worth Archiving
As the dust settles tonight on the Anthony Weiner brouhaha, I'm sure we'll be subjected, again, to comparisons to David Vitter. At first I thought the contrast in their treatment was revelatory, but on further reflection I think a better poster child for senatorial misbehavior is Jon Kyl. Kyl, you'll recall, stood up during debates to defund Planned Parenthood and claimed that 90% of what they do is abortions. A thousand bloggers pointed out that the true figure is closer to 3%; Kyl had essentially lied about an important statistic during debate, and his office weakly issued a release saying that Kyl's statistic "was not meant to be a factual statement." Meaning that Kyl is comfortable with making "nonfactual" statements during debates if they are persuasive.

And yet, even his office's fig leaf was not adequate justification: Kyl had his statistic expunged from the Congressional Record, as is his privilege.

Keep in mind, this was on the Senate floor, during a significant debate while government shutdown negotiations were in progress.

Vitter's crime, while a crime, is small potatoes.

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Enough About You...

My new Think Again is called “How to Manipulate Form and Content for Fun and Profit (and Conservative Ideology) or ‘Enough about You…’” It’s a response to a column by an Economist bloggger about what a hypocrite I am and you can find it here.

My first column in Forward is about the implicit conspiracy between Bibi Netanyahu and the Republican leadership to against the long term interests of both Israel and the US, here

And while we’re on the topic of me, indulge my desire to let people know my “Think Again” column was awarded the 2011 Mirror Award, sponsored by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism, for “Best Commentary, Digital Media.” At the ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Tuesday, I expressed my gratitude to CAP for their help and support, to the Lord, because I know this is exactly the kind of award category with which he/she/it is particuarly concerned, and, finally, caused a minor ruckus by asking my fellow media writers to stop pretending that Fox News is actually a news operation. I felt this was relevant because it was the topic of one of the columns that was being honored. You can read about it here and here.

Now here’s Reed:

Stop Making Sense 

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

This lyric, which appears early on in the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” perhaps best describes the perplexing political moment we face as a nation right now. In effect, our democracy’s leadership is paralyzed, either unable or unwilling to confront what are the most pressing problems of the day. A kind of cognitive dissonance has fallen over Washington, one where the widely recognized crises of ongoing high unemployment and a corroded (if not wholly corrupted) mortgage market are now considered acceptable to ignore. Instead, ephemeral and long-term issues like the latest sex scandal and the federal budget deficit soak up all the attention. 

Aiding and abetting this political negligence is a Washington press corps obsessed with covering meaningless personal dalliances and punitive long-term entitlement cuts. But to really ask ourselves how we got here, to a point where the political debate has shifted so far away from what needs to be done now, there is perhaps no better place to start than to take a brief travelogue through the Washington Post’s supposedly left-leaning op-ed columns. 

“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.”

Let’s start with Ruth Marcus’s column from last Tuesday. In this fictional dialogue over Medicare between “Barack” and “Paul,” Marcus engages in a time-honored, centrist fantasy—that a one-on-one “adult conversation” between two partisans can bridge ideological differences and solve our problems.

Of course, she has to pull her punches every so often to keep the discussion going. So, for example, when “Barack” rightly points how Rep. Ryan’s, er, I mean “Paul’s” Vouchercare plan would gut Medicare funding in the long run and force seniors into painful choices between health care and, say, housing, she has the fictional “Paul,” privately concede “I could maybe support higher taxes.” Of course, that’s not bloody likely, if you listen to this real Paul’s dogmatic refusal of such a position.

Then, to defend “Paul’s” handing of this new “Medicare” completely over to private insurers, she throws out a Republican talking point about how private insurers are already a part of Medicare. But studies, like this one, have consistently shown that publicly run plans, which have no burden to produce profits, routinely cost less than those administered by private insurers. This is why the Affordable Care Act found a big chunk of its long-term health care savings by moving to eliminate the more expensive Medicare Advantage option.

Frustratingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, a final back-and-forth between “Barack” and “Paul” only has them agreeing to disagree. (Versimilitude! Even in this fictional world Marcus can’t figure out a way to make bipartisanship work.) But if the concern here was really about how to secure Medicare in the long run, she had her imaginary actors overlook the most important point of all—that, according to Medicare’s own trustees, the best way to keep the program solvent in the future is to fix the economy now.

“The Medicare trustees said in last year’s report that the healthcare reform law had extended the life of the Medicare trust fund by 12 years. That projection declined by five years in the newest report because of the economy. A senior administration official said Medicare trust fund didn’t spend more than expected last year. Rather, high unemployment meant that the trust fund took in less money through payroll taxes.” 

“Into the blue again, after the money’s gone”

Robert Samuelson’s Sunday column in the Post continued this debate over Medicare, although debate is probably too generous a word for what amounted to little more than a glowing review of Ryan’s draconian plan. Still, Samuelson, who might best be described as someone who merely plays a liberal on TV and in the newspaper and does none too good a job a it, acknowledges that Ryan’s goal of forever changing Medicare into a voucher-based system and returning the country to a point where everyone is on their own against the market is no small step. 

“It’s shock therapy. Would it work? No one knows." 

No one? Really? Well OK, that’s literally true. But it’s not exactly honest, either; as there are some very smart people who work at the Congressional Budget Office whose job it is to analyze these things and who just happen to appear in Samuelson’s column three paragraphs later:

“Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that in 2022, Ryan’s plan would be more than a third costlier than the status quo, because Medicare’s size makes it more effective at restraining reimbursement rates. If the CBO is correct, Ryan’s plan fails;:

So, we went from the Magic 8-Ball telling us ‘Reply hazy, try again” on the potential success of Ryan’s plan to an independent financial agency predicting disastrous results if we adopt it. Hmm, I know which one I’m more comfortable betting my meager retirement savings on.

But wait! Samuelson says the CBO could be wrong, since it overestimated the costs of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. Of course, he fails to dig into why that is (hint: it has little to do with the efficiency of private insurer administration) or mention that they could be another 14–40% lower than what they are now if the government could only use its massive buying power to negotiate lower drug prices, like it does for reimbursement rates. But hey, according to Samuelson, Medicare “as we know it” is going to end anyway, so why not work to ensure that our future circumstances are as bleak as our disregarded present ones? 

“You may ask yourself. Am I right? Am I wrong?”

It’s hard to make sense of Richard Cohen’s absolutely inexplicable column from this past Monday. In it, he declares in the opening paragraph that Obama “sends contradictory messages.” How so? Well, don’t look to Cohen for answers because he spends the bulk of his column sending contradictory messages of his own, by building a strong case against this premise: 

On Obama’s supposed hatred of Wall Street: “You will look in vain for anything Obama has said to substantiate this view.”

On Obama’s supposed antagonism towards Israel: “[Former aide Rahm] Emanuel recapitulated the president’s recent speech about Israel and, indeed, it had all the right words.”

 

And yet, despite this strong evidentiary case to the contrary, Cohen, suddenly jumps back through the looking glass and, in a display of upside-down reasoning that would make even Lewis Carroll proud, writes:

“Here again Obama’s oxymoronic quality is on display. As with the business community, Obama’s assurances to the pro-Israel community mean little. His precise words are discounted. As with the business community, rumor or anecdote trumps pronouncements or actions—something Obama once said, a pro-Palestinian friend he once had. Something like that. The whisper has more volume than the speech itself. It is an odd state of affairs.”

So, it is somehow a personal failing of Obama’s that, even though his “precise words” and actions are consistent, he is still perceived as contradictory and duplicitous? Isn’t this the same paranoia that feeds the Birther crowd—facts don’t matter, what does is that this President just can’t keep straight the innuendo swirling around him. In other words, when Obama says and does the same thing that only further proves he believes and wants to do the exact opposite. Sure, could be, or something like that.

