Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Take the Cannoli...

My new “Think Again” column is called “The Media and Climate Science: ADHD or Deliberate Deception?” It deals with the Murdoch empire, PBS in particular and you’ll find it here.

On the origns of Post-Truthism, continued

The term keeps getting more and more traction so here is the Chuck Colson example, and my adaptation of the term, from When Presidents Lie (Viking, 2004 Penguin, 2005):

Dishonesty has become so pervasive a part of our public discourse that in some cases, the very same people who pose as defenders of absolute truth feel no compunction about relying on deception to do so. Take the case of ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson, who, following a prison conversion, founded a national prison ministry, authored thirty-eight books—selling over five million copies—along with daily radio commentaries and a regular column in Christianity Today, the nation’s most important evangelical magazine. In the winter of 2002, Colson discussed the case of the popular historian Steven Ambrose, who had been accused of plagiarizing portions of his work. Colson’s column condemned what he termed America’s “post-truth society” in which “even the man on the street sees little wrong with lying.” How ironic, therefore, that although the column appeared beneath Colson’s byline and alongside his photo, the words he claimed as his own were actually the work of one Anne Morse, one of two full-time writers Colson employs,along with various “contract” writers, to churn out his column.

Colson’s own lack of self-awareness notwithstanding, he makes a valid point. When people talk about lies in American society today, they tend to do so—at least in public—with a degree of naiveté that becomes its own sort of dishonesty. As Louis Menand has observed, “The dissembler is always part of universe of dissemblers.” And though many of us may hide this awareness even from ourselves, “all adult interactions take for granted a certain degree of insincerity and indirection. There is always a literal meaning, which no one takes completely seriously, and an implied meaning, which is what we respon to even when we pretend to be responding to the literal meaning, [and] a great deal of literature (also a great deal of situation comedy) is built around imaginary cases in which one character misreads another character’s code, or in which someone suffers by insisting on making explicit what the rest of the world knows is better left concealed by euphemism or denial.”


The virtue of truth in the American presidency had, for all practical purposes, become entirely operational. Whether its citizens were aware of it or not, the presidency now operated in a “post-truth” political environment. American presidents could no longer depend on the press—its powers and responsibilities enshrined in the First Amendment—to keep them honest. And the resulting death, destruction and general chaos that seemed ready to explode on a daily basis in Iraq following the US invasion seemed to be just one price that “reality” was demanding in return.

I’ll be speaking, prodigally, about The Cause at the Scarsdale Library on October 2 at 8:00.

Alter-reviews: Three Nights of Rock

So, Bruce: I went to all three Bruce shows at the new MetLife stadium last week. Here are some notes:

Night one: This per usual regarding “A” shows, was a pretty orthodox show. The best parts, according to your correspondent were...

  1. The entrance to Frank singing “Summerwind”

  2. The ’78 version of “Prove It All Night” that followed the (incredibly lame) opener, “Shackled and Drawn,” followed by a relatively rare “Ties that Bind.”

  3. The return of “Mad Dog” Vini Lopez, looking like Professor Irwin Corey, on the too-rare “E Street Shuffle.”

  4. “Mansion on the Hill” into a breathtaking “Racing…”

Night two: This one was a show for the ages; the best setlist I’ve seen since “The River” show and if that doesn’t count, since maybe his 40th birthday show in Philly. Also, the weather was beautiful. In any case…

  1. Opening with the rarely-if -ever before heard, “Living on the Edge of the World” with Bruce reading from a lyric sheet so he could do it from within the crowd.

  2. An “only three-times-since-1980” Incident-into-Rosie to end the pre-encore set.

  3. A really great Ramrod in the encore set.

  4. A mini-set that began with:

  • Lost in the Flood

  • Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?

  • Jole Blon (with Gary U.S. Bonds)

  • This Little Girl (with Gary U.S. Bonds)

  • From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)

  • Talk to Me

  • This Depression (a much more powerful song live than you’d guess from the CD).

Night 3.

This was a really weird night. Sitting in the “E Street Lounge,” where a filet mignon sandwhich cost $21.50 (though it was pretty great), I felt terrible for the people for the people who showed up to get great spots in the pit at 1:30 but were cleared out, together with everyone else, while the band waited for the electrical storm to pass. Everybody had to hang out in the cement hallways, where it appeared that much alcohol was consumed, until they decided to go on with the show at 10:30, making it, I’m guessing, Bruce’s latest show, and also, at midnight, his 63rd birthday. Highlights:

  1. Cynthia

  2. Who’ll Stop the Rain? (Did I mention it continued to rain for most of the show?) into Cover Me into Downbound Train.

  3. Midnight Hour after Happy Birthday “C into D; C into D!”

  4. Pay Me My Money Down into Janey Don’t You Lose Heart

  5. Meeting into Jungleland to end the pre-encore set

  6. Seven Nights of Rock in the encore set

  7. The return of Adele Springsteen with a Fender birthday cake during Twist and Shout, just before two am, though, to be honest, I was on the bus back to the Port Authority by this time, having seen this line one too many times.

The whole thing was an incredible tribute to the dedication of Bruce’s fans, who were almost all there right up to the encores. And yes, of course, the band’s still got it. Next (and last) stop for your correspondent, Kansas City, gonna make my way back there, yeah, yeah.

Oh and if you’re in the market for a little more Kol Nidre, try this

I have to say, the music for this election has been disappointing. Playing “We Take Care of Our Own” after speeches does not make up for all the great shows we had in 2008 in support of um, hope and change. Partially making up for this, however, is the fact that the best one so far will be four blocks from my apartment. Check out the line up for “Jazz for Obama” at Symphony Space on October 9 here Maybe I’ll see you there.

Oh and hey, speaking of good nights of music for good causes The Stand Up for Heroes benefit has been an annual event for Bruce Springsteen, raising funds for injured service members, veterans, and their families. On November 8, 2012, in between shows in Louisville and St. Paul, Bruce will be back at the Beacon for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The Max Weinberg Big Band will be there too as well as Jon Stewart and some ofther funny guys. Visit remind.org for more information and tickets.

Now here’s Reed

Are Conservatives Turning Into a Doomsday Cult?
by Reed Richardson

Someone much smarter than me once made the profound observation: “Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed.” In other words, any flaws one might think they find in, say, a US economy ruined from eight years of Bush administration policies promoting unregulated, fraudulent financial speculation, profligate tax breaks for the rich and two extravagantly wasteful wars, are merely distractions masking the real unseen hand that spoiled the free market sauce. In the case of the Great Recession, for instance, the “smart money” has decided that the real cause was the federal government trying to help poor people buy houses.

The past four years with a Democrat in the White House have only served to further prove this axiom. Despite any minor schisms that may have occurred among the various denominations of conservatism—paleo, neo, social, crunchy, etc.—they have all fervently gathered around one unifying creed for 2012—that the Obama administration has been an pestilence on the country and must be vanquished.

Still, the very presence of a liberal (coughsocialistcough) like Obama in the White House presented something of an uncomfortable dilemma for the right-wing initially. After all, conservatives have spent decades pushing the idea that the US was a center-right nation. But never fear, they quickly alighted on an explanation for this. Obama’s election in 2008 was merely an aberration, you see, a gullible public’s misguided reaction to the spendthrift ways of President George W. Bush, who, you guessed it, betrayed conservatism! (Funny, though, how some of these same now-oh-so-pious conservatives, like the current GOP vice presidential nominee, eagerly aided Bush’s betrayal back when it was happening.)

Given this rationalization of Bush as not really one of us, conservatives allowed themselves to double down on their ideology after Obama’s election (starting on the very first day of Obama’s presidency). Their Tea Party-fueled success in the mid-term elections of 2010 only fueled their revanchist, extremist ambitions. Taking back the House they saw as incontrovertible testimony that Obama had been exposed as a false Messiah, someone who was—incongruously—both a egomaniacal, power-wielding radical and a feckless, ineffectual failure. Conservatism had trounced Obama and the Democrats in the marketplace of ideas, in other words, and the public looked ready for a full Republican restoration in Washington D.C., to “take our country back,” in their parlance. The election of 2012 couldn’t get here fast enough.

But a funny thing’s happened on the way to their expected electoral salvation on November 6th. As that fateful day draws ever closer, all their fevered predictions of Obama’s humiliating defeat appear less and less prophetic. Meanwhile, the Republican standard-bearer looks less and less capable of delivering a late-stage campaign revelation. Even more troubling, Romney’s lack of traction among voters can’t be attributed to his lack of obeisance to conservative dogma or a lack of antagonism toward Obama.

Indeed, the 2012 Republican primaries acted as something of a purification rite for Romney. He finally emerged the victor only after having consistently run to the right of a string of extremely conservative competitors. In the general election campaign, Romney’s likewise not been shy about gratuitously bashing the president or using racist and xenophobic dog whistles to preach to the choir of his party’s increasingly white base. Conservatives had longed for a true believer to run against the president this election—to fully showcase the supposed superiority of their ideology—and they got their wish. But with early voting well underway and Election Day less than six weeks away, the glorious landslide conservatives expected just a year ago now seems like a distant mirage. Even worse, polling in states where Obama and Romney were neck-and-neck all year are now starting to break in the former’s favor.

If I were a conservative, all of this would understandably be an unsettling turn of events. It might even prompt some soul-searching questions: Why would the American people be willing to choose Obama yet again, when we’ve spent four years documenting our daily outrage at him and his policies? Did we misinterpret or overplay the lessons of the 2010 midterm elections? Does the fact that no president has ever been re-elected with an unemployment rate this high no longer matter if our ideology’s economic message castigates half the nation as “parasites” and “moochers?” Are Americans judging this election as something other than a choice between our “pro-growth” conservative policies and Obama’s “redistributive” big-government platform? What, exactly, are we doing wrong?

Alas, this is not the kind of honest discourse one hears among prominent conservatives anymore. Indeed, these kind of self-reflective questions not only fail to elicit frank answers they fail to even get asked in the first place. (Those rare few who do get branded asapostates.) Instead, the right has come to instinctually think—nay, believe—that, in a fair fight, conservative ideas simply cannot lose against liberal ones. But if a preponderance of the evidence in the current presidential campaign indicates otherwise, then there must be some other sinister force at work, tipping the scales.

Over the past week, it’s become clear that conservatives have agreed upon the villain—the media. Indeed, a lap around conservative punditry right now finds just about everybody singing the same hymn (like her and him and her and him, and, as always, this guy), decrying how the media’s outright “liberal bias” is showing through in an attempt to kill off Romney’s hopes of winning. The ne plus ultra of this archetype, though, has to be this Victor Davis Hanson column from Sunday, where he unspools a long catechism of the president’s many supposed failures before damning every major news organization—save one—as “extensions of Obama’s campaign.”

