Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
My new “Think Again” column is called “Murdoch and Ailes were "Right from the Start" and it’s about new and not-so-new revelations from a new book about you know who.
Alter-reviews, special guitar gods edition:
Eric Clapton, Unplugged
Eric Clapton, Give Me Strength: the 1974-75 Recordings
Eric Clapton et al, Crossroads Festival Blu-ray and CD
The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters (deluxe)
Grateful Dead, Dave’s Picks, Vol. 8
Garcia Live, Volume 3, December 14-15, 1974 Northwest Tour,
It’s been a rich autumn for old Eric Clapton releases. There’s a nice new two-CD/DVD version of “Unplugged,” from 1992, the album that launched the whole movement. Clapton’s willingness to go in new directions has always distinguishd him from other guitar gods and these peformances tend to justify themselves, though not always, and especially not in the case of “Layla,” which is a travesty. There are a few new versions on the cd including a cover of “Big Maceo” Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues,” an alternate take of “Walkin’ Blues” and early versions of “Circus” and “My Father’s Eyes” and an hour of rehearsal footage on the DVD, which is pretty cool to watch once or twice. (It’s also surprisingly cheap.)
I first discovered Clapton around 1974 or so and he was my pre-Born to Run favorite musician for “Layla” and the first solo album. I was so excited when he returned to recording and touring and a little shocked and disappointed at how mellow it all sounded; next to no guitar solos at all. But the dude was a prophet and this was where music was going; it caught up in the early eighties, and the stuff has worn tremendously well. You can now pay a lot of money for “Eric Clapton--Give Me Strength: The 1974-75 Recordings,” which is five CDs and a Bluray--or so they tell me, I only got the download.
It’s got 461 Ocean Boulevard, There's One In Every Crowd and the live E.C. Was Here—standing as one of the most remarkable rebirths in rock's history plus live tracks from Long Beach Arena (including unreleased versions of Crossroads, I Shot The Sheriff, Layla and Little Wing), the Hammersmith Odeon, Nassau Coliseum and Providence Civic Center; The Freddie King Criteria Studio Sessions featuring the previously unreleased versions of “Boogie Funk” and the full unreleased 22 minute version of “Gambling Woman Blues”
I saw last year’s editions of Eric’s “Crossroads Festival” shows last year at the Garden. Among the highlights were the surprise pairing of John Mayer and Keith Urban for the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down,” which turns out to be a much better song than I previously realized, Keith Richards and Eric doing “Key to the Highway.” Vince Gill performing "Tumbling Dice" with Keith Urban and Albert Lee and members of the Allman Brothers and by far, Eric and ABB doing my favorite song, of late, "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad," and truth be told they could have played more together since they had a whole set worked out at the Beacon a few years ago, which made for two of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. The hype for Gary Clark Jr. struck me as a washout however and Clapton did not have to open the shows (and this Bluray) with his sappiest and most McCartney-at-his-most-mawkish songs. So plan to do some fast-forwarding on this terrific sounding Bluray depending on your taste. Not all of it will be loved by everyone but with so many acts—I didn’t even mention Keith and Eric on “Key to the Highway” or Eric and Robbie R, Jeff Back or Buddy Guy or that 14 year old kid Quinn Sullivan, or the acoustic peformance by Warren, Derek and Gregg, especially on “The Needle and the Damage Done,” so it’s hard not to want to have this no matter what your taste in guitar gods. Eric closes well, too, with “Sunshine.” There’s a highlight two cd package as well. Both are pretty decently priced.
And speaking of my favorite band, I somehow neglected to mention the beautiful package put together to mark the 40th anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band’s fifth album, “Brothers and Sisters.” They were in terrible shape, but it’s a damn fine record and this is a lovely package. Duane died in the fall of 1971. 1973's Berry Oakley died early in the recording of this album. They were replaced by pianist Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams, but also by an expanded role for Dickie Betts. It was their best selling album ever--clearly their most radio friendly and now we get in the “Super Deluxe Edition” a disc of previously unreleased Jams, Rehearsals, and Outtakes, and a complete show on two cds from Winterland in September, 1973. It all sparkles and came before the band destroyed itself--in that iteration--with more drugs than anyone could do and arena shows that ended their rapport with their audience. Thank goodness it was only temporary, though nobody would have guessed it at the time--what with Gregg marrying Cher and falling asleep in bowls of spaghetti
Finally, speaking of my other favorite band, there’s now a “Dave Picks, Volume 8”: the last of the limited edition releases in this series this year. It’s a complete show from 11/30/80 at the Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA. The highlight for me was the incredible "Scarlet>Fire,” but maybe not for you. (Again, these were not their best years.) It’s three CDs and you gotta register at the Dead website because they all sell out immediately. And hey, you can watch “Dave” talk about his work, here. He’s pretty smart.
And if that’s not enough for you, you can order GarciaLive Volume Three: December 14-15, 1974 Northwest Tour, 3 CD Set featuring over 2 1/2 hours of previously unreleased music mastered from original soundboard recordings. Jazzier than usual, but with a nice rapport within the Legion of Mary band featuring Merle Sanders Wonderful 18 minute “Boogie On Reggae Woman” to open. Two “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”s though, is one too many, minimum. The Dead were on hiatus and this was one of Jerry’s most fruitful periods, musically, so it’s a nice if non-essential addition to the oeuvre. More here.
By Reed Richardson
What Sen. Harry Reid did Thursday wasn’t a win for Democrats as much as it was a triumph for democracy. That the Washington conventional wisdom likely won’t characterize it that way, though, shouldn’t be surprising. For far too long, the Beltway media has, by turns, overlooked, enabled, and normalized what has been a relentless, unprecedented siege campaign by Senate Republicans against Constitutional privilege and White House authority. Once a rare, last-ditch bureaucratic maneuver on the part of the minority, filibusters are no longer about extending actual debate on legislation or questioning the fitness of a political appointee. Instead, having been deployed a record 446 times since 2006, they’ve effectively been weaponized by the GOP as an extra-Constitutional end run around settled law. So, to say Reid “went nuclear” on the Senate rules Thursday is to ignore seven years of overwhelming evidence that the Republicans blew them up first.
Nevertheless, this week’s press coverage of Republican filibusters leading up to the nuclear option was more of the same old objective ambiguity. On Monday, for example, there was the Associated Press, vaguely talking about how Obama’s nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals “[fell] short of the 60 votes required to advance” with nary a mention of the word “filibuster” anywhere. Even when the press does accurately describe the obstruction, as the Washington Post did last week in a story about the GOP filibuster of D.C Circuit nominee Judge Nina Pillard, it undermines the reality by trotting artificially balanced anecdotes as part of the old “both sides” canard. Dig down into the data, however, and you find that the GOP has blocked judicial nominees at a higher rate than at any other time in U.S. history.
Over time, the media’s steady use of euphemisms and false equivalence has buried the larger narrative of Republican filibuster abuse. Likewise, it compartmentalizes each round of executive or judicial nominations into discrete events, which only allows the GOP to escape real accountability for their egregious abuse. For instance, when NBC News’s political tip sheet First Read previewed Reid’s “nuclear option” move Thursday, note that it only did so with respect to the three most recent judicial nominees blocked by the GOP.
“And so after Senate Republican filibustered President Obama’s nominees to sit on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals—not on concerns about ideology or qualifications, but over the president’s ability to appoint ANYONE to these vacancies—Senate Democrats are poised to change the rules via the so-called ‘nuclear option’”
No. No. NO. While credit is due for highlighting the intellectual dishonesty of Republicans, this kind of short-sighted analysis of Democratic motives would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. This incredibly simplistic explanation leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that, though Republicans are being stubborn, Harry Reid just up and changed the rules in something resembling a fit of pique after a rough couple of weeks.
This is not a new phenomenon, unfortunately. Over and over, the Beltway media has examined these filibuster events through a blinkered, ahistorical prism. Thus, no mention of how Obama has tried several times to fill these same D.C. Circuit Court vacancies since he first took office in 2009, to no avail. Or that one of these court vacancies was created more than eight years ago when John Roberts—yes, that John Roberts—was elevated to the Supreme Court. Also routinely left out of the coverage, the dozens of filibusters of other federal judicial appointees as well as the heads of numerous executive agencies, like the CFPB, NLRB, FCC, CIA, and EPA. And let's not forget the time Republicans attempted the first-ever filibuster a Cabinet nominee. Indeed, Republican filibusters have become so de rigueur in the Senate that, on several occasions, some in the GOP have thought nothing of threatening to block every single White House nominee, regardless of merit or need.
To be fair, some of the blame for this situation must be directed back at Senate Democrats and the White House. For too long, Reid and a few of his more tradition-bound Senate colleagues have enabled GOP intransigence through ill-advised, one-off filibuster moratoria that Republicans have demonstrated no compunction about discarding at their leisure. What’s more, this constant Republican stonewalling has inculcated a noticeable hesitancy on the part of the administration in terms of putting forth nominations. And too often both Reid and the White House seem to mistake willful, partisan obstruction with good faith disagreement. Spending months or even years searching and vetting highly qualified nominees only to have them summarily dismissed over and over should have long ago taught Reid the lesson he only fully learned this week.
Breaking the logjam this way, some media naysayers worry, will forever change the Senate, making it operate more like the House. And that’s probably true, but the operative word in that sentence is, well, operate. For, right now, the Senate is a broken legislative body, hijacked by a spiteful few extremists who are wholly uninterested in performing even the most routine aspects of government business.
While that obvious point isn’t lost on even the most process-obsessed members of the Washington press corps, time and again news organizations have failed to draw a bright line between Senate Republicans’ filibuster abuse and the dangerously anti-democratic precedent set by their behavior. Lacking any kind of pushback from the press, is it any wonder Republicans kept pushing further and further? As a result, they felt free to intentionally hamstring regulatory agencies for years by leaving them short-staffed and without leadership, effectively undermining the executive branch’s Article I authority. And why not consistently flout the president’s judicial appointees—to, say, maintain Republican dominance on the D.C. Appeals Court? It only negates the electoral mandate provided by the public. Hey, it’s not like the press is really going to notice.
But make no mistake, even though it may fly underneath the radar of almost every big-name pundit, tilting the balance on the D.C. Appeals Court matters. For most of Obama’s tenure, the court has been split evenly, with more Republican appointees enjoying seniority. As a result, its been a friendly legal ground to enable all manner of successful right-wing regulatory challenges, whether it’s cracking down on labor organizing to unraveling the Affordable Care Act’s free contraception rules or undoing tougher Dodd-Frank regulations on out-of-control CEO pay. And it figures to loom large in the administration’s upcoming push for stricter carbon emissions rules for power plants. Outrageously, Republicans have responded with thinly veiled partisan arguments about workload to argue for cutting back the number of D.C. Circuit judges. (Phony arguments that are little more than rank hypocrisy.) Reid’s move will ensure that the court gets its full complement of judges and that overturning tougher environmental regulations among other liberal policy priorities just became a much tougher road for conservatives.
But it’s not just judicial appointees that can have a far-reaching impact. This past week, we saw what it can mean for workers and people in low-income areas when the Senate nominations process functions as intended. After scuffling along for years with only a minimum quorom, a now fully-staffed and fully-engaged NLRB handed down a major ruling against Walmart Monday one that penalized the company for illegally disciplining and firing employees who had participated in labor strikes. Likewise, on Wednesday, the newly created CFPB—whose inaugural director was only just approved by the Senate this past summer after a long filibuster fight—announced its first major settlement against predatory lenders.
With a rabidly conservative Republican majority in the House making legislative progress all but impossible, legal rulings and enforcement actions represent the best shot at policy success for Democrats until 2015, at the earliest. Not coincidentally, it's precisely the kind of duly-earned progress the Senate GOP’s filibuster abuse would have kept on unfairly delaying had Reid not acted. In the end, the story of Thursday's “nuclear option” is mostly a tale of winners, though—our democracy first and foremost, but both Democrats and Republicans too, since the move ultimately makes government more responsive and actually enhances the value of winning elections. (The next GOP Senate Majority Leader will no doubt come to appreciate Reid’s decision when there’s a Republican in the White House). Perhaps the only real loser in all this is the Beltway media, which showed once again that it can miss a big story up to and even after the moment it blows up.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
My new Think Again column is called “A Bully Pulpit for Billionaires” and it examines The Economist’s odd coverage of the New York City mayor’s race.
My Nation column is called “Village People” and it discusses the sequel to Game Change, Double Down and its authors’ contempt for liberals.
A few final words (I hope) about You Know What.
I am resisting the urge to delve back into the muck with regard to the Blumenthal book—recently endorsed, I see, by the website of famed neo-Nazi, David Duke—I do, however, feel a need to clarify two points that may be lost to those who are still paying attention amdist all of the hysterical (and patently false) accusations I’ve experienced as a result of my column, “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook.”
1) There were no errors in my column. None. Zero. Zilch.* If there had been, The Nation would have run a correction in the magazine. It didn’t and it won’t.
2) It is nonsense to claim, as the website “Mondoweiss” did, that I publicly refused to debate Blumenthal and secretly demanded $10,000 to do so. What happened was this. Phil Weiss has been hassling me for years to debate him about Israel. I have said “no thanks” for years, but try to get him to leave me alone, I told him that if someone wanted to pay my speaking fees, I would debate anyone at all. I’m hardly afraid to debate people. I just don’t believe in giving away my time for free, especially to people like Weiss.
When the Blumenthal column came out, Phil started hassling me again. I said “no” again, adding the same conditions I had given him years ago still applied no matter who he wanted me to debate. Phil broke all the known rules of journalism by not only publishing my private responses to his entreaties when I had clearly and explicitly refused permission for this--he asked twice and I said “no” twice--but also making it appear that I had said things I clearly had not. Looking back, I don’t know why I was surprised. I do know it’s the last time I will ever answer an email from Phil Weiss.
And speaking of Jews, I love this anecdote about Norman Mailer and Philip Roth that I noticed in Andrew O’Hagen’s review of the big new Mailer bio in The London Review of Books
‘You know,’ he said, ‘when you get to my age you have to pee a lot. And there is no distance at all between knowing you want to pee and then just peeing. I was at Plimpton’s funeral in St John the Divine not long ago, and they sat me near the front, you know. Suddenly, I had to go. I knew I wasn’t gonna make it all the way down the aisle so I spotted a little side door and I got the canes and nipped in there. Halfway down the corridor, I was looking for a john and who do I see but Philip Roth. “Hey, Philip, what you doin’ here?”
“Oh, I had to pee,” Roth said.
“Happens to me all the time,” I said. “You just have to pee.” The previous week I went to see my daughter in Brooklyn and I couldn’t make it up the hill and had to stop in a telephone kiosk to pee.
“Oh, that’s happened to me,” Roth said. “I’ve done the kiosk thing.”
“Well, Phil,” I said. “You always were precocious.”’
Ladies Sing the Blues at the Allen Room @ Jazz@LC
Jacky Terrasson at Dizzy’s @Jazz@LC
Gary Clark Jr.@ the Apollo
Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings
It’s A Scream The Way Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story 1940s-1960s
I try to see Catherine Russell every chance I can, sometimes in a back up roll with Steely Dan or Paul Simon, among others, but especially when she singing her own sultry stuff from way back. Last weekend at the beautiful Allen Room, she was joined by young singers Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade in an evening of tribute to the songs of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and others called (not so imaginatively, I must say) “Ladies Sing the Blues.” The song selection leaned heavily on the salacious and the women and the crowd milked every available entendre, whether double, triple or quadruple. There were too many highlights to pick anyone out--I’ve been killing myself trying to play “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” on the guitar and here I heard it turned upside down. The accompaniment was perfect, with a number of members of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks (who also tend to show up on “Boardwalk Empire.”) All three women found nooks and crannies and the material that you might not have known were there, no matter how many times you’ve heard “Am I Blue” or “Trouble in Mind”; songs that are nearly a century old by now. I wonder what their authors would have thought had they known how fresh they could sound a century later. The blues truly are eternal.
The following night, across the hall at Dizzy’s I caught a set by pianist Jacky Terrasson, who was joined by a bass player and two percussionists. Terrasson, who grew up in Paris, won the 1993 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition and has been recording ever since. He’s proven incredibly versatile, working with in Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, and Ry Cooder and his own band. Last Saturday, he did that thing that jazz musicians do, of not saying a single word and not even really pausing between songs. The songs, though were ones you knew--from the great American songbook--or at least they started out that way--and then travelled into other spaces and places before doubling back. The double percussion provided a powerful counterpoint to Terrasson’s exquisite piano work and together, they created just the kind of hypnotic effect you get in a jazz club even without the usual stimulants. It was my first time seeing Terrasson, but he and his band are highly recommended if you like melifluous, unflashy playing and beautiful noodling.
