Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
My Think Again column is called “The Power of Unreality.” It was inspired by the NRA’s successful attempt to rewrite the Second Amendment and it’s here.
In memory of Robert Bork, from Why We're Liberals (2008):
1) Nowhere was the rejection of the liberal elite clearer than in the right’s reaction to the joint presidency of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Right wing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork compared the decade of their rule to a “mini-French Revolution.”
2) Robert Bork, perhaps the most influential conservative judicial intellectual in America, has remarked that he found himself agreeing with his wife when she dismissed the US Supreme Court justices as a “band of outlaws.” “An outlaw is a person who coerces others without warrant in law,” he wrote. “That is precisely what a majority of the present Supreme Court does.” Indeed, American civilization, writes Robert Bork, is in peril of “slid[ing] into a modern, high-tech version of the Dark Ages.” In Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, Bork declares, “There are aspects of almost every branch of our culture that are worse than ever before and the rot is spreading.” That rot derives from the nation’s “enfeebled, hedonistic culture,” its “uninhibited display of sexuality,” its “popularization of violence in . . . entertainment,” and “its angry activists of feminism, homosexuality, environmentalism, animal rights—the list could be extended almost indefinitely.” Bork closes out his account by insisting that the country is “now well along the road to the moral chaos that is the end of radical individualism and the tyranny that is the goal of radical egalitarianism. Modern liberalism has corrupted our culture across the board.”
As Bork would have it, things have gotten so bad that he was willing to participate in a November 1996 symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” sponsored by the theoconservative journal First Things, in which the contributors addressed themselves to the proposition that “we [America] have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”
Some quite casual, year-end nominations based on what I’ve heard, seen and listened to so far though I’m sure I’ve forgotten some good stuff and I apologize in advance:
Books about music that I absolutely loved, indeed, I can hardly believe how good each one of these is:
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, by Will Hermes
There was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, by Ben Sidran
Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of The Beatles' Solo Careers, by Andrew Grant Jackson
Oscar nominations based only on movies I’ve so far seen.
Best Picture: A Late Symphony
Best actress: Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz (I feel quite strongly about this)
Best actor, Denzel Washington, Flight
Best Documentary: The Gatekeepers (This too)
Best Foreign Film: Goodbye First Love
My favorite new music of the year in no particular order:
Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill
Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball
Bob Dylan's Tempest
Graham Parker's Three Chords Good
Frank Ocean's Channel Orange
Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas
Andrew Bird's Break it Yourself and Hands of Glory
My favorite reissues not including “complete” collections:
Country Funk's 1969-75
Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram
Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick
Paul Simon's Graceland
The Rolling Stones's Charlie is My Darling
My favorite new/old releases that don’t quite fit either category:
Crosby, Stills and Nash's 2012
Led Zeppelin's Celebration Day
Elvis Presley's Prince from Another Planet
Charles Mingus's The Jazz Workshop Concerts
My favorite TV shows of the season:
House of Lies
Karl Rove on Election Night
Best Broadway plays:
Death of a Salesman
Glenngarry Glen Ross
Media Misfire: Why the Press Doesn’t Seem to Care About the Gun in Gun Violence
by Reed Richardson
If last week’s horrific Newtown, Connecticut school massacre has any kind of (admittedly tarnished) silver lining, one would hope it would be to finally serve as a wake-up call to the nation and the press about the epidemic of gun violence we inexplicably allow ourselves to suffer through daily. But make no mistake, the political willpower necessary to affect substantive changes in gun policy will be uneasy to amass and holding the attention of the media may even more difficult . Undoubtedly, the odds are stacked against enacting little more than cosmetic changes. And though the following comments from policymakers like, respectively, a conservative red state Democratic Senator, the Democratic Senate Leader, and the Vice President are encouraging, I’m still not too sanguine about the long-term prospects for change:
"I don't want my high schools, in my state, in this country, to turn into a miniature Vietnam.”
"What you just saw is the NRA losing its grip on the United States Senate, at long last.”
“This is a turning point for our country.”
The reasons for my pessimism? First off, we’ve been down this road countless times before with little or nothing to show for it, policy wise. As proof, I have a confession to make. The aforementioned statements, although they might have easily been seen in news stories or heard on cable TV talk shows during the past week, were actually uttered 13-and-a-half years ago—by then Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, then Senator Minority Leader Tom Daschle, and then Vice President Al Gore—just weeks after the infamous Columbine shooting. As it happens, all three quotes appeared in this Washington Post story, which was pegged to the narrow Senate passage—thanks only to Gore’s tie-breaking vote—of a long overdue bill closing the “gun show sales loophole.” As the Post story also depressingly points out, this single, measly success had “brought gun control forces their first big victory in five years.” But even this legislative momentum would prove to be short-lived, as a similar bill was routed in the House, falling a mere 133 votes(!) short, less than three weeks later. (And to this day, 33 states still do not require any form of background check prior to firearms sales at a gun show.)
In the intervening years since Columbine, gun advocates have enjoyed almost unchecked legislative successes. Despite the steady occurrence of numerous other ghastly gun rampages (all of which are grimly documented by Mother Jones), in many parts of America, citizens are now legally allowed to carry handguns into churches, bars, schools, and all manner of other public spheres that would have been unthinkable in the past. Indeed, we’ve now reached a point where broad stretches of the country resemble the Wild Westmore so than the actual Wild West did. Today, for instance, one needs no permit at all to openly carry a gun in Tombstone, Arizona, whereas 132 years ago, during Wyatt Earp’s time there, the public carrying of firearms was forbidden for anyone other than law enforcement and the military.
Certainly, timidity on the part of liberal and Democratic politicians has enabled the gun lobby’s vast expansion of power over the past generaton. But there’s no mistaking that a timorous press corps has aided and abetted this political unwillingness to confront the real causes and solutions of gun violence.
To get a sense of how media coverage helps to quickly enervate and dissipate momentum for gun policy changes—even in the wake of outrageous tragedies like Newtown—it’s worth taking a step back and developing a broader taxonomy of gun-related press reportage. Helpfully, a survey from the Berkeley Media Studies Group offers us precisely such an example. As it happens, the BMSG was tracking gun policy coverage across a number of state and national newspapers from March through May of 1999, a period during the middle of which, coincidentally, the Columbine shooting occurred. As one might imagine, gun policy coverage spiked after the shooting, but not necessarily in the way you might think. In fact, the resulting BMSG study found that in the ideological “framing” of the 170 news stories it analyzed during these three months, pro-gun control articles barely edged out those opposing any new restrictions:
“Overall, the frames in support of new gun policies appeared in 62% of the sample, while frames opposing new gun policies appeared in 56% of the sample.”
Unsurprisingly, a quick tour of the recent post-shooting media coverage and right-wing punditry turns up plenty of the same anti-gun control frames, phrasing, and quotes that the study found proliferated after Columbine.
“We should enforce existing laws, not make new ones” (1999)
“The problem isn’t guns, it’s criminals” (1999)
“The right to own guns is absolute”
“Parents need to take more responsibility”
“What about virtuous gun use – guns are protective”
“Gun control hurts law-abiding citizens”
“The problem isn’t guns, it’s crazy people” (1999)
“You can’t blame everyone for one person’s actions”
I acknowledge that the above are but the golden oldies of anti-gun control obfuscation. Newtown also seems to have elicited a whole other genre of remixed grasping at straw men and victim-baiting, blaming everything from the press’s “extensive coverage” of the shooter’s identity to violent video games to—I kid you not—insufficient kamikaze instincts among the public and a lack of strapping male janitors and former Al Bundys patrolling our elementary schools.
Many of these frames are culled from conservative news organizations that admittedly have an ideological agenda to push. Yet, it’s worth pointing out that plenty of these same talking points end up embedded into “straight news” as part of the inevitable, artificially balanced reporting often used when covering controversial topics. Even more insidious is the subtle co-opting of pro-gun control frames that the media often unwittingly facilitates.
For example, the BMSG study found that the second-most popular post-Columbine “pro-gun control” frame (behind the idea that “legislators are under the thumb of the gun lobby”) involved policy fixes that only focused on individual, people-focused restrictions rather than curb the overall number of guns. But this “hate the gunner, not the gun” approach, the study goes one to explain, is counterproductive, as it falls victim to the same failures in efficacy that plagued similar people-not-product proposals in other public health crises:
By enforcing a perspective that the identity of the user matters, this frame may ghettoize the problem and limit public support for more wide-reaching policies that would address all guns no matter who owns or uses them. By comparison, many tobacco control advocates feel that the focus on keeping cigarettes away from kids distracts policy makers and siphons support away from policies that would have a greater likelihood of reducing the effects of tobacco use among all age groups.
Even when the gun lobby appears to be (temporarily) on the ropes, in other words, many gun control proponents are unwittingly conceding large swaths of the debate to them, and the media obliges. Thus, they ensure that whatever (if any) gun reform measures get enacted, they will be of a highly limited nature and never seriously jeopardize the status quo. Indeed, a just released Gallup poll both echoes and highlights how narrowly the debate over gun policy has already become, before all the victims of Newtown have even been buried. As you see, the only somewhat comprehensive step—“ban the sale of assault and semiautomatic guns”—ranks but fourth in terms of favored courses of action, below more cops in schools, better mental health care, and decreasing violence in video games. That we’re literally more concerned about constant exposure to artificial violence in a virtual world than actual violence in the real one is an indictment of the press as much as it is the public.
The mainstream media, however, is mostly blind to its own inability to see the overwhelming role a deluge of guns plays in fostering gun violence. (And let their be no question about this, for it is a simple, straightforward equation, proven over and over by statistical analysis: more guns = more homicide.) However, I qualify this with a “mostly” because there are some notable exceptions to myopia. Fareed Zakaria, to his credit, wrote one of the most clear-eyed, unapologetically thinking-big columns I’ve ever seen on the topic of gun policy. In it, he presents ample evidence that fiddling around the margins of gun policy—with loophole-filled bans or more feints at mental health screening—will fail to achieve the lofty “never again” rhetoric that the president and others always trot out after tragedies like this.
Sadly, Zakaria’s level of candor is a rarity among Washington’s op-ed pages and talk shows. More common is the journalistic employment of something NYU media critic Jay Rosen calls “the savvy.” This phenomenon is marked by a widespread intellectual embrace of complex schemes, behind-the-scenes machinations, and partisan score-keeping in any policy debate. Political science professor Steven Teles, in his essay that I wrote about last week, called this penchant for Rube Goldberg policymaking “kludgeocracy.”
For a striking example of how this plays out on a daily basis, look no further than this week’s White House press conference. There, Obama made a rather bold (for him) speech about his intent to push for stronger, albeit not strong enough, gun control measures. Yet, after he concluded his remarks, the first four questions from the press weren’t related to the speech he had just given. Instead, they targeted the fiscal cliff negotiations, a topic that is tailor made for insider-y, “savvy” coverage.
Finally, Jake Tapper from ABC News did circle back to gun control, but, again, in a “savvy” way, criticizing Obama for ignoring gun control for the past four years—“Where have you been?” (That’s not quite accurate, as Obama, alas, has actually expanded gun rights.) Now, I’m all for the press holding politicians accountable, but it’s notable that Tapper too has done his share of muddying the issue of gun violence. Nearly two years ago, for instance, he played along with right-wing framing by callously suggesting “civil libertarians” might have enabled Jared Lee Loughner’s mass shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 11 others in Tucson. Tapper, by the way, has something of a history of happily feeding aggrieved conservatives by piously calling out politicians and his media peers for their supposed failure to talk about the real issues.
Even worse, however, was Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s day-two piece on the press conference, which took things to a “meta-savvy” level. In it, he essentially mocked Obama for the assembled press’s apathy over gun control and then chastised the president for obliquely linking it to his answers on the fiscal cliff negotiation questions. This is worthless, ephemeral, damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t cynical journalism at its worst. I shudder to think of the “Obama displays lack of leadership on gun control” column Milbank would have written had the president just made a symbolic gesture regarding the Newtown tragedy and then turned his full attention to getting more, stupid offers from John Boehner on a manufactured crisis like the fiscal cliff.
In the end, it is this warped sense of priorities and skewed framing among the mainstream media that acts as a bulwark against necessary, long overdue changes in every policy arena, whether the issues are fiscal or firearm-related. It’s ;a mindset that believes less gun violence surely can’t be as simple as having fewer guns, just as less poverty can’t be as simple as giving more assistance directly to the poor. So, we watch as the press and pundits dismiss outright as unserious those strategies that have been demonstrated to work—whether it’s massive gun buyback programs and bans on private gun sales or increasing Medicaid and sustaining unemployment benefits—and instead cheer watered-down, bank-shot compromises that just kick our democracy’s problems down the road a bit. It’s a vicious, tragic cycle, for just as it guarantees that we’ll have to endure another round of fiscal brinksmanship next month or next year, it also makes it just as likely that we’ll all be mourning another group of our fellow citizens, gunned down under a hail of bullets, sometime very soon.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
It’s “on the road” week here at Altercation. As your pinch-hitter—Reed here—I’m posting from wintry Minneapolis, where despite a recent record heavy snowfall for December, they’ve been enjoying a far-warmer-than-average fall. This, after the Twin Cities experienced the fourth-warmest winter on record last year. But, you know, Al Gore is fat or something.
As for Eric, he’s enjoying the sunny climes of the Caribbean on the Nation cruise. But there’s no resting on our laurels around here. He’s written a new Think Again column on the mendacity of perhaps the world’s most powerful media mogul entitled “Murdoch, Murdoch, Everywhere.” One addendum I’d add to his thorough, Rupertian roundup. Right after this column came out, the New York Times reported that yet another editor within Murdoch’s empire embroiled in the phone hacking scandal, James Harding of The Times of London, will also step down. But that wasn’t even the most outrageous piece of news from that Times story. Instead, that had to be the revelation that Murdoch gave his former News of the Worldeditor, the disgraced Rebekah Brooks, who is currently facing conspiracy charges, a whopping $17.6 million severance package. Dick Armey, it seems, has nothing on Brooks when it comes to being handsomely rewarded for spectacular failure.
Debugging Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson
If there’s one broader lesson we can draw from the ridiculous posturing around the manufactured “fiscal cliff” crisis that has gripped all of Washington these days, it is this: our democracy can no longer effectively handle the basic task of responsible governance. And a not insignificant portion of the blame can be laid at the feet of a easily manipulated press. Of course, this diagnosis is by no means revelatory. Many have come to the same conclusion. Almost two years ago, Eric wrote at length about our “Kabuki Democracy” and deconstructed how our “maddeningly complex” political system, as currently constructed, routinely fails our citizenry, thanks, in part, to a complicit media that makes little attempt at honest, clear reportage of policy and process issues.
Coincidentally, this week, I stumbled across a very engaging essay by Johns Hopkins political science professor Steven Teles that offers up a similar critique—that our governing mechanisms and policy solutions almost invariably involve counterproductive, Rube Goldberg contraptions that only obliquely address the issue at hand. I admit that I discovered the essay only after it caught the attention of some conservatives on Twitter, who seemed to appreciate its insightful observations even though Teles, as one Cornerite claimed, was “of a center-left bent.” (Admittedly, this ideological appellation is of little relative value based on the extreme right-wing positions around which conservatives are now encamped.)
Anyway, Teles’s essay is quite good and worth a full read. It only stumbles in a few, rare spots, like trying too hard to nitpick liberal policy strategy. And though he makes an awful lexical choice as part of analogizing what plagues our democracy—which has transformed into something he calls a “kludgeocracy”—his big-picture view is spot-on:
The dictionary tells us that kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” […]
“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy. For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of Obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country.
Simple, elegant solutions have been rendered increasingly extinct, in other words. As an example, Teles points to the remarkably efficient, almost frictionless policy mechanics of Social Security and compares that to increasingly complex, time-intensive, and financially less efficacious private sector savings tools, like 401(k)s and IRAs. And yet, among lawmakers and thinktank policy wonks, we have witnessed an almost unceasing assault on the former and preference for the latter over the last two generations. Playing along with this inversion of what works for what doesn’t work as well (or at all), lobbyists that obfuscate the real impact of policy, an incestuous thinktank culture that profits from selling ever more complex policies, and, not least of all, Teles notes is a news media that feeds its newshole covering all these policies:
Entire networks like CNBC, the financial planning industry, and a small army of financial publications have sprouted up to profit off the public’s confusion—and to waste time that would be better spent on almost anything else.
That the media willingly, if often subconsciously, marches in lockstep with this drumbeat for bank-shot policymaking isn’t surprising. Having been stripped of its much of its authoritative voice because the rise of the Internet, the Washington press corps has tried to find a new, comfortable home in interpreting the impenetrable horse-trading that colors Washington now. As a result, we encounter breathless insider journalism about reviving the stumbling economy that just “know[s]” the age of Social Security retirement and Medicare eligibility need to go up and that benefits from both programs need to go down. Or we see self-absorbed pundits bemoaning our federal deficit while, in the same breath, they vociferously object to the deficit reduction mechanisms of the fiscal cliff while championing debt-ballooning tax cuts for the rich.
This wrongheadedness exacts a toll on our democracy, however, Teles argues. It begins to create an intellectual construct that holds any simple solution up for ridicule and dismisses any policy that would provide a direct benefit to the public as unserious. Hence, the recent financial crisis and housing bust occasioned various end-around bailouts that had to pass through numerous private-sector actors before any assistance ever reached regular citizens.
