Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Toward Better Invisible Primary Press Coverage: Fewer Polls, More Policy

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(AP Photo)

My new Nation column is called What Ailes the Media? (A biography by Gabriel Sherman clarifies the Fox impresario’s role in his network’s deceptions.)

Alter-reviews: Jason Isbell, Suzy Bogguss, Steve Earle, Loser’s Lounge and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

1) Jason Isbell

I’ve seen a lot of music of late and felt pretty lucky to have done so. It began with a performance of Jason Isbell and his terrific band at the American Songbook series at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Jason put out what many people think is the most worthwhile album of last year, Southeastern, and I see that he won all kinds of awards. The show was being filmed and the full 400 Unit, named after after the psychiatric ward of a hospital near Muscle Shoals, (with horns flown in from Birmingham that day) and while the show had a certain amount of hyper-seriousness, it also rocked in a way that justified all of the accolades and then some. Isbell has a remarkably winning stage presence and a fine band, and the songs sound even better live. Yes, "Cover Me Up" and the powerful "Elephant" kicked proverbial posterior but my favorite was the unlikely encore of “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” We can all look forward to many more such albums and shows, now that Isbell has straighened out his life and has an excellent  fiddler/wife Amanda Shires to keep him on the straight and narrow. Check out the rest of their schedule.

2) Suzy Bogguss

A second recent highlight of my music-going year so far was the Highline show to celebrate the release of Lucky, Suzy Bogguss's 12-song album of Merle Haggard songs. Merle is one of the weirdly under-rated songwriter, which is particularly odd, given that he has sold more records than almost anybody else on earth and nobody disputes what a terrific singer he is. But there it is and so Suzy Bogguss’s idea to bring her beautiful voice and appropriate reverence to these songs was an inspired idea. The performances themselves are beautiful and she had her band with her from Nashville and, while the performances were loose—it was their first gig—they had depth and warmth—a lot like Suzy’s voice. The highlights, if I were forced to pick them, were "I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink," and "Today I Started Loving You Again."

And Suzy’s fine new album reminds me of another fine one from my good friend Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread, whom I’ve not seen perform in a while, but it’s a beautiful meditation on the South and Rose’s relationship to it, both through her father’s story as well as her own. The Times magazine profiled Rosanne here.

3) Steve Earle

The following night, I got to visit on the first of my friend Steve Earle’s residency at City Winery. Each show of the four he’s doing with a special guest—Steve’s last T-Bone Burnett-produced album, The Low Highway, is great too. These shows, however, are based on songs requested by fans on the website and then picked from a bowl by Steve on stage. It’s a gimmick but a good one because it allows him to go deep in a way that might otherwise appear to be an act of (just) ego. Here he gets to do that but he gets to look like a great guy—and to tell all those great stories again—at the same time. I fear the next three shows are all sold out though, so you’ll have to keep your eyes out for Steve somewhere else.

4) Loser’s Lounge

A night later, I made it to Joe's Pub for the first of the Loser's Lounge five show tribute to the Velvet Underground. This too made me feel awfully lucky to live in the greatest music city in the world and stupid for not going to all of the Loser's Lounge shows. It also reignited my admiration for the weird and wonderful talents of Tammy Faye Starlight, as Nico. What is "Loser's Lounge," you ask? (Loser's Lounge is "a bi-monthly tribute show based in NYC where local talent pays homage to the pop music greats of the past.") Next up is their Carly Simon vs. Linda Ronstadt show...

5) The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Oh, and the kid went to see Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (with Wynton Marsalis) performing its first family concert of the year: Jazz For Young People Family Concert: Who is Dave Brubeck? at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. She said it was great but I could not get much more out of her than that. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s schedule is here.

Now here’s Reed:

Toward Better Invisible Primary Press Coverage: Fewer Polls, More Policy
by Reed Richardson

The purpose of the press in a free society is to advance the public’s awareness along a continuum of information and context. What defines the value of news is how far along between the starting point of the unknown and the ending point of ubiquity a story takes us. When journalism gets stuck on either of these polar opposites, then, it betrays one of the fundamental expectations of its audience: “Tell me something I don’t know.” This is precisely the dilemma plaguing the Beltway media’s mostly worthless coverage of the 2016 “invisible primary” right now.

The blame for this failure falls squarely on the political press. Its insatiable appetite for the next candidate, the next campaign, the next election invariably leaves it straining to cover races so far in the future there’s little to no actual news yet. So it must simply create some, which is where the press’s heavy, institutional bias for process stories and horserace coverage kicks in. This fascination with “Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in? Who’s out?” necessitates a correspondingly simplistic dramatis personae of winners, losers, favorites, and underdogs, all cast as part of series of flimsy, poll-driven passion plays. The end result is that the Beltway establishment keeps trying to repackage as news the same old story that we’ve already known for months, if not years: Hillary Clinton is the Democratic front-runner and there is no Republican front-runner.

Nonetheless, every news organization wants to recycle this narrative to own the news cycle for a few days. No surprise then, that since the beginning of November, there have been ten national polls conducted on the 2016 presidential primary field. They’ve all confirmed the very same thing, even though each of them tries to interpret a blip down for Chris Christie or a blip up for Mike Huckabee as something other than statistical noise. This CNN poll from last month at least admitted that, two years out from Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton is crushing every other potential Democratic candidate and the GOP field is “a pack of potential White House contenders with no obvious frontrunner.”

How silly have these attempts to find a fresh narrative gotten? Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney—who denied any interest in a 2016 run to The New York Times nearly a dozen times—was for some reason included in a Boston Globe poll of the New Hampshire primary. That he was leading with a small plurality in the poll speaks to just how pointless these surveys are right now. But then again, without them, you can’t write completely absurd columns with obvious, click-bait headlines like: "Mitt Romney in 2016?"

Even the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat emphasizes “There…is…no…GOP…frontrunner.” Not so fast, rebuts another pundit, who somewhat unconvincingly points to a BetFair market snapshot where Marco Rubio bests Jeb Bush 16.4 percent to 12.8 percent to be the GOP nominee. Hard to believe a 3.8 percent lead is yellow jersey worthy at this stage of the presidential race. Plus: here’s what a real prediction-market front-runner looks like: just a year or so out from Election Day 2008, BetFair gave Hillary Clinton a 45 percent chance of becoming the next president.

The fact is that during the next eighteen months betting markets and polling results invite a superficial, zero-sum understanding of the 2016 campaign. As Joseph Jackson noted in his 2002 paper, The Party Animal: The Front-runner in the Presidential Invisible Primary: “[I]invisible primary media coverage correlates strongly with preference poll standings, but does not correlate as well with the winning the nomination.”

A perfect example: in March 2006, ABC News’s political insider blog The Note published its first invisible primary rankings of the 2008 field. Looking back on it reveals the political press’s embrace of conventional wisdom and lack of real foresight. Sure, it was correct when it gave John McCain the best chance at being the GOP’s nominee, but it ranked as runner-up then-Virginia Senator George Allen, a man whose political career would be essentially over within the year. And of the eleven names listed as potential Democratic nominees, one was notably missing: Barack Obama. Consider the GOP’s most recent primary season, when polls registered five different front-runners, along with a Ron Paul surge and Michele Bachmann boomlet. This turbulence fueled a boom-bust cycle of press coverage, which caused much of the press to overlook the steady consistency and massive infrastructure edge of Mitt Romney, the eventual winner.

This polling instability looks to be the rule rather than the exception. Since 1980, primary candidates who led in the early fall before the primaries have gone on to become the party’s nominee just six out of thirteen times. In the three most recent elections, the early polling in August or September has a very poor track record in predicting the competitive primary winner, missing in 2004 with Gephardt (Kerry), in 2008 with Guiliani (McCain) and Clinton (Obama), and in 2012 with Perry (Romney).

Now, it’s true that there is news being made during the invisible primary, but it’s not to be found in obsessing over front-runners and also-rans. Instead, the stories of real long-lasting value would look at how 2016 candidates are quietly building donors, hiring staff, and adopting policies that will make them more appealing and accessible to primary constituencies. So, rather than waste time and resources on meaningless polls comprised of party cattle calls and head-to-head match-ups, news organizations and the public would be better off listening to someone like Georgetown University political science professor Hans Noel when trying to maximize the impact of their coverage.

Noel, the author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform explained in this 2011 Columbia Journalism Review interview that the press needs to shift away from its general campaign mindset this far removed from Election Day:

In a primary election it’s so much more about the terrain, and the metaphor of the horse race can’t capture that. If the narrative were structured in terms of, the party’s having a hard time deciding which kind of candidate it wants to have—which I do see from time to time—that would be much more useful, I think. It’s harder, because you don’t have just one person to talk about. And you can’t just run off a poll and use that as a springboard for a story. But I think it’s possible to do it.

Note here the phrase that cash-strapped news presidents and non-stop deadline-pressured editors hate to hear: “It’s harder.” Still, several news organizations have dedicated resources to the invisible primary beyond just their standard insider-y coverage. With one party’s front-runner all but assured (until she’s declares otherwise), it’s not surprising then that seven different news organizations now have a reporter or producer fixated on covering Hillary Clinton. But as the Times’ initial stab at this demonstrated last August, a heavy emphasis on the Clinton persona can come off as tenuously connected—at best—to her political aspirations.

As an alternative, Noel suggests taking an inverted approach to covering both a front-runner like Clinton as well as the nascent GOP field. Rather than cover a Clinton or a Rand Paul in Iowa, news organizations should cover the constituencies Clinton or Paul are talking to in Iowa. “It’s daunting to say, go and understand a whole state,” Noel acknowledges. “It’s harder than it is to follow around a particular candidate. But that is the place where the questions need to be asked.” The same approach could be taken with policy issues before Congress, Noel adds. “You could also, for example, assign whoever is paying attention to congressional politics to keep track of the discussion there. And in general, try to find as many possible ways to divide things into coverage areas that lead to people making the decision.”

This Associated Press analysis of liberal Democrats’ somewhat uneasy relationship with Hillary Clinton's politics shows how an outside-in approach to a notoriously hard-to-cover subject can provide enlightening context. Similarly, the press should take a cue from Senator Carl Levin, who pointedly asked Hillary Clinton her position on the Iran sanctions bill currently being debated in Congress. Getting her to state on the record she’s in favor of giving diplomacy time to work was a genuinely valuable public service, one that could have long-lasting implications during the 2016 primary and general election campaigns. Wouldn’t prospective Democratic primary voters likewise be interested in Clinton's specific positions on financial reform and the constitutionality of the NSA’s metadata collection program? Similarly, wouldn’t GOP primary voters, say, want a clear position on comprehensive immigration reform from Gov. Scott Walker?

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Unfortunately, these important questions, and many others, will likely go unanswered if the national press continues to favor a superficial, zero-sum approach to the 2016 campaign for the next two years. For a profession that likes to demand transparency from politicians, there’s an irony to press coverage that merely offers a veneer of clarity. It’s time to start lifting the veil of pointless polling that keeps too much of the invisible primary hidden from the American people.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: John Nichols: Congressional Republicans Call Obama ‘Lawless’ for Issuing Executive Orders. That’s Just Wrong.

Nothing Much

2014 Grammys

Producer Paul Williams accepts the award for Album of the year for Daft Punk's Random Access Memories at the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California on January 26, 2014. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

New Nation Column: David Brooks Shows His Hand on ‘Inequality’ (The conservative New York Times columnist steers the conversation away from economics and toward “behavioral” terrain.)

Remember Lt. Colonel Bob? Well Pierce has got him but I think you’ll want to read him here on the politics of rape in the military.


1) The great Benny Golson with Mike LeDonne, Buster Williams and Carl Allen at Dizzy’s.

Sax man Benny Golson is one of those walking manifestations of jazz history. He has played with Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey, and together with the late Art Farmer co-led the great The Jazztet. He wrote the beautiful “I Remember Clifford” and a number other standards. This band was awesome—as you can imagine if you know the above names—and because his wife was not there, he talked a lot as well as played with charm, dignity and chops. Dizzy’s is always a beautiful place to see music but everything about this was right. More gigs there here.

2) Teddy Thompson's Phil Everly tribute concert at City Winery

Last night at City Winery, Teddy Thompson got together a gazillion of his friends to play and sing songs in honor of Phil Everly. My favorites were Tift Merrit, Jenni Muldaur, and Nicole Atkins, but there was much, much more and none of it sucked. Teddy also has an incredible, Roy Orbison-like voice and enjoys a remarkably charismatic dreamboaty-like stage presence. The show was sold out and a splendid time was had by all. More about Teddy, here. Future shows at City Winery, here.

3) The Grammys

Things that were better than expected:

-Chicago & Robin Thicke—“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”/”Only the Beginning”/”Saturday in the Park”/”Blurred Lines”
-Keith Urban and Gary Clark Jr.—“Cop Car”
-Kacey Musgraves—“Follow Your Arrow”

Things that were disappointing:

-Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr—“Queenie Eye”
-Miranda Lambert and Billie Joe Armstrong—“When Will I Be Loved”

Things that were generally wonderful:

-Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, and Stevie Wonder—“Get Lucky”
-Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Blake Shelton—“Highwayman,” “Okie From Muskogee,” & “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”

Things were pretty good:

-Ringo Starr—“Photograph”
-Sara Bareillies and Carole King—“Beautiful/Brave”

Things I did not appreciate as the father of a 15-year-old female Jay-Z/Beyonce Fan:

-Beyonce and Jay-Z

Things through which I fast-forwarded:

-Everything else...

Place you can see these videos, here.

Reed’s away (and so we’ll take next week off) but he left the below:

The Mail

Prof. Robert Brulle
Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science
Drexel University
Philadelphia, PA

Great story on the dearth of media coverage. I really criticized Obama and his silence during the election campaign. I don’t know if you saw the paper I did on the press coverage. I’m redoing this paper. But the lack of coverage is clear.

Anyway, keep up the good work.


Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

Our National Drought of Climate Change Coverage

Runge reservoir

The Runge reservoir in Chile has been plagued by severe droughts in recent years (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

My years-old-but-just published interview with the Israeli troubadour and folk hero, David Broza, is here.

My Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture: Blue is the Warmest Color.Honorable Mention: The Past, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Before Midnight, The Spectacular Now

Best Actress: Adele Exarchopoulos. Honorable Mention: Amy Adams, Julie Delphy, Berenice Bejo

Best Actor: Robert Redford. Honorable Mention: Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tahar Rahm

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto

Best Screenplay: Richard Linklater. Honorable Mention: Asshar Farhadi

Best Foreign Film: Blue is the Warmest Color, Honorable Mention: The Past, The Hunt, The Attack, The Great Beauty, What’s in a Name?

Soundtrack: Anchorman II

Biggest Disappointment: Blue Jasmine

Petition in favor of academic freedom and against academic boycotts like that of the ASA, here.

This day in history: Thirty-six years ago yesterday, I was mugged coming out of Disc-O-Mat in Times Square buying Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy three days after its January 18, 1978 release. Those were the Bad Old Days. Afterward, I ate dinner at Beefsteak Charlie's and endured four-plus hours of "Renaldo and Clara" which was a kind of mugging in and of itself. The album is still great.


1) Craig Handy: Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith at the Blue Note Jazz Club

I had never heard of Craig before, but I needed something fun on my birthday and he, his band and special guest Dee Dee Bridgewater turned out to be just the thing. Craig was in Dee Dee’s band until recently, and his band gets its name from their (successful) desire to combine New Orleans-style jazz with the B-3 dominated compositions of the great Jimmy Smith. It was the band’s first-ever gig and while casual to the point of “let’s talk about what we might want to play and see what it sounds like” was aces both individually and as a unit. They are Kyle Koehler on the B3, Matt Chertkoff on guitar, Clark Gayton on a big, funny-looking sousaphone, and Jerome Jennings on drums. The diva, Dee Dee Bridgewater, delivered in Billie Holiday mode and a splendid time was had by all. They’ve got a new album on Okeh, also with Dee Dee, but I’ve not heard it yet.

2) Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at Sondheim Theater

Here's what you need to know about this musical: 

a) It will play for years, the way jukebox musicals often do, because the music is so damn great.

b) Jessie Mueller, who plays Carol, is adorable, and has pipes.

c) The first act could not be more fun. It is wonderfully staged and sung, the sets (and costumes) are terrific and the producers had the good sense to add the Mann/Weil songbook to the King/Goffin one, which, while wonderful, is actually quite thin. The combination of these terrific songs with fake versions of the Drifters, the Shirelles, Little Eva and the Righteous Brothers, among others, makes for a first act that I never wanted to end.

d) But when it does, the play kind of dies. The book, by the usually-excellent Doug McGrath, has some excellent banter early on, but then pretty much ceases to exist.

e) Ditto the second act, which makes the transition from Brill Building-style three-minute pop masterpieces to earth mother/Tapestry pop masterpieces (there is even mention of a cat), but loses both the characters and the momentum.

f) Though to be fair, the adorable Ms. Mueller really only comes into her own on the vocals on “Natural Woman.”

g) The encore of “ I Feel the Earth Move” is pretty fun

h) There’s no mention of James Taylor—or King’s eventful post-Tapestry life (and some of the rest of the story does not exactly track with the historical record, but hey, this is Broadway. What did you expect?)

3) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at thePearl Theatre

Tom Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1970. He was 33. And he’s become a much better playwright in the period since. (I’d say that, together with Tony Kushner, he is the best playwright in the English language.) This play was based on a briliant conceit and in many respects, it is brilliant executed. But in at least as many respects, it is overlong, too cute by half, and overly impressed with its own verbacity. The deal is that Hamlet is retold from the perspective of his innocent and doomed schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and while I remember loving it, I did not love it so much this time as I would have if it had been a third shorter. This performance by the Acting Company, directed by John Rando, is appropriately over the top and filled with fun performances.

4) The Rolling Stones' Sweet Summer Sun and George Thorogood and the Destroyers: Live At Montreux 2013, both live on Blu-ray.

The Stones played their first ever post-Brian Jones concert (with the much under-rated Mick Taylor replacing him) in Hyde Park in 1969. It’s actually amazing what Jagger can still do on stage—and what he is willing to do to try to keep up the mantle of the world’s greatest rock 'n roll band—at his age. I think Dorian Gray is the only appropriate comparison. Anyway, there's nothing shocking about this show; Taylor is back for the first time since he left before the 1975 tour and they play the forty and nearly fifty year old hits like they were written yesterday. The bonus features are just three extra tracks. There is no Springsteen, alas.

Mr. Thorogood has been around for a while too and this concert from last year’s Montreux Jazz Festival will show you why. It ain’t particularly pretty but “Who Do You Love?” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “Move It On Over” and “Bad To The Bone” sound as awesome as ever, and the man does work hard for the money.

5) The Jerry Garcia Band, Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman, Fall 1989: The Long Island Sound (six CD box set)

A six-CD box set featuring two complete, previously unreleased performances mastered from original soundboard recordings captured during the Jerry Garcia Band's fall 1989 East Coast tour, which featured fellow Grateful Dead co-founder and guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir with bassist Rob Wasserman as the opening act. The JGB is the same brand you'll find on three previous releases: Jerry Garcia Band, How Sweet It Is and Pure Jerry: Merriweather Post Pavilion.

This box features both bands at the September 5, 1989 performance at the Hartford Civic Center and September 6th show at the Nassau Coliseum. This is towards the end of Jerry's still-great period, though after the learn-how-to-play-again period. The repertoire is pretty similar to all those other releases but the band has really gotten to know one another. The sound quality is great and the Weir/Wasserman acoustic sets are a real pleasure to have around.

6) Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (audio)

I am about halfway through the audible, 31 hour and 57 minute version of Ms. MacMillan's book. It's a beautifully rendered version that begins in 1900 and carries the reader through most of the main personalities and all of the diplomatic machinations—and some of the cultural and intellectual ones—up to the great war. I did not actually plan on sticking with the whole thing. I was just giving it a chance. But it's a marvelous read (listen?) and well worth the investment, assuming prior interest in the topic. It is well read by Richard Burnip. (What a job that must have been).

Now here’s Reed:

Our National Drought of Climate Change Coverage
by Reed Richardson

Increasingly, it has become an article of faith among political leaders on the right that anthropogenic climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated on gullible Americans. To conservatives like Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, greedy scientists are spreading a phony tale of impending climatic disaster as part of some socialist takeover plot, all of it propelled along by a complicit “liberal media.” There are various reasons why this conspiracy theory is patently false; most notable among them is the overwhelming scientific evidence. But the alarming scarcity of climate change coverage in the national press shouldn’t be overlooked either. Indeed, if you’re looking for an actual hoax, you might start by examining the mistaken notion that our establishment media actually covers the environment in a serious way.

Consider these alarming statistics about the sorry state of climate coverage in our country:

-Any mention of climate change was completely frozen out of the 2012 Presidential and Vice Presidential debates by the journalists moderating them (and politicians too), for the first time since 1984.

-In 2013, evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC cumulatively devoted just thirty stories—roughly 100 minutes—to climate change out of the thousands of stories reported across the year. This level was essentially unchanged from the twenty-nine stories broadcast by the three networks in 2012.

-Not one of the broadcast news networks spent as much as one full hour, across all shows, covering climate change in 2013. CBS and NBC came closest with fifty-six and fifty-two minutes, respectively.

-The Sunday morning news shows (including Fox, but excluding CNN) spent just twenty-seven minutes of airtime covering climate change in 2013—roughly one-third of one percent of their total annual airtime. (NBC’s Meet the Press aired zero minutes on this issue.) Remarkably, this figure represented a tripling of Sunday morning news coverage from 2011 and 2012.

-After nearly a decade of steady increases between 2000-07, climate change coverage has fallen significantly in recent years. And last year, cumulative climate change coverage at the five major newspapers in the US dropped noticeably again.

-Most notably, climate coverage at The New York Times fell by one-third in 2013 compared to the same period in 2012, after the paper shuttered its environmental desk and Green blog early last year.

-Climate change and global warming coverage also dropped significantly at The Washington Post last year after it reassigned the paper’s dedicated environmental reporter, Juliet Eilperin, to the DC political desk in March. (Eilperin still covers White House environmental/climate policy.)

Tellingly, this broad retrenchment stands in stark contrast to the rest of world. According to a survey by The Daily Climate, climate coverage jumped 30 percent among the world’s media in 2013. (Note: According to its methodology, The Daily Climate also counted “energy” stories that did not include the phrases “climate change” or “global warming.”) To be fair, some US news outlets, like the Associated Press, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal boosted their coverage significantly last year. And climate change undoubtedly got plenty of attention from alternative, environmentally-focused news organizations like Grist, Climate Progress, and Inside Climate News, which won a Pulitzer in 2013 for its investigation into a massive oil spill in Michigan that the national press mostly ignored.

Nevertheless, mainstream news outlets still have an outsized influence on the public’s perceived risk from climate change. As Robert Brulle, a Drexel University social scientist who tracks climate change coverage, noted in the Daily Climate survey: "When you look at public opinion data, it's still the nightly news, believe it or not. That's still the single biggest driver.”

How to explain, then, the national TV news’s unmistakable reticence to covering something that two-thirds of Americans acknowledge? One reason, extremist Republicans, through their rhetoric and electoral record, have quite successfully politicized the reality of climate change. This plays into the media establishment’s discomfort with pointing out when a party or ideology is starkly at odd with the facts. Two, the press sometimes justifies its lack of coverage by pointing to polls that show that climate change ranks near the bottom of the American public’s priorities. Of course, this logic begets a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the public’s perceptions are, in part, driven by the media itself. The less the press covers climate change, the less the public considers it an important issue, which then excuses even less coverage, and on and on it goes. Over time, this politicization and circular reasoning can combine to breed a subconscious self-censorship—or, in the case of Fox News, strategic misinformation—in environmental reporting.

Last week’s outrageous chemical spill in West Virginia, for example, demonstrated that breaking news can lead the media to contaminated water, but it can’t make them cover it. Or at least not the potential long-term health impact from it. And this week, the historic drought in California is teaching us that the media can’t see the climate-change-compromised forest for the trees on fire.

Case in point, this CBS Evening News story. Its structure perfectly captures how the mainstream media has been framing this story since it began: find a person affected by the fires, get some B-roll of the flames and firefighters, give some current facts on the drought, and talk to a fire expert. Right at the end of this story, though, CBS correspondent Carter Evans has this brief exchange with fire behavior analyst Captain Brendan Ripley (1:35 mark):

EVANS: “Is this the new normal?”

RIPLEY: “I hope not.”

EVANS: [soberly nods head]


What to say about this? The good news, Evans asks a very good question—the question, in fact—about the larger context of the wildfires. His instincts are on target, but his execution is fundamentally flawed. He asks the wrong person—a fire expert, not a climate scientist—at the wrong moment—the end of his report, rather than the beginning. Therefore, Evans gets a vague, uninformed response and affords himself no time to tell the public that the real answer to his question is "yes." Or, as this 258-page California EPA report from last August unequivocally concluded: “Climate change is not just some abstract scientific debate…It's real, and it's already here.” But instead, the noise of the wildfire overwhelmed the signal of climate change’s ominous impact, which was lost in an afterthought.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on Evans, as he is by no means alone in choosing this same, simplistic frame to report on the drought crisis in California. Perusing the TV and newspaper coverage of the wildfires the past few days reveals plenty of similar examples. And even The New York Times is not immune.

In fact, when not overlooking the climate change aspect altogether, the Times could also be found burying the lede, waiting until the very last paragraph in this story to connect a warming climate to the unprecedented drought and devastating wildfires in the Southwest. Also of note, on the day the WaPo ran this bland, context-free news article about the Glendora wildfire, reporter Juliet Eilperin was co-authoring a process story on environmental groups pressuring the White House to address climate change more rapidly. Would the latter have been covered adequately if Eilperin were still on her old beat, aggressively reporting on the former? Most likely, and I’d argue Post readers would have been better served because of it.

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Ultimately, all these little, daily missed opportunities of resource allocation and story emphasis add up to what has become a pronounced drought in climate change coverage. As with other recent blockbuster stories that the media failed to recognize in time—no WMDs in Iraq, the financial crisis of 2008—the warning signs of an impending climate crisis are all around us. But we can’t afford to wait around for the media deluge to belatedly arrive again. For, if we do, the consequences this time might be so dire that it won’t just be the press corps and our country that pays the price, but the entire planet.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail

Last week’s post on the media’s general disinterest in covering the chemical spill in West Virginia, and the resulting water crisis, generated a lot of—often poignant—responses. For continuing information on the aftermath, I recommend checking out WVgazette.com, which has been breaking story after story and doggedly holding both local and federal officials accountable for their mismanagement. If it isn't already, that newspaper surely ought to be on the 2014 Pulitzer Committee’s radar.

Krista Bryson
Winfield, WV

I can't thank you enough for this article. I am beyond furious at how little national media coverage the WV Water Crisis has received. I started filming and collecting written stories from affected West Virginians on a blog here: http://westvirginiawatercrisis.wordpress.com. It also includes an hour of footage from the Erin Brockovich town hall. I have around 40 posts [as of Wednesday, 1/15]. I hope you share this information and continue to report our story.


Krista Bryson
PhD Candidate
Ohio State University

Lesley Cruickshank
Sissonville, WV

Mr. Richardson,

I just happened to read your article "Let Them Drink Coke," and I just wanted to thank you for the attention you have given to the policy debate surrounding the West Virginia chemical spill.

I am from West Virginia (Sissonville) and I happened to be lucky enough to leave on January 4 to come back to law school in Alabama and miss the spill. However, my family, including my 74-year-old grandmother, has been without water since Thursday. I believe they finally got the OK to flush their pipes early this [Wednesday] morning.

I love my state, and as someone who hopes to work as a government lawyer in West Virginia, I must say that I admire your attack on the current state of West Virginia politics. For the most part, I support coal and chemical companies because they do bring jobs to rural areas that otherwise wouldn't have them and allow people to make a living. But you're right—the abuse of these people struggling for a livelihood by the rich, mostly out-of-state operators of those industries has gone on for entirely too long. We can no longer neglect the poor, and unfortunately the manner of politics today in general has encouraged those on the bottom, at the local level, to disenfranchise themselves. And why wouldn't they think so, when they feel like everyone who can do anything about the problem turns their back. And this spill is just one more example.

I was enraged when I read a story about the spill on a major network site (I believe it was CNN) that had as its lead picture a photograph of a woman loading what had to be 10 cases of bottled water into the back of her Lexus. I don't criticize that woman in any way (except maybe she could've shared more), but at the same time I don't think that's a fair picture of the gravity of the spill. It didn't just affect people in the Charleston area. There were others in much more rural areas fortunate enough to have city water, but many of them live 45 minutes from a grocery store or a distribution station. Why didn't the news care about those people? Those are the ones really suffering. And how about the homebound people, who were unable to leave their homes to buy bottled water? What if they had no family or neighbors to bring it to them? Thank God for the rain.

Your article resounds of the importance of responsible journalism and the media as an important connection between the people and the government. Thank you for opening the door for policy debate, and I certainly hope it will occur in this situation.

Dave Harrison
Charleston, WV

Thank you for the piece. From the absence of national press to the trolling comments I see on message boards, it feels like our countrymen are forsaking us.

This is going to get worse. I have numerous friends and acquaintances who, after using West Virginia-American Water Company's protocols for flushing our plumbing, are waking up violently ill. There are so many unanswered questions; people are angry and afraid.

Again, thanks for shining a light.

Melissa Hinkle
Charleston, WV

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! So many of us who live here desperately want oversight and regulation. The opposite of the Republican mantra and also our own Democratic leaders' mantra. I think it is safe to say that most of us are upset by the lack of media coverage because we know that if our local politicians aren't pressured, no one will be held accountable. Thank you for writing a piece that is intelligent and does not insult the people of WV. I especially appreciated you calling us Americans. The people here who are upset are forming groups and there is a small movement building. I am afraid though the movement will be too small to make an impact on our corrupted leaders. I am a nature lover and I love West Virginia, one of the most beautiful states in this country. I believe we should hold dear and value precious things. Precious as in water, air, land and life. I honestly feel like crying.

Peter Grimm
Charleston, WV

Dear Reed,

I just want to thank you for bringing this crisis to light and calling out the big time media for lack of coverage. We're making due here in little WV, a back water I know is not much cared about but for an incest joke or coal issues.

Another thing you might want to follow up on is that the DEP or EPA dropped the ball as much as Freedom Industries. They failed to look into inspecting those storage tanks on the Elk River for over 20 years all the while brutally inspecting coal industries for proper procedures with mountain top removal and coal run off. Both of which could never damage a water supply like this spill did, just a thought.

Bill Arnold
Pratt, WV

I enjoyed your blog, but in addition to pointing out that NYC and LA are both more important to the mainstream media, you should know that West Virginia voted against Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Also, there is an on-going battle between the coal industry and the EPA with Obama himself bragging about making it almost impossible for any new coal-fired power plants to be built. The EPA is enforcing stricter regulations here (in WV), although they have not been "officially" put in place.