You can find the upcoming schedule for Jazz@ Lincoln Center here
It’s been hard, merely listening, to separate Gary Clark Jr. from the hype that has surrounded his rise. Before he had issued a major label album, he had already been embraced as a guitar god, first by Clapton’s Crossroads and then by the Stones and by the White House blues festival. I saw him do a solo set at Clapton’s show last year and could not get a feel for what the big deal was. The word “Hendrix” was frequently mentioned.
His album, “Blak and Blu” came out last year and last night, I caught his show at the Apollo. What he shares with Hendrix, in my view, aside from color--there are not many African-American guitar gurus once you get past the founding generations of blues-focused players-and so the comparisons are inevitable--is an addiction to power chords that tend to overwhelm the melody. But coming from Texas, it should surprise no one that his style is more Stevie Ray than Jimi. He is a comfortable front man and he does not allow his virtuosity to overwhelm the music or the rest of the band. And yes, there’s plenty of charisma. The dude can sing, too. What I wonder about--at least so far--is the material. Perhaps it’s me, but I’m not feeling it yet. There’s another issue. After I left the show, some deep cuts from the outtakes from “Exile” and “Some Girls” came onto my Ipod and I marveled at the economy, the self-discipline and, if I may say so, the organicism of Keith’s playing--all the more powerful because its unflashy and blends into the music. Clapton’s playing is like this too. Not everyone’s is, but one gets tired of just flash and I’d like to see Clark develop in this direction; more of band man than a front-man, since the world doesn’t really need much more in the way of pyrotechnics but does need a lot more good music. The crowd sure loved him though, I’ll say that. You had to stand for most of the show if you wanted to see the guy play. You can read more about Gary here.
If you’re looking for Hannukah presents to buy, here are two really, um, different suggestions.
First is the nicely compact and admirably complete Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings. Comprised of nine CDs in mini-LP replica jackets, it’s a perfect way to get introduced to Miles, given that it’s got the classics from the “first great quintet” at Columbia, (with John Coltrane) ’Round About Midnight, Milestones, Jazz Track, Kind Of Blue, Someday My Prince Will Come, and Miles And Monk At Newport; as well as the groundbreaking Gil Evans, albums, Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, and Sketches Of Spain. It’s also got two brand new albums, Jazz Track, presenting 10 improvised tracks that Miles recorded in Paris with European musicians in 1957, for director Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator To the Gallows), plus three tracks by Miles’ own sextet in New York—featuring Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb—from their only other studio recordings of 1958, prior to the Kind Of Blue sessions in ’59; and Miles And Monk At Newport, featuring four songs recorded live by the Miles Davis Sextet at the jazz festival in 1958, followed by two classics recorded at the festival in 1963 by the then-newly-signed Thelonious Monk Quartet. And it’s not that expensive.
At the other end of the world from Miles is handsome set of two cds and lots of historically minded liner notes called It’s A Scream The Way Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story 1940s-1960s. It’s the 2014 annual release from the nonprofit Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a small, all-volunteer non-profit organization who work hard to preserve this kind of thing and spread the joy it inspires. They can describe it better than I can:
“The sweaty mambo dance-floors of the legendary Palladium nightclub. The weekend Borscht Belt ballrooms of the Catskills hotels. The bar mitzvah bandstands of Brooklyn. The Fania All-Stars stages of the Cheetah and Yankee Stadium. The pianos of the Brill Building. The bullrings of Tijuana. The confluence of Jewish and Latin cultures expressed in music is what you’ll find here, featuring legendary names like Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Herb Alpert, Carole King, Tito Puente to name a few.
Welcome to one of the great unsung currents of American pop music: the forgotten musical mash-up of Latin and Jewish, bagels and bongos, Spanish and Yiddish, manteca and schmaltz, that’s been a bubbling undercurrent of American pop music since the early 1900s. It’s a story full of Jewish mambo dancers, Jewish salsa greats, beloved sidemen, and record label chiefs on the one hand, and Latino bandleaders, singers, composers, and entrepreneurs on the other.”
Outsourcing Accountability to the Political Opposition: The Beltway Media’s Agency Problem
by Reed Richardson
There’s a term in poker for having a strong hand and nevertheless losing due to an unfortunate, last-minute turn of the cards: “bad beat.” And after two big stories unexpectedly blew up this past week, folks at CBS News might be cursing their luck.
On Sunday, Lara Logan of “60 Minutes” was forced to air a 90-second correction that effectively undermined most of her yearlong, blockbuster story that alleged a flawed administration response to the 9/11/12 terrorist attack on the U.S. Benghazi Consulate. Logan’s primary source for the story, it turned out, is a self-aggrandizing fabulist. Three days later, CBS Evening News reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s supposed exposé on the security risks inherent to the troubled Healtcare.gov website unraveled too. In this case, the key piece of evidence, a leaked, “partial transcript” of Congressional testimony, proved to be flagrantly and deceptively edited to make the White House look bad.
But rather than dig into why these embarrassing mistakes occurred, CBS News seems fine with chalking them up to isolated failures of judgment and move on. For example, Attkisson, as of this writing, has issued no correction to her misleading report, and Logan’s on-air admission of error represented but the bare minimum of disclosure that should occur when a story of this magnitude blows up. (The network has announced it is conducting an internal “journalistic review” of what went wrong with the Benghazi report, but it’s worth noting that the person most likely to lead such an investigation, Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News, does double duty as the executive producer of “60 Minutes.) Meanwhile, there’s been no public talk from CBS News of firing or even disciplining anyone connected to either story. As I said, bad beats, I guess, better luck next time.
Except, of course, this isn’t just about CBS News and this isn’t about journalistic misfortune. Indeed, the establishment press in New York and Washington consistently make these same mistakes. Time and again, whether it’s the New Black Panthers, Solyndra, Fast and Furious, IRS audits, Benghazi, or nearly anything related to Obamacare, the presidential scandals hyped by the Beltway conventional wisdom amount to little more than busted flushes, gut-shot straights…a whole lotta nothing. Initial, ominous reports about broad conspiracies and rampant abuse of White House power inevitably collapse into banal examples of governmental friction and democratic messiness. And no sooner does one phony crisis deflate and flutter harmlessly off the front pages before another one pops up to replace it. So, what’s really going on here?
Certainly, there are many mechanistic factors contributing to this continual, Cassandra-like coverage of President Obama, from the voracious 24/7 news cycle and its rampant obsession with scooplets to the industry-wide denuding of journalistic resources and staff. However, the root cause of this behavior, I believe, stems from a press corps that has broadly conflated its efforts at impartial, accountability journalism with the partisan goals of the Republican Party. I’m not claiming individual members of the mainstream media possess an inherent, ideological right-wing bias that they are intentionally pushing into the news. But when the media, as a whole, routinely lets the political opposition serve as its proxy for setting the news agenda, the coverage provided to the public will naturally bend toward an inherent, practical right-wing bias.
On its face, this assertion seems counter-intuitive. How can striving even harder at being neutral exacerbate the partisan effect of one’s reporting? The devil is, of course, in the details. The modern conventional wisdom on objectivity effectively rewards a kind of institutional timidity and intellectual false equivalence—that is, it’s not the press’s job to tell us who is wrong or right, it’s merely their job tell us who says they’re wrong or right. As a result, the media increasingly has no agency in our democracy, no real role as an independent actor correcting and guiding the discourse. Instead, it now seeks to launder all arguments and judgments on an issue through external sources or political parties.
Dartmouth professor of government Brendan Nyhan gets at what I’m calling the media’s abdication of agency in a recent essay at the Columbia Journalism Review. “Skeptical reporting depends on the combination of technical policy critiques and attention from opposition elites. If either component is absent, journalists are all too likely to miss the story,” he writes. “The press often takes its cues about the flaws in a policy from the opposition party, which is part of a pattern of indexing coverage to the range of debate among political elites.” And when the party opposing the president has adopted a nihilistic, post-policy approach to governance, it’s no coincidence the press finds itself obsessed with process and blowing up at every little perceived slight by the White House.
This close marrying of the press’s accountability agenda with that of the Republican opposition’s political agenda has a doubly deleterious effect on our democracy. For one, it promotes a ridiculousboom-and-bust cycle of phony scandals that undermines the media’s reputation as an honest, accurate broker of debate in our democracy. When the only things fueling a DC scandal are Republican outrage and media oxygen, it’s no surprise, then, that said scandal coverage is swiftly snuffed out when the GOP talking points fizzle.
One need only look at Attkisson’s reporting over the past few years to get a clear picture of how this cycle manifests itself. Whether it’s been Fast and Furious, green energy loans, or Benghazi, Attkisson has been a reliable conduit for the GOP’s favorite manufactured indignations. This past week’s embarrassing episode with her Obamacare exposé wasn’t even the first time she’d been publicly burned by regurgitating doctored GOP documents. She is always careful to defend her reporting as done under the banner of objectively holding the powerful accountable, but disingenuously ignores how her coverage so neatly serves as a convenient cudgel for conspiracy-minded Republicans to attack the White House. (Attkisson’s unfocused zeal for questioning authority also includes a troubling history of enabling anti-vaccine truthers.)
The aftermath of CBS News Benghazi debacle speaks to the same institutional blind spot. In the days right after her report aired, the network arrogantly ignored critical voices from the left, like Media Matters, while Logan defended the piece to the New York Times, using telling language: “We worked on this for a year. We killed ourselves not to allow politics into this report.” The mindset on display here speaks to either invidious guile or incredible naiveté. Before the president had even announced the deaths of all four Americans in the Benghazi attack, Republicans were already using the tragedy as a political attack on the president. Save for Obamacare, there might not be a morepoliticized issue in America right now. So, is it any wonder that Logan’s attempt at reporting on Benghazi without honestly addressing this overarching reality would lead her to miss the many warning signs displayed by her story’s key right-wing source?
In this case, it seems, Logan’s personal biases about the Benghazi attack likely played a role in how she reported the story as well. And while I strongly disagree with Logan’s ominous, clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, I have no problem with a professional journalist covering a topic on which they have strong opinions. That’s what editors are for, to keep those prejudices in check and tell a fair story. But as is obvious, CBS News editors also fell victim to blindly wanting the tale of administration malfeasance to be true.
Surely, not everyone at “60 Minutes” shares Logan’s worldview, so how then did such a shoddy story still get on air? No doubt the concept of sunk costs had an effect—work on anything for a year and you too would be hard pressed to honestly look for reasons why all that effort should be just cast aside. But again, I believe a subtler, pernicious bias was at work, one that is indicative of a larger, almost sub-conscious absorption of right-wing political criticism into the journalistic bloodstream. How else to explain the network’s rather bizarre dismissal of the story’s potential to harm its long-term credibility?
“Over the weekend, CBS staff members expressed confidence that the damage to ‘60 Minutes,’ while certainly the worst it has had to endure in the decade since Mr. Fager succeeded Don Hewitt as the show’s executive producer, would not be enduring. One reason is the deep reserve of good will the program has built up both with viewers and in journalistic circles. But the staff members also agreed that the program would be helped by that absence of a cause to inflame right-wing media voices, as well as by the belated effort to apologize." [italics mine]
There is a lot here to be troubled by. The network’s laughably anachronistic mindset toward its own authority as well as its viewers’ expectations of accuracy is bad enough. But to strongly imply one’s news organization is far more concerned with conservative, rather than liberal, media complaints? I mean, if that’s the takeaway CBS news bosses have from the Benghazi debacle, it’s hard to see how they aren’t further reinforcing the institutional sensitivity to right-wing rhetoric that caused the problem in the first place. Or, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, put it: “It is time to ask if inoculation against conservative complaints has become an action item at CBS News, leading to these dubious stories.”
This potential for bias and self-censorship leads to the other downside of the Beltway media’s fondness for right-wing accountability framing—the stories that don’t get covered. Whether it’s draconian deportation policies, immoral drone strikes, or secretive trade deals, there are plenty of legitimate policy critiques of this administration that simply never get establishment media traction because they don’t dovetail nicely with a GOP bumper sticker. The only recent major news story that has included notable left-wing critiques of the White House—about the sweeping surveillance of our national security state—required an unprecedented leak of classified NSA documents from Edward Snowden to ignite it and a steady drip of other leaks to keep it alit. Whatever one’s feelings about Snowden, even President Obama has acknowledged his leaks have spurred a valuable debate about surveillance and privacy issues. But the complex nature of the NSA story doesn’t bode well for substantive reform. That’s because, without readymade soundbites from the GOP, the process-obsessed DC press isn’t really wired to dig into the details of the issue on its own and notice the administration’s deeds often don’t match Obama’s words. But of all these instances, A similar failure by the press has occurred with Obamacare.
In his CJR essay, Nyhan focused on why the press mostly ignored the now infamous promise by Obama that: “If you like your insurance, you can keep it.” As Nyhan points out, holding such a statement up to the light of truth would have necessitated a press corps that is more than a cat’s paw for angry Republicans intent on destroying Obamacare at all costs. Back in 2009 and 2010, could a more robust, honest debate on the law’s impact on the private insurance market have prevented millions of cancellation letters? Perhaps. We’ll never know because simply passing the current law was a Herculean achievement thanks to a press corps that chose to waste much of its coverage lending legitimacy to shameful conservative myths like the “death panels” lie.
In the end, this willingness on the part of the establishment press to forego its singular role as watchdog of the president hurts more than just journalism. We are all poorer for it, as it gives undeserved attention to partisan arguments made in bad faith and overlooks substantive critiques that could make our government and country work better. Making common cause with the right-wing may seem like an effective way for the media to foster more White House accountability, but as CBS News found out this past week, that's playing in a game no amount of luck will let it win. And it brings to mind another old poker saying that the rest of the press would do well to remember the next time it thinks about sitting down with the GOP: If you look around the table and you can’t pick out who the sucker is, it’s you.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
*A later blog post about the book did have a couple of small errors, but these were entirely technical matters, including a typo and an "a" that should have been a "the," but these did not in any way affect any issues of substance with regard to my arguments or analysis of the work.
My new CAP column is called “Think Again: The Super-Rich and Their Monster.”
The paywall is now down on my last Nation column, a tribute to the 60th birthday for Dissent, 10th for Center for American Progress, “Liberalism's Bullpen."
Only Andrew Sullivan wold have the chutzpah to announce that he had not read a book at the center of debate and then proceed to launch a campaign on behalf of the very same book. (Though to be fair, failing to read this book is, I would argue, the only way to defend it.)
Sullivan is almost too silly to be believed, but it gets worse. Remember Andrew once called me a “Fifth Columnist” who could not be trusted to be loyal to America in it’s fight with Al Qaeda because I was overly critical of George Bush. (Well actually, he lied and said I opposed the US attack on Aftghanistan, which maybe in retrospect I should have, but I didn’t. I publicly offered to contribute $10,000 to an organization fighting AIDS in Africa if he could substantiate his accusation, but he could not, and of course, he was--and remains--too chickenshit to admit it.) But now I am not be trusted because I am too loyal to Israel. Could it be that I the only pro-Al Qaeda/pro-Zionist Fifth Columnist in history or is Andrew Sullivan, perhaps, a mite confused.
On another occasion, Andrew accused me of having published the equivalent, I kid you not of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" when I pointed out that the Palestinians could not expect a fair shake in the US media. Again, now I am a representative, in Andrew’s words, of the bad guys from the other side: the author, perhaps of the “Protocols of the Elders of Palestine.”
Now Andrew has done a 180 degree backflip--like an upside down Christopher Hitchens, only without the writing talent or personal charm, and become a dedicated enemy of everything he believed so vociferously until he didn’t. I rarely, if ever entertain the notion that criticism of Israel implies anti-Semitism, but in Andrew’s case I’m willing to make an exception, largely based on the judgement of his longtime colleague at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, who understands these distinctions as well as anyone and yet accuses Andrew of harboring a “venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews” or perhaps merely being “a bigot” who is also “moronically insensitive.” Personally, I think that’s a false choice. But if you really care, you can learn about new Andrew’s hatred for old Andrew in Liam Hoare’s article The Unhinging of Andrew Sullivan
Meanwhile, The quotes above, plus the one where Andrew crows that publishing Charles Murray's racist pseudoscience in TNR “one of my proudest moments in journalism” can be found in this column I wrote about Andrew not too long ago. Surprise, surprise, he did not let his readers know about that one. What’s more, he pretended Max Blumenthal’s response to my column was the last word on the matter . He should have read (and linked to) this response, though I know that’s a lot to ask for a guy championing a book he can’t be bothered to read.
Oh, and if you thought the controversy was missing a Hillary Clinton angle, you were apparently wrong about that. Here it is, care of Buzzfeed.
Woody Guthrie Box Set
Amnesty International DVD box set
“Springsteen and I” bluray
The Beatles at the BBC, Volume II
Deluxe editions of David Bowie’s “The Next Day” and Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”
Our first review is by Altercation Special Woody Guthrie Correspondent, Danny Goldberg:
Rounder Records recently release an opulent box set called Woody Guthrie American Radical Patriot . Six CDs include “the full range of material he recorded for the United States government” which mostly means the songs and stories Guthrie recorded for the Library of Congress under the auspices of John Lomax and a group of songs he was hired to write for the Bonneville Power Administration to bring attention the New Deal program that brought electricity for the first time to a number of rural parts of the country.