Notably, Hanson also cites Reagan’s much-overstated comeback win over Carter in the 1980 election (which has now become something of a favorite parable among conservatives) to try to show how putting any stock in Romney’s eroding poll numbers is a mistake. But as this MSNBC piece demonstrates, this 2012-1980 analogy is thoroughly flawed, confirming my own corollary to Santayana’s famous quote: Those who are desperate to repeat history are likely to have failed it the first time around.

Still, it’s instructive to note that after having cast out fact-checkers earlier this summer as having a nakedly liberal agenda, conservatives have now moved on to claim that almost the entire industry of political pollsters is also bearing false witness against Romney and the Republicans. Indeed, I feel comfortable saying that, right now, “2008 turnout model” and“skewed polls” are rapidly becoming a mindless bromide as popular in right-wing circles as “apologizing for America,” “leading from behind,” and “you didn’t build that.” One such right-winger has even gone so far as to redress all this liberal bias by creating a new poll-tracking site, called somewhat unfortunately, “unskewed polls,” that performs a kind of conservative exegesis on every survey released by the mainstream media.

Here, in this alternate reality, you’d see that Romney is enjoying a healthy, eight-percentage point lead over Obama nationally, rather than suffering a four-point deficit. Of course, these claims of biased, or skewed polling are both ridiculous and wrong, but foreswearing sagacity and veracity with ferocity and velocity is by now old hat for conservatives. But with this new polling-is-pseudo-science meme, we can add another constellation in the parallel universe that conservatives increasingly inhabit, one populated with other elaborately constructed myths about everything from climate change to evolutionary theory to tax cuts and economic growth to the female reproductive system.

With each passing year, it seems, the closing of the conservative mind continues apace. More and more, theirs is an existence predicated on faith-based, rather than reality-based, political thinking. And so, it becomes understandable that when confronted with facts or statistics that don’t fit their worldview, they try to contort the former to fit the latter instead of the other way around. But as we approach Election Day, this epistemic closure has been greatly amplified, to the point where any data point that doesn’t hew chapter-and-verse to their firmly-held belief that Mitt Romney will heroically bringing conservatives on board his shiny spaceship and deliver them from the Obama Armageddon has become nothing short of blasphemy.

In his 1956 landmark book When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger first popularized the term “cognitive dissonance” after he infiltrated a doomsday cult to study the reactions after their promised Rapture/Armageddon fails to arrive. His observed that when presented with incontrovertible evidence contrary to their foundational beliefs, the cultists did not, in fact, suffer widespread disillusionment or renounce their obviously false prophets, but rather the exact opposite. They both redoubled their faith and engaged in furious ex post facto excuses.

This Slate article from a year and a half ago goes on to make the obvious point, that this kind of hidebound groupthink isn’t confined to religious cults:

Festinger was not so wide of the mark when he suggested that we adapt to even the most unlikely of contradictions using nothing more than our methods of everyday rationalization. The faithful could just as easily be those who stubbornly stand by disgraced politicians, failed ideologies, dishonest friends, or cheating spouses, even when reality highlights the clearest of inconsistencies.

And it’s very true that, to read Festinger’s conclusions from 56 years ago, is to see eerie similarities to the detached behavior of conservatives in the run up to what looks to be an Obama victory. The steadfast denials, the furious spinning, the increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial theories, when viewed through the prism of this kind of intellectual hegemony, start to make more and more sense (pg. 28, from Festinger’s book):

But whatever explanation is made it is still by itself not sufficient. The dissonance is too important and though they may try to hide it, even from themselves, the believers still know that the prediction was false and all their preparations were in vain. The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation. But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct…It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it.

In other words, there’s safety—and sanity—in numbers for these types of true believers. Yet, all their proselytizing between now and Election Day will probably have little affect on their chances of facing a momentous disconfirmation on the morning of November 7th. Tragically, I fear the conservative response to an Obama victory will resemble what many doomsday cults do after such a public humiliation—simply pick a new date and start all over again.

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

The Mail

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa
Hi Reed,

Good column today. I want you to know that I appreciate you missing Bruce last night. Jesus has never done much for me, so it is good to know someone is suffering for my benefit.

Dick Morris may have been largely wrong, but I think you've gone too far. For one thing, saying that Ryan as VP was a bad idea was probably right. And the ten point bounce? At least he got one of the digits right!

Reed replies: To your point on Ryan, Frank, touché.

John Kirsch
Mazatlan, Mexico

As a die-hard fan of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, I couldn't let this pass. It was Lee Strasberg, as gangster Hyman Roth, who said "This is the business we've chosen" to Al Pacino, as Michael Corleone, in The Godfather Part II.

Eric replies: Damn. I’ve almost a week and I still don’t have a Godfatheresque reply for this. A little help, people?. (The hed, above, is just a placeholder.)

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

A Candidate Who Takes Care of His Own

My new “Think Again” column is called “Ignoring Poverty and Hunger,” and it’s about the media’s lousy coverage of the issue.

My new Nation column is called “The Problem of Conservative Intellectuals.” You can guess its subject.

Oh, and Katrina and I will be on a panel about the election with Tom Frank, moderated by Touré, at the Brooklyn Book Festival Saturday morning at ten. I think it’s in the library. I will be speaking, I’m pretty sure, at the Scarsdale Public Library on “The Cause” on October 2 at 8:00.

This is brilliant and profound, and it’s what I’ve been trying to say for quite a while.  It starts like this:

1500s: The American Revolutionary War begins: “The reason we fought the revolution in the sixteenth century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown.”—Rick Perry

And ends like this: 

2011: President George W. Bush kills Osama bin Laden: “Thanks to George Bush…. Because if Obama had his way we wouldn’t have gotten bin Laden, you know that.”—Sean Hannity

Have you heard Randy Newman’s new election song, “I’m Dreaming”? It begins like this:

George Washington was a white man
Adams and Jefferson too
Abe Lincoln was a white man, probably
And William McKinley the whitest of them all
Was shot down by an immigrant in Buffalo
And a star fell out of heaven

It’s free, here.

And a happy 78th birthday to the great Leonard Cohen, who, weirdly, is older than my mom.  I am really excited to read what looks like it will be great biography, I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvia Simmons. I’m also listening to the new Michael Chabon book, Telegraph Avenue on CD, which I found confusing at first, but got settled down after reading Cathleen Schine’s review in The New York Review, which lays it out.

I caught another small acoustic Jorma Kaukonen show at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. It’s kind of unfair to just name Jorma these days. While still going strong at 71 or 72, musically his shows belong no less to the incredible Barry Mitterhoff. You can watch them here. Last weekend the two were joined, as they often are, by G.E. Smith, and so it was a night of rarely-precedented virtuosity all around. I was, I’m sure, like many of you, deeply unhappy seeing G.E. up there leading the RNC band during the convention, as a nice a guy as he is. But that’s no reason not to enjoy a great show. I look forward to seeing Tuna (with G.E.) at the Beacon later in the season, but if you’re not so lucky, I strongly recommend the DVD made from the 2010 birthday party, with Steve Earle, Bob Weir, David Bromberg, etc. Details here.

So, the six-show/18-CD 1990 Dead box set was kinda pricey. This two-CD compilation version is one of the few releases from the Brett Myland era—there’s also Without A Net and Nightfall Of Diamonds—which is too bad, because the set list expanded in a good way. However, while there is some fine playing, it’s not their most inspired period by a long shot. Highlights at first listening were "It Must Have Been" and "Mississippi Half-Step" into "The Weight," and "He's Gone" into "The Last Time."

There’s also a new two CD/DVD live Paul Simon live package. It was recorded at Webster Hall in NY, a hipster hangout to which I’m usually too old to go. Paul is 70, and he’s not too old, though. He’s releasing in competition with his fellow septuagenarians Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (and I suppose, Jorma) and it’s worth trying to decide for yourselves.

Speaking of young folks, it’s Bruce week in the tri-state area. More next week.

Now here’s Reed.

Fighting the Last War
by Reed Richardson

First, a very short review of Bruce’s very long show last night in the Meadowlands from the very tired Missus, who was right upfront for all of it. (I stayed home and worked on this sorry blog post—the sacrifices I make for you people…): 

“It was awesome, he played forever, and I loved the touching tribute to Clarence.” 

'Nuff said. Here’s the setlist.  

Second, I offer up yet another reason why no one should ever underestimate the absolute unhinged nature of this nation’s right-wing media machine. Back during the GOP primaries, I noted how conservative pundits were starting to casually dismiss this administration’s hunting down and killing of Osama bin Laden, even though it’s clear President Obama deserves some credit for the renewed intelligence effort he placed on the task soon after he came to office. And to capture the ridiculous direction of where this logic was headed, I made what I thought was a equally ridiculous joke about it back in February: 

“By the time Romney debates Obama next fall, others in the media might be going so far as to suggest that Bin Laden somehow accidentally left his address on Leon Panetta’s voicemail and then willingly threw himself in front of Seal Team Six’s gunfire, all in an effort to avoid his later, inevitable assassination under a new Romney administration.” 

Turns out it didn’t take until October for my joke to be proved all too prescient. For, just last week, Rush Limbaugh donned his (by now, well-worn) tinfoil hat to sickeningly speculate on his radio show that something very similar to my satirical gag was what might have happened in real life.

“What if Ayman al-Zawahiri gave up Osama bin Laden for the express purpose of making Obama look good? Giving Obama stature, political capital?”

This bit of right-wing paranoia—that Al Qaeda is deviously plotting against the Republican Party’s presidential nominee—is by now a tried-and-true tactic. It harkens back to the rampant fearmongering perpetrated eight years ago by the bumbling conservative commentator Dick Morris, who just couldn’t keep straight which candidate Al Qaeda was going to end up helping—Kerry or Bush.

And let us stop and take a moment to note that Morris, perhaps better than anyone else in the media firmament, personifies the complete lack of intellectual accountability that poisons our punditocracy. His inerring propensity for erring makes him the George Costanza of pundits. That any media organization—even the shills at Fox News—would continue broadcast his idiotic, up-is-down ramblings across the public airwaves, rather than just let him bore the people sitting next to him at the 5:30 dinner seating, is a outright shame. Just as there are those rare standup comedians who represent the purest of the form, and are known fondly in the business as a “comic’s comic,” Morris has to have earned the dubious honor of a “hack’s hack,” someone who gets so many predictions wrong, so often, that even prominent gasbags like Jonah Goldberg, David Brooks, and Sean Hannity must shake their heads in wonder that he still has a job, despite a prodigious ability for terrible prognostications and boneheaded mistakes.


