Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
I’ve got a new Think Again: A Realistic Approach to Syria. Read it.
(I wrote this earlier): Here’s an idea for Tina Brown: Fire the clownish, incompetent Howard Kurtz, replace him with Conor Simpson or Jamison Foer.
A “Howard Kurtz is a clown” sampler:
Kurtz suggests Fox News is balanced, WaPo editorial page is liberal
Howard Kurtz's double standard on double standards
Howard Kurtz's bogus conflict-of-interest defense
Howard Kurtz's wasted opportunity
or Alex Pareene here too, or one of the anchors on that website where they strip when they read the news. Really, who could be worse?
This just in. Apparently I telepathized my idea to Tina and Kurtz is “resigned” in the ignominy he has been so richly earning for the past two decades.
Isn’t this a funny comment? I read it in Tablet:
“In a characteristically candid interview, he said that, despite his patronage of arts institutions from the Metropolitan to the Israel Museum, he never thought about donating the collection.
“There’s a virtue in these things being in homes rather than on some museum shelf,” he said. By many accounts, Steinhardt’s collection, focusing on ceremonial objects for home and synagogue, is the most significant of its kind to come to market in the half century since the 1964 Sotheby’s auction of Judaica amassed by Polish émigré Michael Zagayski.”
What a humanitarian, making millions so that people can keep this stuff to themselves rather than share it with the wider world. Oh and the Met and the Israel Museum did team up to buy an illuminated Torah for over $4 million. Too bad that won’t get to be held privately so only rich folk could see it like the great humanitarian whom Tablet quotes so crazily sympathetically would have liked.
Does Steinhardt fund Tablet? I dunno...But if he does, it would esplain the above.
Alter-reviews: Catherine Russell and the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra does Duke
I went to Jazz@Lincoln Center on consecutive evenings last weekend. Friday night, at the club, Dizzy’s, I caught one of my favorite female singers, Catherine Russell, with her band, doing a jazz and blues set. (Catherine is also top-tier backup singer for bands like Bowie’s and Steely Dan.) The daughter of Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's long-time musical director, she sure is schooled in the history of the music, and picks out chestnuts from the past which you can’t believe you’ve not heard before. She makes them her own, at least as far as I can tell, being unfamiliar with the originals, but they sure do sound great with her band (and of course, against the background of Columbus Circle at Dizzy’s). I first discovered her because Terry Gross is a big fan and then I caught her singing with the Donald Fagen/Boz Scaggs/Michael MacDonald band, where she pretty much stole the show. See the woman if you can, or at least check out her cds. I think there are two of them.
The following night, however was one for the ages. The full Jazz@LC orchestra—which strikes me as a pretty difficult get, of late, playing an all Ellington night. There’s no question that Wynton Marsalis has always modeled his adult self on Duke, but there are many other influences fighting for pride of place there as well (Miles, Louis, his dad, etc.) Bak in 1988, Wynton Marsalis put together members of his (then) septet which included Ellington alumni Jimmy Hamilton, Willie Cook, Jimmy Woode, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, and Joe Temperley to create the first iteration of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he and the players have always demonstrated a special relationship to the enormous Ellington oeuvre and it’s hard to imagine a group of musicians alive today who could do this body of work greater justice than this band did the night I saw them. Joe Temperley is still in the band and he played masterfully. Ditto Walter Blanding on sax and Wynton himself, letting go on solos that were written as if for him to play that way on that night. The two versions of “Mood Indigo” were the highlights, together with “Do Nothing ‘till You Hear from Me,” at least from my seat, but I can tell you, everyone in that full hall (and there were four shows) felt him or herself lucky to be there.
The Jazz@LC calendar is here. Sorry if you don’t live in New York.
Though, come to think of it., it’s the second weekend of Jazzfest in New Orleans. Teaching commitments kept from going to what I insist is the Western world’s best party, but The Nation’s Katelyn Belyus is there and has volunteered for the role of Altercation Roving Reporter. Here is her first filing (Reed appears below):
Wed night arrival: It began at the Howlin' Wolf's Megalomaniacs Ball. I rolled into a gnarly, open space filled with a mixed crowd spilling out of the open bar into the street. Not a surprise, since every place down here spills onto the street at some point or another. Marco Benevento, the brilliant indie pianist from Brooklyn, was just finishing his set. I'd had the pleasure of catching Benevento a couple of years ago at the House of Blues' Piano Night, and I marveled at his performance then-- using a guitar pick on the piano strings while he accompanied himself on the keys; the covers of Amy Winehouse and Cee Lo Green. He is a true experimentalist.
Benevento made way for the Mike Dillon Band, and Dillon's lunatic artistry crept over every inch of the stage with tentacle-like majesty. The band is a collaborative effort that sounds like a combination of punk and ska, Zappa and Sublime, with a touch of marching band and hardcore. I know that sounds crazy, but the really crazy part, is that it actually succeeds. Dillon's work on the vibes is enthralling, but perfectly in sync with Carly Meyers on trombone. A tour de force, Meyers fronts that stage with frenetic energy that lends a new interpretation of the trombone-- and of the police whistle, which she also aptly “plays.” This was not the first I'd seen her, but it was the first I'd seen her so completely absorbed with the music. Where I had detected shyness now held court for a fierce vitality and abundant energy. She practically galloped around stage before diving off into a crowd of devotees and then finishing the set. “That was intense,” breathed a lady behind me.
Dillon's band left the stage to the Stanton Moore Trio, always odd to me that the band is named for the drummer, until you watch the drummer drum. Stanton Moore shows up to the kit looking like a kid fresh out of Sunday School. Skerik on sax and Charlie Hunter on the eight-string round out the trio, and their synergy is tight. Everyone knows their place at any given moment, even if that place is to repeat a riff forty or fifty times to keep the others on track. Mike D and Benevento dropped back in, and the crowd relived their favorite Garage A Trois days. They are so striking in their shared smiles and laughs onstage. Skerik's gotta take a leak? Moore and Hunter have him covered. And though all are remarkably talented, Hunter remains my personal favorite. Eight-String Guitar: that means he's playing bass, rhythm, and his solos simultaneously, and though he's certainly not the only person to do it, he's the only one I've ever seen do it so with such grace and with seemingly little effort. I wanted to write that his fingers flow like water over the strings, but it wouldn't be accurate. They move more like gears, like watch gears, touching and pressing in on themselves to make the thing work, to give it purpose. His fingers give that guitar purpose and to elevate Moore, Skerik, and the rest of their buddies-- indeed, they act like buddies-- to a place of eclectic soul.
Thursday—I arrived at the Fair Grounds for the first day of the final weekend after multiple rainstorms had passed through. The grounds themselves function as a horse racing track for most of the year, and the place was ripe with mud, hay, and the smell of manure. In some places, the mud was four inches deep, and people were digging out their flip flops like amateur archaeologists. But no one seemed to mind, and though folks were clad in rain boots and ponchos, they could still be found dancing near the stages. There are ten music stages, and the smaller ones each feature a different genre like blues, brass band, contemporary jazz, zydeco, and gospel.
After an oyster po' boy doused in hot sauce, I got comfortable next a lady wearing full-on waders. We were checking out the Forgotten Souls Brass Band, a classic jazz brass band with over nine members. They were a solid group and gave Charlie Parker a shout-out, but once they slowed down their set, I moved on to something more upbeat.
The Hot 8 Brass Band were up on the Congo Square Stage, a traditional brass with a little more soul and funk. Like most of the New Orleans-based groups, they wore matching tee shirts and strutted with confidence. There was the obligatory roll call for members, and Big Peter matched the crowd's cheers with some riffs of his own-- on sousaphone.
I moved to higher, slightly drier grounds for Henry Butler, and was immediately sucked in. Butler is a legendary New Orleans pianist who was blinded at birth. He doesn't just know his way around the keys: he gives direction around the keys (he is also an avid photographer and has been taking pictures for nearly thirty years). Butler plays in a variety of different styles of jazz piano, but with a nod to the blues, and his voice-- equal parts soul, blues, butter, and grit-- complements the music perfectly. The thunderclouds rolled in, everyone's phones flickered Flash Flood Warnings via emergency texts, but Henry Butler and his Friends paid no heed. And towards the end, in the middle of “Big Chief,” a classic Professor Longhair piece that I'm sure to hear at least three more times before the end of the weekend, I was stunned yet pleased to hear Butler's guitarist launch into what could only be Slash's final solo in “November Rain.” “That,” I said, “was freakin' awesome.”
The flash floods had me worried, and I made my way for the exit, but not before stopping off at the gospel tent to check out the Bolton Brothers in their flashy vests singing in smooth harmony. Of all the music I don't listen to regularly, gospel is the most accessible. Even though for me it's ideologically problematic, there's something very universal about gospel's message of hope that appeals to me. The four brothers (of twenty total siblings) gave a stand-out (and stand-up) performance, and during their cover of “We are the World,” even the out-of-sync arm-waving felt right. The brothers dropped down to the audience and invited random people to sing the verses, and when a person stumbled over the lyric or skipped a line, the backing band skillfully brought them back into the fold. In the middle of the flash flood warnings and downpours, the Bolton Brothers were a fun, shining moment.
Now here’s Reed:
Why Won’t Congress Follow?
by Reed Richardson
“Why won’t Obama lead?” Posed as an innocent question, variations of this disingenuous critique can be found lurking all across op-ed pages, political blogs, and cable news shows of late. To be sure, this caricature of a cold, aloof, and distant Obama, who is uninterested in the nitty-gritty of political back-scratching, is not a new one. During the past few weeks, however, this idea that Obama is almost spitefully refusing to steer our ship of state has now achieved critical mass, becoming the leitmotif through which, many pundits believe, all of Washington’s political paralysis can be traced. But to lay the blame for the acrimony and gridlock on Capitol Hill at the feet of Obama is be guilty of intellectual malpractice. For, if all of Obama’s commonsense efforts at compromise—everything short of full capitulation—still come up empty, it’s time for the media to start honestly scrutinizing the flip side of the coin and ask the next question: “Why won’t Congress follow?”
That these pundits will likely resist any such re-orienting of their rhetorical slings and arrows is no surprise. In their estimation, the President, as the country’s chief executive, enjoys an almost superhero-level of influence over events—a viewpoint sometimes jokingly referred to as “Green Lantern Theory”—and so if he doesn’t get his way in Congress, it’s indicative that he just didn’t try hard enough. But, to be fair, the Beltway media is not alone in routinely misunderstanding the dynamics between the leader-follower relationship.
“There is no leader without at least one follower—that’s obvious,” notes author and Harvard lecturer Barbara Kellerman in this Harvard Business Review article. “Yet the modern leadership industry, now a quarter-century old, is built on the proposition that leaders matter a great deal and followers hardly at all.” In fact, Kellerman argues this kind of apportioning of power is exactly backwards. “Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers,” she writes in her 2008 book, Followership. “Leaders are often incidental to the action.”
To proclaim the president as “incidental” to a legislative debate, of course, doesn’t exactly suit a pundit class that needs to cast a dramatis personae of heroes and foils in a column twice a week. But to ignore the critical role followership plays in how our government functions is to continually engage in facile, one-sided analysis. It unfairly denies the followers, in this case Congress, any agency in the decision-making process, while it conveniently relieves them of all accountability should things go wrong.
Just listen to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, ranting about Obama’s helpless attitude after his press conference this past Tuesday. “Actually, it is his job to get them to behave,” she cavils. “The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.”
The concept that Congress has as much, if not more, of a democratic responsibility to follow as the President does to lead is anathema to the self-defeating Beltway logic on display here. Dowd’s condescending and infantilizing tone (“dunderheaded,” “behave”) effectively lets Congress off the hook while demeaning Obama, a typical Dowd two-fer. And then she, like so many other pundits, lets herself off the hook as well, by never offering up a single specific example of what this magical leadership might look like or why a Congress hell-bent on undermining the President would ever respond to it.
Indeed, if you needed any further proof that Republicans in the House and Senate will sacrifice any good idea and absorb any indignity as long as Obama does too, GOP Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania offered up yet another smoking gun this past week. While revisiting the filibuster that killed an expanded gun background checks amendment he and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin had hammered out, Toomey admitted: “In the end it didn’t pass because we're so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.” It’s no surprise then, that some pundits even counseled Obama to “lead from behind” on immigration reform, warning that it he became personally involved “that is the surest way to piss off Congress, especially congressional Republicans, just as it is children and bosses.”
Put simply, this is anti-followership—whatever you’re for, I’m against, precisely and only because you’re for it. Who cares if nine out of 10 Americans support expanding gun background checks or eight out of 10 Americans want a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? According to this zero-sum thinking, if Obama wins, then Republicans in Congress see themselves as having failed. And a myopic media plays along, never quite comfortable enough to state the obvious—that the modern day GOP’s goal is not good governance, it’s defeating the president, as it has been, literally, since his first day in the White House. Needless to say, one cannot lead followers who don’t operate in good faith and who only see incentives in opposing rather than cooperating.
And let’s be clear, this wholesale embrace of, well, not following is by no means an exaggeration. Extreme conservatives in the House and Senate are further polarizing Congress and wresting ideological control of their party away from their own caucus leaders (as we saw again this week). As a result, Congressional Republicans are increasingly drawing power from an energized base of extremists who are more than willing to engage in electoral self-immolation and punish those who dare to negotiate. For instance, when a study of Tea Partiers finds an overwhelming majority want no compromise with political opponents and, likewise, care more about their chosen candidate winning a party primary than a general election, the foundation for legitimate cross-party followership can never exist.
Nevertheless, this idea, that the President and the Republicans in Congress are not cooperating but competing, just will not compute in many pundits’ minds. Thus, we get an entire column from the National Journal’s Ron Fournier torturing an old sports canard about great players and leaders always overcoming bad breaks to win. Remarkably, in Fournier’s analogy, he acknowledges the President and Republicans in Congress are not on the same team, yet in a somewhat incredible twist of reason he still expects the latter to follow the former. You know, because whenever the Red Sox come to New York, they look to Joe Girardi for guidance on how to beat the Yankees.
Ironically, within Fournier’s hackneyed, nonpartisan critique of Obama is the real, uncomfortable truth about what it will take to break the logjam in Washington. “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team," he writes. "They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. And there’s no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.”
Fournier’s right in one respect, when one party all but gives up on governing, all that’s left is lousy politics. But what he and his pundit brethren will never admit is that the most effective way to fight lousy politics in Washington right now is with more, better politics. In fact, the best thing the president could probably do for his country is spend the next 18 months campaigning for a Democratic majority in the House. Of course, the Beltway conventional wisdom would roast him alive for such a transparently partisan strategy. But at least it would be an honest attempt at creating the conditions for a functioning democracy. The fundamental problem plaguing our country isn't a shortage of leadership from Obama, in other words, it's a shortage of his followers in Congress.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Las Vegas, NV
Dr. A., many thanks for a solid piece on the fraud that is MoDo (and the fraud that is Politico, while we're at it). If you read the columns for which Dowd won her Pulitzer, once you get beyond the fact that she could not even carry one of the keys from Russell Baker's typewriter, you notice that they are all about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and all reflect a sense of proportionality about the Republicans involved and, indeed, Clinton's failings—in other words, while they could be called well written (they certainly are more readable than whatever it is she is submitting and calling a column nowadays), they also have a serious undertone and deal with broader issues.
It also strikes me that while she may have influenced today's alleged reporters in the tendency to focus on the trivial, we also can credit or blame that on news magazines and perhaps even on Theodore H. White. The difference is, those writers at least thought about it before they wrote it.
Dear Mr. Alterman:
You are my favorite journalist. I look forward each Friday to read your (and Reed's) column. I also enjoy your Center for American Progress articles.
I must take issue, though, with your list of the worst mistakes of the 20th Century. I believe the worst mistake committed in the prior century was when Archduke Ferdinand's driver took a wrong turn down a street in Sarajevo back in June, 1914.
Eric replies: Ok, Ok. It was just the last 98 years....
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Nation column is called “The Reluctant Fundamentalist (and the Journalist Spy)” and it’s about the conflicts raised by Mira Nair’s challenging new film.
And here’s a second column I did for the Nation website on Maureen Dowd’s various crimes against common sense and gun control.
Oh, and I gave a talk at to Cornell’s Mario Enaudi Center for International Studies on the topic of “On the Search for a Liberal Foreign Policy” on Monday afternoon. It’s written up here and you can watch it on video, here.
Bad Judgment Awards:
Two of the worst decisions in all human history occurred recently. The first was to award the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary to Bret Stephens. The second, even worse if anything was even remotely imaginable, was to award the 2013 Sidney Hillman Award for commentary to Andrew Sullivan. I had a few other things to say this week, but nothing so important that it should draw attention away from the above atrocities. Seriously, when I first read about this award, my first thought was “We liberals deserve to lose,” and I should have gone to work for Goldman Sachs when I had the chance.