There are a total of more than ninety songs ,including most of Woody's best known, and around fifty interludes in which Woody tells stories or answers Lomax’s questions.
The box also includes a DVD with a full length documentary about Guthrie (made for the University of Oregonin 1999) , a nicely printed fifty six page book (and info on how to get a full E-book of 256 pages), and for ultimate audio nerds a 78 RPM disc of Bob Dylan singing Guthrie’s VD CITY recorded in a Minnesota hotel in 1961 and a home recording Woody made of The Biggest Thing That Mad Has Ever Done.”
As far as I can tell all of this material has previously been released, but never in such a comprehensive and carefully produced form . Woody's body of work in undiminished in its unique brilliance and ,in the wake of the financial crisis, has eerily grown in contemporary relevance. Bill Nowlin and his colleagues Rounder deserves enormous credit for the care and craftsmanship of the package, and Nora Guthrie deserves America’s gratitude for her loving,careful and meticulous and politically progressive curation of her father’s art and legacy.
Any excuse to re-visit the richness and visionary nature Woody Guthrie’s body of work is welcome but it should be noted that this box is not for those on tight budgets: it retails for $125.99 on the Barnes and Noble website.
Ok, back to me:
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen's worldwide Human Rights Now! tour for Amnesty International, with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N'Dour, Shout! Factory has done us the great favor of compiling a six dvd collection of that tour’s October 15, 1988 performance in Buenos Aires from the HBO broadcast on HBO--the two songs where Bruce and “El Stingo” sing together are near transcendent despite Bruce’s goofy 80’s hair--and five more such films from other, similar, though not quite as great tours, including four Human Rights Concert films in their entirety, from 1986, 1988, 1990, and 1998. I had a few of these on video in the old days, but it is a thrill to have them digitally remastered on DVD and a bunch of them have never been available before. The various lineups are really impressive and most of the bands and performers have aged quite well (as opposed to say, those in Live Aid). Check out the listing on Amazon and also all of the extras. Plus the money goes to Amnesty, so you get to feel good about yourself. It will take a long time to get through all of them but it’s like having old friends around and you can skip around. The packaging is compact and strong--not at all cheap feeling like the six cd version of the R&R HOF shows that came out a few years ago--to which this might be favorably compared. Now (Hello Jackson) all we need is a new, remastered “No Nukes.” Oh and there’s also a two cd set of just music, whose lineup you can see here if that’s all you want. $ still goes to Amnesty....
I avoided the film “Springsteen & I” during its brief theaterical run because I thought I would feel like a loser in the theater. It’s actully really entertaining and only rarely cloying and I think will be fun even for non Bruce people. The extended Elvis imitator sequence is really wonderful in a cringe-inducing way. So too the Scandanavian busker who gets a big suprise guest. But what’s totally excellent about my decision to skip the film in theaters is the fact that the Blu-ray has six songs from last year’s Hyde Park shows--the one with Paul McCartney--beautifully produced and some other extras I doubt I’ll watch, but maybe you will. Anyway, the Paul/Bruce versions of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout” are among the greatest things ever. (Though the T&S on the Amnesty collection is pretty damn wonderful too.) These old guys are so cute and have such wonderful smiles (and in Paul’s case, the best work” I’ve ever seen on anyone), I can only imagine how it must work if you are a female of a certain age...
Channukah comes early this year and with it, a present from past. “On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2,” out this coming Monday is another bucket of charm and good vibes and pretty decent packaging, with a 48-page booklet. It’s got 37 previously unreleased performances--ten of which they never recorded--plus 23 tracks of cute banter which you might want to listen to once or twice and then deprogram. But how can this stuff not put anyone in a good mood. (And what kind of terrible person would not want it under the Channukah Bush?)
Highlights include covers of Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” and a rocking “Beautiful Dreamer,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Chuck Berry’s Chan Romero’s “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” and two songs the boys picked up from Carl Perkins’ records, “Glad All Over” --a hit for the Dave Clark Five--and “Sure To Fall.”
All the songs were recorded live with no overdubs, but of course were cleaned up an remastered for official release and believe me, they sound alot nicer than the bootlegs that have been clogging up my itunes files for decade.
David Bowie has released a deluxe version of his last album called “The Next Day Extra.” Disc 1 is the original 14 track album. Disc 2 includes the three tracks from the original Deluxe edition of The Next Day, plus 4 new studio tracks, a bonus track ("God Bless The Girl"), and 2 new re-mixes (including one by James Murphy). Disc 3 is a DVD of the four acclaimed video s created for The Next Day album: 'Where Are We Now?,' 'The Stars Are Out Tonight,' 'The Next Day' and 'Valentine s Day.' It’s got some pretty fancy packaging too, though it’s rather arty and not too illuminating.
Van Morrison’s record company, Warner Brothers, has released a five cd version of “Moondance” one of history’s greatest albums. The deluxe version has a remastered cd and three cds of outtakes--all placed repeatively in sequence, along with a Blu-Ray Audio disc with high-resolution 48K 24 bit PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound audio of original album. There’s one song, “I Shall Sing,” later recorded by Art Garfunkle, that didn’t make it to the album. The liner notes are pretty excellent and the packaging is nice to Van obsessives will go for it, I’m sure. Other people will want one of the less rich/less demanding versions of the release.
Now here’s Reed:
A Different Kind of Election Night, with Al Jazeera America
by Reed Richardson
This past Tuesday night, I tried an experiment. Having grown all too familiar with how the big three networks handle Election Night coverage, I spent six hours plugged into the newest entrant in the cable news universe, Al Jazeera America. I wanted to see what, if anything, it does differently than the troika of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. The answer, it turns out, is a lot. And though AJAM is only offered on a portion of the country’s cable systems and its ratings remain but a blip, its first take on Election Night here in the U.S. offered up some real promise as well as important insights about how the cable news coverage could be made better or, at the very least, a lot less worse.
6:00 – As it does at the top of the hour every evening, AJAM leads off with a news roundup, and here it highlights the two marquee gubernatorial match-ups of the night in New Jersey and Virginia. CNN and MSNBC launch their pre-primetime hours similarly. Fox News, though, with a pre-packaged report from Jim Angle, previews its framing through which it will view most everything this Election Night, which I might simply sum up as “Obamacare Sucks.”
6:07 – Only seven minutes into my experiment and AJAM has already thrown out the standard Election Night playbook. Rather than staying locked into the studio, ping-ponging between a stable of talking heads, the network actually makes use of its newly-hired team of national correspondents, running back-to-back, on-location live reports. Even more surprising is where it goes. Instead of throwing to a reporter standing on the boardwalk outside Chris Christie’s campaign celebration in Asbury Park—where CNN bigwigs like Jake Tapper spent the night—AJAM digs into the overlooked mayoral races in Detroit and Coralville, Iowa. The former, AJAM reports, is notable for the city’s ongoing fiscal woes and that a predominately black population is poised to elect a white candidate for the first time in 40 years. The latter election, which had just been the focus of New York Times front-page story two days earlier, provides a fascinating, frightening look at how large, free-spending billionaires—in this case the right-wing Koch brothers—are now dabbling in local politics to push their agendas.
6:27 – AJAM again breaks away to look at the rest of the country. A local correspondent in Denver spends the next several minutes explaining the interesting tax referenda on the Colorado ballot and their potential impact on education funding in the state, as well as the latent secession movement in the state’s northeast corner. Fox News, by contrast, has just left a recap of the Miami Beach mayoral race (know your demo!) to reveal the dastardly voter registration aspects of the Affordable Care Act.
6:40 – In an in-studio discussion of the New York City’s mayoral race, AJAM delves into what a big Bill de Blasio victory would mean for the NYPD’s provocative stop-and-frisk policy. AJAM will be the only network to devote substantial time to this topic on Election Night. (In the 10:00 hour, after de Blasio is officially declared the winner, AJAM will spend several more minutes discussing both stop-and-frisk and the city’s growing income inequality problem.) Concurrently, on Fox News, Dr. Ben Carson helpfully explains that there are “many plans” to replace Obamacare, but when pressed by Mara Liasson to give specifics on these plans, he helpfully ignores her.
6:55 – Another wake-up call from AJAM, this time on the relentlessly provincial nature of cable news coverage here in the United States. While the big three cable networks are simply marking time until 7:00pm when polls will close in Virginia, AJAM gives a sobering weather report on Category 5 Super Typhoon Haiyan, which is barreling toward the Philippines. (It looks to be massively devastating.)
7:00 – Audaciously, brazenly, AJAM sticks with its regular programming, the network’s half-hour program “Real Money.” This evening, it looks at the long-term prospects for employer health care premiums, the need for more STEM graduates to fill a 200,000-worker manufacturing shortage, the sharp rise and recent dip in Tesla’s stock price, and the potential billion-dollar commodity market for marijuana. It’s almost like the folks at AJAM don’t even care that Cuccinelli is winning by 13 points with 5% of the vote returns in! Don’t they know that one of tomorrow’s favorite memes about the 2013 election—McAuliffe’s win wasn’t big enough and therefore doesn’t count—is already setting in? On MSNBC, after a 20-minute parade of white, male pundits like Howard Fineman and Chuck Todd, Chris Matthews finally features a woman on his show. Around this same time, CNN does its only foreign story of the night, the irresistible, though-already-revealed admission by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford that he smoked crack while in office. Anchor Erin Burnett, displaying her reporting chops will call this story “unprecedented,” which, of course, it is not.
7:30 – But what just may be unprecedented is AJAM plowing right into its next show, “The Stream,” which will spend a whole 30 minutes talking about the racial and fiscal politics affecting the Philadelphia school system. Guests include two women of color—one a student and one a teacher—a white male reporter from a local independent newspaper, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers labor union. These types of voices are rarely found cable news; on an Election Night, they’re unheard of. But while this diversity on the network’s part is striking, there is nevertheless an unmistakably amateurish feel to the show’s production values. While CNN’s John King is tapping away at blue and red Virginia counties on his “Magic Wall,” some AJAM guests are grainily beamed into the studio via Skype and Google Hangout. One has headphones sorrowfully draping out of his ears.
7:53 – CNN’s first of two Election Night mentions of the city of Detroit appears. Sadly, both will be promos for the season finale of Anthony Bourdain’s travel show (“What the hell happened here?” he asks, showing more curiosity than the network’s Election Night producers.) Then, almost impishly, right after that, an ad for AJAM runs on CNN, talking about how the network is going to “change the way people look at news.” If anyone actually switched followed that advice, they’d see both the good and the bad aspects of that claim.
8:00 – CNN calls the New Jersey governor’s race, unsurprisingly, for Christie and, AJAM, diving back into election news (finally!) does the same five minutes later, citing the Associated Press. But AJAM had actually led off the hour with the news about the Koch brothers dumping money into an Iowa mayoral and city council election, an arguably more newsy story than Christie’s foregone victory. Trying to actually do some differentiated political reporting, the AJAM news anchor interviewing a Christie flak, rather than just fluff the governor’s 2016 plans, instead asks about the downballot races in New Jersey, a topic almost universally ignored by the other networks and one that gets a very telling, non-committal response. (Because it turned out Christie had zero coattails.)
8:13 – MSNBC pundits land on the “Obamacare referendum” talking point for the still-too-close-to-call Virginia governor’s race. Though easily disproved by looking closely at the exit polls, this misinterpretation quickly rippled through the Beltway conventional wisdom Tuesday night and on into the days following in much the same way the mistaken “moral values” theme did on Election Night in 2004. AJAM, to its credit, pretty much avoids wallowing in this insufferable meta-analysis. Breaking from the wall-to-wall New Jersey coverage, it revisits the Detroit mayoral election to see how the presence of an emergency manager—forced onto the city by a Republican governor—seems to have severely depressed voter turnout. On a night when cable news tends to treat our voter participation as a patriotic given, it’s a cold, but necessary, dose of reality on how poorly our democracy engages its citizens sometimes.
8:23 – On Fox, Bill O’Reilly and John Stossel sternly discuss the latter’s story about the black market of food stamp cards. All the “makers” watching are no doubt duly outraged. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, to his credit, offers an antidote to the Fox “taker”-bashing by devoting a significant chunk of time to the Colorado ballot questions and the New Jersey minimum wage referendum. Even so, AJAM is simultaneously going farther afield, with a report from its local Seattle correspondent on a Washington state GMO food labeling initiative and a $15-living wage ballot question in SeaTac. (The first was defeated, while the second looks to have been narrowly passed.) Then AJAM pivots to Texas, where its Dallas-based reporter explains a state proposition to use a $2 billion-fund for water infrastructure spending. This is serious, policy-driven reporting and the breadth of the topics is eye-opening.
8:48 – AJAM’s dedication to news variety can verge on the inexplicable, however. When it wanders into sports for a few minutes to discuss the potential contracts of Yankees second-baseman Robinson Cano and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw I’m left wondering who wouldn’t be watching ESPN to get this news. While CNN and MSNBC are sticking to Virginia and New Jersey, Fox News shows off its unique brand of counter-programming, as O’Reilly and fellow panelist Monica Crowley take the opportunity of Election Night to beat the drum of (completely non-existent) voter fraud and beat up on reliable liberal foil Alan Colmes while doing so. After hours of taking in AJAM’s straight news, this blatant propaganda piece by Fox stands out as even more laughably transparent.
9:00 – As polls close in New York City, CNN’s Piers Morgan not-so-subtly asks if panic has set in at McAuliffe headquarters. After all, the Democrat hasn’t yet taken the electoral lead from Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli. Within minutes, Republican pundit Steve Schmidt is singing the same song, ominously asking if Democrats are in real trouble because the Virginia governor’s race was supposed to be a “blowout.” (McAuliffe’s own polling said otherwise.) Way down the dial, Al Jazeera’s flagship show, “America Tonight” is serenely sailing past this pundit freakout with lengthy stories on a Justice Department investigation into pharmaceutical sales rep payola and a detailed expose on the excessive, cross-border shooting of Mexican rock-throwers by Border Patrol agents. These stories are so good I’m almost exasperated that this kind of quality journalism is getting buried even further by running on Election Night.
9:37 – This exasperation turns to outright disgust when I click over to CNN just in time to see Wolf Blitzer cry out in amazement as the Virginia gubernatorial returns flip in McAuliffe’s favor. That CNN’s version of compelling cable news journalism amounts to watching a vote counter sadly speaks volumes. Adding insult to injury, CNN soon lets conservative pundit Bill Kristol baselessly spout the Election Night trope that the Virginia election shows “Obamacare is toxic.” So toxic, one should point out, that 10 minutes later, CNN calls the election for McAuliffe, who broke a 35-year streak of White House-out party candidates winning in Virginia. Returning to AJAM, I’m swept up in a story that it’s safe to say no U.S. cable news network would ever be able to run: an on-the-ground report on how hip-hop is slowly changing the political culture in Cuba.
10:00 – This is Election Night’s standard victory speech hour. But it also offers the clearest distinction between AJAM’s editorial approach and the rest of cable news. At a quarter past the hour, Christie takes the stage and CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all switch to it. AJAM, though, is zigging so hard from the cable news pack it’s almost neck-snapping, as it instead features two experts exploring Saudi disillusionment with recent U.S. foreign policy moves in Iran and Egypt. (One guest also notes that, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, where Al Jazeera’s main headquarters is located, is arming Syrian rebels.) This is one of those Election Night moments where AJAM’s contrarianism goes overboard, though. Whatever one might think about the contrived, news-less nature of political speeches, TV networks nonetheless have an obligation to let elected officials speak directly to the public, especially just after having been elected by said public.
10:41 – Perhaps the one point in the night that offers up each cable news network’s distinct take on the news. On Fox News, a discussion of 2016 GOP primary candidates is sharing split-screen time with video (but no audio) of Ken Cuccinelli’s concession speech; on MSNBC, Bill de Blasio’s New York City mayoral victory speech (partly in Spanish!) is being broadcast as a triumph of liberalism; on CNN, a panel of pundits is lauding Christie and picking over McAuliffe’s bones as if he’d lost, and on AJAM— because, well, why not—there’s a discussion of why Popular Science magazine turned off its website comments. When minutes later, McAuliffe begins his victory speech, everyone covers it except for AJAM, which is off on another incongruous tangent, featuring an interview with a world-class mountain free-climber.
11:00 – After just tidbits of election news for most of the evening, AJAM spends most of this hour ably catching up and recapping Election Night’s results, minus all the fancy magic walls and big-name commentators, of course. If someone had just wanted to download what happened with the elections without sitting through endless hi-def updates and supposed experts spouting anecdotal theories, this would be a good place to go. And yet, lest AJAM lose all credibility amongst the “serious” DC crowd, news anchor John Seigenthaler does indulge in a bit of 2016 handicapping with none other than a writer from the uber-DC-insider publication, Politico.