This cycle, Morris is just as bad. Just six weeks ago, he was still predicting not just a Romney victory, but a landslide. A few days later, Morris came out with a video handicapping the GOP VP field that was proven so ludicrously wrong it was akin to him earning a pundit’s version of the Golden Sombrero in baseball. In the course of just four minutes he whiffed time and again with a series of predictions and pieces of advice, none of which would come true: 

a) The Democratic convention would get disastrous TV ratings

b) Romney should avoid selecting Paul Ryan as his VP

c) Romney should choose Marco Rubio as VP instead

d) Romney should announce his VP pick at the GOP convention

e) The GOP convention would result in a 10-point bounce for Romney in the polls 

That Morris touted Romney’s arrogant “47 percent” language this week as a positive for the GOP’s presidential and down-ballot electoral prospects is simply more proof of his uncanny facility for up-is-down thinking. But, to be fair to Morris, there is one other major blind spot in his misbegotten political outlook that is shared by much of the mainstream media—the failure to recognize that Romney’s entire electoral strategy has been based on shaky, mistaken assumptions about the past.

In the U.S. military, there’s a cautionary term that speaks to the risk that comes from looking backward rather than forward, for assuming what worked in the past will be successful in the future—it’s known as “fighting the last war.” A classic example of the dangers of this outdated thinking occurred at the outbreak of World War II. The French Army, anticipating a reprise of the trench warfare of World War I, had spent the 1930s investing untold capital into building the Maginot Line, a 450-mile-long complex of trenches and bunkers along its border with Germany. But the German Army had instead spent the past decade innovating a fast-moving panzer corps, one that easily skirted around the Maginot Line through the Low Countries and quickly overwhelmed a French Army incapable to counter this new threat.

This same ossified plan of attack looks likely to be the Romney campaign’s downfall as well, though you see precious little of it in the press. Essentially, what Romney and the GOP are doing is relying on primary campaign tactics in the general election—in messaging, yes, but in strategy as well.

Since last fall, it has been clear that the right-wing crackpots and egomaniacs Romney would face in the Republican primaries offered little in the way of real organized opposition. This allowed him, in a tortured military analogy, to basically win the nomination by simply waging an aerial bombardment campaign fueled by a few, big-money financiers. But because his plan was to win a war of attrition by steadily overwhelming his competition with TV ads, Romney’s team didn’t have to do the hard work of organizing on the ground to win (or come close) in the battleground state contests. And so, their eventual primary triumph was something of a hollow victory, one that allowed them to neglect a crucial aspect of presidential campaigning.

In retrospect, it seems to me that Romney camp consciously accepted this low-effort path to victory predicated on another risky assumption—that a pulsing anti-Obama sentiment among both frustrated swing voters and their rabid Tea Party base would more than make up for a noticeable campaign ground game disadvantage. Republican enthusiasm would trump Democratic organization, in other words. But as several recent polls now demonstrate, that bet has proven to be misplaced, as Democratic voter enthusiasm has caught up with Republicans (and in the swing states, the former has even surpassed the latter).

Ah, but even this discrepancy ultimately won’t matter because Romney suffers from an embarrassment of campaign riches, right? He has billionaire benefactors who are publicly willing to open their bottomless wallets to unseat the president. Well yes, it’s true, that when all is said and done, the pro-Romney forces will have easily outspent Obama, and the press has rightly pointed this out. But what’s often overlooked is that all campaign spending is not alike. Much of this “dark money” has been funneled through Super PACs and 501(c)4 advocacy groups, which can’t directly coordinate with the Romney campaign. And between clinching the nomination in May and the party’s convention in late August, while Romney and the GOP were raising money for the fall like a house afire (and tripping over their feet, message-wise), these disparate outside groups shouldered most of the campaign’s ongoing messaging burden. In the meantime, Obama and the Democrats pummeled Romney with highly coordinated and targeted ads all summer long and continued to build their on-the-ground campaign infrastructure.

What Romney had done, in essence, was push all of his campaign’s chips onto making a late move—to taking the lead after the conventions and then riding a deluge of campaign ads in September and October to victory. But thanks to the contrast of a bitter and incompetently managed GOP convention versus a more positive, brilliantly stage-managed Democratic one, Romney’s lead never materialized. All the political capital he had hoped to have by now to force Obama’s hand just doesn’t exist. Now, all Romney’s left with to persuade voters in the next few weeks is that cash advantage.

But this is an increasingly untenable position for Romney for two reasons. One, though his polling deficit isn’t that great, the universe of voters to be won over is shrinking daily. In most polls, the percentage of undecided voters now number in the single digits. And while there are greater numbers of voters that still might switch their vote from Obama, that universe is growing smaller every day as well, for a very good reason that the press routinely underplays or overlooks—voting in the general election has already begun.

In fact, thousands of people in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana have already voted for president by mail. Absentee voting in the swing state of Wisconsin begins today and, by Monday, twenty-one more states, including Michigan, Virginia, and New Hampshire, will have opened the polls to either in-person voting or mailed-in absentee ballots. By the time of the first presidential debate on October 3, thirty-five states, including Florida and Ohio, will be casting votes. So, we’re now at a point where each day that Obama leads in the polls in key swing states is no longer an academic exercise, it’s an electoral reality. Romney isn’t simply behind anymore, he is losing.

But don’t expect to read much about the very real impact of early voting in the news. This BloombergBusinessweek story from today, for instance, still includes this deceptive piece of conventional wisdom: “Less than 50 days before Election Day and less than two weeks before the first of three debates against Obama, Romney is still working to get his campaign back on track.” Likewise, this detailed Real Clear Politics analysis of Obama’s path to victory offers nary a mention about his campaign’s potential for banking millions more votes than Romney before November 6. By the same token, a companion RCP analysis of Romney’s chances plays up the fact that his vast spending advantage has yet to be fully unleashed, but fails to note that a law of diminishing returns takes effect.

Just how large is this early voting pool? In 2008, more than 30 percet of those who voted—just over 40 million people—had already cast their ballot by Election Day. In 2012, it’s hard to say if this number will follow the historical trend of increasing each election, mostly because of dastardly “voter ID” suppression efforts, but it’s nonetheless possible that as many as one in three votes will be early this time.

More importantly, the four closest battleground states in polling so far this year were also among the biggest early voting states, percentage-wise, four years ago—Iowa (36 percent), Florida (51.8 percent), North Carolina (60.6 percent), and Colorado (78.9 percent). And how did Obama do in amassing early votes in these four states in 2008? Well, as this very helpful, yet hard-to-find AP news article notably points out, if one had only counted votes cast on Election Day, McCain would have won all four of these states instead of Obama—a swing of 116 electoral votes. That would not have been enough to tip the election the other way, but it damn sure would have made it uncomfortably close.

This is what a deliberate, strategic investment in a coordinated, people-focused, get-out-the-vote infrastructure gets you. And it’s why Obama and the Democratic Party have plenty of reasons to be optimistic of their chances again in 2012. But this lesson is seemingly lost on Romney, since, as his campaign was in circular firing squad mode on Tuesday, he spent several hours fundraising in blood-red Utah rather than on the trail pursuing swing voters. As a result, all that’s left for his campaign is to desperately try to catch up on the ground and then surpass Obama using the same, last-minute, air-war strategy from the primaries, writ large. But as more and more people vote early each passing day, his will increasingly become an electoral strategy of too much too late, as an ever-larger percentage of the money Romney spends will be wasted on reaching people who have already voted. 

Of course, one can find numerous other reasons besides poor strategy for why Romney's campaign is fatally flawed: his cold, standoffish personal demeanor, his uncompromising embrace of the most extreme policy positions of his party, and his now publicly-revealed contempt for half of the country. But while it may be tempting for conservatives to chalk up the coming Romney defeat simply to a bad candidate and his poorly run campaign and instead double down on their radical beliefs, that, I suspect, is a recipe for continued Republican disappointment at the polls. 

For, Romney’s doomed political strategy was born out of the same kind of arrogant, hidebound thinking that now colors every aspect of his party’s political ideology. It’s a narrow, hard-edged worldview that mistakes success for superiority, believes dollars equal discourse, and sides with the powerful over the people. Fortunately, in this coming election, I feel increasingly confident that the battle is Obama’s to win. But I also have no allusions that even if the president is reelected, come the morning of November 7th, his next victory is by no means guaranteed.  

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.


The intense pressure on mainstream journalists to stick to the same narrative cripples our ability to conduct robust democratic debate. Read more at my Think Again column this week, "Of Groupthink and 'Groupthink,'" here

Now here’s Reed:

On Display, the Republican Party’s Empty Foreign Policy Toolbox
by Reed Richardson

In the middle of the night on September 22, 2010, a bomb planted outside the US Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, exploded. Fortunately, no one was hurt. (A second bomb that had been thrown over a security wall and into an embassy parking lot was disabled before detonating.) Months later, two men were arrested and convicted of the crime and, during their interrogation, they said that Yevgeny Borisov, a Russian major in the GRU, the country’s foreign intelligence service, planned the attack.

That you’ve likely never heard of this incident is no surprise or accident, for that matter. Foreign news bureaus being something of a luxury these days, not a single major American news organizations made mention of it in the days or months following, despite the story unfolding into such stuff of gripping, Cold War-era international intrigue. Even among Western foreign policy wonks, the attempted bombing passed by with little notice.

After nearly a year, however, the bombing finally appeared on the media’s radar. Sadly, that’s when the right-wing Washington Times ran an three-part series on the incident that—naturally—portrayed the Obama foreign policy team, which was downplaying the bombing, as weak and having ignored naked Russian aggression. The news hook to the story was the recent revelation of a CIA report that had concluded that Borisov was involved in the bombing; a subsequent National Intelligence Council report found “no consensus” on his involvement, though. This discrepancy, of course, did not stop right-wing think tanks and pundits from restarting their Cold War jingoism and making dire predictions about the impending failure of Obama’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia.

In fact, the reality of the diplomatic situation in Georgia was much more complicated than what appeared in the media. The U.S. embassy bombing in 2010 was actually but one incident in a series of broader attacks—stretching back for more than a year—that was clearly aimed at destabilizing Georgia politically and undermining its effort to keep the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (See this study for a detailed account of two-year bombing campaign.) The onset of this violence could be traced back to the Georgian-Russian military battles in August 2008, the aftermath of which was still claiming lives despite a European Union-brokered ceasefire.

Despite neo-conservatives champing at the bit for a confrontation with Russia, the Obama administration chose a different path. Rather than publicly blast Moscow’s involvement in the embassy and other bombings based on shaky evidence—likely igniting a strong pushback and further destabilizing the situation—Secretary of State Clinton quietly engaged in several diplomatic, face-to-face meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to arrive at a more comprehensive solution. And guess what? It worked.

