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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

The Gums of August: How Angry Town Halls Mesmerize the Media and Distort Debate


Dan Thompson, 51, of Canton, Michigan speaks out against health care reform during a town hall meeting. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Kimberly P. Mitchell)

My new Think Again column is “How to ‘Ignore’ and Obsess About a Story Simultaneously.” An alternate title is “The Wingnut Benghazi Fixation and What it Means about Media Bias.”

I wanted to give two quick shout-outs before turning over to Reed. One is to a film I saw at Lincoln Center recently, called “Born in Chicago,” about the largely Jewish local boys who hooked up with Muddy, Wolf, Otis, etc and went on to obscurity. Everybody knows about the British/Chess connection, but since the deaths of Paul Butterfield and the enormously charismatic Michael Bloomfield, these guys have been largely forgotten. The screening I saw had a panel hosted by my buddy Bob Merlis, and featured Marshall Chess and Barry Goldberg, who after disappearing for a long time, has recently resurfaced musically with Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd for a band called The Ride. Golberg was also instrumental in getting this wonderful documentary made and I hope it screens far and wide. It really is a lost history. There was a nice Times write up here.  And you can read more about Bloomfield and Goldberg in Ben Sidran’s terrific and tragically obscure, There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream.

Also, there’s a comic book about John Lewis, the Congressman/civil rights leader, not the MJQ guy. It’s kind of a crazy idea. Well, ok, call it a “graphic novel.” It’s called “March: Book One,”  and it’s published by the very cute Top Shelf Productions, and you can read about it here.

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

The Gums of August: How Angry Town Halls Mesmerize the Media and Distort Debate
by Reed Richardson

Welcome to the yelling season.

Every year, Congress goes into recess in late summer and members trundle back home to their districts and states for a break from their not-so-grueling three-day work weeks in Washington. Lately, however, even these notional vacations have proven to be anything but. Thanks to a small, vocal minority, the longstanding Congressional tradition of holding informative, respectful town halls during August has morphed into a much coarser ritual, one where US Representatives and Senators are routinely targeted for bilious rants and incoherent ramblings. The underlying intent of all this bumping of gums and gnashing of teeth isn’t engaged discourse; it’s disruptive grandstanding.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to trot out a defense of elitist thought masquerading as yet another Beltway centrist call for more civility. And I readily admit that members of Congress increasingly exist in a comfortably cloistered bubble, disconnected from the hard reality of their constituents. This is partly due to the incessant time demands of campaigning and fundraising, but partly it’s the result of simple arithmetic. On average, each member of the House represents roughly 650,000 people today, an increase of nearly 58 percent from 1960, when the median Congressional district population was around 412,000. So, any face-to-face time between members and the citizens they represent should be encouraged. But it is exactly because this democratic give-and-take is so precious that those who merely want to demagogue and dominate the process are such a problem. And, unfortunately, the media only makes it worse.

This enabling behavior by the press can be explained, if not excused. August has long been considered a notoriously slow period for political news (although, to be fair, the idea is probably oversold). So, any news peg that the media can find—no matter how tenuous—soon suffices for hanging an entire narrative upon. Thus, a press corps habitually trained to view every story through the crude lens of partisan confrontation can’t help but make rowdy town halls a staple of slow summer news coverage. For cable TV news—with its insatiable 24/7 content appetite—a steady stream of free, user-submitted videos featuring angry citizens berating their Congressman is practically a godsend. Left unchecked, however, a self-reinforcing loop of selection bias can take hold and distort the truth. Pretty soon, the town hall media coverage can makes it seem as if everyone in the country is mad at the government.

This was precisely the media strategy followed in August 2009 by Tea Party conservatives, some of whom were operating under direction of memos like this, which encouraged town hall attendees to “rock-the-boat” and “yell back [at members of Congress] and have someone else follow up with a shout out.” Often, their behavior didn’t stop at rhetorically blasting the president’s healthcare reform bill, aka Obamacare; at times, the opposition escalated to physically threats or assaults on some of its supporters. Since conservatives appear intent on repeating many of these tactics this summer—hence, the Atlantic Wire’s headline this week: “The Town Hall Outrage Over Obamacare Has Begun”—it’s worth revisiting, for reference, the media debacle from four years ago.

And what a debacle it was, as this Pew Research study from last year concluded. It found that nearly half—49%—of the overall news coverage of the healthcare reform debate in 2009–10 focused solely on the politics and process of reform. (Less than a quarter involved actual policy analysis.) This obsession with the theater surrounding the bill effectively set the conditions for a distorted alternate reality. Once the right wing began its angry town halls campaign, it all came to fruition.

In this parallel media universe, the only rational response to Obamacare was to vent one’s spleen at government officials, even though public opinion was evenly split in August 2009. For example, when the president encountered a respectful, reasoned town hall audience in New Hampshire in mid-August of that year, Fox News quickly cut away. The network's not-so-subtle suggestion: the lack of venom directed Obama's way could only be explained by some sort of propaganda effort by the White House. Then, in a moment of unrestrained id, Fox News anchor Trace Gallagher perfectly crystallized the broader media’s bias for fireworks: “Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we will bring it to you here.”

Just how successfully were conservatives in getting the media to play along with their anger? A separate 2010 Pew Study that found the opponents of healthcare reform handily won the messaging war, and that a big driver of their larger success was forged in the town hall cauldrons of August:

One example of this resonant rhetoric was the emergence of the term ‘death panels’ in August 2009. That was the month when anger boiled over in the health care debate. The fiery town hall protests, featuring citizens yelling at politicians, proved irresistible to the press, and accounted for nearly one-quarter of all the health care coverage that month.

This is the other important point about the trap of the angry-town-hall news meme. Not only does it misrepresent public opinion, it often misinforms the public by airing and then repeating falsehoods ad nauseam. Indeed, to borrow a term from the national security debate right now, town halls became a popular vector for injecting lies about Obamacare into the political discourse. While some in the media did yeoman’s work trying to debunk town hall myths about “death panels,” to expect cable news anchors to follow-up with a correction after each and every replay of someone spouting baseless rumors or Republican talking points is unbounded optimism. When a US Senator like Chuck Grassley all but endorses the same “death panels” lie, well, that’s a bridge too far for almost anyone in the establishment media to cross. And lest you think this kind of lie, once loosed, has a finite shelf life, think again. Just this week, “death panels” returned, zombie-like, to haunt a headline in a story from The Hill.

That’s where we are this August, contemplating a right-wing-driven media blitz over “defunding Obamacare,” which is essentially the same bitter, misinformed debate we suffered through four years ago. Certainly, Sean Hannity sounds like he’s still stuck in 2009. This, despite the fact that a majority of Americans now disagree with his entrenched obstructionism and say Republicans should stop trying to block the law’s implementation.

There are some rays of hope, however. If there’s one thing the press can’t abide, it’s being bored and getting stuck covering the same old shtick. Increasingly, the establishment media seems to have figured out the right wing is mostly just offering up the political equivalent of reruns this summer. About the only new twist on this saga is that a fair share of August’s conservative anger looks like it will be directed inward, at Republicans who aren’t reflexively willing to sabotage the government and derail the economy just to spite the president.

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Nevertheless, right-wing PAC Heritage Action will be rolling out a nine-city, traveling twin-bill town hall focused on defunding Obamacare later this month. Featuring the latest winner of the conservative sinecure lottery, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, alongside the reactionary heartthrob-du-jour, Senator Ted Cruz, this crackpot line-up is readymade for jokes about black satin tour jackets emblazoned with “DeMint-Ted” across the back. A more appropriate name for this tour, though, might be the “Death of Irony,” especially after reading this shameless shovelful of jus' folks manure from DeMint, which stops just short of calling for a boy’s band right here in River City:

I’m thrilled to be joining Heritage Action and to travel across the country to spend time with real Americans rather than Washington politicians. We want to hear directly from people in local communities who often suffer from Washington’s out-of-touch policies. Fortunately, Washington doesn’t have to win.

Left unsaid by DeMint: the awkward reality that his shiny, seven-figure income derives solely from being a former Washington politician who can whisper sweet nothings into the ear of current Washington politicians. Long after the shouting of this August’s right-wing faux populism has faded away, it will be his voice, and other insiders like him, that really matter in our democracy. And until the press figures that out, any talk of real change is just noise.   

Don CooperShamrock, Texas
Thoroughly enjoyed the piece about the corporate media's selective skepticism. Reed Richardson did good work on this. As a former editor-cartoonist-columnist, I was constantly astounded by the double-standard showed by the so-called objective press. For example, President Obama is nitpicked to death, while G.W. Bush's bullshit was taken at face value. Also, I am sick of seeing how networks still maintain a 4-1 margin of Republicans over Democrats on the Sunday talk shows. If, by some chance, a Democrat gets some air time, viewers can expect to see "balance" by bringing on a Republican or two. Doesn't happen in reverse—and, as far as I've been able to tell, Bernie Sanders is persona non grata on the Sunday talk shows.

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 Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month for Freedom of the Press


Glenn Greenwald. (AP Images)

My new “Think Again” column is called “The (Non-Existent) ‘Center’ Folds.” It’s about the now obsolete notion among Washington insiders that such a thing as “the Center” continues to exist and the damage this does in helping us to understand our world and the Republican desire to destroy almost everything of value in it.

One thing of value that was destroyed this week was Big Nick’s. When you accuse the New York Times of living in an Upper West Side liberal bubble, don’t forget to add “who don’t know the value of a decent burger.”

But one person who does continue to do his job terribly well, and by coincidence, has the best job on the planet—perhaps the best job in the history of the planet—is Bruce Springsteen. If you want the stats on his 2012/2013 tour, which still has three South American dates left and may return to the States in the Fall, or may not, here they are. The one I find most impressive: 223 songs played. The one I find most ridiculous: “Waitin’ On a Sunny Day” played 128 times.

Oh, and speaking of Bruce and burgers, everybody see this?

Now about Huma...just kidding. Here’s Reed:

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month for Freedom of the Press
by Reed Richardson

One need not look very hard these days to find evidence that climate change is very real, has already reached crisis level, and increasingly endangers our very existence on this planet. Similarly, events of this past month have offered up incontrovertible proof that the climate of our democracy is suffering through its own man-made crisis, one that is slowly submerging the fundamental rights of its citizens beneath the rising tide of an omniscient national security state. As one of the few lines of defense enumerated in our Constitution, the press plays a critical role in holding back this deluge. So it is particularly alarming to see the press’s ability to freely investigate the government increasingly under assault. And make no mistake, under assault, it is. Indeed, in adding it all up, July 2013 may rank as one of the worst months for the freedom of the press in our nation’s history.

As a sad but fitting preview to an awful July, on June 23 NBC News “Meet the Press” host David Gregory engages in a bout of media self-recrimination worthy of a Soviet show trial from the 1930s. Pointedly accusing Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald of having “aided and abetted” leaker Edward Snowden, Gregory goes on to openly question whether or not Greenwald deserved to being “charged with a crime” for his reporting.

This response is doubly counterproductive since the chief antagonist of the press’s freedom is unquestionably an Obama administration intent on carrying out an “unprecedented war on whistleblowers,” as Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald called it once again on July 2. And over the past few years, this targeting does have a different, more ominously aggressive tone about it. Whether it’s casting an egregiously wide and secret data net over an Associated Press reporter’s phone calls or asserting in a legal brief that Fox News reporter James Rosen was a “co-conspirator” in espionage, national security reporters increasingly find themselves in the government’s crosshairs. It’s a fitting analogy, then. For this “war,” like all others, has resulted in plenty of collateral damage, not the least of which is the freedom of the press.

Nevertheless Greenwald strikes such a sour chord with the establishment media that it often responds in a way that ultimately hurts its own cause. Also on July 2, The Washington Post produced an embarrassing editorial bemoaning the steady stream of reporting of Snowden leaks. Such was the Post’s distaste for this kind of journalism that the paper couldn’t even acknowledge that it too had published a major scoop based on a leak from Greenwald’s source, Snowden. And delegitimizing Greenwald, his source, and thus, his reporting, continues to be something of a Beltway parlor game. Just this past Monday, on July 29, MSNBC’s Morning Joe gave yet another Greenwald critic—former Obama aide Steve Rattner—a comfy platform to dismiss him as “an activist portraying himself as a journalist.”

To be clear, to question Greenwald’s reporting is fair game. And troubling questions about the accuracy of some elements of his stories have been raised. But arguing over the details of his reporting is far different than arguing that the author’s very transparent views on the Obama administration gives critics a free pass to ignore his reporting in toto. This circumscribed mindset, which obsesses over defining who is or isn’t a journalist, instead of what is or isn’t journalism, is self-defeating for both our press and our democracy. By attaching journalism’s standing to a person rather than a principle, the press runs the risk of government and the courts undermining the latter while being focused on the former.

Which is what happened on July 19 in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. It ruled that New York Times national security reporter James Risen must reveal the confidential source that leaked him classified information or risk jail time. Billed as a “victory” for the Obama administration, the majority in the 2–1 decision pointedly rejected Risen’s claim of “reporter’s privilege” under the First Amendment—and if a Times reporter of his stature can’t make such a claim, no one can. As a result, the court established a disturbing precedent that could severely hamper investigative journalism going forward. As dissenting judge, Roger Gregory, noted: “The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”

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This decision was particularly galling since it came hard on the heels of new, supposed more press-friendly Justice Department policy guidance for dealing with the media. Drafted in response to the media outcry over the DOJ’s actions in the AP and Rosen cases, the recommendations, which Attorney General Eric Holder rolled out on July 12 seemed encouraging. However, a deeper dive paints a decidedly less rosy picture for the press. For instance, the DOJ memo calls for the creation of a “news media dialogue group,” which brings up the specter of once again relying upon a self-censoring, overly credulous, insider-heavy group of journalists being co-opted by the government. We’ve seen what his kind of too-close relationship has wrought before and it wasn’t pretty.

But the memo’s most troubling aspect involves the “heightened standards” for obtaining access to journalist’s work product under the Privacy Protection Act (PPA). Though the new language talks a great game, it actually offers little in the way of new protections for journalists. As this House Judiciary Committee report, released on July 31, ably explains, all the new “suspect exception” guidance does is prevent the DOJ from repeating the outrageous tactic it took in the Rosen case, which was already a willful breach of the original intent of the PPA.

In other words, the memo merely gives away statutory authority that the Justice Department shouldn’t have taken in the first place. That the administration felt empowered to take these liberties sends a much more telling signal about its attitude toward press freedom than any newfound commitment to try to not overreach in the future. (I say try, because, after all, this is only guidance.)

And overreach was certainly the watchword of the government’s case against PFC Bradley Manning, which reached its final verdict this past Tuesday, July 30. Having already pleaded guilty to numerous charges for illegally releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks, Manning still had to defend himself against the more incendiary charge of espionage and “aiding the enemy.” And although ultimately found not guilty of the latter charge by a military judge, the ferocity with which the administration pursued Manning’s case sends an undoubtedly chilling message to other potential whistleblowers as well as the reporters who might work with them.

But as much as these after-the-story-is-out cautionary tales drive doubt and hesitancy in the press, it also matters just as much that many of the investigative reporting tools the press uses prior to publication no longer enjoy an expectation of freedom from government monitoring. In something of a double whammy to individual and press privacy, the last day in July saw the first reports (by Greenwald) of XKeyscore, an even more comprehensive NSA digital spying program, along with a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld the government’s warrantless tracking via cellphone. Couple these events with previous revelations about government collection of email and telephone metadata and the dragnet to stanch leaks and ensnare reporters becomes a daunting obstacle. It is not without irony that, out of fear for their sources as well as themselves, savvy investigative reporters must now routinely adopt the same extreme, low-tech communications tricks and surveillance-avoiding tradecraft as the terrorists our enormous national security network was set up to catch.