I did a little investigation, and it turns out there is apparently no truth to the rumor that the Hillman Foundation plans to rename itself the “Fifth Columnists’ Foundation” for the occasion. Ditto the “Charles Murray Cheerleader Society.” As to whether it plans rename itself the “Kick Liberals in the Teeth, Slander Them, Lie About Them and Brag About It and then Be Given an Award By Those Very Same Liberals” Foundation, I could not get anyone to confirm or deny. Here is the foundation’s excuse for its betrayal of the great union leader Sidney Hillman’s life. Here is my (true) assessment of Mr. Sullivan contributions to craft...
Today’s List: Worst Ten Decisions of the Past Hundred Years:
1) 1922, Stalin, rather than Trotsky, becomes dictator of the Soviet Union
2) 1941, Germany invades Russia
3) 1941, Germany declares war on the United States
4) 2000 Supreme Court gives Bush election
5) 2003, Bush invades Iraq
6) 1964 LBJ orders retaliation for imaginary Gulf of Tonkin attacks
7) 1948 Palestinians turn down UN partition offer
8) 2013 Hillman Award for Commentary to Andrew Sullivan
9) 2013 Pulitzer for Commentary to Bret Stephens
10) 1974 New Republic is sold to Marty Peretz
I wanted to like “Smash” but it’s so horrible that I had to stop watching it. Who cares if that fellow is an imperfect director or those two kids get their play done? Not me. I watch too much TV anyway. (I also deleted “Nashville” and “Revenge” from the DVR so all I’m really watching is HBO and FX, with a little PBS and a lot of TCM.) Anyway, I did rather admire Megan Hilty and so I was pleased for the opportunity to check out her, um, pipes at Joe’s Pub last week. The show was strangely short, forty minutes tops including the encore (which was a double bummer since, owing to the sequestration, my flight from Ithaca had been cancelled and I had taken a six hour bus ride to be there). She did a powerful version of one my favorite songs, “Heart of the Matter,” and I did not recognize the rest, which are apparently on her new CD. Hard to judge, hearing them for the first time, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t grow and grow as an artist. I wondered if people felt this way about Streisand, in the beginning....
The Iridium is hosting “Four Generations of Miles this weekend” and it features Jimmy Cobb (who played drums on Kind of Blue), Sonny Fortune, Buster Williams and Mike Stern. I caught the first of these shows on Thursday night, as things were just jelling. I was familiar with, I guess, three generations of Miles. Pretty much everyone knows that Mr. Cobb played on Kind of Blue and he still plays with plenty of energy. And Buster Williams and Sonny Fortune, well, what is there to say. They were and are pros, and their solos were thoughtful and intelligent. But the revelation, at least for this blogger, was Mike Stern. He took the lion’s share of the solos—including especially on “My Funny Valentine,”—and it was hard to imagine where all that imagination began. What was great about the show was the fact of having no trumpeter—so the other instruments, particularly Stern and Fortune—got to redefine the songs and allow one to hear them anew.
Also, it’s Ellington Week at Jazz@Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis leading the band in Rose Hall and other shows in the Allen Room. Duke is a surefire way to improve your mood, if anything is. Check out the website for details. (And while you’re there, look into Catherine Russell at Dizzy’s. I’ve plugged her repeatedly in the past; she’s a throwback in the best sense.)
Lest We Forget: Why is the Press So Willing to Rehabilitate George Bush’s Legacy?
by Reed Richardson
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Milan Kundera wrote these words in his powerful 1979 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Set against the backdrop of totalitarian Czechoslovakia, Kundera’s book opens with a chilling example of the poisonous example of rewriting history to serve political needs.
On a cold, wintry day in February 1948, two Communist leaders, Klement Gottwald and Vladimir Clementis, stood side-by-side on a balcony in Prague’s main square to rally hundreds of thousands of citizens to their cause. It was a “fateful moment,” Kundera writes, one captured in an iconic photo of the two men that would soon be ubiquitous throughout the new country. Only four years later, however, Clementis would fall out of favor with the party, be charged with treason and hanged. Desperate to rid themselves of any trace of his now tainted legacy, the Czech censors set about dutifully scrubbing any documentary record of Clementis’s role, including that photo that every schoolchild in Czechoslovakia knew by heart. Right before the original picture had been taken, though, in gesture of solidarity, Clementis had removed his fur cap and placed it onto Gottwald’s head. In the new, doctored photo, the censors had predictably removed the image of Clementis, but not all evidence of his presence that day. For, still sitting atop Gottwald’s head, was that same fur cap. Truth is stubborn and isn’t so easily erased, in other words, as long as one knows where to look and is willing to remember it.
During this past week, what we as a nation choose to remember or forget has proved to be especially salient. Barely four years removed from his last day in the White House, the reclusive ex-President Bush has enjoyed an outpouring of media attention in anticipation of the opening of his new presidential library in Dallas. Of course, this is to be expected and naturally leads itself to some reflection of Bush’s tenure. But what was startling to see this past week was the degree to which the press willingly obliged a phalanx of Bush apologists intent on airbrushing out the many inconvenient and dreadful aspects of our 43rd president’s legacy.
This revisionism took many forms. Befitting a Washington press corps obsessed with horserace numbers, there was plenty of poll cherry-picking. Thus, much was made of an ABC News survey that found Bush’s overall approval rating had rebounded to 47 percent, up from the woeful 33 percent mark it stood at just days before he left office. Andrew Malcolm of Investor’s Business Daily squeezed a whole, sneering column out of this stone, mocking the similarly middling approval numbers of President Obama, who, he claims, has blamed Bush for just about everything that’s gone wrong, “except his miserable NCAA tournament brackets.” (Uh, Andrew, Obama’s 1-for-5 in picking March Madness winners, where’s your sheets?) Notably less popular among pundits like Malcolm, naturally, was a recent NBC News poll that showed Bush’s favorability still mired in the mid-30s.
The National Journal’s Ron Fournier chose to remind us that our presidents are “human” and that we could go ahead and admit “George W. Bush is a Good Man.” As proof of this revelation, Fournier cites a personal thank-you note he received from President Bush on May 24, 2002 during an overseas trip, bestowed upon him for his willingness to stand when Bush arrived at a press conference. (Fournier’s German counterparts in the press remained seated.) What Fournier leaves out of this story, though, is that, just the day before, this “good man” stood before the German Bundestag and said:
"I have no war plans on my desk." But, [Bush] added, "It's dangerous to think of a scenario where a country like Iraq would link up with the al-Qaida organisation...It's a threat to civilisation."
This passage contains one outright lie and one egregiously misleading statement. In fact, by late 2001, Bush had already begun extensive war planning with the military for the invasion of Iraq. And the 9/11 Commission and a Pentagon report both subsequently affirmed that at no point was there ever any credible evidence suggesting a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks.
Though Fournier generously concedes that these critical parts of Bush’s record are “worth exploring skeptically,” he nonetheless spends far more time touting how Bush was always on time for presidential meetings, required a formal dress code in the Oval Office, and had a knack for remembering the names of staffers’ spouses and children. But to imply Bush ably demonstrated “respect for the office of the presidency” simply through punctuality, politeness and political instincts is the very definition of, to borrow a tired phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Bush’s legacy of shamefully disrespecting the nation’s highest elected office with his outrageous prevarications on Iraq can’t be overlooked simply because he’s a “good man.”
Over at RealClearPolitics, former Bush aide Keith Hennessey was given free rein to serve up another juicy red herring: "George W. Bush is Smarter Than You." Hennessey, a lecturer at Stanford, recounted a recent classroom discussion about the 2008 financial crisis where one of his students asked: “How involved was Bush with what was going on?” To which Hennessey, in a classic debate gambit, reinterpreted the question to suit his own agenda: “What you really mean is, ‘Was President Bush smart enough to understand what was going on,’ right?” Perhaps caught off-guard, the student and the class remained silent in response, Hennessey recalls, which he took as proof of a grand liberal condescension of Bush’s intelligence.
This know-nothing “caricature” of the 43rd President, Hennessey complains, was sketched out by a meretricious press and filled in by mean late-night talk-show hosts. In contrast, he regales us with stories of a George W. Bush who was “extremely smart” and “highly analytical” and routinely outthinking his very smart advisors. What Hennessey noticeably fails to address is the critique behind the student’s actual and very legitimate question, however. For, at numerous points throughout his presidency, Bush, brilliant or not, was known for mentally checking out and displaying abjectly poor judgment.
During the height of that very 2008 fiscal crisis, for example, Bush inexplicably thanked Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson for "working over the weekend," as if rescuing the world’s economy was a task that might keep till Monday morning. In Bush’s first term, another former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, described a similarly frightening detachment on the part of Bush in economic briefings, “a blind man in a roomful of deaf people,” as he colorfully put it. Then, of course, there was this photo, taken 30,000 feet above Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. And let’s not forget that a mere six months after 9/11, Bush’s stance on Osama bin Laden, the man who had masterminded the murder of thousands of Americans on his presidential watch, was one of dismissive nonchalance: “I really don’t spend that much time on him.”
More guest-columnist misdirection took place when the folks at USA Today conveniently turned over space on their op-ed page to Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman. His message, couched as advice for the future of the Republican Party, was little more than a rosy recounting of the many supposed ways his former boss practiced “inclusiveness” in his policies and politics. Here again, a more careful look can see right through the legacy whitewashing. Bush’s message of tolerance toward Muslims after 9/11 was far from effective, despite Mehlman’s suggestions to the contrary. The climate of fear, ably stoked by the White House, notably led to a 1,600 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001.
But this isn’t even the most outrageous bit of revisionism in Mehlman’s column on Bush “inclusiveness.” That would be total absence of the issue of gay marriage. Indeed, one could argue no politician in US history demagogued anti-gay fears as successfully as Bush did during his 2004 re-election campaign, when his campaign architect, Karl Rove, helped orchestrate a nationwide effort of anti-gay marriage referenda to boost evangelical Christian turnout. (While their impact in most states seems to have been negligible, this University of Florida study found evidence that the anti-gay marriage ballot measure did prime Bush turnout in Ohio, the state that ultimately decided the 2004 election.) Ironically, in 2010, Mehlman himself came out as gay, yet he still seems to harbor enough loyalty for Bush to paper over one of the most shameful political moments from the president’s legacy.
Over at The Washington Post, Bush enjoyed an embarrassment of image-rehabilitation riches. The least worst of them probably belonging to Dan Balz and his long article about Bush “back in the spotlight.” Herein follows the sources, in order, quoted by Balz for the first three-quarters of the story: Tony Blair; Karen Hughes; Karl Rove; Hughes (again), Rove (again), Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation; and Joshua Bolten, former Bush White House chief of staff. Notice a theme, there? Only in the final three paragraphs of the thirty-two-paragraph article, when Balz quotes three successive academics who study presidential history, do we hear from any uniformly critical voices of Bush’s presidency.
Speaking of academics, the Post also let Stephen Knott, a professor at the US Naval War College, fire a barrage of broadsides at his profession in an op-ed entitled "George W. Bush is a Victim of a Rush to Judgment." (And looky here, Professor Knott also has a book by the same name you might want to buy.) In a way, though, Knott does his readers a service by listing a number of historians whose critiques place Bush among the worst presidents in our nation’s history. Not surprisingly, Knott makes little attempt at refuting their actual arguments, instead he just lumps them all into a bag labeled "too-soon-to-tell" and calls them partisan, liberal fear-mongers. At what point academic and historical studies on the Bush administration will be far enough removed in time to be valid in his eyes, well, he doesn’t say.
All of these are but prologue to the ne plus ultra of Bush revisionism, however. Boldly declarative, "Bush is Back" reads the Post headline over Jennifer Rubin’s latest attempt at hagiography. Even for Rubin, who has a well-documented history of intellectual contortionism, this post is blatantly, flagrantly dishonest. And at the nucleus of her breathtaking swing at writing Bush’s next memoir stands this paragraph:
Why the shift? Aside from the 'memories fade' point, many of his supposed failures are mild compared to the current president (e.g. spending, debt). Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11. People do remember the big stuff—rallying the country after the Twin Towers attack, seven-and-a-half years of job growth and prosperity, millions of people saved from AIDS in Africa, a good faith try for immigration reform, education reform and a clear moral compass.
Where to begin? “People” may remember the big stuff, but not Rubin, apparently. Besides giving Bush what Charles Pierce rightly calls "The Great Mulligan" for 9/11, she’s also cast down the memory hole the post-2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and the 2002 terrorist attack on the El Al airline counter at the LA Airport that killed three. As for seven-and-a-half years of job growth, it’s actually more like four. And what to say about a pundit who unironically ascribes to Bush a “clear moral compass” after the recent release of a bipartisan report that clearly documented his administration’s willful embrace of torture?
But wait, there’s more! Rubin is careful to ladle in heaping helpings of clichés to make the indoctrination go down smoother. Thus, we get “a robotic, cold president like Obama” contrasted with Bush’s “tender, tearful love of country.” Our enemies, naturally, must instead contend with Bush’s “steely anger.” What’s more, she recalls a “warm,” “productive” relationship between the US and Israel during Bush’s tenure, while overlooking his administration’s spectacular failure, where it inadvertently assisted the militant organization Hamas in gaining operational control of the Gaza Strip. And when she concludes with an assault on financial reality that judges Bush’s trillion-dollar debacle in Iraq, profligate government security costs and ridiculous tax cuts for the rich as merely “some excess in domestic spending,” compared to Obama’s “non-existent” courage in tackling our fiscal woes, I honestly wondered if she wasn’t a plant installed by the Post merely to keep its fact-checkers employed.
After such a climactic rewriting of history, delving into the mindset of native conservative media presents something of a denouement. Still grappling with how to treat a toxically unpopular president the Republican Party has been shunning since 2009, former Bush aide Ed Gillespie gives it a go over at National Review Online. His essay, "Cataloguing the Bush Years," proclaims in its subhed: “The opening of President George W. Bush’s library is a chance to look at the facts of his legacy.” As one might expect, the right has had to get creative to deal with the “facts” of Bush’s financial legacy. Fortunately, they’ve hit upon a fantastic arithmetic device called “averaging.”
[Bush] presided over an average unemployment rate of 5.3 percent (the second strongest of the past seven presidencies) and saw jobs grow steadily for four years from 2003 through 2007. In fact, the highest unemployment rate of any one year in Mr. Bush’s two terms (6.3 percent) is more than a full point below the lowest annual rate of Mr. Obama’s.
This is such a fun game, let’s play along with Ed, shall we? Let's see, the Titanic averaged 21 knots for the first 90% of its voyage (and 0 knots for the remaining 10%), which means the ship would have averaged a speed of a little less than 19 knots when its overall speeds were averaged across the entire trip. Not too shabby of a crossing time to New York harbor, amirite?
Okay, perhaps that’s not a fair mathematical comparison. Symbolically, however, one struggles to find a better analogy for the Bush administration’s combination of hubris, excess, recklessness, incompetence and calamitous conclusion than the disastrous voyage of the Titanic. And just as the iceberg that laid the ship low was never seen by those in charge on its bridge, it’s striking that in former party leader Gillespie’s “catalog” of the Bush years, one never encounters the word “Iraq.” But unlike with the Titanic, this is no accident.
If Kundera, who is still alive, chose to write a sequel to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he could do a lot worse than set it in the US during the first decade of the 21st century. If so, he might well begin the story about that period with a short passage based on another iconic photo, one where a stubbornly inconvenient “Mission Accomplished” banner sits in place of Clementis’s fur cap. No doubt, the powerful here in our country are now eager for us to forget that day and a lot of what we know about George W. Bush. But now, as then, it falls to the rest of us to remember—history and truth depend upon it.
Programming note: I’ll be discussing my recent cover story for The Nation, “The GOP-Fox Circus Act,” on Mark Thompson’s radio show, Make It Plain, tonight (Friday, 4/26). You can listen in on SiriusXM Left channel 127; his show begins at 6:00pm, but I'm told I'll be on sometime in the 7 o'clock hour.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Barack Obama lays out his gun control package with Joe Biden in January. (Reuters/Larry Downing.)
It’s no easy task to come up with an interesting newspaper column twice a week. Virtually no one has genuinely original thoughts—or groundbreaking reporting—on so demanding a schedule. Columnists therefore rely on hobby horses, lenses through which they see and interpret events that lead the front pages and other news outlets.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd is most famous for her tendency to reduce almost all political conflict almost exclusively to the personality quirks of the president and those of his top advisers and opponents. She assumes the role of armchair psychiatrist with verve and vigor and because she is believed by many to be a felicitous writer—and occupies what remains the most prestigious perch in opinion journalism—her work has provided many others with an example of how to analyze politics as well. Dowd’s influence is only one reason why so much of our political conversation is so intensely personality-driven, but it is an important one nevertheless. It has always been so to a certain degree, but the fact that she has achieved so much success and enjoys so much prestige for what is essentially a soap-opera driven model of policymaking.
Dowd, moreover, often combines her obsession with personality with a fairy-tale notion of the power of the presidency—at least Barack Obama’s presidency. In a most recent column, for instance, she blames the death of new gun regulations on Obama’s refusal to “get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.” She goes on to explain that while an effective campaigner, Obama “still hasn’t learned how to govern.”
And why not? Apparently it’s because he doesn’t want to. She asks:
How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him….