11:40 – With Rachel Maddow plugging away, Fox News safely ensconced in its nightly rerun of O’Reilly, and CNN’s Crossfire working at full tilt to keep Van Jones and Newt Gingrich happily head-butting, I finally start to see the cable news coverage reverting back to its normal self. Over at AJAM, though, there’s one last surprise. From Takoma Park, Maryland, one of the network’s correspondents reports on that city’s initiative to let 16 and 17-year-olds vote in local elections. The teens’ enthusiasm for civic participation is an inspiring and a satisfying way to end an important night in our democracy. And being interviewed for this well-done and feel-good story is probably not a bad way for this next generation to be introduced to the network.
Though Al Jazeera America is still a work in progress, it shows promise and its coverage has a lot to offer those news consumers intrepid enough to seek it out (providing they have access to it in the first place). Whether significant numbers of today’s—or tomorrow’s—viewers will ever tune into it is hard to say. But when compared to how poorly we are served by the Beltway myopia and pundit bickering of our current cable news climate, AJAM’s on-the-ground reporting and back-to-basics programming strongly suggests our democracy would be better served if we did.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Here’s my new CAP column: Think Again: The Tea Party’s Forebears Are a Movement of the Rich I think it’s self explanatory.
I felt forced to spend an enormous amount of time responding to each and every one of Max Blumenthal’s complaints about me, even those having nothing to do with my column or blog posts but were mere personal attacks. I discovered in doing so that he is even more dishonest than I gave originally him credit for (which you’ll see if you’re able to reach the end of this ): Eric Alterman Replies to Max Blumenthal’s Letter
What truly shocks me, however, is how extremist he has now revealed himself to be. When I joked about the “Hamas Book of the Month Club,” I was referring exclusively to his hatred of Israel and his ridiculously one-sided apportionment of blame. (Well, also the Nazi metaphors.) But read to the end of J.J. Goldberg’s column about the controversy and you will see that his beliefs go even further than I dared imagine. He actually wants to expel the Jews from historic Palestine period--that is unless they become Arabs and embrace the culture of their neighbors. My “Hamas” joke is looking less funny every minute. This view, need I point out, is the mirror image of the most lunatic of West Bank settlers. Seriously. How extremist an anti-Zionist do you have to be to make Phil Wess nervous? (Can you imagine? Cue the “crazy” metaphors.)
Alas, read Max Blumenthal's 'Goliath' Is Anti-Israel Book That Makes Even Anti-Zionists Blush and see if you think I exaggerate. Here are his exact words, as reprinted by JJ in response to a question from a member of a University of Pennsylvania audience about the role of Jews in his ideal Middle East.
“There should be a choice placed to the settler-colonial population” (meaning the entire Jewish population of Israel): “Become indigenized,” that is, “you have to be part of the Arab world.” Or else…? “The maintenance and engineering of a non-indigenous demographic population is non-negotiable.”
I had to go over that two or three times just to believe it (as well to make sense of it), but Goldberg put it in context. It is often said that the Palestinians people have been tragically mis-served by their leaders. I fear the same must be said about their cheerleaders.
Also read this: Eric Alterman on Max Blumenthal's anti-Israel book
Then you can read a nine year old blog post I wrote about my Close Encounters of the Lou Reed Kind It’s sort of sweet and sort of horrible.
My Nation column, ‘Dissent’ and the Center for American Progress: Liberalism’s Bullpen, is surprise, surprise, foolishly behind a paywall.
Washington Ex-Senators: Stars of the Big-League Media
by Reed Richardson
There’s an old saying in baseball: pitching wins in October. (Ahem.) You might say the same adage applies to winning over the conventional wisdom in Washington; it’s all about which team can consistently pitch the best message. And despite a rocky start to the month, the pro-business, pro-austerity, pro-defense crowd has once again demonstrated why it dominates the discourse in our nation’s capital. If you want to ensure the Beltway media’s complicity in accommodating the needs and wants of the 1%, there may be no one better to turn to in fostering your agenda than a former U.S. Senator.
Or better yet, two. Consider the Spahn and Sain of these insider pitchmen: former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and two-time former Democratic Senate candidate Erskine Bowles. As co-chairs of the deeply flawed 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which failed initially and was strongly rejected in a subsequent attempt, Simpson and Bowles have nonetheless been transformed into Capitol Hill’s pre-eminent seers on fiscal seriousness. The pair’s ability to reliably redirect the media’s attention whenever it drifts too far afield from implementing a painful, austerity agenda at the expense of seniors and the middle class is a sad truth of modern day Washington.
It was apparent again this past week, when, right on time, Simpson and Bowles popped up on the op-ed pages of the DC insider publication, The Hill, to ladle out more of their tired, pox-on-both-houses shtick. To read their diagnosis of Washington’s problems is to encounter a worldview where unspecified “leaders” must “stop the madness.” That government shutdown? Oh, much like the media, Simpson and Bowles have moved on, no sense wasting any time trying to affix blame or understand the irrational motives of the party that caused it. To them, any crisis, no matter what ignites it, makes now the right time for a grand bargain. They remain convinced that deficits haunt all that we do, though they conveniently omit the fact that the federal deficit is falling fast—probably too fast. Thus, they say the only way to exorcise our fiscal demons is through “pro-growth” policies that cut tax preferences to lower rates while doing things like rolling back Social Security benefits and means-testing Medicare. For all their talk of compromise and shared sacrifice, however, their preferred outcomes betray a pretty clear bias for one side of the political ledger:
“[S]o far, we have done the easy stuff (raising taxes on the wealthy and calling for unspecified cuts in discretionary spending) and we’ve done the stupid stuff (across-the-board cuts under sequestration). Now it’s time to do the tough stuff and the smart stuff: reforming our entitlements and tax code.
“Policymakers should seek to reach agreement on a framework that at a minimum stabilizes the debt as a share of GDP. Reaching such an agreement will require Democrats to accept some structural reforms of entitlements, and will require Republicans to use a portion of revenues that will result from simplifying the tax code for deficit reduction, instead of using all savings to reduce tax rates. But such an agreement is achievable.”
Notice how Simpson and Bowles completely ignore the tough political fight over the fiscal cliff in January by characterizing raising taxes on the wealthy as “easy?” And then they turn around and label the act of giving the GOP most of what it wants, policy-wise, as “smart.” Indeed, in this lopsided deal, Republicans would realize one of their longest-held goals of substantially undermining the country’s social insurance compact, in exchange for slightly smaller tax cuts than they might have wanted. And yet, thanks to Tea Party intransigence, Republicans won’t even take this sweet of a deal. That, three years later, these two are still given op-ed space to push essentially the same unfair compromise they came up with in 2010—despite countless examples of Republican bad faith in negotiating since then—demonstrates just how badly the media wants their faux-centrist message to get out.
But Simpson and Bowles are by no means the only ones acting as stalking horses for the Beltway media’s agenda. During the past month, several former Democratic senators have been generously allotted opportunities to make similar pro-entitlement reform arguments. None other than former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, for instance, took to the pages of uber-insider Politico this week to call for“seizing the moment” on entitlement reform. Incredibly, he too just glides right past the extreme, obstructionist behavior by House Republicans, which tore hundreds of thousands of jobs and more than $12 billion out of our economy last month, to instead call for the president to “put all options on the table” in modernizing Medicare. Trouble is, many of the commonly suggested bipartisan “fixes” for Medicare, like raising the eligibility age to 67 years old, return little real fiscal savings for the toll exacted in quality of life. Symptomatic of his intellectual disingenuousness, Daschle, in his conclusion, literally can’t bring himself to name who’s really to blame for our nation’s budgetary dysfunction, so he employs a generic euphemism to camouflage the GOP’s culpability [italics mine below]:
“The choice is clear. Lawmakers can continue to vote to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act, moving us closer to a repeat of the nightmare we have all just experienced. Or they can change course to reach agreement on something far more constructive, overdue and promising.”
Sounding a note of caution on all this wanton embrace of budget cutting this past Tuesday was another bipartisan pair of former Senators. But lest you think this was in protest to the devastating $5-billion cut to SNAP recipients that goes into effect today, I’d note that the Senators were former Arizona Republican Jon Kyl and former Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, both unabashed defense hawks, and that their co-byline appeared in Politico.
As you might imagine, then, their argument against excessive fiscal austerity was all about preserving $52 billion in military spending due to be cut in the next round of sequestration. By “starving defense” this way, they warn, national security will be harmed. Left unsaid is how well national security has fared by spending $1 trillion on an “embarrassment” of a plane known as the F-35 or $40 billion each on Combat Littoral Ships that, despite their name, are not survivable in a “hostile combat environment.” I guess it fell to these two brave former Senators to publicly speak up for all this military spending; it’s not like the defense industry has thousands of highly-paid lobbyists doing the same thing already. Too bad poor people don’t buy ads in Politico.
But neither Kyl and Lieberman’s gratuitous war-hawking nor Daschle’s case for pre-emptive Democratic capitulation, however, can compare to the editorial efforts of former Democratic Senator from North Dakota, Kent Conrad. Twice in the past three weeks (once in the Washington Post, and once The Hill) Conrad clambered aboard the “fair trade” train of trading short-term revenues for long-term entitlement cuts. In doing so, he embraces a “chained CPI” for Social Security and ominously warns that Medicare will be insolvent by 2026. Of course, in touting the savings from switching to a chained CPI, he omits any talk of the very dire consequences to seniors of changing the cost-of-living formula. In addition, Conrad fails to mention that a predicted date of insolvency has been included in 42 of 45 Medicare reports since 1970 (see page 4), or that a 13-year solvency horizon falls right in the average time window. And then there’s this throwaway line from Conrad’s Post op-ed that he should have been ashamed to put his name to: “Repeal the medical device tax of 2.3 percent, about which no one seems enthusiastic.” That would be the same medical device tax that funds the Affordable Care Act to the tune of $30 billion over 10 years and that House Republicans champion as a way to begin defunding the law. Hey, I know at least one other former Senator who would definitely agree with him: Evan Bayh.
The point of all this, of course, isn’t to call for circumscribing former Senators—particularly centrist Democratic ones— from engaging in policy debates after leaving office. They’re obviously entitled to expressing their opinions (or that of their well-paying employers) however they so choose. What is striking, though, is that what we saw this past month happens all the time. So many of the former elected officials showing up the op-ed pages of the Beltway media coalesce around the same sets of solutions to the same sets of problems. Sure there’s some self-selection going on here, but most of the time the media is actually imprinting its (supposedly non-existent) viewpoints onto what constitutes the boundaries of debate.
In the end, it’s not a coincidence that a press corps blindly calling out for bipartisan compromises routinely promotes the viewpoints of former politicians who share that very same outlook. Today’s highly partisan nature of Washington may have left behind the crude, both-sides-must-give mentality of former Senators like Simpson, Lieberman, Daschle, or Conrad, but there’s one constituency that still embraces this artificially balanced mindset. The press may like to pretend that it’s merely an observer and not an inside-the-Beltway player, in other words, but that’s a fallacy. As long as it is selectively enforcing its own agenda when choosing who gets onto the field of debate, our democracy will continue to be little more than a rigged game.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Dear Mr. Richardson;
Thank you for your article [“How the Media’s Cognitive Biases Distort Obamacare Coverage”] about recent media insanity over a website! Dear god, it's horrifying to witness the same media idiocy repeatedly. [This past Saturday], even MSNBC's "UP" took the bait and spent valuable time discussing the website problems! Who gives a shit!!??!! Government exists to make life better for people. The ACA is good government. Not perfect government.
I recall a few years ago, somebody said that a liberal gets media criticism even for curing cancer, while a conservative gets praise just for spelling cancer correctly. Or the responsibility every black leader seems to bear for anything and everything said or done by 100% of black people. Compared this with the shrill media response when a conservative is asked to address comments from within their own party; even their own office staff! Witness the absolute hysteria over Congressman Alan Grayson 'comparing' the Tea Party to the KKK. The group that runs around with posters of President Obama in a Hitler mustache, amongst many other depictions, is upset about being compared to the Klan?
Final thought (sorry): The Klan is about bullying and intimidating those that disagree with them. That sounds like the Tea Party to me. Often it's fellow Repubs (RINO bashing), but still they are using fear and intimidation to achieve their goals. While liberals self-police over Grayson and Dick Durbin, Tea Partiers get away with killing the economy.
Thanks again. Good luck.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
The below ran originally on April 9, 2003 on MSNBC.com
I like Lou Reed the way most people I know like Lou Reed. I was intrigued and disquieted by “Walk on the Wild Side” in junior high, danced to “Sweet Jane and “Rock and Roll” in high school, and endured dark, devotional period in college which focused on The Blue Mask and Street Hassle. In grad school with lots of time to kill, I looked up his letters to the poet Delmore Schwartz, and made copies for my friends. But Lou has moved on and so have I. I still pick up his new albums sometimes but they almost always disappoint. His last concert at the Beacon Theater, a half-block from my apartment, was so awful I was relieved to go home while he was still onstage. Still, this is New York , so I have a story.
A few years ago I was in the Village Vanguard seeing the pianist Marcus Roberts when a beefy security guard who spoke no English blocked my path out of the men’s room. I was about to assert my God-given right as an American to leave any men’s room whenever I damn pleased, when I noticed the President of the Czech Republic (and a personal hero of mine) Vaclav Havel, leaving the club, trailed by Henry Kissinger and Lou. (What were they talking about before the set? NATO? The Velvets’ reunion? Henry’s fear of an international criminal tribunal?) Henry and Vaclav jumped into a limo, while Lou was stuck behind them in a jeep. I felt his pain, but I said nothing.
A few days later, I was telling this story to my close friend, Frank (not his real name) who lived out of town. He told me of the curse that Lou had cast on his life. I don’t remember all the details, but Frank was the Lou Reed fan to end all Lou Reed fans from the time he attended Columbia as an undergrad for about a decade and a half. That’s when Lou’s curse began to take effect. I forget the details but it was no joke. Frank would always put on one of Lou’s albums to mark the key moments of his life and something would always go horribly wrong. Girls would dump him; his wife had a miscarriage and I forget what else, but it was bad. He never listened to his favorite artist ever again. I tried to think of what life would be like if I felt forced to exile myself from Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. I couldn’t bear it.
A few weeks later I got invited to a benefit party where Lou was going to do a poetry reading at George Plimpton’s house. I told Frank. He asked me please to not even mention Lou ever again, no matter what the circumstances. I apologized. This was serious. Lou came to the reading, and I considered telling him about Frank but it sounded too crazy. Plus, he seemed to be in a really bad mood, even for Lou Reed. He read his songs at an inaudible level, visibly wincing whenever anyone tried to introduce him around. He left within seconds of finishing. Lou is not, apparently, a schmoozer.
The next day Frank called me and asked if I had gotten “the unmentionable one” to lift the curse. “Whaddya mean?” I demanded. “You never told me to do that.” “I know,” he explained, “That’s part of the curse. I’m not allowed to ask.” “Shit,” I thought. I should have realized. I let my buddy down. I hate that.
But America, God bless her, is the land of second chances. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I went to the movies at Lincoln Plaza , twelve blocks from where I live. Walking up Broadway, right by the theater at 63rd street , I saw a woman I thought I recognized eating a late lunch at one of the café tables that rubs up right against the sidewalk. Then I remembered who she was: Laurie Anderson, Lou’s wife. And there he was, sitting across from her, wearing a black T-shirt, per usual.
First I panicked. My cell phone was charging back at home so I couldn’t call Frank and ask him what to do. I walked a few feet to the nearest pay phone which advertised calls for twenty-five cents a minute to anywhere, with a fifty-cent minimum. I had fifty cents, which was my change from the ten-dollar bill I gave the movie lady, and dialed Frank’s cell number, but the phone had lied. The minimum was seventy-five cents, which I didn’t have. So I tried to call him collect, but his cell did not accept collect calls, don’t ask me why. Then I remembered that last time, he said he could not personally ask for the curse to be lifted or else it would not work.
So I did it. Like the ultimate bridge-and-tunnel teenage nudnik, I walked back to the sidewalk café and excused myself, and said, “Mr. Reed, you probably don’t want to hear this whole story but…”
Lou: “Excuse me, I’m trying to have a meal here.”
Me: “Would you just do me a favor and lift the curse on my friend Frank?”
Lou (getting angry): “Listen, I’m trying to have a meal….”
Me: “Just say ‘Sure, I lift the curse on Frank’ and I’m outta here. I promise.”
Lou (exasperated and angry): “Sure. I lift the curse on Frank.”
Me: “Thanks. Bye.”
Is this a great city or what?
Read Alterman’s latest response to Max Blumenthal.
Congratulations to Max Blumenthal. The Nation has, over the decades, published any number of extremely harsh critics of Israel and Zionism. But, as far as I’m aware, never before has anyone defended the analogizing of the behavior of Israeli Jews to that of the war criminals who led Nazi Germany. Such arguments are, unfortunately, consistent with both the quality of Blumenthal’s judgments and the honesty of his journalism.