Blogger Duncan Black—Atrios—often spoke of how “helicopter drops” of money right into the hands of the unemployed or struggling homeowners would have been more effective than the convoluted solutions the federal government settled on. And it’s hard to argue he’s wrong. No wonder, then, that this built-in inefficiency begins to corrode the public’s faith in the government in the first place. And on those rare occasions that the policies do work, the message has been muddied, playing right into conservatives’ hand. Again, Teles:
Ms Suzanne Mettler argues in her important recent book The Submerged State, our complex, hidden welfare state conceals the presence of government action, leading citizens to mistake as “private” market structures those programs that are in fact pervasively shaped by government. Mettler’s research shows that Americans who benefit from educational savings programs through the tax code (like 529 plans) do not experience them as government at all, despite the fact that they redistribute huge sums of money. The same is true for the deduction for employer-provided health care, and a variety of other pieces of the welfare state hidden in the tax and regulatory codes. This facilitates the myth of independence and rugged individualism upon which modern conservatism is based.
Kludgeocracy is also bad for liberalism by creating both the reality and image that government is incompetent and/or corrupt. The complexity of the tax code, for instance, facilitates tax cheating and creative accounting, and along with it the impression that tax compliance is actually lower than it is. Much of the legitimacy of the law, and the willingness of citizens to contribute to public goods, rests on the perception that others are doing their share. Complexity helps eat away at that perception, which is crucial to support the expansion of beneficial state activity.
This is why even nominal legislative successes, like the Medicare Part D expansion, can have negative repercussions. When the Bush administration passed (completely unfunded, I might add) the law, it also intentionally kept its administration in the hands of private insurers, despite the fact that letting Medicare officially run the program and, more importantly, negotiate the rates for prescription drugs, would have unquestionably been simpler and more cost effective. Even when government does get something done, conservatives are adept (and more than willing) at undermining its long-term efficacy.
Again, the same dynamic is evident with regard to climate change legislation. Rather than adopt the fairest, simplest program—a carbon tax—the Obama administration tried (not very hard) to stand up the more contrived cap-and-trade scheme. Having failed, it left us with the status quo, which is probably the least best of all policy choices, individual tax subsidies for renewable energy companies.
That our sticky, rickety ability to govern forces us to incessantly choose policy choices from the bad/dumb end of the solution continuum doesn’t come across in the media coverage, though. Indeed, even a mild progressive victory like ObamaCare, which took a Herculean effort to get passed, can be characterized in the op-ed pages of the mainstream media as having been something that deserved “more careful consideration” because “no one has read it” before it was “jammed” through Capitol Hill. That’s right, a mildly conservative healthcare bill that had to pass five separate Congressional committees before several contentious full floor votes were spread across several months was actually indicative that our government moves too fast. (If you want to see a real example of ramrodding unpopular legislation, check out Lansing, Michigan.)
So, why does our democracy suffer from Lincoln’s famous critique of McClellan? Because, as Teles explains, there are innumerable veto points now built into our policymaking system, every one of which extracts a kind of transactional toll. But while many of these waypoints are embedded too deeply in our Constitution to be streamlined or improved upon, there are some roadblocks that enjoy no such protection. One of these is the filibuster, which has been abused so egregiously in recent years by Republicans that, just maybe, it will be rightfully rolled back to its original, rare intended use. (It's reform is the number one item on Teles's agenda.) But perhaps the most prominent obstacle in need of change is our press corps, which often engages in hypocritical double-dealing rather than truth-telling. For instance, its bemoaning of the ineffectual nature of the Senate while simultaneously inculcating and normalizing the notion that a 60-vote threshold is needed to get anything done.
Teles concludes his essay with a sober assessment of how difficult changing our democracy for the better will be. And he assigns some responsibilities to all parties involved, including regular citizens and policymakers. But the greatest burden for progress, he sees, really rests upon those who serve as the connection between the former and the latter and that help shape the expectations of both. But before they can start fixing our broken democracy, the shapers of public debate—the press and pundits—need to recognize that they’re already part of the problem, too.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m doing the Twitter thing here—(at) reedfrich. Speaking of which, Lord knows I don’t agree with David Frum too often, but after yet another senseless shooting spree took the lives of innocent Americans this week, he took to Twitter to argue once again about the folly of our nation’s gun obsession. (He did two columns on this topic for CNN earlier this summer here and here.) Since, on this point, we’re of like minds, I pointed him to a 1997 study that fully debunked the methodology behind one of the gun lobby’s favorite talking points—that Americans engage in more than two million “defensive gun uses” every year. To his credit, he wrote a post on the study over at The Daily Beast (and was nice enough to give me a hat tip as well).
Re you recent article [“Lie of Omission”]
The sun neither rises or sets.
The earth rotates.
Reed replies: Sorry, Chuck, but I’m not having your too-cute-by-half attempt at pedantry here. While I didn’t take the time to fully explain the physical science behind the frame-of-reference phenomena we colloquially call the earth’s “sunrise” and “sunset,” I did so because I wasn’t going to waste my reader’s time or insult their intelligence, a courtesy you seem uninterested in extending to me. Ironically, your comments miss the point in much the same way the fact-checking sites do. For, the salient part of my analogy was not about the celestial mechanics that produce our sunrise, but that this mechanism is incontrovertibly fixed in one direction and so the location of the sunrise is an unquestionable, easily provable fact, one that anyone drawing breath on the planet, even a journalist, is qualified to defend from “lies” that say otherwise. It’s precisely when the willingness to obsess over the semantics of an argument obscures understanding the foundational lie or truth therein that journalism fails its professional duty.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is an examination of some of the revelations in the Times’ Tax stories of last week. It’s called “Will the Times’s Terrific Tax Reporting Matter?” and it’s here.
A few things that got list in the gift-giving guides were:
A) Charlie Christian, The Genius of the Electric Guitar, a four CD box set Columbia/Legacy. The great guitarist joined the Benny Goodman Sextet starting in 1939, America’s first integrated high-profile jazz group (or any other kind of group), which also featured Fletcher Henderson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibraphone. Discovered by John Hammond—who, I didn’t know this, was Goodman’s brother-in-law—joined Columbia after four years at Victor. This box, a reconfiguration of the original box set from 2002 featuring the same repertoire, also includes an essay by Peter Broadbent, owner/administrator of The Charlie Christian Archive.
B) When reading this essay in the Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago, I got excited about The Cocktail Waitress, a previously lost work by James M. Cain, a former editorial writer for the New York World, by the way. Before getting the audio version, which is available from Harper Audio—I haven’t gotten the audio yet—but the publication led me to discover this new wonderful publisher Hard Case Crime. What a find. First of all, I just love the cover art. I love the love that has gone into printing these new (sometimes) but always retro books. And I love the honor they bring to the genre, as well the opportunities they offer both new writers and readers looking for the new. This edition of the new/old Cain comes with not only a cool cover but also a 4,000-word afterword by editor Charles Ardai discussing the book, its discovery, and the process of editing Cain’s original manuscripts.
C) I’m also eager to read this insanely ambitious book, The Twenty Year Death, a first novel written in the form of three separate crime novels, each set in a different decade and penned in the style of a different giant of the mystery genre. Read all about it:
1931— The body found in the gutter in France led the police inspector to the dead man’s beautiful daughter—and to her hot-tempered American husband.
1941— A hardboiled private eye hired to keep a movie studio’s leading lady happy uncoversthe truth behind the brutal slaying of a Hollywood starlet.
1951— A desperate man pursuing his last chance at redemption finds himself with blood on his hands and the police on his trail... and they got Rose McGowan posed for the cover painting ….
D) I am also looking forward to Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night, which was published by William Morrow and also available on audio from Harper Audio . If you’re a fanatic for this kind of thing, (or owe a present to someone who is) then you might be interested in the publication of Dashiel Hammett’s notes etc, for two Thin Man sequels. The Thin Man is one of the few great books that is also a great movie; usually great movies are made only from not-so great books, but in the noir/detective category, this rule has apparently been suspended, as with the Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, etc.
Last weekend were the Hot Tuna shows at the Beacon. I see Jorma has a blog where he discusses them at length. The shows did have a festive air to them owing to all of the guests and it’s nice to see how seriously the musicians took them in advance rehearsals, etc. I have my differences with the set list of course; Hot Tuna is one band that does not know their gold from their dross; or else they are a little too eager to satisfy the (now former) frat boy element of their audience. But they are an institution and a welcome one at that. And I think Friday night might have been the first time ever they gave it up and played a Dead song: appropriately “Sugaree.” The guests, who came and went with impressive direction, included Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Steve Kimock, G.E.Smith, Bill Kirchen, Cindy Cashdollar, Bob Margolin and Lincoln Schleifer.
If you saw the profile of Graham Parker in The Times's Arts and Leisure section last week, then you’ve heard about the Rumour reunion and the role that GP’s music plays in Judd Apatow’s new movie. This turns out to be a most welcome thing. I was a big fan in the days when we used to argue about who was better Parker or Elvis C., but I never realized how terrific Parker’s backing band was, nor how important they were to that burst of creativity that led to Heat Treatment, Squeezing Out Sparks, etc,.
GP has been holed up in upstate New York for decades now putting out albums for a “more and more exclusive audience” as I once heard him put it, but the role of his great music in "This Is 40," led to him bringing back all the boys for a new CD called Three Chords Good.
The show they did at the Concert Hall at the Ethical Culture Society was a little heavy on Three Chords Good, since most people had never heard it before but once the band got going with the classics (and Graham put down his pointless acoustic guitar), it came to life in a decidedly thrilling fashion. We got “Stupefaction,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” the Trammps’ “Hold Back the Night” He pulled out “Get Started, Start a Fire,” “Hotel Chambermaid,” “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” “Watch the Moon Come Down,” “Discovering Japan,” “Fool’s Gold,” “No Protection,” “Thunder and Rain” and “Local Girls” and the ideal closer: “I Want You Back.” He left the hall triumphant, smiling and with the crowd standing and cheering, feeling lucky to have been there and spent a few hours with some wonderful music and our younger selves. Just don’t ask us (too many) questions. Ain’t no answers in here. (And what a band! Where in the world have these guys been doing? They’re incredible.)
I saw David Mamet’s short-lived Broadway production of The Anarchist that weekend too, which will make one of extremely few people in the history of the human race since it may have set a record for world’s fasted closing. And no wonder. I was not as critical as lot of people of Debra Winger’s deadpan performance as a prison official, nor quite as impressed by Patti Lupone’s as a Kathy Boudin style ex-left-wing terrorist who, after 35 years of jail time, is hoping to be set free. I was mostly impressed by a) how difficult it must have been for both actors to learn all those lines (It is a two person show) and b) who in the world could possibly have thought that this was a show worth doing in the first place.
The production has almost nothing to recommend it. A passable idea, perhaps, but horribly executed by Mamet, who not only wrote the short, uninteresting, superficial (albeit faux-philosophical) (non)drama but also directed it without any appreciable staging or much of anything else that usually makes up a Broadway play. Don’t take my word for any of this. The Guardian reviews it here.
Writing on the front page of The Times, Patrick Healy speculates that this ridiculous excuse for a play may have been produced (at a cost of $2.6 million) as a sop to Mamet to grease the wheels for the revival, literally down the street of Glengarry Glen Ross, whose production is every bit as brilliant as the Anarchist was awful. (Said Ms. Winger to Mr. Healy: “It’s a bigger story than you could ever fit in your daily column.”
I’ve seen this play three times now, and a movie a few times, and while the marquee attraction is clearly Al Pacino. (He is certainly the reason they can charge $377 for the best seats.) The standout performer is Bobby Carnivale, whose Ricki Roma, the role Pacino played in the movie, is something that will last in the imaginations of people who see this play as long as they have memories. Pacino is no slouch either and I appreciated the way he underplayed the Pacino-style pyrotechnics in order that he might inhabit the role more closely than his outsized acting personality often allows. Indeed, the whose cast is terrific, but it’s hard to separate from the brilliance of the play itself, which is so brilliant, tough-minded, eloquent and angry, it’s hard to fathom where in world Mamet found it. It is truly one of the gems of the American theater—just a notch below Death of Salesman or the best of O’Neill. (I note once again that in this view, The Times reviewer, Ben Brantley, could not have been more off base in his review here (just as he was with Mike Nichols’ recent Salesman revival. The guy really needs a rest…)
I am tempted to draw a connection between the fact that Mamet has turned into a right-wing lunatic, particularly on Jewish issues and the fact that he has apparently lost both his gifts as playwright and his judgment as a director. I actually think it’s there. But it’s a case that’s beyond the scope of what I’m writing here, all of which boils down to: If can possibly see this production of Glengarry Glen Ross, then do so. It’s as powerful an argument for the purpose of art itself as I can imagine.
Lie of Omission
by Reed Richardson
Journalists learn early on in their careers that there are some words best avoided at all costs. “Proactive,” for example, is an unctuous, lazy term that rarely survives an editor’s scrutiny. “Unprecedented” is a minefield that begs for a reader to smugly point out the arcane—or worse, obvious—earlier example you overlooked. And for anyone who’s ever spent time on the sports beat, the verb “manage” you soon find out is reserved only for the actions of middle-aged men who are required to still wear baseball uniforms in their day jobs.
Most of these unwritten newsroom copy rules are beneficial, learned best practices that push journalists to be more precise in their language and to avoid lapsing into vague clichés or unnecessary hyperbole. But, occasionally, you run across one of these taboo words and realize that its subtle, but firmly enforced absence from the media lexicon is counterproductive. To consciously avoid using it only serves to make journalists less accurate in their reporting and compels them to use flowery euphemisms when the truth is much more simple and clear cut. And there is perhaps no better example of this contradiction between journalism’s habits and its principles than its conflicted relationship with the word “lie.”
Somewhere along the way the mainstream media collectively decided that calling something a “lie” or someone a “liar,” no matter how overwhelming the evidence, was a subjective judgment and, thus, out of bounds. Hence, even if a newspaper article quotes someone making a demonstrably false statement like “The sun rises in the west,” you’ll rarely, if ever, encounter a following sentence written by an “objective” reporter characterizing that comment as a “lie.” Better, according to the profession’s conventional wisdom, to just politely point out that the sun rises in the east, or best of all, quote someone else stating that.
For this reason alone, then, I regard the recent proliferation of media fact-checking platforms as a net positive for our democracy. Their willingness to embrace long forgotten words like “truth” and “lie” injects some refreshing honesty back into our discourse. And yet that doesn’t mean standalone factchecking is immune to the same institutional biases that plague the rest of the newsroom, which I went into more detail explaining here a year ago.
All of which brings me to Politifact’s annual attempt at trolling for publicity— it’s recently released list of finalists for “Lie of the Year.” Peruse it and you’ll quickly notice that the choices represent a paragon of partisan parsing, the epitome of forced equivalence, as the list oh-so-predictably includes exactly five “lies” from Obama or his supporters and five from Romney or another conservative. (In this case, the only other right-winger is Rush Limbaugh, whose lone entry on this list I presume is some kind of begrudging nod to his consistent body of work in the field, similar to the unrelenting Best Actress Oscar nominations garnered by Meryl Streep. Both could win these respective contests every year, in other words, but where’s the fun in that?)
But there’s something else notable about what’s on Politifact’s list, or rather what’s not on the list. Inexplicably, this journalistic arbiter of truth felt that Mitt Romney’s now infamous “47 percent” falsehoods weren’t even worthy of being included in the top ten. One might chalk this oversight up to Politifact’s questionable track record picking their “Lie of the Year,” since it’s 2011 winner had the unique quality of being something that was actually true. (The site’s readers, it should be noted, disagreed in their own poll.) But Politifact isn’t alone in this glaring omission, which was repeated by the 2012 Best/Worst lists of other prominent fact-checking sites like Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” and Factcheck.org. (To be fair, Factcheck.org did include a short blurb on “47 percent,” but literally as a final footnote that was not among their many “Whoppers of 2012.”)
Now, I get that there’s an argument to be made that the lies Romney told at that private fundraising dinner where he unfairly maligned half of the American public perhaps weren’t, individually, as egregious as his mendacious invective about, say, Obama’s welfare policy. But still, it says something that Politifact devoted eight separate posts to debunking Romney’s comments. What’s more, even some of their judgments in his favor wilt under real scrutiny. For example, there was this crime against arithmetic:
Romney told campaign donors that '50 percent of kids coming out of school can't get a job.' He missed a key qualifier—according to the research, about a quarter of recent college grads literally can’t find a job, while another quarter have found a job, but one that doesn’t require a college degree. Still, the research shows the employment picture for college grads is grimmer than at any time in more than a decade. We rate the claim Mostly True.
This is journalistic malpractice, no doubt. But for further proof that Politifact (and the other fact checkers) badly blew their analysis and missed the point of what happened in 2012, I offer up none other than Politifact’s own editor, Bill Adair, who said in defense of his organization’s lousy call one year ago: “We define the Lie of the Year as the most significant falsehood, the one that had the most impact on the political discourse.”
Looking back on the 2012 elections, is there any doubt that Romney’s “47 percent” comments fit this definition to a tee? Just look at the finalists that did make Politifact’s top ten list. All five of the chosen right-wing lies, when you peel back their respective ugly husks, reveal the same hard cynical pit—this smear that “47 percent” of the country are “victims” and hopelessly “dependent upon the government.” What’s more, everyone from conservative columnists to die-hard Tea Partiers to, just this week, his own running mate has now conceded that these lies irreparably poisoned Romney’s electoral prospects. The 2012 election exit polls, which showed Obama winning handily as someone who understands the concerns of the middle class and poor, only reinforced the extent of their impact. And not only did this same “makers vs. takers” argument color almost every aspect of Romney’s presidential campaign against Obama, it was the subtext of nearly every Republican running for federal office this past November.
To ignore or minimize the true import of Romney’s mendacious, “47 percent” comments on what happened in 2012, then, is to fail miserably at providing the precious context that these fact-checking sites claim is their one true advantage. It does a disservice to our democracy and only perpetuates a myopic, hidebound coverage that uses the word “lie” but doesn’t really understand what it means. That’s because there’s one other important lesson that every journalist has to learn when they begin their career, what you leave out of a story can often be more important that what you leave in.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m doing the Twitter thing here—(at) reedfrich.