I'm not pro-mining. Coal mining has destroyed much of the land, water, and scenery here, and especially so in the southern part of the state. However, much of the scenery in the rest of the state is now being decorated with 215-tall wind turbines.

Debbie Savone
Rankin, IL

Ashford WVa is where my family comes from and still lives. This State is always lost in the shuffle. I enjoyed your article saying exactly what is going on. I have been advising my family and friends to write, complain and insist something be done for such gross negligence. More importantly, to NOT DRINK THE WATER. Thank you for your support for the over 300,000 people that have been affected by this tragedy.

Laura Geigle
West Wareham, MA

Hello Mr. Richardson,

I am so thankful that you wrote the article about the spill in West Virginia.

My daughter, her husband and their two little girls (age 4 and 2) live in Nitro and I am one very worried grandmother up here in Wareham, Massachusetts.

I was really hoping that some of the celebrities from W. VA., like Jennifer Garner, Mary Lou Retton or Kathy Mattea would go down and get some news coverage.

Please keep covering this issue in the media.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: West Virginia ERs reported an influx of patients last week.


An Interview With David Broza

David Broza

(Photo courtesy of Eli Silver, CC 2.0) 

Salon did an interview with me about some of the mishegas in which I have been involved here of late regardeding Israel, Palestine and The Nation. I found it narrowly accurate but generally misleading, so I posted a response. You can read both here.

A few years ago, I did a lengthy interview with Israeli singer/composer/national treasure David Broza about music, politics, life, etc., and it was never published. David is a great guy, though, and he’s got a new album he recorded in East Jerusalem with Palestinian musicians that is produced by a friend from Altercation Records, Steve Earle. It’s called East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, and you can read all about it here and can read a profile of David here.

So let’s hear what David had to say way back when.

Eric Alterman: Have you had much involvement with the American Jewish community?

David Broza: Yeah. Uninspired by those who are in their 40s, two or three kids, and they have to teach the kids something. I would have to maintain some kind of relationship with them. In order to maintain something of what their families went through, they have to maintain some form of identity besides being a citizen of America. And the Jewish community offers that. It offers it through all kinds of programs. Whether it’s education… tours, trips.

To me, a big problem with the American Jewish community is that it lives through Israel. In part, through the memory of the Holocaust, in part, through Israel. And it’s not an inauthentic expression of Judaism, it’s one of the ways… That’s why I find Jewish education in America so distasteful because it’s not, it doesn’t strike me as imparting anything authentic. I don’t mean the Orthodox, the Orthodox have their, you know, they know what they do. I’m talking about, well, not the secular Jews…

I think it all depends on the leadership; the leadership is not always excellent. But where it is excellent, I’ve seen… There are incredible leaders within the Jewish community of America which therefore give a different tone and a different meaning to the modern-day needs of young Jewish families that are not going to be religious. That don’t even think of Israel as the promised land, they think of Israel as another, literally, as another society, and yeah there are a lot of Jews there and it’s really interesting and I’d love our kids to go and experience, you know to Masada, you go to Tiberias, go to Tel Aviv, go to the Kotel. That’s the kind of Judaism that I see. And that I believe is a very open-minded, free spirited, but with, but with an identity. You know? And it’s not, die for Israel. Israel is a strong country now. Israel doesn’t need the Jewish communities to donate, Israel exists now, after sixty years of independence, Israel is actually shining like a really hard diamond on its own merit, on its brain power. And because it’s so critical of itself, which is not what Italy is, it’s not Spain, and it’s not France. It will survive all the problems, even the fact that the peace is taking longer to come and eventually everything will have to come. If Israel does survive—Israel doesn’t have coal mines, it doesn’t have oil, it does have gas now…

You mentioned Masada a few times. You have this weird relationship with Masada.

I know, I do.

Describe that.

Well, I don’t think of it historically when I go there.

First of all, well, we can mention this. You did this famous concert there.

I do it every year.

You do it every year, okay.

Since 1993, I’ve been doing a sunrise concert.

And who has come with you to do it? I know Jackson Browne, and Shawn Colvin.

Shawn Colvin. But other times I’ve had Manzanita, Spain’s top pop Flamenco artist. And Jonathan Geffen and Meir Ariel. May he rest in peace.

It’s very expensive and it’s not lucrative as far as income for the artist, but it’s really cool. Really have to just…it’s a really positive vibe and really attractive for me and for the audience. The reason it’s not such a lucrative money-maker is because it only seats 1,500 people. And it starts at three in the morning. So if you want to have a lucrative one you’d want to have 3,000 people. In any case we do it, and we look for sponsors, otherwise I do it by myself, I take on all the expenses, and the idea is to play 3 or 3:30 in the morning until sunrise at 6:30. It’s three hours straight and it’s an exhilarating experience.

And why do you pick Masada?

Masada picked me. I used to play in this pop-song festival, called Arad festival. Arad being a city in the desert just above…I used to go to the festival, and after three years of playing in the festival in the theater at three in the morning, I [looked for] another venue for me the following year because I was kind of tired of playing in the theater at three o’clock in the morning. So he said, why don’t you come next year to Masada. And I said, wherever that is, wherever it is I’ll come. So the following year, I came, I didn’t check where it was, I didn’t know…I mean I knew Masada, but I didn’t know where the theater was, the amphitheater. Only when the sun came up, and I filmed this, by coincidence, but only when the sun came up, honest to God, and I looked behind me, and I saw the sun coming up on the Dead Sea and I look at the audience did I realize what an incredible place we were playing in. That was 1993 and since then I’ve been doing at least one if not two concerts a year. Since then, sixteen years later. I’ve been hooked. And then in late 1995, I was playing at the PBS station in Chicago WTTW Channel 11 and they had, after I did my concert, which was a Hanukah concert, on PBS, the producer asked me, they were very impressed and really taken by my performance, and they asked if I would do a project for them. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I said, “Sure.”They said, “Well, what would you do if we asked you to do a special concert?” I said, “Masada.”They said, “What is that?” So I explained it to them. And they said, “Wow, how can we do that?” And about ten years later, ten years later, I called up and said, “We’re ready for you.”

So that’s how we brought Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin. Okay, moving along with it. Is there much relationship between, musically, between Arabs and Jews in Israel, and is there any relationship with Palestinians? I know you work with Arabs in Jerusalem.

No. I work with Palestinians in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem. I work with Said Murad and he is actually the head of an organization that’s called Sabreen. They have a studio, and they have a band, and they do a lot of music for movies, and they do a lot of workshops in the refugee camps and in the West Bank. They have to do with music and building self-esteem for kids through music.

And what do you do with them?

To start with, we drink a lot of coffee, and have a lot of barbeques and spend time together. That’s how our relationship started. I was originally introduced to them as a pro-Palestinian musicians in the year 2000. And I came over to East Jerusalem, and we really established our relationship as a friendship. After, honestly after maybe a year, or maybe more than a year, of just hanging out and maybe sometimes more, I suggested that we write some songs together. And the first song that we wrote was called “BeLibi.” Which was a song that I started in Hebrew and I told them to continue in Arabic. And we actually sang them with identical lyrics, but me in Hebrew and him in Arabic, as a love song to our land, to our country. And actually referring to it as our motherland.

When was this?

This was in 2002, while the intifada was going on. And we developed it to the point that one day I was approached by a group called Search for Common Ground, which is actually a very established Washington-based organization, and they were doing a movie about the prospects for peace, and asked me if I would do the music. And I’m not going to say no to that, so Said and I became for the first time partners for writing music, and we wrote the score for this five-chapter documentary about prospects, and we included that song that we had written. And after our job was done, I actually used my public relations person to go to PBS—the Palestinian Broadcasting Systems, or whatever they call them there, and got them to agree to air simultaneously our song, which is four minutes and forty-four seconds long, simultaneously with Israeli IDF radio. This was very unusual for them to even agree to having a military radio do it, but the Israeli National radio wouldn’t do it. So, oddly enough the Israelis wouldn’t, but the Palestinians would. So we had the whole Middle East for four minutes and forty-four seconds listening to this one song sung by Palestinians and Israelis together and it was beautiful. And that established my relationship with Said Murad.

We did one concert for the Ford Foundation in Nevai Shalom Rachav Salam and we found that around the same time. But normally, Said and Sabreen at large are reluctant to play with Israeli musicians live. They have no problem recording, doing videos, doing photoshoots. For some reason, the live thing on stage is still a big problem. Although they have had a member, for example, Ibrahim Aid, who is a wonderful musician, who actually lives in a village to North in Israel, but is a member of Sabreen, was a member of Sabreen, and at the time, they would send him to play with me. And it didn’t matter that he was a member of Sabreen representing them, but they, personally, were not there to play with me. So there is a lot of collaborations, more and more Israelis and Arab musicians. But you have to distinguish between Israelis and Arabs and Israelis and Palestinians.

Okay. But you do collaborate on record and in this case with Palestinians?

Sure. But that’s unusual.

Okay. Is there, is there much… Israel, it seems to be having a particularly rich cultural moment, at the moment, with theater and film. Is this true in music? And to what degree, what are its sources? How much of it is the situation and the politics? And how much of it is the incredible richness of Israeli society at the moment?

I think there are more and more festivals that have budgets that enable Israelis and Arabs to sit together. For example, there is the Lod festival. So for the Lod festival, they have to have players and Arab musicians and they would normally, they would try to, at every festival they would have one if not two or three performances written and catering especially for the festival and that budgets for it. So that enables the Arab musicians from Arab villages to come and play with Israeli musicians. So that creates a fusion of the music. But there is more and more use of Ud and tarbukas and Arab, that’s Arab music, Arab musicians bringing in their, their music and, and incorporating it into Israeli music.

Do you hear Israeli musicians other than yourself incorporating Arab themes?

Sure, of course.

Is there a cultural ferment in Israeli folk music and pop music right now? Is it a good moment in Israeli music?

Yeah. You know, it’s amazing. Well look, record companies are going down, but all musicians have studios at home, so everybody’s recording themselves…with their files and creating fusions. We have Mira Awad who’s working with Achinoam Nini known better as Noa, Awad is an Arab actress and singer. Wonderful. They’re creating music. Amal Murkus, who is actually the pioneer and is really, I would say, the greatest singer, Arab singer, in the Middle East today and with a very strong Arab identity, and she collaborates with Israeli musicians. And, you know, she definitely has an opinion and she can be very difficult if we’re going to start having a political discussion, but if we’re talking about music, and sharing nice moments as musicians and artists together…talking about artists discussing a certain direction in music and not discussing about the identity of being an Arab and a Jew.

How do you see artists, musicians, even visual artists, film-makers, theater, in inspiring Israel to meet up to the problem it’s facing, particularly since that problem needs to be solved sooner rather than later?

If Israel was a country that did not openly criticize itself, then I would tell you that we’ve lost. Whether there’s a right, or there’s a left, to the pro-peace movement that I’m so, such a spokesman for and support so much, do we exist? Do we not exist? We are openly criticized, we openly talk about things, and as long as that society allows itself to do so, then there will be a future. And that, in my opinion, that is the one aspect of Israeli society that has brought Israel to where it is and will take it to the next level. And so, in the arts, when you see a movie like Ajami, for example, it’s a killer movie. It’s got flaws, but my God, it put the reality about my backyard, and this is Tel Aviv. This would be like New York facing those issues.

Also the movie Jaffa. Have you seen that?

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Yeah. So strong. So like you’re talking about, the story you’re talking about, which I haven’t seen, makes you wonder…how bad is that society if it allows itself to question itself and look itself in the mirror the way it does? It can’t be that bad. Bad is when you don’t see it. Bad is when you know the priest has been molesting children for generation upon generation and you turn the eye away. I can’t live with that.

But it makes me depressed…

You know you met, last year. Listen, they have their issues, but they are holding on, they’re holding up and they’re moving ahead. I have never seen Said, who in the past has been very depressed, so open with me. And I think it’s a reflection of what’s going on on the other side. In Ramallah there’s building, there’s a future, there’s young couples that can move into new apartments that are being built in Ramallah and all over the West Bank for the next few years. They have a future. And they’re not going to give up on that. And in order to really get to that future, to the promised future, they will have to compromise with Israel as well. Israelis will have to compromise. So I believe like Peres has said in the past, and I think he’s a visionary, that the economy holds the key to the future. And this is not for me to say, because I’m an artist, and I can’t, but I do believe in collaboration. And collaboration means working, and working, means making money, and making money you’re not going to give up. And making money, if that means collaborating, let it be collaborating. Don’t call it by any other name, because, it’s not peace. I don’t care what it is.

Okay, that’s all. Well I really enjoyed this.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the controversy behind Chile’s Palestino soccer club.

Let Them Drink Coke: The Media’s Indifference to the West Virginia Chemical Spill

West Virginia chemical spill

Employees of the South Charleston Public Works Department assisted residents in obtaining cases of water after a chemical spill in the Elk River contaminated the public water supply in nine counties. (AP Photo/Michael Switzer)

The paywall is down on my Nation column, Remember “Benghazi"?

Now this: Some people, including as it happens, my editors, think my last blog was inaccurate when I noted that that Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss complained of “too many Jews” at The Nation, since the authors of these repellent articles were addressing themselves only to Israel/Palestine related issues and were complaining only about the "relative" representation of Jews vs. Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs and others. I don’t mind pointing out that this was the topic at hand but, unlike my editors, I do not find the qualification to be mitigating in the slightest.

I’ve wasted enough of my life responding to the mob of BDS fanatics who either do not understand, or care, for the basic tenets of evidence-based journalism and/or argument so I won’t bother pointing out the lies contained in their posts about me or The Nation. I trust that most readers will already be aware of their respective lack of standards in such matters. With respect to the accuracy of my post, however, I will merely point out the following:

1) I linked to both articles so that any reader could see the quotes for themselves in context.

2) Both sites write pretty much exclusively (and obsessively) about the Middle East so what else could they have been complaining about?

3) Most important: both articles complain about the number of JEWS writing in the Nation on these issues relative to other nationalities. They don’t complain about the number of pro-Zionist or pro-Israel writers (which is a good thing, because The Nation publishes more anti-Israel articles than any other print publication in America, no contest). Both articles specifically target JEWS. Think about it. Jews are as divided about Israel as any group of people on earth. Jews have every imaginable position on the Middle East, including, especially, fanatical hatred of Israel, as more than a few Jewish contributors to The Nation have consistently demonstrated. And yet JEWS are somehow the problem for both Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss.

To complain about too many Jews writing on the Middle East or any other issue is to essentialize a racial/ethnic characteristic and ignore the quality of argument and evidence. Should The Nation limit the number of African-Americans it publishes on civil rights? Should it limit the number of Latinos it publishes on immigration? Should it limit the number of women it publishes on feminism? Should it limit the number of whites, non-Hispanics and men respectively as well? And what, pray tell, is the difference? Either the arguments are compelling or not. Either the evidence support them or it does not. The race/ethnicity/gender of the person making an argument is, or ought to be, irrelevant. (And this is to say nothing of the fact that these are hardly static categories as, for instance, both our current president and Chelsea Manning can attest.) This is not politics we are talking about, where representation obviously matters, but the world of argument and ideas, which ought to rise or fall strictly on their moral and intellectual merit. 

And to that very point, just what, exactly, is a Jew and who gets to decide? The Reform movement (and Reconstructionist movement as well) accepts patrilineality, and so those with just a Jewish father may consider themselves Jewish. But Conservative and Orthodox Jews do not. How is The Nation to decide how many Jews are too many when Jews themselves cannot agree on who’s Jewish? Christopher Hitchens did not learn of his Jewishness until he was in his forties. Should The Nation have barred him from writing about Israel once he broke the news? (Or does the “Count the Jews” rule not count for anti-Zionists?) In my posts, I suggested the relevance of the Nuremberg Laws. If any of the ignorant (and dishonest) bigots at Electronic Intifada or Mondoweiss have a better idea, I’m all ears.