Simply put, the intoxicating power of having an all-knowing spy agency that suffers little to no oversight is simply too great of a temptation. Sure, the Obama administration will justify its actions under a banner of national security, but over time its never-ending war on leaks and leakers has opened a dangerous new front, one fought on the ground of where they leak to. The Constitution is very clear, however; being an adversary of the government does not make the press an enemy of the state. But if we continue to turn a blind eye to what’s going on, we’re likely to wake up one day to find the freedom of the press has been washed away and, swamped by fear, our democracy is no longer worth living in.

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

All or Nothing: The Press and Its Out-of-Balance Skepticism


Scene from Woody Allen's "Manhattan." (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

My new Think Again column is called “Indiana Is the Latest Skirmish in the Conservatives’ War on Knowledge” and it’s about Mitch Daniels’s energetic censorship efforts as Governor of Indiana, aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at Howard Zinn.

I noticed this ranking of all 50 of Woody Allen’s films. I’ve seen all of them except Blue Jasmine and first of all, #5 is really #1. But also, way underrated on this list in addition to “Manhattan” is: "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Scoop," the first part of "Celebrity," and "Play it Again, Sam." I also love "Deconstructing Harry" but that's a personal thing. (It's a hate letter to Philip Roth, who ended up with Mia Farrow, so there...) Overrated on this list: "Radio Days," "Shadows and Fog," "New York Story," and "Broadway Danny Rose," which is great, but nowhere near as great as say, "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which I would put # 3, but only because Annie Hall was so original and wonderful in its moment. Otherwise I'd put it at #2; one of the few genuine masterpieces of contemporary cinema. And I'd also argue that Woody, having three of these, has more than any of his peers...

Alter-reviews: Williamstown Theater Festival and Mass MOCA

No music etc, this week, except to say I saw a wonderful production of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood—a play that somehow eluded me before, even though I am an enormous fan of Stoppard as a playwright, though not so much as a writer of movie scripts—and it was just wonderful, as was especially, Kate Burton, in the starring role. Nobody alive writes as clever plots and sparkling dialogue as Stoppard does and when it’s done well, it’s near perfect theater. And it was done well by the Williamstown Theater Festival, which is sort of on the Williams College campus, and I don’t know if they are always so great, but if you need to be in the Berkshires, as I did, well, this turned out to be a great idea. And so, did, by the way, the family visit to Mass MOCA in North Adams. I am not a big fan usually of contemporary art but this place was brilliant. It’s a fantastic space and the exhibitions were both fun and thought-provoking. I totally think whoever is in charge of Mass MOCA should be offered the job of running LA MOCA since that seems to be open and I’m guessing, pays a ton more money.

Now here's Reed, who is in especially good form today...:

First, a point of personal privilege: Almost exactly three years ago, I did my first regular post for the Altercation blog. At the time, a huge exposé was laying bare our runaway national security state, Republicans were stubbornly vowing to repeal Obamacare, and the planet was suffering from record-breaking heat. OK, so not much has changed, but thanks again anyway to Eric for letting me stick around too.

All or Nothing: The Press and Its Out-of-Balance Skepticism
by Reed Richardson

The events of this past Wednesday laid bare one of the most infuriating problems with our establishment media—it’s knack for selectively applying skepticism at all the wrong times for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, to compare the press’s snide, cynical stance toward Obama’s “middle-out” economic speech with the all-too-credulous tone it took toward the status quo on the Amash-Conyers amendment vote was to witness an institution failing in its democratic duty twice.

Channeling their inner, easily distracted teenager, many in the Washington press corps couldn’t wait to proclaim Obama’s detail-heavy speech on middle-class economic issues and income inequality “BOHHH-RING!” before it even started. This pre-emptive backlash (forelash?) among the objective press was particularly visceral. What’s more, it was strikingly similar to the smug critiques emanating out of the right-wing media.

Leading things off Wednesday morning, Chuck Todd at NBC News snarkily spoke of feeling “deja pivot,” which elicited approving nudges and winks from the Breitbart hive. ABC News’ political insider blog, The Note, led off with the not-so-subtle headline “Obama Pivots to Economy…Again,” before listing nine previous pivots, a total that fell 10 pivots short of conservative columnist Salena Zito’s count. The National Journal’s Ron Fournier dismissed the speech in a Tweet as nothing of consequence (“Move along.”), which was very close to where the Republican Party’s oppo hit came out: “speeches don’t create jobs.”

But perhaps no one, in the objective or right-wing press, captured the Beltway antagonism toward Obama’s speech quite like The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. His column characterized the president’s return to a consistent economic message—one the president himself pointed out in his speech—as a case of the White House being “fresh out of ideas” and going into “reruns.” In a neat trick, Milbank stuck Obama in a Catch-22, crediting his ideas as worthwhile, but then faulting him for not coming up with different ones to appease intransigent House Republicans.

“But while that message remains relevant, Obama is now facing a Republican opposition that, by House Speaker John Boehner’s own account, is measuring its success by how many laws it can undo. There’s no longer serious talk about a grand bargain that could reform entitlement programs and the tax code. Legislators and administration officials have little hope of doing more than short-term skirmishing over the debt ceiling and mindless spending cuts in the ‘sequester.’

“If he’s to break through the resistance, Obama will need some bold new proposals. That’s why his speech returning to the oldies would seem to confirm that the White House has given up on big achievements.”

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This kind of analysis is, sadly, not an ironic joke. On issue after issue—the sequester, the debt ceiling, the farm bill, Social Security benefits, immigration reform—the White House and Senate Democrats have offered up significant compromises (often far too significant) only to have their efforts thrown back in their faces by Congressional Republicans, while the political media shakes its collective head and blames “gridlock” on “both sides.” But where, pray tell, is this press’s broad scrutiny of the president’s opposition in Congress?  What, if any, “bold new proposals” are the House Republicans passing that the President is ignoring?

Certainly not any from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who tried to pre-empt the president Wednesday by pushing out a memo entitled “Three Ways to Immediately Grow Jobs and Strengthen the Middle Class.” Cantor’s trifecta? His own set of golden oldies. First, approve the potentially calamitous Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the State Dept. estimates will create a mere 35 permanent jobs. Next, urge the Senate pass the House’s three-month-old SKILLS Act, which is little more than a sop to tech industries seeking to hire cheaper foreign workers. Finally, he reprised the old “drill, baby, drill” mantra of 2008, disingenuously conflating increased offshore oil exploration with lower gas prices, which, time and again, experts say is a myth.

What of the larger House Republican’s tireless dedication to passing jobs legislation?, a curious journalist might have asked—but notably didn’t. Well, he or she can view a list of 15 Republican “Jobs Bills Stalled in the Senate” on the caucus’s official website. Of course, a skeptical reporter might start to question the sincerity of the GOP’s outrage at the Senate when he or she notices this list was posted 638 days ago, and that every one of the links to the pollution-enabling and regulation-gutting legislation from the previous Congress is now dead.

To be fair, the House GOP’s website also has a whole button solely devoted to its jobs plan, which entices you to click it with a promise of “Get all the details here.” That’s true, if by “details” you mean one sentence each of talking points on 10 empty policy platitudes like “Fostering Innovation,” “Expanding Education Opportunity,” and the ever-popular “Reining in Red Tape.” At least the press won’t be bothered with having to sift through an hour-long speech, I guess. And need I really mention that the House GOP’s strategy for lowering health care starts off with: “Repealing ObamaCare…”

When the previous president stuck to his guns on an issue and orchestrated political events to build support for them, the press swooned and called it “leadership.” When Obama does it, the press resents his repetition and castigates the president for being “in campaign mode.” Make no mistake, the press should bring with it a healthy skepticism to all of its reporting, even more so when covering those in positions of power, most especially the President. But almost all of the acid poured on Obama’s economic message this week wasn’t about the substance inside his speech, but the spin outside of it. The viability of his policy solutions didn’t interest many pundits, the majority of which instead chose to take umbrage with the fact that he’s proposed many of these same ideas before. To be clear, there are substantive questions that even liberals should have about Obama, both with the overall scope of his jobs plan as well as his follow-through. But cynicism for cynicism’s sake was pretty much all the establishment media gave us this week on his jobs speech.

Though there was plenty to go around, far too little skepticism carried over to the press’s reporting on the House vote to roll back the NSA’s unprecedented spying authority. Though prompted by a rare bipartisan House coalition comprised of the flanks of both the left and right wing, the media seemed cool to this group’s embrace of radical anti-centrism.

The Washington Post, for example, tried to play it straight, but too easily fell into the arms of anonymous “U.S. officials” who carefully defended the NSA program. Even worse, the article then quotes an ominous warning from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who claims that the Amash-Conyers amendment “risks dismantling an important intelligence tool.” That would be the same DNI Clapper who previously lied to Congress about what our intelligence agencies were actually collecting, an incredibly salient point that goes to his trustworthiness as a source and a detail that the Post, inexplicably, failed to mention.

The New York Times analysis of the amendment, which was defeated 217-205, was likewise full of quotes and devoid of almost any of the paper’s previous, more skeptical reporting. Why, for example, didn’t the Times directly include or, at the very least, link to its extremely valuable story on the secret legal rulings used to justify the NSA’s expansive powers from earlier this month? Such context would have provided a much more appropriate counterweight to the government officials’ unsubstantiated claim this week that “Denying the N.S.A. such access to data will leave the nation at risk.”

But at least the Times avoided spouting the intelligence community’s now standard talking point about the NSA program having foiled “at least 50 terror plot across 20 countries,” as the Associated Press’s write-up did. This claim, routinely presented to—and by—the press sans evidence, has been called dubious by numerous sources, not the least of which are three U.S. Senators. But that detail somehow didn’t merit inclusion in the AP’s “Big Story” on the amendment vote.

These little omissions are symbolic of much broader problem, a perverse inversion of skepticism within the press. The basic facts of how much intelligence our government really collects about us—in our name—remains a mystery, whereas the cutthroat reality that our middle class faces is all too obvious. Yet our media shows little interest in asking the hard questions about the former, and all too eager to lazily critique the value of discussing the latter. But this selectively all-or-nothing coverage increasingly leaves the public, and our democracy, with nothing at all.

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

The ‘Town,’ The Book


Washington, DC. (Reuters/Molly Riley)

My new Think Again column is called “Mainstream Media Refuses to Recognize the Elephant in the Room

My new Nation column is called “The MSM and the Snowden Affair: Where True Loyalty Lies

Had I not gone on so long on the Think Again column, I would have noted the passing of Leonard Garment whom I got to know in the late 1980s for a long profile I wrote, and whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. A proud graduate of Brooklyn College, Len, like his fellow Thundering Herd member, Alan Greenspan, should have stuck to jazz. (I got the chance to suggest this to Greenspan once, but that’s another story.) Anyway, Garment was, as Safire described him the “resident liberal conscience” in the Nixon White House. There has not been any such position in the Republican Party for a very long time, and it will be a long time before there is. Len’s long life was marked by tragedy, but when I knew him, he was quite the happy warrior, though, by that time, I think he would have a hard saying exactly for what. Anyway, he passes into history with an era that is gone as well, for better in some respects, but mostly for worse.

Alter-reviews, Joan Osborne live:
I have always had a thing for Joan Osborne. I saw her for five bucks in a bar in DC when her first album came out—the one that everybody has—and I’ve always been impressed by the various directions into which her music has grown, including her country album, her soul album, her original paean to my city, her work with an early post-Jerry version of the Dead, and most everything in between. Whenever she comes on the Ipod, I’m always taken aback, again, by how well her voice and interpretation works with a particular song.

Last night at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, my appreciation for her was redoubled if not retripled. While I appreciated her voice and interpretive skills, in the past, I was actually taken aback by just what a terrific singer she is: a powerful voice almost perfectly controlled with chancy interpretations that swung and hypnotized in equal measure. Part of the pleasure came from the intimacy of the club—and the ability of Joan to keep it rapt—as well as her brilliant piano player whose name I don’t know, but without whom the show would not have been half as great as it was. (Also, I have to say, Joan is a weirdly good tambourine player. I’ve never noticed anyone who made so much of the instrument before.) Anyway, the show was a combination of hits from the first cd, songs she just likes, and a few from her recent blues-oriented Bring it On Home. She’s pretty sexy too, especially when she gets into that tambourine trance. She’s playing a show of all Dead tunes next week on the net. It’s here, but I don’t quite understand how it works.

Now here’s Reed though I want to say I rather strongly disagree with him about This Town. I think it has flaws, mostly relating to what’s left out (substance, for instance especially as it relates to Republican nuttiness, which, in that respect, mirrors what is so wrong with most MSM journalism and inspired my Think Again column above, where I do I mention the book, and also how easy it goes on Sally Quinn and how transparently this is a nod to Ben Bradlee, which is how Quinn’s ridiculousness has been allowed to go on all these years without getting its due) but aside from all that, I think it’s a fine and useful and also quite fun book.

Now here, really is Reed:

I Had to Read the Book, Having Had a Look…
By Reed Richardson

"Washington is not Hollywood (or 'Showbiz for Ugly People' as the dumb cliche goes). The stakes are real and higher."

So says Mark Leibovich in This Town (Blue Rider Press, $28), but you'd never know it from reading his book.

In fact, Leibovich’s breathlessly awaited DC potboiler, four years in the making, exists in a rarefied world almost wholly detached from the rest of America. Any perspective on the broader consequences of what Washington does (or doesn’t) isn’t the only thing lacking from the book, though. Substance, sincerity, structure, outrage, and wit are too. But the first thing missing, you'll learn, even before you open it up, is an index. Inspired by famed political journalist Richard Ben Cramer's refusal to include one in his books on Washington (to prevent Capitol Hill luminaries from merely skipping ahead to mentions of themselves), Leibovich does the same here. But in an ominous foreshadowing of the clumsy, overwrought fate about to befall his readers, Leibovich isn't content to follow Cramer's example, he has to go one better. So he boasts of this omission in a big, red, faux warning label on the back cover of his book jacket. Don’t you see? This book is dangerous.

Still, I can forgive an author foregoing an index to make a point, but skipping a table of contents too? This starts to suggest what would ordinarily fall in between the former and the latter is not held together by much. The same goes for the arbitrarily titled Prologue and Epilogue, which don't clearly sit outside the book's narrative arc, probably because the book doesn't really have one. No narrative engine drives This Town forward, instead it mostly just spreads, contagion-like from one glad-handing Washingtonian to the next in a semi-arch, stream-of-unctuousness style that is long on the little details and short on the big picture. Leibovich, who's spent 16 years reporting from Washington, first for the Post and now for The New York Times, openly admits to membership in “The Club,” as he calls it. But he never quite figures out at any one moment if he's trying to make us righteously angry or fully amused by the selfish and craven power-hungry culture that has wholly subsumed our nation's capital.

Early on, though, Leibovich is careful to distinguish this well-heeled world from the struggling city that serves as its backdrop. Still, the crass tone he inhabits to (presumably) mimic the cloistered viewpoint of DC’s chosen few fits just a little too comfortably for my taste:

Yes, [Tim] Russert was the mayor of This Town. To be sure, the 'real' city of Washington has an actual elected mayor: black guy, deals with our city problems. But that's just the D.C. where people live, some of them (18.7 percent) even below the poverty line, who drag down the per capita incometo a mere $71,011—still higher than any American state but much less than what most anyone at the Russert funeral is pulling down. Yes, Washington is a 'real city,' but This Town is a state of belonging, a status and a commodity.

There’s lots more of this personality profile-cum-political analysis from Leibovich, but it was striking how derivative it feels most of the time. Over and over again, his insights on the Washington culture seem rather small-bore and banal when standing alongside the more trenchant observations of others he quotes, many of whom, like Joan Didion, plowed this ground long before he did.

Part of the book is drawn from a 2010 New York Times profile Leibovich wrote on infamous Politico press tout and DC gadfly Mike Allen. The debt the book owes to this section is magnified, however, because Allen, and, more broadly, Politico, serve as the book’s ne plus ultra of the new Washington media culture This Town is intent on unveiling.