My oh my, observes, Dowd, “Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.” Note here, as Dowd does not, that the president’s party may “control” the senate, but they do not control 60 votes. Note, as well, as Dowd does not, that gun control is an issue that has historically divided the Democratic Party. Finally, note how ridiculous it is to hear of “House Republicans” tsk-tsking the president for failing to win the vote when it is the intransigence of their party that was the cause. Had they allowed an up or down vote on the issue, instead of resorting so frequently to filibuster tactics, the bill would have passed. Apparently there was no room in Dowd’s column to mention that.
Another suggestion Dowd makes is that “Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: ‘Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Hedi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.’” Does Dowd know Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 20 percentage points in North Dakota and hence, it is to her advantage to distance herself from her national party. And does Dowd really have a handle on the trending of gun control issues in that state, which happens to the be one that concerns Heitkamp, mother that she may be? I sure don’t. Given the fact that, as Dowd must surely have heard somewhere, candidates raise their own funds these days, Dowd is remarkably unclear about exactly how was Obama to convince Heitkamp to excite the passions of her potential opponents with no apparent benefits to offer.
Here’s another of her ideas for the president: “Bring the Alaskan Democrat Mark Begich to the White House residence, hand him a drink, and say, ‘How can we make this a bill you can vote for and defend?’” Did Dowd not notice how watered down this bill was from compromising to begin with? Just about the only effect would have been to make some gun buyers use the Internet a bit more frequently. If you didn’t vote for this bill, you don’t vote for “gun control” period, no matter what the details are.
Dowd goes on in this vein before topping herself, by suggesting that Obama adopt the tactics of a Hollywood-movie make-believe president created by her old flame Aaron Sorkin. I swear I’m not making this up. She writes, “The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in The American President.”
One expects this kind of thing from Peggy Noonan, who as it happens, made a virtually identical argument. That aside from being a believer in magical dolphins and a diehard supporter of the Republican Party. But Dowd, who has no particular ideology to speak of, should really be aware that when one party proudly and consistently refuses to compromise on anything and everything, it’s not really sensible to blame the guy who’s trying hard to make the deal. After all, as Jamelle Bouie points out in The American Prospect, “President Obama won reelection by nearly five million votes, but he didn’t win a majority of congressional districts, and only won half of all states. For a large chunk of Congress, there’s no particular reason to support Obama’s priorities—he holds no leverage over their political situation.” What does have leverage? Well, votes for one thing. And the fact is that far more people vote against politicians because of their pro-gun control votes than the opposite, especially in the states represented by the politicians Dowd believes to amenable to persuasion. Meanwhile, nowhere does she mention this salient fact: The NRA dispensed $18.6 million to candidates during 2012 election period in addition to an additional $4.4 million in lobbying funds directed towards Congress. The numbers for the pro-gun control Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: $5,816 and $60,000, respectively.
Meanwhile, Dowd’s attack was considered so important that Politico’s editors though it was news all by itself. (Politico’s style of coverage, described in detail in last week’s “Think Again” column, is in many respects a tribute to Dowd’s pioneering focus on personality.) More surprisingly, so too did the Times lead news reporters on the subject. Writing a few days after Dowd, the paper’s Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker complain that “after more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers. That raises a broader question: If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office?”
Once again, where are the details about the dysfunction of the current system, the power of money and the recalcitrance of the Republicans?
Apparently... nowhere. And that’s the “news.”
Read George Zornick on how the Senate managed to torch the gun control package.
My new Think Again column is called “‘Class Warfare’ Revisited” and it’s here.
This might interest some people: Mel Scult and Susie Heschel discussing “Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai M.Kaplan : Cross Sections and Intersections” at the Jewish Theological Seminary last week. Note, by the way, that Cornel West is sitting in the front row and JTS chair Arnie Eisen notes that Cornel is teaching a course on Heschel and writing a book on him right now. An odd choice for an alleged anti-Semite. Also note that Susie Heschel remarks of Barack Obama’s expressed admiration for her father. Again, weird for a guy who hates both Jews and Israel, huh?
But speaking about Jews, yet again, let us note that the BDS lecture at Brooklyn College reflects even worse on the BDS movement than merely the cynicism of its proponents. Note the letter Brooklyn College President Karen Gould wrote below with regard to the forcible rejection of Jewish students from the hallway:
“Dear students, faculty, and staff,
Last Friday evening, I received a report (see attached) from the CUNY Office of Legal Affairs. It summarizes this administration's handling of a number of aspects of the event held in the Student Center on February 7. The report is the result of a thorough, independent inquiry, which I requested upon learning that four students were removed from the event under questionable circumstances. According to one of the report's conclusions, "it is clear that there was no justification for the removal of the four students."
I am deeply troubled that these students were not permitted to remain at the event, since, as it turns out, they were not being disruptive. On behalf of the entire Brooklyn College community and members of the administration, I want to apologize for the serious mishandling of this matter. I have already issued a personal apology to the four students. Moreover, I pledge to take appropriate steps to ensure that similar situations do not occur in the future…..”
More Jews: I saw “Assembled Parties” last weekend. It’s the new play by Richard Greenberg produced by the Manhattan Theater Club and it gets a rave from the Times’ theater critic, Ben Brantley, which I second enthusiastically. The dialogue of Greenberg’s about-to-close “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was weirdly stilted, given how great much of his past work has proven. AP might be his most sparkling dialogue. Opening at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, it features the wonderful--almost luminous--Jessica Hecht who is trying to hold it together in a mere 14 rooms above Central Park West and throwing Jewish Christmas dinners in which various truths about life and hidden feelings and stuff are revealed. It’s a real play, but with a wink. For instance, one of the nice Jewish boys says to his parents on the phone: ““You would love the apartment, mom — it’s like the sets of those plays you love. With the ‘breezy dialogue.’ They sort of talk that way and everybody’s unbelievably nice and, like, gracious and happy. It’s like you go to New York and you look for New York, but it isn’t there? But it’s here.”
Anyway, it’s about Jews, and families and love and loss, and most of all, being entertained in a Broadway theater without having your intelligence insulted or your feelings manipulated. I thought the last two words of the play were a mistake. Beyond that, it was nearly flawless. It’s directed by Lynne Meadow and in addiction to the marvelous Ms. Hecht, Judith Light is also a marvel to watch. The men are not bad, but they really can’t compete. Go see it.
I was looking over a couple of coffee table books that were decidedly out of the ordinary this week. Harry N. Abrams has published Revisionist Art, Bob Dylan offers up imagined silkscreened covers of popular magazines from the last half century. Some are so weird that they defy description. In the accompanying text, Luc Sante writes that they appear to us “from a world just slightly removed from ours—a world a bit more honest about its corruption, its chronic horniness, its sweat, its body odor.” The book also features a history of Revisionist Art, from cave drawings, to Gutenberg, to Duchamp, Picasso, and Warhol by art critic B. Clavery and commentaries on the work with discussions of Cameron Chambers, whose mustache became an icon in the gay underworld, and Gemma Burton, a San Francisco trial attorney who “used all of her assets in the courtroom.” Also out recently from It Books is The Best of Punk Magazine, which for most people, will be the only Punk Magazine they ever see. It’s pretty clever in spots and if you are nostalgic for punk, well, then where else would you go? Me, I’m not nostalgic for punk at all. Still I found it interesting and funny. It’s got photos, essays, interviews, and the occasional handwritten contribution from the likes of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Lester Bangs, Legs McNeil, Lenny Kaye. Plus it’s only thirty bucks. (Did I mention that the Dylan book was $100?)
On the DVD front, my friends at Acorn have just released the U.S. debut of The Syndicate, which they claim is an addictive BBC drama following the fortunes and misfortunes of five supermarket co-workers who win the lottery and is about to be ripped off by ABC is currently making a US version. It might be great, we’ll see, but more dependable is the The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Complete Collection, which inspired the start of the PBS Mystery! after its success on Masterpiece Theatre. It’s six discs of Brits being clever and cute and solving crimes in the 1920s and if this is your sort of thing, it’s a bargain.
Did someone say “Nascar Geniuses?”
Things I hate most about academics:
1) The “Reply All” addiction.
Just a reminder, you can read more from me elsewhere on The Nation about the increasingly apocalyptic nature of mainstream conservatism, “The Doomsday Prepper Caucus,” and—last week’s cover story in the magazine—my long essay, “GOP-Fox Circus Act,” on the not so rosy future of the right-wing’s favorite cable news network.
Give Me the Bad News First
by Reed Richardson
Like many clichés, “no news is good news” has stuck around all these years because there’s a kernel of eternal truth to it. In some walks of life, absence of evidence really can become it’s own powerful kind of proof. But for those who work in actual newsgathering, the adage’s converse is of far more professional importance. Though positive, uplifting stories with peaceful, satisfying outcomes might seem like a successful recipe for journalism—after all, it’s something the public always claims to want more of—the reality is news of the worthy usually isn’t all that newsworthy. Even worse, it’s downright boring. And if you want to see this dynamic in action, look no further than that paragon of insightful press criticism, “The Simpsons,” which ably demonstrated that “Playtime is Fun” is a much less compelling headline and interesting story than something like “Extra Extra! Todd Smells.”
We might not like to admit it and we often seem to forget it, in other words, but it’s instructive for the media to occasionally remind itself that it is in the bad news business. Without it, there would be no need for journalism and certainly no need for journalism awards. Not coincidentally, high-fives were shared and champagne was popped in newsrooms across the country this past Monday after the announcement of the 2013 Pulitzer Prizes. Easily overlooked amidst these celebrations, however, was the punishingly grim subject matter the involved. Whether it was government corruption, mass murder, natural disasters, corporate malfeasance, or civil war, print journalism’s most prestigious award served up a smorgasbord of great reporting about bad news, just as it does every year. And almost fittingly, at the very moment a few select members of the press were learning of their good fortune, a whole lot more bad news suddenly needed reporting in Boston, where a horrific, chaotic story was being vividly captured in photos that will likely be considered for next year’s Pulitzer Prize.
The attack at the Boston Marathon was far from the only bad news, though. On Capitol Hill, Congress kept its streak of disappointing performances intact by quietly passing a bill that shamelessly rolls back self-imposed restrictions on Congressional insider trading, which our president then gutlessly signed. On Wednesday, a minority of NRA-beholden Senators cravenly filibustered an already watered-down gun control amendment thatnearly nine out of 10 Americans support. Later on Wednesday, a massive explosion at a fertilizer factory in Texas killed more than a dozen people and wounded hundreds more, upping the bad news ante even further. And we’re not even to Friday yet, when yet another Simpson-Bowles budget plan will arrive and no doubt suggest we punish millions of the sick and elderly in order to satisfy some misguided academic research the debt that was just proven to riddled with errors. All in all, this has been perhaps the biggest week of bad news in recent memory.
But none of these events during the past week, however tragic or frustrating, are deserving of pushback as much as this ridiculously awful essay in the Guardian. Entitled “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier,” one Rolf Dobelli spends more than 1,400 words throwing together a bunch of sloppy analogies, personal anecdotes, and broad generalizations in a brief against the societal role of the news. Mind you, this is no “everything in moderation”-type call to disconnect from your Twitter feed more often, or a warning against getting sucked into the mindless tit-for-tat talking-head battles on cable news. No, what Dobelli is doing is trafficking in full-on news hating, and his only solution: “cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.”
Setting aside the head-scratching logic of a journalistic enterprise giving someone, anyone a platform to advocate for completely unplugging from the very thing that it produces, Dobelli’s rant is poisonous to the press and our society at large for other reasons. “News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence,” he points out, in something less than a shocking revelation. Doubling down on this bid for public apathy, he huffs “We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press,” employing the same patronizing attitude long used to by the powerful to keep the powerless oppressed, uninformed, and disenfranchised. We delicate flowers just can’t be trusted to consume the news without being “mislead” or “recognis[ing] what’s relevant,” so why bother are pretty little heads with it?
Dobelli’s not above hooking a total red herring to make his case either: “If more information leads to higher economic success, we'd expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That's not the case.” As if news production and consumption were part of some strictly financial transaction that provides a “competitive advantage,” instead of the informational give and take that marks a shared community. In addition, he matter-of-factly states, sans proof: “Most news consumers—even if they used to be avid book readers—have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books.” In a mere 10 seconds searching on Google I came across a Pew study from last fall that found a notable correlation between higher rates of news/newspaper consumption and the regularly reading of magazines and journals. And there’s this bit of unscientific pseudo-data: “I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie—not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter.” Pity he never met a fella by the name of Thomas Edison, who still holds more patents than anyone alive or dead on the planet, since was known for “devour[ing] science books and… newspapers, magazines, and novels.”
Does the press make mistakes? Of course, and I don’t begrudge Dobelli the right to complain about it when they do. Certainly, the press provided him and us plenty more examples during the past week’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, whether it was the New York Post’s reckless reporting about a “Saudi national” suspect who was merely a victim, or CNN’s farcical performance touting an arrest that never occurred. But he’s presenting us with a false choice when he argues that the news isn’t worth our attention because it “leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated.”
Sussing out the important news will always be a messy, uneven affair for us; that’s part of the bargain of having a free press. Yet, the noisy nature of this daily marketplace of information clearly holds little appeal for Dobelli. “Important findings don't have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too,” he writes, maybe while wistfully staring out his log cabin window onto Walden Pond. But no modern government or society can subsist solely on a news cycle with such a long gestation period anymore. We depend upon a constant stream of actionable intelligence to help us identify and contextualize today what problems need fixing, what crimes need solving, what laws need changing, and what tragedies need averting tomorrow. Our democracy deserves the chance to heal itself, no doubt—and right now perhaps even more so—but unless we’re willing to get the bad news first, we’re unlikely to ever hear the good news.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
RE: Article in The Nation, “Beltway Media’s Best Kept Budget Secret”
Thank you for an excellent article about the press. Just listen to Rendell and Scarborough piping that Pete Peterson crap.
Richard W Thelin
I just read your article on how Social Security does not add to the deficit. I get that. Do you think that President Obama knows that, but understands that a lot of Republicans don't, so that he calls for a reduction in the increase in annual benefits to get them to agree to some tax increases (i.e., loophole closing) by letting them think they are reducing the debt? And wouldn't the reduction in the growth of benefits increase the longevity of the Social Security Trust Fund (same money coming in, less money going out)? Going to the chained CPI doesn't really bother me, but perhaps I don't fully understand the implications of doing so. While I wouldn't mind seeing us reduce the debt, and deficit, I don't see that as a be all and end all (it certainly wasn't during the W years). Spending money on infrastructure, which would put people to work doing something that needs to be done, seems like a good idea to me, for example.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
The conception that tax breaks pay for themselves was recently debunked. Read Reed Richardson on another financial myth: that Social Security adds to the deficit.
My new Think Again column is called “Campaign-Finance Reform in an Age of Corporate Influence,” and it’s here.
My new Nation column is called More BS About 'Both Sides' and it’s here.
Below is a copy of a letter I sent to The Forward regarding the newspaper’s coverage of the hiring of Josh Block to run The Israel Project. The sections in bold are the ones they chose not to run. (It was edited without my participation and The Forward does not appear to have updated the “letters” section of its website since December.)
1 April 2013
To the Editor:
I was disappointed to read The Forward’s coverage of The Israel Project’s hiring of ex-AIPAC flack Josh Block to be its new head. According to your coverage, “Block entered a highly publicized quarrel with the Center for American Progress, a progressive Democratic think tank whose views on Israel, according to Block, were biased and at times ’borderline anti-Semitic.’”
Actually, Block did not accuse the entire center with this term. He referred specifically to yours truly. I thought it rather funny at the time, given that I was also a columnist for The Forward, which rarely offers regular columns to anti-Semites, “borderline” or otherwise. Moreover, the quote of mine to which he specifically referred as allegedly anti-Semitic merely called attention to AIPAC’s desire to see the United States attack Iran. This is hardly a controversial view regarding AIPAC’s aims, even among its supporters. As it happens, I felt forced to resign my Forward column over the enforced delay I experienced in responding to Block’s McCarthyite attack on CAP and myself in the Forward’s pages. So that was one victory for Mr. Block. He has won yet another with the Forward’s coverage of his appointment. Here, again, Block’s false charge against the Center for American Progress (where I was, and remain, a senior fellow) was repeated, albeit inaccurately, without any response from the accused, nor any context for readers unfamiliar with Mr. Block’s nefarious tactics. (It was a rather big deal at the time, and was covered in The Forward’s news and editorial pages).
It’s shame that yet another Jewish political institution will now likely adapt such tactics with regard intra-community disagreements, but that is clearly the direction The Israel Project has chosen in picking Mr. Block to represent it. What remains unclear to me, however, is why The Forward, whose reporting on Jewish political organizations is second to none, chooses to sugarcoat these actions, and in doing so, encourage their continued abuse by Mr. Block and his allies in the future.
Former Forward Columnist
Interesting how The Forward kept in the compliment I gave them regarding “second to none” but took out every other reference, including especially, the reason I resigned. Note also that the letter does not now reveal that I was the topic of Block’s attack, which could lead to accusations that I sought to cover this up in my criticism of The Israel Project’s decision to hire him.