Just read your essay “Nice Work If You Can Get It” in Alterman’s blog, and you have fully captured the propaganda machine that is right wing media. I might add an additional comment…since watching the results become final in this election, I feel more strongly than ever that the right wing media, and Fox News in particular, does not engage in their contentions to win over any new support, but rather to only paint a feel good perspective to their followers to keep them loyal. Had they painted an accurately negative picture for Romney in predicting the outcome of the election, they would have confused these followers, and these followers, being sycophants, will continue following current and future assessments stemming from their heroes. They choose not to hear it precisely because they do not want to know any other viewpoint, the “Bubble”, as Bill Maher appropriately calls it, is crowded. I used to get upset about Fox News, etc., and its blatantly biased reporting that is touted as “fair and balanced”. No longer…those who subscribe to this are a known quantity to the right wing machine, whose numbers refuse to “get it”.
To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Just to recap: My new Think Again column is Tax Cuts: The Faith and the Facts.
My Nation column is Rupert Murdoch and the 'Jewish Owned Press.'
Gift-Giving, Part III
It’s taken five years, but we finally have a decent account of the the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion (with John Bonham replaced by his son Jason, a decision I find pretty weird), that took place on December 10, 2007 at London’s O2 Arena in tribute to Ahmet Ertegun (who fell backstage before the Stones played the Beacon). And man were the levees breakin’. They did 17 songs but not, criminally, “Immigrant Song,” or “Dancing Days.” But they look and sound pretty great, particularly in the Blu-ray (which also comes with a DVD, something else I don’t understand), and two CDs. The sound is really clean and powerful. And Plant does not preen so much so as to make one squirm while watching. All in all, Zep enthusiasts will be thrilled by its total predictability. And congratulations, once again, to 19 year old Danny Goldberg for the fine job he did as the band’s PR rep, in staying out of (real) trouble and growing up to be such an outstanding citizen. It’s called Celebration Day and you can read more about it here.
Another release that will get a lot of people excited under the Hannukah bush this season is the release of Elvis Presley’s only Madison Square Garden shows—and, for some reason, the only time he’d play the city since he appeared on Ed Sullivan in the fifties—recorded in June 1972. Both have been put together in this handsome package from Sony Legacy called Prince From Another Planet: 40th Anniversary Edition. You get two of the four shows he did that weekend, June 9-11, 1972, plus a bonus DVD filled with previously unseen footage of the Saturday afternoon show, captured on hand-held camera by a fan, purchased by Legacy forty years later for this package. The DVD also includes footage from the June 9th press conference, the June 9th evening show, the June 10th afternoon show plus a documentary with interviews with Lenny Kaye, James Burton and Glenn D. Hardin, Joe Guercio, and Jerry Schilling. What’s more, the packaging is excellent—adding vastly to one’s enjoyment of the material—and the price is prettydecent. More here.
The old-timey concert video market is also a rich one this seasons. One of the biggest finds is a show the Doors did at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968, which looks terrific on Blu-ray. This was the band at its peak and Morrison at his most self-loving. Personally, the Doors to me are a greatest hits band, but if they are more than that to you, you will want this peformance for certain. Bonus material includeds Echoes From The Bowl, The Doors route to the Hollywood Bowl, You Had To Be There, memories of The Doors performance at the Bowl, Reworking The Doors, an in-depth look at how the film was restored, and three bonus performances: Wild Child from The Smothers Brothers Show in 1968, Light My Fire from The Jonathan Winters Show in Dec 1967 and a version of Van Morrison's Gloria with specially created visuals.
We’ve also got a nice Patti Smith show live from Montreux in 2005 on Blu-ray in support of the Trampin CD with Lenny Kaye in the band and a combination of songs from that album and the old-timey anthems like Dancing Barefoot, Because The Night and People Have The Power. Nice to have.
Also, if you are my age you will have decidedly mixed feelings, but proabably want to give into the double DVD release of Peter Frampton Fca 35 Tour: An Evening With Peter Frampton, in which he does the entire Frampton Comes Alive album at the Beacon and somwhere in Milwaukee last year. The second disc focuses on tracks from Peter Frampton's more recent albums such as Fingerprints, Now and Thank You Mr. Churchill along with a really fun version of “I Don't Need No Doctor,” sung, I think by his son, and which, you may mistily recall, “rocked” the Fillmore on that great Humble Pie album. The kid’s pretty good. I listened to Alec Baldwin’s podcast interview with Frampton recently and he’s pretty happy (and lucky fellow) and this DVD is a guilty pleasure. (And yes, “Do You Feel Like We Do” remains one of the best songs… ever.) More to some people’s old-farty tastes is the dvd of a full length concert from Gregg Allman and his band at The Cannery, Nashville, USA in November 1988.called "I'm No Angel: Live On Stage" on MVD Entertainment Group. Oh and if you've read this far into this seventies sojourn, you might also enjoy the new cd release of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Live In California 1974. Recorded live on April 6, 1974, the California Jam took place at the Ontario Motor Speedway, in Ontario, CA. Live In California 1974 is the first official release of a much bootlegged show. So where, finally, one may ask, is the cleaned up official release of the Dead at Barton Hall?
And if you’re looking for a gift for somone who’s hard to buy for, then Oxford's Atlas of the World—updated again, for the 19th edition, is always a good choice, and not nearly as expensive as you’d expect it to be. As in years past, they tell me, “this edition has been revised to reflect the latest geographic information. The popular satellite image section has been refreshed with stunning new images of different regions and urban areas around the world. A completely updated Gazetteer of Nations provides an invaluable A-Z reference source of concise country profiles, including important historical events and statistics on economies and politics. Recent events in Africa and the Middle East—and their profound consequences—are incorporated into various country profiles.” Actually, the price is pretty amazing, here. Hurry up.
As for books, I’ve read three very fine biographies of late: David Nasaw’s book on Joe Kennedy, The Patriarch is really first rate in every way: the research, the writing and the quality of his judgments. The reader on the audio is also pretty great in imitating the voices of the different actors without being annoying. Kennedy is a truly fascinating character in more ways than I care to enumerate. One lesson of this book, however, is that nothing is as powerful in this world as people’s ability to convince themselves that they were right in the first place. Nobody has ever been wronger about anything more important than Kennedy was about appeasing Hitler (to say nothing of his willingness to blame the Jews for ginning up opposition) and yet all he could think about, every time he was proven wrong, was how right he was.
Peter Ames Carlin’s Springsteen book, Bruce, is also wonderful, albeit in a far different way. When I read the galleys this summer I gave Peter this blurb. (Actually, I just checked the Amazon page and they’ve taken it down in favor of Brian Williams and Jon Stewart, so I no longer know what I said. But the book is fascinating and well-written, smart and tough-minded. And of course, the cooperation is unprecedented and the revealations, never-ending).
I was also impressed enough with Sylvie Simmon’s biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, to make it all the way through. Her writing style is engaging if chatty and Cohen’s life is incredibly interesting, if he remains, at least to me, ultimately enigmatic.
I did not make it all the way through Salman Rushdie’s book, not because it was not well-written but just because I got tired of hearing how he felt about everyone and everything. That book should have been half as long as it was.
And while I enjoyed Neil Young’s book, Waging Heavy Peace, which is only sort of about Neil himself because of its charm and good humor, I skipped most of it because he’s interested in a lot of things that I’m not and not interested in writing (much) about the things that I am.
Novel-wise, I really, really liked Jonathan Tropper’s One Last Thing Before I Go, even though most reviewers didn’t. I shared the rest of the world’s disappointment with Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, A Novel. I loved some of Jeffrey Eugennides’ The Marriage Plot and hated some of it, but loved more than I hated, much more. And I really, really enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, though not nearly as much as I did Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which I know is old already, but it’s the best book I’ve read since Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom. I am not nearly as big a fan of the third Jonathan, but that is, of course, just me. Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her was fun but not, as far as I could tell, profound or even that memorable in any way. It was kind of like a Latino Nick Hornby book, which actually, is pretty high praise. Paul Auster’s memoir, Winter Journal, will be of interest to Paul Auster fans, of which I am one, but does not stand too strongly on its own. I still can’t make up my mind about what I thought about Benjamin Anastas, Too Good to Be True: A Memoir. I found it compelling, but so painful to read I could barely continue. (Also a little bit creepy, in its shared intimacy.) Still, I do think all aspiring serious writers should read it, though as well as all aspiring adulterers. But especially writers.
(Oh and by the way, when I say “read,” in many of the cases above, I mean “listened to.” I did audio versions of The Patriarch, the Rushdie memoir, Tropper, Wolfe, Chabon, Eugenides, and Diaz. I recommend all of them, especially Diaz, who read it himself, and who positively inhabits the character. I read part of one of my books once and it’s much harder than it looks, so hats off…) You can find a pretty dependable wrap-up of the readers of many of the above, here. Turns out Clarke Peters read Telegraph Avenue and the article reminds me that I just loved Hope Davi’s reading of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.
Regarding picture books, the standout for me this year was 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story, which is filled with beautifully reproduced photos from the label’s archives that I had never seen before and hence, were kind of thrilling the first time I looked through it. The text is by Sean Wilenz, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. It too, is a bargain, as such books go. There are also new coffee table books on the Stones and Led Zepplin. The former is ok, but repetitive with previous efforts and not exactly filled with insights since it’s such an official undertaking; the second one does not rise to that level, alas, and is barely a book at all, since no effort is made even to integrate the interviews that were done for it, oral history-style and most of the people interviewed are people that even pretty serious fans probably never heard of. Nice picture of Danny, though. I hear the John Lennon letters are wonderful, but I’ve not had much of a chance to thumb through. But speaking of the boys, yesterday, I did not quite do justice to how smart and knowledgeable I found Andrew Grant Jackson’s Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles.’ It’s really both quite fun and impressive, though he does not hate the songs I hate and I find this a bit unnerving, given how on the ball he is otherwise. Do I really need to rethink “My Love?”
Nice Work If You Can Get It
by Reed Richardson
Just three weeks on, scholars and analysts are already teasing out the larger lessons of Obama’s reelection. But for all the emerging verdicts we’re starting to see on the stunning accuracy of polling aggregation or the technological advances being made in campaign outreach and persuasion, there is one unmistakable judgment I feel confident that we can render right now, knowing it will stand the test of time and scrutiny of historians for decades to come. That is, conservative pundits simply have the best job in the world.
OK, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. No doubt, there are other jobs out there that pay much better or, say, let you travel around the world for free and cavort with rock stars or beautiful supermodels. But in terms of the American media ecosystem, I literally believe there is no better job to be had than that of a right-wing opinion columnist or TV commentator. Where else can someone continue to have unseemly amounts of money shoveled at them for producing “news analysis” that’s so utterly devoid of accuracy and so patently divorced from reality?
Indeed, the indictment of the right-wing media’s awful 2012 election prognostication is so comprehensive and widespread that it reads like a multi-count charge in a federal racketeering case. A short and sweet version exists as this image, created by the now defunct fake Jennifer Rubin Twitter feed (which was probably a victim of it’s own success, since its dead-on mockery of her slavish devotion to Romney wasn’t immediately recognizable as satire). A longer Tumblr version can be seen here.
Taken one by one, each of these conservative pundits appears to have followed their own individual path to failure. The aforementioned Rubin, for example, was apparently too dazzled with Romney’s campaign to ever bother with predicting his victory; she instead simply presumed it, which is why she was already gaming out his future cabinet in mid-October, only hours after Romnye’s lackluster performance in the 2nd debate. One could say that maybe timing just ain’t her strong suit. But then right after Romney’s defeat, there she was, suddenly complaining about all his campaign’s mistakes, which, as this Media Matters post shows, shamelessly contradicted months of her own fawning columns.
John Podhoretz had a similar, Road to Damascus-like epiphany. Before Election Day, Obama’s campaign was “politically incompetent.” And after? Well, as Jonathan Chait lays bare in this brilliant takedown, Podhoretz’s new conclusion that Obama’s campaign was “a peerless political instrument, a virtual machine” was a “jarring” turnaround. Podhoretz actually responded to Chait this week in a rather blithe and cavalier New York Post column where—besides misspelling “Genghis Khan” just four lines after having spelled it correctly (true Murdochian editorial attention to detail there)—he chalks up his sunny expectations for Romney to “wildly varying polls” (Nate Silver? Never heard of him) and an unctuous, “misplaced idealism” in the American people. (So…now we’re not so exceptional maybe?)
At the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone took a more pseudo-quantitative approach to his terrible prediction. Besides giving Romney Wisconsin, a state he ultimately lost by seven points, Barone focused on the “fundamentals” in his case against Obama’s reelection. His “I was wrong” postmortem, however, explains away his “reasonable” prediction with an excuse as so polished by pundit-speak that it’s almost impenetrable, which is the point, I’d guess: “What happened? I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics.” Who knew he’d get all those non-whites to vote, in other words.
And then there was Dick Morris, who, in his inimitable style of getting-every-damn-thing-wrong-all-the-time, wouldn’t settle for predicting a Romney win, he saw a “landslide.” A week after missing the actual outcome by more than 200 electoral votes and nearly 10 percentage points, Morris fessed up that he felt it was his “duty” to tout Romney’s chances, and offered up no apologies whatsoever for being so wrong. Though we probably didn’t need any more proof, his brazen lack of contrition should close the book on how much disregard he holds for the public.
That last point—this detectable sense of “eh, whaddyagunnado?”—is a startlingly common thread weaving throughout almost all of these right-wing pundits’ editorial emanations post-election. Hoping for much in the way of honest self-reflection from conservative pundits is clearly a fool’s errand. But for an ideology that waxes rhapsodically on the supposed merits of rewarding success, individual accountability, and the wisdom of the free market, it is striking that the conservative media elite is populated, with a few rare exceptions, by people who consistently get things wrong, care little that they do, and who pay little, if any, reputational or monetary price for having done so.
To be sure, liberal pundits aren’t without their own faults. No ideology is free from its share of demagogues and bloviators, after all. But it’s also not inaccurate to point out that a substantial amount of what passes as ridiculous, uncritical thinking on the part of liberals is actually perpetrated by pundits-—folks like Joe Klein, Charles Lane, and Maureen Dowd come readily to mind—who aren’t “left-wing” but who are left of the extreme rightward center of gravity of opinion journalism today. And not for nothing, but I challenge anyone to cite a single example of a respected liberal editorialist or commentator who predicted Kerry would beat Bush by more than 100 electoral votes in 2004 or who didn’t acknowledge that the Democrats would lose dozens of House seats in 2010. In other words, the difference between the left and right in terms of rank pundit ineptitude is similar, as comedian Larry Miller once joked, to the difference between throwing a bullet and shooting one.
And as for witnessing any attempts at said accountability of these conservative pundits from their corresponding employers in the media, forget about it. Seemingly, these right-wing pundits enjoy an existence where one can almost never be fired for egregiously trespassing against things like consistent logic or moral decency. Rather than frog- marched out of newsrooms and TV studios across the country for intellectual negligence and analytical malfeasance, Jennifer Rubin, Dick Morris, and their ilk will merely continue on, snug in their sinecures. It’s something of a sorry, ironic twist that right-wing news analysts, commentators, and pundits can feel safe in knowing that they will rarely, if ever, be judged by their one and only work product—their opinions. Instead, it’s only when they make the mistake of violating one of “objective” journalism’s sins that they are in danger of being subjected to any professional scorn or suffer any hiccups in their career.
Thus, someone like RedState co-founder Ben Domenech gets ushered off the Washington Post’s op-ed page almost as soon as he is hired only because of rampant plagiarism in his past work, not because he had just weeks earlier labeled Civil Rights pioneer Coretta Scott King a “communist” in a blog post about her death. It’s also why Eric Erickson, RedState’s current editor-in-chief and Domenech’s kindred spirit in extreme, right- wing invective, still retains his comfortable roost as CNN pundit despite his having once Tweeted that Supreme Court Justice David Souter routinely engaged in pederasty and bestiality. Because, obviously, that kind of insight isn’t nearly as corrosive to CNN’s already sagging journalism brand as him stealing someone else’s sentences.
Recently, author Rick Perlstein dug into the conservative mindset that serves as foundation for and audience to these pundits in a long, insightful essay in The Baffler titled “The Long Con.” In it, he finds a link between the right-wing media’s estranged relationship with the reality and the constant barrage of fraudulent, get-rich-quick schemes and chimerical miracle cures that saturate right-wing media advertising.
This stuff is as important to understanding the conservative ascendancy as are the internecine organizational and ideological struggles that make up its official history—if not, indeed, more so. The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.
These conservative pundits lack even the one redeeming quality of real “money” con-artists, however, since the latter at least respect their marks enough to pack up and leave town once their grift is exposed as a lie. Conservative pundits, as the last few weeks have yet again shown, possess no similar decency. Indeed, the propensity with which they’ve shrugged off defeat and lapsed right back into spouting the same old talking points, veiled racist remarks, and conspiracy theories is akin to boldly soliciting deposits for the next voyage of the Titanic even as the icy waters of the Atlantic rise past the passenger’s ankles.
And why shouldn’t they? They know that even if they were somehow forced to leave the cozy confines of a mainstream media outlet like a Washington Post or a CNN, there’s always a lifeboat waiting for them at a Fox News or a conservative thinktank. (For example, young Domenech, after his fall from grace, could soon be found writing columns for the conservative, Moonie-owned Washington Times and was subsequently hired as an editor for the climate denialist Heartland Institute.)
That right-wing media elites choose to hermetically seal themselves off in their own alternate reality isn’t a victimless crime for our society, however. Over time, this disconnect poisons our discourse and affects even supposedly straightforward news coverage, as objective journalists struggle to position their reporting exactly in the middle of the ideological spectrum. (It’s also why, as I argued here just before the election, many in the mainstream media were likewise blind to Obama’s impending victory as well as his healthy margin.)