“Mikey” as everyone calls him, including Leibovich, who counts Allen as a friend, exemplifies the type of access-addicted, hive-minded, “drive the conversation” journalism that overwhelms the DC discourse more often than not. Viewed from another dimension—one not swayed by running into Allen at this swanky party or that well-catered fundraiser—Allen would have nicely fit the role of the book’s antagonist, someone who both compulsively seeks and dispenses approval to members of The Club. Instead, the book falls into the same amoral trap that plagues the shameless self-promoters it highlights. Just as everyone in the book seems only to respect success and power, no matter how ill-gotten it was gained, so too does their profile. Thus, the book repeatedly gives Allen’s boss, Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei, a platform to effuse over how Mikey has “authentic power,” is “the real deal,” and “has built the most successful brand in journalism.” If you’re struggling to recall even one big news story that this “brand” unearthed that improved ordinary people’s lives or that shook the levers of power, then you’re not alone (and don’t count on Leibovich for examples either). But then again, you’re also not likely to merit a birthday shoutout in Allen’s daily “Playbook” email, so who, really, gives a damn what you think.

The only real dramatic tension in the book comes when Leibovich briefly juxtaposes Allen’s oeuvre with that of recently deceased Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. Known for an award-winning 2010 expose outing General Stanley McChrystal’s insubordinate comments toward the White House, Hastings, inexplicably, endured a lot of criticism after the story from Washington’s media culture for actually reporting on what McChrystal said. Leibovich documents the establishment media backlash, where Howard Kurtz, David Brooks, and Lara Logan all came forward to express their disappointment in Hastings’ professional conduct. Allen’s verdict in the matter, however, was so laughably in the tank that it serves as possibly the greatest indictment of his servile reporting one could think up: “A quick search would have showed McChrystal that caution was warranted around the irreverent reporter.” Your secrets are safe with ol’ Mikey, dontcha know.

Leibovich tries to play this conflict straight, and mostly succeeds in not taking sides, although that alone should be cause for concern. But he tips his hand when he describes fellow RS reporter Matt Taibbi, who rose to Hastings’ defense, a “wicked screed artist.” And there’s more than a whiff of insider tut-tutting when he says Taibbi is “one of the few legitimate heirs to Hunter S. Thompson in a blog-inspired generation of gonzo wannabes.”

Thompson’s legacy hangs heavy over This Town. On the surface, the book seems like it would be just the kind of scathing, damn-the-torpedoes takedown of Beltway hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement that Thompson would have hilariously dashed off, despite the frantic protests of his publisher’s lawyers. Coincidentally, in the pseudo-Prologue, Leibovich tries to gin up some of that same ol’ Hunter edginess by talking vaguely of trying not to “scare the vetters.” In reality, This Town is a far cry from something like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, not the least of which because it tries too hard (and fails) at being funny. I laughed out loud exactly three times and each time was at something someone other than the author had said (in order, Christopher Hitchens, Obama, and Hillary Clinton.) Leibovich’s humor is less rapier-like wit and more Borscht Belt comic—“he had me at sleazeball,” or “an online photo of [Paul] Ryan in a bathing suit made his the most-discussed abs in the history of running mates, other than possibly Joe Lieberman’.” Thank you DC, be sure to tip your waiters and waitresses!

The truth is, when Leibovich isn’t telegraphing his punches in This Town, he is pulling them. Each faintly damning profile gets a helping of praise as well. Three paragraphs into documenting the myriad ways some DC operator takes advantage of his friends or ruthlessly flaunts her power, Leibovich can’t help but add a few drops of antidote, seemingly with a knowing wink toward the offended, that renders all the poison harmless. Even Terry McAuliffe, who comes off as badly as anyone in the book, gets his share of begrudging tough love and respect. “You can be the most detestable person in the world—and the Macker is not, for the record—but you would still be assured of having thousands of elegant friends by being a good fund-raiser.” These little gestures may have been intended to humanize his subjects, but when they’re dropped in like this, with no added context, it effectively excuses their behavior.

Leibovich undermines the book in other small ways. Time and again, he cues up a chapter or segues to a new topic with a throwaway line about the pain felt in “real America.” These dispatches are so transparently disingenuous, however, that they approach self-parody. When you wrap up the year-long battle over the passage of the Affordable Care Act in one independent clause, for instance, all you’re really doing is reminding the reader that, in the calculus of This Town, actual policy and the people it impacts are of little consequence. “Notwithstanding the economy being in the sewer and Tim [Russert] being in the ground,” Liebovich writes, “Barack Obama provided a shot of adrenaline and ignited the hottest local media swoon since Camelot.” If this is supposed be read as ironic, as merely another affectation of The Club’s mentality and not Leibovich’s, it is buried too deep to be detected.

That’s too bad, because there is a core of a good book in here. Leibovich, perhaps better than anyone else before him, limns the hopelessly intertwined and incestuous nature of DC’s political, philanthropic, and social worlds. Here, someone is always leaving government to start and/or join a lobbyist/communication/strategy/public relations firm. That they often join forces with their ideological rivals just reinforces that the fix is in. Leibovich points out that, while the Great Recession waylaid the rest of the country in 2009, lobbyists had a banner year. But writing a great book about the pernicious influence of lobbying clearly wasn’t what Leibovich had in mind, since that would at some point actually involve talking about policy. (Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money beat him to it, anyway.) What’s more, This Town, for all the problems with the Washington culture it documents, shows no appetite for coming up with solutions.

This lack of focus becomes pronounced as the book nears its end. Unmoored from the only visible thread in the book—Washington—Leibovich gets really tangled up when he moves the action out to 2012 presidential campaign trail. Having already been done a million times elsewhere, his election coverage increasingly feels like an afterthought. By the time his book gets past Obama’s re-election, it’s like he just started opening up his notebook and dumping everything out. On page 340, for example, Leibovich begins with the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction proposal, moves on to Dick Armey’s $8-million golden parachute from the Tea Party, jumps to Jim DeMint’s six-figure salary with the Heritage Foundation, then is on to Chris Dodd’s MPAA lobbying take, follow that with a generic Thanksgiving tweet from journalist Howard Fineman, and then the page ends talking about the quadrennial post-election debrief at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. In this town full of great editors, Leibovich really couldn’t find one for This Town?

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The final set piece for Liebovich’s book is yet another big soiree, one at the palatial home of DC fixtures Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. Politicians, journalists, lawyers—People Worth Knowing, in DC parlance—are all in attendance and Leibovich isn’t above basking in the afterglow of his former boss, Bradlee, the longtime legendary Washington Post executive editor. “Whatever the occasion, it’s always a thrill to score the invite to Ben and Sally’s,” Leibovich writes, all but giving the game away. Still, the mood he portrays here is one of an aging generation of big, bold-face names bemoaning a Washington that is changing before their eyes—the hosts have dubbed it “The Last Party.” But the tragedy of This Town is that the political/media/social culture currently suffocating Washington is far from close to ending and the schmoozing one percenters who populate it are far too insulated from the rest of the country to care. In that way, Leibovich’s book perfectly captures this phenomenon—since no one outside of Washington should ever want to read it. And that’s probably just fine with the people in That Town.

Contact me directly: reedfrichardson (at) gmail (dot) com.
Or on Twitter: (at)reedfrich

The mail:

Michael GreenLas Vegas, NV
First, to Dr. A., your commentary on economic liberalism (how I hate the term "progressive") reminds me that we should just declare Elizabeth Warren a national treasure and get it over with.

Reed Richardson inspired me this week because I would like to think I am inspiring people to think as he does. On Facebook, for a couple of years now, I have been regularly posting that Republicans are guilty of treason under Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. What gives more aid and comfort to the enemy than intentionally weakening the government of the United States? That is what they are doing, and they are doing it because of, as I refer to him with appropriate irony, the Uppity One in the White Man's House. I also make a concession to political correctness in not using another word that I will guarantee you regularly is heard in the privacy of leading Republicans' offices, including the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader.

Apropos of whom, I can now tell you definitely that Harry Reid is the greatest majority leader in the Senate's history, and he had been my choice for second behind LBJ. But now we know he is first. Why? Because the Treasonous Turtle from Kentucky pronounced that he would be the worst leader in Senate history. If that doesn't prove it, what does?

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

Going Off the Grid(lock)


John Boehner accompanied by Mitch McConnell and other House and Senate Republicans. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

My new Think Again column is “Have Progressives Abandoned Economic Liberalism?

Alter-reviews:
Not much live music at the beach. I have been watching the new Blu-ray of “Help” which is the Beatles at their most personally charming, and the music sure hits a sweet spot. It’s all pretty wonderful and it’s hard to imagine anyone save my daughter who could find it resistable without also being a terrible person. Anyway the Blu-ray pairs the digitally restored film and 5.1 soundtrack with an hour of extra features, including a 30-minute documentary about the making of the film, memories of the cast and crew, an in-depth look at the restoration process, an outtake scene, and original theatrical trailers and radio spots. An introduction by the film's director, Richard Lester, and an appreciation by Martin Scorsese are included in the Blu-ray's booklet. The performances include: 'Help!,' 'You're Going To Lose That Girl,' 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away,' 'Ticket To Ride,' 'I Need You,' 'The Night Before,' and 'Another Girl.'

I’d also like to give a decidedly ambivalent but nevertheless admiring shout-out to a new collection, For the Republic: Political Essays by George Scialabba. I picked up his previous collection on the basis of myriad recommendations from people whose opinions I tend to share, but I had to put it down right smack at the table of contents when I saw that the first essay was called something like “Alexander Cockburn and Noam Chomsky are Totally Awesome.” Might as well try and sell me on Bush and Cheney. This one does something similar with Ralph Nader, but somehow I got past it—thanks, I suppose to the fact that George, whom I’ve never met sent me the book himself and wrote a nice note—and I find that, as hard as it is to believe, I actually find myself in accord with much of it, and almost always impressed by the vivacity and originality of the prose, despite my deep disagreements with some of its judgments. Anyway it could use, and deserves, some attention, so check it out.

I also want to recommend the audio version of “Bad Monkey” read by Arte Johnson, which is first rate Carl Hiassen and is appropriately respectful of Steve Earle and Bruce bootlegs. And speaking of “bad,” also Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl, which is a nice tour of the contemporary art business and what it does to people. Oh and I liked Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, but it does not even begin to be talked about as a “great American novel.” It is a “good” American novel, though I much preferred Francesca Segal’s The Innocents (which is almost great) and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins which is not quite as almost-great as The Innocents, but well-worth everyone’s time. For the most recent “great” American novels, I’m sorry but I’m sticking with the Jonathans: both Freedom and The Corrections by Franzen and Fortress of Solitude by Lethem. 

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

Going Off the Grid(lock)
by Reed Richardson

Responsible governance is a surprisingly fragile thing. It requires members of Congress act on good faith. It likewise needs them to have a shared investment in not just representing constituents, but in sustaining the relevance of the institution. And to run smoothly, it depends upon a certain amount of procedural shortcuts—voice votes, unanimous consent, motions to recommit—to lubricate the gears of legislating. Yes, there will be plenty of differences of opinion over what should be done. But what Congress can’t abide is when every single policy debate breaks down because too many of its ostensible lawmakers no longer feel compelled to, well, make laws.

Tragically, our nation has now arrived at a point where Congress simply no longer functions. The 112th Congress that ended last year was notable for its both feeble and futile legislative output. Yet our current Congress is poised to sink even lower into the depths of dysfunction—after six months, it has passed only 15 laws, a record low number for this point in the term. And it’s not like the public hasn’t noticed, last month a Gallup poll recorded its lowest-ever approval rating for Congress, a mere 10%.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Congress that’s broken, the press’ coverage of Congress is too. At the root of this problem sits one single word that the media instinctively reaches for to explain why our representatives repeatedly shirk their duties: gridlock. Over and over again, contrived committee hearings, failed floor votes, and infuriating filibusters of presidential nominees get painted over by the media with this same broad brush. This past Monday, for example, the New York Times rolled out a broad state-of-play piece on Congressional failure that established gridlock right in the headline and took care to sing the same old “both sides do it” song. Two days later, the same reporter trotted out another Beltway golden oldie—Democrats in disarray—to explain how a Democratic majority failed to overcome a Republican filibuster and pass a student loan interest rate fix in the Senate.

This gridlock meme is symptomatic of the same false equivalency that plagues too much of the Beltway media, however. Like the favorite tactic of using dueling soundbites, the pronouncement of Congressional gridlock is an overly simplistic, pox-on-both-houses throwaway line. It implies equal forces in opposition, both similarly intransigent, both correspondingly unwilling to compromise. That kind of lazy reporting simply does not reflect reality, though. The president and Democrats regularly make entreaties on legislative policy only to be met with calls for even more concessions if not outright scorn. The battle in Congress is no longer between two parties trying to steer the country in different directions, as the press like to portray it. It’s now about one party keeping its hands on the wheel while trying to keep the other party from jumping out of the car.

It is no coincidence that Congress’ rapid, unprecedented descent into legislative limbo began two-and-a-half years ago, with the arrival of dozens of hard-right, Tea Party-based Republicans to Capitol Hill. But don’t just take my word for it, two of the most respected Congressional scholars in Washington have said the very same thing—“The Republicans are the problem.” Though this new extremist caucus of conservatives makes up but a minority in Congress, it has effectively taken control of the body, by abandoning nearly every procedural norm that enables Congress to function. Denuded of any actionable power, the GOP majority in the House has turned that chamber into a legislative wormhole, into which Senate bills disappear never to be seen again and from which an unending stream of bills appear as if ripped from a parallel universe. Sometimes it even seems like the House is stuck in a time loop.

The establishment press, however, has all too readily accepted this behavior as the new normal. Rather than, say, juxtapose the statistics about Congress’s historic level of inaction next to every compromise shot down by Republicans in the House, the media maintains a startlingly small-bore perspective. Each time Congress fails to act, the press treats it as sui generis, leaving the public with little understanding of the backstory or the larger forces that stopped it. And rather than adding broader context by constantly referring to the breathtakingly brazen rate of filibusters in the Senate, the media (when it bothers to even use the term “filibuster”) shifts the blame to the president for nominating candidates that don’t pass muster with every single crackpot GOP senator. Sometimes the media even enables the obstruction, like when it hyperbolically claims Senate Majority Leader Reid’s moderate attempt at curbing filibuster abuse is tantamount to: “threatening to kill a part of the thing he loves most in the world.”

This abdication by Congress of its duties has, in effect, put the onus of legislating on the other two branches. And they have grown increasingly comfortable in their roles. Ironically, that means Republicans hellbent on stopping Obama’s agenda have convinced the president to undertake a broad exercise of executive actions on everything from gun control to climate change to healthcare. More to the GOP’s liking, the Supreme Court has taken up Congress’s slack as well, revising numerous federal laws to suit the conservative Roberts Court’s pro-business agenda. But only when a high-profile example can’t be ignored—like the fact no one expects Congress to pass a new preclearance map for Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act—does this spillover effect get any attention by the press. But it should, a lot. For, whether you support or oppose the specific policies involved in these various end runs around Congress, it’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.

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The lesson to Republicans in Congress intent on obstruction couldn’t be clearer, though. There will be little price to pay in press scrutiny or public opprobrium for their intentional inaction. So why not remain beholden to the hidebound agenda of an energized rump of Republican primary voters? And why not take a cue from a few, deep-pocketed donors, like Charles Koch, who just this week granted a rare press interview in which he broadcast a not-so-subtle message to like-minded legislative partners in Congress: “Gridlock is bad if there are positive solutions…but if the proposals are to take us in a worse direction, then gridlock is good.”