Alter-reviews: Here’s Danny Goldberg on the new film, War on Whistleblowers.
Robert Greenwald, whose previous films include the great "Outfoxed" has a new film about the way that the US government has discouraged and sometimes published whistle-blowers ."War on Whistleblowers" highlights four cases where whistleblowers noticed government wrong-doing and took to the media to expose the fraud and abuse. It exposes the surprisingly worsening reality for whistleblowers and the press.
The film includes interviews with award-winning journalists David Carr, Lucy Dalgish, Glenn Greenwald, Seymour Hersh, Michael Isikoff, Bill Keller, Eric Lipton, Jane Mayer and Dana Priest. More info, trailer and info about downloading here.
My cover story for The Nation magazine this week, "GOP-Fox Circus Act," is now up. It’s a long, detailed look at how the network, despite suffering from the same worsening symptoms as the Republican Party it shamelessly fronts for, has changed little since the 2012 election. And how honest conservatives are suffering from the co-dependent relationship between the two. (And a big thanks to the proprietor of this blog for giving me the platform here every week that eventually led to me getting the chance to write it.)
The Beltway Media’s Best-Kept Budget Secret: Social Security Does Not Add to the Deficit
by Reed Richardson
Let me sketch out a ridiculous, outlandish conspiracy theory for you. It involves an overwhelming majority of the nation’s establishment media, who meet secretly so that they can uniformly mislead the public into believing one of our most popular safety net programs has a deleterious impact on our federal budget. At times, this misinformation campaign is brazenly direct, and might involve using op-ed columnists and TV pundits to endorse the wrongheaded conclusions of bipartisan presidential commissions. Most other times, though, this insidious, dark-cloaked cabal works more subtly (as all great conspiracies do), choosing to confuse the debate through carefully positioned citations of conventional wisdom and sly rhetorical conflation of thoroughly dissimilar fiscal platforms. After enough time, this falsehood might even come to be seen as true among many of our government’s key decision makers. And only by the grace of God, the bracing power of common sense, and perhaps a healthy dose of fear about being left destitute in old age, does the public resist buying into this same propaganda.
Well no. In fact, this same familiar scenario played out this past week after President Obama released his latest federal budget proposal. (OK, I have no proof about the secret meetings or the dark cloaks.) With the White House budget’s inclusion of a benefit cut to Social Security—by embracing a chained-CPI cost-of-living adjustment for recipients—the American public was once again treated to a widespread assault on the truth regarding what Social Security is, what it does, and, most importantly, what it does not do. Fortunately, there is a simple mantra one can use to avoid all these distortions. Reporters, producers, pundits, bloggers—repeat after me:
Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. (Special for our conservative readers.)
I know, I know. How can these statements be true? After all, no serious person in Washington has ever admitted as much. Even the illustrious fact-checkers at the Washington Post and Associated Press say it does add to the deficit, as does the editorial board of a national newspaper. Isn’t it just the dirty hippies who think this way—along with other crackpots like Pulitzer Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and conservative Social Security trustee Charles Blahous?
The fact is that, Social Security cannot contribute to the federal budget deficit because, by law, the program is not a part of the federal government’s “on-budget” accounting, as it’s called. (See slide 14 of this CBO report.) But the mainstream press routinely dismisses this part of the US Code as mere artifice, and loves to point out that the federal government pays out Social Security revenue as fast as it comes in and then borrows against it for more spending. All that’s left, then, is supposedly a bunch of government “IOU”s—a favorite trope of Social Security Cassandras. But here’s someone much smarter than me—George Washington University political scientist professor Robert Stoker, explaining how the Beltway conventional wisdom goes totally awry with this analogy:
If you owe a $5,000 credit card bill and you take a home equity loan to pay off the credit card, your total debt has not changed; you have refinanced the debt, transferring it from one financial instrument (and one creditor) to another. Much the same can be said about repaying the OASDI Trust Fund. The fund’s assets are composed of debts already accounted for as part of the nation’s total debt. When the Treasury borrows to pay current Social Security benefits, the debt owed to the Social Security Trust Fund is repaid, refinanced, and transferred to whoever purchases Treasury securities.
Of course, the cost of refinancing the debt is a key concern. However, the only scenario in which repaying the Social Security Trust Fund can increase the nation’s debt is if interest rates are higher now than they were when the original debt was incurred. Given current market conditions (nominal interest rates are presently quite low, the rate on ten-year Treasury Bonds is around two percent), the more plausible claim is that refinancing the Social Security Trust Fund’s debt has reduced the nation’s debt slightly by reducing interest costs” [italics mine].
Yes, you read that last part right, the negative interest rate spread we’re currently enjoying actually means borrowing money effectively lowers the deficit. (One note of caution, probably not wise to share this bit of data with any right-wing friends in the midst of taking a drink.) How this reality plays in the press looks radically different, though, as I found after trolling through dozens of news articles about the president’s budget this past week.
Among the worst offenders of up-is-down reporting, somewhat ironically, was this CNNMoney report that explicitly tied Social Security and the deficit together:
All told, the switch to chained CPI could reduce spending over ten years by $216 billion and raise $124 billion in revenue, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. That would mean total deficit reduction of $340 billion, before counting interest savings.
This is falling directly into the Republican trap of conflating Social Security “entitlement cuts” as necessary to stem out of-control spending. Thankfully, most of the rest of the media wasn’t this brazenly wrong, but that doesn’t mean they’re not marching to the sound of the same out-of-step drummer. For example, below is the opening paragraph of the Associated Press’s big lead story on President Obama’s budget. It’s Social Security-deficit conflation manipulation is one step removed, but noticing that nuance is beyond mere mortals, and certainly out of reach for most Congressmen. By lumping Social Security cuts in with other stuff as one big “debt reduction” deal, the point is made:
President Barack Obama’s proposed budget will call for reductions in the growth of Social Security and other benefit programs while still insisting on more taxes from the wealthy in a renewed attempt to strike a broad deficit-cutting deal with Republicans.
This Washington Post lead story on the budget commits the same sin, juxtaposing the two disparate items into the same thought:
Obama also proposes to slow the growth of Social Security benefits through chained CPI, trimming cost-of-living increases by roughly three-tenths of a percentage point a year and saving the government about $130 billion over the next decade.
White House officials said the change would not affect programs for the poor, such as Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, and would be adjusted to reduce the impact on retirees 77 or older. Still, the proposal has infuriated many Democrats, who have long demanded that Social Security be protected from any debt-reduction deal.
Gee, I wonder why many Democrats might be infuriated? Oh yeah, probably because Social Security does not add to the debt. Guess that motivation isn’t worth mentioning, though. Sadly, The New York Times’s straight news coverage stumbled over this Democratic anger as well. In last Friday’s front-page story, the Times ambiguously conjoins the two and omits any mention of why those on the left might be, again, “infuriated”:
President Obama next week will take the political risk of formally proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his annual budget in an effort to demonstrate his willingness to compromise with Republicans and revive prospects for a long-term deficit-reduction deal, administration officials say. […]
The idea, known as chained C.P.I., has infuriated some Democrats and advocacy groups to Mr. Obama’s left, and they have already mobilized in opposition.
Over at Politico, one could read any number of its trademark process stories, like this one, that obsessed over the insider details of the budget deal, and encounter the same mistaken formulation:
There was some praise from Republicans about the inclusion of ‘chained CPI,’ a provision that would reduce Social Security benefits in the long run. Obama offered the language as an olive branch to Republicans in hopes it would help kick off a large-scale deficit deal.
Funny that a cut in a program like Social Security, which you might have heard, doesn’t add to the deficit, is characterized as a something that would “kick off” a deal on the deficit. Still, let’s give (partial) credit where it’s due. Nine paragraphs later, the article does at least quote Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse as saying: “Social Security hasn’t contributed to the deficit and shouldn’t be included in deficit talks.” But sticking a fact inside a politician’s quote is an age-old journalistic trick to effectively undermines it; it’s a way to sidestep controversy and taint the truth by ascribing it to a “biased” source. To see how the pros at this behave, look no further than this Fox News story, which establishes that only the radical left cares about preserving Social Security:
The 2014 plan, delivered to Congress Wednesday morning, was pitched by Obama as a compromise—twinning tax increases, which Republicans dislike, with changes to Social Security, which liberal Democrats despise.
That’s true, liberal Democrats do object to sacrificing the sanctity of a vital social insurance program on the (phony) altar of deficit reduction. Probably because Social Security doesn’t add to the deficit. And this viewpoint, I might add, is actually shared by a majority of Americans, including half of independents and nearly four out of ten Republicans. Although you likely wouldn’t know it from consuming the mainstream media’s output the past week. Indeed, only by venturing into the realm of subjective reasoning, like the New York Times editorial page, might one finally encounter a reality-based approach to the deficit/debt and Social Security reform, which are two distinct issues:
Social Security reforms should be decided separately because the program is not driving the deficit…Social Security did not cause today’s deficits, because the payroll taxes that support it have been more than adequate; and it will not contribute to future debt, because it is barred from spending more than it takes in.”
Hallelujah! But sadly, what little the Beltway media giveth in terms of the truth, it quickly tries to take away, as the frighteningly predictable lead editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post demonstrates:
Unlike the Senate Democrats’ budget, Mr. Obama’s does not pretend that deficits can be meaningfully reduced by soaking the rich while largely avoiding entitlements.
Most important, the president committed himself in writing to more than $100 billion in Social Security spending restraint over the next decade, along with $400 billion in health program reductions. Mr. Obama too often casts entitlement reform as a concession to extract Republican assent to higher taxes, rather than a worthy end in itself [italics mine].
Here, the Post can’t quite let itself explicitly acknowledge that, yes, Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit, so readers are treated to a clever usage of a euphemism, “spending restraint” that merely implies the same thing. But then they just come right out and say what the Beltway’s thinking is really all about—cutting Social Security is all about doing it for the sake of doing it—a “worthy end in itself.” Pain for pain’s sake.
So, let’s be 100-percent clear, to misunderstand and then misrepresent how Social Security figures into our national debt and deficit is gross injustice. By helping to propagate this myth among our nation’s leaders, the press is guilty of nothing less than journalistic malpractice. And for a profession that proclaims its devotion to objectivity, it’s critical to point out that media’s failure here significantly redounds to the political benefit of the party and ideology of the right-wing. (Although, to be fair, this president also enjoys the fruits of this misreporting, as it makes his callous ploy of sacrificing the quality of life of our nation’s seniors on an altar of phony debt reduction and legacy building less obviously craven and depraved.)
Ten years ago, our establishment media failed spectacularly, resulting in a disastrous war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and cost trillions of dollars. This, despite the fact that its premise was known to be false at the time we launched it. So, one has to wonder if, ten years hence, the tattered remnants of the most effective social insurance program in our nation’s history will occasion another pathetic round of self-recrimination among the press corps. The same names and publications will shrug their collective shoulders and admit that thing might have turned out differently, if only they’d admitted the obvious truth: Social Security does not contribute to the deficit.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
For more on Josh Block and The Israel Project, see Eric Alterman's last blog post.
My new Think Again column asks the (obvious, I think) question: “Shouldn't the Iraq War have finally killed the "Liberal Media?"
One question that if you read me at all regularly you know constantly confuses me is “What do the US leaders of the BDS movement think about Hamas?” I always suspected this, but now it’s official, at least if you take Sara Schulman as your guide. They don’t. Amazing, I know, but how else could a leftist lesbian feminist activist support a movement that is virulently and violently opposed to everything for which they profess to stand?
And since I don’t like to be personally abused from my left without also catching flak from my right, I note with regret that The Israel Project is being taken over by one of Washington’s foremost Jewish McCarthyites, ex-AIPAC flack Josh Block. In the universe of The Nation, I am often accused of being no better than AIPAC on the issue of Israel/Palestine, and so it's funny that in the universe of AIPAC I get the no-less ridiculous accusation of actual anti-Semitism. Anyway, Block’s appointment is bad news for honest, respectful discourse about Israel and the Palestinians but good news for Sarah Schulman and BDS, since behavior like Block’s often pushes people in the camp of BDS, simply out of distaste for the hardline tactics of the Israeli right-wing. What neither organizations will do, I can promise you, is further the cause of Middle East peace or improve the lives of the victims of its violence.
Alas, the Forward piece whitewashes Block’s nastiness and exploitation of the anti-Semitism issue, which is particularly ironic for me, since it was a trigger for my decision to resign my gig as a columnist there. I wrote a letter to the editor about it, which has received no acknowledgement, alas. If it remains ignored, I’ll throw it up here next week. In the meantime, I look forward to slanderous attacks on my character from both organizations in the not-too-distant future.
And speaking of genuine anti-semites—and believe me, I do not use the term lightly or without evidence—The New York Times has a wonderful feature on Majora Carter, Betrayer of the Poor and Powerless whose interests she apparently exploits to enrich herself, (and incidentally) a shande on the good name of the Bronx High School of Science.
Alter-reviews and this week’s list
This week’s list is: “Musicians who are generally considered to be lame or kind of a joke, but are actually really good and in a few cases, genuinely great.”
I was inspired to choose it because I came across two genuinely amazing YouTube videos featuring Tom Jones and Janis Joplin and Tom Jones with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. That reminded me that I forgot how much I really liked Jones’s last two albums: the gospel one that came out the summer before last and the new one, which is sort of gospelly, Spirit in the Room, which begins with a killer “Tower of Song” and also has a wonderful “Just Dropped In,” another classic of my misspent youth. So if you think Tom Jones is lame because he kind of reminds you of Engelbert Humberdink, you could not be more wrong. Now I just need to see him live. A friend of mine, who took his mom’s cleaning lady saw him once and said, “He’s not just great; he’s James Brown-great.”
So here’s the list:
Seventies Bee Gees
America (the band, not the country)
Almost but not quite:
Barry Manilow (though I am sorely tempted about Barry because of how great this video is)
And speaking of great videos, have you ever seen anything more amazing than 13-year-old Derek Trucks on “One Way Out"?
I post a lot of music on my Facebook page, so everyone should feel free to look it up there. I use it for public stuff only so you don’t need to “friend” me—I hate that verb—but you can. I am indiscriminate.
My first long feature for the Nation website, "The Doomsday Prepper Caucus," was published earlier this week. It’s all about how mainstream conservatism is increasingly adopting the dystopian narratives and apocalyptic mindset of this country’s right-wing survivalist fringe.
The 'Undo-Everything' Congress: What the Press Doesn't See
by Reed Richardson
There is a frustrating tendency within the Washington press corps to misattribute individual behaviors to things or groups that are not, strictly speaking, a single person. Of course, everyone who covers politics, including yours truly, takes some liberties in using broad generalizations like “Republicans act like X” or “liberals think like Y.” When done judiciously, these rhetorical shortcuts can serve as a handy synopsis of the stakes of an issue. But this practice can easily become a lazy, intellectual crutch, one that misleads and misinforms.
Perhaps nowhere is this convention more abused by the media than when covering Capitol Hill. (A common example of this: Pollsters’ annoying habit of only testing the approval rating of “Congress” without asking the public their views on the respective parties therein, which can elicit noticeably different results.) By treating the many disparate parts and motives of 535 Congressional members as one amorphous (and highly unpopular) entity, then the press can completely muddy the picture of what the public does or doesn't like. This ambiguity shouldn’t be tolerated even if our federal legislature was working well, but when it has effectively ground to a halt, as it has right now, media misdiagnosis only serves to exacerbate the crisis.
How badly broken is our nation’s highest lawmaking body? Consider this: The 112th Congress that just concluded in early January set a record for the lowest number of laws passed—220—since record-keeping began in 1948. Ezra Klein explains the awful, awful record of the 2011–12 “Do-Nothing” Congress in more detail:
[I]t almost shut down the government and almost breached the debt ceiling. It almost went over the fiscal cliff (which it had designed in the first place). It cut a trillion dollars of discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act and scheduled another trillion in spending cuts through an automatic sequester, which everyone agrees is terrible policy. It achieved nothing of note on housing, energy, stimulus, immigration, guns, tax reform, infrastructure, climate change or, really, anything. It’s hard to identify a single significant problem that existed prior to the 112th Congress that was in any way improved by its two years of rule.
Last term’s Congress was so bad, in fact, that it surpassed the previous low benchmark of productivity, the 104th Congress, which just so happened to have ushered in a new House majority with this ethically challenged guy as Speaker. Quite a coincidence—the first arrival of robust Republican majorities while a Democrat is in the White House also occasions a near fatal case of Congressional gridlock. History shows us the 105th Congress wasn’t much more attentive to our democracy’s needs and neither, by the looks of it, will the current Congress. Though there may be fewer Republicans in the 113th, three months in the number of laws successfully passed by it can be counted on one hand.
But again, for Beltway pundits to lament Washington’s inability to put policies to problems as merely the unwillingness of Obama to show leadership and compromise with Congress, as a whole, is to grossly misread the myriad currents and eddies at work. The truth is, the injection of hard-right Republicans into the House and Senate the past two election cycles have tipped the scales of conservatism’s center of gravity severely rightward. Hailing from blood-red, GOP-safe districts, fueled by Tea Party animosity, and obsessed with reducing the deficit, this new amped-up fringe of the Republican Party is holding up the people’s business in an unprecedented manner. Yet for all their radical intransigence, they rarely draw anywhere close to the same amount of scrutiny or pundit criticism as that which befalls President Obama.