Blumenthal’s letter is no less dishonest and disingenuous than his dreadful book (a book, I hasten to add that has received virtually no attention in the print media, save in my column). I will answer each and every one of his charges in the order he makes them and then I hope and pray I will finally be done with this mishegas forever.
Blumenthal’s preamble to his charges is, shall we say, confusing. He writes, “These enforcers, recently aided and abetted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, have painted critics who do not toe the party line or journalists who report uncomfortable facts as anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews or cheerleaders for terror. Readers of The Nation should recognize this kind of smearing as a form of McCarthyism.” I sure hope they do because I’ve addressed these issues so frequently in this and so many other publications for the past thirty years that it would be fair to call them an obsession. For instance: Here is one recent example from The Nation. Here is one from The International Herald Tribune. Here is one from the Center for American Progress. Here is one from The American Prospect. Here is one from The Daily Beast. Here is one from The Forward. And here is one from Moment, etc., etc. As to Blumenthal’s alleged point, however, I did not call him anti-Semitic, self-hating or a cheerleader for terror. I did not even mention any of these things.* His claim to McCarthyite martyrdom is therefore rather misplaced, to put it mildly.
Blumenthal continues, referring to yours truly, “Playing the enforcer, he [Alterman] is trying to frustrate debate….” Again, I plead confusion. I’m the only person in a print outlet anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, who has even noticed the existence of Blumenthal’s book, much less debated its contents. Much to my chagrin, I’ve now devoted many thousands of words to it. Am I really the right person for Max Blumenthal to accuse of seeking to “frustrate debate?”
Blumenthal adds that he does not understand why I would concede that his book is “mostly technically accurate” but remain so critical. He is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of “context.” It might be technically accurate, for instance, to say that an individual who fatally shoots a crazed killer while said killer is mowing down schoolchildren with an assault-weapon is a “murderer.” But it would also be profoundly misleading, given the context. And this is the problem with Blumenthal’s facts. He tells us only the facts he wishes us to know and withholds crucial ones that undermine his relentlessly anti-Israel narrative. As I mentioned, he tells us that the El Al airline “has been accused” of harboring Mossad spies. He does not give us the context, which is that his accuser had just been fired, had worked for the airline for nineteen years without complaint, and presented no evidence. This is, I’m afraid, typical of a book in which the author presents no understandable explanations for Israel’s actions save the evils of the Zionist mind and the blackness of its heart. Blumenthal takes great offense at my quip that the book could have been a selection of a hypothetical Hamas Book of the Month Club, but my point remains valid. If there was a single rendering of any incident in this anti-Zionist propaganda tract that would upset the rather demanding ideological precepts of Israel’s enemies, I did not catch it. Like a child’s fairy tale, each story he tells has the same repetitive narrative, with Israel, without exception, cast as the Big Bad Wolf.
More in sorrow than in anger, no doubt, Blumenthal concludes that he “cannot say that Alterman’s review is technically accurate.” Well, perhaps, but that’s because I did not write a review and Blumenthal, conveniently, provides no links for his readers to see this. To set him and them straight, I devoted my regular Nation column to his book—at my editors’ specific request—and then followed up with my “Altercation” blog explaining to my readers why I would devote so much space to so shameful a book and adding a few points for which I lacked space in my column. Had I had more room, as in a genuine review, I might have addressed many more of its weaknesses, such as those discussed here and here and here. (No doubt more will arise should anyone else pay the book any notice or the authors above get a chance to read more deeply in the book. Those above have only just begun.)
Failing to note that he was talking about a comment I made in my blog post explaining my initial reluctance to write about his awful book, he writes, “following a bizarre reference to the “friendly relations” he has supposedly enjoyed with my parents since I was “a little boy,” an effort at belittlement that reflects only on the bully, Alterman….” First, note the name calling. Second, note the fact that I pointed this out in the explanation on my blog that I had managed my personal and professional relationship with his parents, Sid and Jackie Blumenthal, for the past thirty years without any open animosity between us. I attribute to these friendly relations the fact that until now, Sid Blumenthal had not seen fit to make me the object of any of the unflattering e-mails he so often sends around to journalists and others—myself included—about individuals of whom he disapproves. Privately, I worried that by telling the truth about his son’s book, I would soon hear of nasty e-mails about me sent by Sid to our mutual friends and professional acquaintances. Call it “bizarre,” if you will, but sadly, that’s just what happened.
Continuing on, Blumenthal’s letter objects to the fact that I noted that he quoted a ridiculous definition of Israel’s alleged “fascism” without challenge or criticism. He says he did not “express approval” of the quote. Well, he did not express disapproval either. He simply quoted it as if it explained the situation. He appears to wish to distance himself from it now, quite understandably, but in that case, what is it doing there? People say all sorts of crazy things all the time and most journalists feel no compunction about quoting them respectfully and at length, and without anyone voicing any contrary views. The fact that he has now quoted others accusing Israel of “fascism,” in his letter to the editor—though here, he does not even bother to define the word—is irrelevant to my point. Look up “fascism” in any remotely respectable academic source and you will find that “a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends” bears it no relevance.
Regarding his morally disgusting and intellectually indefensible equation of Israeli Jews to Nazis, all Blumenthal can say is “If the titles of these chapters are shocking, it is only because the facts are shocking.” But chapter titles are not “facts,” by any definition of the word—not even Blumenthal-style “facts.” And his are stupid and offensive because their author has purposely chosen them to be so.
Blumenthal goes on to pat himself on the back for a video he apparently made about non-Jewish refugees in Israel and continued, “Alterman, to my knowledge, has yet to speak up against the organized, officially sanctioned campaign of incitement and violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel, a population that has been left defenseless after fleeing from genocide and unbearable repression.” Yes, this is true. Here is yet one more injustice in the world against which I have failed to speak up. Add it to the millions of other injustices in the world against which I have also failed to speak up. Sadly, I am haunted by the billions of victims of injustice in every nation on earth saying, “If only Eric Alterman would ‘speak up…” Thanks to Max Blumenthal, I understand the importance of such empty moral posturing and am ready to take action: I hereby denounce “the organized, officially sanctioned campaign of incitement and violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel etc, etc. ” together with every other injustice in the world, past, present and future. You’re welcome, everybody.
Back to the book… Regarding the alleged naiveté of Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the progressive daily newspaper Haaretz, Blumenthal again appears to believe that if he can find other people making arguments that strike him as similar to his own, this somehow makes his a true one. I cannot speak to arguments I have not read by authors with whom I am unfamiliar. I do, however, find the level of chutzpah necessary for Max Blumenthal to lecture Aluf Benn—who has covered six Israeli prime ministers from Yitzhak Rabin through Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term, and reported on Israeli-Arab wars and peace negotiations for twenty years—on Netanyahu’s real motivations for absolutely anything to be a sight to behold. (Though to be fair, his lecturing of David Grossman is perhaps even more impressive in this regard.) And I find no less ridiculous Blumenthal’s insistence—again, with no evidence save apparently mental telepathy—that Netanyahu is only pretending to be alarmed about Iran’s nuclear program in order to draw attention away from the occupation. It is, after all, not unheard of for a world leader to find him or herself dealing with more than one problem at one time. Netanyahu can be genuinely concerned about Iran and at the same time, wish to hold onto the West Bank. This is, after all the position of his party, his cabinet, his advisers and, unfortunately, the millions of Israelis who continue to keep him in office. It hardly seems a stretch to assume that he believes it too.
Blumenthal then goes on to object to the fact that I find his description of Berl Katznelson as “Labor Zionism’s chief ideologue” to be “a title that exists exclusively in the author’s imagination.” He writes that in “Katznelson has been described in “almost identical fashion by everyone from Israeli President Shimon Peres to Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld to Israeli writer Amos Oz.” Alas, “almost” is a big word here, (almost as big as “everyone”). If in fact the quotes are accurate, Blumenthal, who does not himself speak Hebrew (!) and whose source notes are almost entirely in English, is citing three Hebrew speakers. None of them used the phrase Blumenthal did, which is a good thing, because, in English at least, which is the language in which Blumenthal seeks to communicate, it makes no sense. Any pronouncement that unironically employs the term “chief ideologue” with regard to a non-hierarchical political philosophical movement is by definition foolishly reductive and literally false. Was Reinhold Niebuhr “the chief ideologue” of American liberalism in the 1950s? Was John Dewey? Was Arthur Schlesinger Jr.? Was Lionel Trilling? Was John Kenneth Galbraith? And once again, Blumenthal ignores the main point of my criticism, which was that Katznelson spoke of conquest as a “complete perversion of the Zionist ideal” exactly the opposite of how Blumenthal sought to portray his views with his selective and non-contextual quotation.
Next up, in response to another criticism of mine, Blumenthal also cites Professor Charles Manekin, who claims that Yeshayahu Leibowitz never published any works of Talmud exegesis. I don’t know why anyone would say such a thing. I have attended lectures on his theology at a local Yeshiva that covered exactly this topic. The online Merriam-Webster definition of “exegesis” reads “EXPOSITION; EXPLANATION; especially an explanation or critical interpretation of a text.” The lengthy entry for Leibowitz in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that “Leibowitz has much to say about the nature of the mitzvoth, particularly as they relate to human values, and based on a basic Talmudic distinction between two forms of religious worship.” Does the above not sound like a “Talmudic exegesis”? It’s almost impossible to be a Jewish theologian or philosopher of Judaism—as Leibowitz undeniably was—without also writing Talmudic exegeses, because the religious teachings with which one must contend derive from the Talmud, which is itself primarily (but not exclusively) a collection of exegeses on the text of the Torah.
As for the Manekin/Blumenthal claim that “almost no Jews outside of Israel knew who Leibowitz was when he was alive,” this is just nonsense. Leibowitz served as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, read by countless Jews all over the world. He died in 1994, but published an English translation of his book, The Faith of Maimonides in 1987 along with a collection of his essays in 1992. Both books were also translated into French. I don’t know why Manekin—who also blogs on behalf of BDS under his nom de plume, “Jerry Haber”— would make so easily disprovable a statement, but I do see a tendency in his writings to offer opinions on matters on which he has literally no knowledge. For instance, in the same blog post to which Blumenthal refers, Manekin/Haber writes, “Alterman, I imagine, spends maybe five minutes a month thinking about Israel. He clearly doesn’t read Haaretz or YNET daily.… he gets his reporting on Israel from the mainstream media.” Here again, I’m afraid, Manekin/Haber is entirely full of shit… and therefore a perfectly appropriate source for Max Blumenthal.
Moreover, regardless of whether one considers Leibowitz a Talmudist, a theologian, a philosopher or biochemist—and he was all of these things—it was misleading of Blumenthal to suggest that Israelis revered him for his extreme political views. He was revered—and rather bravely chosen to receive the Israel Prize—in spite of those views, not because of them.
Regarding Yoram Kaniuk, here Blumenthal has his only legitimate point. His name was misspelled in my blog post owing to a typo. And while Blumenthal did fail to identify the “book” to which he referred as a fictional one, my primary point, I did misread the quote of Kaniuk’s quoted in The Guardian to be that of a Palestinian being quoted in response. My apologies.
Next, Blumenthal goes on to complain at length that I would not debate him when invited to do so. He has repeated this over and over on the Internet, but nowhere does he mention that he never had any reason to believe that I would wish to do so. And why would I? I’ve never met him. I have zero obligation to him. I clearly don’t think very highly either of his work or his character and I have already done more to publicize his awful book than anyone else alive (albeit inadvertently). More to the point, I have never, in the eighteen years I’ve been a columnist and the thirty-one years I’ve been a contributor to this magazine, ever debated any one of the subjects of my columns or blog posts. I am sure not about to start with someone who congratulates himself for comparing Jews to Nazis.
To go on about what a terrible person I am—we are now off the topic of my column and blog post—Blumenthal complains of an infelicitous quote of mine from an MSNBC blog post I wrote back in 2002 when I was blogging every day. I am familiar with it, as it was a favorite of Alexander Cockburn’s as well. Like Cockburn, however, Blumenthal never bothers to inform readers that I withdrew the comment in question a day after I made it, on the basis of improved information. As I wrote eleven years ago: “I think I better apologize for the words ‘tough luck’ at the end of yesterday’s entry. They are inappropriate in a situation where so many innocents, including children, were killed. When I wrote them, I was as yet unaware of the extent of the civilian damage caused by the Israeli missile attack.” Do I even need to add that this information was contained in the same blog post to which Blumenthal linked, but he ignored it in his letter? Once again: technically accurate, but deliberately deceptive.
I have, to this point, answered every one of Blumenthal’s complaints, and fortunately or unfortunately, he saved the worst for last. Blumenthal’s final citation of mine does not even rise to the level of “technical” accuracy. It is demonstrably false, and indeed, one might even safely call it a “lie.” Here, Blumenthal pretends to be shocked by my allegedly “extraordinary declaration that Americans must be willing to endure more 9/11-style terror attacks ‘if that’s the price we have to pay’ to maintain the US-Israeli special relationship.”
That would be extraordinary if I had said it, but I did not. Check the link that Blumenthal, himself, provides and you’ll find an article by the fanatical anti-Zionist and Blumenthal booster, Philip Weiss, in which he reports on 2011 panel discussion in which I participated at the 92nd Street Y. (My words are often big news for Weiss’s website, though its accuracy can be iffy at best.) The article contains both a video of the panel as well as an apparent partial transcript. (I cannot vouch for the latter’s accuracy.) The issue in question was the extremely sensitive one of dual loyalty of some American Jews to both Israel and the United States. In it, I admit to my own conflicted feelings and explain that while I, personally, as a pro-Zionist American Jew, would be willing under certain circumstances to accept such attacks as the price of American support for Israel—indeed, this is yet another argument for Israel to compromise with the Palestinians and allow a peaceful Palestinian state to be built alongside Israel in order to reduce or perhaps even eliminate this threat—I hardly think it appropriate to pretend that there is no price for America’s support for Israel. Nor do I think that the interests of America and Israel are identical, as so many neoconservatives and members of the “pro-Israel community” so frequently insist. In other words, in the quote in question, I was quite clearly speaking for myself personally as a Jew who cares deeply about Israel before a Jewish audience attending a conversation about Israel at a Jewish institution. I was not even attempting to speak for “Americans” as Blumenthal pretends, because more than 99 percent of them are not, like yours truly, Jews who happen to care deeply about the fate of Israel. Employing only the second half of my quote (and none of its context, surprise, surprise), Blumenthal substituted the words “Americans must” for my words, “I’m willing,” to deceive the reader into believing I made the exact opposite argument of the one I made.
Literally nothing this fellow writes can be taken at face value. He shames all of us with his presence in our magazine.
* If Blumenthal wishes to categorize Hamas as a group of “terrorists,” as his letter implies, this would be a shock to the readers of his book. I think they are, unfortunately, the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians in Gaza, however distasteful one may find their ideology and methods.
* * *
Max Blumenthal responds to Alterman’s initial criticism of Goliath.
My new Think Again column is called 10 Years of False Equivalence and Still Going Strong. It’s a reflection on the ten years since the Center for American Progress was founded and the ten years (and one day) that I have been writing that column, and it focuses on (guess what,) false equivalence in the MSM between the radicalized Republican Party and the hyper-moderate Democrats, and the harm this inability to draw so obvious a distinction continues to do to truth, justice and the American way.
I also felt compelled to write an exceptionally long blog post in response to the campaign of vilification directed towards yours truly inspired by Max Blumenthal in retaliation for my column on his terrible book. It’s called “Despicable Me” and it appeared in this space on Wednesday. I will, as is noted at the end of that magnum opus, respond to Blumenthal’s complaints in the letters to the editor column of the magazine whenever his letter is slated to run. So far, I’ve not seen anything in my that requires correction. Check that, what requires correction, at least in the future, is my judgment in agreeing to write about such a book in the first place. Any work in which the author begins—literally in the table of contents—by equating Jewish Israelis with Nazis deserves to be ignored at best. This has been the reaction to this book of literally every since print publication in America save The Nation insofar as I am aware. It should have also been mine, my editors’ request that I write about it notwithstanding. (In the meantime, check out these recent examinations of the veracity of the book by Avi Meyer here and here, as well as third post on the book, here. Remember, “facts” vs. Truth....)
I was not so crazy about the pacing of the show put on at Cipriani Wall Street in support of Little Kids Rock’s annual “Big Man of the Year” Award. Jake Clemons spoke and played a bit. Brian Wilson did a few songs, as did Elvis Costello (who is everywhere of late), with last year’s winner, Steve van Zandt sitting in for almost all of it. Then there was lots and lots of talking and an auction, etc, before Bill Medley made a rare appearance on followed by this year’s award winner, Darlene Love. You can read all about it on Backstreets, but I’d rather you went to the Little Kids’ Website and gave them some scratch. Music in the public schools is a terrific cause and it’s one (of many) where we are failing our children.