On the eve of the election, Jon Stewart produced a bit on The Daily Show that, as usual, struck at the heart of the conservative media’s disingenuousness more honestly than almost any media critic could (or would). In it, he parsed—what else?—a Fox News clip of none other than Dick Morris saying he and other conservative pundits would face a “big reckoning” if their bold election predictions proved to be as astoundingly wrong as they turned out to be. Stewart, of course, flayed the notion that someone like Morris will ever have to feel real consequences for the editorial malpractice that he and his ideological helpmates inflict on the public.
STEWART: No. You won't and they won't. Nobody will. Because you're pundits. You live in a reckoning free zone. One thing we learned is that punditry is like musical chairs. The only difference is, in punditry, when the music stops, nobody ever loses their f**king chair. They just keep adding more chairs.
And speaking of “adding more chairs,” it’s worth noting that, this week, Cox Media Group just announced it will be launching a new conservative website. Touting its editorial focus as “independent, anti-propaganda and rooted in the South,” the new entity’s job description for editor-in-chief seeks someone with an “established personal brand” that can “establish a strong ideological narrative and lead the editorial team to find stories that mirror or magnify it.” Seems like they’ve already got a firm handle on what conservative punditry is all about these days. Who could ask for anything more?
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m doing the Twitter thing now—(at) reedfrich.
New York, NY
Remember “Move’On.Org’s “Betrayus” b/s? Anyway Mike Barnicle had a very good observation: there is a disconnect between the “brass” who have been idolized and the soldiers risking their lives at great personal sacrifice. I think we have to put some blame on the media who can’t resist the reality show aspect and the hero worship Further you cannot underestimate the deterioration of actual news coverage, in favor of “punditry” etc. No doubt cost is a factor [to have camera crews and reporters on the ground in the war zones actually covering events has to cost more than 5 bozos in a room drinking coffee]. The day to day coverage is not as entertaining; “ratings, ratings, ratings.” Yet this on-the-ground coverage educated Americans about Vietnam enough to end that war. The real tragedy of the Petraeus affair is that the war, the countries involved, the lives of the soldiers, is wholly ignored.
Henry St. Maurice
In your article on generals with aspirations toward the presidency, you omitted Wesley Clark. See Matt Taibbi’s 2003 Nation article.
Reed replies: Mea Culpa, Henry. Can’t believe I forgot about Clark, who, as Taibbi found out, was a dreadful candidate. But mostly I’m mad I left him out because he too demonstrated some of the same willingness that Petraeus shows in dismissing/ignoring most everyone else’s judgment—including his chain of command and civilian bosses. Even in defense of Clark’s arrogant behavior back in 2003, Fred Kaplan at Slate offered up this fairly damning explanation of why he was unceremoniously removed from his job at SACEUR in 1999:
The reasons for his dismissal seem clear: Clark had pushed a [Kosovo] policy that [Defense Secretary William] Cohen and the chiefs had opposed (and, even after the war, continued to oppose); he went around them in his advocacy; he was too close, for the chiefs' taste, to Clinton (in signing Clark's release papers, Clinton was led to believe the move was a normal succession, not a dismissal); and, toward the end of the war, he pushed for a ground-invasion option that none of the Pentagon's top officials supported in the slightest.
I agree that, for the most part, stripped of Morrison's histrionics, the Doors, live, were only a little Krieger- or Manzarek-virtuosity removed from a greatest-hits band. One exception--a show at the Fillmore East, in April 1968, included a short film that accompanied the performance of Unknown Soldier. The powerful effect afforded a brief glimpse of what they might have been like if Morrison had put his passion to other than self-indulgent purposes. Perhaps the Hollywood Bowl show was equally transcendent.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is Tax Cuts: The Faith and the Facts.
My Nation column is Rupert Murdoch and the 'Jewish Owned Press.'
A few words about “Skyfall”
Things that are too stupid about “Skyfall” to accept, though it does not make it impossible to enjoy the movie:
1) It is based on a total absurdity: No intelligence would ever (or even could) compile such a list.
2) There is never any explanation given for the existence of said list.
3) When Bond “dies” in the beginning and then ends up on that beach, well, what? How did that happen? Again, no explanation.
I don't mind absurdities within the movies. I do mind a) the plot being based on one and b) them not bothering to try to explain them.
Things that are silly but okay, because this is Bond: Everybody in the movie has hundreds of chances to kill everybody else. They prefer to describe how they are about to kill them instead. That's standard fare in all bad guy movies.
Letter to the editor of the New Yorker, which I hate to do, because I’m a professional writer and so it’s blockhead-ish of me to write anything for free, and what’s more, it wasn’t printed:
Alex Ross's fine meditation on the history of gay political liberation, but when he writes "In the nineties, talk of gay marriage sounded kooky and futuristic, like something out of a left-wing version of “The Jetsons." he should be aware of the actual left-wing version of the Jetsons and it was released, coincidentally, in 1990. I speak of the much under-rated, "Jetsons: the Movie," in which George and his family switch sides in the the battle over intergalactic capitalistic exploitation and join a group of revolutionary "Grungees" who have been forced to work under Foxconn-like conditions in their fight against the evil Spacely Sprocket corporation, for whom, all Jetsons fans, will recall, George labored. The Grungees win their fight and instead of returning to manufacturing sprockets under unsafe conditions, engineer a recycling solution which is embraced by the newly enlightened Mr. Spacely and George and his family bid their fellow revolutionaries--now in the charge of the means of production—a fond farewell. A fairy tale, I know, but you can look it up.
New York, New York
Altercation Gift Giving Guide, Part II: Hitchcock “masterpieces” on Blu-ray, the complete Beatles on vinyl, the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Charles Mingus, circa 1964-65, and some other stuff.
The Beatles on vinyl: Everyone with a turntable, disposable income (or generous friends and relatives) and any taste whatever will NEED a complete set of the Beatles albums, just out in time to empty someone’s bank account. The set is beautifully (albeit quite heavily) packaged and contains:
Please Please Me
With The Beatles
A Hard Day's Night
Beatles For Sale
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Magical Mystery Tour
The Beatles (The White Album) (2LP)
Let It Be
Past Masters (2LP).
All manufactured on 180-gram, audiophile quality vinyl with replicated artwork, including the posters from The White Album and the cutouts from Sgt. Pepper. You also get a really class 252-page 12-by-12 hardbound book with a chapter dedicated to each album and lots of new (old) photos.
Like the CDs, the albums track the 12 original UK releases, plus Magical Mystery Tour, and Past Masters, Volumes One & Two, which collects everything else that was officially released but would otherwise be missing. I’ve been reading about complicated it was to do these transfers from the masters and make them sound as pristine (and punchy) as they do. It was quite a job and too complicated for me to explain it here (if in fact I even understood it) but you should read up on it—and you can do so here, and then be glad that everybody at EMI realized how important it was to human civilization to get this right. In fact, it inspired me to propose teaching a seminar on the impact of the Beatles on American culture next year, but they haven’t gotten back to me on that yet. Anyway, run, don’t walk….
Oh and while we’re on this um, fab topic, I’m happy to be able to recommend a new book by a man with the interesting name of Andrew Grant Jackson and it’s called Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers. Many of us were traumatized by the breakup of the Beatles and you would not believe how often it keeps coming up in my class on the culture and politics of the seventies. The fellow is pretty smart and the book is wonderfully well researched but arguable on many points. And the material, which critically reviews. (An aside: Amazingly, John Lennon was the worst seller of the Beatles in the seventies including Ringo and despite putting out one masterpiece and one album that has the worst song in history—with two possible exceptions from Mr. McCartney.) But anyway, many of the songs are great. There are about, I’d say at least four really good Beatles albums packed into the 1970s stuff alone (through “Band on the Run.”) And with the Beatles having been covered to death, this is really new territory, at least for me. Check out what I mean, here.)
The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization
I was unfamiliar with the Posen Library, but together with Yale University Press, they have undertaken a project of enormous ambition and terrific importance: an entire library of Jewish Culture and Civilization in the form of a ten volume anthology of (what the editors believe to be) the most important literary works produced primarily by Jews from the Biblical period through the end of 2005. Overseen by James E. Young, and a board that included (Robert Alter, Yehuda Bauer, Menachem Brinker, Rachel Elior, Paula Hyman, Jonathan Sarna, Anita Shapira, A.B. Yehoshua), 120 scholars contributed to the collection primary sources, documents, texts, and visual images. So far, all we have is volume ten, which is the last one. I have to say, I have enormous differences with the editors over some of the choices. But that is as it should be. After all, what are Jews without arguments. Still, I’m grateful for the resource and look forward to the coming volumes (though they tell me that the one I really need for my forthcoming (one day) book on postwar American Jewish culture, volume 9, won’t be published until after volume 8, the interwar years. Allegedly all ten volumes will be available by 2015, which feels awfully ambitious, but hey, that’s great news if true. Each volume is about a thousand pages and each, also true to the culture and spirit of the project, raises far more questions than it answers. For instance as the project’s editor, James E. Young explains in an introductory essay:
What is Jewish art, or photography, or architecture? What makes Barnett Newman, or Philip Guston, or Mark Rothko Jewish artists? Do Newman’s meditations on martyrdom constitute “Jewishness” in his work? Do Guston’s reflections on identity and catastrophe make him a “Jewish artist”?
Is Rothko’s iconoclastic insistence on the abstract color field after the Holocaust a gesture toward the second commandment prohibition of images, and if so, does that give him a Jewish sensibility? And what about other art forms? Is William Klein a Jewish photographer? Or Weegee (née Arthur Feelig), or Robert Capa (née Andreas Friedmann), or Brassai (née Gyula Halasz)? Aside from its cheekiness, what are we to make of William Klein’s mischievous remark that “. . . there are two kinds of photography— Jewish photography and goyish photography”?
And architecture. Is there such a thing as “Jewish” architecture? The current generation of Jewish architects is certainly legend (think of Frank Gehry, nee Frank Owen Goldberg, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Santiago Calatrava, James Ingo Freed, Moshe Safdie, and A.M. Stern, to name but a few of the most prominent). But what are we to make of Gehry’s suggestion that the undulating steel forms for which he is so famous are inspired by the live carp his grandmother kept in a bathtub before turning it into gefilte fish?
Read volume 10 of the Posen Library and decide for yourselves. More here.
Yale has issued a companion book with the Posen volume. It’s a little book called Jews and Words by the great Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, a professor of literature, and they talk about pretty much everything, since I mean, they’re Jews and the topic lends itself to that. Hard to resist if you like the title. I carry it around and read little bits at a time, since it’s a nice size for that but you can read the whole thing if you like.
And speaking of Jews, and we are almost always doing that here, I strongly recommend the new play by Nathan Englander at the Public Theater called “The 27 th Man.” The idea to turn this old story by Englander into a play was Nora Ephron’s and it has been beautifully realized by the Public’s production: The plot is this: 27 writers are rounded up and imprisoned in Stalinist Russia. 26 of these writers are great intellectuals with minds and public reputations to be reckoned with. The 27th writer, Pinchas Pelovits, is a clerical slip: he’s an unpublished writer, a mere enthusiast of books.
However, as the published writers face down their impending executions by bickering over their respective achievements, Pinchas is hard at work writing a story that floors them all. Pinchas’s story ends with the question “Which one of us is to say the prayer [for the dead]?” It stars Ron Rifkin, among others and is both deeply moving and simultaneously thought provoking. More here.
And for jazz enthusiasts, my big discovery this week is a seven CD collection from Mosaic of a series of previous unreleased concerts from Charles Mingus done in 1964 and 1965. Called The Jazz Workshop Concerts, 1964-65.
Nobody packages their box sets with more useful information about their contents than the folks at Mosaic, who were doing this kind of thing decades before major labels realized what they had. And after contacting Sue Mingus following a remastered 1964 Town Hall concert, they discovered these shows in the archives as well. Mingus would have been 90 this year and so the scouring was particularly energetic, and what a find these shows are. Of the seven discs in the collection, only one of them has even been available on an authorized CD and much of it has never been on cd at all. The band is stellar: Eric Dolphy, Charles McPherson, Jaki Byard, Johnny Coles, Clifford
Jordan, Dannie Richmond. The repertoire includes some Mingus’ best known compositions, along with three never-before-issued songs recorded at time when Mingus had left the world of major labels and was both at the top of his form, but still undertaking radical experiments. Among the highlights are a previously Unreleased "Sophisticated Lady," a 20-minute version of "Peggy's Blue Skylight," and an incomplete performance of his Charlie Parker tribute "Parkeriana" before the tape ran out. I could go on and on about this but the fact is either you’re hooked or your not. And if you are, you’ll be spending a lot of time reading up on the recordings as you listen, I’m
guessing. It’s a limited run of just 7500 copies and again, the packaging, notes, photos,
etc are all you’d expect from Mosaic. Read all about it here.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection
I was watching The Man Who Knew Too Much on Blu-ray and the murder scene in the classical music hall, struck me as the obvious inspiration for the final scene inGodfather III with the murder in the opera house—right down to the opening of the wrong doors in the boxes up top. Watching Hitchcock on lovingly restored bluray in the Masterpiece Collection of fifteen films, one sees all kinds of things one missed the first time around. (Well, I like the restorations. There have been complaints about some of the transfers, though I’ve not yet come across any problems.)
One can argue with the choice of the fifteen. I certainly do. Some of these films are not “masterpieces” by any stretch of anyone’s imagination and quite a few that are, are not here. But without exception, each film is done justice and the box itself is a handsome (and in some respects) beautiful thing. It comes with 13 films previously unavailable on Blu-ray, a 50-page book featuring storyboards, costume sketches, correspondence, photographs, and more. There are also more than 15 hours of documentaries, filmmaker commentaries, interviews, screen tests, trailers and a new documentary about “The Birds, I’ve been watching them after watching the films. There is a certain sameness to them as many feature the same interviewees in the same places. (Hitchcock’s daughter is particularly prevalent.) The makers did go to all the people they could find who were involved in each of the films and did a decent job of getting the most pressing questions answered. Nobody says anythin nasty about the guy though, which, (if you’ve seen the recent HBO film about Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, will strike you as leaving out a significant part of the story.
The collection demonstrates the artistry of roughly 35 years of film-making that we’ve not seen before or since, along with an occasional clunker. The films here are: Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Marnie, Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy and Family Plot. The degree of mastery of so many aspects of film-making can sometimes be jaw-dropping, whether in technical terms—Rear Window is a standout in this category, as are of course, Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, and Northy by Northwest. But the dialogue and the story-telling are also remarkable and refreshing, especially when compared with the kinds of thrillers Hollywood turns out today. This is true in many of the films that are rarely according much respect today. (Take a look at Shadow of a Doubt” if you want to see what I mean.)
The bonus features include:
For Saboteur (1942):
Saboteur: A Closer Look
Storyboards: The Statue of Liberty Sequence
Alfred Hitchcock’s Sketches
For Shadow of a Doubt (1943):
Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film
Production Drawings by Art Director Robert Boyle
For Rope (1948):
For Rear Window (1954):
Rear Window Ethics: An Original Documentary
A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes
Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of The Master
Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock
Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Excerpts
Masters of Cinema
Feature Commentary with John Fawell, author of Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film
Re-Release Trailer Narrated by James Stewart
Blu-ray exclusives: BD Live, Pocket Blu
For The Trouble with Harry (1955):
The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over
For The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956):
The Making of The Man Who Knew Too Much
For Vertigo (1958):
Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece
Partners in Crime: Hitchcock’s Collaborators
Hitchcock / Truffaut Interview Excerpts
Foreign Censorship Ending
The Vertigo Archives
Feature Commentary with Associate Producer Herbert Coleman, Restoration
Team Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, and Other Vertigo Participants
Feature Commentary with Director William Friedkin
100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era
Restoration Theatrical Trailer
BD Live, Pocket Blu (Blu-ray Exclusive)
For North by Northwest (1959)
Feature Commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman
The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style
Cary Grant: A Class Apart
North by Northwest: One for the Ages
Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest
Music-only audio track
Theatrical trailers and TV spot
For Psycho (1960)
The Making of Psycho
In The Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy
Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Excerpts
Newsreel Footage: The Release of Psycho
The Shower Scene: With and Without Music
The Shower Scene: Storyboards by Saul Bass
The Psycho Archives
Posters and Psycho Ads
Feature Commentary with Stephen Rebello (author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho)
For The Birds (1963):
The Birds: Hitchcock’s Monster Movie – New! (Blu-ray Exclusive)
All About The Birds
Tippi Hedren’s Screen Test
Hitchcock-Truffaut Interview Excerpts
The Birds Is Coming (Universal International Newsreel)
Suspense Story: National Press Club Hears Hitchcock (Universal International Newsreel)
100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics
100 Years of Universal: The Lot
BD Live, Pocket Blu (Blu-ray Exclusive)
For Marnie (1964):
The Trouble with Marnie
The Marnie Archives
For Torn Curtain (1966):
Torn Curtain Rising
Scenes Scored by Bernard Herrmann
For Topaz (1969):
Topaz: An Appreciation by Film Historian and Critic Leonard Maltin
Storyboards: The Mendozas
For Frenzy (1972)
The Story of Frenzy
For Family Plot (1976):
Plotting Family Plot
Storyboards: The Chase Scene
It ain’t cheap, but it should last forever.
Ok, that’s enough for today. But I have lots of other (and much cheaper) stuff to recommend, so I will return with Part III tomorrow, in case people want to get their shopping in sooner rather than later. And Reed should be here too.