To get a sense of who these folks are, one good proxy is the list of twelve Republicans who voted against John Boehner for Speaker back in January. But that still undercounts this nihilistic caucus a bit. A fuller picture involves cross-referencing the “Nay” votes on the fiscal cliff bill, debt ceiling extension and the first and second tranches of recovery aid for Sandy victims from earlier this year. All told, you’ll find the names of roughly two-dozen reactionary Republicans coming up again and again.
The rising stars among this group—men like Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Rep. Justin Amash, Rep. Paul Broun, Rep. Thomas Massie, Rep. Steve Stockman, Rep. Ted Yoho and Rep. Louie Gohmert—may have lost the battle on the aforementioned votes, but, make no mistake, they’re winning the war on the direction of this Congress. And on their coverage by the establishment media, as well. Each one of the linked-to stories above, for instance, was published by Politico, the breathless industry newsletter of the DC political scene. Read through the articles and you’ll find most are written as unrepentant “beat sweeteners,” a.k.a. gauzy profiles that offer up little to no context of just how out of the mainstream their views really are.
But by lavishing uncritical attention on people like Huelskamp, who labeled the sequestration’s Draconian spending cuts a ‘significant victory’; Stockman, who has already threatened to impeach Obama over his gun control reform; and Broun, who claims Obama has “upheld the Soviet Constitution,” publications like Politico allow themselves to be co-opted into the breakdown of Congress itself. The failure to hold the like of Huelskamp and Stockman accountable sends a warning shot across the bow of more mainstream Republicans. The not-so-subtle message: to avoid a 2014 primary challenger—someone liable to get the same glowing attention by a Beltway publication that merely wants to "drive the conversation"—don’t even consider voting alongside Democrats, and think twice about acceding to the wishes of the House GOP leadership. That’s right, this small coterie of conservatives is even willing to blow up its own party’s chances at gaining a majority and passing a bill if it doesn’t suit their fringe views. Or as Huelskamp ominously noted not long after the 113th Congress convened: "You know, it’s only going to take seventeen of us."
In 1955, William F. Buckley unapologetically defined his magazine National Review as being for conservatives who "stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop.'" The extreme right-wingers in Congress today have even grander ambitions, however, which might best be described as standing athwart government, yelling ‘Back.’ No longer content with grinding the wheels of our federal government to a halt, they’re looking to unscrew the lugnuts, roll away the tires and sell off the rest of the parts for scrap to the states and private industry. While they may call themselves Republicans, they function more and more like anti-Democrats—their policies universally defined as the undoing of almost anything and everything the left is doing or has done. To them, there is no aspect of Obamacare not worth repealing, no income tax on the rich not worth cutting, no social insurance program not worth weakening, no regulation not worth gutting, no budget not worth rolling back to levels last seen decades ago. In other words, there is no pain on the poor and the middle class not worth inflicting.
That Congress has devolved to the point where a small, radical minority can exert such an outsized influence on it and, by extension, our political future is undoubtedly a tragedy. That the same press corps that bemoans undue partisanship and unfulfilled compromise can’t seem to be bothered to notice this suggests another—that the undoing will only get worse before it gets better.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
S. Rex Cohen
re: Richard Vatz-
Check out the Baltimore Jewish Times "Letter to the Editor" section for March and July-August 2012, where right-winger Vatz is outed as an "alibi Jew"—i.e., someone Jewish (on their pareents' side) who never met an anti-Semite he wouldn't defend. The instance in question had to do with a local talk-show host, a Joe Sobran acolyte known for his animus toward Jews and Israel.
Vatz's attempt to defend this bigot (on whose show Vatz often appeared)—as was true in your case—consisted of high-flown bluster and rhetorical tricks, not refutation of specifics, since the latter were irrefutable.
Plus, engaging in "vulgar bullying," he was caught red-handed deliberately misrepresenting/falsifying the case against the talk-show host!
Finally, FYI: Vatz has served as the faculty adviser to Towson University's "White Student/Pride" club.
Terry C. Maine Kenny
Dear Eric, Thank you for a piece that honored the memory of Anthony Lewis; his work and courage. It moved me to tears. Some history of the book that introduced me to your excellent work, Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, and your experience with Lewis was a gift. Thank you for printing the correspondence, also. Keep standing up for our country, for facts and logic, for liberalism. We who believe in the principles upon which this nation was founded find matter-of-fact sense and response to those "barking dogs" of the right who name call or offer no actual debate a tonic is these times.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Eric's e-mail spat with the Richard Vatz mentioned above in his last blog post.
My new Think Again column is called “Acknowledging Our Mistakes in Iraq Would Prevent Us from Repeating Them” but I would have called it “Liberal Hawks on Iraq Anniversary: 'We were right to be wrong.'" Anyway, it’s here. You can be the judge of what it should be called.
My Nation column is called “The Passion and Eloquence of Anthony Lewis” and it is here.
How to get into Bruce Springsteen.
An annoying back and forth:
I found myself forced last week to get into a letters to the editor hassle with a conservative academic named Richard Vatz, who, in attempting to make the case in the Baltimore Sun that “Liberal media bias is beyond doubt,” wrote the following sentence:
“Nation magazine journalist Eric Alterman wrote a book, 'What Liberal Bias,' that is widely cited and heavily researched but filled with evidentiary problems.”
That was it. No evidence. No follow up. No nothing. And the dude could not even get the title correct.
Anyway, I responded:
To the editors:
I was almost tempted to admire both the irony--to say nothing of the audacity--of being accused of producing work flawed by “evidentiary problems” in a newspaper column by a professor who cannot be bothered to produce a single scintilla of evidence to support his claim. But since it’s my reputation at stake, my amusement was minimal.
For the record, the work to which your guest columnist, Richard E. Vatz, refers: What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic Books, 2003 and 2004), was meticulously fact-checked and contains fully 43 pages of source notes. I do not deny the possibility of error. It’s almost impossible to write a work of over 350 pages without them, though I am aware of none that have survived beyond its first printing. I also do not deny the likelihood that many people will disagree with my arguments. That is, after all, what honorable public discourse is all about. But I do deny both Mr. Vatz and by extension, the Sun’s right to cast aspersions on my scholarship by throwing out casually derogatory accusations without making any attempt to support them.
I hate to sound defensive, but it so happens that The New Yorker magazine, which is considered to be an authority on such matters, noted the“ meticulous care with which [Alterman’s] arguments are sourced and footnoted.” The Los Angeles Times called the book “well-documented” and “even-tempered.” The Columbia Journalism Review said the “research really is excellent.” The Orlando Sentinel called the book “thoroughly researched.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel termed it “masterful, painstakingly documented.” Publishers Weekly thought it “well-documented” and “well-argued.” Providence Journal: “Exhaustively researched.” The Boston Review: ”Exhaustively researched.” I could go on, but my point is not to brag, but merely to point out that Mr. Vatz’s opinion is a lonely one, and requires, at the very least, significant supporting evidence to be taken seriously as anything but an ideologically motivated ad-hominem attack.
Such baseless accusations may be the appropriate manner to conduct oneself in the on Fox News or right-wing talk radio, but Sun readers deserve better and so do I. I look forward to both an apology and a retraction.
So then he wrote back:
Eric Alterman criticizes my recent commentary in The Sun on major media bias ("Liberal media bias is beyond doubt, March 18) because, he claims, I lacked "supporting evidence" in claiming his book, ""What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News," had "evidentiary problems" ("Vatz's baseless attack," March 21). He unsurprisingly quotes variously liberal sources as finding his thesis well-proved. In several e-mails to me, he recklessly analogized me to the reckless Joe McCarthy, ending with addressing me as "Joe." Very adult.
As I explained to him, it is impossible to provide full analysis to every example one cites in a 600-700 word op-ed piece, but I shall be happy to now, quoting just a few problems in his work from a book review I wrote for a major journal in my field, the Fall, 2003 issue of Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. Incidentally, Mr. Alterman's book was required reading in my class for years.
Mr. Alterman disputes the existence of most liberal bias and even argues that there is much conservative bias in the media (p. 1, p.11, p. 15). He concedes that there may be some liberal bias here and there in the media, but he undercovers it and claims without proof it is not "overwhelming" in the significant areas of abortion, gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights and the environment (pp. 108-109).
Mr. Alterman is simply not careful with his generalizations in his book and often his evidence is conspicuously selective. For example, he cites a 1996 Freedom Forum poll of Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents as "the right's Rosetta Stone..." He simply ignores the very long list of other media surveys that reveal as well that elite journalists skew left or liberal in comparison to public opinion.
There are also glaring omissions in his work. For just one example, absent is any careful analysis of National Public Radio. In his very selective and limited analysis of this source of liberal bias (NPR), he simply claims that it was inadequate in criticizing corporate wealth. There also has been a long concern about allegedly anti-Israeli reporting by NPR, which is also unaddressed by Mr. Alterman.
I could go on, but the point is that one cannot write a lengthy treatise about every supporting point in an op-ed piece. But a writer should have knowledge about criticisms he makes, and I do. Mr. Alterman doesn't.
Richard E. Vatz, Towson
So then I wrote back:
I have no doubt your readers find the back and forth between Richard E. Vatz and myself about the evidence contained in my 2003 book, What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News, to be tedious. Be assured I find even more tedious to have to participate in it. But a scholar’s reputation for accuracy and evidence is the equivalent of his personal integrity. Mr. Vatz appears intent on impugning mine, but insists upon doing so behind nothing more than the verbal equivalents of smokescreens and mirrors.
I’ll be as brief as I can. In his March 26 letter in response to mine, Vatz notes in his first sentence that “claim that he lacked ‘supporting evidence’” for his attack on the evidence in my book. I did not “claim” this, I note it as a simple fact. Vatz made no attempt whatever to support his accusation. He later attempts to excuse his action because he writes, “it is impossible to provide full analysis to every example one cites in a 600-700 word op-ed piece.” Again, “full analysis?” How about none whatsoever? Mr. Vatz appears not to know the difference.
In his next sentence he writes that I “unsurprisingly quote variously liberal sources as finding his thesis well-proved.” Again, check the record. Not a single one of the sources I quote was a “liberal” one. Each was a mainstream media newspaper or newsmagazine. They are “liberal” only the sense that anyone to the left of say, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter is also “liberal.” Perhaps this is also true of Mr. Vatz, though, lacking further evidence, I hesitate to draw any definite conclusions.
I apparently hurt Mr. Vatz’s feelings when I emailed him that it was also a tactic of Joe McCarthy’s to make accusations without bothering to present any evidence. For that I am sorry, accurate as the analogy may be.
As for his belated attempt to support his initial carelessness, he huffs and puffs a bit before insisting that one piece of evidence I cite is “selective.” Goodness! A scholar being “selective?” What will he accuse me of next? Exercising careful judgment? As for his revelation that there exists “a very long list of other media surveys that reveal as well that elite journalists skew left or liberal in comparison to public opinion.” It is false to say I ignore this. I address it by noting that a variety of factors, including professional pride, the belief in objectivity, media ownership, and right-wing pressure—all of whose effects are described in detail in my book--can prevent liberal journalists from publishing liberally biased stories. I’m sorry if I stated this in such a way that Mr. Vatz failed to understand it. I hope I have done so more clearly now.
As for the “glaring omissions,” in my work, and my “very selective and limited analysis,” once again, I plead guilty. In a book of only 350 or so pages with a 43 mere pages of supporting source notes, one cannot cover absolutely everything. I am selective. My analysis is limited. This is true. It is also a truism. All scholarship is by definition “selective” and “limited.” It’s true of Robert Caro’s (so far) 4000 page biography of Lyndon Johnson and it’s true of everything Mr. Vatz has ever published, whatever that may be. As a professor of “rhetoric,” I would have expected him to know this, but then again, I would also have expected him to be acquainted with the meaning (and importance) of evidence.
Finally at the end of his letter, Mr. Vatz writes “There also has been a long concern about allegedly anti-Israeli reporting by NPR, which is also unaddressed by Mr. Alterman.” I have to admit, I find this bizarre. First, it has nothing whatever to do with anything in my book, since I barely discuss NPR. Second, once again--and I am getting as tired of writing this as Sun readers are of reading it--Mr. Vatz provides no evidence. for his accusation. Sure “there has long been concern” about lots of “alleged” matters. Many people are apparently concerned about President Obama’s “alleged” birth in Kenya and his “alleged” desire to turn the United States into either a Socialist or an Islamic Republic, or perhaps both. In the past, we have heard of others “concern” with President Clinton’s “alleged” murder of his wife’s “alleged” ex-lover or his “alleged” love child of mixed-race parentage. The idea that Vatz would end his missive by tossing out yet another allegation for which he provides no evidence is either sad or comical, depending on one’s point of view. What it is not is worthy of space in your newspaper.
Alter-reviews: Carrington and Ellington, Stephen Stills and Duane Allman
I was unfamiliar with the work of the drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington, but she certainly caught it with her tribute to the 1963 album by Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach, Money Jungle. Her album features Featuring Gerald Claytonand Christian McBride, with guests, Clark Terry, Lizz Wright, Herbie Hancock and picks up the previous commentary on the perennial tug-of-war between art and commerce that has only grown more desperate in the half century that’s passed. I caught her band at Dizzy’s on Tuesday night and she and the players (which included Mr. Clayton) It was an interesting and provocative night, and in addition to educating me about Carrington’s work, whetting my appetite for next month’s Jazz@LC tribute to Mr. “Beyond Category.” The Ellington festival begins on April 24 and you can read about it here. For more about Ms. Carrington, go here.
It’s been a magnificent week in my favorite category: “Box sets of the music of the people to whose work I grew up listening but with whom I could not entirely keep up, much to my regret.” Up first, Carry On is a four-CD set, spanning 50 years. One great thing about it is that it’s the right size to fit on your cd shelf (as were the slightly less expansive Crosby and Nash boxes.) You get over five hours of music and a 113 page booklet and most of it, I’m betting, is stuff with which you’re not familiar. Produced by Nash with Stills and Joel Bernstein, it hits most of the high spots but throws in a plethora of alternate recordings, demos, live cuts, new mixes, totalling 25 previously unreleased tracks.
I also appreciate that the box is organized chronologically—beginning with The: "Travelin " a previously unreleased recording that Stills made at age 17 in Costa Rica (one of the many places he lived growing up in a military family). The most recent recording is from one of those incredible Beacon shows I reviewed in the fall and has CSN performing "Girl From The North Country." There’s a lot of music here that will be a revelation to people who know only CSNY, Buffalo Springfield and Marrakesh Express. Did you know, for instance that Stills played with Hendrix? (He says they were planning to record together.) There’s a great jam here. And I particularly love the 2002 CSNY “Ole Man Trouble” at MSG with on Booker T. and Donald "Duck" Dunn. You’ll also find Herbie Hancock, Eric Clapton, Maynard Ferguson, Ray Baretto, Willie Bobo, and Larry Harlow sprinkled throughout the musicians, but overall it’s a compelling play for Stills’ centrality in the history of rock n roll, as well as just some great stuff to have all in one place. I would have preferred a bit heavier emphasis on the Manassas albums and the much undervalued solo work from the late seventies, but hey, I didn’t do the work. The price is pretty reasonable too, all things considered. More here.
p.s. I see the May 3CSN/Jazz@LC gig is sold out. That’s a shame. I fear the scalpers will get rich on what will undoubtedly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The monster box this month is the enormous seven cd 129 track retrospective of Duane Allman's work, “Skydog.” Duane’s career has been examined before, over the course of four cds, but this set will tempt even those who, like yours truly, already have everything the Allman Brothers ever put out plus a few albums where Duane was just a studio hand. It begins in 1965 with Duane, at age 18, together with his baby brother, Greg, fronting a band called the Escorts, doing a quite decent version of “Lovelight.” A year later we get six songs, also with Gregg, as the Allman Joys. Plus another nine with same as The Hour Glass and then two more as the 31st of February follow. These are much better than I expected them to be—few are “work” the way say, listening to “The Bruce Springsteen Band” or “Steel Mill” can be. Next we get a tour through Duane’s studio work, much of it done down in Muscle Shoals for Jerry Wexler and includes the work of Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley Aretha Franklin, Boz Scaggs, Ronnie Hawkins, Lulu, Herbie Mann, Hammond Jr., Barry Goldberg, Otis Rush, King Curtis, Johnny Jenkins, Sam Samudo, Delaney and Bonnie, and even Laura Nyro and Lulu. There is no new Derek and the Dominoes material unfortunately and the Allman Brothers stuff, which is a lot of it, is mostly from performances that have been released in the past few years but are not on the classic albums that everybody has. I had them, but the studio work and the early stuff more than justifies this box even with the repeats. In fact I’ve even gone out to buy a few albums by people with whose work I was unfamiliar after listening to Duane play on their songs. The mixes are excellent and the liner notes, while not terribly elaborate, provide all the dates and players for each of the songs. There are too many highlights spread across this to name any one—especially since this will differ from person to person--to name any of them. But everything’s here. It takes one up a bit short to note that Duane died at just 24. I’ve been seeing the band twice a year (at least) for the past quarter century, and while they are better technically now than ever—better I would submit, than just about any band of musicians playing popular music of any kind anywhere—the creative period obviously took place under Duane and shortly thereafter (through “Brothers and Sisters.”) There is a richness to this music, given his versatility as a studio player and the excellence of those whom he sought for collaboration and vice versa. “Skydog” is not cheap but it will sell out, and if you are considering it, even with the repeats of previous releases, I feel pretty certain you’ll regret it if you let it go by. I know I would. There’s a video here.
by Reed Richardson
Ever wonder where a piece of right-wing misinformation comes from? Or how it got started? Or what kind of long, strange trip it took from conception to gestation to arriving, fully formed, in the talking points of conservatives, after which one can expect the mainstream media to treat the lie seriously on the Sunday morning news shows?