This is not far from the kind of ridiculous, conspiratorial thinking that if you stood on a public street corner and shared with random strangers all day should soon bring the men in white coats (or, possibly, get you a right-wing book deal.) Perhaps Cohen’s intention was to sarcastically lampoon or explain away this kind of half-baked craziness, but he instead ends up excusing it thanks to an acutely passive tone—“it is an odd state of affairs”—that conveniently sidesteps the critical role the Washington press corps has played in letting these fallacies and rumors about the president take flight and gain altitude.

True, he at least mentions in passing the current economic predicament plaguing the country and rightly identifies Republicans as the main obstacles to any further stimulative action. But then, just as suddenly, he plops down some overly trite, blame-the-victim conclusions and runs for the exit—Obama, he says, absent any evidence of course, lacks “an internal and external consistency,” and should “reassure the business community” and “needs to lead.” That’s right, according to Cohen, until Obama’s thoughts improve, the economy won’t. Good grief. 

“Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”

But Dana Milbank’s Tuesday column topped all of the above, with several rhetorical reaches that exceeded the grasp of not only logic but decency. In it, Milbank milks yet another column out of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s recent Twitter drama by trying to claim that this sordid personal story is emblematic of a broader character flaw currently affecting most politicians in Washington—recklessness. But when he starts documenting recent examples that supposedly prove his case, the forced equivalencies between them become almost laughable, and I say almost because ultimately the stakes involved make the whole column more tragic than funny.  

“But while recklessness is pervasive in Washington, most of the time it’s not sexual or financial but professional. President George W. Bush taking the nation to war twice while cutting taxes; President Obama delivering a major transformation of the nation’s health-care system without a single vote from the opposition; Rep. Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman, proposing an end to the Medicare guarantee to make more room for tax cuts; Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, gambling that he can go a second straight year without passing a budget at all.”

Catch that? Republican recklessness involves policies, while Democrats’ supposedly bad behavior is all about process. What’s more, Milbank has the unmitigated gall to propose that the Bush era’s huge deficits and thousands of American lives lost (as well as nearly 100,000 Iraqis’) in pursuit of a needless war rank no worse than the perfectly legitimate democratic path Obama used to pass a health care law that will cover nearly every uninsured person in the country and reduce that same deficit created by Bush by more than $1 trillion over the next 20 years. This isn’t just comparing apples and oranges, it’s more like apples and hand grenades.

That the Affordable Care Act actually might be good policy just doesn’t enter into the equation. In Milbank’s world, simply the fact that it wasn’t cloaked in phony or wrong-headed bipartisanship, as the Bush tax cuts and authority to invade Iraq certainly were, means that Obama acted with the same high-handed extraconstitutional arrogance as his predecessor. Of course, even this transparently ginned-up recklessness charge requires dumping down the memory hole the year-long series of significant compromises (public option ring a bell?) that Obama accepted in an effort to coax even just one Republican to vote aye on what was, after all, a Republican health care plan, all to no avail. So, when the president recognized this intransigence for what it was—pure partisan obstructionism—and pushed his Democratic majority to do what they were democratically elected to do, that, according to Milbank, sunk to the same lowly political depths as starting an ill-advised war under false pretenses and giving millionaires unnecessary tax breaks. 

“Each man operated as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him — rolling the dice just as the tickle fighters and scantily clad self-photographers do.”

Ah, “the normal rules.” Would those be the same rules that would ordinarily have our elected officials and media urgently scrambling to address and cover the real crises facing our nation? Or are they the same rules that permit our democracy to continue to drift off-course, as millions of Americans continue to struggle and slowly sink into poverty?

“Letting the days go by, into the silent water.” 

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Stupid Is

My new Think Again column is called “Fox: Crazy Like …. Ailes” and it’s here. I think the title is self explanatory.