More in benefit news:
Hot Tuna’s Beacon shows are here this weekend. Alongside Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady the great Barry Mitterhoff will be lots of special guests both Friday and Saturday. (I’m going Friday because Graham Parker and the Rumor are reuniting at the Ethical Culture Society on Saturday.) Proceeds for special tickets purchased for the Hot Tuna Concert on Dec. 1 will go to support local NYC area non-profits including those assisting in storm relief efforts. If you already have your concert ticket, you can contribute $50 or more to receive the poster. (Your total amount contributed is tax deductible)
TICKET PRICING FOR BENEFIT CONCERT
(Includes t-shirt with graphic designed by David Isaacs for this special fundraiser.)
$150.00 or more – Great Orchestra or Loge Seats for the Concert (All but $60 is tax deductible)
$250 or more – Front Orchestra Seats for the Concert (All but $70 is tax deductible)
For this Virtual Benefit, tickets can be purchased only through here.
Also this, which I can’t make because I’ll be on The Nation cruise:
SUZZY & MAGGIE ROCHE - A HOLIDAY-ISH SHOW
with Lucy Wainwright Roche
& Special Guest Julie Gold
A BENEFIT CONCERT for the Church of St Paul & St Andrew
Thursday, December 13, 2012
at the Church of St Paul & St Andrew
263 West 86th St @ West End Ave
New York, NY 10024
The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (SPSA) has been a progressive force on Manhattan's Upper West Side for decades. SPSA houses New York's largest emergency food program, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH), which distributes food for more than a million meals each year; a shelter for homeless women; and Homework Help, an all-volunteer tutoring project for children grades K-12. Through a partnership with Goddard-Riverside Community Center, SPSA helps to provide meals- on-wheels for 400 seniors on the West Side. For ore than twenty years, SPSA has been on the cutting edge of interfaith work, partnering with B'nai Jeshurun (which shares SPSA's building) and Muslim groups including the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood. SPSA has also played a leadership role in challenging the United Methodist denomination to become fully inclusive of our LGBT members.
On the subject of box sets, be sure to pick up Sony's outstanding restoration of Lawrence of Arabia. Two discs of extras, a nice coffee table book and an actual 70mm frame from the film.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Alter-reviews: The Altercation Gift-giving guide, part I.
There’s a lot of great stuff this season, so I’m getting started early. City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, 3-volumes I’m surprised not to have read more of this ambitious three-volume history of New York Jews. Its editorial pedigree is appropriate—not many would argue with the choice of Deborah Dash More as the series editor--and the historians recruited for each volumes strike one as appropriate to each topic. I attended a session of the American Jewish Historical Society conference last Spring in which each explained their ambitions and methods and have been looking forward to sitting down and spending some time with it ever since. (And I will, I swear, but not until it’s too late to recommend it in time for the holidays.) I even tried to design one of my courses around it—but that idea got the kibosh above my paygrade.
Vol. I. is called Haven of Liberty. It’s by Howard Rock and takes us from the landing in New Amsterdam in 1654 up through the end of the Civil War (during which time, by the way, the only anti-Jewish piece of legislation was ever passed in this country.) Given the history of the way Jews were, and could expected to be treated in Europe and the Middle East it’s an amazing story; a fact that gets lost in the fact that the stories that followed it are, in significant respects, even more amazing
Volume II, Emerging Metropolis, was written by Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, pickus up where Rock leaves off and shows us how New York became the Jewish city we know and (if we are halfway decent people) we love as it takes us through the period of the great immigration.
Volume III, Jews in Gotham, by Jeffrey S.Gurock, chronicles the 20th century neighborhood life of New York Jews. Each volume also includes a “visual essay” by art historian Diana Linden which seek to illuminate Jewish culture through portraits, art, and architecture.
You can buy each volume individually or in an aggressively priced box-set which would, you know, make a nice gift. More here.
I am really enjoying all the fun stuff that comes with the deluxe version of the long-lost Stones documentary “Charlie is My Darling.” Shot in Ireland just weeks after the release of (I Can t Get No) Satisfaction, it’s a combination of wonderful behinds the scenes stuff—where the Stones sing the Beatles—and terrific live performances. The Super Deluxe Box Set (no, that’s really what it’s called) includes both DVD and Blu-ray discs (for some reason) plus a director s cut and producer s cut, and all the interviews, a couple of awesome audio CDs, one of which is the film s soundtrack album and the other a compilation of 13 live recordings the band made during the 1965 UK tour. There’s also a 10 inch vinyl record of the live material and a replica poster heralding the September 4, 1965 date they played in Belfast, one of over 200 Limited Edition numbered and enlarged cells randomly inserted from the film. I also really like the 42 page hardcover book heavy on photos, many of which are newly available, and color photos taken by Marc Sharatt, the Stones tour photographer. Finally we get reprints of vintage newspaper and magazine articles from the UK and Irish press covering the show and essays by David Fricke and Glen Hansard. More here.
I’ll admit I was pretty nervous on Election Day. Sure, I care about the country and all but I was most worried about having to wake up every morning and read or listen to some pompous pundit tell me what a wise brave man Mitt Romney (or Paul Ryan, or God forbid, John Bolton…) and then have to point out, for the millionth time, that this was not the case. In fact it was dangerous even to imagine such a thing….
So how did I manage to get through the day, you ask?
Well, thanks to the good folks at Columbia Legacy, Election Day coincided with the release of a bunch of box sets that could not help but put you in a good mood while you waited (though drinking helped too). Among them:
LOUIS ARMSTRONG – The Complete Columbia/Okeh & RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933 10 CD box set features the Hot Five and Hot Seven sides of 1925 through 1928 on ten CD with liner notes by Ricky Riccardi, archivist at the Louis Armstrong House & Museum and author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Late Years (Pantheon, 2011). These have all been released before, twice in box set form regarding the Hot 5s and Hot 7s, but this is state of art, insofar as sound quality of eight-year-old recordings go.
DUKE ELLINGTON – The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958 9 CD box set. Rather like the Grateful Dead (and unlike say, the Rolling Stones) it’s impossible to pick just one period as Ellington’s best. Personally, I favor the Blanton/Webster years, but I could be talked into the mid-fifties as well. This is the beginning of the LP era, and working with Billy Strayhorn, to say nothing of Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Harry Carney and Rosemary Clooney among so many others, Ellington extended the possibilities of American classical music wihout ever losing sight of the importance of the adage that it would mean a thing if it lacked “that swing.” This nine-CD box set includes an essay by the excellent Loren Schoenberg who is Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and we’re grateful for that too. And given the price, well, if you are lacking a significant number of these releases, I’d say now’s the time.
BESSIE SMITH – The Complete Columbia Recordings 10 CD box set. This catalogue was recorded between 1923 and 1933, and includes over 160-plus master takes, with an essay by Ken Romanowski. They were originally released as five double CDs following the enormous success of the Robert Johnson CDs, and if that’s where the blues began, then this is where the blues began again. Overall, this is music to win elections by. More here.
Also, Shout! Factory has a 5-DVD/1 CD Box Set of Mel Brooks stuff that collects all kinds of things that are not Mel Brooks movies. It’s got a 60 page booklet and it’s got photos, program notes, and essays by Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman and Robert Brustein. It’s called The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy and it’s got stuff like:
"Mel Brooks And Dick Cavett Together Again"
"I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History Of Mel Brooks"
"An Audience With...Mel Brooks"
"Excavating The 2000 Year Old Man"
"Mel And His Movies, a New Five-Part Look Back"
Vintage appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show
Episodes of Get Smart, When Things Were Rotten and Mad About You
"In The Beginning: The Caesar Years"
Short Films, Tributes, Rarities and Much More
New Introductions by Mel
CD With Long-Lost Comedy Bits and Songs From Mel’s Movies
Lotta stuff there for a cold night (with a lot to drink…) More here.
As for yours truly, I think I’m going to Kansas City…
Now here’s Reed:
Stars in Our Eyes
by Reed Richardson
Ever since the dawn of our Republic, America has a held a strange, somewhat conflicted fascination with its military leaders. Given that our new nation was forged from a principled rejection of empire building and the excesses of standing armies, it’s not without irony that, after gaining independence we turned around and unanimously elected our foremost general, a professional soldier, as the first national executive. (And let’s be honest, we’d have little hope for the long-term democratic prospects of a country that followed a similar political arc today.)
George Washington, it turns out, was a fortuitous choice. His first two terms further cemented the Constitutional ideal of a plebian presidency and beat back the “royalist” leanings of other Founders, like John Adams, who favored a more aristocratic interpretation of the office. But it’s notable that, by 1828, the nation had essentially worked its way through the roster of potential presidents directly connected to the Revolution and, at that point, we vigorously returned to electing men who had achieved high military rank. In a still highly regionalized, provincial nation, battlefield exploits, as recounted primarily in the media, provided a rare platform from which a candidate could build nationwide support. And so, starting with Major General Andrew Jackson’s election and lasting until General Zachary Taylor’s victory 20 years later, four out of six elections were won by former generals and one—that of James K. Polk—by a former militia colonel.
When they weren’t dying in office, though, these former soldiers proved to be rather hit-or-miss as presidents. Perhaps soured on their track record, the public handed presidential defeats to high-profile generals—Winfield Scott and George McClellan, respectively—in 1852 and 1864. Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, who was lucky enough to run against perhaps the worst U.S. president in history—Andrew Johnson—in 1868, ended up serving eight years, but is generally regarded as barely an improvement over his predecessor. It then, might say something, that in the 136 years hence, only one former general—Dwight Eisenhower—has won the White House, though many—George Custer, Douglas MacArthur, William Westmoreland, Curtis LeMay, Alexander Haig, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell—have had or have been rumored to have had national political ambitions.
This past summer, General David Petraeus’s name was not so subtly added to that list. Sure, this latest rumor was thanks to a blind item on Drudge Report, but there’s been a latent Draft Petraeus for President movement around since 2009. Though the Drudge item was rank speculation, the Beltway media, as it is want to do, expended a lot of energy eagerly dismissing the rumor, which, of course, only fuels the notion within the public that there might be some truth to it. Generals don’t make the cover of Newsweek three separate times, after all, without the media thinking they matter in the national conversation. And since his first tour of duty in Iraq in 2003—as commander of the 101st Airborne Division—Petraeus has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the press, which, up until last week, had essentially anointed him the most brilliant, hyper-competent, and humble soldier of his generation.
As such, the revelation that he had an extramarital affair with his official biographer and his subsequently abrupt resignation as CIA Director holds important lessons on several fronts. For the media, Petraeus’s downfall once again revealed a groupthink culture that is easily charmed and credulous to a fault as long as it gets its emails returned. Indeed, the gnashing of the teeth and rending of the garments by the Beltway media this past week, as curated by FAIR, bordered on religious fervor: “brainy ascetic,” “water walker,” “iconic figure,” “a magician,” “he made us all feel special.” Some in the press were so devout in their belief that they just couldn’t let Petraeus go—Roger Cohen’s mash note of a column begs the general to “get back to work” while lauding the general’s personal demeanor, physique, intellect, and resumé. Curiously, it spends precious little time defending his actual accomplishments, at the CIA or elsewhere.
And that is the tell. Much like the rude awakening conservatives experienced on Election Day, the media was “shellshocked” by Petraeus’s behavior because they, too, had bought into a myth and a narrative rather than try to understand the cold, messy reality of the man. His appeal to the press is easily understandable, though. His supposedly apolitical viewpoint (he reportedly gave up voting for president in 2002), his legendary focus on results, his willingness to forge relationships with presidential administrations from both parties: all of these are the hallmark traits of that long-beloved-by-the-media, but non-existent Washington species— the centrist. That he would succumb to something so pedestrian and venal as a sex scandal was a tragedy in the media’s eyes, in part, because his failure struck a blow against the press corps own institutional worldview.
As is often the case, though, the warning signs have been around for years. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman offers up this mea culpa about buying into the “cult of Petraeus” for years. Defense correspondent Michael Hastings takes an in-depth look underneath Petraeus’s well-constructed veneer and, though I feel like he takes it a bit too far, finds a striving, ambitious, “bullshit artist.” Agree or not, these cynical viewpoints, up until two weeks ago, would have been given not a single molecule of oxygen in the mainstream media’s atmosphere.
For what it’s worth, I too noted more than two years ago that Petraeus—during an incident strangely forgotten this past week—was capable of displaying shockingly poor judgment and an inappropriate willingness to step “outside his lane” and into the political arena. At the time, I questioned his decision-making as “worrisome” and “incredibly naïve.” But now, I confess, I think I was only half-right. Worrisome? Yes. But naïve? No. There was something else at work here. Just like his willingness to boldly airdrop his assessment of the Iraq war into the middle of the 2004 presidential campaign, just like his unilateral decision to pay off Sunni tribesman, just like his penchant for rosy, Blackhawk-borne VIP tours of Iraq, just like his savvy maneuvering to justify a “surge” in Afghanistan, and, yes, just like his willingness to conduct an illicit personal affair, Petraeus has time and again demonstrated a tremendous capacity for self-satisfying arrogance.
Still, there is no doubt that our modern officer corps is the best trained and educated in not only the world, but in our own country’s history. That today’s four-star general is just as likely to have an Ivy League PhD as a Ranger tab says something about the military’s emphasis on bringing more than just materiel to bear on the battlefield. So, to bemoan arrogance amongst the U.S. military’s flag officers becomes a lot like complaining about the weight of offensive linemen in the NFL. Without it, they probably wouldn’t be where they are in the first place. But what’s supposed to keep that arrogance in check, however, are things like civilian oversight and media scrutiny.
Unfortunately, we’ve reached a unprecedented imbalance in terms of the esteem the public holds these pillars of our society. According to a Gallup poll from this past summer, the public has three times more confidence in our Armed Forces than it does the media. The presidency and Supreme Court are trusted by barely more than one in three, and confidence level in Congress is mired in the teens. And it’s not just on the topic of trust, but on familiarity that we find this growing civil-military gap. Two generations ago, three out of four members in Congress were veterans; in this past Congress, the ratio was down to one in five. In the recent presidential election, neither party had a veteran on the ticket—the first time that’s happened since 1932.
The effect of all this has been to slowly but surely cede more and more of our political discourse to the military. A media increasingly fearful of treading on the military’s esteemed image naturally becomes more susceptible to uncritically parroting a general’s viewpoint as to what’s “best for the troops.” By the same token, politicians and civilian appointees who don’t fully embrace their Constitutional authority allow themselves to be more easily co-opted by a military that doesn’t share the burden of governing. (The fact that presidential candidate Obama clearly gained more politically from this noted 2008 campaign photo op than did his future subordinate Petraeus speaks volumes.)
We should take advantage of this moment, then, to recognize that Petraeus’s fall from grace has exposed the greater risk we now face thanks to our polity’s collective decision to lean heavily upon the military for not just our national defense but our overall foreign policy. What does this look like? Robert Wright, writing a bracingly honest, critical assessment, explains the alarming direction Petraeus’s CIA was and still is heading:
When, in the fall of 2011, David Petraeus moved from commanding the Afghanistan war effort to commanding the CIA, it was a disturbingly natural transition. I say "natural" because the CIA conducts drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and is involved in other military operations there, so Petraeus, in his new role, was continuing to fight the Afghanistan war. I say "disturbingly" because this overlap of Pentagon and CIA missions is the result of a creeping militarization of the CIA that may be undermining America's national security.
This is the true lesson we should learn from David Petraeus—that for our democracy to imbue our all-too-human military leaders with the mantle of invincibility and air of infallibility is unfair to both them and us. We, as a nation, can no more afford to be blinded by stars on epaulets today than we could afford to be bound by the British yoke 236 years ago. Perhaps there’s a reason why no generals bother to run for president anymore; in a country that increasingly echoes the military’s messaging and emulates its policy prescriptions, they needn’t bother.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Henry St. Maurice
Stevens Point, Wisc.
Am I the only one who noticed a resemblance between Rove on Fox and Robert Shaw's Lonergan character in The Sting? Someone who thought he had a game fixed was beaten by someone who had outfoxed him.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Really good column this week.
I just read Andrew Gelman's "Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State." So it may be informing my thinking more than is reasonable. The main thing I got from the book is that the poor vote for the Democrats and this is even more true in the red states than the blue states.
This has me thinking that the stunning success of the Republicans at making inequality skyrocket, has made these economic demographics very bad for them. As the rich get richer mostly at the expense of everyone else, the pool of poor people grows.
I write about it in a bit of detail here, mostly by complaining about Matt Taibbi:
Somewhere recently, I saw the numbers for the people who did NOT vote.
They were something like Obama winning 60%-30%. If Democrats could get the poor to vote in large numbers, Utah might turn blue.
Well, Mississippi anyway.
Jeremy Scahill writes, a paramilitary CIA is David Petraeus's legacy.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My Think Again column is called “Our Trivial Political Media, Continued…” and it’s here
I’ve been very lucky in the live shows I’ve seen lately.
Last night… Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters and John Mayer, Robin Williams, Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais, Patton Oswalt, Max Weinberg (and band) and Mike Birbiglia paid tribute to wounded warriors care of the Bob Woodruff foundation and the New York Comedy Festival. Bruce, you’ll be happy to know, was quite sweet. He played solo—I guess he didn’t have time to rehearse with Max because he’s been kinda busy travelling of late—except for one (beautiful) song with Patti. He also told one bad joke and one terrible joke. Here was his set:
We Take Care of our Own
Bad joke about a dick injury and a wedding night
Working on the Highway
Tougher than the Rest (with Patti)
Another bad joke, but not a dirty one
Hope and Dreams
Auctions off the guitar and harmonica for and a personal tour of the backstage for $110K
He followed John Mayer playing “The Long and Winding Road” which was pretty interesting and a really moving—shockingly, it must be said—set by Roger Waters who, together with G.E. Smith, (whom we like and admire, but will never forgive for agreeing to be Mitt Romney’s band leader), pulled together a band from the folk at Walter Reade hospital and they did an incredible version of “Wish You Were Here.” They also did a nice “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and a song from Levon Helm’s wonderful “Dirt Farmer” album, which replaced a Pink Floyd song we never heard, but was pretty great nevertheless. Because the audience was also filled with wounded warriors, the whole thing brought tears to lotta eyes.