And if anyone still cares at this point, you can read the original post at the bottom of this one and judge for yourselves.*

PS: Salon is about to publish an article on this riveting topic or on a related one. I’m not sure why it rises to that level. I was disappointed when, recently, Salon allowed Max Blumenthal to lie about me, but pleased that they published a correction after he made it clear he could not substantiate his claims. I’m hoping there are no such problems with this one because believe me, I am profoundly sick of this subject.

I was out of the country on vacation this week so there are no Alter-reviews.

Now here’s Reed:

Let Them Drink Coke: The Mainstream Media's Casual Incuriosity of the West Virginia Chemical Spill
by Reed Richardson

Last winter, 3,000 vacationing Americans were deprived of drinking water and functioning bathrooms when an unexpected fire aboard a Carnival cruise ship in the Caribbean left it with almost no power. The deprivation and unsanitary conditions dragged on for almost a week and forcing a handful of people to be emergency airlifted off the ship for medical reasons. This was a legitimate news story, no doubt, but thanks to cable news’s sudden infatuation with it, it blew up into a full-blown media phenomenon—the “poop cruise.” As the ship limped back to port, no major newspaper or TV news network could resist the pull of covering it, none more so than CNN, which churned out an unbelievable 758 broadcast minutes—more than twelve full hours—to “poop cruise” coverage on the voyage’s final day.

Last Thursday, 100 times as many Americans lost access to clean, safe water for drinking, cooking, and bathing in West Virginia when a 7,500-gallon spill of a hazardous chemical using for coal processing contaminated the Elk River and the region’s water supply. Lacking water, the state capital effectively shut down, leaving Charleston’s streets ominously empty, like in some dystopian future. As the ordeal stretched into a new workweek, still no date had been given for when residents might be able to trust what comes out of their faucets again. This too is a news story, a big one, in fact. But with a few exceptions (among them, Al Jazeera America), it has been shrugged off by the major newspapers and mostly ignored by the broadcast and cable news TV networks. CNN, contra their “poop cruise” saturation coverage, has devoted around thirty minutes—a mere half-hour—to the water crisis over the past several days.

So, what’s behind this disproportionate journalistic response? Why the disconnect about focusing on what really matters? I’d submit that a lot of the mainstream media’s latent biases are lurking in this story, forming an almost perfect storm of national press apathy to West Virginia’s plight. And it’s instructive to unpack how they work.

To be fair, one has to look at the lack of coverage of the spill and subsequent water crisis in the context of the news events surrounding it. It’s pretty easy to identify the major stories grabbing the attention of the pundits and filling up most of the news hole the past few days—Chris Christie’s bridge-closure scandal and, yes, the Golden Globes. That these stories are rooted in Los Angeles and the New York metro area may seem like a coincidence, but it’s not. A vast majority of the national press lives in New York, LA, and Washington, DC. These journalists know what they see and hear, and this effect has been magnified of late, as almost every major news organization has uprooted most, if not all, of its local bureaus across the country. As a result, unquestionable confirmation and proximity biases, which have unmistakable class undertones, drive mainstream media editorial decision-making.

For instance, it’s no accident that Wall Street Journal reporters started poking around the Christie Bridgegate scandal not long after a few Journal editors got stuck in the Fort Lee traffic on their way into work. One wonders what kind of wall-to-wall coverage that same size chemical spill might have enjoyed if it had shut down the water in a tony neighborhood like Georgetown or the Upper East Side. Similarly, if you were looking to NBC News for an update Sunday night on the hundreds of thousands of poor and middle-class people suffering in West Virginia, you were out of luck. That’s because NBC chose to forego that evening’s national newscast to instead spend the 6:00 hour covering rich celebrities arriving at the Golden Globes. (In an ironic twist, a minor pipe leak occurred on the red carpet, which likely received more cumulative media attention than the spill in West Virginia.)

Now, one could argue the spill’s impact on West Virginia had been well mitigated by Sunday night. And that’s true. (Although that doesn’t mean the ongoing water embargo wasn’t newsworthy). By all accounts, the FEMA response has been swift and substantial, helping to avoid an even larger public health emergency and possible loss of life. But it also reveals the media’s reductive, reactive nature, which is marked by being more caught up in the immediate response to man-made or natural disasters than their systemic causes.

There was a similar obtuseness in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, where the coverage all too often focused simply on "rebuilding" rather than asking tougher questions about the long-term impact of climate change on coastal communities. And sometimes the press doesn’t even stick around long enough to miss the point. For example, last spring, the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, pried big-time media folks like Anderson Cooper out of their studios for a day or two. But the Boston bombing story proved too good to give up, and before anyone had figured out what ignited the blast, the national press had lost interest and moved on.

Similarly, a competent government response to disaster can actually cause the press to overlook or badly misread the potential dangers averted. How else to explain these outrageously tone-deaf sentences, stuck in the middle of an otherwise well-reported Washington Post story on West Virginia from Sunday?

Even if this does not turn out to be a public health disaster, the water crisis has provided a reminder of why the Kanawha River Valley is sometimes called Chemical Valley. [emphasis mine]


Life here is a lot like camping.

Note: due to widespread concern over chemical ingestion and exposure, more than 1,000 West Virginia residents called Poison Control in the days after the spill, 169 people sought treatment at area hospitals, and ten were admitted for serious symptoms that included severe vomiting. That is a public health disaster. Full stop. That it wasn’t worse was merely due to luck, charity and a capable federal emergency response. What’s more, it is outright demeaning to cavalierly compare 300,000 people losing their drinking water from corporate—if not criminal—negligence to engaging in outdoor recreation. What is happening in West Virginia is not at all like camping, it’s more like a taste of the Third World, where the powerful behave recklessly and leave the poor to suffer the consequences.

Lest you think the company guilty of the spill—the oh-so-perfectly named Freedom Industries—isn’t used to getting its way, consider its aggrieved response to the initial criticism. The girlfriend of company executive Dennis Farrell, for example, took to Facebook last Friday to tell everyone to just chill: “I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy,” Stover-Kennedy wrote, “but a little empathy wouldn’t hurt. And just so you know, the boys at the plant made and drank coffee this morning! I showered and brushed my teeth this morning and I am just fine!”

And while the public was desperately buying up every drop of potable water as well as any other beverages left on store shelves, company president Gary Southern took his cloistered privilege a step further. After a brief public apology on Friday evening, Southern tried to quickly wrap up his press conference by noting how hard the disaster has been on him. “It has been an extremely long day,” he whined. “I’m having a hard trouble talking at the moment. [sic]” It took a local TV reporter to shame him into answering more questions, but not before Southern refreshed himself, Marco Rubio-style, with a quick, on-camera swig of bottled water. The symbolism between the haves and the have-nots couldn’t have been more clear, even if the tapwater wasn’t.

In the past, this kind of shameless corporate posturing, along with the company's misleading statements about how the spill was discovered and its size, might have triggered warning signs within the mainstream media, pushing it deeper into the story. For far too long, however, the national press has outsourced its outrage cues to politicians. So, with Republicans notably silent and both the current and former Democratic governors of the state—one now a US Senator—more than ready to downplay the disaster, the media followed suit. One notable exception is MSNBC’s “All In,” which did a long segment on the spill. (At the 2:05 mark in his clip one can watch current West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin uncharitably trying to put a coal industry PR lackey out of a job.) Consequently, it fell to the local press to uncover the criminal background of one of Freedom’s founders as well as the complete lack of local emergency preparedness.

This spill could have served as a national wake-up call, prompting a conversation about how good jobs and protecting public health and natural resources need not be considered mutually exclusive. That’s a broad policy discussion, though, and that’s the final bias afflicting the West Virginia spill coverage. Policy reporting is boring. Or at least that’s the common knock against it. It’s not boring, though, but it is tough. It takes a much more dedicated and resourceful journalist to connect government action (or inaction) to its real-world impact in a way that a reader or viewer can understand. What's more, policy reporting often involves empirical judgments about what works and what doesn't; that's anathema to those brought up in the ways of orthodox objectivity.

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On Monday, The New York Times finally got around to putting last week’s chemical spill into some broader policy context with a long article about West Virginia’s lax environmental regulations and its poor workplace safety record. Sadly, this was the exception, not the rule, and even that effort felt a bit too narrow. For example, there's been no mention in any coverage of the Freedom spill of the state’s ongoing lawsuit with the EPA and the nationwide consequences if it successfully rolls back regulations of the Clean Water Act. Or the fact that, just as West Virginia was just beginning to grapple with the costs of the water crisis, the US House was simultaneously passing a bill that would make it easier for polluting companies to skip out on paying for hazardous waste cleanup. Of particular note: West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, who represents about one-third of the counties without clean water, was one of five Democrats who crossed the aisle to vote for it.

As Rahall would no doubt point out in his defense, accidents happen. Of that there is no doubt. But it’s no longer an accident when the concerted actions of the powerful—whether in Congress or the Fourth Estate—enable the same mistakes to happen over and over again. Then it becomes negligence, an unforgiveable willingness to look the other way while we force the least among us to suffer and flush our most precious resources down the drain.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail:
Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa, CA

As I think you know by now, I really enjoy your columns. And I'm very used to being unhappy with the state of our nation and so much more.

However, this week's column really made me angry. I think I understand why Bob Schieffer wants to talk about process rather than substance: it makes it automatically "objective." The fact is that there really isn't much substance behind the GOP position on not extended unemployment insurance. That puts him in a difficult position in his effort to appear objective. If he talks substance, there isn't really anything to counter. But he looks like a "real journalist" when he talks about vote counting.

I very much liked your take on the Rand Paul comment. But I was also bothered by the obvious "budget worry" hypocrisy. Unemployment insurance must be paid for, but it's fine to set up "economic freedom zones" where the government will get less in taxes. So what is it, Rand? Does the budget deficit matter or doesn't it? Or are you going to repeated the thoroughly refuted claim that tax cuts pay for themselves? Of course, the actual answer is that unpaid-for government spending* is fine, but only as long as it benefits the wealthy.

It disgusts me.

*Special tax deductions such as these "economic freedom zones" or the mortgage interest deduction are exactly that: government expenditures according to no less than Milton Friedman. I go into this in more depth in, Hidden Welfare for the Rich, where I discuss how our corporate tax rate is exactly the same as the government sending Mitt Romney a welfare check for a half million dollars each month. I think if we did it that way, there would be more pressure to change the system.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: how a lack of safety regulations caused the deaths of US miners

Media Fail: Unemployment Coverage

Job fair

Hundreds of unemployed adults wait in line at a 2010 City University of New York job fair. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Editor's Clarification: This blog post mischaracterized recent articles in Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss. The writers of those pieces did not argue that "too many Jews" write for The Nation; they pointed out that The Nation has published more Jewish than Palestinian voices on the subject of BDS (both pro and con) and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and they called for the inclusion of more Palestinian writers in the debate.


My last Nation column before the break was China Goes Dark.

And speaking of The Nation, have you noticed what the magazine’s real problem is? Too many Jews! That’s right. Just like Richard Nixon instructing his aide to “count the Jews” at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and get rid of as many as he could, two pro-BDS websites, Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, published articles complaining about how many Jews write for The Nation. I salute both for their belated commitments to honesty and transparency. It’s always nice when people who pretend to care about one thing admit to their actual motivations, though I do wish each would clarify just how many Jews are too many. Also, we could use some specifics. What, for instance, about “Jews” with gentile mothers? Do they, like the Reform movement, accept patrilineality or must such Jews be converted by an orthodox rabbi to count? Should we use the Nurenburg laws to determine these questions? Inquiring minds want to know.

Oh, and the Palestinian Authority will be the first customer for Israel's Leviathan gas field. It's a good thing the PA is not a member of the American Studies Association or they would be in real trouble...


1) The Complete Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)

Before the holidays, I somehow neglected to write up a wonderful new release from my friends at Mosaic documenting the musical partnership of Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. Had the drummer/bandleader not found Fitzgerald in 1934, he might have died unknown, three years later, ravaged by the spinal tuberculosis with which he lived. And had the 17-year-old singer not been discovered by Webb and his wife Sally, who knows if we’d still be talking about her today?

Thanks to the release of The Complete Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941), an eight-CD set comprised of 187 tracks (three of which are previously unreleased in any format), I’ve been learning a ton about these two and enjoying it more than I can say. The set includes both pre-Ella material dating back to 1929 and fifty-nine tracks of Ella's recordings with both the full band and smaller ensembles that remained together for two years following Chick's passing in 1939.

Webb was hunchbacked, stiff and under five feet tall, but he overcame these physical limitations with his creativity, musicality, showmanship, personality and leadership. Ella came to his attention following her 1934 victory at Amateur Night at the Apollo. Shortly thereafter, at 17, she moved in with the Webbs, and began recording with the band and the rest is, as they saying goes, musical history. As John McDonough states in his extensive and highly informative notes, "Never in jazz history did a major swing band ever come to be so dominated by a single singer. But then no other swing band ever had Ella Fitzgerald."

Some favorites include "You'll Have to Swing It (aka Mr. Paganini)," "Darktown Strutter's Ball" and, of course, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." There are also two tracks featuring Ella with the Mills Brothers in acapella renditions of "Big Boy Blue" and "Dedicated to You." And the players range from Louis Jordan to Benny Carter with Taft Jordan, Bobby Stark, John Kirby, Hilton Jefferson, Wayman Carver, John Trueheart, Mario Bauza, Pete Clark, Chauncey Haughton, Garvin Bushell and Edgar Sampson in-between. Ram Ramirez and Eddie Barefield joined in the post-Webb years when the ensemble became known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Orchestra.

Per usual, Mosaic’s production sets the standard for historical releases, as do the rare photographs, detailed notes by McDonough and the intensely researched and detailed track-by-track session information, much of it provided by Van Alexander, the one surviving participant in these sessions. Read all about them—and check out the wonderful videos they post—here.

2) The Political Economy of Human Happiness

Academic research on human happiness is much in vogue. Given the inherent interest of the subject, it is one that the media has been generous in devoting attention to. Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, road this wave of interest to a Sunday New York Times feature in December, wherein he argued (among other things) that leading a satisfying life was all about our "choices" over "values" and pursuing the "moral imperative" of "free enterprise."

Benjamin Radcliff, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, offers an alternative: human happiness is determined largely by the degree which we live in a just and equitable society, as reflected by our commitment to the public policies (e.g. the social safety net, pro-worker labor market protections) and institutions (principally strong labor unions) most consistent with those goals. Unlike Brooks, he is also doing original econometric research, published by peer-reviewed journals (like the American Political Science Review). He has a new book (from Cambridge University Press) on these themes titledThe Political Economy of Human Happiness.

Ben’s a great guy, so check it out.

Now here’s Reed:

Media Fail: Unemployment Coverage
by Reed Richardson

For 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed, the arrival of this year’s holiday season included the unwelcome and unwanted gift of austerity, thanks to a miserly Congress. This week, President Obama and Congressional Democrats will launch a campaign to undo the expiration of extended unemployment benefits, making it the first big policy fight of 2014. But if the establishment media’s stilted, simplistic framing of its unemployment coverage over the past few days is any indication, it may very well be a winter of discontent for many jobless Americans, as well as those relying upon food stamps or hoping for a raise in the minimum wage.