Then come with me down the rabbit hole.
Our first stop is this Mediaite column from earlier this week authored by columnist and site editor Noah Rothman. The premise of this column was that the millions of dollars New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is currently spending to push for reasonable gun control legislation was, in fact, counterproductive. Instead, he argued Bloomberg is conveniently providing right-wing folks from the redder parts of America an attractive archenemy to rally against. But Rothman’s real objection to Bloomberg comes later in the piece when he suddenly pivots to the topic of campaign finance reform [italics mine]:
Bloomberg is the physical embodiment of the hypocrisy the Democratic Party and the media display on campaign finance reform issues.Combined with the news that the liberal Tides Foundation had contributed five times more to Democrats than the oft-maligned libertarian Koch Brothers contributed to Republicans, Bloomberg’s financial contributions to liberal candidates demonstrate that progressives and the media establishment are only concerned about campaign finance issues when Democratic candidates are in danger of losing elections.
As someone who has occasionally written about the pernicious effects of outside spending on political campaigns—for example, right here last week—I was admittedly surprised by the claim in the italicized portion above. Could it be that the Tides Foundation really is this secret liberal leviathan whose Democratic campaign funding dwarfs even the infamously outlandish spending by the Koch brothers? Only a few seconds after clicking the link, which brings you to a page on the Human Events website, does one begin to realize the short answer is no.
The Human Events article is, itself, merely a waystation for this bit of propaganda, one that uses the supposed smoking gun about the Tides spending for “activist causes” to aim criticism at the supposed liberal media’s unfair obsession with the Kochs. But to get the full measure of the deception here requires clicking the link for the block-quote. Doing this drops you down one more level, to the original source of the talking point, a Washington Examiner op-ed from early March. And here, predictably, is where the wheels start to come off:
Three Koch foundations made a total of 181 grants worth $25,405,525 in 2010 (most recent available records). The one Tides Foundation made a total of 2,627 grants worth $143,529,590 in 2010.
Put otherwise, for every one grant made by a Koch foundation, Tides made more than five grants.
First, let’s set aside Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott’s innumeracy and sloppy conflating of the comparative ratios of grants and grant dollars. What’s really noteworthy here is that these bottom-line numbers lack any context at all, and that Tapscott doesn’t bother linking to the pertinent tax forms for these four foundations so the reader could see for him or herself where all this money is really going.
There’s a reason for all this opacity, of course—it’s because the details tell a radically different story when it comes to these two groups’ actual spending on partisan causes. If you actually look into their individual grants, you’ll see only a tiny percentage of it went anywhere near politics. The foundations of the Kochs donated almost all of its monies to apolitical causes, with most of the grants going to the general funds of several dozen universities. And at nowhere in these three foundations’ records is any mention of the Kochs’ notoriously spendthrift 501(c)(4) political group, Americans for Prosperity, which spent $140 million during the 2012 election.
As for the Tides Foundation, more than 96% of its 2010 grants—$138 million—went to 501(c)(3) charities that are barred, by law, from partisan activities. These grants ran the gamut from the Academy for the Love of Learning to the Zen Community of Oregon. The remaining $5.1 million of Tides grants did go to 501(c)(4) groups, also known as social welfare organizations—most notably, groups like the ACLU and League of Conservation Voters—that can engage in robust political lobbying and endorse partisan candidates.
So what’s going on here? Simple, Tapscott is cherry-picking two distinct sources of charitable giving from either side of the ideological spectrum whose spending, when compared without any regard for accuracy or precision, conveniently fits longstanding feelings of conservative resentment and claims of media bias. Thanks to some vestigial remnant of intellectual honesty, however, Tapscott acknowledges as much in the very next paragraph, what I’ve taken to calling the greatest disclaimer of all time:
There are important qualifications to these numbers, including that the two Koch brothers also contributed to numerous political candidates, there may be other Koch-controlled foundations that didn't surface in this study, not all of the grants included here went to political or ideological groups or causes, and the two men may have significant influence on yet other foundations not under their direction.
Qualifications, indeed. What we have here is a four-part(!) self-defeating timebomb stuck squarely in the middle of his argument, which essentially blows apart the conclusions therein. This selective conflating of grants to like-minded charities with direct donations to political campaigning is little more than trafficking in willful misinformation. And while adding this shameless disclaimer gives Tapscott an out, it won’t come as a surprise that when this talking point gets picked up and repeated among the usual right-wing suspects, this bit of context magically disappears. Instead, the core critique becomes ground down and polished into a soundbite ready diatribe where the “secret” Tides foundation gets to escape “liberal media” scrutiny while contributing hundreds of millions to “political causes,” all of which is further cross-contaminated and intentionally confused by intermixing vague talk of funding partisan candidates.
Notably, Rothman makes the very same mistake in his column, which contains nary a mention of the huge caveat that accompanied the Examiner op-ed about the Kochs many other political spending efforts. Even the Human Events page Rothman links to manages to keep the disclaimer. Now, I don’t consider Mediaite part of the right-wing media constellation, nor do most others in the media I suspect, so it’s important to understand that when Rothman’s column got picked up and featured on Hot Air, Michelle Malkin’s website, his lack of due diligence effectively launders this bit of conservative misinformation through an ostensibly liberal or at least apolitical news site, where it can then be approvingly cited and injected back into the right-wing media feedback loop.
Once ingrained, these talking points can be almost impossible dislodge, no matter how much logic is applied, as I found out. Right after Rothman’s column came out, I pointed out the deceptive nature of this claim that Tides give “five times more” to Democratic candidates than the Kochs do to Republicans, citing the actual 990 tax form as proof. His initial response, via Twitter, was encouraging, if also suggestive of someone who doesn’t take glaring errors very seriously: “Strive for accuracy, but we’re all imperfect beings. Does not change the underlying point of that post.”
Rothman’s subsequent “correction” was anything but, however, as it kept the same A vs. B textual construction from the original and simply substituted “progressive causes” where it had previously said electing Democrats (which is how it now reads). When I pointed out that his column was still grossly inaccurate because it continued to conflate grants to non-partisan charities with all the partisan-focused spending by the Kochs, which actually totaled close to $400 million in 2012, he continued to obtusely lump them all together as “political spending.”
His resistance to ceding the point is, in a way, understandable. To take away the idea that liberal groups like Tides and individuals like Bloomberg are vastly outspending conservatives like the Koch brothers undermines his caviling about Democratic hypocrisy. Likewise, if the right-wing’s deluge of election campaigns with hundreds of millions in cash really is unmatched by the left than his column’s whole argument falls apart. Most telling to me was his response to my last question, where I asked him if he thought liberals, though vastly out-gunned in the post-Citizens United world of no-holds barred political spending, should nonetheless be forced to unilaterally disarm to prove their belief in campaign finance reform. His answer—silence.
Truth be told, I suspect that whatever Rothman’s flawed arguments about liberal hypocrisy on campaign spending are, they will quickly dissipate in the discourse. His contribution to furthering a right-wing propaganda point, however, has the potential to last for years. I guess we’ll know his column really succeeded when we tune in on Sunday morning to hear someone talking all about how the Tides Foundation outspends the Koch brothers on “Meet the Press.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Reed Richardson on the press coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War ten years ago.
My new Think Again column is called “Are Journalists Any Less Gullible Today than They Were 10 Years Ago?” It’s mostly about Iraq but also the 2013 State of the News media and it’s here.
I also did a long piece about Andrew Cuomo, his hopes for 2016, his governance of New York state and what all this means for liberalism and that’s here.
Over the past week or so there's been a lot of discussion of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq madness of 2013.
Here is a video of a debate over Iraq that Christopher Hitchens and I did on Charlie Rose around the time of the invasion.
Here is a debate that Slate conducted about the war in February 2003. My (edited) contribution went as follows:
Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and authors a Weblog for MSNBC.com.
I admit that the beefed-up containment policy vis-à-vis Iraq, driven exclusively by the Bush administration's obsession with the issue, has been a smashing success. But rather than declare victory and stay in Iraq—with inspectors and the threat of force if they are resisted—the administration insists on embarking on an unnecessary and potentially ruinous war. While I will support it once it begins, as a patriot, and in the belief that a quick victory will result in the most minimal loss of life, I continue to oppose its commencement for the following reasons. Any one of them strikes me as sufficient, but the combination strikes me as overwhelming:
1. The war against al-Qaida is not yet won, and this war will shift resources away from it.
2. We remain enormously vulnerable to another terrorist attack, and this war will shift resources away from securing the "homeland."
3. The war will cause the very problem it is alleged to address: anti-American terrorism.
4. Pakistan is far more likely to give a nuclear weapon to terrorists; North Korea is a greater danger to world peace. We should address those problems immediately, rather than hope they will solve themselves while we are preoccupied with Iraq.
5. The war will place Israel in mortal danger of a gas attack and rally both sides in the Palestinian conflict in ways that can only be counterproductive to peace.
6. George Bush was right in the first place: "The United States must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course." We should not be in the business of "nation building," something at which, as evidenced by Afghanistan, we suck.
7. George Bush and the men surrounding him—Colin Powell excepted—are not honest men any more than Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan were. The nation is still paying the price for its misplaced trust in those leaders in matters of war and peace.
8. Much of the uniformed military, including Maj. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as the head of the US Central Command as well as George W. Bush's representative to the Middle East peace negotiations, remain unconvinced that this war is necessary at this time. Read a talk he gave on the topic recently here. If Gen. Zinni is unconvinced, I'm unconvinced.
Here’s one I found from Media Matters:
Joe Scarborough In April 2003: Now I want to read you what The Nation's Eric Alterman—and I must say, he's an MSNBC analyst—this is what he said one week ago: "Is Wolfowitz really so ignorant of history as to believe that the Iraqis would welcome" US troops "as their hoped-for liberators"? Now, first of all, let's talk about poor Wolfowitz. I mean, how long can this guy be kicked around? Are people going to line up and apologize to Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Pearle and Mr. Rumsfeld and all of these other guys that called it right? [MSNBC, MSNBC Reports, 4/10/03, via Nexis]
Here is Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:
As 2003 began, Eric Alterman wrote on his MSNBC.com blog that "The New York Times continues down the path laid down personally by crazed war-hawk Howell Raines to agitate for a war against Iraq," adding "in this over-hyped story, it offers the top-right column of page one to the administration's phony prediction that the war Bush has decided to launch, without provocation or legal justification, will cost only $60 billion or less in constant dollars than the 1991 Gulf War." Glenn Reynolds took note at Instapundit. "ALTERMAN CLAIMS that the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has taken over The New York Times," he quipped. "I tried to reach Ann Coulter for comment, but all I got was a recording of what seemed to be her voice, saying 'Buwhahaha!'"
The small exchange captures something bigger about the blogosphere that hasn't been reckoned with by its fans, myself included. In those days, bloggers on the left and especially on the right eagerly attacked "the mainstream media" for its flawed coverage, often with good reason. Self-congratulation peaked after bloggers proved that CBS News inadvertently aired faked documents in pre-election story about George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.
But when it came to the War in Iraq, skeptics like Alterman were the exception that proved getting it right was possible, while Reynolds's reaction hints at the norm: as "the MSM" got Iraq wrong, the blogosphere didn't just fail to pick apart its weakest stories. Pro-war bloggers center-left and right used an ideological heuristic, assuming that the MSM would err on the side of dovishness, so that the most common media criticism exacerbated rather than corrected the actual errors being made, making the MSM even more pro-war. "I remember spending a week in the offices of The New York Times Outlook section in January" 2003, Matt Steinglass writes. "The anxiety to self-police against anything that could be perceived as liberal bias was palpable, Smart, serious people convinced themselves to accept the most spurious claims."
Here are some (extremely conservative) facts and figures from a chart from Matt Duss, Peter Juul and the Center for American Progress:
—Total deaths: Between 110,663 and 119,380
—Coalition deaths: 4,803
—US deaths: 4,484
—US wounded: 32,200
—US deaths as a percentage of coalition deaths: 93.37 percent
—Iraqi Security Force, or ISF, deaths: At least 10,125
—Total coalition and ISF deaths: At least 14,926
—Iraqi civilian deaths: Between 103,674 and 113,265
—Non-Iraqi contractor deaths: At least 463
—Internally displaced persons: 1.24 million
—Refugees: More than 1.6 million
—Cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom: $806 billion
—Projected total cost of veterans’ health care and disability: $422 billion to $717 billion
Iraq reconstruction (as of September 30, 2011)
—Total funding: $220.21 billion
—Iraqi government funds (including Coalition Provisional Authority spending): $145.81 billion
—International funds: $13.75 billion
—US funds (2003-2011): $60.64 billion
—Total US unexpended obligations: $1.62 billion
—Average US daily expenditure: $15 million per day
—Total U.S. service members who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan: More than 2 million
—Total Iraq/Afghanistan veterans eligible for VA health care: 1.6 million
—Total Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who have used VA health care since FY 2002: 896,000 (56 percent of eligible veterans)
—Total Iraq/Afghanistan veterans with PTSD: At least 260,000 (29 percent of those veterans who have used VA health care; does not include Vet Center or non-VA health care data)
—Suicide rate of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans using VA health care in FY 2008: 38 suicides per 100,000 veterans
—National suicide rate, 2007: 11.26 per 100,000 Americans
Alter-reviews: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on Broadway
I saw the play over the weekend, and sadly, cannot disagree too much with Ben Brantley’s Times review. I assigned the novella to my class this week, as it happens, and (I did not know this before) it’s a small masterpiece, much darker than fans of the (wonderful) film would have any idea of. The play, by Richard Greenberg, is darker than the film and longer—or so it feels—than the novel. The script has some charm and the acting is fine, Emilia Clark is lovely, George Wendt is comforting and Cory Michael Smith is pretty okay as “Fred,” but it never fully coheres and it ends up rather depressing in a way that feels unearned. I admire its ambition, but not so much its execution. And by the way, Truman, the store is called “Tiffany,” no possessive.
30 Seconds Over Toledo: How Political Ad Bombardment Spells Trouble for Local TV News and Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson
If you counted yourself among the residents of a battleground state like Ohio or Florida or Nevada or North Carolina last year, yours was a sorry fate if you dared tune into your local TV news. Unleashed by the 2010 Citizens United ruling, third-party political groups and SuperPACs had blanketed the airwaves with a gluttonous smorgasbord of overwhelmingly negative political attacks for every elected office from president right down to dog catcher. And while viewers in Toledo and Tampa, Carson City and Charlotte probably couldn’t have been happier for November to finally arrive, those local TV station owners were no doubt sorry to see the gravy train of campaign advertising pull out of town.
In a profession that suffers from a steady diet of bad news these days, the $2.9 billion political advertising windfall that local TV stations enjoyed in 2012 might serve as a welcome respite from the doom and gloom. Particularly since the trends here are so singularly positive as well. That $2.9 billion figure was a 38 percent increase from the $2.1 billion spent during the 2010 midterm elections and an 87 percent increase from the 2008 campaign advertising total. In an era where other traditional revenues streams are drying up for news organizations and digital ads aren’t able to fill the void, the prospect of these regular cash infusions might appear like just the thing to keep local news and good journalism afloat.
If only it were so.
To dig into Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 study, released this week, is to find that local TV news stations, rather than leveraging this political ad money into more expansive, civic-minded journalism, are squandering it on the creation of choppier, easily replaceable coverage. At the center of this disturbing trend is the continued shrinkage of the length of time devoted to each individual news story. Pew found that less than one in five local TV news stories now last more than a minute and fully half run for less than 30 seconds, or roughly the time it takes to read this paragraph.
But perhaps more disturbing than how little time is devoted to each story is what the stories are increasingly focusing on. From Pew:
When data from 2012 is compared with stations studied in 2005 and earlier, the amount of time devoted to edited story packages has decreased and average story lengths have shortened, signs that there is less in-depth journalism being produced. Traffic, weather and sports—the kind of information now available on demand in a variety of digital platforms—seems to be making up an ever-larger component of the local news menu, according to the stations studied in 2005 and 2012.