My new Nation column is called “The Problem of Republican Idiots.” That strikes me as equally so, though I shouldn’t be the only person pointing it out. It’s here.

Two things: I went to this suprisingly excellent 75th Birthday concert benefit for these terrific foundations that, believe it or not, were started and have been kept going by Wavy Gravy last Friday night. I didn’t know about the work of the Seva foundation, but now that I do, I think you should give them some gelt. The address is here.

And the Italian film festival at Lincoln Center began yesterday. If you’re in the city in the next two weeks, the schedule is here. I saw “Unlikely Revolutionaries” yesterday and it was a lot of fun and I wish we had a country more like that.

Now here’s Reed:

Catch 2012

If the recent news of stubbornly high unemployment claims, weakening jobs reports, a re-imploding housing picture, and softening manufacturing activity didn’t convince you that both our country and President Obama’s chances for reelection are teetering on the brink of disaster, then how about these two A1, above-the-fold stories from today’s New York Times and Washington Post?

To the Times’ and the Post’s credit, these broad analyses of the economic trouble we’re not yet out of get the splashy, front-page attention they deserve. Would it were that such an ominous convergence of gloom could somehow redirect the political debate on Capitol Hill and in the Beltway punditocracy. You won’t catch me holding my breath in anticipation, however.

That’s because worrying about the economic problems of the here and now has become passé among too many of the so-called serious folks in Washington. All those millions of Americans who still can’t find a job or who remain trapped in shady or upside-down mortgages—their troubles are sooo 2009, don’t you know? Instead, the newest problem-that-must-be-solved-now involves tackling the budget deficit, an issue that those same politicians and pundits also agree must include “taking on entitlements,” which is the rather quaint euphemism that the cable news talking heads and op-ed columnists employ because because none of them like to say “gut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security” out loud.

To get a sense of the current political landscape, you can’t do much better than this quote from the Times piece:

“Republicans have set the terms of debate by pressing for large cuts in federal spending, which they say will encourage private investment. Democrats have found themselves battling to minimize and postpone such cuts, which they fear will cause new job losses.”

In essence, our federal government now finds itself facing something of a Catch-22. A fragile economic recovery on the verge of stalling out and crashing back into recession has been effectively rendered off-limits to legislative intervention, while Washington instead uses up all of its political capital fighting over an issue that will be subject to the whims of countless future Congresses and Presidents. What’s more, the draconian spending cuts being bandied about by Republicans as the solution to the deficit are not only not likely to work, they are precisely the kind of shocks to the economic system that could devastate the recovery. So, according to this backwards thinking, securing our nation’s long-term financial footing requires us to willingly accept shooting ourselves in the foot in the present, but this self-inflicted economic wound only prolongs our current economic pain, which will, in turn, end up significantly undermining our nation’s finances down the road.

Simply put, this makes no sense. Yet the President and the Democrats, I fear, are ready to succumb to this paradoxical argument and, as a result, pin their reelection hopes 18 months from now on threading an almost impossible political needle. When it came to the stimulus, it’s now clear the administration miscalculated—starting too small and stopping too soon—but it no doubt saved the nation from a severe depression and it bought Obama enough time to pass his health-care law. However, if the President and Democrats decide to now play along with the Beltway conventional wisdom and effectively pivot away from jobs and unemployment, they are gambling with their political lives.

Indeed, getting caught up in a “serious,” “bipartisan” debate on the deficit and, more specifically, acceding to any substantial cuts in Medicare or Social Security, is to squander the political momentum that is shifting back in the Democrats’ direction. Even the shrewdest of compromises would likely translate into a tactical victory for the Republicans, since the passage of any budget deficit legislation still won’t put a single American back to work or prevent a single American family from losing their home. All of which makes a strategic victory for the President in 2012 increasingly difficult, especially if the same types of headlines we see now are running above the fold next November. Or, to borrow Obama’s own campaign phrasing, you can’t win the future if you don’t first win the present.