To be fair, a few prominent voices in the political press who cover Congress regularly aren’t afraid to call out this sabotaging of governance for what it is. Greg Sargent, at The Washington Post, and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, are standouts here. But even among the more conventional “objective” media pundits, a stirring is underway. When NBC News’s Chuck Todd starts pointing out the anti-democratic tendencies behind the Republican Party’s broad-based campaign to slow and/or stop new laws and thoroughly undermine existing ones, a small measure of optimism is in order. (Perhaps a very small measure, since just three months ago, Todd implied presidential fundraising could be fueling the GOP’s obstructionism.)

Still, a cynic might argue that if the media never does come around to noticing what’s really going on, that could prove to be an advantage for Democrats the next time they’re in the minority. That, however, would require being both ridiculously gullible and forgetful, as the press’s dismissive and callous treatment of the left during the eight years of the Bush 43 presidency ably demonstrated. But more important than what the Democratic Party might or might not one day gain is what our democracy is already losing today. Every time the public must watch Congress prove itself incapable of addressing their very real problems, faith in our democracy suffers. And when the media blithely indicts everyone in Congress equally for these failures, it only exacerbates the public’s feeling of betrayal, since it suggests government itself is inherently flawed. Sure, there are a lot of obstacles in the way of improving our federal legislature’s responsiveness to the people. But the solution is so simple, it’s a bit of a tautology. In the end, changing Congress will require changing Congress, whether that’s instituting fairer procedural rules in the Senate or voting out flagrantly obstructionist members in the House. But until an obsessively plugged-in Washington press corps is willing to take a step back and go off the gridlock narrative, any changes for the better—in Congress and in our country—will be hard to come by.

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

The Mail
Hi Mr Richardson -

I just read your piece on Samuel Alito [“Splenetic Justice”] with which I couldn't agree more.

Strangely, you refer twice to Clarence Thomas's "advanced" age. He's been on the bench for 22 years so he seems ancient but he is actually only 65, or two (really) years older than Alito.

Best regards,
Jack Johnson

Reed replies: Fair point. Perhaps a bit of wishful thinking on my part. A better argument would have been to note Thomas’s 15-year advantage in SCOTUS tenure vs. Alito, and that because the former seems to barely tolerate oral arguments, he may be much more inclined to retire sooner than later.

Dear Mr. Richardson,

I am in full accord with you about Alito, but, as a lawyer, I will point out some errors in your article.

1. Alito, as you say, is 63; Clarence Thomas is 65. Thus, Thomas is not of “advanced age” and could remain on the bench longer than Alito, contrary to what you say in your final paragraph. Bush appointed him when he was 43.

2. You quote Alito as having written, “Windsor and the United States thus ask us to rule that the presence of two members of the opposite sex is as rationally related to marriage as white skin is to voting or a Y-chromosome is to the ability to administer an estate.”  You comment, “Suggesting same-sex partners are due the same marriage rights as opposite sex ones is tantamount to endorsing racist Jim Crow laws or sexist legal traditions, he seems to be arguing.” No. He is arguing that limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex is more rational than is limiting voting to whites or allowing only men to administer estates. He would have been clearer if he’d written that Windsor was arguing that being of the opposite sex is as rationally unrelated to marriage as white skin is to voting.

3. You quote Alito as having written, “At least as it [the consent-based view of marriage] applies to heterosexual couples, this view of marriage now plays a very prominent role in the popular understanding of the institution.” You comment, “Is Alito really not sure that gay people form loving bonds in the same way and for the same reasons as straight people?” That is not what Alito is saying. He is noting that the consent-based view, in contrast to the traditional view of marriage as based on procreation, has become popular as applied to heterosexual couples. He is not expressing his own opinion of it. He adds that proponents of same-sex marriage argue that there is no basis to apply the consent-based view solely to heterosexual couples. Alito does not express his opinion of that either. He implies, though, that, if it is true that the consent-based view includes same-sex marriage, then, for the Court to allow same-sex marriage would require it to choose the consent-based view of marriage. This is because the traditional view of marriage, being based on procreation, does not allow same-sex marriage. But, Alito argues, the Constitution does not favor the consent-based view or the traditional view, and the Court, therefore, should not choose between them. That matter is left to legislatures. In saying that, Alito is saying that he believes that the Constitution does not require the states to allow same-sex marriage. That question was not before the Court in the DOMA case, but it likely will be in the future, and he has admitted that he has already made up his mind. (Not that such honesty is so awful. I think that it is ludicrous when Supreme Court nominees say that they can express no opinion of any issue that may come before the Court. Theoretically, they, or Alito in this case, could change their minds about such issues.)

4. You quote Alito as having written, “All that §3 does is to define a class of persons to whom federal law extends certain special benefits and upon whom federal law imposes certain special burdens.” You comment, “So, Congress decided gay people have to deal with some “special burdens” when it comes to the state sanctioning their marriage.” No. Alito is saying that §3 recognizes only opposite-sex marriages. In doing so, it gives opposite-sex couples certain benefits and certain burdens. Alito is being disingenuous, because, obviously, DOMA was intended to deny same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, not the burdens of it.  But, if marriage has any legal burdens, then same-sex couples are spared them. I’m not sure if it has any legal burdens, but there may be some respects in which the tax code favors single people; I don’t know (I’m not a tax lawyer).

Sincerely,
Henry Cohen

Reed replies: Henry, thanks for the helpful context, though a lot of my “errors” seem to be interpretative distinctions without a difference. But then I guess that’s what the law is all about.

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

 

Splenetic Justice: Justice Samuel Alito's Role on the Roberts Court


Supreme Court justices.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

My new Think Again column: “Howie Kurtz is going to work for Fox? How long has this been going on?” 

I did not get to see the Stones this time around but I read in Mike Allen’s playbook that “Jagger recalled that when the Stones first came to D.C. in 1965, Lady Bird Johnson requested 'Jumpin’ Jack Flash.'” Quite a trick for LBJ (female version). After all, JJF was released in May, 1968.

And you know, in regards to David Gregory asking Glenn Greenwald if he should be arrested for aiding and abetting an illegal national security leak by reporting on classified information, isn’t it curious that neither Gregory nor any of his colleagues have ever asked that question of Bob Woodward? The latter brags about Bush administration officials showing him classified documents that he then describes in his books. How is what Greenwald does any different? How is it any different than what Barton Gelman did? It is just too sad that the guy who hosts the most important television news show in America is also the guy who willingly served as a back-up dancer for Karl Rove in a wig. And now this…

So I’m at the beach and I’ve got no new music to review except to say that I missed the show by Cecile McLorin Salvant at 54 Below on Tuesday, and I was reliably informed by a friend who did not that: “She’s really, she’s the best jazz singer I’ve heard in years. Amazing range, and she can sing just about anything from blues to ballads to Betty Carterish instrumental-type singing. Fantastically talented, and only 23.” Her album is called “Womanchild” and it’s on Mack Avenue. I first heard it on Terry Gross’s show and the superlatives appear justified. (Also, I’ve not yet been to 54 Below but people say good things.) I am hoping to see Junior Brown at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett tonight, He’s always a lot of fun. If I were in town this weekend, I’d have loved to have seen the Summerstage “Big Star” tribute in Central Park tomorrow night. Maybe you will. Here’s the full schedule.

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

Splenetic Justice: Justice Samuel Alito's Role on the Roberts Court
By Reed Richardson

Things we re-learned from the press this week about the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John Roberts really would prefer to pretend racism no longer exists, Justice Anthony Kennedy remains admirably sympathetic to the plight of gay and lesbian Americans seeking equality, and Justice Samuel Alito is still an asshole.

Now, this last observation is a little unfair to Alito. Not because he isn’t a asshole, he’s admitted that boorish and sarcastic public behavior has plagued him as far back as high school. It’s unfair because a Supreme Court Justice’s personal demeanor shouldn’t matter to the public when it comes to doing their actual job. And it’s also unfair because when doing his actual job, Alito is much, much worse than just an asshole.

Sadly, the establishment media has shown no interest in that story. In its portrayal of the Court’s dramatis personae, Alito is little more than a bit player. Instead, the lead roles of pro/antagonists are mostly filled by Justice Ginsburg and, occasionally, Justice Breyer, opposing the likes of Justice Scalia and Roberts, with Kennedy ping-ponging back and forth. This dynamic does merit a lot of attention, but not always. Roberts can sometimes surprise, as he did in his Obamacare decision last summer. Scalia, though usually a shamelessly partisan hypocrite, sometimes falls prey to his own “originalist” logic to side with the Court’s left wing. And while it’s true Justice Thomas still edges out Alito in rankings as the most conservative jurist on the Court’s bench, the former’s lack of influence and advanced age means the purest distillation of conservative jurisprudence on the Court today can be found with Alito.

Since his confirmation more than seven years ago, Alito has quickly become a sort of liberal’s worst-case scenario for the Court’s future, one where civil liberties are routinely circumscribed, women’s reproductive rights are rolled back, and corporations are consistently emboldened. Sadly, the press should have seen this coming. Alito’s judicial record prior to being nominated was rife with examples of nakedly aggressive rulings—many of which were later overturned—in service of the powerful over the powerless. But for the most part, the media treated Alito with kid gloves. This 2006 Center for the Media and Public Affairs study, for example, found that nonpartisan media ran three positive stories for every negative one during his nomination. His humble prostrating before the Senate Judiciary Committee convinced the Beltway conventional wisdom that his was a moderate legal viewpoint. Few in the press have come to realize how much Alito’s posturing was just a ruse, however. This blistering Washington Post op-ed, written only a few months after Alito’s confirmation, accurately predicted the dark path the new Roberts Court has taken in the intervening years. Maybe if it had been written by a pundit from one of the Sunday morning news shows, instead of Senator Ted Kennedy, its message would have gotten through to the “objective” media.

Sadly, this past week Alito has proved Kennedy's prescience once again. Indeed, perusing Alito’s dissent in the DOMA case is to peer into the arrogant mind of privileged class insulted by the notion that its definition of equality doesn’t suit everyone.

“In asking the Court to determine that §3 of DOMA is subject to and violates heightened scrutiny, Windsor and the United States thus ask us to rule that the presence of two members of the opposite sex is as rationally related to marriage as white skin is to voting or a Y-chromosome is to the ability to administer an estate. That is a striking request and one that unelected judges should pause before granting. Acceptance of the argument would cast all those who cling to traditional beliefs about the nature of marriage in the role of bigots or superstitious fools."

This is an eye-opening passage, not the least for the incendiary analogies Alito uses. Suggesting same-sex partners are due the same marriage rights as opposite sex ones is tantamount to endorsing racist Jim Crow laws or sexist legal traditions, he seems to be arguing. To disagree, he complains, puts those who defend the status quo in the uncomfortable position of defending discrimination. But he betrays the true nature of his Lady Macbeth-like protestations later on in his decision, when Alito cavalierly dismisses the very foundations of same-sex marriage.

“The other, newer view is what I will call the ‘consent-based’ vision of marriage, a vision that primarily defines marriage as the solemnization of mutual commitment—marked by strong emotional attachment and sexual attraction—between two persons. At least as it applies to heterosexual couples, this view of marriage now plays a very prominent role in the popular understanding of the institution. Indeed, our popular culture is infused with this understanding of marriage."

“As least as it applies to heterosexual couples…?” Is Alito really not sure that gay people form loving bonds in the same way and for the same reasons as straight people? Are lesbians all being involuntarily paired up by their parents for arranged marriages and only he knows about it?! For someone who claims to understand popular culture, has he really never seen an episode of Modern Family? It’s won a whole bunch of Emmys, for crying out loud. The latent prejudice here is barely concealed. In his conclusion, though, he takes these biases and uses them to justify a blithe abandonment of the Court’s duty to, you know, make sure Congress’s laws are Constitutional.

“All that §3 does is to define a class of persons to whom federal law extends certain special benefits and upon whom federal law imposes certain special burdens. In these provisions, Congress used marital status as a way of defining this class—in part, I assume, because it viewed marriage as a valuable institution to be fostered and in part because it viewed married couples as comprising a unique type of economic unit that merits special regulatory treatment. Assuming that Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the laws affected by §3, Congress has the power to define the category of persons to whom those laws apply.”

So, Congress decided gay people have to deal with some “special burdens” when it comes to the state sanctioning their marriage. Tough luck, says Alito, his hand are tied. How a same-sex marriage wouldn’t qualify for equal recognition under a formula based on “economic units,” he doesn’t say, because obviously homosexuals don’t earn, spend, and get taxed on the same dollars as the rest of us straight folks.

Ironically, Alito’s judicial reputation has been scrutinized in the press recently for being perhaps too empathetic. During Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, her remarks about being “a wise Latina,” occasioned the press to note that Alito too, during his nomination process, intimated that personal experiences would inform his Court decisions as well. But as this 2011 New York Times Magazine profile of Alito points out, this empathy has a decidedly self-referential ring to it.

“In fact, it’s lately from Alito that we get a window onto right-wing empathy on the court—and onto conservative instincts generally about who deserves our solicitude. Through it we see that Alito expresses feelings mostly for people who are a lot like him."

Thankfully, Alito’s establishment cri-de-coeur in the DOMA case was a dissent. For now, at least, the rock-ribbed social conservatism that he and the rest of the Court’s right-wingers share is tenuously being held in check by the Court’s liberal bloc and Justice Kennedy. But the legal tables are turned whenever the Court addresses other types of cases. Thanks to Alito, who replaced the moderate Justice O’Connor on the Court, the conservative bloc has scored one triumph after another, and increasingly it’s been in service of corporation-friendly organizations like the Chamber of Commerce. But because many of these cases are less high-profile, the press has paid little attention to a breathtakingly broad erosion of consumer protection and employee rights.

Case in point, the Court’s Vance decision from Monday. A seemingly run-of-the-mill civil lawsuit brought by a female employee who claimed her supervisor racially harassed at her workplace, Vance drew perfunctory coverage. But if the mainstream press had put the case in its proper context, the public might have learned that it was yet another in a long line of Robert Court’s assaults on workplace safeguards.

Leading this charge and writing the Vance opinion for the now standard 5–4 majority was Alito. In it, he cleverly argued that the harasser was technically not Vance’s supervisor because this man could not take “tangible employment actions” against her and so, voila! the employer, was not liable. Here, Alito effectively spun for the defendant a whole new legal loophole to could slip through. In doing so, he dismissed long-standing EEOC standards with a shockingly let-’em-eat-cake attitude toward real-life harassment.

“The vagueness of this standard was highlighted at oral argument, when the attorney representing the United States was asked to apply that standard to the situation in Faragher, where the alleged harasser supposedly threatened to assign the plaintiff to clean the toilets in the lifeguard station for a year if she did not date him. Since cleaning the toilets is just one task, albeit an unpleasant one, the authority to assign that job would not seem to meet the more-than-a-limited-number-of-tasks requirement in the EEOC Guidance. Nevertheless the Government’s attorney’s first response was that the authority to make this assignment would be enough.” [italics mine]

Alito’s flippant dismissal of a threat of hundreds of hours of dealing with other people’s excrement and urine speaks volumes about his privileged perspective. (One wonders how many toilets Justice Alito has cleaned lately, or ever). And his willingness to simply rewrite employment law to suit his ideological whims betrays a cold detachment from reality, as does his convoluted skepticism toward Justice Ginsburg’s dissent.

“The dissent’s critique is based on nothing more than a hypothesis as to how our approach might affect the outcomes of other cases, where an employee who cannot take tangible employment actions, but who does direct the victim’s daily work activities in a meaningful way, creates an unlawful hostile environment, and yet does not wield authority of such a degree and nature that the employer can be deemed negligent with respect to the harassment. We are skeptical that there are a great number of such cases. However, we are confident that, in every case, the approach we take today will be more easily administrable than the approach advocated by the dissent.”