According to Pew, a majority—54 percent—of local TV news coverage is now comprised of stories on traffic, weather, sports and “accidents/bizarre events” (what might be called the “YouTube” effect). Even the old “If it bleeds, it leads” axiom is faltering, as local news coverage of crime has dropped precipitously—from 29 percent to 17 percent of the overall newshole—in the past seven years. And if you’re looking for news on elections or the government, good luck, as both topics dropped by more than 50 percent during this same period, with local TV news political reporting having dwindled to a mere 3 percent of all coverage. During a 22-minute evening news broadcast, that translates into less than 40 seconds of political reporting on average, hardly the time necessary to act as the public’s watchdog.
The irony here is the local TV news hole—now 4.5 hours each day, on average—has never been larger, thanks in large part to a trend of network affiliates launching ridiculously early-morning news shows. But this give-more-of-less strategy is a long-term prescription for failure. It’s fighting an increasingly wider battle on the increasingly crowded terrain of news commodification, chasing competitors who do the same thing better, smarter and faster. After all, ESPN.com will serve up more highlights from last night’s Knicks game at anytime, the weather app on your smartphone will provide more localized forecasts for wherever you are, hell, even the GPS in your car’s dashboard can now offer faster, real-time traffic updates. Sticking with a commodity-news editorial approach in a world of customized niche channels simply doesn’t make sense.
So, who cares? Local TV news, one might argue, has always possessed limited potential and long enjoyed a dubious reputation for hidebound, pack mentality thinking. (Sometimes hilariously so.) Earlier this week, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias certainly didn’t seem bothered by Pew’s ominous findings when he heralded the American news media as having “never been healthier” and basking in its "glory days." And he’s right to extol the Internet’s flattening of journalism’s production and distribution hierarchy and its upending of the press’s rigid, arrogant model of authority, which has, in turn, let a billion Tweeters, blogs, and Tumblrs bloom. But let’s be honest, very few people will avail themselves, as Yglesias does, of the chance to read a pseudonymous British blog to learn more details of the Cypriot debt crisis. That he can now satisfy his eclectic news appetite thanks to a nearly limitless variety of global sources doesn’t necessarily redound to the benefit of those with a more pedestrian media diet. So, to overlook things like the troubling commodification of local TV news is to suffer from a narrow, elitist viewpoint on how the rest of the public consumes information.
In fact, in a direct rebuttal of Yglesias’s rosy diagnosis, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf points out the critical role a vibrant local news environment can and should have upon our civic life. He writes:
Were I living in Rancho Cucamonga, California, a veteran city-hall reporter who improved my understanding of local affairs by just 10 percent would increase my civic utility far more than if I completely mastered the intricacies of events in Cyprus over which I have no influence. […]
If you measure the quality of the news media by focusing on consumer utility, as Yglesias does, the civic value of publishing that material is totally missed. So is the value of having local-government officials who engage in less graft precisely because they know that a sophisticated observer is constantly watching them, ready to expose them if they break the law.
The fate of local TV journalism still matters—a lot—because it remains the number-one way most Americans get their news. This has never been truer than now, when smaller, daily newspapers, once the bulwark of local political accountability and campaign coverage, are in broad retreat across the country. Indeed, some larger cities have been abandoned altogether, often leaving the local TV news stations as the only daily source of coverage in a community. So, the problems of local TV news aren’t just endemic to journalism but to our democracy.
Make no mistake, local TV news sits at the intersection of the troubles unleashed by the Citizens United decision. The political ads that now swamp local TV programming every other year increasingly get little pushback from the local TV news that they appear adjacent to. SuperPACs and 501(c)(4) “dark money” groups are no longer counterprogramming local TV news political coverage; they are effectively supplanting it. A voter who sees a scurrilous claim about a candidate in a campaign ad during the five o’clock news, in other words, stands very little chance of learning whether the charge is true or not from the journalists who precede and follow that ad on the air.
As noted by this recent Free Press study "Left in the Dark," the astronomical growth in campaign ads and the continued diminution of campaign coverage is not unrelated: “It’s no surprise,” the study notes, “that the same media companies that profit the most from political ad money are not reporting on it.”
Nowhere, perhaps, are the consequences of this imbalance more apparent than in North Carolina. Last August, the Free Press took a snapshot of the 2012 campaign coverage in Charlotte, finding the four local stations ran not one story about the millions of dollars of political ads currently airing on their networks. This is important because while the two presidential campaigns battled to near advertising parity in North Carolina, a well-known conservative benefactor and Koch Brothers protégé—Art Pope—was outspending all opponents, dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV attack ads in Charlotte and all across the state.
His strikingly successful 2010 electoral exploits were profiled in a scathing New Yorker article two years ago. In 2012, Pope expanded upon those victories. By again leveraging his family’s vast personal wealth and that of his SuperPAC, RealJobsNC, Pope’s largesse helped Republicans go 12-for-15 in state level races and retake the governor’s office, marking the first time since Reconstruction the GOP has controlled the state’s General Assembly and executive branch. In January, new Governor Pat McCrory obligingly installed Pope, a virulent opponent of government spending, as director of the state’s budget. Criticized for appointing Pope as political payback for the large majority he now presided over, McCrory defended the move by saying Pope had spent a lot of time studying the state budget. This is the same kind of logic that would excuse putting a fox in charge of the henhouse because it’s spent an awful lot of time thinking about killing chickens.
In a way, Art Pope is the unfortunate natural byproduct of the corrosive effect Citizens United has had on local news and the political process. As Tim Dickinson noted in a Rolling Stone exposé last August:
[B]roadcasters are now profiteering from a vicious circle of corruption: Politicians are beholden to big donors because campaigns are so expensive, and campaigns are so expensive because they're fought through television ads. The more cash that chases limited airtime, the more the ads will cost, and the more politicians must lean on deep-pocketed patrons. In short, the dirtier the system, the better for the bottom line at TV stations and cable systems.
In the end, what's been created is a perverse inversion of journalism’s interests and duties—Citizens United has fostered an environment where local TV news broadcasters now find their business’s long-term fiscal health in conflict with their news organization’s editorial responsibilities. But running a barrage of the same old unengaging stories and bombarding viewers with the same old misleading political ads as every other channel isn’t just a recipe for the downfall of local TV news, it’s a recipe for disaster for our democracy.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Reed Richardson last wrote about the epidemic of secrecy plaguing our government.
My new Think Again column is called “Real Reporting and Right-Wing Ideology Don’t Mix,” and it’s here.
My Nation column is called “The Rehabilitation of Elliott Abrams,” and it’s here.
Jazz at Lincoln Center presented a real treat last weekend: The Jon Faddis Orchestra, playing the music of Dizzy Gillespie. Jon Faddis probably enjoyed the closest personal connection to Gillespie of any living trumpet player and he picked up not only “Birks’” dedication to his craft but also his penchant for clowning from the stage. I have to say, there was much too much of this the night I saw the band. J. Lo was sitting in the front row and he would not leave her alone. Everyone who came to show late caught hell from the bandleader. None of it was particularly clever and it probably cost the evening at least two numbers. Luckily, when the band did play, they more than made up for it. The first half of the show was made up of new transcriptions from Gillespie's 1940s big band. The second half was devoted to pieces from Gillespie's days as a jazz ambassador in the 1950s. Faddis ran one of the tightest jazz bands of all time when Carnegie Hall was footing the bill and the orchestra he has put together is pretty stellar today. The big thrill of the show—both musically and emotionally—were the songs played by the great Jimmy Heath who just killed on some of the same solos he did over half a century ago alongside John Coltrane. Kinda brought tears to these eyes… More from my friends as Jazz@LC here.
On the old fart music scene, there’s a forty-year anniversary re-release on 180-gram vinyl only of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which long ago introduced teenagers and others to the music of Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin. Lotta talking, but if you don’t have it, you gotta. Nice packaging, too.
And my friends at Sony Legacy have put out Elvis's Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite. It’s two CDs from two 1973 shows plus a dress Rehearsal plus five bonus tracks and a twenty-four-page booklet with rare photos and new liner notes. Again, lotta talking but Elvis fanatics want every second they can get, especially 1973 Elvis fanatics.
For Deadheads, there’s Dave’s Picks, Volume 5, also from 1973 at UCLA. Apparently, it’s already sold out though, so I’m sorry. Read all about how excellent it would be if you could have gotten your hands on one, here. (Big bonus: Bill Walton wrote the liner notes...)
I have also been spending some time with of those British sleuthing shows on DVD and Blu-ray, most recently, "Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries," which stars Essie Davis as a modern woman of the late 1920s operating in a mostly male-dominated detective world. Then there is Stephen Mangan in "Dirk Gently" as a holistic detective, which is pretty goofy. There is also a new season of "Murdoch Mysteries," but to be honest, none compare with the gold standard: "Foyle’s War," which luckily for everyone who hasn’t see it, is now out on "The Home Front Files, Sets 1-6" in preparation for its return in September 2013.
This week’s list:
Philip Roth novels, in order of greatness:
1) The Counterlife
2) Goodbye Columbus
3) Operation Shylock
4) The Ghost Writer (Zuckerman Bound)
5) Letting Go
Philip Roth novels, in order of overratedness:
1) The Plot Against America
Philip Roth novels I sometimes think are a bit overrated but I would not wish to argue the point because they are, in most respects, great:
The Human Stain
First, a quick hat-tip to Cara Forgarty, over at the Organization of News Ombudsmen. She has been kind enough to highlight my blog post about the perilous state of America’s ombudsmen on her organization’s home page. If you’re media-obsessed geek (and who isn’t?) you should check it/them out at newsombudsmen.org.
Secrecy, the Dark Side of Democracy … and Journalism
by Reed Richardson
In the spring of 1960, just barely a year after Fidel Castro had seized power, a Princeton researcher named Lloyd Free conducted a comprehensive public opinion survey inside Cuba. After talking with thousands of Cubans, Free found an overwhelming majority of the public had made common cause with their new leader and his plans for the future and, what’s more, greatly feared a return of the previous, American-backed dictator. Under these conditions, any attempts at fomenting an insurrection would likely result in miserable failure, and the report concluded as much when it was published and circulated in Washington, DC, in July of that year. And that’s exactly what happened almost a year later, we now know, when the CIA disastrously proved Free right.
The woeful anecdote above is paraphrased from Senator Patrick Moynihan’s invaluable little book about our government’s long history of mismanaging information, Secrecy. Though it was published in 1998 and is now a generation old, it’s nonetheless striking how timely the insights from the book remain and scary how prescient its warnings still sound. This is particularly true as we approach the point ten years ago when the US invaded Iraq, a war whose casus belli had likewise already been thoroughly undermined by in-country investigation as well as contemporaneous reporting before the first round was ever fired.
That the conventional wisdom in Washington dismissed all this extensive evidence in favor of some ambiguous spy satellite photos and the chimerical rumors of a few, dishonest grifters is telling. It speaks to a dangerous inversion of how both the government and the media has come to assess and value information—one that now increasingly correlates importance and exclusivity. Playing upon this very same predilection in the media, the Bush White House deftly maneuvered the country into war by spoon-feeding the Washington press corps an unending series of irresistible scoops. If anybody can pull a quote from Hans Blix’s UN report, what it says can’t be that important in other words, whereas an exclusive from Ahmad Chalabi is bound to be far more revealing and thus drive the news cycle.
But the grim anniversary approaching on the calendar isn’t what prompted me to pull Moynihan’s book down off the shelf a few days ago. It was the occasion of this being “Sunshine Week,” an admittedly PR-driven, yet worthwhile effort by a number of open government watchdog sites to get together and discuss just how far down the rabbit hole our nation’s information has descended, and how the public and the press can try get it all out. It culminates with Friday’s National Freedom of Information Day conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
There’s no doubt that one week of emphasis on this issue is not enough. Secrecy is now endemic to our government like never before. Indeed, the vastness of its reach produces through-the-looking-glass moments of Orwellian absurdity. For example, Moynihan noted in his book that when the CIA finally declassified its role in staging a 1954 coup in Guatemala, the agency’s 1994 report still chose to redact some elements, including a passage quoting directly from President Dwight Eisenhower’s public memoirs. Then there’s the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of which were famously leaked to the New York Times in 1971, but which wasn’t officially and fully declassified (including another 2,384 pages) until forty years later. And late last year, when the independent watchdog group National Security Archive tried to follow-up on the progress of implementing new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations, it had to—what else?—submit a FOIA request.
The scope of the secrecy problem confronting us now is staggering, as is the cost to manage it all, which the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) estimated at $11.36 billion in fiscal year 2011. During that same year, the US government took 92,064,862 derivative classification actions, meaning they found some data point in some document, blog post, email, or IM worth making secret. Over the course of a year, that’s the equivalent to classifying something a secret three times every second. Moreover, that total number of annual classifications represents an 11-fold increase over the 8,390,057 made in the fiscal year that ended just a few weeks after 9/11/2001. This runaway train of secrecy is misleading, however, as the ISOO’s 2011 annual report subtly acknowledges that until the Obama administration instituted new rules, few governmental agencies even knew how to track their classification activity, making the reported numbers deceptively low. This, of course, meant that nobody really knew how many secrets the US government was keeping, making it perhaps the best-kept secret of all.
Since 2009, the current administration has made some notable strides in easing our secrecy overload. Responses to FOIA requests and annual declassifications are both on the rise—although the latter is still barely half the rate of classifications—and the backlog of pending declassifications and FOIA requests has declined. But Obama’s oft-touted claim of “most transparent” administration ever is far from living up to the hype. Two recent analyses—from the Center for Effective Government and the Associated Press—find that the federal government is now releasing fewer full versions of information requested and increasingly citing several exemptions, most notably national security, as justification for not complying with requests. As the AP explains:
In a year of intense public interest over deadly U.S. drones, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terror threats and more, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama's first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.
Whether this turning off of the spigot is having a direct effect on the media is hard to say, but it is notable that news organizations are pursuing fewer legal challenges to government secrecy during the Obama administration than during Bush’s second term. (Certainly, the overall decline in newsroom staff size during these years could be playing a major role in the downward trend.) Of note, the “liberal” New York Times has filed nine FOIA lawsuits since Obama took office, while it only pursued three during 2005–09. Fox News, on the other hand, has filed five since 2009 after having sought none during Bush’s second term. But it’s important to point out that the media is involved in only a tiny fraction—between one and two percent, typically—of FOIA lawsuits.
This increasing tension between creating more secrets while trying to shield more of them behind the mantle of things like national security and “deliberative process” has had a perverse effect. By boosting supply and tightening demand, it creates a ready-made market for third-party organizations like Wikileaks to step into and exploit, especially if the press is perceived as having pulled back somewhat from its traditional role of pursuing and publishing secrets. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Private Bradley Manning ended up there after he couldn’t gain any traction with his attempts to leak hundreds of thousands of war documents and secret cables to the Times or Washington Post. And exacerbating all this is the Obama administration’s dreadful record of aggressively prosecuting both whistleblowers and leakers, like Manning, at a never before seen rate.
The Times’ recent track record is illustrative of the dilemma confronting both the press and our democracy. On the one hand, preventing some information from being publicly disseminated may be critical to protecting US personnel and interests in places of danger. But one has to question the real motives behind these requests when, many times, the secret either gets out through other means or the government simply seems to stop caring about them.
This was the case with the Times’s revelation of a heretofore secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, an article which the paper’s public editor discussed last month. Notably, the paper had withheld the base’s location for many months per CIA request, but when a Times reporter finally notified the agency the paper was unilaterally ending its news embargo the CIA didn’t respond. So, one might reasonably ask, what then was really gained by the delay, for either national security or the public’s right to know?
Fed by the default behavior common among almost any bureaucracy, keeping secrets can soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a means unto itself. And despite its role as our democracy’s chief source of sunshine, the press—with its long history of liberally granting anonymity and hiding its editorial decisionmaking—has some of this same dark, secretive DNA built into its profession as well. But in a world where there exists too many secrets to even count anymore, the press would be sell served to move away from the business of protecting any of them, whether it’s their own or somebody else’s. And while chasing scoops and exclusives helps in that, that too is a strategy of diminishing, sometimes dangerously wrong, returns.
“Analysis, far more than secrecy, is the key to security,” wrote Moynihan 15 years ago, in what might be interpreted as good advice not just for the healthy future of our democracy but for our press corps as well. “Secrecy is for losers,” he noted in his book’s conclusion. “For people who don’t know how important information really is.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Journalists should hold themselves to a higher standard, and so should their ombudsmen, Reed Richardson writes.
My new Think Again column is called “The Terrible Power of Purposeful Ignorance.” It deals with the decision to invade Iraq together with arguments over the sequester and it’s here
I wrote (what is for me, an oddly) confessional piece about my career of being made to feel like an idiot by William F. Buckley Jr. for the Columbia Journalism Review. They called it “Aspiring Line,” and it’s here.
Also, I gave a talk on liberalism at All Souls Unitarian Church on the Upper East Side this past Sunday. They videotaped it and it’s here.
Whose reputation will this hurt the most? Victor Navasky and I had dinner with William Kristol last week after the latter’s Delacorte lecture at the Columbia Journalism School. It was pleasant, insofar as I could tell, for everyone concerned. I sense this would be impossible with anyone with the last name (or married to anyone with the last name) “Podhoretz,” but that has always been the Kristols’ secret, I think: self-confidence, which breeds good manners.