The rest of the evening was all comedy. Jon Stewart was just fine and extremely respectful of the soldiers. Robin Williams was just terrific. Absolutely horrible, I am sorry to have to report, was Ricky Gervais. He was horrible last year when he did a bunch of old material from his HBO special, the balance of which was mocking overweight people (in a Republican science-denying fashion) and making fun of gay, anti-AIDS sex advice, (well, ok, but still). It was ten times as unfunny when he did the exact same material as before. I don’t have any obese people in my life but I still think it’s terrible that they are the only people whom it is socially acceptable to attack for who and what they are. Gervais insists that all of them suffer from a lack of will-power. HE is a socially regressive and ignorant jerk.
Though, it must be added that the audience loved it. And I’m glad the soldiers had a good time. And they did. So thanks to the Woodruff Foundation and the NY Comedy Festival for raising the money to help these guys out and doing it in such a fun and moving way.
The weekend before the hurricane, I was in a really great place: seeing each of Jazz@Lincoln Center’s two night tribute to the great John Coltrane. The first night, at the beautiful Allen Room, featured one of their short, intimate concerts by an incredible band led by the majestic McCoy Tyner with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette did up “The Gentle Side of John Coltrane,” and it was indeed a beautiful thing. The following night the big band put together a much more elaborate show of Coltrane tunes with new arrangements by members of the orchestra including Wynton Marsalis and Victor Goines, together with some pretty fancy soloing by guest Josh Redman, among others. It’s hard to find a body of work that has weathered the decades better than Coltrane’s but the combination of seeing McCoy et al, playing some of the originals as he did in the first place and reimagined versions of songs that were themselves reimagined in the first place—the highlight for yours truly being “My Favorite Things.” In any case, it’s a pretty good argument for what Jazz@LC does.
Also before the hurricane I saw a really nice show by Jane Monheit with fiddle genius Mark O’Connor at the 92nd Street Y. It was her birthday and she radiated a kind of warmth for her audience (and band, led by her husband Rick Montalbano Jr. on drums) that is impossible to fake. Monheit has released eight studio albums and one live disc since 2000 and she runs the gamut from classics to Brazilian numbers sung in Portuguese . Among the highlights was a powerful version of “Over the Rainbow” and, believe it or not, an exquisite version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which she sang because, hell, it was her birthday and she had no Christmas gigs this year.
Next I was extremely happy to be a Blue Note, which had been underwater and closed for its longest period in its history, for a one five nights of shows done by the Chick Corea/Stanley Clarke group with Ravi Coltrane (sax), Marcus Gilmore (drums) and Charles Altura (guitar). You never know exactly what you are going to get with Chick. I have seen him do some of the worst shows in my life—I’m thinking of the band he put together in tribute to L. Ron Hubbard—and some of the most inspiring. I don’t think there is anyone in jazz—perhaps ever—who has mastered so many different kinds of music and proven himself a pioneer in so many as well. I was one of those people who was originally drawn to jazz via the “fusion” sound of the chick/Stanley/Al D/Lenny White version of RTF. Chick’s journeys have therefore been my journeys, whether moving backwards or forwards. (He was part of the amazing band Miles put together for Bitches’ Brew.)
At the Blue Note last he was the leader of an old fashioned jazz band. They played some Charlie Parker, some Joe Henderson, some Chick and Stanley originals, and did it by the book. It was marvelous. Though they hadn’t played together that long, the members listened to one another and built off eachother’s riffs. Chick, who looks to have lost 20/30 pounds, was in great humor and it was sweetness itself when the Mrs., Gayle Moran (Corea) came on for an encore from Crystal Silence. This kind of show at a place like the Blue Note just a few days after a hurricane is one of the many (many) reasons life, particularly life in New York, that make it worth getting through the day.
It’s still a little early for me to begin the annual box set/gift-giving guide. It’s been an incredible year for it so far whether with bluray collections, cd box sets, vinyl collections, etc. It’s also been a good year for gift books. I am in the process of doing all that hard work for you, watching, listening, reading, etc. But in the meantime, I want to strongly recommend the new cds by Neil Young, (“Psychadelic Pill”) and the guitar phenom, Gary Clark Jr., (“Blak and Blu”). Neil’s set with Crazy Horse is not exactly inspired, but it is generous and solid and deeply ingratiating. It’s his best in a long time. (Just don’t listen to it as an MP3 or that will really piss Neil off.) Clark is sort of Hendrix-like in that he as a virtuoso at the same time he writes tough-minded hooks and melodies you thought you already knew. I plan to go back to his earlier, smaller-label stuff as well.
And if you’re my age, you’ll probably enjoy the newly repackaged version of Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.” It comes with a lot of fancy mixes on a CD and DVD but also that wonderful old newspaper in much more readable form and lots of essays and photos in a nice hardback book package.
Brand Old Party: Conservative Media Fails, Decides to Shoot the “Messaging”
by Reed Richardson
A few days removed, it’s now something of an understatement to say that the 2012 election results offered plenty of bad news for conservatives. But it wasn’t just the many Republican names and causes listed on ballots across the country that had a bad night. Indeed, Tuesday’s reckoning might have saved its harshest judgment for another rarefied, right-wing constituency—the conservative media.
Certainly, this cohort’s predictions were proven to be as lacking in foresight as they were unanimous in their forecast. Some, like GOP charlatan Dick Morris, finally slunk back into the spotlight to eat their well-deserved serving of crow. Others, like Wall Street Journalcolumnist Peggy Noonan, who based her rosy Romney outlook on ridiculous intangibles like “vibrations” and “passion,” have basically gone to ground. Of course, an overwhelming amount of polling data and statistical analyses had basically foretold the Obama victory (right down to the exact Electoral College count), so much so that Tuesday night unfolded with but a few (pleasant) surprises for us liberals.
Now, whether these conservative pundits actually believed their own bullshit or whether they were just savvy enough to recognize there’s little room for competing narratives in a one-track mind, the effect was still the same. Starting even before Obama’s election in 2008, the right-wing media incubated an alternative universe—and eventually a political movement, the Tea Party—that sustained itself by eschewing facts for fiction. Stay for too long on this chimerical path, however, and one day you’re bound to collide with reality head-on. Or, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes about Tuesday’s electoral trainwreck, which the conservative media never saw coming:
On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while The New York Times got it right. Hint: The Times hired the most rigorous forecaster it could find.
For his part, Friedersdorf concludes with a less than sanguine expectation about the conservative media’s capability for self-reflection. And as if right on cue, from the fetid fever swamps of Fox News we see that “the mainstream media tipped the scales in favor of Obama.” So, naturally, the press would be able to predict a victory they helped engineer, I guess. But this tired rehash of the old “liberal bias” canard falls apart under the scrutiny of this recent Pew survey, which found that, when horserace coverage was removed, the Obama and Romney campaigns received nearly identical amounts of positive and negative press coverage over the last two months of the general election.
So, how did things go so spectacularly wrong for conservatives? Why did the poorest Americans, unmarried women, and young voters, who are suffering the most in this white-knuckle recovery, still turn out in droves for Obama? Why did the increasingly powerful bloc of Hispanic voters flee Romney to the tune of more than 40 percentage points? Why did a solid majority of the middle-class think the president better understood their problems?
Well, the chafing dishes at Romney Victory headquarters had barely gone cold before you began to sense the conservative media coalescing around a possible answer to these difficult demographic dilemmas. Was it more mainstream views on reproductive rights? Nope. How about less xenophobic policies regarding immigration? Hardly. Maybe stop trying to dismantle our nation’s social compact at every turn? Dream on. Instead, all that conservatives really need to succeed in the next election, according to the conservative media, is some re-branding.
To be fair, the Republican Party brand is indeed damaged goods and has been for more than a decade. But to hear someone like the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin tell it, changing the policies takes a backseat to changing the presentation. Rubin, who really and truly has no intellectual honesty whatsoever, has been spending the post-election period both trying to airbrush over her prolific fealty to the Romney campaign while simultaneously pushing this re-branding message:
In the future, Republicans will have to find a way to appeal to the non-married, nonwhite, non-religious parts of the electorate. They must find a messenger or a message that is more than a standard conservative laundry list. They must figure out how conservatism can be presented as more than an abstract theory of the free market and as a compelling approach to addressing complicated problems.
Is there a “compelling” way to say, “more war, less healthcare, increased taxes for the rich, decreased job security?” I’m not so sure.
Over at The Corner there was a similar fixation with marketing and messaging, as much of the site’s post-election soul-searching read like the minutes of an advertising agency’s brainstorming session. (Warning, some of the deluded understatements below might snap your head back):
Charles Donovan: Still [the GOP young guns] have a challenge—to keep their message consistent, avoid talk of truces on the issues, learn how to speak to and represent women, especially single women, rethink the foreign-policy rhetoric that implies the next war is just around the corner, and reach an accommodation on immigration that welcomes new people to our shores while maintaining social order.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: He’s a good man and would have been a good president, but in the 47 percent moment, Mitt Romney did not articulate what you might have hoped. He did succeed at times, but it wasn’t the heart of the campaign, not in any obvious and consistent way. Not in the way we heard about Friday Night Light and theChallenger flag in the governor’s stump speech. Paul Ryan gave a fantastic speech on poverty, but it was at the end of the campaign.
Mona Charen: For now, before drawing larger conclusions, I think the roots of yesterday’s loss are to be found in a few places: […] as I’ve been arguing for many years—the Republican party’s unfortunate tone regarding immigration which gave Hispanic voters the sense that we are hostile.
To be fair, there were a few legitimate attempts by Cornerites to come to grips with the demographic reality confronting the Republican Party and how its ideology has alienated vast swathes of the electorate. In what passes for, at least these days, a healthy dose of conservative candor, Heather Mac Donald had the temerity to say what should be obvious—that Hispanic voters reject Republicans in the voting booth because they dislike the party’spolicies. But hers was the exception to the rule.
Indeed, one can still hear the echoes of the November 5th mindset in this post-electionback-and-forth between The Corner’s Lopez and conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. It’s as instructive about the blinkered, stubborn nature of right-wing conventional wisdom as it is unintentionally hilarious:
KJL: Was the case against Barack Obama not strong enough?
HEWITT: The case against the president’s reelection is airtight, but just enough of the electorate voted for the hope that he could do better with experience.
“Airtight,” huh? (Mental note: Never ride out a hurricane in a storm shelter built by Hugh Hewitt.) Then again, maybe Hewitt meant for his comments on Wednesday to be taken literally, since it is technically correct to say that Obama can’t be reelected a second time, because of, you know, the 22nd Amendment. But I digress…
KJL: What message should this send to Republicans?
HEWITT: From Sesame Street: “Practice, practice, do it again. Over and over, till you get it.” The GOP has caught up on the technology front but not messaging. Its candidates need to be much more disciplined about ideas and their delivery. Mitt Romney was badly hurt by down-ticket races and controversies taking the focus off the message of freedom and faith.
Those vaguely intoned “down-ticket races and controversies” of which Hewitt speaks are no real mystery, of course. Over at the American Spectator, Robert Stacy McCain was bemoaning the electoral wounds self-inflicted upon the GOP by extreme right-wing Senate candidates Todd “legitimate rape” Akin and Richard “rape is a gift from God” Mourdock. On Tuesday, both men lost what were expected to be easy Republican pick-ups thanks to blowback from what McCain blithely calls their “ill-considered remarks.” His recommendation—massage the message so voters won’t know the truth:
Perhaps pro-life groups should sponsor a training session for political candidates, teaching them how to answer "gotcha" questions without either ceding anything to the abortion lobby or offending voters with off-the-cuff comments about rape.
As you can see from the transcripts though, in both the case of Akin and Mourdock—and contra McCain—there was no loaded, “gotcha” question. The pair’s shockingly ill-informed and condescending answers arose organically from run-of-the-mill exchanges during scheduled campaign interviews. More importantly, neither Akin nor Mourdock thought they’d said anything remotely controversial at the time. And that telling disconnect is what McCain and his ilk still can’t get their heads around—that the public’s outrage over their rape comments was never merely a superficial objection to the language they used to discuss their beliefs, it was a deeper rejection of the extreme nature of the beliefs themselves.
Good old Fred Barnes, over at The Weekly Standard, was trotting out the same “Ixnay on the aperay, you guys!” advice even before the last votes of the election had been counted. In the wee small hours of Wednesday morning, he was already chastising the GOP and blaming, in part, Akin and Mourdock as “Tea Party types who can’t talk about abortion sensibly.” Sensibly, in this context, apparently meaning in a way that obscures the fact that the Republican Party’s national campaign platform, which bans abortions even for rape victims, would offer up the same reproductive policy prescriptions as the likes of Akin and Mourdock.
Of course, there is a rich irony in all this after-the-fact tut-tutting over the Republican candidates’ mixed or missed “messaging.” That’s because the all these poisonous narratives that the conservative media now recognizes as having failed can be traced directly back to the very same conservative media. For the past four-plus years, nearly every conservative pundit, Tea Party activist, and Republican pol in this country has marinated in a toxic, right-wing media stew of mythical conspiracies, unfounded injustices, and barely disguised racial resentment.
By the time the GOP presidential primary rolled around last fall, the field of potential candidates were so saturated with invective toward the Obama administration that the only way to distinguish oneself was to run even further toward the extreme right. Hence, a formerly moderate, pro-choice Republican governor that had pioneered a model for universal healthcare surmised that, to win his party’s nomination, he had to become an almost unrecognizable, “severely conservative” candidate who talked about “personhood amendments,” “self-
Romney’s final evolution from moderate to reactionary came in mid-September, when he tromped all over the bounds of decency in order to score a cheap political point by mischaracterizing Obama’s handling of the unrest in Libya before knowing that four embassy officials had been killed there. As this Washington Post election autopsy from earlier this week reveals, even Romney understood that he had gone too far.
“We screwed up, guys,” Romney told aides on a conference call that morning, according to multiple people on the call. “This is not good.”
His advisers told him that, if he took back his statement, the neoconservative wing of the party would “take his head off.” He stood by it during an appearance in Florida. Two days later, Obama traveled to Joint Base Andrews to meet the four flag-draped coffins.
That the conservative media went on to vigorously defend what even Romney recognized at the time was a political mistake is symptomatic of their perverse ability for reflexive groupthink. (Also telling, that Romney is someone so craven and thirsty for power that he was willing to forego his own personal judgment and principles to basically appease the people who got us into the war in Iraq.) This moment, which represented the nadir of the Romney campaign, turned out to have great import not only on the 2012 presidential campaign but on its aftermath as well.
Why is this? Because perhaps born out of desperation, the Romney campaign finally decided to flip the script. And coincidentally, this plan, as this New York Times post-mortem uncovered this week, involved using the first presidential debate to completely reorient the campaign’s messaging to sound less conservative:
There was, advisers decided, one last opportunity on the horizon: the presidential debate in Denver. […]
Mr. Romney began testing out one-liners on friends flying with him on his campaign plane. On issue after issue, Mr. Romney led discussions on how to frame his answers, to move away from the conservative tone of his primary contests in front of the largest audience he would have as a candidate.
That’s why, starting in Denver that night and then over the final month of the campaign, Romney lied, contradicted, and obfuscated. Why he rolled out no new centrist policy proposals, but unveiled plenty of new bipartisan talking points. Why he seemingly agreed with Obama more during the final foreign policy debate than most liberals would have.
In other words, what the conservative media now recommends the next Republican presidential candidate do to win in four years sounds exactly like what the previous Republican presidential candidate did the last four weeks to no avail. The American people saw through this charade. Simply put, shooting the “messaging” is not enough when the conservative message itself is flawed.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Greetings Altercators, Reed here. Eric’s off this week, but here’s his latest Nation column: “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Thirteen Days…and Fifty Years,” which revisits some of the common myths of the incident that readers of his book “When Presidents Lie” will no doubt recognize.
As for me, the past few days in New Jersey weren’t without some drama as well, but I was definitely one of the lucky ones. Many more of us in the Garden State, where following the devastation from Sandy we might temporarily rename ourselves the Generator, Sump Pump and Chainsaw State, didn’t fare so well. Fortunately, we now have a president that actually gives a damn about things like disaster recovery and a governor whose facility for wielding pomposity and self-righteousness like a cudgel might finally have found a worthwhile cause to fight for. And not for nothing, but if the latter’s effusive praise of the former effectively acts as a political shiv to Mitt Romney’s plans after next Tuesday, well then I guess the old saying about every cloud having a silver lining really is true. To be sure, other less-than-pure theories abound about the reasons behind Christie’s very sudden appreciation for Obama’s competence. But in terms of ridiculously wild speculation, I submit that none will surpass The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who believes that, this being Jersey, maybe subconsciously, this all comes back to Bruce.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Election
by Reed Richardson
I don’t profess to know, on my own, what path our country will have chosen come next Wednesday. But as a journalist, I take some comfort in the fact that not knowing something is a professional necessity. The attempt to fill that gap is what propels you forward every day, drives your curiosity, and—in my case recently—keeps you up at night.
By the same token, however a healthy press corps does not begin each day from the stance that it knows nothing. Journalism, more so than perhaps any other pursuit, involves the steady accretion of knowledge, adding to today what one knew yesterday. It’s a never-ending process, in other words. So it is not surprising that one of the common occupational hazards among the media is when it projects precisely this same mindset onto its coverage. And nowhere is this proclivity for process-obsessed journalism more prone to occur than in the context of a political campaign, which steadily marches toward an inevitable, clear-cut conclusion.
The press’s fascination with political scorekeeping is an understandable failure then. It’s not always easy, after all, to churn out something new, day after day, about a candidate’s positions or policies—unless, ahem, they constantly change. But where a candidate stands versus their opponent is an angle that is always sitting there, waiting to be picked up, pored over, and pushed out.