1. The process frame

Obviously, journalists should press members of Congress on the realistic prospects of any proposed legislation (a point I’ll return to later). But what’s all too common inside the Beltway is an unhealthy, almost subconscious obsession with process that avoids any analysis of the merits of policy. For an example of how this plays out in the unemployment debate, one need only have watched CBS News’s Face the Nation this past Sunday, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a guest. Reid started off noting the popular support that extending unemployment benefits enjoys among a broad majority of Americans as well as its multiplicative economic benefits. But during Reid's eight-minute dialogue with host Bob Schieffer (from the 4:00 to 12:00 mark on the video), time and again the latter returned to the process angle, all but ignoring the real-world impact that failing to re-up unemployment would have on many Americans. Here’s a representative exchange from the back and forth with Reid:

HARRY REID: But let’s start focusing on helping the middle class. We have a situation in America today that is really not good. The last thirty years, the top one percent of Americans, and their income and wealth has increased three hundred percent. The middle class during that same thirty years has lost almost ten percent. We’ve got to turn this around. I'm—I want—I want the economy to be good. I want people to be rich. I have nothing against rich people. But the rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer. The middle class are being squeezed out of existence.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask you about, a straight out political question here. If the Republicans try to filibuster this, and so far I think there’s only one Republican Senator that has said he’s ready to go along with you on this. Do you have the votes to block a filibuster on this?

What’s striking about this disconnected exchange is the different agendas on display. (And lest you think I’m cherry-picking one example I encourage you to watch the whole thing.) It’s Schieffer’s show, of course, and, as a journalist, he’s under no obligation to only engage on the points offered up by a politician. But critical listening and asking incisive, follow-up questions is what someone in Schieffer’s positions is being paid (handsomely) to do. Yet, when you revisit the entire segment you see a media professional only hammering home his own DC insider storyline (“Can it pass?”) with only a perfunctory, upfront mention of the consequences of unemployment cutbacks. And though Reid makes a valiant effort to steer the conversation back to, you know, policy choices affecting the long-term unemployed, Schieffer effectively hijacks the discussion with a series of hypothetical queries about vote counts and filibusters. By the end, it’s hard to even distinguish this specific debate from countless others on judicial nominations, immigration reform, or gun control.

This kind of insider-y coverage isn’t confined to the Sunday morning news shows. Last week, a big, front-page New York Times story on the Democratic push to raise the minimum wage in 2014 devoted zero effort to analyzing the real-world effects of such a move. Granted, the story was centered on the political strategizing behind the scenes, but when it came to explaining the positive or negative impact of raising the minimum wage, the article simply punted. Relying on tried-and-true false equivalence, it quoted Democrats touting a higher minimum wage’s economic benefits and then Republicans claiming it would dampen the recovery and discourage hiring. (No, it wouldn’t.) To read this kind of story is to get neither a sense of the possible outcomes nor an idea which party’s ideas might best benefit our democracy.

2. The compromise frame

This fixation on tactics, what may or may not pass Congress (i.e., the Republican House) brings us to the second popular media prism of unemployment extension debate. It’s what I like to call “What do Democrats have to give up?” Evidence of this frame could be found later on the same Face the Nation show, when Schieffer’s Republican guests, Republican Congressmen Peter King and Matt Salmon, made the stakes crystal clear. “Democrats should make compromises,” said King matter-of-factly. Salmon, after deriding unemployment as a “giveaway program” that “doesn’t create one job,” threw out the now-favorite GOP trick of demanding a dollar-for-dollar offset of the one-year, $26-billion cost of extending unemployment.

At that point, however, Schieffer challenged both suggestions with some important factual context. He pointed out that fourteen of the last seventeen emergency unemployment extensions—and all five of those passed during George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House—sailed through Congress with no strings attached. And then he noted that more than $1 trillion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were budgeted as emergency spending as well, none of which the GOP demanded be paid for by corresponding spending cuts. So why, then, he insisted, should Democrats have to bend to Republican demands when their own precedent suggests otherwise?

Just kidding, this is what Schieffer really asked:

BOB SCHIEFFER: Congressman King, do you see any way, any kind of a compromise that could be struck to continue at least some part of this unemployment insurance for these people?

Remember how Schieffer so clearly counter-programmed Reid’s message earlier? Contrast that with this gooey softball. You probably won’t be surprised to know that, by golly, King does see a way that Democrats might give in enough to satisfy Republicans. Turns out it involves more of the same old vague, right-wing talking points about cutting back on government regulations, although, to be fair, King oh-so-charitably doesn’t insist on offsetting every dollar of any extension. His counterpart Salmon certainly does, though. Of course, Salmon helpfully suggests another brilliant compromise solution to curing the “root cause” of unemployment, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a conservative pet project expected to create a grand total of thirty-five permanent jobs.

3. The time-to-move-on frame

There’s been talk about the importance of fighting poverty among a few Republicans lately, and true to form, parts of the establishment media have been all too happy to oblige these attempts at a party makeover. But for all the professed compassion from folks like Rep. Paul Ryan, the press rarely, if ever, presses them on their opinions about unemployment insurance. That’s a shame because it happens to be a great anti-poverty program.

In fact, according to the Census Bureau, unemployment benefits kept more than six million Americans from falling into poverty from 2010 through 2012. And a recent Columbia University study concluded that the combined social safety net package of unemployment benefits, food stamps and tax credits for the poor successfully prevented what might have been a severe outbreak of poverty during the Great Recession. Thanks to the federal government’s broad commitment to long-term unemployment benefits, the poverty rate only rose 0.8-percentage points over five years, compared to a 1.5-percentage point rise during the brief 1990 recession. “It’s sort of remarkable,” study co-author Christopher Wimer noted. “Without the safety net, poverty would have risen by five or six percentage points from 2007 through 2012.”

Unfortunately, the anti-poverty benefits of unemployment insurance have seen diminishing returns of late, mostly due to—you guessed it—diminished funding. In fact, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that due to the severity of these recent cutbacks, as of this past September “the number of unemployed workers receiving no unemployment benefits was actually higher than at any other point during the recession.” As federal and state governments have curtailed legislative support for addressing our lingering long-term unemployment crisis, a corresponding disinterest among the national press corps has also taken hold.

Thus, you begin to see a one-size-fits-all approach to economic coverage, one that deems the booming stock market as indicative that the long-term unemployment are somehow no longer deserving of any extra assistance. Consider CNN host Candy Crowley’s riposte to Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher on her show State of the Union this past Sunday. After Belcher reels off a list of Obama’s economic achievements since taking office, Crowley jumps at what she clearly sees as logical hypocrisy. “A little hard to argue that the long-term unemployment benefit should stay if the economy is OK?” she asks archly.

Actually, it’s not at all hard to understand this argument (which, ultimately, was Belcher’s point). Or, at least, it shouldn’t be hard for a big-name, national journalist. That’s because it’s well documented that this has been the most lopsided recovery in recent history. As the CBPP points out, the current, long-term unemployment rate—2.6 percent—is still twice as high as any other point in history when emergency unemployment expired. But from Crowley’s simplistic vista, it’s just a short trip around the bend to Fox News. If that network’s not avoiding the topic altogether, it’s dogwhistling about long-term unemployment benefits becoming a “permanent way of life,” as Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt did on Monday. To keep on giving the unemployed more "free" money only encourages them to sit at home and watch TV, right Rand Paul? Never mind that that’s a thoroughly debunked myth or that the long-term unemployed, particularly people of color, now face rampant discrimination.

4. The legitimizing crazy frame

Back in 2011, a Congressional Budget Office study estimated that extending unemployment benefits would add as much as 1.9 dollars to the GDP for every dollar spent. Compared to other options, like reducing employer payroll taxes, investing in infrastructure spending, or reducing business income taxes, unemployment benefits provided, by far, the biggest economic boost. And yet, when “pro-growth” Republicans start promoting shameless right-wing fantasies as a replacement for long-term unemployment benefits—things like approving the Keystone XL pipeline or huge corporate tax breaks—they rarely get called out for pushing impractical conservative dogma at the expense of workers. Case in point, this exchange between Republican Sen. Rand Paul and host George Stephanopoulos during ABC News’s This Week this past Sunday:

PAUL: So, what I've been saying all along, we have to figure out how to create jobs and keep people from becoming long-term unemployed. That's why I promoted the economic freedom zones, which would dramatically lower taxes in areas where there's long-term unemployment.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But are you saying now that if this extension is paid for, you can support it?

PAUL: Well, what I have always said is that it needs to be paid for, but we also need to do something for long-term unemployed people, and that is, we need to create something new that creates jobs. So, what I would like to do, when we get back, is one, if we extend it, we pay for it. But, two, we add something to it that would create jobs. And so what I have been promoting are economic freedom zones, which any area that has unemployment one-and-a-half times the national average, we would dramatically lower taxes to try to spur and stimulate the economy there and create jobs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Another big issue, this controversy over the NSA…

Again, a missed chance to engage and mine the discussion for important context. If Stephanopoulos had pressed Paul on these economic freedom zones, he might have gotten the senator to explain more about the plan to create ominous, Gilded Age-like outposts inside poor neighborhoods. Places where a regressive fiscal policy would all but eliminate personal, corporate, and capital gains taxes and EPA regulations would be rolled back. Libertarians might call these zones paradise, workers might call them Bangladesh-lite.

No serious journalist should abide being used like this as a prop for outright economic hucksterism. They owe it to their viewers/readers to question dubious policy claims and poke holes in obvious egotistical grandstanding. And, let’s be clear, any politician that responds to a question about long-term unemployment the way Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did on CNN’s SOTU this past Sunday deserves to laughed out of any Sunday morning talk show green room.

CROWLEY: In the states, they can get up to a combined state and federal unemployment benefits, they could get up to seventy-three weeks, close to a year and a half. Where do you stand on that?

WALKER: Well, two things. One, let's be clear, the reason why the White House is so actively pushing this is they want to desperately talk about anything but Obamacare. The best thing we could do to help people who are unemployed or underemployed is fix Obamacare, replace it with a patient-centered plan that put people in charge, not the government in charge, and got rid of the uncertainty that so many small businesses here in my state and across the country talk about. But two, the specific benefits to me, any discussion about this should be focused on what sort of reforms are we going to put in place. You know, he talked earlier, the previous segment, about people looking for work. Well, the federal government doesn't require a lot. We just made a change last year so that people had to look five times or more a week for work without our requirement change. They could go as little as two times a week. I don't know about you, Candy, but if I was out of work, I'd be looking more than twice a week for a job. I'd be looking for every day except maybe today. I take Sunday off to go to church and pray that I could find a job on Monday, but I think there need to be reforms in that system.… Instead of just talking about extending benefits, we should talk about getting people the training they need to fill those jobs. That's much better off than just putting a check out.

CROWLEY: So, you don't, per se, have a problem with extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, but you'd like it coupled with some other things?

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Some other things. Oy, journalism that indulges in this kind of dense, unthinking analysis would be funny, if it weren’t so frightening. Gov. Walker clearly signals that his grasp of the unemployment issue is predicated on sanctimoniously throwing rhetorical red meat to his future GOP primary voters, not on political reality. President Obama isn’t about to replace the Affordable Care Act with anything. Economic policy uncertainty has dropped to levels not seen since 2008. Oh, and for all his talk about job training, it was Walker who cut $250 million in state aid from the UW system in 2011, including a 30 percent cut to technical colleges.

All of that should qualify as important context to Walker’s Obamacare scare-mongering and Republican boilerplate about “freedom” and “opporutnity,” yet there is barely a peep from Crowley on the governor’s actual track record. Instead, incredibly, she pivots to doing damage control for the GOP. Rather than simply challenge the wisdom behind the party’s out-of-the-mainstream positions, Crowley—twice—structures her questions around asking Walker how his party can better “message” itself and its broadly unpopular ideas to the public.

The question, sad to say, answers itself, and speaks volumes about the sorry state of the establishment media in Washington. It also suggests a long, cold winter ahead for the unemployed.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail:
iFuck Alterman

you are an asshole since the time you have publicly MURDERED RALPH NADER.
criminalizing a third party run is defeeating liberty, AMERICA and the whole process of democracy.
Enjoy your socialist state you fucking moron.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: Senators from states with high unemployment attempt to kill the unemployment insurance bill.

What the Press Should Learn From the ‘Snowden Effect’

Poster of Edward Snowden

(Reuters/Bobby Yip)

My Nation column, “China Goes Dark,” is kind of about Apple’s labor exploitation and kind of about “Hard-hitting New York Times coverage has been journalism at its best—although the Chinese authorities apparently don't agree.” I suppose it’ll be behind a paywall for a few more days but it’s here, if you remember to click when it’s not.

In the meantime, there’s this: “Worse still is the continued employment of The Nation columnist Eric Alterman..."

Also, I have an ide for a new slogan for the ASA and the rest of the BDS mob: “BDS: More Palestinian than the Palestinians...”

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis put together a sixteen piece band to play songs you did not know were jazz--incluing “Jingle Bells” “Little Drummer Boy” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The songs were arranged by various members of the Orchestra and introduced with his unique aplomb and charm by Mr. Marsalis. The  highlights all involved the appearance of 23-year-old 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose charms I do not believe were captured on her cd, and so I’ve resisted her but her versatility and pitch-perfect delivery --as the pr material says, her “ability to refract the styles of such iconic performers of that era as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Valaida Snow with 21st century freshness, expressivity, and soulfulness”--really shook up the place and made it a most memorable, if somewhat brief performance.  The schedule is here.

I’ve also been spending time with Mosaic Records’ “The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions” Jordan worked as a sideman with Mingus, Max Roach, Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver and Randy Weston sometimes eclipsed his own brilliance as a leader. He was also well-known in the jazz world as a discoverer of emerging artistry and as a talented producer. This package--which lives up to Mosaic’s unequaled reputation for both scholarly and acoustic excellence, documents every aspect of his under publicized career.   It’s a six cd set that includes his two best-known albums, 1969's In the World features Julian Priester, Wynton Kelly and Wilbur Ware, with Don Cherry and Albert 'Tootie' Heath alternating with Kenny Dorham, Ed Blackwell and Roy Haynes on two tracks each. Glass Bead Games (1973) features the fiery tenorman with two separate rhythm sections: Stanley Cowell, Bill Lee and Billy Higgins; and Cedar Walton, Sam Jones and Higgins. But we aslo get Zodiac: The Music of Cecil Payne,  accompanied by Dorham, Kelly, Ware and Heath, Charles Brackeen's Rhythm X (1968) with Cherry, Charlie Haden and Blackwell on four Brackeen originals. Cherry and Blackwell can also be heard on Wilbur Ware's Super Bass, with Jordan on tenor. Next comes Shades of Edward Blackwell,  available here for the very first time. Recorded in 1968, this was Blackwell's first recording as a and features Cherry, Ware and the under-recorded tenorman Luqman Lateef on two Blackwell originals. The second has Ornette Coleman alumni, Billy Higgins and Dennis Charles, along with Roger Blank, Huss Charles and Jordan again. Finally, we get Pharoah Sanders' 1969, Izipho Zam rounds out the set with its 30 minute title cult , with vocalist Leon Thomas, and joined on various cuts Sonny Fortune, Howard Johnson, Lonnie Liston Smith, Sonny Sharrock, Cecil McBee, Sirone, and a drum ensemble of Billy Hart, Majeed Shabazz, Chief Bey, Nat Bettis and Tony Wylie. An embarrassment of riches, really, and it’s only really imaginable from Mosaic. (Terrific liner notes too, of course, with photos.) More Mosaic here, (and check out the incredible Art Tatum....)

Now here’s Reed:

What the press should learn from the “Snowden effect”
by Reed Richardson

Everyone’s familiar with the old zen koan: If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? In a way, the same existential question lies at the heart of our modern news profession: If a big story lands on the front page but nobody else notices, was it really journalism?