Eagle Rock has put out a terrific bluray of a Stan Getz performance at Montreux in 1972 with a Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, and Airto Moreira backing him up on songs from the then-just released “Captain Marvel” album. It marks Getz’s transition into fusion as well as the gestation of the most exciting version of Corea and Clarke’s “Return to Forever.” I’m also pleased with the release of Bryan Ferry’s Live In Lyon on Blu-ray filmed during his Olympia tour on July 25, 2011 at the ancient Roman amphitheatre in Lyon, France as part of the Nuits de Fourviere Festival. It covers bits and pieces from Ferry’s 40-year career, including Roxy stuff, like “Slave To Love,” “Oh Yeah!,” “Let’s Stick Together,” “Love Is The Drug,” “Don’t Stop The Dance,” “Avalon,” and some great covers from his solo career, “Like A Hurricane,” “Jealous Guy,” and “My Only Love,” etc. He’s very much an underrated singer and if you’ve spent any time with the Roxy Music box of last year, this will be a real treat. Eagle Rock has also released Live In Athens 1987 by Peter Gabriel on a two Blu-ray package, it’s got a complete Youssou N’Dour opening set plus the Gabriel show, plus a disc of Gabriel videos. The show was filmed in the hillside open-air theatre at Lycabettus overlooking Athens as the “So” tour came to an end.I think Gabriel’s OK, and hoped to like him more after watching this, but I don’t. It reminds me of why I hated music in the eighties. But if you like Gabriel and N’Dour, then you’ll like this
Columbia Legacy gave us two lovely new Bing Crosby cds last week: Bing Sings The Johnny Mercer Songbook’ and ‘Le Bing: Song Hits of Paris – 60th Anniversary Deluxe. The Mercer cd spans more than two decades, starting with a rare 1934 radio performance of "P.S. I Love You." Le Bing was originally released in 1953; it’s got 23 tracks – 12 never before released – including rare studio outtakes and several English language bonus tracks, including a pair of Cole Porter favorites, "I Love Paris" and "Allez Vous En (Go Away.)"
Oh and hey, The 2013 Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit Concert—the 27th of them—will be webcast this Saturday, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Queens Of the Stone Age, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Jack Johnson, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Fun, Heart and Jenny Lewis.Click here or here to watch it. Also, premiering on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, 9-11 p.m. (ET) on PBS is the new documentary "American Masters: Jimi Hendrix - Hear My Train A Comin'" which will be available same day from Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings on DVD & Blu-ray together with "Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival" CD & vinyl set all of which is part of a year-long celebration around Hendrix's 70th birthday year You can watch a trailer here. The doc is pretty well done. You don’t get much of Hendrix the person anywhere else, save perhaps biographies I’ve not read. That said, there’s too many talking heads and not quite enough music.
So, at dinner the other night, I interviewed a savvy 15 year old Bronx Science sophomore about the artistic merit she and her friends found in The Twilight series, now out in a bluray box set with a bunch of extras. She tells me that the acting is pretty good and the story—which involves vampires vs. werewolves and their families and has a lot of heavy breathing at first but then everybody ends up happy (literally) forever with the birth of a baby vampire to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson with werewolf Taylor Lautner hanging around as a kind of fun uncle. I guess the extras are what will make this a must for fans and there are a million of them. Read all about them on Amazon. (For some reason, the bluray is cheaper than the DVD, so snap it up, Twilight fans!)
How the Media's Cognitive Biases Distort Obamacare Coverage
by Reed Richardson
The establishment media consensus is settled: Obama is in real trouble. All across Washington, the press has excoriated the administration for a lack of preparation heading into October, and grown angry that the president isn’t demonstrating enough personal contrition. Pundits have claimed his mismanagement of this critical public health rollout even threatens to undermine the future of his signature healthcare reform policy. Some are calling the issue “Obama’s Katrina.” There are even suggestions that this could sink the president’s chances for re-election in 2012.
Wait, what’s this about re-election?
I apologize. I engaged in a bit of a rhetorical trick. What I summarized above was what Sunday morning news hosts, Beltway horserace handicappers, and right-wing op-ed pages were saying almost exactly four years ago about Obama’s handling of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. (Oh, you’d forgotten all about that, had you?) But my point here is that (almost) all of these very same themes could have been ripped from today’s headlines. So, to take a trip back to 2009 is to offer some much needed perspective on the overheated press freakout currently driving the coverage of the Healthcare.gov roll-out. And it should serve as a powerful reminder that everyone—political journalists and pundits included—are susceptible to cognitive biases that skew our sense of proportion and blind us to reality.
Much more so than any ideological leanings, these cognitive biases are what have significantly affected the press’s coverage of Obamacare. For example, as new details emerge about the law, they are routinely manipulated to fit pre-existing or familiar partisan narratives—thus Healthcare.gov’s technical problems are ominously portrayed by critics as symbolic of “an intellectual crisis for modern liberalism.” Or having landed on one metric for analyzing the new website’s success, the press digs in, though it may not be the best reflection of reality—hence low enrollment numbers are seen as evidence of the site’s continued failure rather than a perfectly predictable example of consumer behavior. And sometimes the media leans so heavily on the recent past that it becomes stubbornly resistant to the idea that the tomorrow can look any different— hence news about the website’s ongoing improvements struggles to break through the lazy “website-is-a-disaster” meme. Throw these subjective tendencies into an overheated political environment like the nation’s capital, mix well with a lack of historical perspective, and—voila—you have a recipe for D.C. conventional wisdom that is strikingly unmoored from what matters to the public in the long-term.
So let’s be clear, a problematic first few weeks (or even months) for the Healthcare.gov website, while regrettable, pales in comparison to the millions of Americans who will gain access to affordable health care. Recall that even the gold standard of government-run programs, Social Security, was so plagued with start-up issues that an outside consultant recommended the whole thing be scrapped. And it should not have to be said—I will, however, just for Ron Fournier’s sake—but there exists no amount of lines of code in the universe that, having been rewritten, will ever, ever, EVER come close to the disaster that was George Bush’s misleading and mishandling of the Iraq War.
This is not to say there aren’t legitimate criticisms to be leveled at the White House for the very real flaws plaguing this crucial healthcare tool. Undoubtedly, there are, and advocates of transparency and efficient government should be willing to make these arguments in good faith. Perhaps the most compelling of these has been Norm Ornstein’s broad, technocratic critique of the administration. But, unlike most of his Beltway peers, Ornstein takes pains not to conflate a failure in execution with a failure of ideology. Unfortunately, this kind of measured approach on the causes and consequences of the Healthcare.gov website’s failures is increasingly drowned out by hyperbole and selective memory.
Take, for instance, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. In hyping the importance of the federal exchange roll-out (and, to some extent, justifying his own critical coverage of its flaws), he's been guilty of inexcusably flushing a whole host of Affordable Care Act benefits—no denials for pre-existing conditions, lifting of annual and lifetime benefit caps, medical premium rebates, and parent-child coverage up to age 26—down the memory hole. That someone who runs the Post’s Wonkblog would fall victim to this kind of crude policy misdiagnosis is disturbing, to say the least.
But this is the same kind of overblown rhetoric and missing context that colored the coverage of the H1N1 outbreak four years ago. Instead of failure to load pages, in 2009 it was the delayed production of a viable H1N1 vaccine that touched off the firestorm of criticism aimed at the administration. Much like today, contextual reporting back then was often buried underneath an avalanche of political talking points about the issue being “Obama’s Katrina.” As a result, few in the public realized that the vaccine delays were the result of unexpected production problems at the private company contracted to make the H1N1 vaccines. (Hmm, federal contractors not living up to their promises, why does that sound familiar?) Indeed, to revisit the media’s Cassandra-like coverage from four years ago is to experience the flu outbreak as merely a series well-meaning, but bungled efforts. But a comprehensive 121-page, internal HHS after-action report on the pandemic tells a much more nuanced, real-world tale of starts, stops, and workarounds, concluding, in the end, that the government’s overall response was “successful.” If only the press kept the same balanced perspective as the man in charge of the flu outbreak, who in the midst of the pandemic in 2009, told the Washington Post:
"There's little doubt we're going to vaccinate people," said Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, "Who and when and exactly how, we have to figure out."
This disconnect between the what the media portrays as the latest crisis or disaster and what the public really cares about is why our democracy keeps misfiring. That’s why the outcry over the federal exchange website not working perfectly right off the bat, while a valid process criticism, also misses the larger point of the policy. Yes, the government having to scramble to get the Healthcare.gov portal working properly may be a failure in the near term. But, in the long run, when the technical problems are all solved (and they will be), health insurance will have become accessible and affordable for millions of Americans for the first time. And that, far more than any webpages that didn’t load or data that got corrupted, will end up being the real story of Obamacare. Tragically, that’s also the story that the media's own biases seemingly won't let it tell, once again.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Thanks for your great analysis of the shortcomings of the media's "Shutdown Showdown in DC" (ominous theme music). Yes, the media contributes to the unending sequence of governance "crises" that somehow keep coming up—and they wouldn't want it any other way.
When a crisis is going on, all eyes are glued to the screen, or listening to the radio, or hitting the websites, or buying newspapers. With an increased audience, advertisers can be made to pay you more! End of story.
So there is no financial incentive to do good journalism or to uphold the media's civic responsibilities. Governing by crisis boosts the bottom line. Sure, the staff and reporters are real people who have to live in this dysfunctional world, which their employer helps the Republican Party to create—but they don't run the show. The moneymen do. Why should they do the responsible thing, when it would kill the golden goose?
Thanks again for your great column. It has a lot of excellent arguments that I will send to NPR and PBS. (Along with a check—it's pledge season, after all.)
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
It is with extreme reluctance that I return, yet again, to the topic of Max Blumenthal’s awful book on Israel (and here). I do so not because I believe anything more needs to be said about the book itself, nor are there any corrections to be made in my column (though perhaps this will change). Rather, I feel compelled because Blumenthal and his allies have seen fit to launch a campaign of character assassination against me as a result of my criticisms of the book. (I did not criticize Blumenthal personally. Indeed, I have never met him and have nothing to say about him as a person.) But I do think his book is a perfect example of how not to do journalism. Indeed, if I were still teaching how-to journalism, I would use it as a how-not-to prop.
The most important responsibility any journalist has is to provide a proper context for readers to understand the basic truths of any given story. Truth is different from “facts.” Facts can easily mislead if presented in a purposely (or even accidentally) distorted context. This is what I meant when I said Blumenthal’s attacks on Israel were mostly “technically accurate,” while at the same time “deliberately deceptive.” To describe Israeli actions in the absence of any discussion of the behavior of its enemies and the threats these enemies pose to its citizens is both intellectually indefensible and constitutes prima facie evidence of bad faith. So, too, is the tactic of hiding behind the passive voice in order to hide key information from the reader.
Overall, a reader with no previous knowledge who sought to understand the motivation of Jewish Israelis for their decisions would have no choice but to conclude from Blumenthal’s account that there is just something about these nasty Israeli Jews that leads them to act like big meanies. The behavior of the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Iranians—or groups inside these countries such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Ba’ath Party, the Muslim Brotherhood etc.—do not figure at all in Blumenthal’s analysis. Jewish Israelis act out of malevolent intent, often imputed to them by Blumenthal via apparently telepathic powers. But I literally could not find a single significant criticism of any Palestinian, or even any Arab, anywhere in Blumenthal’s seventy-three nastily named chapters. (Hence my “Hamas Book of the Month Club quip.)
The “big meanie” hypothesis is, sadly, the foundation upon which all of Blumenthal’s reporting rests. And despite cries of “censorship,” it is also, I imagine, the explanation as to why the book has been so resoundingly ignored in the media. Many critical books about Israel are published and reviewed these days. Patrick Tyler’s recent book received a great deal of attention, and I have no doubt that John Judis’s harsh rendering of Israel’s founding and the role of the US government in its early development will do so as well. Both are books with a strong, critical point of view of Israeli behavior rather than a pro-Zionist point of view. Both books, however, were written by authors who recognized the fact that that to tell just one side of an extremely complex and multifaceted story can be worse than telling none at all. Blumenthal’s book is so patently anti-Israel in its orientation that it will excite and delight those already in the extreme anti-Zionist camp but prove anathema to anyone who does not already share his animus toward Jewish Israelis. Some people refer to this kind of thing as “intellectual masturbation” but I think this is unfair. Masturbation does no harm; the same can’t be said of deliberately distorted journalism.
The response to the criticisms in my column by Blumenthal and his allies in the anti-Zionist camp has proven extremely personal in nature and vituperative in character. Rather than engage in a tit-for-tat, I will do what I have felt forced to do in the past when attacked by the so-called “pro-Israel” camp: that is, explain my own political development as it relates to the issue. I do so not to because I expect it will convince my critics of anything, but simply to create a record against which present and future distortions of my work may be fairly judged.
My very first appearance in the mainstream media occurred in the autumn of 1982, when I published a letter to the editor of The Washington Post regarding the then-recent massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps in so-called “Sabra” and “Shatilla,” following the June 6, 1982, Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was rather long, but the gist of it read: “The gradual erosion of the moral foundations of the Jewish state, which has understandably taken place under [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, could not have occurred without the cowardly acquiescence of the Jewish leadership of this country. The Lebanese invasion and the recent tragedies in Beirut are merely the logical outgrowth of a bankrupt policy.” A few years later, after attending graduate school, I researched and wrote one of the earliest exposés of the bullying tactics of AIPAC to appear in the mainstream media; this time in the now-defunct Regardie’s magazine.
My next major foray into the issue took place during the first intifada. I travelled to the West Bank to tell the story of an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy who had been murdered by an Israeli settler and the Israeli Defense Force, respectively, in the West Bank village of Beita. The article was commissioned by Vanity Fair but was rejected, and ran instead in the now-defunct Present Tense, which was then published by the American Jewish Committee in penance for its publication of Commentary. I had to sneak into Beita with Palestinian guides to do the story, which exploded the official Israeli explanation of both killings. The name of the teenage Israeli settler girl appeared in literally hundreds of stories—she was the first Israeli to be killed in the intifada, but my story was, I believe, the only one anywhere to correctly name the young Palestinian boy.
I’ve written nine books and many thousands of articles, columns and blog posts in the ensuing decades, and not all of them have been gems. When I was blogging every day for MSNBC and later for Media Matters, I wrote a few things I should probably have said differently, and would have done so had I taken more time with my words. That’s one reason I no longer do it. But overall, I’m proud of my record. And while I did experience considerable sniping over the years from the likes of the late Alexander Cockburn and a few of his acolytes, the vast majority of the attacks on my articles dealing with the Middle East have come from neoconservatives and the so-called “pro-Israel” community who attempted to portray my criticism of Israel as beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and to silence them as a result.
A few examples:
In 2002, in a column that continues to cause me tsuris until this day, I grew frustrated with how weak a voice Palestinians enjoyed in the mainstream media, and wrote a piece for MSNBC in which I noted, “In most of the world, it is the Palestinian narrative of a dispossessed people that dominates,” but in the US it was Israel’s.” One reason I offered for this was the “pro-Israel “domination of the punditocracy, with approximately seventy members—and I named them—who could be “could be counted upon to support Israeli reflexively and without qualification.” “The value of this legion to the Jewish state,” I added, was literally incalculable, but it certainly prevented the Palestinians from having their voices heard and their case put before the public. A United Press International column wrote at the time, “Alterman’s list feeds into the racist paranoia that the media is controlled by the Jews. Lists such as the one he has assembled are of little value except to extremists looking to prove a point.” Andrew Sullivan went a bit further. He compared my column, I kid you not, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and I still see it turning up as a reference on the websites of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, as well as garden-variety Israel-haters and anti-Zionists. But what it said was true.
Three years later, in 2005, and also on MSNBC, I wrote critically of those pundits who objected to Israeli Arabs’ and West Bank Palestinians’ refusal to honor Israel’s observance of the Holocaust. “I’m a Jew,” I wrote, “but I don’t expect Arabs to pay tribute to my people’s suffering while Jews, in the form of Israel and its supporters—and in this I include myself—are causing much of theirs.” “The Palestinians have also suffered because of the Holocaust,” I added. “They lost their homeland as the world—in the form of the United Nations—reacted to European crimes by awarding half of Palestine to the Zionists… . To ask Arabs to participate in a ceremony that does not recognize their own suffering but implicitly endorses the view that caused their catastrophe is morally idiotic.”
This resulted in a Boston Globe column by a woman named Cathy Young, who wrote, “Call it self-hatred or something less psychoanalytic; the bottom line is, this is the kind of rhetoric that, coming from a non-Jew, would be clearly seen as anti-Semitic.” Young even accused me of blaming “long-dead Holocaust victims” for Palestinian misery and arguing that “every Muslim is justified in viewing every Jew as the enemy.” (In fact, the item in question spoke of Arabs, not “Muslims.”) She concluded: “We live at a time when anti-Semitic rhetoric is creeping into the respectable mainstream: on the left, in the form of Israel-bashing… I’m not sure whether such rhetoric is any more reprehensible when it comes from Jews. But it is certainly no better.”