During the Republican primaries, this horserace coverage dominated, with nearly two out of ever three stories focused on “strategy,” as this Pew survey shows. And since shifting to the general election mode this spring, talk of “Who’s-up? Who’s-down?” has only been magnified by the Washington press corps. Each tracking poll update or new swing state survey gets treated as divine revelation, worthy of Tweeting out to the world and parsing for hints of imagined qualitative narratives like “momentum” and “confidence.”
The sad truth is, though, the news value of these incessant horserace snapshots is dubious at best when Election Day is still months or even weeks away. Most of what these polls capture is, in fact, merely noise rather than real signals of changes in voter attitudes. Indeed, over the course of the past six months, voter sentiment has remained quite stable, shifting only occasionally but then regressing back to roughly the same mean it started at in May. There’s a big downside to all this breathless and mostly worthless poll watching, however, it crowds out more substantive comparisons of actual policy differences between candidates in favor of content that is of little informational value to voters.
What’s more, this reliance upon poll data for filling the newshole can exacerbate the press’s worst instincts. Seeking a story with broad, national appeal, the press myopically treats the race for the presidency as a single contest rather a series of 51 separate ones. In the quest to break a new news angle, the media likewise can’t resist the temptation to emphasize strange outlier polls that probably merit the least amount of attention. For example, who can forget Drudge’s infamous “GALLUP SHOCK” post in 2008, that sent the Beltway media chasing its tail for a week talking of a McCain comeback that didn’t exist. Or how about this past week’s Rasmussen poll of Ohio that spawned its predictable share of “Romney Takes Lead in Ohio” stories, even though this was that poll was the first out of the last 27 polls in that state that found Obama trailing. (And that’s not even taking into account Rasmussen’s GOP-leaning “house effect” of one to two percentage points.)
All this presents yet another crucial point—for all its practice, the press really isn’t very good at horserace coverage. On the whole, the establishment media still suffers from rudimentary, linear thinking, often lacks the statistical expertise to truly grasp the numbers behind the polling science, and has been severely outstripped when it comes to understanding how political campaigns persuade and influence voters. As Sasha Issenberg, Slate& columnist and author of “The Victory Lab,” explains in this New York Times post, which really worth reading in its entirety:
But the reality about horse-race journalism is far more embarrassing to the press and ought to be just as disappointing to the readers who consume our reporting. The truth is that we aren’t even that good at covering the horse race. If the 2012 campaign has been any indication, journalists remain unable to keep up with the machinations of modern campaigns, and things are likely only to get worse.
Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”
Issenberg goes on to argue that deep-rooted analytical coverage of campaign strategy and processdoeshave an important role to play in our democracy, as it unveils the coalitions and levers that a political candidate relies upon to win. The press, he argues, remains unequipped if not downright hostile to embracing the techniques necessary to fulfill this mission. And savvy campaigns work to exploit this knowledge gap.
For instance, much has been made in the press these past few weeks about how the GOP has closed the ground game gap. RNC officials are eager to trot out impressive stats about “voter contacts” as a way to display confidence and counter any talk of Obama momentum. Even a recent Pew poll reinforced this idea that Romney has essentially erased any turnout edge held by Obama’s vast field office advantage.
But as Issenberg explains in this insightful Slate article, counting “voter contacts” is a crude, and rather vague metric at best. It, notably, doesn’t reveal much about what the contact is trying to accomplish or who is being targeted. His in-depth reporting here not only demonstrates that the Obama campaign is nearly a generation ahead of the Republicans in its voter persuasion efforts, it deftly reveals how even reporters at prominent publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times can be so thoroughly out of their depth that they writing erroneous, fawning stories like this and this.
Of course, tallying up who’s winning and who’s losing becomes a much more legitimate and compelling story once Election Day approaches, particularly since more than one out of three will have already cast their ballot before next Tuesday. And yet, now that the real news value of who’s winning the race for the presidency has finally arrived, the conventional wisdom from within much of the Beltway media—who for months have tracked and studied the polls—amounts to little more than “nobody knows.”
That the press corps and pundits’ predictive powers have abandoned them at precisely the moment they’d be most valuable to their audience is not only ironic, it’s symbolic of the overall disconnect between the press and the public. What good was all that accumulating and broadcasting of hundreds of polling data points, one might ask, if not to give us a better sense of the state or the race at this climactic moment? But this journalistic timidity, again, is rooted more in a hidebound commitment to remaining neutral than anything else. Within objective journalism, there’s just no professional upside to presenting evidence that supports the case that one candidate is winning, even if there are analytical tools readily available that might show this.
For instance, an engaged voter who seeks out several of the statistical polling aggregators that now exist online might learn that rather than a “toss up,” Obama’s chances of reelection right now actually run anywhere from roughly 80 percent all the way up to (!) 99 percent. Or that, based on an extremely high confidence level of regression analysis, the president’s estimated Electoral Vote tally based on state polling stretches from a solid 281 votes all the way to a blowout level of 332 votes. That both conservative and mainstream media outlets have reacted to these statistical models with some the same vicious and heretical disdain that the Papacy unleashed on Galileo is perhaps not a shock, as these tools upend their authority and democratize what was once its sole purview. If access to candidates—who stubbornly stick to stump speech talking points—and campaign insiders—whose veracity should never be questioned as long as they’re speaking off the record—don’t qualify as the best resources from which to accurately assess the outcome of an election than what, really, is the media adding to the discourse most of the time?
That is the fundamental, and increasingly uncomfortable, dilemma that confronts the Washington press corps as this long campaign winds to a close. But this isn’t something the media seems ready or willing to hear—that the fear of being perceived as choosing sides only ensures that the public will keep turning elsewhere to find evidence of the truth. No matter what happens next Tuesday—whether it’s all the polling data or all the campaign spin to the contrary that ultimately is proven right—the press, by failing to be candid and intellectually honest about this presidential race, will have lost the battle either way.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Gibson, B.C., Canada
Just read your excellent climate silence post in The Nation and thought that you might be interested in an admitted climate alarmist trying to make the case that climate change is an emergency.
What I'm offering is a selection of science articles and commentary on what is a heretical subject because “it is the economy stupid,” especially in these very uncertain global economic times, and this makes climate change action after at least two decades of procrastination very inconvenient indeed— so inconvenient that climate silence reigns.
Since I wrote in July there has been a record Arctic ice cap melt—best article: Arctic Sea Ice: What, Why and What Next' by Ramez Naam, at the Scientific American website. In late August, two new global carbon budget science papers came out basically saying staying under 2 degrees C is now economically impossible: “Development of emissions pathways meeting a range of long-term temperature targets” [PDF] and the latest Anderson-Bows “A New Paradigm for Climate Change” as well as Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” based on this very important but mostly completely ignored global carbon budget science.
In one sentence: 'Why isn't climate-change-as-emergency the main debate given the overwhelming science?' Because it's very, very inconvenient. But climate isn't going away; it's just a matter of time.
Thanks again for your strong voice and best of luck,
My new Think Again column is George McGovern—A Lifetime of Conscience and ourage
And I did a longish article for The Nation called “The Mainstream Media's Trivial Pursuit of Campaign 2012”
Have you seen the video a fan made for Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s “I Don't Believe A Word You Say?”
I was among the fortunate who go to see Crosby Stills and Nash do their entire first album in its entirety—the only time they have ever done so—at the Beacon on Monday night. And what a thing of beauty it was. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was done with just Stephen’s guitar until the “dododododo” part when the full band came in and one got to relive one’s entire life for the past half century or so, depending on how one felt about it (and assuming one’s memory had not been destroyed, which in this crowd…) In any case, I saw the full show on Saturday night and it reinforced my belief that these three guys (and this crack band) have never sounded better. It’s a really strong argument for getting old. They made their own lives impossible when they were at their peak in the early seventies, and had Graham Nash not been one of the most decent men on the planet, who knows, someone might have gotten killed. Now everybody’s all grown up and been through who knows what and so how lucky they feel to be able to make these lovely sounds—and to play some real rock that flows from Stephen’s intense lead guitar—before people who appreciate them and will pay good money—good enough, at least to sell out the Beacon for five straight shows.
The guys are touring in support of the CSN 2012 CD/DVD/Blu-ray they’ve just released so conveniently, you can see if I know what I’m talking about. I can’t imagine anyone who is interested will be disappointed. (And hey, I’ve failed entirely, but perhaps you can teach your children well…)
Also in the Alterman music-to-work-to rotation is Jerry Garcia/Marle Sanders Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings. It’s four cds of relaxed, extended jams on songs that have since become classic but you’ll hear them differently here than anywhere else, even when you hear them more than once. Close your eyes and you’re in club, listening to music the way music should be heard, by people playing for the love of it. The harder dey come….
Oh and yes, Dave’s Picks Vol. 4 appears to be sold out already. I have it on now. It’s from my favorite period of the Dead-1976 at the College of William and Mary—before the band got so big you had to see them in hockey arenas—and sounding tight with Keith and Donna before the latter two lost it. It’s a soundboard recording and has the requisite Help/Slip/Frank that divides the good from the great in my view. All these Dave’s Picks are limited editions that appear to sell out right away so keep your eye the ball. The site says you can pre-order them, but I’m confused as it also says they’re sold out. So maybe you want to try, I dunno. Good set though.
Finally, Jazz @Lincoln Center is in the midst of a Coltrane Festival. I’m seeing McCoy Tyner’s group tonight and Josh Redman with the J@LC orchestra tomorrow night. I’ll report back on the shows but if you’re in town with nothing to do, well, now you have something to do.
Beltway Journalist Job Requirement: Deficit Hawk, Climate Change Cynic?
by Reed Richardson
For those of us obsessively watching the scoreboard of this knife-edge presidential campaign, there’s one small but illuminating metric where the numbers are an utter blowout, worse even than one of those early season, creampuff vs. powerhouse college football mismatches. This imbalance is indicative of how, on two policy issues, our supposedly liberal Washington press corps has thoroughly inculcated the right-wing’s framing. As such, here’s a final tally from the four debates I think is worth noting:
103: Number of times the national “debt” or federal budget “deficit” was directly mentioned by the moderator or candidates
0: Number of times the term “climate change” was spoken or even indirectly referenced
That, over the course of six televised hours of discussion, talk of the former was so dominant and talk of the latter was conspicuously absent is striking. All this non-talk about climate change has even spawned, as is common nowadays, an Internet meme: Climate Silence. As others have pointed out, the lack of any climate change discussion effectively rolled back the clock 28 years; 1984 being the last election the topic did not get an airing during a vice presidential or presidential debate. (Even more frightening in terms of how far our current discourse has regressed on this issue—in 1988, the Democratic and Republican VP hopefuls both acknowledged climate change and agreed it deserved action to mitigate it.)
This election season, however, an uninitiated observer might be forgiven for thinking that, based on discussions both on and off the debate stage, it was this horrific “debt” thing that was already threatening millions of Americans with rising sea levels and more wildfire outbreaks, starving our agricultural base with increasingly severe droughts, and killing our citizens in an epidemic of extreme heat waves. By the same token, the issue of “climate change,” this same clueless spectator might surmise, must be more of a long-term, structural budgetary challenge and certainly not something that must be obsessed over and painfully addressed right now at the expense of wrecking a still fragile economic recovery.
To be fair, the presidential campaigns must shoulder a portion of the burden for so skewing the talk away from climate change. During the debates—and the final one, in particular—we clearly saw that both Romney and Obama were more than willing to stray from the format to discuss their preferred issues, if they so choose.
That Romney made no effort to bring up climate change is, to put it mildly, no surprise. After all, his most notable discussion of the topic came during his GOP convention nominating speech, when he tossed some red meat to his party’s rightmost flank by snarkily dismissing the president as having promised to “slow the rise of oceans” and “heal the planet.” Obama, on the other hand, did at least declare in his corresponding speech “climate change is not a hoax.” Still, it becomes apparent the president has all but abandoned climate change as a campaign issue when the chair of the Energy and Environment Team for Obama, a voluntary group of officials advising the campaign, recently circulated a not-very-convincing memo stating that Obama had mentioned climate change—get ready for it—a whole 15 times in the last three months. Why that’s an average of more than once a week!
The Beltway media has both played along and encouraged this climate change freeze-out, however. And to get a glimpse of its cloistered, upside-down reasoning, we turn to CNN’s Candy Crowley, whose skills for debate moderation I mainly applauded last week, but this week, paraphrasing Shakespeare, I come to bury, not to praise. That’s because, when expressly asked about the absence of the topic from the town hall debate she oversaw, we got this:
“For what it's worth, Crowley did say after the debate that an audience member had wanted to ask a climate change question. ‘Climate change, I had that question,’ she said. ‘All you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing.’
First of all, it shouldn’t be overlooked here that, in her defense, she gently bats away the criticism by modifying the tried-and-true elitist rejoinder “you people.” But even setting aside the unpleasant historical connotations of her rhetorical phrasing, it’s Crowley’s parochial, hidebound viewpoint about climate change that should be setting off the real alarm bells. For a prominent member of the establishment media to myopically view climate change as merely a discrete, fringe issue, implicitly only of interest to dirty, Prius-driving, hippies is inexcusable.
Indeed, that climate change is easily pigeonholed into one of these “special interest” categories is dangerously naive. The effects of climate change are wide ranging, rippling into nearly every corner of our political debate, whether it’s economic productivity or energy policy or health care or even national security. Hmmm, if only there was a good example of how legislation that addresses climatic and environmental change can have a immensely powerful impact across the entire policy spectrum, that way the press might reawaken to its importance. Oh wait, there is.
The Clean Air Act, first passed in 1970 thanks to a Republican president and Democratic Congress and then strengthened substantially in 1990 through another bipartisan effort, has demonstrated the kind of long-lasting positive benefits that are often promised but rarely realized in our government. (To really see how regressive the modern Republican Party has become in just 20 years, read President George H.W. Bush’s Clean Air Act signing statement.) What was ostensibly an environmental and public safety bill actually turned into a landmark piece of healthcare, jobs, energy, and—yes—deficit reduction legislation. According to data compiled by the NRDC and the EPA, beside the direct successes in reducing smog, curtailing acid rain, and mending the hole in the ozone layer, the Clean Air Act can claim:
Successfully launched a cap-and-trade market to incentivize regional energy producers to modernize their facilities and decrease pollution
2 million lives saved and 1.04 million ER visits prevented since 1990
170.6 million lost work-days prevented since 1970 (roughly equivalent to the working-age population of New York City working an entire extra year)
1.6 million environmental technology jobs created
$40 billion in exports realized
$33.7 trillion in net monetized benefits over the first 40 years (a figure more than double our entire annual GDP last year)
42 to 1, the overall benefit-to-cost ratio of the legislation
Unfortunately, the climate change freeze-out in the other debates and among the campaign trail coverage demonstrates that this side of the ledger no longer merits much attention among the rest of the Washington press corps.
‘But the broader public doesn’t care about climate change!’ the press might argue. And as proof, it could offer up the latest Gallup survey, published on Monday, which lists the most important issues for voters as Election Day nears. The federal deficit, admittedly, ranks as number three in terms of priorities (12 percent), while climate change is nowhere to be found. What’s more, Gallup posed this “priorities” question as open-ended, meaning if the public doesn’t bring it up on their own, they must not care much about it. All of these are fair points, but taken in context they neglect the larger dynamic taking place within the press regarding its attitude about climate change and the debt.
Dig down into the recent history of other surveys asking this “priorities” question and you’ll find a distinct trend, year after year. More than half of these news organization polls take a different tack when it comes to this agenda-setting question, offering instead a finite list of topics for respondents to choose from when answering. And overwhelmingly, this “priming,” as its known in polling parlance, will include a mention of the deficit while omitting climate change.
A similar kind of self-fulfilling prophecy can begin to develop around media coverage of these two issues as well. Over time, a press corps that consistently ignores climate change and emphasizes the deficit begins to feel justified in doing so precisely because those topics begin to see corresponding decreases and increases in attention by the public. As a result, the establishment media’s take on these issues slowly but surely shifts the boundaries of public discourse, opening wide the Overton window on the debt while closing, if not slamming shut, the one on climate change.
This divergence in media attention has not occurred in a vacuum, however, nor is it an accident. Ever since mainstream conservatism’s recent decision to embrace climate change skepticism—if not outright denialism—and champion deficit-slashing austerity as part of its ideological ethos, the press, in its foolish pursuit of carefully-splitting-the-
Consequently, many among the highest reaches of the media firmament can now be relied upon to employ, whether self-consciously or not, these same biases. Appearing on a Sunday morning news show like “Meet the Press?” Pundits need not bother crafting some insightful talking points about the need for cap-and-trade or a compelling argument for shifting away from fossil fuels, better to bone up on how much “pain” they’re willing to inflict on American voters in order to reduce the debt and balance the budget. Think the need for more comprehensive greenhouse gas limitations can be an opportunity to pioneer a new industry for the country? First you’ll have to fight through the media’s incessant parroting of pejorative right-wing phrasing like “job-killing” regulations. Heck, even a supposedly liberal news bastion like NPR isn’t above falling victim to conservative framing and false equivalence when it comes to straightforward reporting about climate change.
In the fairly close-knit world of the Beltway media, where a pack mentality can quickly take hold and chasing narratives is seen as a way to attract more eyeballs, it’s perhaps no great shock that we’ve arrived at this point where no amount of debate about the debt is too much and no amount of debate about climate change is just fine. But ‘everybody does it’ isn’t any kind of legitimate excuse for what has turned into a tragic, institutional bias about these issues on the part of the Washington press corps.
Update: The original version of this post stated that a memo sent to Politico defending the number of times President Obama has mentioned climate change since late June came from the president's official campaign. It did not. The memo was sent out by the Energy and Environment Team for Obama, a voluntary group of officials who are only advising the campaign.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “Considering CNN’s Choice to Hire Piers Morgan.”