In a deft unraveling of Alito’s murky, caveat-filled logic, Ginsburg bravely calls out the consequences of what he and the conservatives on the Court are doing:

“How concentrated must the decision-making authority be to deem those not formally endowed with that authority nevertheless “supervisors”? The Court leaves these questions unanswered, and its liberal use of 'mights' and 'mays,' dims the light it casts.”
[…]
“As a consequence of the Court’s truncated conception of supervisory authority, the [previous legal] framework has shifted in a decidedly employer-friendly direction. This realignment will leave many harrssment victims without an effective remedy and undermine Title VII’s capacity to prevent workplace harassment.”

That “dims the light it casts” line had to leave a mark.

Sadly, the press did not engage the public in a broader version of the debate happening between Alito and Ginsburg. Indeed, it’s somewhat fitting that the back-and-forth about our government’s secretive nature has coincided with this week’s final flurry of activity from the Supreme Court. In terms of the public’s knowledge about what it does, how it does it, and why, the Court enjoys an element of relative invisibility that could easily rival the NSA’s. The Supreme Court justices rarely accede to interviews in the mainstream press, its chambers remain stubbornly free from any live broadcast media, even the anachronistic distribution of its major decisions calls to mind an earlier, less transparent era.

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That the Supreme Court still manages to operate in this remarkably opaque manner is not healthy for our democracy, however. The dozens of decisions it hands down each year exert broad influence on American society and politics, perhaps more so than any other time in history thanks to our dysfunctional Congress. Part of this secrecy is due to resistance on the part of the Court, no doubt, but an equal measure of blame must be laid at the feet of an incurious media. Yes, major cases do garner the live-from-the-Courthouse-steps, breaking-news treatment, as the Voting Rights Act and same-sex marriage cases did this week. But a feast-or-famine approach to covering the Court means a vast majority of rulings slip by unnoticed. Yet these unheralded cases, over time, can cumulatively change the nature of our democracy just as assuredly as a handful of front-page ones.

This Roberts Court has pretty clearly plotted the direction it wants to take the country—backwards, by viciously undoing almost all of the progressive policy gains of the 20th century. Alito, who, at 63 years old, will likely still be on the bench long after Scalia and Thomas are gone, figures to be key in that effort. That’s why it’s imperative his radical ideological agenda gets a full airing in the press now. So that when the next Republican president points to him as a model for a future nomination to the Court, the public really understands what they’d be getting—something much, much worse than just an asshole.

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

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

After the Supreme Court's decision on DOMA, what's next for the LGBT movement?

'Equal' Does Not Equal 'Fair'


Michael Hastings. (AP Images)

My new "Think Again" column is America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe.

My new Nation column is about how little anyone seems to care about the pro-genocide policies in Guatemala pursued by Reagan Administration officials, most particularly Ronald Regan himself, but also especially Elliot Abrams. It’s called “The Upside of Genocide.”

Regarding two deaths this week
I did not know Michael Hastings, but I was on the National Magazine Award jury for which he was nominated but did not win. I did however, write the short description that was read aloud at the ceremony. It read: “Michael Hastings' "The Runaway General” has every element of great magazine reporting in abundance. Hastings’ dogged and diligent interviewing yielded quotes from General Stanley McChrystal and his aides that were so different from the official story that had been published previously that they forced the President of the United States to fire a top commander in wartime. But more than that, Hastings’ used the portrait he painted of McChrystal to open a window on America’s war in Afghanistan. And finally he did so with a prose style so engaging the article had the rare quality of feeling too short… at nearly 8000 words.”

Neither did I know James Gandolfini, but: Once, when I was taking my daughter to trapeze class (or something) at the Chelsea Piers, James and his wife brought his kid. We hung around and listened to our Ipods. Adults could join in but it was (I thought) pretty expensive. Anyway, right before it was over, James ponied up and did the trapeze thing once. It was something to see.

Like a few other Jewish journalists, I was once asked to try out for a role on “The Sopranos.” The call came from Georgina Walken on April Fools day, 2003, but it was not a joke. The day of my tryout was the same day the Iraq war began. I was on a panel at the Cooper Union about the war with a bunch of neocons, but I was not terribly good because I was practicing my lines, which were difficult because the role was to be a mafia pundit, and so a lot of Italian names needed to be pronounced properly. I had not acted in anything since camp in seventh grade when we did a (disastrous) performance of Eugene O’Neil’s “In the Zone.” There were 17 people in the room, including David Chase. I thought I was ok, but they decided to “go in another direction,” which in this case, meant using one of their own writers. They did, however, give a small role to another aspirant, Leon Wieseltier, who managed only one line—“Those motherfuckers”  and blew it, in my opinion.

Meanwhile, many folks, beginning with David Remnick have been proclaiming “The Sopranos” to be the best show of all time as if it were a given. I beg to differ. Here’s this week’s list, in order:

The Wire
Mad Men
The Sopranos
The Odd Couple
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Star Trek
The Simpsons
The Honeymooners
The Larry Sanders Show
Tie between
MASH and The Bob Newhart Show

Alter-reviews:
ZZ Top: The Complete Studio Albums, 1970-1990
The complete Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
GarciaLive Vol. 1: Capitol Theatre and GarciaLive: August 5th 1990 Greek Theater (plus Dave's Picks Volume 6)
Woody Guthrie at 100: Live at the Kennedy Center

I come quite late to the ZZ Top phenomenon. I saw Billy Gibbons play with the Allman Brothers two summers ago and I watched the bearded band close one of Eric Clapton’s guitar fests and I thought he was incredible. Other guitarists say he is best of them all, including the two fellers in band he joined and the guy whose guitar fest he closed. I am not one to judge. But the music on these cds is charming and the guitar work both over-the-top and often awe-inspiring. I also like that they have a consistent sense of humor; something of which neither EC nor the fellows in the ABB could be accused.

They began back in 1969 and are now in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with more than ten million records sold. This is pretty decently priced at about sixty bucks list and each cd comes in a wallet sleeve that faithfully reproduces the original artwork, including the gatefold designs used for Tres Hombres and Tejas. The set presents, for the first time on CD, the original mixes for ZZ Tops’ First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tejas. See for yourselves.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis predated my years wasted watching television. I learned about Bob Denver’s myriad talents from “Gilligan.” But “Dobie” holds up infinitely better. Created and written by Max Shulman and adapted from Shulman’s short stories, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis premiered on CBS in 1959 and was beloved in an ironic way by cool people long before everything was. It starred all-American guy, Dwayne Hickman, plus Denver as Dobie’s beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, Frank Faylen, Florida Friebus, a wonderful Tuesday Weld, believe it or not, Warren Beatty and Sheila James. Guest stars included Rose Marie, Bill Bixby, Yvonne Craig, Richard Deacon, Norman Fell, Ronny Howard, Sherry Jackson, Sally Kellerman, Michael J. Pollard, Michele Lee, Steve Franken, Jo Anne Worley. (Remember her?) Shout! Factory, in collaboration with The Max Shulman Trust is releasing the entire series in a 21 dvd box set with all 147 episodes from 1959-1963, plus special bonus features including original rare pilot footage, bonus episodes from Love That Bob! (The Bob Cummings Show) and The Stu Erwin Show. Have a ball …

GarciaLive Vol. 1: Capitol Theatre and Garcialive 2: August 5th 1990 Greek Theater

The first of these sets is a three CD collection culled from a two shows at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey on March 1, 1980 recorded by a multi-tracked on a 24-track mobile rig for WNEW's broadcast of the early show. WNEW, for those who don’t know, was the greatest radio station of all time onceuponatime. This makes for a much higher sound quality than many of the previously released JGB shows, though the song selection and musicianship is typically first rate. I particularly love his “Tangled Up in Blue.” (The Robert Hunter vocals, though, I dunno.) The second release is two CDs, a much later iteration of the band and includes Bela Fleck on "Midnight Moonlight.” The packaging is just fine. (The same company, ATO, has also released The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver, but I found this disappointing. Perhaps you will not.)

While we’re here, I should also say that if you enjoyed the PBS broadcast of the Kennedy Center centennial tribute to Woody Guthrie, (or especially if you missed it, or could not stand the pledge breaks and did watch it on dvr as would have been wise,) you might want the CD/DVD package recently released by my friends at Legacy. It’s not as great as “A Vision Shared” but few things in life are. It does have performances by Rosanne Cash, Tom Morello, Lucinda Williams and a wonderful "You Know The Night" by Jackson Browne, which he wrote from one of Woody’s letters to his wife. It’s called “Woody Guthrie at 100: Live at the Kennedy Center.”

Also, I almost forgot to mention Dave's Picks Volume 6, the newest in the limited edition of Dead shows that sells out almost entirely by subscription, so if you want one of these or any in the future, you better register at http://www.dead.net/, This one is 2 complete shows with never-before-heard material from 2/2/70 Fox Theater, St. Louis, MO and 12/20/69 Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco. Lotta Pigpen, if that’s your thing, it certainly isn’t mine. (Jesus, it’s a 35 minute “Lovelight.”)  Good mix though; great “Dark Star.” See you at the movies. 

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

“Equal” does not Equal “Fair”
by Reed Richardson

Recently, opponents of same-sex marriage have been complaining that every major news organization in the country is essentially ignoring them. Now that just 4 in 10 of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, anti-SSM groups have developed a sudden appreciation for the tyranny of the majority, arguing that their point of view is in no way getting the corresponding level of media exposure. And guess what? Just this week, the Pew Research Center released a two-month news analysis confirming a heavy tilt toward pro-gay marriage sources throughout the mainstream media (even on Fox News!). So, case closed, the “liberal media” strikes again, right?

Wrong.

All too often, a logical fallacy plagues the thinking about modern journalism—it’s this idea that fair coverage necessarily means striving for equal coverage. Admittedly, in an era where harried journalists now routinely do more with less and a million online press critics have bloomed, it can be hard to resist the temptation of the easy “he said, she said, leave it there” story formulation. But simply doling out representative portions of opposing ideas or arguments and trusting the public to figure it all out is a crude, self-defeating strategy. It reinforces the notion that professional journalism is a commodity and that its practitioners shouldn’t be in the business of making value judgments or adding context to the news they report.

The intrinsic value of a free and independent press in our democracy, however, isn’t about transmitting information the public. Instead, it’s about guiding the public toward deeper truths and wiser decisions. And to live up this greater responsibility, the profession of journalism long ago made a philosophical choice, and a liberal one at that. It adopted the intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment as its structural framework. As a result, our press’ ethos rests on pillars like documentary evidence, source attribution, open dialogue, and an egalitarian bent toward the powerless over the powerful. These analytical tools are best used to uncover fresh perspective on the world around us. If the press is to really do its job, it can’t merely function like a giant mirror, always offering up an unthinking reflection of society at large. It must also enjoy the freedom to explore more broadly and deeply, to find the microscopic or mountaintop view.

For instance, in a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans expressly rejected evolution, instead professing to believe God created the earth in its present form at one moment within the last 10,000 years. While this figure may alarm you (it certainly does me), it is unquestionably a fact worth reporting. And yet this does not mean our professional press is also duty bound to reflect this widespread skepticism of evolution in its science reporting. To maintain a cohesive narrative, the media has struck a bargain with itself—and by extension, the public—that it is willing accept some fundamentally proven realities as givens. So, if an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence says the world is closer to 4.5-billion years old or that climate change is real and man-made, the press should not feel it necessary to inject doubt into its science reporting to appease the half of the country that might disagree because of spiritual reasons.

Likewise, as scientific consensus evolves, so too do societal norms. And just as the press can be seen as being on the leading edge of accepting the former, it often absorbs the latter more quickly than the general public as well. A good example of this would be the civil rights movement. In the summer before the signing of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, public opinion stood at remarkably similar levels to where approval of same-sex marriage is today, with a bare majority supporting it. While I couldn’t find any contemporaneous analyses similar to Pew’s on the prevalence of pro and anti-civil rights sources in news articles, there is anecdotal evidence that the major news organizations had assumed a central role in pushing the movement’s momentum. Former Los Angeles Times correspondent Jack Nelson recalled his own history reporting on the movement as well as the press’s ownership of the issue in a 2001 essay in Human Rights magazine: 

"Before the civil rights movement, the way blacks were treated by the law—and the way most newspapers and other news organizations dealt with that treatment—made a mockery of almost every principle lawyers and journalists professed to believe in. Then, as a changing news media began to show the whole country how the law was applied—or misapplied—in the South, public opinion cried out for change.”

But what the critics of the press’s coverage civil rights or climate change or gay marriage never acknowledge is the longstanding role the media had played in bolstering the status quo. Indeed, it’s a bit rich for people like Brian Brown, head of the anti-SSM group National Organization for Marriage, to proclaim his outrage about a lack of media coverage during the past few months when his viewpoint enjoyed complete and utter dominance in the press since, well, forever. The downfall of the same-sex marriage opponents’ esteem in the eyes of the public and the press shouldn’t have come as a shock, however. Once public sentiment on the issue reached near parity—thanks in large part to a generational shift in opinion—anti-SSM forces tried to litigate their morality back into the government. That was their biggest mistake.

In California’s landmark Prop 8 case (which will hopefully be decided by the Supreme Court next week), the plaintiff’s attorney David Boies stripped away the pseudo-intellectual window-dressing and scare tactics of the anti-SSM argument.

"Remember, unlike abortion, the court is not creating a new legal right," [Boies] said. "This is a right that has been well recognized for 100 years in terms of the right of individuals to marry. And all that's at issue here is, can the State of California take away that right depending on the sex of your intended partner?…Is there a rational base for that distinction? Can you prove that it harms heterosexual marriage? Children? Can you prove it harms anybody? Why do you make these people suffer if it doesn't help anybody?"

In the end, the presiding judge laid one evidentiary hammer blow after another upon the sham evidence and fake outrage opposing same-sex marriage in his exhaustive, 136-page decision. Afterward, even an objective press could see the tide had turned. Anti-SSM leaders like Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins were left spouting flimsy talking points about defending the culture of traditional marriage and grasping at straw man threats like no-fault divorce, both of which, as Boies pointed out, have little or nothing at all to do with the gender of one’s spouse.

No doubt, opponents of same-sex marriage should enjoy their Constitutional right to believe whatever they wish and practice the marriage rituals of their respective religions free from government interference. Nevertheless, when their legal, societal, and physiological reasons to oppose same-sex marriage all fall apart, then the slippery definition of morality becomes their last and only redoubt of defense (and even that appears to be falling apart). At this point, for the press to keep giving anti-SSM groups equal coverage in the press amounts to tainting a well-researched article on the dangers of global warming with a raft of creationism myths

Groups of NOM's ilk will likely cry that this squelches debate, but giving less time to specious arguments based on phony claims and ad hominem attacks actually frees up media oxygen for more productive viewpoints and insightful discussions. Indeed, this kind of unapologetic intellectual gatekeeping, coupled with more intrepid reporting, would make for a much fairer press and a healthier democracy. In the specific case of the same-sex marriage, fairness will finally be achieved when gay and lesbian Americans are granted equal treatment under the law. But when it comes to news coverage, reflexively treating all sides equally in this or any other debate is often the furthest thing from fair. Indeed, it can be its own form of tyranny.

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

The Mail:
Charles Kaiser
Manhattan

Dear Reed,

"But if the insidious influence of cash on our Congress is the real culprit, an alarmingly incurious Beltway journalism should be considered an un-indicted co-conspirator."

This attack on Bob's incuriosity is, I think, rather unfair, given the title (and subject) of his immediately previous book:

So Much Damn Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.

Have you read it?

All Best, Charles Kaiser

Reed replies:
Charles,

The quote from my review you cite does not specifically call out Robert for incuriosity—but instead identifies a broader community for criticism—for a reason. Of course, not every single member of the DC media suffers from this myopia about money's influence on Congress. And because I immediately followed the sentence in question with a long block quote from the book that, I felt, was making very much the same point (although perhaps not as bluntly), I thought it clear I was agreeing with the author about his critique, not accusing him of the very same failure. If that wasn't how it came across, then I guess that's on me for not making my point effectively.