Flash back three years to the summer of 2010, when the Washington Post published its breathtakingly detailed, two years in the making  “Top Secret America” project. In it, reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin portrayed a vast, metastasizing national security state obsessed with classifying secrets, broadening its power, and increasingly reliant on private contractors. The front-page stories ran on three consecutive days in July. But by September, updates to the Post’s specially created “TSA” blog stopped coming. A fourth and final story installment—presciently titled “Monitoring America”—arrived somewhat inexplicably in late December, just days before Christmas. Almost nine months later, Frontline broadcast an hour-long documentary to complement the pair’s reporting, timed to run with the publication of a book about “Top Secret America.” Nevertheless, the White House, Congress, and the national security establishment all pretty much shrugged off the whole thing. But it was outstanding journalism. Or was it?

Then there was Reuters, which published last month the second half of a piercing two-part exposé about rampant waste in the Defense Dept. budget. If you missed it, or the first installment, which ran back in July, you weren’t alone. Despite the numerous examples of outrageous conduct unearthed, there’s been no concomitant public debate or calls for a governmental investigation into how much our nation really spends on the military and what we get (or, more to the point, don’t get) for our money. In fact, the Ryan-Murray budget deal that just passed Congress restored almost every DoD dollar cut by the sequester. Still, excellent journalism, right? Right?

My point here is not to diminish the journalism and journalists above as much as it is to offer up those examples as cautionary tales. In-depth accountability journalism doesn’t always make an impact (for reasons I’ll get to later.) Which is why the ongoing blowback of the NSA spying revelations leaked by Edward Snowden—the“Snowden effect”—are so remarkable. Whether or not you classify Snowden as a hero or a traitor, or something in between, one can’t deny his actions have sparked a debate about the intersection of national security and individual privacy that we weren’t having six months ago, but should have been. That, in a democracy dependent upon consent of the governed and oversight of their duly elected representatives, can’t help but be a positive development. Likewise, to witness an original author of the Patriot Act, a seminal piece of government overreach if ever there was one, change course and advocate legislation rolling back the NSA’s power is still hard to fathom. And to have predicted, back in June, that by the end of the year, both a federal judge—appointed by George W. Bush, no less—and a White House-appointed review panel would offer a sweeping, excoriating rebuke to the intelligence community status quo would have been laughable.

It is still too soon to say what real, lasting impact on intelligence and privacy policy the “Snowden effect” will have, of course. On matters involving the national security state, it always pays to be skeptical of any promises of broad reform. Judge Richard Leon’s powerful decision on Monday, for example, was self-sabotaged by his choice to immediately stay the ruling and limit its scope to the two plaintiffs who brought the case. (One of whom, Larry Klayman, it should be noted, is a certifiable right-wing conspiracy nut who has advocated for a military coup to overthrow President Obama.) Moreover, while the NSA review panel’s 300-page report was laudably released weeks ahead of schedule—and not as part of a late-Friday-before-Christmas news dump—the timing coincidentally works in favor of a White House looking to quell even more privacy lawsuits and possibly blunt the momentum of the Sensenbrenner-Leahy USA FREEDOM Act. That’s before pointing out that the panel’s 46 recommendations are just that, recommendations, and that Obama has already rejected one of the report's most important proposals.

However, the Snowden revelations and their subsequent publication haven’t just had an impact on issues of privacy and national security. They’ve also occasioned a re-awakening of a debate about the role of journalism (and journalists) in a democracy and its relationship to authority. As the lead reporter whom Snowden has entrusted with his massive trove of stolen secrets, former Guardian columnist/reporter Glenn Greenwald has come to personify this new breed of independent-minded, advocacy journalist. He’s endured some clumsysmear attempts as well as a share of fair criticism of his reporting, but it’s hard to quantify how fully his lightning-rod persona has become fused to the larger discussion of the merits of “objective” versus “advocacy” journalism. On Twitter, as is often the case, these discussions have unfortunately devolved further into competing “teams,” either pro- or anti-Greenwald. Set aside all the hashtag vitriol, though, and you find that the Snowden effect precipitated this bracing debate between Greenwald and former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller that every journalist should read and think about, no matter what side you come down on.

To say, as his critics do, Greenwald merely got lucky that Snowden chose him for what might the biggest leak of all time is a mistake, though. Just as it is a mistake for those who might have legitimate critiques of a journalist’s portrayal of intelligence operations to lapse into old-fashioned, insider-y rank-pulling instead of honest engagement. Greenwald’s reputation as someone with an unabashed adversarial approach to covering government no doubt fit the profile Snowden sought for someone who would distill, curate, and aggressively report the secrets he’d taken. It was no coincidence, then, that Snowden—and, before him, Pfc. Chelsea Manning—choose to leak everything he had to Greenwald instead of a major U.S. news organization, many of whom have on numerous occasions been too easily talked out of publishing stories by our government.

We’ll never know for sure how, say, the Times or the Post might have handled being the sole guardian of Snowden’s secrets. The enormous size and egregious nature of his revelations might well have led us to the same point we are at today, regardless of whose byline and masthead ran above them. I’m a bit skeptical, though. The multi-faceted, transnational nature of Snowden’s leaks seem to have necessitated exactly the kind of steady stream of multi-platform reports and foreign news partnerships that Greenwald has forged. Would an establishment media company like the Times have been as willing to undertake a similar journalistic outreach and share its exclusive information so as to ensure maximum policy impact? 

Color me doubtful. These days, the establishment media all too often adopts an indifferent attitude toward how the public connects with what it publishes, content to merely be conveyors of information rather than providers of context, chroniclers of the powerful instead of champions of the powerless. That no doubt contributes to why the public mistrusts the press so much.

Of course, the not-so dirty little secret about objective journalism is that does have agenda, it just won’t admit to having one honestly and transparently. In fact, the mainstream media advocates on behalf of politics and policiesall the time. Most of the time it's in service of the status quo, but not always. Take again, for example, the Post’s Dana Priest. In 2007, she produced world-class reporting on the horrid conditions for wounded veterans recovering at Walter Reed hospital. Couched as objective, this was in fact advocacy reporting at its best, uncovering wrongdoing, challenging the status quo, and shaming our military into fixing a broken system. Though she won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, what made her journalism stand out was that it applied a steady adversarial pressure to get results. In contrast to the intermittent nature of her “Top Secret America” series, Priest published 10 separate stories on Walter Reed over the course of 10 months. 

That, to me, is the higher gear that journalism rarely engages but that our democracy demands. It’s also the primary takeaway from the past few months of the “Snowden effect.” That truly free societies depend upon a free press that does more than just finds the facts and tells the stories and calls it a day. They demand a larger commitment from journalists and journalism, a willingness to make the stories matter. To not just make a sound, but to be heard.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail:
Ryan Scott

Portland, Oregon
Good afternoon Dr. Alterman,

I am belatedly following up on a promise I made to give you my opinion of the latest John Eddie CD after I'd listened to it awhile.  I'm pretty certain your recommendation was the reason I'd bought his 2003 CD, Who the Hell is John Eddie?

His latest CD, Same Old Brand New Me, is a lot less angry, but no less disillusioned.  No parental advisories on this one.  The CD returns repeatedly to the themes of disappointment and failure, but it frequently does so in clever, funny ways.  I have a couple of weaknesses that not everyone would share.  The first involves lyrics which turn a cliche inside out.  Eddie does this successfully on a number of songs, including "If Only They Could See Me Then," and "Don't Stop Me (If You've Heard This One Before."  Both songs convincingly create a picture of someone whose best days were twenty or thirty years ago, but who is unconvincingly going through the motions, hilariously in the latter song, mournfully in the former.  The inability to change either one's self or one's trajectory can also be found in the title song and "I'm Still Drunk."

My other weakness not everyone would share would encompass the juvenile puns of "Real Big Deck."

Anyway, if you haven't heard it yet, and I'm remembering right that you liked his earlier CD, I'd recommend it.  The love songs are fine, but the songs which rock are the ones I've found myself returning to.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: The rise and fall of “Murdoch's World.“

A Pirate’s Life: The Rise and Fall of ‘Murdoch’s World’

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch testifies on Capitol Hill

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch testifies on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

First a couple of Alter-reviews, then Reed:

Last Friday I went around the corner to Symphony Space on the occasion of Theatre Within’s 33rd Annual John Lennon Tribute. I’ve been to a couple of these before, but I don’t recall anything like the terrific line-up they amassed for Friday’s show. To be honest, it could hardly suck, given the material. But it could, and occasionally did, drag, in the middle.  It got off to a really strong start with Teddy Thompson, who will almost certainly grow more and more popular as more people hear him. He’s got a powerful and often beautiful voice and a winning stage persona. I can’t remember what he sang anymore, but I remember hearing it anew. (Each performer, pretty much, did one Beatles song and one Lennon solo song.)  Performances by Dan Bern, Dana Fuchs , Bettye LaVette, Toshi Reagon and Rich Pagano (of the Fab Faux). Lennon Tribute creator and MAD Magazine Senior Editor Joe Raiola followed and were either great or not so great depending on your taste. Since we’re talking about my taste I think things really began to take off again with Steve Earle dong “Cry Baby” and something else and then insanely great performances by Raul Malo (looking like a dead ringer for Lunciano Pavarotti) doing “The Ballad of John and Yuoko” and “Twist and Shout.” Joan Osborne batted clean-up as she says, and funked up the place with Ms. Lavette and left everybody feeling good, though “And So this is Christmas was the lamest of sing-a-long closers one could imagine. Great band too, led by Mr. Pagano.  

The Tribute was produced in association with Music Without Borders and shared its profits with the Spirit Foundations, established in 1978 by John and Yoko as a vehicle to support charities that address “the problems of the aging, abused women and children, and victims of terrorism and natural disasters.”  Theatre Within, meanwhile, is dedicated to “furthering the performing arts as a positive social force through concerts, theatrical productions and workshops.” Look ‘em up here

Speaking of the Fabs, while I don’t think I’m up to Mr. Lewisohn’s Tune In anytime soon—almost a thousand pages and it ends in 1962—and if you feel that way too, you might enjoy, as I am, Philip Margotin’s All The Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, which is a thumb-through kind of picture and data book for obsessives who don’t have as many blocks of time on their hands but find this stuff endlessly interesting. (It relies on earlier work by Mr. Lewisohn’s research.) It’s a big fat doorstop/coffee-table book with wonderful photos and decently-footnoted stories, pretty-well written and impossible not to like for Beatle-types (unlike at least one other Fab coffee table books published this season).  

And if you’re looking for a book on the history of Israel and the Palestinians, I strongly recommend Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. I would not have thought it possible to do justice to all the competing visions of what the land and the struggle mean had Shavit not done it. I listened to the audio version and it was read beautifully by Paul Boehmer  with a lilting, Israeli-infected baritone.

Now here’s Reed:

Pirate’s Life: The Rise and Fall of “Murdoch’s World”
by Reed Richardson

By all accounts, Rupert Murdoch is not a man given to introspection or burdened by self-doubt. The son of an Australian newspaper publisher who died while Rupert was still in college, there’s little evidence he ever considered anything other than following in his father’s successful footsteps. Yet to think of Murdoch’s global empire as simply the lifelong fulfillment of a second-generation media mogul driven by his desire for wealth and influence would be a mistake. Indeed, in newsrooms of yore, that kind of naïve, overly simplistic narrative probably would have gotten one’s copy thrown back in one’s face by Murdoch himself. Get the real story, mate.

And he’d be right; just because someone isn’t haunted by doubt doesn’t mean they’re not haunted by something else. In Murdoch’s case, the money and power he has accumulated over the decades aren’t the real payoff, they’re merely plot devices in his own personal Count of Monte Christo-like tale of vengeance and vindication. Fittingly for someone who grew up in the antipodes, his is a reactionary existence, one that constantly measures itself against the perceived establishment in London or New York and positions itself in opposition accordingly. His is an underdog’s tale in which there must always be cast a foil or a villain, someone or something that can’t wait to brush him off, lay him low, or cheer his failure. Thus, in Murdoch’s world, no slight goes unregistered, no grudge goes unborn, and no victory goes uncelebrated (often rudely).

This consummate outsider shtick is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Murdoch fils enjoyed a ridiculously privileged childhood growing up in Australia, went on to attend Oxford, and, thanks to his father, hob-nobbed with the world’s rich and powerful along the way. On his first trip to America, at age 19, he visited Hillandale, the country home of the Sulzbergers. That trip culminated with a visit to the Truman White House. Then, at age 20, he accompanied his father to meet the pope. His family was known to entertain Katharine Graham, doyenne of the Washington press establishment. This penchant for conveniently interpreting history is something of an inherited trait, it turns out. His father, Keith, while a reporter during World War I, filed a dispatch from the battle of Gallipoli that accused British officers of intentionally risking Aussie soldiers’ lives while protecting their own. His outrage turned him into a national hero and launched his career, no matter that it mostly turned out to be fiction, as Rupert himself later admitted.

Murdoch’s complicated relationship with his father is the key that unlocks nearly everything he has done in his career, as NPR reporter David Folkenflik makes clear in his excellent, insightful new book “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires” (Public Affairs, $27.99). Not coincidentally, the book opens with a set piece from last year where Murdoch, shamed and shaken, profusely apologizes to the tramautized family of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old English girl whose murder was both tainted and sensationalized by his newspapers’ voracious phone hacking. But even in the midst of his overwrought contrition for a scandal that will eventually sunder his media empire in two, the mask slips; 60 years on, the son still can’t let go of his incessant compulsion for score-keeping:

"Mention of his father seemed to change Rupert’s mood. His shame melted and he found himself repeating a signature complaint that had motivated him throughout his career. My father was a great newspaperman, Keith Murdoch’s son said ruefully in the London hotel room. The British never gave him his due. It was absolutely irrelevant to the people in the room, a strange aside, an echo of old battles called to mind by his father’s ghost that he had summoned unwittingly to the conference."

Folkenflik’s book is mostly an outsider’s view of the News empire, as Murdoch refused to participate and actively encouraged others not to as well. As such, when it comes to in-the-room reporting, Folkenflik acknowledges in an author’s note that he is relying upon his source’s sometime paraphrased recollections of what was said, as the italicized portions above indicate. As far as journalistic flaws go, this one is relatively minor, and the meticulous reporting throughout the book and the 50 pages of endnotes speaks to a high degree of due diligence.

Indeed, Folkenflik’s latest addition to the Murdoch canon stands in stark contrast to the previous entry on bookshelves, Michael Wolff’s 2008 book “The Man Who Owns the News.” Wolff’s account, which primarily focused on the 2007 acquisition of the Wall Street Journal, included unfettered access to Murdoch and stands as a classic example of the dangers of getting too close to one’s subject. For example, the very first sentence of Wolff’s prologue dubiously begins: “Rupert Murdoch, a man without discernible hubris—or at least conventional grandiosity…” But then just a few pages later, Wolff informs the reader that, as the Journal deal was wrapping up, Murdoch gleefully planned an in-your-face marketing campaign aimed squarely at taunting his sworn establishment enemies, the New York Times and the Financial Times:

“One of the ads had the big headline ‘Agent Provocateur.’ Another proposed the idea of pirates—the notion that for more than fifty years the company had been…well, if not exactly outlaws…not literally still…”

In light of the multiple international investigations and criminal indictments of Murdoch’s news executives since then, Wolff’s language here is eerily prescient, even though he either wasn’t able or interested in seeing it. In essence, Wolff’s book fell under the spell of the Murdoch mystique, documenting the very moment when the News empire peaked, but leaving readers without any sense of the coming crash. Folkenflik’s book, on the other hand, looks at an empire in retreat, after the bubble has burst. But there is one broad, perplexing leitmotif that occurs in both Wolff’s and Folkenflik’s exploration of Murdoch: pirates.