But don’t take my word for it, here’s Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili extolling the U.S.’s diplomatic efforts to the Daily Beast in 2011:

“I know firsthand Hillary Clinton raised this several times with Lavrov,” he said. “This was not just raised for the sake of formality, she was very insistent and very tough on that one. On a public level, it was much less visible, but what we know from diplomatic considerations is that the administration was pretty tough. And you know the result is there. Since they started to do that...the bombings have stopped so far.”

Now, a year later, the political situation in that region is by no means settled, as Russian military forces continue to occupy South Ossetia and Abkhazia (and Borisov, though tried and convicted in Georgia in absentia, remains at large). But by firmly addressing the ongoing campaign of violence instead of merely seeking a narrow PR victory to trumpet, the Obama foreign policy team laid the groundwork for a more lasting peace without alienating either of the two major parties.

The point of all this? To demonstrate that this kind of quiet, grinding effort, through dialogue, cooperation, and—yes—tough negotiation may not make for macho headlines and punchy bumper stickers, but it is what reaps real foreign policy success and builds up our country’s reputation around the world. What’s more, it stands in stark contrast to the current bloodthirsty approach to all things foreign policy favored by neoconservatives, which might best be summed up by the old adage: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

This one-note foreign policy mindset was on full display yet again this week, demonstrated by the speed with which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney started swinging a “big stick” even before the smoke from the attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya had cleared. Prodded by a veritable Who’s Who of neocon advisors, Romney’s belligerent tone was eerily reminiscent of the blustering recklessness his predecessor displayed four years ago.

Back then, it’s worth recalling, GOP nominee Senator John McCain desperately tried to out-butch then-candidate Obama over, coincidentally, the military conflict between Russia and Georgia. In contrast to Obama, whose initial response to the crisis was a measured call for both sides to show “restraint,” McCain’s amped up indignation had him sounding like a rabid anti-Communist from sixty years earlier, ready to personally fly an airlift sortie into a besieged Berlin.

Moreover, who can forget that saber-rattling op-ed of his in the Wall Street Journal, resolutely proclaiming: “We Are All Georgians.” In it, McCain laid out a devastating case detailing the Russia military’s incursion into Georgia, burnishing his foreign policy credentials in comparison to the young neophyte Senator from Illinois. OK, that’s not really what happened, that’s only how he and most of the media were credulously portraying it, as the establishment press eagerly lapped up McCain’s machismo and tut-tutted Obama’s initial, “too cautious” approach.

Of course, McCain’s bravado about an innocent Georgia trying to stave off an unprovoked invasion was, it turns out, simply not true. In fact, his impassioned pleas actually provided cover for Georgia’s aggression, which we now know involved conniving to manufacture a border skirmish and then using that as an excuse to unilaterally unleash a heavy artillery barrage on civilian seats of power in South Ossetia. That Russia, incensed, then struck back hard on Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and unapologetically aided and abetted localized ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia only further proved that both parties owned some of the blame and that Obama’s deliberate, even-handed reaction turned out to be the best judgment.

This time around, though, the Republicans haven’t been able to construct that same prevailing narrative of a weak, unsteady Obama in the press. (And if I were Romney, I’d find it particularly galling that Steve Schmidt, McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, who helped orchestrate McCain’s shamelessly inaccurate bloviating over Russia, found the time to tell a reporter this behavior is “very dangerous.”) Why? Well, no doubt this is partly because Obama now has a foreign policy record, which counts as accomplishments things like taking out Osama bin Laden and a heavy, rather cold-blooded reliance upon drone strikes against alleged terrorists (which I have serious objections to, I might add). But color me skeptical that the press has really learned to look past the dangerous siren song of the neoconservative worldview when it comes to covering foreign crises.

More likely, the press has comfortably internalized the old “incompetency dodge” that after-the-fact Iraq War critics used as justification of their changes of heart. Indeed, notice that it was primarily Romney’s admittedly crass and ham-handed execution that earned most of the condemnation from the pundits and the press. Not surprisingly, we’ve already seen some Republicans belatedly rally to his side using this rhetorical backdoor—that it was only the unfortunate timing of Romney’s critique that was problematic, rather than the bilious content or lack thereof. In fact, it’s hard to say which is worse—the way he flagrantly twisted the words of the U.S. embassy staff and Obama administration or that fact that when asked, point-blank, what he would have done differently, he could offer up no answer, only more spin.

By now this intellectual emptiness should come as no great shock to anyone. After all, this modern Republican Party, dominated as it is by hardline neoconservatives, has pretty much abandoned diplomatic tools like reason, nuance, and honesty in favor of a threatening, one-carrier-group-fits-all approach. As a result, when someone like Mitt Romney encounters a complex foreign policy situation, the shape of which doesn’t neatly fit the square peg of his narrow beliefs, the only way he knows to make the world fit together is to keep on swinging that hammer harder and harder until something gives. And the high price of what, or more accurately, who gives with this kind of doomed strategy, we’re still seeing today.

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

The Mail:
Rich Gallagher
Fishkill, NY
I appreciate the gusto with which you and Reed dressed down Glenn Kessler for his inept fact-checking. However, please do not let other fact-checkers off the hook. Note this jaw-dropper from factcheck.org:

Biden claimed Romney “believes it’s OK to raise taxes on middle classes by $2,000.” Romney actually promises to lower middle-class taxes.

Of course, Biden never claimed that Romney has said that he will raise middle-class taxes. but there is no way that he can cut taxes for the wealthy, eliminate capital gains taxes, eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, eliminate estate taxes, increase defense spending and cut the deficit without raising middle-class taxes. Ironically, factcheck.org has made this very point in another article:

Romney’s experts predict about a 1 percent increase in growth. One of the authors of the Tax Policy Center study says that is “implausibly large” and even if it materializes it wouldn’t prevent a tax increase on middle-income taxpayers under Romney’s income tax plan.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Post 'Fact-Checking': Fecklessness Squared

My new "Think Again" column is called “The Mistaken Bias of The New York Times’s Public Editor” and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “The Washington Post's Feckless 'Fact-Check'” and it’s here.

Reed is on the case, as well.

The Post’s Pitiful Post-Truth Punditry
by Reed Richardson

As far as media criticism goes, one can usually count on election years to provide an embarrassment of riches. And certainly, the Washington press corps’ behavior during the 2012 presidential campaign has not disappointed. But if you wanted to drill down into substrata of the political media to get a purer reading of its foundational problems right now, one really need look no further than the Washington Post.

There, you’ll find two of the most egregious examples of media malpractice currently drawing a paycheck—Glenn Kessler and Jen Rubin. The former acts as the Post’s purported “Fact Checker,” charged with sluicing out nuggets of truth from a steady torrent of political rhetoric; the latter occupies a kind of token right-wing spot within the Post’s opinion-page lineup, which has a dubious and troubled history of predecessors. And while the two of them have distinctly different editorial roles at the Post, they routinely betray a similar intellectual deceitfulness, one that should both anger the news organization’s readers and shame its editors and publishers.

Rubin’s punditry, faithful readers of this blog know, has previously received scrutiny from both me and, in a much more detailed takedown, Eric. Late last year, I also examined the structural flaws among fact-checkers that plagues Kessler and his ilk. So, how would the pair react to the Democratic convention in Charlotte this past week? Well, a quick tour through their work suggests a perilous distillation is occurring—the crucible of the campaign’s home stretch seemingly having served to only amplify Kessler’s journalistic equivocating and purify Rubin’s already gauzy Republican cheerleading.

As for the former, take a look at Eric’s piece in The Nation this week (see above), where he has trained his rhetorical fire directly on Kessler’s feeble coverage of late. Regarding Rubin, well, when Bill Clinton invoked the phrase “alternative universe” in his speech Wednesday night to describe the worldview in which many conservatives inhabit, the first person that came to my mind was not a right-wing politician like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan or even a conservative movement leader like Grover Norquist or the Koch Brothers—but her. Truly, to peruse Rubin's online columns is like peering into a parallel, cartoon-like universe, one where a constantly bumbling or—alternately—mendacious Obama campaign is continually foiled by the smarter, heroic Romney campaign. Indeed, if Obama is reelected November 6th, I would not be startled to read a subsequent post by Rubin, explaining her giddy anticipation of attending the inaugural speech of Bizarro President Romney.

Now, I accept and understand that a pundit’s job is to put the best spin on their ideology/argument for the public’s consumption, which routinely requires glossing over inconvenient facts or offering a stirring counter-narrative. Rubin’s columns, however, are nearly devoid of any intellectual candor or rhetorical finesse whatsoever. They shamelessly brandish hypocrisy and hyperbole at Democrats like a flaming broadsword. (When Israel is involved, she’s even less subtle.) The pattern is unmistakable—she can not abide anycracks in the “all-is-well-for-the-GOP, Obama-is-doomed” façade no matter what the circumstances. Simply put, Rubin practices propaganda, not punditry.

To wit: here’s an excerpt of a column from this past week teeing up the second night of the Democratic convention:

Clinton vs. the GOP: Will it work?
“So what does Obama do? Well for starters he is bringing in the big dog in the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton. There is no one better at telling Democrats that Democrats are better than Republicans. So Clinton will, I suspect, talk not so much about Obama but about Democratic Party ideals. The danger here for the Democrats is four-fold.”

Keeping that question in mind, here’s what she churned out on Wednesday night, after Clinton’s masterful answer—a speech that was chock full of insightful detail about Obama and his policies, and which, even other Republican pundits agreed, made for an eviscerating case against Mitt Romney:

Horror show: Wednesday night at the DNC


Well, the “horror show” she’s referring to involved an internal DNC debate about the word “God” and a policy point about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Note, this procedural to-do occurred hours before any primetime TV coverage would be seen by the public, and likely wouldn’t outrage any voters who weren’t already going to vote against Obama anyway. What’s more, those independents tuning into the convention that same night looking for a reason to back Obama were far more likely to be treated to one of the most persuasive Democratic public policy speeches in years. Yet, the evening’s events nonetheless spelled major trouble for the Democrats according to Rubin. And then, in moment of trademark disingenuousness, she actually wrote this of the Dems’ procedural set-to over God and Jerusalem:

“It was a remarkable, actual newsmaking episode, something we rarely get at conventions. Moreover, it was the worst blunder in a scripted TV event in recent memory.”

That right there is whiplash-inducing, knock-the-wind-out-of-you phoniness. I guess “recent memory” for Rubin conveniently stops after a mere five days, before any recall of Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, unscripted, and unvetted primetime TV harangue of an empty chair at the Republican convention last Thursday. You know, that crude faux dialogue that prominent Republicans cringed at and that ended up being more memorable than the real speech given by the Republican standard bearer? I mean, even Romney’s own campaign team didn’t try to achieve this level of willful obliviousness in their response to the events at the DNC on Wednesday.