This was a particularly tasteless attack, but it consistent with much of what I have seen written by members of the so-called “pro-Israel community” in order to delegitimize my views. Just two years ago, in 2011, ex-AIPAC flack Josh Block, told Politico, referring to a column I published on Americanprogress.org, where I have been a columnist for exactly ten years today, “Either they can allow people to say borderline anti-Semitic stuff’—a reference to what he described as conspiracy theorizing in the Alterman column—‘and to say things that are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Democratic party, or they can fire them and stop it.’” (I was not asked by Politico to respond to this characterization, by the way, when the article was published.) Block, who has since been named head of The Israel Project, was referring to a column in which I argued that members of the Israel lobby, on behalf of Bibi Netanyahu, had been advocating an American attack on Iran. When The Forward, where I was also a columnist at the time, did not allow me to respond to this smear in a timely fashion—and without the interference of my editor there—I resigned my position.
I could point to any number of such incidents over the past thirty years; incidents that are in many respects the mirror image of the one inspired by my column on Blumenthal’s book. I suppose the major difference between the attacks of the conservatives who fund and control the professional Jewish organizations and those of Blumenthal and company is that the while the former have the money and power to interfere with my career and undermine my ability to earn my living as a writer and a scholar, the latter have only Twitter accounts.
And speaking of which, I have been unable to keep up with the all of attacks on Twitter, and see no reason even to try, given the quality of the insights that have come my way. But I would like to respond to two of Mr. Blumenthal’s that have been forwarded to me by friends with more patience than I.
First, before almost anyone, including myself, had even seen the column in the magazine, Mr. Blumenthal expressed apparent shock and anger that I had declined an invitation to debate him on Bloggingheads.tv. Keep in mind that I have never debated any subject of a Nation column that I’ve published in the eighteen years I’ve been doing this. The magazine pays me to write a column, not to debate its subjects. Blumenthal also had no reason to believe that I’d want to appear on Bloggingheads for any reason. I’ve not done so in four and a half years, since March 2009. I did two shows in 2008; one to plug my own book, and one to give my late friend, Christopher Hitchens, a chance to explain why everything he had ever said about the Iraq War had turned out to be wrong. Before that, the last time I appeared was June of 2007. I don’t begrudge Blumenthal his attempts to gin up attention for a book that is being (appropriately) ignored, but I wish he’d do it less hysterically and more honestly.
Similarly, I have also seen myself repeatedly accused of defending Bibi Netanyahu as “sensible and sincere” without any attached qualification. This is due to the paragraph in my column where I note that I find it odd that Blumenthal would condescendingly treat the editor of Haaretz as naïve because he believes that Netanyahu’s advocacy of an attack on Iran to be genuine. I find this bizarre. It would not be easy to find a columnist who has shown less sympathy for Bibi Netanyahu, particularly with regard to his refusal to negotiate fairly and honestly with the Palestinians. I see, via Google, that I wrote a piece for The Daily Beast in June of 2009 titled “Bibi’s Bait and Switch.” It is just one of many. Moreover, I imagine I set a world record for criticism of The New Republic under Martin Peretz on this, and pretty much every issue relating to Israel and the Palestinians. Most intelligent people are capable of understanding that it is possible for Netanyahu to wish to ignore legitimate Palestinian demands and simultaneously, to enable an attack on Iran. One hardly need negate the other. I don’t understand why it’s such a problem for Mr. Blumenthal and friends.
Moreover, I have been frequently accused by Blumenthal boosters of instructing the Palestinians and their supporters how to behave. Well, perhaps I am guilty of this. But I won’t pretend that I do so because I hold some special concern in my heart for Palestinians, any more than I do the Kurds, or Cubans or Canadians, Cantonese, Khazars, Kazakhs, etc. Of course I care about all God’s children, etc, but the intensity of my interest with the issue derives from a combination of my own country’s responsibility in the region as well as my profound emotional and intellectual attachments as a Jew. To the degree I address myself to supporters of the Palestinian cause, I do so because I would very much like to see Israel end its ruinous occupation and live alongside a Palestinian state with peace and dignity for both sides, and I fear that the Palestinian leadership, both today and in the past, has helped to make this much harder to do than it had to be. Were both nations to compromise—the Israelis, more than the Palestinians, of course, as they are the occupying power—the historic Zionist project might right itself from the wrong turn it took in 1967. In addition, the United States would be able to end its costly and counterproductive participation in Israel’s continued oppression and occupation of the Palestinian people, which causes so much hatred toward us around the world and no doubt helps to inspire countless terrorist acts against innocent individuals in both nations.
Unfortunately, as I have argued at length here and here, I feel pretty confident that the BDS strategy will accomplish exactly the opposite—to harden Israeli opposition to the kinds of concessions necessary to build trust between both sides and provide the basis for taking the necessary risks for peace. In this respect it reminds me of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. There’s no remotely practical theory of success, merely the insistence that one’s conscience should dictate one’s political actions, irrespective of results. I find such behavior deeply irresponsible, as it abandons the victims of injustice to salve the feelings of those who profess to care their welfare. And just as Ralph Nader and company helped to saddle the world with George Bush, Dick Cheney and the invasion of Iraq, among so many other awful things, I see BDS undermining the very people in Israel—academics and cultural figures primarily—who are doing the most to fight the occupation and advocate for a modicum of justice for those under oppression.
I wouldn’t expect anyone in a position of authority on the Palestinian side to care what I think. (Nor do I expect the personal attacks on me to stop any time soon, just as they continue from the days of Nader’s politically suicidal campaign, now thirteen years ago.) But leaving me out of it for a moment, I would be awfully interested in hearing what Blumenthal and his allies in the BDS movement believe they are likely to accomplish with their insistence that Israel simply stop doing what it’s doing when they cannot bring themselves even to recognize the reasons it does so. In the absence of that recognition—the continuation, in other words, of the “big meanie” critique—lies the continued misery of the Palestinian people and a great deal of unnecessary death and suffering for all concerned.
Finally, and I do hope I mean that since I’m writing this damn thing for free, I’ve returned over and over in my Nation columns and elsewhere to the topic of “Jewish McCarthyism”—that is the desire to shut down honest debate over Israel with accusations of anti-Semitism by neocons and other partisans of Israeli intransigence vis-à-vis the Palestinians. (I first addressed it in The Nation twenty-two years ago, in 1991, during the first Iraq war in an article called “Semites and Anti-Semites.”) The personal attacks leveled by Blumenthal boosters and BDS partisans over disagreements with my work do not fall into the same category, exactly, but they do serve the same purpose. If my editors came to me again and asked me to devote my column to Blumenthal’s book, knowing what I know now, I would tell them, “No, thanks.” Why invite such personal abuse into one’s life, especially to address the flaws in a book that is not likely to convince anyone of anything anyway? On the basis of such examples, I imagine that critics of both of BDS and Israeli hardliners will decide to choose other topics for debate and discussion as well. So maazel tov to them on that, at least.
Now let’s go Sox!
* * *
P.S. I understand that Max’s father, Sid Blumenthal, loves his son and would not enjoy seeing his work so severely criticized. Naturally, I don’t blame him for this, I’m a father myself. Even so, I was disappointed to see Sid sending around scurrilous attacks on yours truly to our mutual friends, just as I thought it a mistake when he did the same thing to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. Though to be honest, I don’t mind the company…
Editor's note: Eric Alterman will respond to Max Blumenthal's most recent post in the Letters to the Editor section of a forthcoming issue of The Nation.
Correction: This blog post contained an error in a quote from novelist Yoram Kaniuk, which was wrongly attributed to a Palestinian. The quote, which should have read, "Our entire existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified, by our suffering; by Jewish violinists in the camps," was rendered as, “Our enemy’s existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified by our suffering by Jewish violinists in the camps.” Also, regarding the incident in which an Israeli municipality shut down a Haifa café, Blumenthal wrote that the municipality "officially sanctioned the mob campaign," not “a mob campaign,” as was reported here. We apologize for the errors.
My new Think Again column is called “Heads, the Tea Party Wins; Tails, the Tea Party Wins.”
Here, unfortunately (and foolishly in my view) behind a paywall for now, is my Nation column, The “I Hate Israel Handbook.” A few words of explanation and clarification if I may:
When I was asked to do my column about Max Blumenthal’s book, Goliath, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I like to be a team player. But on the other, whenever I criticize BDS types, I apparently invite an avalanche of personal invective from its fans. (This happens when I criticize neocons on Israel as well, but to be honest, the BDS types appear to have more time on their hands for this kind of thing.) Second, I’ve known the author’s parents since he was a little boy, and whatever the quality of the book, I expected that my honest views of it might threaten three decades of friendly relations.
What tipped my decision was when I was informed that The Nation magazine would be publishing an excerpt. I don’t feel personally implicated by what Nation Books publishes—it does not reflect on me in the eyes of anyone I know—but the magazine is different. I’ve been writing here for more than thirty years and regularly as a columnist for nearly twenty. Hence I feel a deep sense of both loyalty and personal and professional identification. I don’t want people to have the impression that the reflexive anti-Zionism of some of its contributors is its only voice on the issue— one that is as important to me as any.
The complication arose when I finally received the book. I expected to disagree with its analysis. I did not expect it to be remotely as awful as it is. Had the magazine not published its excerpt, it would have been easy to ignore. It is no exaggeration to say that this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club (if it existed) without a single word change once it’s translated into Arabic. (Though to be fair, Blumenthal should probably add some anti-female, anti-gay arguments for that.) Goliath is a propaganda tract, not an argument as it does not even consider alternative explanations for the anti-Israel conclusions it reaches on every page. Its implicit equation of Israel with Nazis is also particularly distasteful to any fair-minded individual. And its larding of virtually every sentence with pointless adjectives designed to demonstrate the author’s distaste for his subject is as amateurish as it is ineffective. As I said, arguments this simplistic and one-sided do the Palestinians no good. There will be no Palestinian state unless Israel agrees to it. And if these are the views of the people with whom Israelis of good will are expected to agree, well, you can hardly blame them for not trusting them.
Here are a few points about the book I did not have a chance to make in column:
1) Here, I kid you not, is the definition Blumenthal quotes of the substance of Israel's "fascism":
What it really is, is a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends. It’s a feeling when you are sitting there having dinner—what you feel when you’re alive here. It’s the essence of what this society is. And the closer we get to the brink—and everyone is feeling that we’re getting to the breaking point—the worse it gets.
Yep, that’s “fascism” alright. You can look it up.
2) Here is his argument in favor of the Arabs' right to discriminate against Jewish Israelis: When a Haifa café is told by the municipality that it has no right to discriminate against Israeli soldiers in uniform by refusing to serve them, Blumenthal tells us it was “officially sanction[ing] a mob campaign” against it.
3) Blumenthal describes Yoram Kniuk’s book about a Jewish violinist who forced to play for a concentration camp commander and then quotes a Palestinian saying “Our enemy’s existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified by our suffering by Jewish violinists in the camps.” Nowhere does he mention that Kniuk was a novelist. He wrote, um, fiction.
4) He nastily and condescendingly mocks Time editor Rick Stengel for "marketing" Bibi Netanyahu as a "potential peacemaker." Isn't Netanyahu obviously a "potential peacemaker"? Isn't every war-maker a potential peacemaker? Wasn't Begin before he ended Israel’s occupation of Sinai and signed a peace agreement with Egypt? Wasn't Sharon before he ended Israel’s occupation of Lebanon? Wasn't Nixon before he went to China? Blumenthal is also apparently capable of reading Stengel’s mind, even when he’s not present: ("Rick Stengel arrived at his doorstep eager to relay a heavy dose of Bibi-think to the American public.")
Believe me, I could go on...
1) The Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club
2) The 51st New York Film Festival and the 21st Hamptons International Film Festival
3) Old/New Releases from “Real Gone” music...
Last weekend I finally got the chance to see the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. I was really excited. It was their first tour of the US since 2003, when I didn’t get to see them. Recall that the Buena Vista Social Club album introduced these musicians to the world in 1997, it won a Grammy, inspired a great documentary, and showed the world a vibrant Cuban music scene that had remain hidden under Castro’s iron curtain and the US’s foolish embargo of the island.
Now the thirteen member Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is carrying on the legacy of founding-generation with vocalist Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, laúd player Barbarito Torres, guitarist-vocalist Eliades Ochoa, and trombonist- vocalist Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, joined by new members, including vocalists Carlos Calunga and pianist Rolando Luna. I don’t speak Spanish, so I didn’t understand much of what was said or sung. But boy did these guys swing. I did miss Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba who were so great in that documentary, but the music was cool and warm and the same time. The “House of Swing” swung for hours (with no intermission.)
The New York Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival always take place around the same time. Sometimes they show the same movies. But also different ones. I find it hard to enjoy more than one movie in a day, so I often end up seeing only parts of lots of movies, walking out after about twenty minutes and giving the next one a try. Among my favorites of the past week were:
* Inside Llewyn Davis (NYFF) This Coen brothers feature about the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folkie scene is great in every way except its story stinks. It is beautifully filmed, acted and the music is surprisingly well done. Terrific cast and the dialogue is excellent, too. It’s just... who cares? Great soundtrack, though. Pick it up.
* Only Lovers Left Alive (NYFF), a really hip and spooky vampire movie directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Tom Hiddelston and Tilda Swinton with Mia Wasikowska as the crazy, destructive and self-destructive little vampire sister and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe, who apparently wrote “Hamlet.”
* Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle) (NYFF and HIFF) This film, which has already caused an international sensation, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche starring Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos as “Adele,” who begins the film as a high school junior who falls in love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired college student. They soon ignite a complicated and passionate love affair with the most explicit, erotic and realistic sex scenes I can ever remember seeing in a movie. It’s three hours long but it more than pays off. I’m hoping Kechiche makes good on his implicit promise to follow Adele for the rest of her life, like Truffaut. BITWC won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year.
* Her (NYFF and HIFF)Written and directed by Spike Jonze, Her is set in Los Angeles in the near future, and follows Theodore who falls in love with his IT system, who names herself “Samantha,” who is voiced by the incredibly sexily-voiced Scarlett Johansson. It might be deep, it might be frivolous. I’m not sure. But it is entertaining.
* The Past (Le Passe) (HIFF) A new drama from Asghar Farhadi, the writer/director of the brilliant A Separation, the 2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film (beating out the almost-but-not-quite-as-good Israeli film, Footnote). This movie takes place in France, among Iranians, is a great deal more complicated plotwise than A Separation, but holds together just as well. Terrific performances from Bérénice Bejo, playing the wife and also Pauline Burlet, who plays her beautiful daughter. Farhadi is one of the world’s greatest film-makers; interesting that Iran’s two world-class auteurs have felt compelled to make movies abroad, this one in France, and Abbas Kiarostami’s latest, in Japan.
* Philomena (HIFF) on the audience award in the Hamptons. It’s one of those cute Irish movies that win awards, about a woman, who, in 1950s Ireland, is shamed into giving up her child for adoption as an unmarried mother. Stephen Frears films the story adapted from the book by Martin Sixsmith. It stars Dame Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan, who co-wrote it as Sixsmith. Everything about it is lovely.
Also, at the Hamptons, I really enjoyed the ESPN documentary about Jimmy Connors and the 1991 US Open at Forest Hills. What a great story— well told and all the better for not having a story-book ending. It’s part of the 30/30 series to which I guess I should pay more attention.
I only recently discovered “Real Gone” records, and believe me, their re-releases are just that. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the reggae Dead collection Fire on the Mountain, and the Jefferson Starship live album, and now they are educating me about the late Patti Page who passed away on New Year's Day of this year. Did you know that she was apparently the best-selling female artist of the '50s? I sure didn’t. After that, she joined Columbia during the '60s and Real Gone has released a 2-CD set, The Complete Columbia Singles 1962-1970, which includes all 50 single sides, and From Nashville to L.A.—Lost Columbia Masters 1963-1969, which has 24 previously unreleased country style tracks. Both are annotated by long-time Page friend and fan Alan Eichler, and include plenty of photos supplied by the Page estate, with remastering by Vic Anesini at Sony's own Battery Studios.
In a similar vein, there’s a new Real Gone country album by Perry Como produced by Chet Atkins in 1975. It’s called Just Out of Reach—Rarities from Nashville, produced by Chet Atkins, and has 23-tracks plus six unreleased outtakes from the album sessions for Just Out of Reach and Como's 1973 album And I Love You So, five non-LP singles new to CD, and Spanish language versions of Perry's hit recordings of ''And I Love You So'' and ''I Want To Give.