Regarding So Damn Much Money, yes, I'm familiar with it. And in retrospect, readers interested in this topic would have been better served if I had mentioned Robert's earlier book when establishing his background/bonafides. But my mission here was to review Robert's latest book. And to my mind, the analytical expectations I had for Act of Congress—based on its subtitle—were never fully realized. In fact, I was tempted to argue that his latest book could have been improved by including more context from his previous one, but I've never been a big fan of using an author's own work against them. So, I didn't.

Geoffrey Zoref
Washington DC

You think "Let Em In" is a terrible song? I quite like it. The lyrics are rubbish, as are many Wings' lyrics, but I quite enjoy the beat. It's certainly not worse than Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, that's for sure.

Mike Dickenson
Bluff City, TN

Doc,

The reason Drudge is rated so high is because people don't know what real jornalism is. They are used to Fox News and other things. There aren't many investigative reporters left. Even 60 Minutes just does either profiles or they become a shill for a new book release. Also once something is wrong, I hear he takes it down.

I've tried discussing things on Facebook with people who read Drudge and watch Fox news and you can't. 95% of the time I just ignore them now.

Mike Pinder is the reason the 1970 Moody Blues is better. He wasn't their best song writer but the music was never as good when he left the band.

Also The Benefit of Mr Kite was largely a John song. I don't think there are many other John songs that Paul does. He should though, his name is on the song writing credits too. I know that Paul plays his songs note for note....but that is what the audience wants.

Eric replies:

Ever see the Lampoon lyrics to Sgt. Pepper?  I remember this one.

“For the benefit of Mr. Kike

There will be a missile strike

On Lebanon….”

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

Transactions of Congress


Chris Dodd and Barney Frank. (AP Images)

Hello people,

I took the past two weeks off, in part because Reed needed to, in part because The Nation began its Summer schedule, and in part because I spent a (lovely) week as a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institute out at Stanford and I needed to give the conservatism time to wear off. So my “Think Again” columns, which I did do, are listed in reverse chronological order. I also had a letter to the editor of The Nation regarding its article on the Center for American Progress, which is behind a paywall in the current issue but I have reprinted below. The rest is pretty self-explanatory and of course Reed is back so you can just skip me if you like.

Think Again: The Mainstream Media Needs to Break Its Addiction to the Drudge Report

Think Again: The Power of Money, Not Logic

Think Again: Blame the News for the Public’s Ignorance About the Climate

Letter to the Editor of The Nation:
22 May 2013
To the Editor,

Ken Silverstein, relying on anonymous sources, claims in his article on the Center for American Progress, that “Staffers were very clearly instructed to check with the think tank’s development team before writing anything that might upset contributors, I was told."

I am not a staffer at the Center but I have been a senior fellow there almost since its inception. Beginning in October, 2003, I have either written or edited every iteration of the weekly “Think Again” media column for the Center’s website. At no time during the writing or editing of any these roughly 500 columns did I experience anything like what Silverstein describes above, (or anything else, for that matter, that would likely fall outside the purview of the normal editorial process at any publication, including The Nation). Indeed, I don’t even know who’s on the development team or who the Center’s contributors are and, thankfully so far, I have had no reason to care. 

I would have been happy to inform Silverstein of this had he contacted me in advance of publishing his article.

Sincerely,
Eric Alterman
Nation columnist
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Alter-reviews:
Paul McCartney at the Barclay’s Center, Wings over America re-release, Rockshow
Moody Blues and Jethro Tull dvds
Summerstage “Sinatra in the Park” in Central Park
Treasure House Theatre performance  of “Cherry Orchard,”
Jazz@Lincoln Center “Swinging with Big Bands”
Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions on Mosaic
Yes is the Answer edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell

Monday night I saw Paul McCartney and his band at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was the fourth time I’ve seen Paul—so I’ve now seen four Beatles, (except that they were each the same one). In his earliest incarnation, when he toured with Wings back in 1975 he was extremely reluctant to dip too deeply into the Beatles catalogue.  Those shows can be heard newly cleaned up, remastered and perfectly pristinely presented on both the re-release of Wings Over America and the new Blu-ray/DVD of Rock Show. Both are painfully drenched in the seventies. Paul and Linda set a record for the world’s worst twin haircuts. And the video, while sharp on the Blu-ray, is a mélange of incoherent angles. But there is some beauty in this stuff. As with the bad haircuts, Paul was the world’s worst self-editor back then. “Beware My Love” and “Time to Hide” are forgotten gems. “Let Em In” is the worst song this side of “Afternoon Delight.” But the Wings catalogue is, overall, pretty damn good (and the setlists are identical on WOA and “Rock show,” which was filmed at the tour’s final show Kingdome in Seattle and is now available complete, for the first time, with a 5.1 mix. I can’t tell if WOA is the same exact show, but the setlists did not change, as I recall from my youthful exploits at Madison Square Garden that year. The version of VOA (which I also recall was the first number one triple album set) I got includes a DVD included which features the "Wings Over The World" TV show that aired on CBS but there are lots of packages so look up the one you want. (I can’t speak to the really fancy one.)

Back to Barclay’s, the man is an entertainer. And the crowd—which at these shows is so goofy and demonstrative, it can get kind of embarrassing. Paul too, can be a little embarrassing. He keeps acting like he doesn’t do this all the time, getting all choked up and stuff and telling the same old stories about Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and John and George—I don’t think he mentioned Ringo at all—but anyway: the music. 

Like Brian Wilson, Paul has a band that can almost perfectly reproduce the original versions. They mug quite a lot for the audience, but they do not merit individual introductions. (Barclay’s with a seating capacity of 16,000 is about as small a place as you are ever likely to see Paul these days, unless you were in the audience for the Colbert Report Wednesday night.) They opened at 8:45 with "Eight Days a Week" and then went into Junior’s Farm. It’s churlish, with a catalogue that like of McCartney to complain about what was left out. I loved "Maybe I'm Amazed,” “Band on the Run,” “All My Loving,” “We Can Work it Out,” “Back in the USSR,” (which was The Beatles paying tribute to “The Beach Boys” rip-off of Chuck Berry). We got the first ever live “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” according to Paul. I had mixed feelings about “Hey Jude,” because of the shlockiness of the sing along. I could not believe he left out “Get Back,” and “SPLHCB.” But hey, the final encore was of the final “Golden Slumbers” suite from Abbey Road, which was proved a stroke of genius. 

Seeing McCartney made me think that maybe capitalism is the only economic system that can work. When you think of the work that Paul and George and John came up with when they were still competing with one another—not only during the Beatles but in the first few years afterward—it’s two different universes. You could also attribute it to the genius of youth, but then how to explain, Dylan, Bruce, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, etc...?

But speaking of getting old, if you are a reader of mine—and are also insanely wealthy and care deeply about your personal appearance—I would go to some trouble to find out just who did the work on Paul’s face and who maintains his hair. I look older than he does.

And also speaking of getting old, I recently looked over two Moody Blues DVDs. Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 and the cd/dvd Live at Montreux 1991. I was interested in the first one because I had never seen the Moodies when they were new and young. The DVD is more of a documentary than a concert though, with lots of present-day commentary about their performance there. The latter is self-explanatory and rather similar to the Red Rocks DVD that came out a few years ago, except that it’s in Montreux and comes with a CD. Even more ambitious in the old fogey department is the 4 Music DVD set from Jethro Tull, Around The World Live. Tull is always well packaged and this one comes in a nice book and is filled with previously unreleased material including the same Isle Of Wight Festival from 1970 (as in the Moodies’ show) and goes through 2005 with performances from, you guessed it, all around the world, as well as photos from Ian Anderson’s personal archive and a text on all the different shows by Joel McIver. Overall it’s about seven and a half hours of Tull. Some of it is pretty great; some of it, you really won’t mind if you sat that one out.

Tuesday night, I joined a few thousand of the denizens of my fine city for the annual SummerStage Gala called “Sinatra in the Park,” under a tent in Central Park. It featured a ton of people singing songs made famous by Frank (except in the case of Judy Collins, whose “Send in the Clowns” is probably even better known than Frank’s version. Anyway, it was really well done. Backed by John Pizarelli and the Swing Seven, we heard:  

ANDREW BIRD
MARC COHN
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER
JUDY COLLINS
BETTYE LAVETTE
TED LEO
AIMEE MANN
JOAN OSBORNE
ALLEN TOUSSAINT
SUZANNE VEGA
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
with a surprise finish by John Legend and there were too many highlights to point to just a few. But hey, here’s they point: Look at the incredible Summerstage 2013 schedule here. This is quite a city, isn’t it. 

Wednesday night I caught a performance by a new group called the Treasure House Theatre Company of “Cherry Orchard,” which Chekov wrote in 1904. I saw the original version—haha, no, not in 1904, but the Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1977 translation (commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival and presented at Lincoln Center starring Meryl Streep and Raul Julia). And while that was great, or so I recall, this was pretty great too. There were, I think, thirteen players on the stage and before a small audience in a cozy church basement, seeing this brilliant play, so nicely done was a profoundly moving experience. But one thing: in "The Sea Gull," Trigorin the playwright is asked by the innocent Nina how to write a play. He replies by saying that if a gun is hanging on the wall at the beginning of a play, it must be fired by the end. Alas, “Cherry Orchard” has a gun drawn in the first act, that never goes off. Just saying...

Speaking of throwbacks, Thursday night I saw the last show of what, in this humble opinion, has been the best Jazz@Lincoln Center season ever. Michael Feinstein has been curating a terrific series at the Allen Room and this one was dedicated to the big band music of the thirties when singers like Sinatra (with Tommy Dorsey), Billy Eckstine (with Basie), and Ivie Anderson (with Duke), showed the world America’s greatest invention. Inspired by Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie concert, Thursday night, we saw Feinstein hosting Vince Giordano's Nighthawks with Wynton Marsalis (alternately channeling Armstrong and Maynard Ferguson, among others), the always adorable Nellie McKay (playing the role of Doris Day), Connie Evingson, and Sachal Vasandani also singing along. I never heard the latter two but they were both great. And what a pleasure it is to hear Feinstein whose enthusiasm is infectious and whose contextual knowledge adds immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of these shows. I learned a great deal listening to him and had about as much fun as one can have seated and fully dressed. 

One new set about which I’m really excited is the new release from my friends at Mosaic Records, Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions. I keep finding people who never heard of Woody, which is almost certainly attributable to the fact that he died so young. But he’s absolutely central to the history of jazz in this period and he plays like a dream. 

The “Muse” period is considered to be one of the three key periods in his development, and Mosaic has done its usual, beautiful job of both remastering and packaging of this nine album, 7-CD limited edition box set drawn from over a 13-year period from 1974 to 1987 after Shaw moved from San Francisco to New York. According to Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records founder and producer, "This was the era when Woody stepped up and became a leader." "The core of these sessions is the Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble, an expanded group with four horns and one or two percussionists. I loved this setting because it brought out Woody's incredible talents as a composer and arranger with a distinctive harmonic sense." 

The box is divided into three parts, each relaying an important segment during this era of Shaw's career. The first set (The Moontrane, 1974; Love Dance, 1975; The Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble Live at the Berliner Jazztage, 1976) groups Shaw's concert ensemble, which features multiple horns and, in some cases, percussion. The second group of recordings (Cassandranite, 1965; Little Red's Fantasy, 1976; Iron Men, 1977) feature the trumpeter's chosen collaborators as a quintet. The third group (Setting Standards, 1985; Solid, 1986; Imagination, 1987) includes recordings done for Muse Records following his tenure with Columbia. Early sessions included Herbie Hancock, Paul Chambers and Joe Chambers. The 1970s sets include Steve Turre, Azar Lawrence, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Buster Williams, Victor Lewis, Cecil McBee, Rene McLean, Billy Harper, Joe Bonner, Frank Strozier, Ronnie Matthews, Stafford James, Eddie Moore, Frank Foster, Louis Hayes, Arthur Blythe, Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams, among others. In the 1980s, he played with Cedar Walton, Victor Jones, Kenny Garrett, Kenny Barron and others. As always, it ain’t cheap, but that’s just the way these things are. Read all about it here

I also wanted to give a shout-out to an unlikely place; a collection of essays about progressive rock by a bunch of writers called Yes is the Answer edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. There are some fancy names attached but one of the craziest essays I’ve read on anything in a long time was by a Spanish writer named Roderigo Fresan, which begins with The Arcade Fire, and talks a great deal about “A Clockwork Orange” and makes the crazy-but-possibly-true comparison that “Comfortably Numb” is to “A Day in the Life” as Nathan Zuckerman is to Holden Caufield. He wrote it in Spanish but, luckily, it was translated. I think one would like it even if one hates Yes and ELP (and never heard of Soft Machine).

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

Transactions of Congress
by Reed Richardson

It is by now a truism that any action taken—or, more appropriately these days, not taken—by Congress can be best explained by understanding the influence of money. Yes, presidential campaigns now rake in nearly a billion dollars, but we often forget that for every White House race, Congress holds roughly 950 elections, the average combined total of which is now just south of $1.5 billion. Indeed, if you’re a savvy lobbyist looking to get the most bang for you buck, dumping millions into a presidential election amounts to the proverbial drop in the bucket; instead, you’ll find a much better return on your investment with a five-figure donation to a House or Senate re-election campaign. 

If money exerts an invisible yet unmistakable gravitational pull on everything Congress does, one can only imagine the galactic-level forces impinging on its members when they train their legislative sights on the very industry of money itself. In the aftermath of the 2008 fiscal crisis, however, a critical mass of public outrage regarding Wall Street’s reckless, arguably criminal behavior created just that very situation. Thus, the House and Senate were faced with what was no doubt the unenviable task of biting the hands that write all those precious campaign donation checks. That two years after the economic meltdown began, President Obama actually got to sign the most sweeping financial reform bill in decades truly was something of a legislative miracle.

Tellingly, that word, “miracle,” is how Robert G. Kaiser, in his latest book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works and How It Doesn’t (Knopf, $27.95), characterizes those rare moments when our modern-day Congress actually manages to legislate. Because of the book’s frustratingly vague title (and subtitle) however, one doesn’t get any sense that Kaiser has turned his full attention to the passage of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act. This ambiguity is a shame, for two reasons. 

For one, the book’s title fails a basic marketing test—it really doesn’t alert potentially interested readers in the book’s true narrative focus on Dodd-Frank. What’s more, while the title page is underwhelming, it is also oversold. No doubt, Kaiser presents a minutely documented, deep dive into the rarely seen legislative workings that comprised this single act of Congress. But as is also the case with undersea vehicles that explore the darkest depths of the ocean, often it’s hard to get any sense of what’s above or just beyond the particular situation or conversation Kaiser is illuminating at any given moment. On the broader, capital-H lessons of “How America’s Essential Institution Doesn’t Work,” promised in his book’s title, Kaiser doesn’t fully deliver. 

This authorial inconsistency—powerfully revealing on the micro level, not so much on the meta—perhaps shouldn’t be that surprising. Kaiser is a 50-year veteran of the Washington Post and his book routinely feels a lot like a prodigiously proportioned process piece. (In the Acknowledgments, Kaiser notes that he and Len Downie, the paper’s longtime, now retired, Executive Editor, were summer interns together in 1964.) There’s plenty of focus on the who, the what, the where, the when, and the how, in other words, but not near enough discussion of the why. Indeed, if there was one term to describe Kaiser’s effort here it would probably be Woodwardian, with all the attendant plusses and, more importantly, minuses that his Post colleague’s trademark, all-about-the-access reporting brings with it.