(As an aside, one would think that any Post editor worth his or her salt would have removed or at least strongly suggested massaging this ridiculous assertion, but the fact that it still ran highlights another, apparently systemic problem with Rubin’s punditry. By my estimation, her columns get little to no editing before publication, as it’s not uncommon to encounter typos and grammatical mistakes alongside the usual Romney cheerleading and factual contortions. For example, here’s an exact quote from the post alluded to above, which features a “,;” punctuation heretofore unfamiliar to me: “If Michelle Obama was inclusive and positive,; these folks were negative, accusatory and predictable.” Then there’s this sentence from her very next post, which is clearly missing a preposition before the word entitlements: “The Obama record is so obviously at odds with that sentiment (unilateral action on immigration and on welfare and the refusal to make a deal entitlements or address the fiscal cliff) that Clinton’s argument seemed unserious.")

Now, to be fair, she does churn out posts at a prodigious clip, no doubt taxing the Post's diminished editing corps. As proof of her prolific nature, a mere half-hour after her “horror show” post, Rubin appears to have recognized the desert-island loneliness of her position and turned out another long column, this one damning Clinton with faint praise. His “long, long speech” was good, you see, only because everyone else was “atrocious,” and even then, the delegates “seemed to tire” of it, despite the energized Democrats I saw on the convention floor on my screen. And even though Clinton’s speech was roundly acknowledged afterward by those on the left and the right as being a substantive and bombast-free dismantling of GOP policies, Rubin couched it as being little more than “unserious,” “incoherent” schoolyard whining about “meanie Republicans.”

Then, to add insult to inquiry, Rubin kept on spinning, trying to outflank Obama by posing a rhetorical question about how he and the Democrats are intentionally overlooking an uncomfortable reality while in Charlotte:

Poverty? Not a word at the Democratic convention

Such a simple, textual claim would seem to invite a quick and easy numerical tally to support it. Alas, Rubin doesn’t bother with even what amounts to lifting two-pound barbells in terms of intellectual heft. If she’s talking about the featured speakers at each convention, though, she’s dead wrong. In fact, in Bill Clinton’s speech alone he referenced “poverty” or the “poor” as many times (10) as Marco Rubio (4), Mitt Romney (3), Ann Romney (1), Paul Ryan (1), Chris Christie (1), Mike Huckabee (0), Jeb Bush (0), and John Boehner (0) put together. Those hapless Democrats, they can’t even ignore poverty as well as Republicans, I guess, is the takeaway?

Of course, counting words is shallow analysis at best, so when Rubin fails at even that it's worth noting. And if you look at something more substantinal, like the respective party platforms, you’ll find her premise is even more flawed—with lip service about the issue in one, and actual discussion about the problem in the other.

The GOP’s party language, for instance, throws mere platitudes at a few token mentions of poverty. And rather than talk about solutions, the GOP's platform mostly uses the topic as an opportunity for some full-throated bashing of government programs like food stamps and Obamacare. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform actually spells out specific policy proposals for addressing poverty and its impact. But to Rubin, an explicit policy pledge by the president to, say, bolster the food stamp program gets haughtily dismissed simply because it runs afoul of her hardcore laissez-faire attitude. Like many in the extreme fringe of the Republican Party, she's adopted a rigid, intransigent mindset that views competing proposals not as contiguous points along a left-right policy spectrum—where a compromise solution can be found by meeting somewhere in the middle—but more like matter and anti-matter, the combination of which destroys both in a zero sum equation. It's a nihilistic philosophy that, in its tone, delegitimizes the very notion of dialogue:

“The Obama solution, if you can call it that, is to spend more on food stamps. Is a massive increase in government dependency the solution to poverty?” [my emphasis]

In the end, it seems to me a similarly structured question should be posed to the Post’s editorial leadership about Rubin’s punditry, if you can call it that, and Kessler's fact-checking as well. If they spend all of their energy, respectively, pushing obtuse judgments and parroting GOP talking points or parsing non sequiturs and ignoring basic facts, is the resulting diminution in the news organization’s reputation really the worth their poverty of intellectual honesty?

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

The Mail
Bernard Kirzner, M.D.
Los Angeles, CA
There is a massive distortion of logic in the way Republicans frame issues when they plea for 1st Ammendment right to equal time for all points of view. It's only fair to hear all sides to a dispute, they say. Progressives like Bill Maher are vicious so why blame Fox News?

But this does not mean that all arguments are of equal value. That's the part that journalists are missing, and society suffers for it.

School Boards repeatedly try to put creationism or Intelligent Design ideas into high school biology courses so that the kids can hear both sides and decide for themselves. See, they are mixing up equal time and equal right to speak and be heard, with the scientific value of the ideas presented.

You don't want Flat Earth ideas taught as equal to regular physics and geography.You don't want Earth centered physics to be taught along with the Earth going around the Sun physics, yet both can be stated with equal 1st Ammendment right to speak.

The same is done with Climate change when the overwhelming consensis is that it is so, and humans contribute to it. But we hear that Republicans have heard counter arguments that should be given equal time to be heard, never mind that they are incorrect theories and conclusions from the evidence. The poor value of the counter-arguements isn't being pointed out by our media, because they think that presenting both sides of the story they have done their job. They haven't.

Tom Linde
Hey Doc,
I suspect you may already be cooking up a column on the Dem platform "debacle" - ie. (No God, Jerusalem Capital tweaks) but I have a question for you, as a practicing Jew and American.

Why is it that we even have to include ANY reference to Israel in a party platform? Why does the question of the state of the Jews and Palestinians get raised to this level of discourse? I truly don't mean this to be a slight but it seems to me the influence of Israel on our political system is significantly out of proportion. Did the platform take a stand on Taiwanese nationalism?

Can you share your feelings on this? My fear is that even raising the question automatically labels me as pro-Palestinian at best and an anti-Semite at worst. I'm just trying to ask what seems like an obvious question.

Color me perplexed,

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

'Post Truth Politics,' Continued

My new “Think Again” column is called “Think Again: The Color of Hollywood Is Green.” It is a critique of a lazy an misguided argument about Hollywood’s liberalism by New York’s Jonathan Chait and it’s here.

Since I did not post last week, I need to note that last week’s “Think Again,” is called “Political Dysfunction Summer Reading” and it’s here.

My most recent Nation column is “Paul Ryan: The Man Who Wasn't There,” here.

There’s been a bunch of talk about “post-truth politics” in discussions of how the media should handle the lies of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and their surrogates and apologists, (like for instance CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and David Gergen). Perhaps it’s petty of yours truly to point this out, that while I don't know if I coined it or not, but I did use The Post-Truth Presidency as the title of the conclusion/chapter on the Bush administration in my 2004 book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (the first half of which was also my dissertation). John Dean gave the book a nice review in The Washington Monthly which used that term as the hed... Gary Hart’s crappy review in the New York Times Book Review used the same hed.

One of my obsessions in life is when journalists offer confidentiality to people who have no reason to need it. Howard Kurtz, who is increasingly a font of practices that should not be allowed in a first semester J-School class, writes “What America wants, a Hollywood insider familiar with the syndication market tells Kurtz, is a confidante, 'She’s got to come across as relevant to people who are sitting out there. They’re like girlfriends. Oprah was everybody’s girlfriend.'"

Just who was going to blow that guy away for his brave truth-telling had he given his name?

A few weeks ago a I mentioned a new series of Jazz “best-ofs” on Concord. They are not really “best ofs” which is a silly idea when it comes to jazz, but they do make convenient cds to keep around for dinner or drinks. I see the second round includes Monk, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Vin Guaraldi, Cannonball Adderly. More here, though you’ll have to search.

The newest old Dead release Dave’s Pick’s Vol. 3, is from the “Auditorium Theater”—a really stupid name for a beautiful place--in October 1971, which was right when Keith Godchaux jointed the band as Pigpen was almost done drinking himself to death. It’s a great setlist and the first two cds constitute the whole show, while the third disc culled from the previous night's show has yet another terrific Dark Star/St. Stephen going on with lots of songs in-between. It was recorded around the same time as the splendid Skull and Roses album and my guess is that it’s impossible not to like. Jerry is particularly good here, because he is just beginning to take over the band and working as hard as he ever did and my guess is, the absence of Pigpen, while sad, was a relief for all concerned.

Being the old man I am, I’ve also been spending some time with “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff,” a 3-DVD with lots of fond memories along with people you’d expect like Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Paul Simon, Carl Reiner and Johnny Cash. Bonus features include a new interview with Martin and a 24-page booklet with an essay by my friend Adam Gopnik. A little goes a long way so it will last you a long time, I’m guessing.

The Mail
Don Schneier
Northampton, MA

Having begun seeing the Grateful Dead in 1969, these days I often find myself have to correct revisionist history of the band.  Or, better yet, let Phil Lesh, himself, in his book, explain why the loss of Pig Pen was not a "relief".  So, I'll settle for pointing out that the recent addition of Godchaux significantly distinguished the October 1971 edition of the band from the April 1971 edition, the source of most of Skull and Roses. Furthermore, if there was a guitarist in the band who began to assert himself between 1970 and 1972, it was Weir, not the perpetually dominant, except for 1995, Garcia.  That said, now I can return to our more pressing problems.  D. S


Now here’s Reed, who is great, yet again, (disproving the adage that you get what you pay for…)


The Innocence Project: Media Bias Edition
by Reed Richardson

Up until quite recently, it was a well-established principle among jurisprudence experts that a getting a suspect’s confession was among the strongest types of proof one could obtain of an alleged criminal’s guilt. After all, how many people would knowingly admit to something that they didn’t actually do when the consequences might threaten their very survival? Well, it turns out the disturbingly real answer to that supposedly rhetorical question is quite a few. In fact, through 20 years of litigating cases, Yeshiva University’s Innocence Project has found that almost one out of four of its successful exonerations have involved people who falsely confessed to a crime that DNA evidence later conclusively proved they did not commit.

This troubling disconnect between what’s being professed and what’s actually provable doesn’t just plague our criminal justice system. It’s also symptomatic of a Washington press corps that willingly confesses to a professional transgression—liberal bias—when a closer examination of the facts says otherwise.