Below is more from the Israel Film Festival of last week. The review is by Rachel Druck.

“Missing Father”

Though the Six Day War may get all the press, it was the Yom Kippur War that scarred a nation, and whose psychological repercussions are all too often overlooked in the unending conversations that revolve solely around land. It is a trauma that is particularly personal for Yair Elazar. Yair’s father David Elazar, known in Israel (a country where they are familiar enough with their generals that they assign them endearing nicknames) as “Dado,” was the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War. Dado was forced to resign after the controversial Agranat Commission, convened by the Israeli government after the war, declared that he was personally responsible for the State of Israel’s lack of preparation. After nearly a lifetime of service to the Israeli military, Dado died of a heart attack two years after his resignation.

Missing Father is Yair’s attempt, after the birth of his daughter, to discover where “father” fit into the figure of “Dado.” In doing so, Yair sets up a formidable task for himself. Dado’s history was the history of the State of Israel, and his face could have graced countless Zionist propaganda posters. He was a deeply charismatic figure and people were simply drawn to him; an Israeli acquaintance I ran into after the screening who served under Dado—and does not have much to say that is complimentary regarding the Israeli military establishment—still spoke of Dado fondly, in tones tinged with awe.

In one of the most touching scenes from the documentary, one of Dado’s friends admits that when he came to the shiva after Dado’s death, he stole a pair of Dado’s glasses on the side of his bed; he simply needed to have something that belonged to Dado (he returned the glasses to Yair). Though Dado remains a controversial figure, it is nonetheless acknowledged that his actions during the Yom Kippur War saved the State of Israel. The more towering the myths, the harder it is to understand the men, and in Israel, where the personal is often the political, those lines are often blurred beyond recognition.

Yet ultimately it is not the towering figure of his father that hampers Yair, but the ways in which Yair is unable to understand his father’s generation, and the ways in which he is able to relate to his father’s story. The generation gap that emerges over the course of this documentary is staggering. Yair simply cannot understand why his father was not home during his formative years, while his mother, his father’s friends and colleagues, and even his older siblings cannot seem to understand what Yair is asking them. And it is, in fact, baffling to hear Yair demand to know why his father, the Chief of Staff, was not home more often during the Yom Kippur War.

Ironically, Yair does not manage to emerge from his father’s shadow, though the film was clearly a project undertaken so that Yair can compete with his father, and ultimately demonstrate who has the better parenting skills. Yair’s failure to loom large over the film is not for lack of trying. Yet the countless pictures of Yair, the reaction shots, and the home movies of Yair with his family felt like impositions into his father’s story, rather than the playing out of a father-son narrative. It is only when Yair takes the camera off of himself, and instead displays his father in action that I began to be invested in his father’s story, and would have been open to hearing more about his son’s search for him.

Meanwhile, as an American born more than a decade after the Yom Kippur War, albeit a relatively educated one, I found myself occasionally disoriented by a documentary that takes for granted an understanding of Israeli figures and political events. I could not understand why Yair kept harping on whether his father had extramarital affairs until I discovered from my Israeli acquaintance that Dado had been known as a womanizer (and, to be honest, someone needs to alert the head of Bangable Dudes in History about David Elazar). Military campaigns were mentioned that I had no knowledge of. Though Missing Father documents Yair’s personal search for his father, Yair perhaps takes for granted the sympathy of the audience, and never stops to think about whether the audience is committed to his journey.

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Where Objectivity Lies...

My new Think Again column is called “The Times’ Frank Bruni, or How to Succeed in Journalism Without Really Caring (About Issues)” and it’s here.

I got a ton of mail regarding my attempt to correct Noam Chomsky’s dishonest words about my work. I’d estimate that 85 percent of it was negative and about 50 percent was angry and insulting. I expected this. The purpose of the post was to correct the record in the real world, should Chomsky’s false manipulation of my words ever migrate there. I did not expect many of his fans to reconsider their admiration of him, any more than I do Ralph Nader’s (another source of frequently abusive e-mails). But thanks to everyone who wrote in, agree or disagree, in a civil and sensible fashion.