Again and again, the terms “buccaneer,” “swashbuckling,” and “pirates” comes up, whether used descriptively by Folkenflik or prescriptively by News editors themselves. For the former, the term helps explain Murdoch’s lifelong pursuit of rapacious acquisition. From the latter, it helps explain how, despite being spread across the world, the many News archipelagoes function with such seamless sensibility. As former London Sun editor David Yelland puts it: “Definitely there’s self-censorship…Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has happened and think: ‘What would Rupert think about this.’”

It’s hard to believe, but the book actually makes a good case that whatever influence Murdoch exerts inside the U.S. pales in comparison to his media dominance in his home country. For instance, Folkenflik lays out how Australians are beset by Murdoch’s media reach from cradle to grave. Perhaps not coincidentally, Murdoch’s news ventures—the Australian, the Telegraph, and the Herald Sun—all ranked at the bottom in terms of public trust of media coverage of that nation’s 2013 elections. But clearly not everyone within Murdoch’s pirate chip is fully on board—nobody said the Aussies don’t have a clever sense of dissent.

For the uninitiated, “Murdoch’s World” serves as a worthwhile reminder that there’s far more to the News empire than just Fox News. Nevertheless, the portions of the book devoted to Murdoch’s U.S. entities come across as far less interesting to the reader and, for that matter, Murdoch himself. Chapters on Fox News, for instance, feel a bit stale, even when Folkenflik helpfully revisits his past NPR reporting about Fox News’s right-wing bias during its ostensible “news” portions. For long stretches, Murdoch, a newspaperman at heart, all but disappears from the narrative about the TV network, replaced by his proxy, Roger Ailes. And if you’re anxious to read the hundredth take on Fox’s 2012 Election Night coverage, well, this book has you covered. (Folkenflik has serialized a good portion of the book’s passages about Election Night and Ailes’s notoriously ruthless PR shop on TPM and Politico.)

Similarly, Folkenflik’s discussion of the Faustian bargain struck by the Wall Street Journal six years ago finds some of the more outrageous fears of Murdoch’s impact unfounded. But the idea that he would rapidly reincarnate the paper into a kind of serious person’s New York Post—an oxymoron if ever there was on—was to always miss the point. There’s no mistaking that his “too long, didn’t read” critique of the Journal’s pre-acquisition coverage has clearly taken hold, however. Under fellow Aussie and Murdoch “mate” Robert Thomson, Folkenflik’s sources at the newspaper explain how it has denuded its deep-rooted business accountability coverage while slowly and subtly constricted its supposedly straightforward political coverage to enforce right-wing talking points. It’s worth pointing out that the Journal hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting since Murdoch took over. And though the Journal did win last year’s prize for commentary, the Pulitzer Committee’s choice has not worn well, to say the least.

The propulsive force of “Murdoch’s World,” though, is its detailed curation of the myriad immoral, unethical, and illegal actions taken by the editorial and managerial leadership at Murdoch’s U.K. newspapers News of the World and the Sun. Like a thorough prosecutor, Folkenflik weaves together strand after strand of evidence that Murdoch’s British newspapers had devolved into a corrupt, tip-sheet journalism driven by phone hacking and paying off cops. At one point, a former NotW reporter matter-of-factly tells Folkenflik that tips came from “police force employees” before catching himself. Building upon the reporting of Murdoch competitors like the Guardian, Folkenflik makes a compelling case that the rot went on for more than a decade and reached all the way to the top of the paper’s individual mastheads, and likely into the executive suite.  

That such a hands-on owner like Rupert Murdoch, or his son James, a high-level UK News executive, were unaware of the poisoned culture at the News of the World and the Sun is intellectual naivete of the highest order. The reality: the chummy, insular mateship across all of Murdoch’s News empire fueled an almost impenetrable, years-long code of silence, one whose allegiance was not to the truth but merely to mutual enrichment. As Neil Minow of GMI Ratings, a firm that tracks corporate integrity and transparency, explains to Folkenflik: “We have consistently given Mr. Murdoch’s board an F since they first incorporated in the U.S., and that’s only because there’s no lower grade.” Pirates, it should come as no great shock, make better far plunderers than managers.

Murdoch’s greatest trick, particularly in Britain, has been to use the leverage provided by his media empire to convince politicians to enable their own plundering. When viewed through that prism, his newspapers’ seemingly incongruous partisan twists and turns make perfect sense. As Folkenflik points out, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, who enjoyed News endorsement, the Labour Party “softened its stance on media ownership, labor unions, the euro, and other policies dear to Murdoch’s heart.” As for this notion of being Murdoch being an “outsider,” former Blair press aide Lance Price puts that lie to rest, calling Murdoch effectively a cabinet member, “one of only three people other than Blair whose opinion counted in making government policy.”

Murdoch’s stature, though, has taken a well-deserved beating of late. The ongoing criminal investigations of his former NotW editor and News International CEO Rebekah Brooks, his humbling, halting testimony before a parliamentary inquiry, and a scathing report by Lord Leveson all combined to sabotage his bid for full control of the BSkyB satellite network. Following that, the British government recently deemed him “not fit” to own a major media company, which ultimately forced him to cut his empire in two. One half includes his lucrative TV and movie properties—dubbed “Goodco” internally—while the other is mostly comprised of either struggling or tainted newspaper properties—snarkily called “Shitco” by News employees. Though Murdoch still bestrides both entities as chairman, the permanence of the News Corp. legacy that he will bequeath to his children has been thoroughly undermined.

That legacy for the next generation of Murdochs is the final piece of the puzzle to come under Folkenflik’s unblinking gaze. Throughout the book, the undercurrent of his mercurial relationship with his three heirs apparent—sons Lachlan and James, and daughter Elisabeth—makes for a Shakespearean drama all its own. (Murdoch’s eldest daughter Prudence, from his first marriage, expresses no interest in the family business and his two youngest children, from his third failed marriage, are of grade-school age.) Through the years, each of them enjoy their moment in the sun before being eclipsed by their father’s larger shadow once again. Lachlan, the first-born son, long ago gave up trying to prove himself and his ambitions to his father and has retreated to a comfortable life running the Australian News properties. James, damaged the most by the phone hacking revelations, has been all but run out of the company. And Elisabeth has not so subtly declared her independence by citing in a prominent media lecture a critic of her father who once called him a “drivel-minded, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath. Rupert Murdoch…Hannibal the Cannibal.”

Nevertheless, at eighty-two years old, Murdoch gamely swashbuckles on. But, as Folkenflik notes in his conclusion, Murdoch’s world is slowly but surely splintering under the weight of a lifetime of unfulfillable grievances and a selfish unwillingness to share the spoils of leadership. Beset by a corrupted, pay-for-news culture and an increasingly anachronistic old-boy network—check and mate, if you will—the old pirate king has fewer and fewer moves left to play.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail
Ivonne Rovira
Louisville, KY
Thank you for your column on Third Way. There’s never a shortage of folks who think that the “responsible” thing to do is coddle bankers and devastate Social Security and Medicare.

David Donnell
Tulsa, OK
Mr. Richardson,

I enjoyed your article about the “3rd Way” and their incessant anti-New Deal drivel, but I am of the opinion that most commentators miss the most obvious fact when making comparisons between the various budgets of yesteryear compared with the now: in sheer numbers our population has expanded (and continues to expand).

I perceive a failure to explicitly mention population growth as an obvious driving factor in government expansion. There are more of us alive “NOW” (and requiring services) compared to “THEN” (be it 60’s, 70’s, 80’s).

For the most part this is a good thing considering the reverse would be a depopulation event (otherwise known as a die-off). Is it possible that the Right Wingers & 3rd way have a vision for an America with less people (but maybe more robots)?

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: Last week's column on what Third Way reveals about the Beltway.

What Third Way Reveals About the Beltway

Washington DC

Traffic moves down Pennsylvania Avenue with the US Capitol building in the background in Washington. (Reuters)

My final Think Again column for a while is called “Is Obamacare the End of Liberalism? Not So Much.” I’ll be doing the column occasionally in the future but devoting myself primarily to larger projects in the future.

My latest Nation column is called “When Success Is Failure: Why It’s Hard to Make Sense of US Foreign Policy.” (On Perry Anderson's essay in New Left Review)

And here is the final, I sincerely hope, time I will ever have to write the word “Blumenthal”: Exchange over Eric and ‘Goliath’

I’ve been looking at coffee table books this week and my favorite is Rock and Roll Stories a collection of photographs by Lynn Goldsmith. I have her earlier collection, which is quite good, but this one is just beautifully produced (by Abrams) on good strong paper with terrific reproductions of some incredible work. (The PR copy describes “Bruce Springsteen's passage to glory, the Rolling Stones' legendary stadium tours, Michael Jackson's staggering ascent, U2's arrival in New York, and the brooding force of Bob Marley.” But really, almost everyone is here and while occasionally posed, the photos are often remarkably personal and revealing—especially in the case of a certain ex-boyfriend. I can’t imagine anyone who likes the music of this period who would not love this book, and it’s awfully well priced for its size, quality and sturdiness. I own some of Lynn’s work and this made me wish I had more.

The record company is celebrating a big birthday with a lovely and solid coffee table book, “Verve: The Sound of America” published by Thames & Hudson and a four cd box set. The book has 1,200 illustrations and some decent essays. It has all the covers of the albums but is arranged according to a scheme I could not quite figure out. As for the box set, I’ve got the music on  mp3s but not the box itself. It’s pretty great stuff, of course, but it shows up on Itunes without identifying who the artist is, so that’s a real pain. The book is $75 but would make a great gift for anyone who likes jazz.

The same company, Thames & Hudson, has also published David Thomson’s book Moments That Made the Movies. The idea here is to focus on a series of moments in seventy-two films of particular significance and accompany them with wonderful stills representing those moments.Thomson has some crazy ideas—especially when it comes to politics--but this is a nice, fun book and he is smart even when he is wrong (except about politics, where he is not so smart). The moments include Eadweard Muybridge̓s pioneering photographs to sequences in films from the classic—Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, The Red Shoes—to the unexpected—The Piano Teacher, Burn After Reading.

I also got a box set called “Beatles Solo: The Illustrated Chronicles of John, Paul, George, and Ringo after the Beatle.” It’s four books covering the period after they broke up with a book devoted to each one. It’s a nice package, but the text, by Mojo’s Mat Snow is geared toward people who know nothing about the Beatles: which makes this an odd mix, since those people would probably want a Beatles book, not a box set about their solo years, but there it is. It’s published by Race Point Publishing and it’s pretty cheap, given the handsome (and solid) packaging.

Oh and last night I caught a performance by a young pianist with his (young) trio at the Jazz Gallery that may give me bragging rights someday. New Orleans born and bred Nick Sanders has been compared to Keith Jarrett by his mentor, the great Fred Hersh. Last night he played a series of original tunes (and one by Ornette Colman) that demonstrated both imagination and virtuosity, as well as some bravery. His first album, Nameless Neighbors, (Sunnyside) captures this potential and more than rewards repeated listening. He’s moved to Brooklyn and I expect he’ll be around long after most of us are gone, perhaps discovering his own Nick Sanders in the future.

Now here’s Reed:

What Third Way Reveals About the Beltway
by Reed Richardson
No organization showcases the contrived, corroded mindset of the permanent Washington establishment quite like Third Way does. A relic of a generation ago, when the Clinton White House was keen on shamefully co-opting conservative policies, the group’s centrism-for centrism’s-sake pose has not worn well. Now confronted with a radical House Republican caucus unwilling to accept anything short of unconditional political surrender, Democrats in Congress and the White House have (perhaps, finally) begun to seen the futility of pre-emptively abdicating workable liberal policy solutions in exchange for token bipartisanship. But despite Third Way’s increasing irrelevance on Capitol Hill, there still exists one powerful constituency in D.C. willing to push its commission-loving, entitlement-cutting message—the Beltway media.

Thus, when Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, Third Way’s president and senior vice president for policy, respectively, authored this Wall Street Journal op-ed ridiculing a perceived Democratic turn toward “liberal populism,” the grand poobahs of the Beltway establishment were quick to applaud. Just as Republicans are notorious for prescribing lower taxes as the salvation for every problem, Third Way’s reliable public policy mantra involves cutting benefits for Social Security,Medicare, and Medicaid. National Journal’s Ron Fournier, whose predictable endorsement of painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare is downright Pavlovian, characterized the op-ed as a thorough takedown of the “professional Left’s magical thinking.” Steve Forbes, erstwhile GOP presidential candidate and editor-in-chief of Wall Street-favorite Forbes magazine, approvingly cited the pair’s warnings against “economic populism.” And Mike Allen of Politico, whose D.C. insider status is surpassed only by his willingness to shill, summed up the op-ed as no less than a “game change” moment in the discourse.  

Funny thing is, Fournier, Forbes, and Allen didn’t seem to notice when Third Way wrote essentially the same op-ed for the Washington Post back in June. Or for Politico in May. Or, again, for Politico in February. Or when the group banged on the same entitlement-cutting drum in op-eds at Reuters, Huffington Post, and—nailing the superfecta—twice more for Politico last year. In fact, staffers from Third Way have been given nine separate op-ed platforms in various DC-centric publications during the past 16 months. If you’re really bored, you can find them all here. But don’t bother reading them all, because after you’ve read one, you’ve pretty much exhausted the depth of their analysis.

Of course, writing lots of opinion pieces is key tactic that think tanks use to impact the Washington policy debate and a consistency in messaging is an effective method to drive one’s point home. But Third Way’s incessant repetition of the same scare-mongering anecdotes is telling. And its catechism of the same handful of ponderous statistics has a vacuous, almost cult- like air about it.

For example, compare a paragraph from this week’s Journal op-ed…

“In the 1960s, the federal government spent $3 on such investments for every $1 on entitlements. Today, the ratio is flipped. In 10 years, we will spend $5 on the three major entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) for every $1 on public investments.”

…with Cowan and Kessler’s op-ed in Politico back in May:

“In the mid-1960s, the federal government spent three dollars on investments — in education, research, and infrastructure — for every one dollar on entitlements. In 2023,  it will spend one dollar on investments for every five dollars on entitlements. That means less money for teaching kids, curing diseases, and building roads.”

Peruse other Third Way op-eds and policy memos and you’ll soon see its obsession with this data point about entitlement and infrastructure ratios is endemic. What’s more, it’s deceptive.

What Third Way never points out is that entitlement spending in the mid-1960s would naturally be far lower than now because Medicare and Medicaid didn’t exist until 1965. Plus, cavalierly measuring spending between generations and across the budget in this way ignores the broad changes in the country’s social compact and how our national priorities have changed over time.

And the constant use of zero-sum framing strongly suggests a connection between the two, as if the only way to increase resources for one is at the expense of the other. (Hey, what’s this other exploding budget item here, something called “defense?”)

And lest you think, as most Americans do, that increasing the tax burden on the rich and corporations might be a fair way to strengthen entitlement funding, Third Way is here to disabuse you hippies of this “fantasy.” The group is especially not fond of the idea of lifting  the cap on Social Security payroll taxes, even though doing so would make up 79% of Social Security’s projected shortfall in one fell swoop and almost exclusively impact the wealthiest Americans. No, Third Way warns that such a move would “break the Social Security contract” and require a drastic step like raising the top marginal tax rate to—Heaven forfend!—50%. What the group never seems to point out, however, is that in 1983, the last time Social Security was projected as fully solvent for the next 75 years, the top marginal tax rate was…50%. 