Why this is relevant became clear last week, when ABC News’ Jake Tapper echoed a favorite right-wing trope to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, that the “media helped tip the scale” for Obama in the 2008 election. This conversation and Tapper’s subsequent admission was no coincidence, however. It was a well-calculated ploy by Ingraham, prompted by a rather damning comment made by Time political reporter Mark Halperin a day earlier. On the NBC’s Today show, Halperin had doubted the public’s interest in the saga of Mitt Romney’s unreleased tax returns and suggested the story was only kept alive due to favoritism toward the president, saying the “media is very susceptible to doing what the Obama campaign wants.”

So, within the span of 24 hours, two prominent—and ostensibly objective—political reporters had publicly delegitimized Obama’s first presidential victory and planted the seeds for doing so again if he were to win reelection in 2012. (Halperin’s also wrong on the issue at hand, by the way, as several polls have shown the public does want them to be released.) Coupling these mea culpas with a recent Rasmussen poll that found 59 percent of public thinks the president’s been getting more favorable treatment from the press, the usual conservative suspects proclaimed the case against media’s liberal bias to be closed.

But there’s a whole lot more going on here besides the inherently partisan ammunition Tapper and Halperin handily provided to right-wing conspiracy theorists. First of all, it’s not entirely accurate of me to say the pair offered mea culpas because, notably, Tapper and Halperin never admit to bias themselves. This, you will find, is a common phenomenon among these instances of self-criticism and garment-rending by members of the Beltway media. (And Halperin, it should be noted, stands out as its most unctuous and egregious practitioner.) What they are actually doing is throwing the whole rest of Washington press corps under the bus, to preserve their own reputations. Just once I’d like to hear one of these “courageous” reporters or editors offer up concrete evidence of this bias from their own body of work. But strangely, it seems that this widespread liberal favoritism on the part of the media, which is allegedly infecting everyone else, never infiltrates those journalists who have the courage to point it out.

In effect, statements like those made by Tapper and Halperin amount to conflating confession and accusation. It’s akin to cutting a quick deal with the public—or, more accurately, the right-wing noise machine—to be a cooperating witness in an indictment of the press in general. But whether one is irrationally condemning oneself or conveniently calling out one’s professional peers, the true merit of these charges shouldn’t be judged by who makes them but by their veracity. Yet time after time, the same journalists who proclaim to follow strict codes of objectivity and adhere only to the facts in their daily workload willingly abandon both when it comes to claims about the own profession’s liberal bias.

Instead, what they offer up is a lot of anecdotes, generalizations, and gut feelings. For example, Halperin loudly complained of an “extreme pro-Obama” media bias during a post-election symposium at USC in 2008. His damning proof? Two competing profiles of the presidential candidate’s wives by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor late in the campaign cycle (here and here). The one on Cindy McCain, Halperin claims, was too harsh, while the one on Michelle Obama, was too soft. Taken in a vacuum, he might have a point about a single reporter’s views, but as a sweeping accusation against the profession, it’s ridiculously inadequate. What’s more, to trade in outrageous anecdotes would be a losing effort on his part, since I strain to remember a cable news anchor speculating about Cindy McCain’s “terrorist fist jab,” or a mainstream news organization posing questions to McCain about a rumored, but non-existent videotape purporting to show his wife repeatedly using a racial slur. What Halperin is relying upon here is the journalistic equivalent of circumstantial proof, the kind that often gets innocent men and women unfairly convicted in a courtroom.

In fact, the hindsight judgment of Halperin and Tapper and other liberal bias accusers is most definitely not 20/20 when you dig into real aggregated data of the 2008 campaign coverage. For instance, the early general election coverage of Obama on evening TV network news shows was noticeably more negative than that of McCain—72% vs. 57%, respectively—according to a contemporaneous study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Of course, when these findings didn’t jibe with the instincts of Fox News conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly, he labeled them as “misleading.” This despite his having championed a previous 2006 CMPA media study that found favorable press coverage for Democrats in the run-up to that year’s mid-term elections. When the evidence disputes the theory, dispute the evidence, I guess. 

Likewise, a comprehensive Project for Excellence in Journalism study during the final two months of the 2008 campaign found that the overall tone of media coverage for Obama was the picture of supposed objectivity, as positive, neutral, and negative stories were published in roughly equal amounts. Even more striking, the press’s even-handed coverage of Obama roughly mirrored that of none other than Sarah Palin. Surely, Obama couldn’t be simultaneously enjoying press favoritism when the tone of his coverage matched that of someone who prominent conservatives love to claim was unfairly persecuted by the elite media?

Personally, I don’t believe that press coverage should strive to rigidly enforced ratios of positive, negative, and neutral—that’s an editorial prescription for the same kind of false equivalence that turns individual articles into worthless, misinforming mush. So, I’m less disturbed by the fact that the PEJ study found the tenor of John McCain’s coverage eroded sharply over the final weeks of the ’08 campaign. The reason? Upon closer inspection, one finds a close correlation between the rise in negative McCain stories and his self-inflicted wounds, like the ungainly reaction to the financial meltdown, the awkward and brief suspension of his campaign, and his disastrous performance in the first debate with Obama. And lest you think this tilt was all just a plot among supposedly left-wing news outlets, consider that even Fox News was running nearly twice as many negative McCain stories as positive ones in the run-up to Election Day. To put it bluntly, that a candidate doesn’t get as much positive press coverage when they’re screwing up a lot isn’t bias, that’s reality.

Unfortunately, these same, damaging and unsubstantiated caricatures of widespread liberal bias have not relented during Obama’s first term. This notion that, in 2008, the press somehow didn’t properly report on the president has become so ingrained into conservative thinking over the past few years that even the Romney campaign has dabbled in language about how Obama “really hasn’t been vetted.” And it carries on as a bubbling undercurrent today.

That the Romney folks would exploit this meme isn’t surprising—it plays into the aggrieved resentment held by many die-hard members of their Republican base toward both the president and the press. It is nonetheless ironic, though, since a PEJ study of press coverage during the 2012 GOP primaries finds that Romney enjoyed the most favorable coverage of any presidential contender. Obama, meanwhile, spent this past winter and spring getting beat up in the press, never once experiencing a point in time where his positive coverage outweighed the negative. This pillorying is to be expected, though, as incumbent presidents running for reelection always cede many months of the political news hole to opposing party challengers, all of whom can be expected to say unflattering things about him. And Obama is no different. But if that’s evidence of liberal media bias, then the old adage that begins “with friends like these…” must apply.

The tale hasn’t changed much once the campaigns kicked into general election mode. Yes, the bloom certainly fell off the rose of Romney’s press coverage once his primary victory faded, but at the same time Obama’s hasn’t recovered. Indeed, to look at the PEJ’s master tracking of the campaign from May up through last week is to see both candidates locked into similarly ugly narratives. And the media’s role in shaping these narratives has shrunk noticeably as campaign ads have deluged the discourse.

Still, if you dig down into the media sector details the bias just isn’t there. Newspaper coverage of both candidates breaks down almost precisely the same way—two-thirds negative, one-third positive. Obama does enjoy an edge in network TV news coverage, but loses out on the 24-hour cable TV nets, as Fox News and CNN air more negative stories on the president—86% and 71%, respectively—than MSNBC and CNN run on Romney—89% and 62%, respectively. Try to build an intellectually honest argument for media bias out of these neck-and-neck numbers and it just won’t hold water.

That doesn’t stop some from trying, of course. A popular tactic right now is to assert that a kind of gaffe gap exists, and is dispositive evidence of the media’s bias toward the president. As a result, you get a contorted column that bemoans the press’s shallow obsession with this kind of campaign ephemera while it simultaneously labors to prove the “underreported” nature of these very same harmless misstatements by Obama. This kind of whinging shouldn’t be given the time of day, but the implicit stamp of approval it gets when Tapper and Halperin throw out their fact-free, faux outrage means that the media bias myths live another day.

But there’s a long-term price for this reckless self-sabotage of journalism. If the media itself accepts the fact that bias no longer needs to be proven but merely asserted, if our democracy comes to believe (as polls increasingly show is happening) that this mythical bias is simply a given, then the public’s trust in the profession will be irreparably harmed. Once defanged, the press will discover what it’s like when it can no longer effectively function as a champion of the truth—politicians will be free to brazenly campaign and govern based purely on dogma and ideology, without regard for facts at all.

Right here, right now, and especially after what we've seen the past few nights down in Tampa, the press is facing this frightening prospect. So, it must make a choice and make it quickly. Should the media continue to give in to a mistaken sense of professional guilt by avoiding controversy and seeking penance for partisan transgressions that it hasn’t really committed? Or should it be willing to stand firmly with the facts, whatever they are and whomever they afflict, and let the evidence ultimately prove it right?

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

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.


'Is That You, Baby?'

My new Think Again column is called “News Corp. Hacking Scandal Still Hiding in Plain Sight,” and it’s here.

It’s an attempt to call attention to the enormity of the Murdoch story, which is, in my opinion, is being insufficiently investigated.

While I was out of the country last week, my long and frightening (to me) investigation of the shape and scope a potential Romney presidency, published in The Nation, is here.

The choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate only emphasizes the importance of the policies discussed in the article since Ryan’s presence in the administration—and general belovedness in the MSM—imply that these things will actually happen in a hypothetical Romney presidency. They are not just “talk” to keep the crazies happy.

Before I left I was lucky enough to catch one of the two shows Jackson Browne did at the Beacon. It was a lovely show. Though billed as a solo acoustic show, it wasn’t, which was a good thing. Jackson’s band was sufficiently familiar with his catalogue to go long and deep. There were hits, sure but fans got to hear some of the stuff they ‘ve wanted to hear for decades—proverbial deep cuts from “Late for the Sky” and “For Everyman” and even “Saturate Before Using,” though, I think Jackson’s more recent work does not get the attention/respect it deserves, in particular, “The Naked Ride Home.” It would have been nearly impossible not to leave the hall in a great mood, I imagine, and if you can’t see Jackson, the solo acoustic albums and David Lindley double live cds will help. Read all about ‘em here.

I am still making my way through Roxy Music’s ten-CD Complete Studio Recordings 1972 – 1982. It’s really a beautiful thing. Each album is perfectly reproduced and sonically improved. The box itself is a real nice compact size and Roxy Music is pretty much a perfect band for this treatment because while they did have plenty of hits, their beast stuff was actually buried beneath. There are eight studio albums plus two discs of bonus tracks. containing tracks previously unavailable on CD. Roxyites will be pleased to learn that the cds were created from the original analogue master tapes (not the 1999 remasters). Bryan Ferry’s career has taken many twists and turns but it’s hard to argue that he ever surpassed the music in this lovely box set. (Its official release date is not until August 28, by the way.)