Now here’s Reed’s excellent post:

It’s Not All About Timing

First, an amuse-bouche

It does not surprise me in the least that former Gov. Sarah Palin would think it wise to endorse a two-hour-long, hagiographic movie about herself as a possible way to reignite her futile presidential aspirations. (But were they to somehow come to fruition, just know she would be “a disaster of, well, biblical proportions,” according to a former longtime aide.) Nor is it a shock that an early screening of the “movie,” due out next month, confirms it will be chock full of Palin’s trademark resentment, sanctimoniousness (Joan of Arc parallels!), and petty score-settling. This is the season of pointless popcorn movies, after all.

But what I simply cannot get over is what they’re calling it—The Undefeated. I mean, really? Sounding like a time-traveling cinematic collaboration between M. Night Shyamalan and John Ford, this ponderous title once again proves that Palin exists in a rarefied state of narcissistic self-delusion, one where things like irony and humility can freely pass through without any impact whatsoever, sort of like neutrinos idly drifting through the earth. I mean, if the two most notable feats on one’s political resumé involve (a) a nationwide electoral defeat sanctioned by a majority of the American voters and (b) a self-selected abdication of one’s sworn public duties as part of a not-so-subtle attempt to sellout faster than anyone since perhaps Moby, then maybe there are a few alternative movie titles one might consider other than “The Undefeated.”

(And speaking of musical artists selling out, might I recommend checking out the hilariously brilliant “Moby Equation” formula, which, sadly, I only discovered this week. Finally, music fans have a quasi-scientific way of quantifying the crass commercialization and betrayal of first principles involved in, say, The Clash’s “London Calling” being used to hawk Jaguars. Try it for yourself, but be forewarned, it can be addictive.)

Now, onto the main course…

So, GOP wunderkind Representative Paul Ryan had to downshift into full damage control mode this week after his signature legislative achievement, which would effectively end Medicare and Medicaid, turned into enough of a singular electoral liability that a Democrat won a Congressional special election victory out in rock-ribbed Western New York. In what amounted to a political epiphany, this latest Paul humbly climbed down off his metaphorical high horse and, as part of his post-election defeat spin, found it in his heart to bemoan the evils of shameless demagoguery, to which he and his party have been so cruelly been subjected to lately:

“If you can scare seniors into thinking their current benefits are being affected, that’s going to have an effect. And that is exactly what took place here. So yes, it’s demagoguery; it’s scaring seniors…. People in the Republican Party are nervous because of those ads. Because demagoguery unfortunately has worked in the past. But I think people are getting tired of it." (Italics mine.)

The penultimate sentence from that quote, alone, should guarantee Ryan’s induction into the Political Chutzpah Hall of Fame as well as his expulsion from the punditry’s “serious” politician club. Indeed, it takes a special brand of audacity to grandly call for unilateral political disarmament with regard to your own ruinous proposal for “reforming” Medicare, while simultaneously enjoying the fruits of a House majority won precisely because of the shameless (and, yes, effective) demagoging of that same issue in the midterm elections last fall.

Still, Ryan is right in at least one respect—his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate, who have voted for his plan in near lockstep, are nervous, as well they should be. His plan for irrevocably sundering two of our country’s most precious social compacts with its citizenry is wildly unpopular (even within the GOP rank and file) and shaping up to do for the party’s 2012 electoral prospects what hitting the iceberg did for the Titanic. (The analogy isn’t perfect, I admit, as I doubt very many of those unfortunate souls in the lifeboats hailed the tragic accident as “courageous” or a “bold first step.”) But hey, political winds change all the time, and that politicians change their minds with them to regain the advantage is a time-honored tradition.