But speaking of Neocons, remember when that Josh Block fellow told Politico that what I had written was “borderline anti-Semitic” because I insisted that AIPAC and its allies were hoping for a US attack on Iran. This actually caused me a lot of trouble and led, ultimately, to my resigning my column from the Forward.
Well, as Ali Gharib noticed, Neocon pundit and newly minted anti-Semit, Max Boot just said the same thing regarding the approval vote for Chuck Hagel. Look here.
Boot writes: "This is a far cry from what Israel—and for that matter America’s Gulf Arab allies—would like to see, which is American air strikes to cripple the Iranian nuclear program." He then keeps digging, adding that "if the 'Zionist Lobby' actually ran American foreign policy—as so many seem to imagine—it is puzzling why such strikes have not yet been undertaken." I'm old enough to remember when saying that pro-Israel groups (and indeed Israel itself) want war with Iran was enough to get right-wingers to accuse you of anti-Semitism. Of course, AIPAC is busy itself pushing (non-binding) hawkish resolutions on Iran, but it's always helpful to have Max Boot clarifying the pro-Israel lobby's goals for us
The next stop on this train will be the attack on that anti-Semite Dick Cheney for using the term “Jewish lobby.”
In between Allman shows, I got out to the Iridium last weekend to see Nicholas Payton joined by Vicente Archer on bass and Lenny White on drums. I was happy to see White, who I first caught as a teenager in the Corea/Clarke iteration of “Return to Forever,” among my first jazz shows at the old Palladium. It was around that time that Miles Davis could be spotted playing trumpet and keyboards simultaneously, something that Payton is now doing on his Fender Rhodes. It was a pretty interesting evening with what felt to me like a decidedly “Bitches Brew” kind of vibe. Anyway, if you live in the city, Sunday nights are a great night to see jazz in the clubs because the bands are held over from the weekend but only the serious fans are out there seeing them. A place like the Irridium when it’s not crowded is almost ideal.
At the other end of this spectrum of course is Rose Hall, Jazz@LC’s “house of swing.” This weekend, I’m excited to be going to see the great Jon Faddis pay tribute to his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, with special guests Ignacio Berroa, drums; NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone; Pedrito Martinez, congas; and Steve Turre, trombone and conch shells (3/8 only). You can look it up.
And speaking of Miles, I think Eagle Rock has issued the first bluray of a live performance by the man. ]. This concert from July 8, 1991 was his last many appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival and took place only a few months before his death Happily, while it’s quite late in his career, its not “late Miles” funk etc. Instead, persuaded by Quincy Jones and Claude Nobs to take part in this tribute to his great friend Gil Evans, who had passed away in 1988 and with whom he made such wonderful and beautiful music. Not many pyrotechnics—save sartorily, but we get Miles plus Kenny Garrett (saxophone) & Wallace Rooney(trumpet, flugelhorn). Quincy Jones conducting the Gil Evans Orchestra and the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band with the addition of Benny Bailey (trumpet, flugelhorn), Carles Benavent (bass) and Grady Tate (drums).
Here’s a video of Summertime.
Speaking of Europe, we are also in the middle of the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Rendezvous with French Cinema. I saw a bunch of movies while the rest of you were working and stuff. What did I think was great? The Girl From Nowhere/La fille de nulle part was great. Here’s a description: “Lost in a maze of his philosophizing while trying to write a book, a retired math teacher is forced to deal with the real world when he must rescue a young woman from the clutches of a thug outside his Paris apartment. What the teacher doesn’t know is that this woman may be his muse, a mystical agent or an angel of death."
Granny’s Funeral/Adieu Berthe: L’enterrement de meme was pretty fun, as was You Will Be My Son/Tu Seras Mon Fils. Meanwhile, Renoir, about the final years of the painter’s life, was beautiful.
I think these will all see releases in the coming year
OK, back to music, People who only know me through the blog think I go out an awful lot. I don’t actually agree and, and in my defense, I will point out that I would have been really happy to see Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale at the Bowery Ballroom, Corb Lund at Joe’s Pub, James Hunter somewhere hipsters go in Williamsburg and Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, together with Richard Thompson at the Beacon. With regard to all of the above, I stayed home and listened to the new albums. And I liked each one of them. They are all kind of comfortable--Hunter rocks a little more, Emmylou and Rodney are a bit more earnest, Lund is pretty damn funny and Miler and Lauderdale just have a good time together. You can look up the details but if you are familiar with any of the above, this is good stuff compared to their other stuff and so you have my permission to go ahead and press “buy.”
As for reading material while you’re listening to your new music, I came across this new nearly 900 page Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop by a fellow named Dylan Jones and it’s really smart and funny. It’s almost crazily personalistic but the voice is an engaging and knowledgable one, despite the inevitable disagreements his taste will inspire. Apparently he’s the editor in chief of British GQ, and so he’s wants to get all this useless knowledge off his chest and into your head. You can guess in which room it belongs. It’s also pretty funny, and not only because he devotes 12 full pages to Ringo.
Over at the Library of America site, they are offering free (!) downloadable audio versions of ten selections by Sherwood Anderson stories, read by acclaimed storywriters Charles Baxter, Robert Boswell, Deborah Eisenberg, Patricia Hampl, Siri Hustvedt, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Antonya Nelson, and Benjamin Taylor. (I actually spent quite a bit of time downloading them, but they never found their way into my iTunes file, for some reason. Anyway, they have just published a volume of Anderson—surprising how long it took—as the former Mad Man and small businessman wrote some of the best and most influential work of his era and beyond. This volume collects for the first time all the books of stories he published in his lifetime—Winesburg, Ohio (1919), The Triumph of the Egg (1921), Horses and Men (1923), and Death in the Woods (1933)—along with a generous selection of stories left uncollected or unpublished at his death.
The Library has also finished up its Philip Roth collection, with two books. One is called Nemeses and features Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, Nemesis. The other is Novels 2001-2007 and features The Dying Animal, The Plot Against America, and Exit Ghost. To be honest, this is some of Roth’s weakest work. I liked, though many hated, The Dying Animal. I did not love, though many did, The Plot Against America. As for the rest all have especially strong moments, but also some painful to read, weaknesses. And none can be compared to the Roth masterpieces that began with Goodbye Columbus over a half century ago. (That book reads as if brand new by the way.) Anyway, completists will want these two books. Otherwise, I would suggest you begin much, much earlier.
Finally, there is also an LOA book of writings about the War of 1812. This strikes me as an odd notion, but I’m sure will reward further study….
You can start with Sherwood Anderson, here.
Inspired by last weeks listapalooza, I decided to add a regular feature of one list of things about which I care, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else does.
Today's List: Songs that if I'm at the Beacon, and the Allman Brothers start playing them, I’m in a good mood, in order:
"One Way Out"
"You Don't Love Me"
"Ain't Wastin' Time No More"
"Into the Mystic"
"Move to the Outskirts of Town"
"Trouble No More"
"Nobody left to Run With Anymore"
And if they're stretching;
"Dazed and Confused"
Looking Back, Moving Forward
by Reed Richardson
We in the media like to think of ourselves as hardy souls, out there lustily exercising our First Amendment rights in search of truth and in defense of democracy. In reality, we tend to be a tetchy, moody, thin-skinned lot. Whoever first said “nobody likes a critic” left off the other, more precise half of the adage: “least of all a journalist.” Indeed, asking a reporter to run a correction on an article of theirs typically ranks right up there with inquiries as to how much money they make and questions about the frequency of their spouse’s libidinal gratification in terms of thoroughly unwelcome newsroom solicitations. But if we’re all in the business of producing the first draft of history, why is there so little interest in reviewing and revising the draft?
Human nature is the short answer. We all build psychological constructs to help make sense of the world around us. But journalists, who must compile facts and contact sources and conceive narratives for every story, perform this kind of how-it-all-fits-together thinking every day. No surprise then, that we get pretty good at it. Or, more accurately, we think we’re pretty good at it—much better than the public. That confidence, though, becomes its own insidious trap, one that can easily propagate through a news organization. Gather all these individual cases of self-regard together, add on top of them another set from folks even more stubborn and self-assured—let’s call these people, I don’t know, editors—and then top it all off with thin layers of institutional rigidity and executive arrogance from the masthead; when you do, it’s a wonder the press even runs corrections at all.
Sadly, this is only a slight exaggeration. In 2007, the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism examined 3,600 metro newspaper articles and contacted one source for each, looking for errors. Not only did the study find these articles riddled with inaccuracies, they went nearly untouched by admissions that this was so. As Jack Shafer of Slate wrote at the time: “[A]bout half of the stories for which a survey was completed [69 percent of the 3,600] contained one or more errors. Just 23 of the flawed stories—less than 2 percent—generated newspaper corrections. No paper corrected more than 4.2 percent of its flawed articles.” (italics mine)
Getting these facts right obviously matters, even if it’s just spelling someone’s first name properly, as the New York Times repeatedly failed to do while Madeleine Albright was the then Secretary of State (49 errors produced 3 corrections). The press’s woeful track record here should set off warning bells, though. Consistently fumbling the little, easily verifiable stuff suggests big, tough-to-confirm points are even more susceptible to laziness and willful disregard for the truth.
All of which brings me to the topic of media ombudsmen. I know, I know. Listening to a media critic opine about ombudsmen, whose job also involves critiquing news organizations, has all the trappings of some kind of meta-navel-gazing experiment gone awry. Akin to trying to understand those impenetrable collateralized debt obligations—a bet on a bet on a bet—that sent our economy spiraling into crisis four years ago. But if you care about the state of the press in our country, you should care about the perilous state of ombudsmen too.
Don’t get me wrong, theirs mostly is a rarefied existence, of which I understand. Due to the exigencies of an increasingly cutthroat news business, regional metro newspapers and local TV news channels can’t and, honestly, shouldn’t be expected to dedicate a full-time salary to the luxury of having an independent critic poring over their coverage. On the other hand, if yours is a newspaper or TV network with a national or international reach and especially if you have aspirations of charting the nation’s policymaking and political process, then the cost of employing one person who can offer honest, real-time feedback on your reportage is an investment in your reputation that, if done right, more than pays for itself.
That is not how Washington Post published Katharine Weymouth sees it, clearly. Her recent announcement this past week that she was not replacing outgoing ombudsman Patrick Pexton was telling, not just the decision itself, but in how she justified it.
Those duties are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.
We will appoint a reader representative shortly to address our readers’ concerns and questions. Unlike ombudsmen in the past, the reader representative will be a Post employee. The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.
The logic on display here is blurry, to say the least. What would have prevented Weymouth from hiring another ombudsman, who mainly writes for the web? Well, nothing, of course. She tries to couch this as an evolution of the position, a move toward greater transparency, when it fact it is anything but. Instead, she’s gutting the two fundamental pillars of any ombudsman position’s authority, its freedom from editorial influence and its finite working relationship.
Even more disingenuous, Weymouth, probably for the first and last time ever, notes all the outside media writers who “will continue to hold us accountable for what we write.” I’d love to take that as an endorsement of my work, but no doubt she and her editorial leadership will judge my and any other external critiques as worthy of as much attention as what the Post paid to get them. Cleverly, Washington City Paper has called her bluff, starting a new “Washington Post Ombudsman” column of its own. But its initial foray is so small-bore and provincial, it seems as if it’s more about tweaking the Post’s nose than engaging in broader analysis.
To be sure, the Post’s newly named reader’s rep, Doug Feaver, has a wealth of newsroom experience, having worked on several different beats. But again, how motivated will he be to publicly upbraid a coworker’s performance if there stands a chance he might one day be working above, beside, or beneath that same person? Certainly not much, which seems to be what prompted NPR ombudsmen Edward Schumacher-Matos to author a thorough evisceration of what is little more than a penny-pinching, micro-managing move on the part of Weymouth and the Post. “Little more than a customer relations person,” is what Schumacher-Matos rightly labels Feaver’s new position. It’s a recipe destined to turn the reader’s rep into the go-to-guy for that subscriber in Prince George County whose morning copy of the Post consistently fails to show up in the driveway. But if you’re looking for someone who will boldly wade into a deconstruction of the newspaper’s insistence on false balance when, say, reporting on the sequestration deal, you’re likely barking up the wrong tree.
Even more noteworthy, Schumacher-Matos compares the divergent path that our national press has taken toward autonomous in-house criticism versus that of the rest of the world [sic]:
Curiously, while the American news media cowers and pulls back, unable to believe in itself, the increasingly free press in so many other parts of the word are adding ombudsmen and improving standards. Even in some places without a long tradition of free press, there is a growing recognition of the link between good public information, on the one hand, and economic development and democracy…
I am on the board of the international Organization of News Ombudsman and have watched with delight as the number of ombudsmen has taken off in countries such as India, Bangladesh and South Africa. According to Stephen Pritchard, the president of ONO, Colombia now has 14 ombudsmen working just in television — each with a weekly half-hour show—and Mexican television has five. When Lord Justice Leveson issued his report last November on the phone hacking scandal in Great Britain, he cited having an independent ombudsman as a "best practice" to respond to public complaints.
So what happened? Why have ombudsmen turned in an increasingly endangered species? In an insightful post, Jack Shafer, now at Reuters, points out that the position has sort of fallen through the cracks because it lacks a dedicated constituency invested in its success. Newsrooms, the target of their ire, tolerate ombudsmen as occupational hazards if they don’t despise them outright as unctuous practitioners of 20/20 hindsight. The public, whom they purport to serve, barely notice them partly because they rarely see the ombudsmen making a difference or taking their side. This leads Shafer to larger and more uncomfortable question—Have US media ombudsman sealed their own fate by repeatedly pulling their punches?
Candidly, the answer is yes. But neither irrelevance nor extinction need be the only fates for ombudsmen. Case in point: the New York Times. Margaret Sullivan, its “public editor,” as the Times calls it, since last summer has thankfully chosen to take a more worldly rather than parochial approach to her job. As such, she’s confronted a number of big-picture problems of journalism that transcend just her employer, like false equivalency, transparency, the too cozy relationship with our country’s national security apparati, and—lookee here!—corrections, with a refreshing open-mindedness. While I don’t always agree with where she comes down on an issue, I’m almost always encouraged by the trajectory of her thoughts getting there. But most impressive is the turnaround she engendered from her predecessor, Arthur Brisbane.
Brisbane’s tenure was marked by a kind of overly cautious, hidebound thinking that draws legitimate questions about any news organization’s real commitment to this kind of oversight. (After all, the hiring process for these few ombuds positions typically involves so much back-and-forth with prospective candidates that any publisher already knows much of what they can expect before the first column’s ever written.) The nadir of Brisbane’s reign no doubt occurred last January when he inexplicably titled a column “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” only to essentially conclude ‘maybe.’ Roundly and rightly mocked, Brisbane’s take endorsed a feeble journalistic posture that prioritizes deference over diligence, balance over candor.
This time ten years ago, we all experienced this same kind of fundamental negligence on the part of the press when our nation entered a disastrous mistake of a war in Iraq. Now, I’m not about to declare that a small cadre of muscular ombudsmen pointing out the rightfully skeptical contemporaneous reporting of the time could have stopped that war. A more haunting question, though, is: Would the Bush administration have invaded if every newspaper and TV news network in America had fully laid bare its false pretenses? Probably so is my answer, but sadly, we never got to find out, since the press’s credulous reporting, including, notably the Times’,invariably marched in lockstep with the White House’s war-making effort.
As far as errors go, you can’t get bigger. But here again, the reluctance of major news organizations to reexamine their flawed coverage and account for it was both widespread and deep-seated. The Times’ effort, its May 2004 editor’s note—not an apology—was perfunctory and supercilious at best. It took pains, up top, to point out “the enormous amount of journalism we are proud of,” which lent the whole thing a “But other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” air to it. What’s more, it completely omitted the most notorious culprit of bias, Judith Miler. At a mere 1,145 words, it also ran 6,087 words shorter than the Times’ five-bylined, magnum opus of self-flagellation about fabulist Jayson Blair from one year earlier. As Greg Mitchell notes in this blog post from this past Tuesday, then Times executive editor Bill Keller only agreed to publish it to rid himself and the paper of “distractions.” Coincidentally, one of these thorns in Keller’s side was the paper’s public editor, Daniel Okrent, who did a much better job, on his own, of exposing the paper’s many mistakes in the run-up to war. In his insightful conclusion, though, he went further, wisely tying the purpose of learning from the past to making those lessons the focus of the future:
The editors' note to readers will have served its apparent function only if it launches a new round of examination and investigation. I don't mean further acts of contrition or garment-rending, but a series of aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe Hussein had W.M.D. at his disposal.
This is journalism’s day-in, day-out burden. We get almost as many things wrong as we do right. Often, it helps to have someone else there to remind us that in those mistakes is yet another important story to tell. Only by looking back, though, will we ever be able to tell it and, this time, get it right.
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For more Alterman best-of lists, see last week's post, "My Favorite Things: God Bless America Edition."