My new Nation column is “All the (Political) World's a Stage.”
I was not in Ohio this week, but I do live in the greatest city in the world where we don’t even worry about people voting for Mitt Romney—thank you very much—and in my city, you can leave a class on the theology and philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught by my friend Rabbi Shai Held, a founder of Mechon Hadar, watch some debating in a bar, then drop by the Hammerstein Ballroom, where, in celebration of the musical career of Steve Van Zandt receiving the "Big Man of the Year" Award from littlekidsrock.org, you can see Darlene Love, singing "Among the Believers,” Tom Morello, doing an incredible “Sun City,” Elvis Costello's singing "This Time Baby's Gone For Good," Gary U.S. Bonds, “Standing in the Line of Fire,” Southside Johnny singing “She's Got Me Where She Wants Me,” Dion and Ruben Blades doing “Bitter Fruit,” and, oh yeah, Bruce and Steve doing “Until the Good is Gone,” Bruce, Steve and Southside doing an incredibly moving (if you’re me, anyway,) “It's Been a Long Time” and everybody together doing “I Don’t Want to Go Home.” Can you even imagine?
Bruce gave a nice speech about Steve, and they each accused each other of peeing on the toilet seat. But Bruce also said: “"Steve is the part of my brain that always wants it louder, harder more raucous, more, more please, a little more than that. Steve is my first audience when I write or I create something. I'm always thinking, 'What's Steve gonna think?' I may not always take his advice, but I'm always wondering what his opinion is. And whether Steve was alongside of me in the band or whether he wasn't, that part of our friendship always endured.'"
Steve laid out his hopes/plan for the survival of the music that helps the rest of us survive:
"If the old infrastructure is gone, we build a new one. If we, the few of us left, that grew up surrounded by greatness, don't build a new infrastructure, then those who have no standards will."
Steven's point-by-point plan includes establishing a radio format that supports new music and plays "the greatest music ever made" to set higher standards ("we got that done"); reestablishing a performance circuit for live performance of rock and roll (efforts underway "in spite of the occasional non-believer pulling the plug now and then"); providing a curriculum for music education via the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation; and providing musical instruments for the next generation via Little Kids Rock (saving them from becoming "computer nerds and investment bankers"). Steven thanked everyone for supporting Little Kids Rock founder David Wish's "crazy dream" and "endorsing his most sacred belief... that every kid on earth who wants one should have a guitar.”
Of course it helps to be rich. The evening, including the auction, raised $800,000. And speaking of which, there’s another chance to empty your wallet to see Bruce in this great city of ours, at the Beacon, with Max, Jon Stewart, et al for the Bob Woodruff Foundation sponsored by the New York Comedy Festival “Stand Up for Heroes,” on November 8.
I got two wonderful music collections recently that are thematically connected and extremely nicely annotated. Country Funk 1969-1975. As it says in the explanatory notes, “What in the hell is Country Funk you ask? The answer is a complicated one, in part due to the fact that Country Funk is an inherently defiant genre, escaping all efforts at easy categorization. The style encompasses the elation of gospel with the sexual thrust of the blues, country hoedown harmony with inner city grit. It is alternately playful and melancholic, slow jammin', and booty shakin'. It is both studio slick and barroom raw. And while these all may seem unlikely combinations at first glance, upon close listen, it all makes sweet sense. Country Funk 1969-1975 is a melting pot concoction of the music of Dale Hawkins, John Randolph Marr, Cherokee, Johnny Adams, Mac Davis, Bob Darin, Jim Ford, Gray Fox, Link Wray, Bobby Charles, Tony Joe White, Dennis The Fox, Larry Jon Wilson, Bobbie Gentry, Gritz and Johnny Jenkins.” Jenkins, by the way, is backed up by the Allman Brothers. I love this record.
I’m also loving how much detail on the cuts is provided in the genuinely surprising “Loving on the Flip Side” collection. It could have been written by the main characters of either Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude or Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, both of whom, coincidentally, are obsessed with seventies soul and funk. (The members of Parliament/Fundadelic make appearances in both books, weirdly). This genre is called "sweet funk," and while the liner notes appeal to your head, the music works on the rest of you, including the part that likes to dance.
I am also looking forward to spending some time with the recent releases of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Early Cases Collection on Bluray. It’s got the entire first six series— 45 shows in all—that appeared on the BBC. David Suchet plays Poirot, and the stories are set in the 1930s. Very promising.
On the other end of the universe we have Shout! Factory’s release of All In The Family: The Complete Series, which is a 28-DVD of you (I imagine) know what. It’s all 213 episodes as they originally appeared with a 40-page collectible book with essays, a new interview with Norman Lear, a documentary called Those Were The Days: The Birth Of All In The Family, another documentary called The Television Revolution Begins: All In The Family Is On The Air, the series pilot, "Justice For All," the second pilot "Those Were The Days," and the spin-off pilot episodes of Gloria, Archie Bunker’s Place, and 704 Hauser. Goodness.
Also fun, but in a different kind of way is the new release of Peter Gunn: The Complete Series. It’s one of the first detective series (from 1958, I believe) and it’s really cool, with lots of jazz, including Henry Mancini’s great theme, and lots of A-list directors, before they were that (including Robert Altman). It’s got all the elements that made the fifties great, especially the cars, the cigarettes and the ladies—114 episodes, plus, with a music CD too.
And finally, I can’t believe there’s anything left for Shout! Factory’s second Ernie Kovacs Collection after the last one, but here’s Volume 2, which is three CDs, a nice booklet, 8 more episodes from Kovacs’ national morning show, 18 bonus sketches featuring many of his most beloved characters, 3 complete episodes of his oddball game show, Take A Good Look, “A Pony For Chris,” the rare TV Pilot for Medicine Man costarring Buster Keaton, The Lively Arts featuring the only existing filmed solo interview with Ernie Kovacs, and the 2011 American Cinematheque Panel. Order it directly from ShoutFactory.com and you get a bonus DVD containing seven episodes of Kovacs’ game show Take A Good Look, all unseen since their original broadcast.
Finally, this is the 50th anniversary of James Bond (and not coincidentally, the Cuban Missile Crisis). I’m among the many who’s seen all the films, so I really enjoyed watching the EPIX network film, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, which focuses on the various fighting and scheming and suing between Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and Ian Fleming that brought them to fruition and made billions for studios and who knows how much for the lawyers. And if you want the soundtrack (and who wouldn’t?), there’s a new 2-disc anniversary compilation featuring 50 tracks from all 22 films on Capital, which includes the great Shirley Bassey and Duran Duran tracks you might know, but also Louis Armstrong, Tom Jones, Gladys Knight, etc you might not. Plus a second cd of instrumentals. It’s called “Best of Bond: 50th Anniversary.” Warning: they didn’t get Adele’s Skyfall theme.
Now here’s Reed.
Climate Change: To Function in a Post-Truth Political Environment, the Press Needs a Post-Objectivity Mindset
By Reed Richardson
There are two powerful lessons that the media should be learning from the moderation of these presidential and vice-presidential debates so far. For a press corps that fewer and fewer people claim to trust, the first of these debate lessons is quite encouraging—that is, the public actually notices and appreciates when journalists, you know, do their job. But the other takeaway from these debates is much more nuanced and complicated, as it challenges the very foundation of how the press sees itself and its duty to the public.
Over the past three weeks we’ve seen two radically different interpretations of the press’s role in debate moderation, but the subsequent results from these divergent paths both reinforce this same notion. Jim Lehrer’s detached, incurious pose at the first debate drew widespread criticism (including from yours truly) for the way it enabled both candidates to run roughshod over him, each other, and, not least of all for one aspirant for the White House, the truth. Whereas the more engaged, assertive journalistic approach taken by ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Candy Crowley in their respective moderator turns—though far from perfect—has unquestionably produced more lively policy discussion and worthwhile context for voters, earning the pair praise from both peers and the public.
That the debate moderation has become such a prominent storyline wasn’t to be expected. So, why are we seeing such visceral reactions—first negative, then positive—to what is often thought of as a banal, thankless and mostly invisible role for the media? Are we witnessing an epiphany of sorts, where both the press and the public are beginning to grasp the vital need for a more aggressive journalism in this new, post-truth environment, one where many political candidates maintain a tenuous relationship with reality, at best, and where facts frequently drown in a cash-fueled torrent of dishonest rhetoric?
Based on the long history of our nation’s press, it pays to be skeptical. However, this open, ongoing discussion about how much or how little debate moderation we want or deserve has inarguably touched a collective nerve. In addition to being candidate showcases, these candidate forums have also become, in effect, a high-profile microcosm of a larger debate about the proper role of the press in our democracy.
Indeed, it’s easy to find parallels. Take, for instance, the rules that the Commission on Presidential Debates developed to govern the debates. Completely hidden from the public (until leaked this past Monday) and full of ridiculously stifling demands on all parties, the CPD’s memorandum of understanding exemplifies a mindset whereby the powerful view the press as little more than a necessary evil, a party to which they graciously grant access merely to give the debates a sheen of public accountability. And in fact, the memo’s dedicated lack of transparency, prescriptions for feckless evenhandedness, and not-so-subtle insistence upon trading access for deference are all uncannily familiar. In many ways, they represent the same timid, cloistered approach to objectivity that the Washington press corps imposes on itself every day.
But, as Jay Rosen notes in this Guardian essay—published before Tuesday’s town hall—in a live, one-off televised event like a presidential debate, the only real limitations a moderator faces involve what we define as in the public interest. So, he or she actually has much more flexibility than what is begrudgingly afforded by the CPD and candidates:
In reality, the rules don't describe what happens because the real limits are audience expectations, which bear down on everyone in the hall with greater force than any timekeeper. Do we expect power to reveal itself without an interlocutor? If more and more of us do, pressure will build for the Vanishing Moderator. But we aren't there yet. Lack of consensus reigns.
Well, if one were to apply the old journalism adage “three makes a trend,” then maybe a consensus is, in fact, already emerging. In the first debate, Lehrer clearly chose to honor the letter of the debate rules—as a “Vanishing Moderator,” as Rosen calls it—and thus gave 67 million TV viewers a good glimpse of journalism’s old-school conventional wisdom about maintaining objectivity. But in doing so, it became clear to many of those watching that Lehrer was prioritizing the interests of the powerful—the men onstage and the commission—over the viewers, and the result was as an unsatisfying, if not embarrassing, display of a toothless press corps.
In contrast, Raddatz and Crowley seemed to recognize in the last two debates that the moderator’s real authority was vested in the people watching, not in the candidates or the commission. Accordingly, they instead chose to honor the spirit of the debate and, thus, took a more active role in it, asking more challenging follow-ups or refining awkwardly phrased questions to provide more context to the those whom they were really there to serve—the voters.
That this rather common-sense journalistic strategy to moderation we saw in the past two debates has been viewed as either courageous or controversial speaks to the lowly depths that the traditional media has sunk. And let’s be honest. Lehrer’s sorry, ineffectual effort provided a ready-made excuse for trying a more engaged stance. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t fully underestimate the pressure to also “get out of the way” that Raddatz and Crowley no doubt had to shrug off going into the debate, knowing full well that to interrupt a candidate or—heaven forfend!—fact-check one of them in real time was to open themselves up to guaranteed charges of bias.
But a professional press corps too cowed to step into the fray or unwilling to admit when it’s made a mistake is doomed to increasingly marginalize itself in an world where it can no longer monopolize information or ideas. Or as NYU professor Clay Shirky puts it in this insightful, must-read essay on the Poynter website (which is adapted from a larger discussion of digital ethics he will deliver at a Paley Center for Media symposium next week):
For the last two generations of journalism, the emphasis has been on the question of consensus; the question of who constituted a relevant actor was largely solved by scarcity. It was easy to find mainstream voices, and hard to find marginal or heterodox ones. With that scarcity undone, all such consensus would be destroyed, unless journalists start telling the audience which voices aren’t worth listening to as well.
A world where all utterances are putatively available makes “he said, she said” journalism an increasingly irresponsible form, less a way of balancing reasonable debate and more a way of evading the responsibility for informing the public. Seeking truth and reporting it is becoming less about finding consensus, which there is simply less of in the world, and more about publicly sorting the relevant actors from the irrelevant ones.
Presidential debates represent one of the last true redoubts of the “scarcity” Shirky speaks of, since moderating these quadrennial events remains a rarefied task only afforded to a select few members of the media. (This debate structure is long overdue for an overhaul, I would add, but I digress.) Yet, even in this high-profile campaign crucible, where the “relevant actors” are clearly defined, we saw that a journalist who adheres to a hands-off, neutral approach facilitates little more than campaign talking points at best. Or, in the worst case, it emboldens politicians who are willing to misrepresent reality, undermining the public’s right to know the truth.
Admittedly, not everyone sees it this way. Among conservatives, Lehrer’s feeble performance was pitch perfect, letting the candidates speak without concern for being corrected by anyone other than their opponent. On the other hand, they saw the more empowered role taken by Raddatz and Crowley as shamelessly playing favorites and had the likes of Karl Rove, among others, pining for Lehrer’s return. Now, there’s no excusing Obama’s dreadful performance in the first debate, but it’s striking that within the ranks of the right wing, there’s a direct correlation between an assertive, active journalist moderating a debate and conservative displeasure with its outcome.
Over at Fox News, this same phenomenon was letting a thousand excuses bloom after the second Obama-Romney debate, which polls uniformly say the president won. Almost unanimously, the network’s voices started to cavil and whine that Crowley, by calling out Romney for believing a right-wing myth that the president had waited two weeks to call the attack on the Benghazi consulate an “act of terror,” clearly overstepped her proper role at the debate.
By doing so, Crowley had “joined Team Obama” cried one Fox News columnist, who breezed past the fact that she had also agreed with Romney on another point about the Libya attack immediately after that exchange. Or that the whole thing was “folly” on Crowley’s part, as another Fox News columnist wrote, since she later admitted Romney was right—except he wasn’t and she did no such thing. Then there was the laughable column co-bylined by Judith “aluminum tubes” Miller and Douglas “Obama should drop out” Schoen. Aside from saying that a “potted plant” would have been a better moderator (sorry Jim), the pair notably griped that Crowley’s mild fact-check so disrupted Romney that it completely flipped the debate in Obama’s favor. This was despite their claim that Romney had won the “first half” and only faltered after having been confronted by Crowley in the seventieth minute of a 100-minute debate. From this, we’ve learned that bad arithmetic affects right-wing candidates and columnists alike, apparently.
Of course, I get that a conservative’s rejoinder to all this is to revert back to their standard trope that all the press is liberally biased. That it’s no coincidence the Democrats did better in the two debates where the moderator took a more active role and that in the case where he or she wasn’t tipping the scales in favor of the left, Romney excelled. That, however, is simply the same old ploy the right has long used to batter the media’s sense of objectivity into a mindset that routinely mistakes treating opposing viewpoints equally with treating them fairly. But when one political party has so embraced ideologically driven narratives formed in an alternative reality, a press corps that acquiesces to merely facilitate context-free “he said, she said” dialogue, whether on the front page or on a debate stage, will fail miserably.
This new, post-truth political world in which we exist today is fundamentally different than just a generation ago. And this radical transformation hasn’t left the media climate unaffected either, as Shirky notes. As such, the press can no longer afford to gainsay these changes and cling to a model that merely seeks to “get out of the way.” Beyond influencing whom this country will choose as the next president on November 6th, let’s hope we also take away from these presidential debates another lasting idea. That the media must adapt to a more open and unflinchingly assertive role, lest it and our democracy run the risk of becoming just as extinct as the dinosaurs.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
New York NY
Great analysis of the destructive effect of the filibuster. Oddly, in both debates, and even in the TV battles among the talking heads, the Democrats consistently fail to counter the argument that Obama controlled Congress for two years and failed to achieve his legislative agenda. Jennifer Granholm wrote a great timeline showing that Obama had a weak filibuster-proof majority for a very short time. It has long since been forgotten that Al Franken was kept from taking his Senate seat during the stimulus package debate, requiring Obama to be overly solicitous to the two biddies from Maine. No doubt the fear of a filibuster was a factor in Obama’s crafting a stimulus package that could reach his desk for signature. The Republicans thwarted Democratic legislation and appointments with the filibuster or threat thereof for the two-year period that Obama had that “elusive” majority. Oddly, Obama and Biden could have responded to their debate foes by listing all the legislation blocked and refuting that allegation. But why didn’t they?
Do you think that Obama anticipates the likelihood of resort by his party to the filibuster to keep a President Romney and his majority in Congress from dismantling the New Deal, Obamacare, and financial regulation?
A great letter to the NY Times recently expressed the fear of the writer that if Obama were to be reelected, he could not achieve his goals; but if Romney were to be elected, he could achieve his. The Senate Democrats may soon lead a minority, which could, by filibuster, protect the majority of Americans from the legislative onslaught championed by the servants of the 1%.
New York NY via Columbus NE
There are other undemocratic practices that should make us wonder about our system.
I think the way congressional districts are defined ought to be under close, close scrutiny.
Then there is the very fact of the apportioning of seats to the Senate, where the desired effect of making sure less populous states are not overwhelmed by more populous has reached a fairly indefensible point. That his powerful body is so UN representative is unfortunate: 2 senators from North Dakota (pop under 700,000) and 2 from Florida (pop over 19,000,000) .
The factor this plays in the Electoral College is starker. North Dakota has 3 votes, each representing roughly 234K citizens. Florida has 29, each representing about 665K citizens. In other words, a North Dakotan Electoral College vote is worth roughly 2.8 times as much as a Floridian electoral vote. Again, the system was meant to help prevent effectively letting populous states ride roughshod over rural ones. But we may have reached a point where the unfairness has tipped far to the other direction.