Indeed, the book’s limited analytical scope is evident early on, when recounting a January 2009 Congressional hearing. There, Kaiser highlights Rep. Bill Clay’s suggestion of directly injecting taxpayer money into private retirement accounts. “Someone who understood the vagaries of the financial markets would not have made this suggestion,” Kaiser scolds. But this attitude tellingly reveals his (and the Beltway media’s) limited willingness to ponder solutions outside of the narrow bounds of what interests the powerful. In actuality, many respected economists were advocating for exactly that kind of citizen-targeted, “helicopter drop” bailout of ordinary Americans. Such a plan would stimulate the economy more quickly and more directly than routing government cash through big banks that might choose to hoard the capital rather than loan it out—which, by the way, is exactly what happened. But no, Clay’s idea, Kaiser sniffs, wasn’t a “serious” suggestion.

Time and again, Kaiser’s book becomes something of a case study of the deferential nature of the Washington press corps. Authority and expertise routinely draw praise and respect, radical ideas not so much. Thus, the book tut-tuts the populist tone of a Congressional hearing on the AIG bailout and dismisses the questioning of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for lacking sophistication. “They were the pros; the skeptical members challenging them, from both parties, looked like amateurs,” he writes. Yet Kaiser can’t seem to make the larger point here, that the incomprehensible and impenetrable nature of the financial industry’s products and services were precisely the problem. The outrage should not have been that Congress was too dumb to understand collateralized debt obligations, it’s that the financial industry that created CDO’s was too dumb to understand them.

Kaiser’s sympathetic in-the-room journalistic style, mirroring Woodward’s, manifests itself throughout the book. Thus, his subject’s preferences and biases quickly become adopted as his own. So, if Barney Frank, who gets the humorously rumpled hero treatment from Kaiser, dismisses something as unhelpful for his bill, the book becomes captive to the same logic. Likewise, anyone outside of his primary reporting bubble tends to get much more critical treatment.

For example, in the chapter on the early House drafting of the bill, Frank acknowledges some anxiety that Speaker Pelosi’s enthusiasm for a Congressional investigation into the financial crisis would distract from his legislative efforts. This is an eminently reasonable position for a committee chairman to take, of course. But Kaiser’s empathy notably does not extend to the Speaker, who has a larger constituency and greater moral responsibilities to consider. Instead, the book makes a point of rather snidely dismissing Pelosi’s motivations as counterproductive and basically accuses her of shameless political grandstanding. But Pelosi’s reading of public sentiment was in fact dead on, as just weeks after her initial call for a reprise of the 1930s Pecora Commission, a Celinda Lake poll found 71 percent of Americans agreed with her that Congress should look into Wall Street’s role in the manufacturing the Great Recession. 

Likewise, when the House bill finally moved to the Rules Committee, Frank wanted to encourage amendments to get buy-in from MOCs. Pelosi, understandably wary of a runaway legislative process, instead favored strict limits on the number of amendments on offer, however. Again, Kaiser’s take falls neatly in line with Frank’s, and he diagnoses Pelosi’s firm control over the bill’s rollout as timidity on her part, and proof of an “insecurity complex.” Perhaps Kaiser should ask current Speaker John Boehner if he wouldn’t trade for a version of Pelosi’s legislative efficiency in order to rein in his increasingly hard-to-control House GOP caucus.

This same Republican intransigence and disarray stands as a major subtext of Kaiser’s book as well. From the outset, the GOP minorities in the House and Senate were fighting a holding action of least-worst options when it came to financial reform. And though a handful of Republicans made an honest effort at bipartisan compromise—most notably, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker—the obstructionist mindset of GOP leadership slowly but surely reeled them all in. Though reform champion Senator Chris Dodd ended up incorporating some of these conservative ideas into his final version of a reform bill, it’s telling that all his months of reaching across the aisle did not earn him a single GOP vote when it came for final passage. Instead, Dodd watched as Republicans duplicitously deployed dishonest talking points about financial reform as a lever to pry campaign cash out of both Tea Partiers and Big Business. To the former, the GOP brazenly lambasted the bill as yet another “bailout” and a perpetuation of “Too Big To Fail”—two buzzwords conservative pollster Frank Luntz found resonated with the public. (To be fair, some of the fears of TBTF have proven true.) To the latter, Republicans ginned up fears of the impending reform as “job-killing” regulation tantamount to the end of capitalism, frightening millions in political donations out of the pockets of worried Wall Street executives. 

Though Dodd-Frank was the undoubtedly the most comprehensive piece of financial legislation in decades, this says more about how out of control the industry was than it does the true scope of the bill, which was much more prosaic and scaled-back than opponents and even supporters made it sound. From the very beginning, the impact of money in politics played a big role in influencing the bill’s many compromises. For instance, as the Democrats began staking out the boundaries of financial reform in early 2009, many experts recommended that it merge the two main regulatory bodies, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). But because this consolidation would correspondingly shrink Capitol Hill oversight from four to two Congressional committees—meaning lots of MOCs on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees stood to lose access to their Wall Street campaign gravy train—the idea was scrapped as too controversial for Congress to approve. Good money trumped good policy. 

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In the end, the major legislative battles were joined over three aspects of financial reform—the Volcker Rule on bank investing, regulating the derivatives market, and the creation of a new independent watchdog Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Tellingly, on all three of these issues, moneyed interests from within both parties again forced compromises into the final version of Dodd-Frank. And though all three survived and were part of the final conference bill President Obama signed three years ago, the victory that Kaiser portrays Dodd-Frank to be is increasingly a Pyrrhic one. 

That’s because the end of Kaiser’s book was by no means the end of the story of the financial reform fight. Though he concludes the book with a short chapter replete with skepticism about Congress’s capability to solve our problems, Kaiser doesn’t devote much rhetorical real estate to studying the growing influence of money on our legislative branch wrought by Citizens United. And in a sentimental turn, he stands fast to the idea that with financial reform, “the big banks got nothing.” Yet this dubious stance has been rendered near laughable by now, as the big bank accounts of the forces against reform have been conducting an all-out assault since the day Dodd-Frank became law. And as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi notes, those forces are winning. 

First, it was Republicans in Congress repeatedly shirking their responsibilities by refusing to even allow a vote on head of the new CFPB. (In a classic case of be careful what you wish for, though, Obama’s rebuffed choice to head the CFPB, Elizabeth Warren, is now a Senator from Massachusetts and a strong voice for reform on the Banking Committee.) And now that the public furor has died down, Congress is perfectly OK with the financial lobby writing their own bills to rollback reform. Sometimes even the regulators are happy to oblige weakening the rules. Also not helping—the Obama administration’s dreadful pace of rulemaking, which threatens to see Dodd-Frank gutted before it's even fully implemented. (This regulatory foot-dragging is rapidly becoming a systemic problem for the administration). At the beginning of June, only a woeful 37 precent of Dodd-Frank’s scheduled regulations had been finalized, according to an analysis by the Davis Polk law firm. As it happens, Kaiser included a 2009 Davis Polk brief on the future long-term prospects of financial reform in his book. Four years later, the brief's ambiguous summation remains eerily prescient: “It is too early to predict with certainty which proposals are likely to be enacted and in what form.”

One prediction is safe to make though, money will have played the key role in whatever ultimately happens with financial reform. But if the insidious influence of cash on our Congress is the real culprit, an alarmingly incurious Beltway journalism should be considered an un-indicted co-conspirator. For, as Kaiser notes: 

"There is only a tiny attentive audience for what goes on in Congress—perhaps ten or fifteen thousand professors, journalists, lobbyists, government officials, and lawyers, in a country of more than 300 million.

"The members of that tiny informed audience, like members of the House and Senate, tend to accept the mumbo jumbo as just the nature of the beast—standard operating obfuscations. So the House and Senate go on doing business in ways that citizens might disapprove of strongly, if they really understood what was happening.…They just play the old games behind the curtain. They know that almost no one is paying close attention."

As a body that now openly trades favors to the highest bidder without fear of much in the way of press scrutiny or public outrage, it’s becoming more and more difficult to distinguish our broken Congress from the world’s oldest profession. And until we finally find a way to excise money from politics, it's we the people will continue to get screwed over by the transactions of Congress.

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

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

How the Media Enabled US Drone Policy

My new “Think Again” column is called “Remembering the ‘Feminine Mystique’” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “Ron Fournier, Doomsayer,”  but it could have been called “High Fournierism” or perhaps “Fornierification,” but anyway it’s here.

The Cause is out in paperback and it strikes me as not as long (or thick) as I expected it to be. Here are some of the blurbs we decided to use:

"Alterman’s magnum opus . . . All aspects of liberalism are surveyed .  . . the definitive work on its subject.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“What a relief it is…to read Eric Alterman’s superb new book, THE CAUSE. [I]f your goal is to learn about, and understand, one of this country’s most potent political forces, this book belongs in your hands.”— Boston Globe

“The most thoughtful critique of contemporary liberalism written from within that worldview.." —The Weekly Standard

“…an intellectual (and actual) history of liberalism that even [Lionel] Trilling would approve of… excellent….” — Daily Beast

“…an illuminating history of postwar politics, international relations, culture, and philosophy—all in one scrupulously researched volume.” — Publishers Weekly

Alter-reviews: Big week for live-music
A Tribute to Bobby Short at the Allen Room
Chick Corea with the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra at Rose Hall
Friends of Chick Corea: Musicans of the Future at the Allen Room
Tom Jones at the Bowery Ballroom
Jane Monheit at Birdland

Last Thursday night I took in the tribute to Bobby Short at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. MC’ed by Michael Feinstein, it featured Barbara Carroll, whose voice remains full and fingers nimble at 88 and who worked with Short for decades at the Café Carlyle and they were close friends (but I’m not even sure she was the oldest of the performers that night). Paula West sang some bluesy Cole Porter lyrics that he probably didn’t write and T. Oliver Reid came across as a genuine torch-bearer. Marti Stevens made a rare appearance making this group even older collectively, than the Rolling Stones. But they were also pretty great. The band was Tedd Firth, Andy Farber Ed Howard and Mark McLean.

The evening certainly gave the impression that Short was just as jovial and entertaining in “real life” as on stage. I did manage to scrounge one performance of his out of the people at the Carlyle, luckily, but in my youth, I was not confident I would be able to. The prices, however, were so high as to be prohibitive and so I figured it was not to be.

One day, in mid afternoon, crossing Park Avenue not far from the Carlyle, I was noticed Bobby Short waiting next to me for the light to change. I introduced myself and said that while I was a great admirer of his work, I could not afford the prices at the Carlyle. He said that was too bad, and wished luck before going on his way. About a half a block later, however, he turned around with an idea: “You know,” Short advised me, “you could always marry a rich a girl…”

Friday night, I went back to Jazz at Lincoln Center for two shows on the same night: Chick Corea with the (complete) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and then Beka Gochiashvili and Gadi Lehavi at the Allen Room, playing the music of Corea, with Ravi Coltrane and Wallace Rooney joining in.

Did I mention that Gochiashvili (a Georgian)  Lehavi (an Israeli) were only 17? They played piano together. I only caught their final songs--a thoughtful meditation on Corea’s “Matrix,” but the poise and patience each one demonstrated was impressive, especially given the big guns with whom they were performing.

I was forced to miss most of their performance because of the generosity of program being played at Rose Hall by Corea, Wynton Marsalis and the complete orchestra--with new arrangements, per usual, by members of the band. Chick Corea may be the most versatile composer alive in any musical form. I have been buying his albums since I was a teenager and I still can’t keep up. It would be impossible to do more than scratch the proverbial surface and that’s just what he and the band did though what a pleasure it was to hear them filled out by this incredible big band. Despite the formality of the hall, and everybody but Chick sartorially sporting Brooks Brothers suits, the evening had a relaxed, rather laid-back atmosphere, with Corea and Marsalis trading the mc role and the members of the band taking turns on a striking set of solos. (Mrs. Corea, Gayle Moran, stopped in the middle of her song to congratulate her husband for being able to surprise her on the keyboards after forty years of accompaniment. She, also, could not possibly have been wearing Brooks Brothers, to put it gently.) The selections moved back and forth over the past fifty years--including a striking recent piece commissioned for the the 50th anniversary of the MIT jazz program. Thankfully, there was none of the awful L. Rod Hubbard stuff, but even that is forgiveable, given everything the man has given us over the past half-century.

Saturday night I saw an amazing show by the sexiest seventy-two year old man on the planet, no contest. Tom Jones sounds as good or better than ever, and like so many of us, is much more handsome than he was before with his gray goatee. Seriously, Tom Jones has a voice that needs to be heard live to be believed and his choice of material in his newest incarnation makes him one of the most compelling and exciting performers I’ve seen in years.

With a tight-knit four-piece band, Jones did a 95-minute set that included songs drawn primarily from 2010’s gospel album Praise & Blame and this year’s terrific “Spirit in the Room.”

Drinking what he explained was “Gray Goose water,” he opened with “Tower of Song,” and ran through “Dimming of the Day,” “Just Dropped In,” Bad as Me,” “Sould of a Man” and some John Lee Hooker.

The only throwbacks to Jones’ past was a lovely encore of "Green, Green Grass of Home,"and in, in tribute to George Jones, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."  Now behold the man’s awesomeness in this video: Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young and Tom Jones in 1969.

Finally, Wednesday night, I caught a  shockingly crowded show at Birdland where one of my favorite singers, Jane Monheit, was celebrating the release of her new cd, “The Heart Of The Matter” her eleventh.  Highlights include:

“Golden Slumbers/The Long And Winding Road” by The Beatles to Buffy St. Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go” to “Depende de Nos” by Ivan Lins, Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me,” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” along with first song recorded by Monheit on which she has written both the words and the music, “Night Night Stars.”   Believe it or not, she actually turns that horrible “Sing, Sing a song” song into something moving and almost beautiful—though few things are as beautiful as her live version—one of eight arrangements—of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Not even loud German tourists who don’t know you’re not supposed to talk during the performance at Birdland could ruin that.

The new album was produced and arranged by Gil Goldstein, with Michael Kanan on piano, Gil Goldstein on electric piano and accordion, Romero Lubambo on acoustic guitar, Neal on bass, Rick Montalbano on drums, Rogerio Boccato on percussion, David Eggar and Richard Locker on cello, Barry Crawford and Kathleen Nester on alto flute and Sheryl Henze on bass flute and c flute.

Now here’s Reed:

How the Media Enabled U.S. Drone Policy
by Reed Richardson

For a nation that, by 2009, had grown both physically and politically weary from two interminable wars against ghost-like foes, it’s not surprising that the incoming Obama administration latched onto drone strikes as its favorite counterterrorism weapon. After all, in theory, drones have much to commend them. They’re relatively cheap, more readily deployable, don’t risk the lives of American service members, and, best of all, they dangle the enticing prospect of raining pinpoint, Zeus-like vengeance down upon the heads of specified enemy terrorists. Money saved, world safer, bad guys dead, good guys home for dinner. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, as is always true in the fog of battle, a lot, actually. In fact, the remote unbridling of lethal force against hard-to-identify individuals based on sometimes muddy, often chaotic intelligence has proven to be a sure-fire recipe to kill dozens of innocent people for every target hit. What’s more, it’s increasingly apparent the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere have ensnared us in a kind of moral and ethical tar pit—the more we exercise this weapon to fight terrorism, the more we subvert the principles of justice and due process we’re supposedly fighting to uphold.

Thus, the president’s announcement that he’ll be curtailing the use of drone strikes and re-establishing military control over the program is long overdue good news. Following on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder’s formal acknowledgment this week that the U.S. government killed four of its citizens overseas, three of them accidentally, the administration seems to have finally arrived at some kind of turning point on drones. However, it’s important to note that the new Presidential Policy Guidance on drones Obama signed on Wednesday is classified. Moreover, the administration, as was obvious by the unbowed tone of Holder’s letter to Congress, has by no means abandoned its troubling legal justifications for drone strikes overseas. It has merely deemed the strikes themselves less necessary. This leaves the door open for it, or a subsequent White House administration, to ramp it all back up again. That’s why a heaping helping of skepticism is in order.