I used to be a big Kevin Smith booster. I even loved his lousy early movies and his good ones. I thought he deserved comparison to Eric Rohmer—as a kind of bad-taste American stonger-analogue to tasteful French culture. So I’ve watched with dismay and a small sense of betrayal to see how horribly his career has gone. His last straight-to-video horror movie was both unwatchable and inexplicable. And the smug, self-satisfied shows put on in this new dvd called “Jay & Silent Bob Get Old:Tea Bagging In The UK,” are mostly just depressing. It will be a while before I can enjoy Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2, after spending twenty minutes with this horror show.

Columbia Legacy has also released a bunch of Johnny Cash collections to celebrate what would have been the man’s 80th birthday, number one hits, duets, gospel, etc, and a cd/dvd tribute concert package, called “We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash. The concert, which took place at the Moody Theater in Austin, TX., has Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, and a bunch of other people, with a crack band Don Was, Buddy Miller, Kenny Aronoff, Ian McLagen and Greg Leisz in it and a beautiful rehearsal track in the extras of Willie Nelson singing “I Still Miss Someone.”

Now here’s Reed.


Brilliant Disguise
by Reed Richardson

If I were a wonk, I’d be offended. To think that someone like Paul Ryan could be so frequently identified as one of us would be galling. But for a largely innumerate press corps, that often confuses simple mathematical concepts like percentage and percentage point and commonly bungles how our progressive tax bracket functions, it’s perhaps no surprise that throwing a bunch of charts and graphs into a few Powerpoint presentations can get yourself labeled things like “smart,” “honest,” “serious,” and “courageous” by the Beltway media movers and shakers.

But, as any real wonk could tell you, the devil is in the details, and Ryan’s details are routinely bedeviled by reality. So, just for the sake of the press, I’ve compiled an updated list of all the people who have publicly questioned the brilliance, honesty, seriousness, and/or courage of Paul Ryan’s policy proposals. (I stand on the shoulders of this blog’s proprietor, who detailed Ryan’s chimerical thinking a year and a half ago.)

-Analysts at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office

-Analysts at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center

-Analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

-Analysts at the Citizens for Tax Justice

-Analysts at the Economic Policy Institute

-U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

-Catholic “Nuns on the Bus”

-David Stockman, former budget director, Reagan White House

-Peter Orszag, former budget director, Obama White House

-Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, New York Times columnist (multiple times)

-Mark Zandi, economist at Moody’s Analytics, adviser to both McCain presidential campaign and Obama administration

-Mark Thoma, professor of economics at the University of Oregon

-The Economist’s American Politics column

-Ron Paul, 2012 Republican presidential candidate

-Newt Gingrich, 2012 Republican presidential candidate, former GOP Speaker of the House,

-John Boehner, current GOP Speaker of the House

-Donald Trump, erstwhile Republican presidential candidate, stopped clock

-Republican political insiders

-Majority of the American people

-And, yes, Paul Ryan himself

As you can see, it is neither a short list, nor, I suspect, a final one. And yes, there are some on the above list who now embrace the policies they once dismissed. But perhaps what’s most noteworthy about Ryan’s intellectual and policy critics is that they compose a strikingly broad bipartisan coalition, the likes of which should have the objective, centrist-loving media rapt with joy. Finally, one would think, the press has found an issue to champion that most of us on both the left and the right can agree on—Paul Ryan’s math just doesn’t add up and his budget can't do what he says it does.

And yet, despite this multi-count indictment of Ryan’s not-so-rigorous thinking, the political press still regards him as legitimate expert in cold, hard numbers instead of someone whose policies amount to little more than magically adding up 2 + 2 to get 5 for rich folks and zero (or less) for the rest of us. Instead, a few dozen extreme Republican members of Congress and a small coterie of conservative pundits have convinced most of the media to agree with them that Ryan is a “fiscal analyst par excellence.”

The press’s standard for excellence clearly ain’t what it used to be, apparently. For example, on Wednesday, in his newly minted role as GOP vice presidential candidate, Ryan falsely accused Obama of “raiding Medicare” to the tune of more than $700 billion (these “cuts” are, in fact, reductions in future spending that won’t affect beneficiaries) even though, as House Republican, Ryan twice included in his own budget this very same proposal. This policy reversal, of course, further undermines Ryan’s phony claims of being a “fiscal conservative,” since abandoning these Medicare savings, coupled with the massive tax cuts proposed elsewhere in his 2013 budget, would blow another huge hole in the deficit. The political press’s reaction to this flagrant pandering? Yawn.

That Ryan’s most recent policy adversary is himself might be seem ironic, but is really not all that shocking. In fact, to read this New Yorker profile of Ryan is to see that his political career involves numerous tradeoffs of his supposed intellectual consistency and wonkish policy principles in favor of ideological expediency and political power. (His votes in favor of large, unfunded Republican programs like Medicare Part D and TARP, for example, ring particularly hollow for a die-hard “deficit hawk.”) As an early architect of a plan to privatize Social Security in 2005, Ryan’s aggressive posture was deemed too radical even for George W. Bush. Chastened by the experience, Ryan floated a slightly less radical version in his 2010 budget. Likewise, his original 2008 “Roadmap,” which attracted only a handful of co-sponsors in the House, has undergone several iterations to make its demolition of Medicare more politically palatable, even if it’s mostly just fiddling around the margins. That’s why, after another version of his Medicare voucher plan crashed and burned last year, Ryan was desperate to find any kind of Democratic cover for the next go round. That even Ryan’s liberal partner in that effort, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, subsequently voted against and is now rapidly backpedaling away from Ryan’s Medicare provisions is telling.

Indeed, Paul Ryan’s 13-year career in Washington—the legislative successes of which are paltry, to say the least—is, in many ways, symbolic of the modern Republican Party. He, like his party, refuses to subjugate dogma to logic and is willing to forego responsible governing for political posturing. That’s why, though the peripheral details of Ryan's budgets may have changed over time, the radical conservative core of the policy goals contained therein still remain disconnected from fiscal reality. Combine this fiscal intransigence with a thoroughly rock-ribbed stance on social policies and you have the very definition of an ideologue. And ideologues, as the leading lights in Washington’s media constellation agree, are anathema to our democracy. Yet for too long this same press corps has allowed glowing adjectives to disguise the real Paul Ryan, to the point where he's now ascended to the Republican presidential ticket. Let's hope before November arrives, the media and public figure out the truth—Ryan can talk the talk, but he can’t wonk the wonk.

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

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.


Forgive Those Who Press Pass Against Us?

Reed here, Eric’s away on vacation this week, enjoying the warm Mediterranean sun, I’m told. But go read his long Nation article on what America might expect out of a “President Romney.” I warn you, however, that afterwards you might need a stiff drink, or another kind of diversion. 

As such, here’s my favorite, probably overlooked, performance of these London Olympic Games so far. Yes, golden girl Abby Wambach can work the refs with the best of them and, sorry my friends from north of the border, but yes, your keeper had it coming. (Let’s just hope Wambach doesn’t start using these keen powers of persuasion for nefarious purposes, like being a political spokesperson, since it seems a certain campaign might be in the market for a new one quite soon.)

Now here’s, well, me.

Forgive Those Who Press Pass Against Us?
by Reed Richardson

Recently, the folks at the Poynter Institute have been debating editorial strategies for protecting against journalism malpractice, in general, and, more specifically, identifying dangerous habits in young, promising writers before they snowball into career-wrecking episodes. Episodes similar to what we’ve seen (and, I suspect, will continue to see) with the rapid downfall of wunderkind Jonah Lehrer.

Their discussion, however, has been mostly focused on the journalistic equivalent of mortal sins—plagiarism, fabrication, lying, egregious quote doctoring, and so forth. But as Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark argues, a news organization shouldn’t bother training new reporters to avoid this kind of flagrantly unprofessional behavior, it should simply expect it, and then police them to make sure. And save for those extremely rare instances such as Lehrer, Jayson Blair, or Stephen Glass, they do. That’s why I’m more curious about the media’s more venial sins—those smaller, daily transgressions and subconscious bad habits that, while they don’t violate any laws or professional ethics codes, can still exact a reputational cost on the press over time. And there is perhaps no better crucible to observe some of these journalistic peccadilloes in action than the highly charged atmosphere of a political campaign.

So, I’m starting a kind of occasional, ongoing series to identify, document, and classify these sins as I run across them. As I am but one man, I welcome outside input, so feel free to send in the best (worst) examples you might find as well.

The betrayal of “false balance”

It was with piqued interest that I read this New York Times piece from Tuesday. In it, none other than President Obama eloquently sounds off on what he perceives as the biggest failings of the political press.

“Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a ‘false balance,’ in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.”

If I may say, it’s about damn time these faults were acknowledged by the president. Sadly, for far too much of his first term, he ignored the first while falling victim to the second in his legislative efforts. As I wrote in this space in December 2010, Obama’s continued willingness to play against his own party as well as the Republicans threatened to leave him vulnerable come reelection time, which, of course, he now is.

“I do know that that wavering resolve and hectoring, a-pox-on-both-houses language ominously left open a lot of doors to compromise down the road. To a future where [Obama’s] speeches, press conferences, and ultimately, campaign stops will have to present half a loaf, a slice or even a few crumbs as the best way, given the circumstances, to satiate the American people, while acknowledging that it actually satisfied no one. Seeking out an intellectually denuded center, whether it’s in pursuit of some falsely contrived sense of objectivity or a quixotic attempt at postpartisanship, is a prescription for more than just poor journalism or a difficult reelection campaign, it’s potentially a recipe for disaster for our democracy.”

So Obama, having finally learned these lessons, has come around. The press, as exemplified in that very same Times story still doesn’t get it, though. For example, here’s the passage that directly follows the earlier description of Obama’s media analysis:

“Mr. Obama’s assessments overlap with common critiques from academics and journalism pundits, but when coming from a sitting president the appraisal is hardly objective, the experts say.

“‘I think we’ve learned through history to beware of presidents playing press critic,’ said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. ‘They’re not press critics—they’re people trying to advance a political agenda.’”

So, here the Times reporter dutifully notes that some experts side with Obama while others disagree, but the public never really hears the merits of his argument either way. (And the subtext here is striking: Obama’s position is tut-tutted as “hardly objective,” and, thus, to experts like Rosenstiel, is easily dismissed as inherently flawed. In other words, one cannot be trusted to both have a point of view and be right at the same time.) This exchange presents an almost laughable meta-moment—in a discussion about the political media’s penchant for enforcing balance at the expense of context, we witness the political media enforce balance at the expense of context.

Who might have a valid point about the media’s habitual behavior? What might be the consequences for the public? Who knows? But at least the reader can keep score of who’s on which side. If that sounds all too familiar, then you have been paying attention to the coverage of political Washington these past few years. Then, to further illustrate the point that making qualitative judgments about sources is often sacrificed on the altar of expediency and a snappy quote from the other side of the ideological fence, the Times reporter has the gall to innocently quote a critique of Obama’s press strategy from the chief executive of Newsmax. (For more on the ignominious history of conservative propaganda mill and birther-friendly website Newsmax, go here.)