That’s where the media comes in. It’s supposed to suss out these flip-flops, double standards, and hypocritical talking points to give the public a clearer picture of what’s really going on. But that implies the taking of sides and the contextualizing of rhetoric; something the mores of American “objective journalism” have little appetite for.

Case in point this week, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. Or I should say “left-leaning” columnist Dana Milbank, who in his column from this past Wednesday ably identifies Ryan’s intellectually dishonest budget tactics, but at the same time also buys into his shtick that Democrats are just as guilty. But according to the evidence cited in Milbank’s “everybody does it” balance sheet, a single web parody of Ryan’s Medicare plan put together by a liberal group I’ve never heard of is supposedly equivalent to the relentless, multi-year disinformation campaign about the Affordable Care Act that was dutifully executed by everyone in the Republican Party from the leaders on down.

In fact, Milbank’s latest column is an apt illustration of why Republican smears and distortions regarding “Obamacare,” like the “death panels” canard, gained purchase in the minds of the public in the first place. While providing a laundry list of outright falsehoods that Ryan himself propagated about the ACA over the past two years, Milbank only takes the time to directly refute one of them. The rest of Ryan’s broadsides, while clearly cast as negative, are nonetheless left to lay there mostly intact. Are these statements just partisan hyperbole, or demonstrably untrue? The reader gets no real help from Milbank.

Whether you call it journalistic laziness or editorial economy, this is all too common. Over time, the slow accretion of these unchallenged falsehoods adds up, and then one day you wake up and a sizable portion of the American public believes a lie like Obama’s health plan includes a governmental “death panel.” This drip, drip, drip phenomenon is precisely what an academic study of the recent healthcare press coverage found feeds these kinds of falsehoods:

“Nonetheless, in more than 60% of the cases it’s obvious that newspapers abstained from calling the death panels claim false….

“Additionally, of journalists who did debunk the claim, almost 75% of those articles contained no clarification as to why they were labeling the claim as false. Indeed, it was very much a ‘You either believe me, or you don’t’ situation without contextual support….

“[Journalists] often times approached the controversy by also quoting one side of the debate, quoting the other, and then letting the reader dissect the validity of each side’s stance. Thus, in 30% of cases where journalists reported in their own words that the claim was false, they nonetheless included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right. This often just confuses the reader.”

Simply put, this behavior does a disservice to the press, the public, and to the functioning of our democracy. Still, though the media is due its share of the blame for allowing the ‘death panels’ meme to take root, it bears emphasizing that such a lie only gained legitimacy after numerous Republican party leader and elected officials, like Palin and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, repeatedly claimed that death panels were an actual policy of the ACA.

By contrast, the aforementioned liberal web video—where a sinister Paul Ryan lookalike pushes an old woman in a wheelchair off a cliff—is hardly serious in tone and clearly symbolic. No one in his or her right mind would come away from watching it believing that the leaders in the Democratic Party are literally saying such a heinous act is codified in Ryan’s legislative language.

Now, one can always argue that the cliff-throwing symbolism goes too far, but then it’s perhaps worth reiterating that, as the “death panels” study showed, scale matters in these types of things. You simply won’t see a host of prominent liberals and Democrats flooding the op-ed pages and cable network airwaves constantly pounding home this disturbing “granny off a cliff” image. Instead, they are making a rather reasonable argument—that Ryan’s “premium support” plan for Medicare and “block grant” proposal for funding Medicaid so fundamentally change those programs that they effectively eliminate their current social safety net safeguards.

What Republican politicians like Ryan and members of the Washington press corps like Milbank don’t seem to understand is that the public isn’t angry about these draconian measures because of how Democrats have presented them, they’re angry at the proposals themselves. And if the former continue to think that the recent shift in the political winds toward the latter is simply a matter of messaging and timing, then they’re liable to learn a hard lesson—it’s not demagoguing when you have truth on your side.

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

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