Sadly, we’ve gotten anything but skepticism from the press since the drone program’s inception. Instead, the establishment media’s coverage has mostly been of the dutifully credulous variety, when not outright cheerleading. For instance, news organizations have routinely lauded the latest drone “success” or terrorist killed, by citing only “U.S. officials” or their proxies as sources. Little more than government propaganda, this kind of reporting uniformly ignores collateral damage and civilian casualties, and sometimes proves to be grossly inaccurate. (See this erroneous 2009 Fox News report that repeats a U.S. official’s claim about the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Awlawki, who actually survived the attack in question unharmed.)

In addition to this steady drip of positive news briefs, the press has also served up several larger, gushing portraits of the drone program. For example, there was this cinematic, behind-the-scenes dive into the CIA’s role as well as this flattering, White House-insider account. When not chock full of macho posturing— “we are killing these son of bitches faster than they can grow them”—this reporting spins scenes of a steely but sober commander-in-chief—“The president is not a robotic killing machine. The choices he faces are brutally difficult.” Rarely encountered in the establishment media, though, was any discussion of the growing toll of innocent lives lost or the broadening legal quagmire that accompanied the rapid expansion of drone strikes during Obama’s first term.

Even when the mainstream media’s coverage of the drone program doesn’t resort to supple obeisance, there’s still a festering unwillingness to connect all the dots. For instance, New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Charlie Savage have been rare bright spots on drone coverage. But I scratch my head in wonder at why Mazzetti and the Times don’t pounce on one of the administration’s key drone strike justifications—that it’s not feasible to capture any of these suspected terrorists on the ground. This is particularly true in light of a Times article co-authored by Mazzetti from this past February, which profiled an elite Yemeni counterterrorism unit trained by U.S. forces for just such a task, but who are stuck doing traffic duty instead.

Indeed, head down to the story’s kicker quote, which raises serious questions about the proffered reasoning for drone strikes in Yemen: “‘For sure, we could be going after some of these guys,’” the [Yemeni] officer said. ‘That’s what we’re trained to do, and the Americans trained us. It doesn’t make sense.’” Ah, but perhaps it does, since any suspected Al Qaeda member captured in Pakistan or Yemen— even if they’re a U.S. citizen as Awlawki was—could end up at the prison in Guantanamo, a civil liberties nightmare that Obama has been unable to close down. Again, this is a critical discussion point that, up until Obama’s announcement today, has been missing from the traditional press’s coverage—until Guantanamo is closed down, it’s almost guaranteed that the drone program won’t be.  

But while it’s one thing for the press to fall victim to source bias or a hedging its bets about challenging the government directly, it’s quite another for it to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy among the public—that drone strikes are overwhelmingly popular. Now, it is true that during the Obama’s administration’s first term, the few polls conducted on the topic—including 2011 and 2012 surveys from Pew and one from ABC News/Washington Post—seemed to indicate broad, bipartisan majorities supported the drone program. And as these numbers dovetailed nicely with the Beltway conventional wisdom, the DC press corps gladly ate this narrative up, splashing headlines like “The American public loves drones.” Of course, these same news outlets consistently overlooked the fact that they were busy feeding the public a steady diet of upbeat drone stories in the first place. Round and round we go.

Still, the press’s negligence on the drone program’s popularity extends beyond a mere lack of self–awareness. Its failure involves digging deeper into the polling toplines on drones. If it did, it would have found alarming inconsistencies in the questions and presumptions baked into the drone terminology. For example, the 2011 Pew study’s question was incredibly vague, asking about “the use of unmanned ‘drone’ aircraft for aerial attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” Conflating a close air support mission in support of U.S. troops against Taliban in Afghanistan with a CIA-approved strike of a possible Al Qaeda member “elsewhere” in Waziristan makes the data gleaned here almost worthless. Similarly, Pew’s 2012 poll posed a question that said drones “target extremists” in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Notably, Pew’s wording allows for no hint of doubt about the guilt or innocence of these extremists, which is akin to gauging the popularity of sentencing already convicted criminals to jail. Indeed, it’s amazing that only 62 percent of Americans supported drones in this context.

Lately, pollsters seemed to have awakened to this stilted language, and most now identify drone targets as “suspected terrorists.” But even this formulation can present problems because just using the word “terrorist” can trigger a strong psychological response that blots out a single qualifier. (How many parents would say they’re OK with a “suspected child molester” living next door?) What’s more, pollsters never ask follow-up questions about the consequences of these suspicions being wrong or point out how often these drones miss their targets, to see if the potential for killing innocent men, women, and children might cool the zeal for drone strikes. Such nuance can make a huge difference, however. Sadly, it took a grandstanding stunt in the shape of a Senate filibuster by drone-supporting Senator Rand Paul for pollsters and the press to figure this out.

Just days before Paul’s filibuster this past March, Fox News, no slouch when it comes to tapping into the latest oncoming right-wing outrage, added more questions to its own drone policy poll, mirroring the objections of Paul. Lo and behold, it found that as you fleshed out drone use scenarios, like the targeting of suspected terrorists who were also U.S. citizens or who were located on U.S. soil, support for drone strikes fell below majority support. Weeks later, a Gallup Poll using a similar array of questions, found broad disapproval< of drone use in all but the most basic (read: least detailed) case.

Does Paul deserve credit for changing the minds of Americans? I highly doubt it. A more likely explanation is that a latent unease for the use of drone strikes already resided among the public or has been slowly growing for years. But the Beltway press was either uninterested or unwilling to ask the right questions to ferret it out. Paul’s most important contribution was not to eloquently argue the moral and legal case against drones—his superciliousness I already linked to previously. It was to provide the “objective” news outlets a convenient Republican stand-in, so they could finally justify covering the drone issue now that it fell within the confines of a partisan debate. It’s telling that the Obama administration’s reset of drone policy took until now to occur, after all the newly critical press coverage and Congressional hearings took place. Or, as Long War Journal editor Bill Roggio—who has covered this issue tirelessly for years—noted about all the newfound sunshine on drones: “I get the sense that the microscope on the program is leading to greater selectivity in ordering strikes.” 

That’s perhaps the most important lesson we should learn about the press’s complicit behavior on drones during the past few years. Public scrutiny can eventually translate into political action. But by going along to get along, the media for far too long provided the Obama administration the cover it needed to freely conduct a counterproductive drone policy that will reverberate for years to come. And the press’s passivity, to this day, enables the president to excuse his actions through a poisoned calculus, one that weighs the largely forgotten civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes against the innocents killed from terrorist attacks by other Muslims. That kind of ugly moral relativity should remind the media that there is still a toll being paid, and a steep one at that, for having failed to hold this president accountable on his drone policy. 

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

The mail:
Sanford Sklansky, Racine

Regarding Watergate, one of the things the precipitated Watergate was that Nixon wanted files that would show at worst that he had committed treason by trying to stall peace talks while Johnson was still president.  Johnson had Walt Rostow take those files before Johnson left the White House.  The files later went to the Johnson library in 1974 and where not to be opened for 50 years.  They were later opened in 1994.  While not specifying exactly the Nixon tapes do indicate that this is what they were looking for.  Robert Parry does a lot better job of explaining than I can.



Secondly this has not gotten much reporting in the main stream media.  Here is Greenwald explaining it all.

He wrote a column about this the other day as well.

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa

Hi-

Your article "Worse Than Watergate?" was great. But the PPP results included some related results. One was that fewer (70% vs. 74%) thought that Benghazi was worse than Iran Contra. I tend to think this indicates that a few more people actually remember Iran Contra. Similarly, the same number (74%) thought that Benghazi was worse than Teapot Dome! (I had a lot of fun with this fact at my website, if you are interested.) There is no question that almost no one in the poll even knew what Teapot Dome was. And that makes me think that no one remembers what Watergate was either.

Regardless, all the poll really tells us is that Republicans don't like Obama and that the conservative media outlets have been pushing the Benghazi scandal. You are right to be concerned that people don't remember Watergate. But that can't be a surprise when they don't know where Benghazi is. On the other hand, I hope they end the embargo so I can visit Benghazi, Cuba before I die!

-Frank


PS: Have you seen the brilliant "The Mitchell and Web Look" bit about Watergate-gate? It would go well with your article.

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Obama’s Media Shield Kabuki

My new Think Again is called “Worse than Watergate?” Guess what it’s about.

Congratulations once again to the Hillman Foundation for their award to Andrew Sullivan, who is quick to remind them of his pride in promoting the racist/eugencist-based research of Charles Murray going all Bell Curve-y about the Richwine scandal, here. I’m sure immigrant unionists are particularly pleased....

So it was a relatively quiet week musically. I did catch my first ever Hays Carll show last Friday at City Winery. I missed out on Hays for a while, but I saw him on PBS during last year’s Americana Awards show and boy was he funny. I bought two albums of his and they were pretty funny too but also quite a bit more than that. He’s from the Steve Earle/Robert Earl Keen/Jimmy Dale Gilmore school of Texas ironic soulfulness in songwriting—Corb Lund is another member—and he’s pretty funny and charming in concert. Pretty impressive band too. If any of the above is your thing, then you’ll be glad you invested in. His website is here. Oh and “Wings over America is back,” remastered like the most recent McCartney re-releases. It’s a great album—I was there—as it pulls together much of what was great about McCartney’s early post-Beatle releases and only a few from what totally sucked (“Silly Love Songs” is bad. “Let Em In” is one of the worst songs of all time.)

That’s all. Now here’s Reed.

Obama’s Media Shield Kabuki

by Reed Richardson

In battle, assessing the true strength of one’s defenses necessitates taking full measure of the forces opposing them. Armor is only as worthy as the threats it can protect against, in other words. This is why taking cover—either physically or intellectually—behind a position that offers little to no real protection becomes twice as risky; it perpetuates a false sense of security where none exists and encourages ignorance of the real dangers lurking about.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s renewed interest in a federal media shield law this week presents just such a hazard for the press. Coming on the heels of a revelation by the Justice Department that it secretly scooped up phone records of Associated Press reporters to identify the source of a classified leak, it’s not hard to see this as a transparent ploy at damage control. (The AP story that drew the government’s scrutiny, which included leaks about how the CIA thwarted an Al Qaida bomb plot, is here.) While it may be tempting to view the passage of a media shield law as a potential silver lining to an otherwise ugly case of executive overreach, context here matters greatly. And it’s why it’s worth closely examining what the press really would—or more accurately, wouldn’t—gain if the bill gets passed.

Some background is necessary—the debate over how much constitutional protection the press enjoys regarding confidential sources was the fundamental issue in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case of Branzburg v. Hayes. Though a majority of the Court found the press does not have an absolute privilege to withhold sources in every circumstance, an ambiguous concurrence by Justice Lewis Powell and a compelling dissenting opinion essentially snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Thanks largely to these arguments, a large majority of states in the past forty years have been able to enact media shield laws that either do grant absolute privilege or that recognize the dissenter’s more press-friendly, multi-part test framework. (For a handy state-by-state breakdown of shield laws, check out the Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press.)

This patchwork quilt of state-based media shield laws is problematic, obviously. It punishes the press in states with less progressive legislatures, makes navigating interstate or national stories that much more difficult, and fails to address the unique circumstances in play when reporting on national security. Thus, a robust, federal version of the shield law has been a goal of free press advocates almost since the Branzburg decision came out.

Here’s the rub, though. The compromised 2009 federal media shield bill that Obama wants to revive is anything but robust and, overall, it might actually end up being a net negative for press freedom. Though a federal shield would undoubtedly help the press in the states that currently offer no source protection, the media outlets in places that already enjoy absolute privilege (12 states, including, critically, New York, as well as the District of Columbia) would experience a noticeable roll back in rights. What’s more, when it comes to national security and classified leaks, this particular bill’s language provides little more than a legal speed-bump for any overzealous government agency. And worst of all, Obama knows this.

How? Because four years ago, he was the one responsible for weakening it. The truth is, had the 2009 federal media shield law been in place last year, when the Justice Department secretly obtained the AP’s phone records, the outcome likely wouldn’t have changed. This even the bill’s chief sponsor tacitly acknowledged this past week: “Schumer himself made no claims that a shield law would have blocked the probe. Instead he says, ‘at minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.’”

Even this claim of a “more deliberate process” seems dubious, though. As the Times noted of the changes requested by the Obama administration in 2009:

[U]nder the administration’s proposal, such procedures would not apply to leaks of a matter deemed to cause ‘significant’ harm to national security. Moreover, judges would be instructed to be deferential to executive branch assertions about whether a leak caused or was likely to cause such harm, according to officials familiar with the proposal.

Previously, the government’s burden of proof had been more stringent and tangible—it would have had to document that “imminent and actual harm to national security” would result if a media source was not identified. But due to White House fears that this language afforded the press almost blanket immunity, this time-critical element was stripped out and, in its place, the government was given broad leeway to interpret a leak’s impact. Thus, the press would be left in the unenviable position of pleading a case of “he said, she said” against a national security apparatus that now enjoys the benefit of the doubt in the court’s eyes. 

Sadly, this comes as no surprise from an administration that has undertaken a disturbingly aggressive approach toward leaks. Just this past Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder demonstrated this us-versus-them mindset during a House Judiciary Committee, where he was ostensibly advocating for press freedom:

“There should be a shield law with regard to the press’s ability to gather information and to disseminate it,” [Holder] said. “The focus should be on those people who break their oath and put the American people at risk, not reporters who gather this information.”

This statement displays a rather stunning lack of cognitive dissonance on the part of the Attorney General. But it does explain a lot about the Obama administration’s unprecedented “War on Whistleblowers” and adversarial approach toward leaks in the press. After all, an administration can hardly be expected to operate under the presumption that leakers are betraying the country and harming its security without eventually losing professional respect and judicial regard for those in the press to whom they are leaking. No matter the president’s words, all too often his administration’s actions demonstrate a contemptuous attitude toward the press for abetting these leaks.

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Which us brings to the final disgrace of the media shield law—its rapidly growing irrelevance. In an environment where our sprawling national security apparatus repeatedly abuses its power and increasingly relies upon secret “215” subpoenas and gag-ordered National Security Letters (NSLs) to out confidential sources and collect data, the law represents little more than the legal equivalent of the French Maginot Line, an outdated, easily-bypassed fortification. While the revelation about Justice Department’s monitoring of the AP is shocking, it really shouldn’t be. The fact is, our government secretly gather vast troves of surveillance information about journalists (and the public) thousands of times every year without them (or us) ever knowing about it.

What impact would the proposed media shield law have on this supra-judicial spying of the media? Precious little, if any. And therein lies the trouble. Passing it would only offer a pretense of a solution to a much more insidious problem confronting our government and the press. Repairing this critical relationship requires more than Obama signing a largely symbolic piece of legislation, one that fails to honestly address our out-of-control secret surveillance state. Encouragingly, some of the excesses of our national security apparatus are finally being questioned by the courts. But unless the establishment press also refuses to be co-opted into accepting the status quo, things won’t get better for it, or for our democracy. In other words, to truly safeguard our freedom of the press, merely giving it a shield is no longer enough. We now have to start taking back the weapons our own government is using to attack it.

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

Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail

Ross Nelson

Fargo, ND

RE: “Why Does the Press Take the Heritage Foundation Seriously?”

Dear Mr. Richardson:

A couple of points: Immigration reform will not help Social Security or Medicare in the long run, as millions more citizens mean trillions more in unfunded liabilities, the short-term windfall notwithstanding.

Of course an expanded population typically means a bigger GDP; if America absorbed China our output and income would increase gigantically. Problem is, per capita income and production would go down in a major way.  

Quite frankly, I don't give a damn about your feelings on whether Richwine used racist stereotyping. What does matter is if his arguments or numbers can be refuted. If so, well and good, we've advanced in knowledge a little. If not, we've still gotten ahead in what we know, despite liberal pieties that seem eternally meant to stifle truth.

Well, at least the PC corps got Richwine booted out. So much for the disinterested search for truth.

Regards,

Ross Nelson

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

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