In an entirely different vein, Real Gone has also released Dick's Picks Vol. 21—Richmond, Virginia 11/1/85. I think they are doing all of Dick’s Picks, though I’m not sure. Anyway, this is the only show you with an official release from the 1985 tour, of which I saw many shows, but remember none. Highlights include ''Stagger Lee,'' ''Comes a Time'' and Dylan's ''She Belongs to Me'' and Bobby’s Wrave-up on ''Gloria.'' Other rarities include ''Lost Sailor'' and ''Saint of Circumstance'. The third cd adds nearly 40 minutes of bonus material from a September 2, 1980 show at the Community War Memorial in Rochester, NY, which I also attended with an excellent ''Iko Iko''/''Morning Dew''/''Sugar Magnolia.'' Brent-period Dead is not the best Dead, but it ain’t bad.
How the Media Keeps Enabling Government-by-Crisis
by Reed Richardson
Our democracy is adrift and broken. Constantly careening from one traumatic episode to another, our nation’s government is locked in kind of a perpetual fugue state. No sooner does it scramble to avoid one self-inflicted catastrophe before another appears on the horizon. Each short-term, ad-hocn solution only feeds a longer-term, systemic problem. What passes for success in this new normal is a shockingly uncritical mindset, one that is either unable or unwilling to learn from each painful lesson. Huzzah, the latest crisis is over…so how long till the next one?
The architects of this government-by-crisis are by no means a mystery. Yesterday, after our country’s latest temporary reprieve from implacable dysfunction and economic calamity, longtime congressional scholar Norm Ornstein once again identified the stark, anti-government nihilism blossoming within the modern Republican Party:
“[It] represents a phenomenon that is not new but is really awful: the radicalization of so many lawmakers who don’t want limited, but good, government but instead want to blow the whole thing up. They may know not what they do, but sadly, they have the weapons to do it.”
The stable functioning of our democracy faces no less than an existential threat from this saboteur caucus, in other words. Yet a steady diet of the news out of Washington the past few weeks would have uncovered very little in the way of Ornstein’s frank, ominous analysis in the coverage of the shutdown and debt ceiling crises. That’s no accident. Though political journalism is now more nimble than ever mechanically, analytically, it is has ossified, and is now increasingly ill-equipped to honestly assess the anti-political winds blowing through the GOP. This failure goes beyond mere false equivalence, however.
One of the media’s more pernicious conventions is to compartmentalize process and policy. But not routinely drawing a bright line between the actions of lawmakers inside Washington and the consequences to the rest of us outside of it only serves to further disconnect the public from its government. To see how this bifurcation of coverage played out in the latest crisis, merely take a look at the three, above-the-fold articles on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times.
The Times’ “day-one story”—to use a journalism term—delves deep into the mechanics of how Wednesday’s vote unsnarled the twin, Republican-manufactured emergencies. But it notably neglects explaining the stakes involved—why restarting the government and raising the debt ceiling mattered. So, this straight news story includes only one mention of the real-world costs of the shutdown. Even worse, this one passage’s blithely dismissive language about furloughed government employees—“the legislative deal meant an abrupt end to their forced vacation”—suggests Wednesday’s resolution put an end to an unexpected holiday.
By contrast, the Times’ second news story did examine, in detail, the significant economic impact that shutting down the government and flirting with default had on the country. And yet, this time, a whole lot of context about how we got here was missing. Only a throwaway line about “the intransigence of House Republicans” offered any clue as to who was behind the U.S. flushing away $12 to $24 billion, 0.5% of fourth-quarter growth, and 900,000 jobs.
Perhaps in the paper’s third item, its “news analysis,” readers would finally be treated to a full analysis of what Republicans got and what they wrought.? Nope. Instead, the author makes zero mention of the jobs lost, paychecks missed, and national debt increased, all so House Tea Partiers could vote against the same bill they would have voted against three weeks ago. And though the Times does an adequate job of homing in on the rank incompetence by the Congressional GOP’s leadership, it nonetheless buys into the spin that somehow things will be different in three months when the next scheduled set of deadlines arrive. How else to explain the story’s optimism for yet another gang of irrelevant, centrist Senators, who it credulously says are “looking to make an impact on the fiscal battles ahead.” Have we already forgotten that this legislative hijacking was perpetrated by Speaker John Boehner and a hard-right cabal of Tea Party House conservatives? Did we not all witness the House’s stubborn refusal to pass a clean CR and raise the debt ceiling even when most Senate Republicans came out in favor of them?
Now, this is a bit unfair to the Times. After all, its combined, front-page coverage did represent a fairly comprehensive take on causes and effects of our latest crisis. Moreover, the also paper fired off a blistering editorial yesterday that quite effectively tied the irresponsibility of Republicans in DC to the resulting pain felt by Americans nationwide. Nevertheless, when even the New York Times feels it necessary to pigeonhole its reportage in this way, it sends a signal that straight news isn’t the preferred platform for speaking truth to power. It also speaks volumes about the mindset of the broader establishment media, which rarely bothers to look beyond the Beltway in order to hold leaders in Washington accountable.
Not surprisingly, a press corps that pulls its punches in the news pages only ends up rewarding rather than punishing bad-faith actors who thrive on manipulating crisis for their own personal gain. This latest crisis was a perfect example. Thus, a demagogue like Sen. Ted Curz, who is willing to brazenly mislead his followers and engage in the world’s longest fundraising speech, was nonetheless accorded the attention he craved from the mainstream media. Thus, Republicans in Congress can attack Democrats for fomenting economic uncertainty, stifling small business growth, driving up the deficit, and refusing to negotiate, when, ironically, it was their reckless legislative fantasies that brought about these very outcomes.
Oh sure, a lot of attention was paid by pundits to the damage done in the public’s eye to the Republican Party’s brand. These analyses lack bite, though, because they rely so heavily on outsourcing outrage to the public via polling, which, by its nature, is an fickle, ephemeral construct (what’s “true” today might not be “true” tomorrow). Polling’s transitory quality has become almost addictive to the press, however, precisely because it frees it from the fear of bias accusations and relieves it of the burden of offering more historical, evidence-based assessments of political behavior. But to forego the latter in favor of the former is to denude the press of its power to affect change.
For example, wouldn’t the public have been better served if, in September, the DC press corps had repeatedly reminded readers that shutting down the government and threatening to default on our debt payments are demonstrably bad things that hurt lots of innocent people and anyone suggesting to do so is wrong? What if it had invoked historical antecedents like the 1995–96 Gingrich-led shutdown and the 2011 GOP-forced debt-limit crisis not just to compare poll numbers. Why couldn’t the media have attempted to stave off the crisis altogether by placing the latest round of Republican brinksmanship in the context of a long-term narrative about the party’s growing radicalism. Of course, it’s doubtful anything or anyone could have convinced the House Know Nothings to abandon their pointless crusade, but, alas, we will never know. But it’s telling that, even in the aftermath, the media continues to adhere to vague platitudes about general dysfunction and studiously avoid any robust examination of the damage done to the public by the Republican Party’s ideology.
Over time, this lack of past and future perspective has fueled an abundance of instantly consumable, empty-calorie editorial content. So, rather than figure out why our government keeps suffering through one crisis after another, each showdown post-mortem is more likely to get a superficial tallying up of “Winners and Losers.” (Care to guess the 310-million people the media almost always overlooks as the ultimate “Losers” of these crises?) But these worthless lists are forgotten as soon as they’re made and propagate the worst kind of journalistic faux-accountability—have you ever heard a pundit call out a politician because he or she was a “Loser” of the last crisis? Yeah, me neither.
This is a critical point. Stripped of any reportorial continuity, each crisis simply gets treated as sui generis. Divorced from a broader narrative, ongoing dysfunction begins to seem endemic to government itself. Neither is true. Debt limit threats, government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, sequester cuts: all of these are merely different varietals of the same, poisoned austerity fruit. Likewise, these crises do not naturally spring from, but are in fact artificially inflicted upon Washington, D.C.—and by extension, the country—by a Republican Party intent on delegitimizing every aspect of our federal government.
That’s why disingenuously placing the sole onus of ending this vicious cycle on President Obama amounts to media malpractice. It is a willfully naïve misunderstanding of our nation’s recent political history and the logic therein is not only contradictory, it’s counterproductive. And that’s the big lesson those in the Beltway must grasp if we’re to ever to break out of government-by-crisis in Washington: As long as the press refuses to learn from its own first draft of history, the rest of us will be doomed to repeat it.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
I have a theory all liberal journalists are a bunch of pussies who couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag and wouldn't know how to act like a real man to save their feminine lives. To test that, I offer a challenge. I will fight YOU 1 on 1. If you win, I'll do anything you want within the confines of the law. As far as me winning, busting your face up and whatever comes to mind at the time is reward enough for me.
Dear Mr. Alterman:
It is with great interest that I read your latest column for The Center for American Progress regarding the Pew Research Poll of American Jews. I was one of the persons interviewed and my opinions were in the majority of those polled.
I was saddened (but not surprised) by the reaction of the major Jewish organizations to the results of the poll. I thought of the line from Casablanca when Rick is asked why in the world he came to the city and he answered: "I came for the waters". When told that Casablanca is in the middle of a desert, the character stated: "I guess I was misinformed".
We Jewish leftists (and liberal/leftists in general) like to imagine that those on the right who are actually misinformed by the media will come to see our viewpoint as being correct if only they would allow themselves to be educated as to the facts.
Unfortunately, too many of us are self-delusional in still believing that those who willfully remain in the "desert" will ever allow themselves to enter an "oasis" of facts and intellectual honesty. Some choose to remain "thirsty" regardless of the circumstances behind their ignorance.
Keep up the struggle against "thirst".
No reply needed here, but I just want to say THANK YOU for this article [“Saving Face: Falsely Balanced Accountability is the New False Equivalence”]. You are so right and, to an extent, I blame the President for this 'forget the past transgressions let's just look ahead' mantra (e.g. Wall Street and Bush Administration offenders). Just looking ahead sounds very noble, but it is a deceitful and cowardly way of dealing with wrong-doing, lies and duplicity, and America has not been well-served by this attitude.
Further, the MSM (including NPR) seems determined to give voice to the Tea Party/Republican point of view many times more than that of the progressives/liberals (whether Democrat or something else). This is shameful and a violation of the trust we—ordinary citizens—place in our journalists and news organizations.
I hope your point—if not your article—gains traction. I am sick to death, so to speak, of what is happening politically. And, since the MSM seems unable to rise to the task of pointing out the obvious false equivalences, I (and probably many others) must rely on the "comments" of online articles. A truly sad and deplorable state of affairs.
Thank you again for your article, and please keep up the drumbeat.
Well done, Reed well done! I happen to catch parts of Morning Joe and most mornings once he starts to bloviate equivalency I have to relax my jaw and switch stations…it is disappointing. Plus they all avoid the obvious third rail which is just why do they hate Obama so much and is that the reason everything the man does is resisted. Comments all over the web beat him up and I am yet to see where all this animus is justified...he has been effectively blocked in almost all of his efforts but they still blame anything broken on him.
Recently I have been following all this jaw-jacking about how broken the ACA systems are (which is also blamed on POTUS). Well, I am a systems engineer for a large corp and I know Everyone who works on systems in the government are not necessarily Obama ditto heads. It would not take too much effort for a network engineer to bug a few strategic server links to cascade a code error systemwide. Not saying that is what is happening but one zealot tea partier/conservative in the right spot "could" cause as many glitches as needed to slow things down...not even contemplated by the media at large, but in the current, hate-filled blow-’em-up anything-harmful environment now...who says it couldn't happen?
I have to marvel at many comments and talking news heads, who always know more about what a president should do than the president. Are they really that astute or are they just showing their bias with ah-ha moments that are totally artificial. The Repubs attack, name call, obstruct and insult and yet all we hear is Obama should this Obama should that on and on and on...it is infuriating as the real issues and source of the stagnation is obvious or at least should be.
Anyway, thank you and Eric for putting that info out there! Glad I subscribed to The Nation seems like they are truly trying to bring us all the news that is fit to print in an eyes open/no fear format!
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
John Boehner, accompanied by Mitch McConnell and other Congressional Republicans. (AP Photo/ Susan Walsh).
My new Think Again column is called “Who Speaks for the Jews?” and it deals with the results of the Pew survey and the dovishness/liberal-ness of American Jews, relative to their putative representatives.
My Nation column, Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts… is now (finally) unpaywalled. Continue to expect a not-so newsy press column as long as the editors continue to paywall it.
Now here’s Reed:
Saving Face: Falsely Balanced Accountability is the New False Equivalence
by Reed Richardson
Mark it down, the cartoonish antics of Republicans in Congress during the past few weeks have finally achieved what media critics have been trying to do for years—get a majority of the DC press corps to openly confront their falsely balanced coverage of a major policy dispute in Washington. It has been, by no means, easy. It’s taken outrageously divorced-from-reality demands about defunding Obamacare, irresponsible talk of default and the prospect of self-inflicted economic calamity, and poll after poll after poll
I believe it would be false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the government shutdown and the possibility of a debt default. Republicans engineered the shutdown to protest a three-year-old health care law, knowing their defund-or-delay demands were unattainable.
But hold off on those Hosannas. For, whatever the public discourse has gained by this more honest and fair coverage of singular Republican intransigence, it’s not been matched in the press by concomitant demands for accountability from the GOP. This is perhaps not surprising. Decades of the media exercising just one set of journalistic muscles has left its others atrophied and increasingly incapable of rising to the task of speaking truth to power.
As a result, watching news coverage of the government shutdown reveals Capitol Hill reporters visibly struggling with how to “objectively” frame the obvious legislative misconduct of just one political party. Likewise, perusing a steady stream of op-eds about the debt-ceiling impasse demonstrates that most pundits literally have no concept of how to direct rhetorical outrage at or publicly apportion shame to just one ideology anymore. Thus, we’ve arrived at a surreal moment where the D.C. media’s conventional wisdom has moved past one version of false equivalence only to latch onto another—one that now doesn’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. Or, put another way: Yes, the Republicans are mostly to blame for getting us into this crisis, but all that matters now is holding both sides accountable for getting us out of it.
To execute this bit of legerdemain, however, the media has adopted a couple of subtle, intellectual cheats. First, it stubbornly clings to a blinkered, forward-only-looking mindset. This lets pundits float what sound like eminently sensible compromises while conveniently ignoring how they sharply conflict with the bankrupt motives and obstinate conduct of Congressional Republicans up till now. Thus, it is Senate Democrats who can be chastised in the press for not negotiating, even though Republicans have rebuffed their budget conference offer 21 times and passing a “clean” Continuing Resolution already represents a compromise by Democrats since it re-establishes sequester-level spending.
Second, and more disturbingly, the press has essentially accepted the House Republicans’ refusal to govern as a kind of unalterable, a priori condition, rather than a shameless failure by Speaker Boehner to prevent a rump minority from taking over his caucus. And by absolving the Republicans of any agency over their own extreme behavior, the press can then effectively spread the responsibility for fixing it to everyone in Washington, most especially President Obama. Indeed, the notion that it is now somehow the president’s duty to both extract concessions from Democrats and rescue Republicans from themselves is spreading like wildfire within the Beltway. And nowhere is this contrived idea more popular than over at the Washington Post.
Whether it’s Steven Pearlstein or David Ignatius or Matt Miller or Ruth Marcus or the paper’s “On Leadership” columnist, the Post repeatedly drums out the beat that, while the Republicans are to blame, the president must nevertheless give up something so the GOP House leadership can “save face” amongst its members. Even the paper’s reliably right-wing hack, Jen Rubin, acknowledges that Republican “stupidity” and “unreasonableness” are the culprits behind the crisis, yet she too argues that Democrats just need to “save the country” by giving in.
That’s right, according to Jen Rubin’s blatantly disingenuous logic, getting Democrats to cave in exchange for something as simple as keeping the government’s lights on and paying its bills on time will surely convince Republicans to never hold the country hostage again. Sure, and if you believe that, I have a closed-down WW II Memorial to sell you.
The reality is that the Beltway media has come around to embrace the idea that Obama must compromise with Republicans because Republicans have come around to embrace the pet policies of the Beltway media. It’s no coincidence that Paul Ryan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, which notably makes no mention of Obamacare, got such a warm welcome from the likes of the Washington Post editorial board. That’s because Ryan zeroed in on the same-old conservatives shibboleths that the DC conventional wisdom obsesses over as well. To the media establishment, it doesn’t matter how egregious the conduct that prompts them, the time is always right for “serious” discussions of “grand bargains” on things like deficit spending and entitlement reform. But don’t bother trying to recall the last time, with Democrats threatening to force a global economic meltdown, the press pleaded with the GOP to compromise on liberal policy goals like immigration reform, a carbon tax, or ENDA—it ain’t ever happened.
OK, so there’s no need to start writing eulogies for the Beltway media’s false equivalency just yet. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note that even when the press thinks it isn’t falling victim to false equivalency, it still is. And even when it thinks it is demanding a fair amount of accountability from those in Washington, it still ain’t. Perhaps it’s expecting too much from the press for it to quickly overcome institutional norms that for so long have equated blaming both sides with fair coverage. But sadly, when one party is willing to routinely hold the very foundations of our government for ransom, we can’t really afford to wait around until it does.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.