Even the slight variations in Third Way’s rhetoric betray an intellectually narrow, one-size-fits-all approach. Usually these tweaks revolve around throwing elbows at liberals along the way. For example, in this week’s Journal op-ed, Cowan and Kessler almost effortlessly switch up their liberal boogeyman (and woman) from their Post version five months ago, to take aim a pair of unabashed liberal politicians. From the Journal:

“If you talk to leading progressives these days, you'll be sure to hear this message: The Democratic Party should embrace the economic populism of New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Such economic populism, they argue, should be the guiding star for Democrats heading into 2016. Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats.”

But five months ago, the trouble-makers who were sure to lead the country to ruin and the Democrats to electoral defeat came from another think tank:

“There is a rising chorus on the left, most recently articulated in an op-ed Monday by  Neera Tanden and Michael Linden [“Deficits are not destiny”] of the Center for American Progress, that our fiscal conversation should be declared over and plans for meaningful entitlement reforms mothballed. These voices argue that we can have substantial new spending on public investments, a secure safety net, no middle-class tax increase — all without addressing entitlement spending.”

After awhile, the mushy sameness of Third Way op-eds begins to resemble an overripe compost heap—mostly just a big lump of stale talking points with a bit of new rhetoric peeled off and dropped in occasionally. Compare February’s op-ed in Politico:

“The median lifetime Medicare taxes paid by new retirees in 2030 will be $180,000; while the median paid benefit will be a staggering $664,000. Vastly more elderly, combined with steadily larger retiree benefits, and relatively fewer taxpayers to fund them create an untenable budget situation unless addressed.”

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…to this week’s version, which merely adds a Warren twist and a throwaway demographic chaser:

“In 2030, a typical couple reaching the eligibility age of 65 will have paid $180,000 in lifetime Medicare taxes but will get back $664,000 in benefits. Given that this disparity will be completely unaffordable, Sen. Warren and her acolytes are irresponsibly pushing off budget decisions that will guarantee huge benefit cuts and further tax hikes for Gen Xers and Millennials in a few decades.”

Sometimes, different Third Way staffers don’t even bother to switch up the order of their hive-minded bullet points. For instance, Jim Kessler and Gabe Horwitz separately argued, in the days just before and after last year’s election, that Democrats should rush to cut entitlements now, because…Republicans will do it one day anyway, or something. From Politico last October…:

“Third, it is clear that something will need to be done at some point to fix entitlements and keep our spending levels within some reasonable limit. The only question is when. So we ask: Do we want to repair these programs under a president who cares deeply about the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable at a time when modest changes can achieve solvency? Or do we risk it by waiting for some future moment with a different president who may believe markets are sacrosanct, when solutions are necessarily draconian and& when Congress sees the best solution as privatization and vouchers?"

…and then from Reuters, two weeks later, also third on the list:

“Third, this is the best moment to deal with these pillars of the social safety net. Many on the left suggest we should wait to address Social Security and Medicare with a different president and Congress. Yet there’s nothing more risky for these two vital programs. Social Security and Medicare need fixing. The only question is whether it is done by a Democratic president and Senate who care deeply about these programs—or by future leaders who may envision privatization, vouchers or a pure benefits-cut solution to the problem.”

Don’t you see, dear voter, we Democrats care so deeply about your Social Security and Medicare benefits that we decided to cut them first. Nope, no way giving Republicans a talking point like that would ever backfire, no sirree. But in the chimerical, centrist world of the Beltway media, this kind of bone-headed thinking makes sense. Shared sacrifice, to the coddled DC press corps, means the poor, sick, and elderly need to give up more, even while Wall Street reaps record profits and its tax burden plunges to the lowest in decades.

But good luck hearing an honest assessment of how income inequality might impact entitlement policy from Third Way; its investment banker-packed board of trustees is almost a parody of Wall Street influence. To be fair, Third Way doesn’t pretend to offer much in the way of deeply-researched policy analysis. Right there on Third Way's “About Us” webpage it says:  

“Unlike traditional think tanks, we do not house scholars who work in silos on academic research. Instead, we are built around policy teams that create high-impact written products and innovative trainings to influence today’s debates.”

I gather “trainings” is a euphemism for lobbying now. And while I can’t explain why a British magazine felt compelled to name Third Way its “2013 North American Think Tank of the Year,” I’d just note that its commendation cited Third Way as “making a real impact on debate in the center ground of American politics.” A dubious compliment that's akin to being named the top-rated arborist in the Sahara desert.

So if Third Way really doesn’t offer much besides run-of-the-mill Republican-lite boilerplate,why does it merit any media oxygen in the first place? The question, essentially, answers itself—Third Way’s corporate-heavy, economic austerity agenda dovetails with the likes of the Beltway media’s “pain caucus.” That an ineffectual advocacy outfit like Third Way can still command a healthy pick of establishment op-ed perches is no coincidence. In its 2012 tracking study of think-tank citations, media watchdog FAIR found centrist and conservative groups overwhelmingly dominated. Only two center-left—and no progressive groups—cracked the top 10. (And true to its word, the academically lightweight Third Way didn’t even make the list.)

In the end, the media establishment’s warm embrace of centrism austerity is symptomatic of a broader disconnect within our democracy. While the rest of the country struggles to achieve fairness and equality, inside Washington things seem just fine. But a Third Way-Beltway mindset means that our social compact is not just threatened by Republicans intent on fortifying the few at the expense of the many, but by a D.C. conventional wisdom more than willing to enable them.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Eric Alterman's most recent column on foreign policy.

Fox News: Now the Anti-Obamacare Propaganda Channel

1) Hot Tuna Live X2
2) The Ramones Box Set
3) The Animals Box Set
4) Rock operas (sort of) by The Cowboy Junkies and a collaboration of Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T. Bone Burnett,

Hot Tuna came to town for their annual Thanksgiving concerts last weekend, this year with two new twists; they divided the shows into one acoustic and one electric, and, for the first time, they thew in some Jefferson Airplane songs. Both nights, morevoer, they were joined by musical ..great idea. In recent years, the extra guitarist has been G.E. Smith, and they had some incadescent moments. Campbell, however, plays more instruments and can sing a little bit and is married to someone who can really, really sing. The prettiness of her voice (face too, I might add) gave the band an entirely new dimension. I loved the version of “Sugaree” they did—something that would have been impossible, I think with just Jorma on vocals—and of course, “Somebody to Love” was a real treat—if over too soon. Jack and Jorma have not lost a step in the half-century or so of their fruitful association, but lately I’ve been concerned that nobody gives amazing versitile Barry Mitterhoff the props he deserves. Eric Diaz on drums deserves a mention too, but Mitterhoff is amazing and together with the Campbells, it’s an amazing ensemble. See them if you get the chance.

I’ve got two box sets I want to let you know about in times for Thanksgiving. The first is an appropriately minimalist Ramones six-cd box of their first six records, nothing more, nothing less. The last Ramones box set was just the opposite, with fancy packaging, a comic-book history and a ton of songs on each cd. I had it for years but I never listened to it. When I bought the Ramones first cd on my first day of work at “Record World” in August 1976, I thought it was a rip-off because it was only 28 minutes. Now I see that was part of their genius. This box is how they short be heard; in short, eplosive spurts—like an orgasm... or a punch in the face. It’s called Ramones: The Sire Years, and it’s got no extras and not even a booklet. Just six cds...

The Animals-The Mickie Most Years & More is a five CD set of the earliest years of the band during which time they charted eleven singles in this country in just two years, including "The House of the Rising Sun" "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," etc. Fifty years later, we’ve got their first four American albums—the first three produced by Mickie Most—The Animals, The Animals on Tour, Animal Tracks, and Animalization in their original mono versions, now newly remastered from the original tapes. And tons of bonus tracks, including their first release ever, the I Just Wanna Make Love to You EP that came out on the Graphic Sound label in 1963 (later reissued by Decca in 1965 as In the Beginning There Was Early Animals), four tracks previously unreleased in the U.S., three single versions (including "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "It's My Life"), four alternate versions (three in stereo) of such tracks as "Talkin' 'Bout You" and "Don't Bring Me Down," and one U.K.-only track ("Roadrunner)." Packaging is okay. Today’s the release date. Be the first on your block. It ain’t cheap, though.

I also want to give a mention to a marvelously ambitous release by one of my favorite bands, The Cowboy Junkies. “The Kennedy Suite” is a rock opera, song cycle, post-modern musical that tells the story of the JFK assassination through the fragmented narratives of a series of characters, each of whom experiences the tragedy from their own intensely personal perspective. The recording is a collaboration that combines the original work of Toronto composer and lyricist Scott Garbe as arranged, recorded and produced by the Cowboys along with Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson of Skydiggers. It could have been a catastrophe but it’s not at all. The music holds up too. Margo Timmins has one my favorite voice on earth and this rewards repeated listenings.

And while we’re on this topic, I don’t know if I ever recommended the wonderful collaboration between Stephen King, John Mellencamp and T. Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett for the Southern gothic supernatural musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, featuring performances by Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Taj Mahal, Ryan Bingham, Will Dailey and Kris Kristofferson, along with actors Matthew McConaughey, Samantha Mathis and Meg Ryan. It’s also a digital book, which is, of course, best read with the music on. Read all about it here. It’s a wonderful meeting of many minds.

Now here’s Reed:

Fox News: Now the Anti-Obamacare Propaganda Channel
by Reed Richardson

The evolution hasn’t been overnight, but if you spend any time watching Fox News nowadays the endstate is unmistakable. When it comes to the network’s cable and online programming there are now but two overarching rules in place.

1) Take every opportunity to bash Obamacare.

2) When covering anything else, see Rule #1.

Anecdotal evidence of Fox News’s willingness to obsess over Obamacare to the detriment of other big news is aplenty, as I documented after sitting through six hours of Election Night coverage earlier this month. Ironically, the network’s fixation on the President’s healthcare reform law that night caused it to be late to the game in adopting the mainstream media’s McAulliffe-almost-lost-because-of-Obamacare meme. (Which was total bunk.)

But the most damning proof of this now singular devotion to all-Obamacare, all-the-time coverage comes in statistical form. A quick term search on FoxNews.com, for example, offers up a revealing pattern on the number of stories posted there for the past year/month/week/day:

Obamacare          1698  427    88      18

NSA                    716    92      12      1

Benghazi              792    60      7       1

IRS                      503    46      14      5

Budget deficit       467    18      2       0

As each of these much-touted-by-the-right-wing “scandals” have withered and died on the media vine without bearing fruit, the alleged horrors of Obamacare have been planted by Fox News to take their place. So much so that Fox’s Obamacare coverage now even eclipses cataclysmic worldwide tragedies like Typhoon Haiyan. Just how dramatically out of whack Fox’s news judgment is was quantified by Pew Research study last week. In tracking 20 hours of programming across five days in mid-November, Pew found Fox News devoted nearly eight hours—almost 40% of its entire newshole—to just one issue: Obamacare. As for covering the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in decades, Fox News devoted just six minutes of airtime—the equivalent of two commercial breaks. (Even opinion-heavy MSNBC spent 41 minutes covering Haiyan, and just over three hours on Obamacare.)

To be sure, Obamacare is a big story and some critical media coverage of the botched Healthcare.gov rollout is certainly warranted, as are questions about the president’s “If you like your plan, you can keep” broken promise. But fair-minded accountability journalism is not what Roger Ailes is trying to achieve with his network’s rabid focus on Obamacare. It’s not the quantity of Fox News’s coverage that’s problematic; it’s the quality. Or should I say lack thereof. When taken as whole, Fox’s news products have clearly metastasized into a toxic media mass of one-sided hyperbole, willful misinformation, and outright anti-Obamacare propaganda.

Consider these “fair and balanced” headlines—some “news,” some opinion— from just the past few days:

“ObamaCare: A Doctor’s Nightmare”

“ObamaCare Slams Smokers with Sky-High Premium Costs”

“Unions Given ‘Special’ ObamaCare Deal”

“Obamcare Forcing People into Medicaid”

“How Should GOP Attack ObamaCare?”

“How ObamaCare Has Diminished the President”

“Dog Has Bone to Pick with ObamaCare”

Or my personal nominee in the could-have-run-on-Free-Republic category:

“Obamacare’s Arrogance, Corruption, and Abuse is Just Beginning”

But buried below the rampant bias evident in these headlines are even more misleading talking points. In the Medicaid story from above, for instance, the writer stokes fears of Obamacare by citing a flawed, oft-debunked study that suggests that Medicaid patients die twice as often as those with private insurance. (Here’s why that’s wrong.) And my favorite wingnut-special column from above throws everything but the socialized communal kitchen sink at the reader, whether it’s tired canards like “Chicago-style corruption” and “replac[ing] free markets” or actual falsehoods like Obamacare is ballooning healthcare costs (nope), and the law has ignited a wave of businesses hiring part-time workers (sorry).

In the past week, however, Fox News’s radically dishonest coverage has moved beyond to surreal to the absurd. Now so blinded by its outrage over the healthcare reform law, the network’s programming can no longer see anything else as but a reflection of Obamacare. Of course, the Iran nuclear deal was the big news over this past weekend, but even above and beyond the network’s standard bellicose blovation [a sample chyron: “Sucker’s Deal”], Fox News is there to remind viewers that it’s all just a transparent attempt at distraction.

There was half-term Gov. Sarah Palin on Fox News Sunday singing this same song to host Chris Wallace about Senator Harry Reid’s exercising of the “nuclear option.” But when, in the midst of his obsequiousness, Wallace actually pointed out to Palin that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says Obamacare will give healthcare to 30-million uninsured Americans while the latest GOP plan would only cover three million, Palin’s misdirection-as-response was the very definition of tinfoil-hat chutzpah. First, she dismissed the CBO’s numbers as unreliable and then had the temerity to call it a “sad state of affairs” that “a normal American” such as herself has to be so cynical about government. And, for that matter, why hasn’t Obama ever proved that his FEMA re-education camps don’t exist? Probably because if he did, it’d all be part of grand scheme to…you guessed it…distract from Obamacare’s failures.

Sure, Fox’s lukewarm embrace of Obama conspiracies is nothing new. But still, it’s a wake-up call to our discourse when former President Bush spokesperson and U.S. foreign policy history buff Dana Perino prefaces a question about the timing of the Iran deal to conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer with the always responsible phrase: “I’m not the biggest conspiracy theorist, but…”

As you’ll no doubt be shocked, shocked to learn, Krauthammer agreed with her implied suggestion that this whole diplomatic initiative with Iran was little more than a panicked put-on by the White House. And who could argue with his logic, particularly since he does such a fine job of it himself: “They clearly were in a hurry, though they probably would have gotten here with or without the collapse of Obamacare, but it sure gave them an extra incentive to get in a hurry because they need any distraction, any distraction possible for a government in collapse.” So, not even credit given for being an efficient appeaser? Tough room.

OK, so what? Fox News long ago—like since its first day on the air—cast aside any pretensions about objectivity to promote its owner's and president’s political preferences. And Obama’s presence in the White House has only turned that latent animosity up to 11. But when a network so fully walls itself off from impartiality and honesty, it really does matter, particularly when one political party is so in thrall to their propaganda that it bases its dogma on it.

Case in point, only minutes after the nuclear deal with Iran was reached on Friday night, Republican Senator John Cornyn was Tweeting this: “Amazing what [White House] will do to distract from [Obama]care.” And as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, Republicans—just like before the 2012 election and during the government shutdown last month—are again cocooning themselves inside a parallel universe where the Obama-is-doomed storylines on Fox are pre-destined to occur and unprecedented obstruction of the government is a winning strategy. In the long run, they’ll be sorely disappointed once again, but thanks to Fox News, our nation will have to suffer through Republicans making the same momentous mistakes once more.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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