To be fair, the article does later cite some specific examples of Obama’s disappointment over the falsely balanced coverage of the stimulus and healthcare debates. But, again, there’s no effort on the part of the author to refute or substantiate his assertions. (Even though there’s ample evidence of the latter.) And while there are a couple of more voices supporting Obama’s point included at the end of the piece, they are predictably couched within a volley of intellectual rebuttals.

Why does this matter? Well, as Eric’s piece up top demonstrates, the consequences of this presidential election, to stoop to a cliché, might be the biggest of our/my lifetime. Yet, a political press corps handicapped by the mistaken impression that fair coverage must necessarily be equal coverage will be hard pressed to live up to its civic duty. This is especially true if one campaign boldly decides to dispense with pleasantries like intellectual honesty, proof, and substance and merely run on hyperbole, innuendo, and secrecy. Or, as NYU’s Jay Rosen observed: “If Mitt Romney were running a ‘post-truth’ campaign, would the political press report it?”

Prompted by this recent and fairly typical post at the Washington Post’s “The Fix” column, the answer Rosen arrives at isn’t one we should want to hear. Indeed, the Post’s conclusion that the Romney campaign’s naked distortion of Obama’s words will still “work” as a political tactic is to almost get the sense that it presupposes the absence of an independent press corps altogether. Then, when the Post author weakly laments: “The problem is the gray area is just too gray,” one can see just how deeply a learned helplessness has gripped our nation’s “objective” news organizations. But perhaps the most damning indictment of how media misdemeanors like false balance can eventually add up to a capital betrayal of the public trust is found in the column’s final paragraphs:

“Romney may be attacked in the days ahead for running an out-of-context campaign, and some objective reporters might even say it has gone too far.

 “But the fact is that these two comments further clarify a picture (or caricature, depending on where you stand) of Obama that’s already out there. And plenty of — nay, almost all — people who don’t dissect this stuff as much as we do are going to take the pulled quotes at face value.

 “Is it warm and fuzzy? No. Does it work? Yes. And that’s why they do it.”

In other words, context is dead, the press corps is chronically ill, and, more and more, our democracy ain’t looking so good either.

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

Not-so Patriotic Gore

My new Think Again: Thoughts on Milton Friedman and Gore Vidal.

Believe it or not, I watched “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” this morning on Blu-ray as I typed this. It’s a perfect movie to watch if you’re my age and you are hardly paying attention, and the most perfect role my friend Janeane Garofalo ever had, given who she is and what she thinks. (Though I watched "Jimmy Plays Berkeley" to get the sugar out of my system, afterward.) I got it because the studio released a bunch of "anniversary editions" on Blu-ray, but the one I really wanted, I didn’t get, which was "High Fidelity". They also released “Gross Pointe Blank” which is also pretty great, together with “Adventures in Babysitting" and "The Preacher’s Wife” which you will have to judge for yourselves.

My friends at Concord put out four single “best of” CDs by Miles, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Chet Baker. I find it hard to believe that anyone cool enough to be reading me here needs an introduction—except perhaps to Wes, but if you do, you can get ‘em now, cheap. Legacy also has a new collection called I Am An Elvis Fan, a 21-song collection of Elvis songs voted on by fans in May 2012 via a campaign hosted at www.iamanelvisfan.com. Same deal.

Now here's Reed.

August and Everything After
by Reed Richardson

It was in the fall of 2004 that I found myself taking the F train uptown toward Central Park to meet Gore Vidal. I was an intern at the Nation and had been assigned by its editor, Victor Navasky, to conduct research for a speech Vidal was to give on the frightening sequel to the Patriot Act being debated at the time. Vidal had already been corresponding with me via phone from his home in Rafello, Italy, and during those few calls, two things had struck me. First, Vidal was not someone who deferred to others’ expertise on the American national security state, since most of his documentary requests of me involved compiling what he himself had already said and written elsewhere on the topic. The second, more quotidian, and rather poignant detail was that he was a man who loved his cats, since an unmistakable feline mewling—emanating from what, based on the volume, sounded like a perch on Vidal’s lap—often drowned out his voice and made our phone conversations difficult.

Upon arriving at the Ritz-Carlton, another Nation employee and I were met by Navasky who escorted us up to Vidal’s room. There was an unspoken air of anxiety accompanying us on the elevator ride up I recall, what I imagine going to have an audience with the Pope must be like. Strangers don’t just walk into a room alone to meet his eminence, in other words. With his old friend among our party, though, Vidal seemed in good spirits, although it was much more apparent in person that he was well into his lion-in-winter phase. So much so that the meeting, which was supposed to be a work session for us to prepare for his speech, turned out to be something of a hash because he just wanted to sit around and bullshit rather than talk about something as depressing as George Bush’s next assault on due process and the Fourth Amendment. In fact, we had barely sat down when he launched into a well-delivered joke about a Texan and his wife on their honeymoon (a geographical variation of this old saw). One emptied champagne flute of his later, the three of us were politely bidding Vidal adieu. Leaving with me were all the research files I had brought. The speech, like the specific legislation it targeted, never came to pass. But as we learned recently, the abuses of executive power he would have warned against still continue today.

Vidal’s passing also brought to mind his role in Tim Robbins’ masterful 1992 political satire “Bob Roberts.” In it, Vidal’s unforgettably named character, Brickley Paiste, a wizened liberal Senator from Pennsylvania, played the foil to the movie’s namesake. (Here’s the scene where the pair face off in a debate.) Played by Robbins, Bob Roberts is an unctuous conservative political candidate with a background in financial speculation whose superficial campaign platform amounts to little more than gossamer threads of laissez-faire capitalist platitudes and gimcrack right-wing populism set to music.

As is apparent, the similarities between the fictional Roberts from two decades ago and the real Republican presidential candidate of 2012 are uncanny, their vastly different abilities to carry a tune notwithstanding. Indeed, Romney could pass for a 20-year-older version of the generically handsome, perfectly-coiffed Roberts, as if the FBI had mocked up the former by digitally aging a photograph of the latter. (“Let’s add some gray hair around the temples, too.”) Likewise, Roberts’ railing against “wasteful social programs,” pleas to “cut taxes,” and promise to “bring the values of the common man to Washington” could be seamlessly inserted into Romney’s stump speech today and no one would be the wiser.

Whether this represents intellectual consistency or ossification on the part of conservatives is debatable. But it’s worth noting that the movie doesn’t let liberals off the hook so easily either. Robbins, who both wrote and directed, and Vidal combined to create a flawed left-wing character in Paiste as well. The moment in the debate where the bow tie-clad Paiste creakily abjures attacking Roberts, who circulated a scurrilous sexual rumor about him, comes across as more frustratingly naïve rather than principled. And though his ideological impulses and policy prescriptions are commendable, Paiste’s quaint notion that “image doesn’t matter” comes across as hopelessly out of step with the modern realities of what it takes to exercise and retain political power.

The Obama camp’s aggressive campaign posture this election cycle seems intent on not making this same mistake of unilateral disarmament, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the political press. But in an environment where the Beltway media is increasingly derelict in its duty (and overwhelmingly disliked), it falls to the campaigns to stake out the broader distinctions between the candidates.

Consider, for example, this scene from “Bob Roberts,” where the Robbins’ composure is momentarily ruffled when confronted backstage at a campaign event by an independent journalist, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who has pointed questions about shady financial dealings in his past. Throughout the long, tracking shot, Roberts and his minions make a searies of wrong turns while the candidate tries desperately to avoid answering any of the specific charges leveled at him. Notably, one tactic involves turning on the reporter with a short admonition about violating “objectivity.”

Now compare that admittedly fictitious episode with this sad, real-life video of journalists from the our country’s foremost media organizations ineffectually yelling out questions like “What about your gaffes?” to Romney as he glides by them unperturbed. Granted, it’s a 30-second snapshot of the campaign trail. And I’ll allow that Romney is now kept in a hermetically sealed polyurethane bubble between stump speeches, so the New York Times,Politico, and CNN reporters heard here don’t have the proximity, and thus, the time, to ask more engaging, policy questions. But still, it’s a window into the sorry, small-minded state of current journalistic thinking.

Still, the upshot of this video was that gaffes beget gaffes, as an idiotic adviser from the Romney campaign actually ginned up sympathy for the media in this case by cursing them out. Never mind that no real news was made, the press got what they needed—one more daystory about Romney’s PR disaster of a foreign trip, which everyone agreed it was. Well, almost everyone.

Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal crowed in a column that (paywall req.), in Romney’s oft-criticized response to a question about Britain’s Olympic preparedness, “he neglected to think about politics and diplomacy.” Since Romney just happens to be running for the most importantpolitical and diplomatic job in the world, her logic, I admit, escapes me. But then again maybe it explains a lot about the conservative worldview right now. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post’s resident Romney consigliere, Jennifer Rubin, actually said of the debacle: “Romney, frankly, has been at his best.” To be fair, this might yet be proven true.

Nevertheless, the media’s fascination with gaffes isn’t healthy for it or us. It encourages a vicious cycle of coverage that ignores substantive issues and merely mimics real debate. Consequently, it becomes that much easier for the press to play tit-for-tat with regard to these ephemeral diversions. That the scrutiny over Romney’s statements abroad, unfair in Republicans’ eyes, followed hard on the heels of that party’s unabashed manufacturing of a gaffe (with Fox News playing willing accomplice) out of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” line, was no accident. You live by the gaffe, you die by the gaffe.

This week, the political press was handed a big, fat storyline that could change its course, however. According to a Tax Policy Center analysis, Romney’s draconian tax plan presents a drastically different vision from the one the President champions and the Senate passed last week. Still stuck in snarky gaffe mode, the Romney team tried to laugh off as “biased” and a “joke” the Center’s politically deadly conclusion that their plan would raise taxes on everyone but the very wealthy, whose burden would notably drop. If anything, what’s laughable is how far the analysts bent over backward to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, yet his plan still ended up being little more than a time machine trip back to policies of the Gilded Age. But will the media bite on this blatant attempt by Romney to wriggle out of the policy corner he’s backed himself into and let him manipulate their fears of violating “objectivity” by pointing out the facts?

I suspect I know what Vidal’s answer to this question would be. His cynicism of the both our nation’s press corps as well as its political discourse is well documented. But he’s no longer with us and won’t be burdened with what happens in November, since he famously believed, after death: “There is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”

The rest of us, however, have three more months of this presidential campaign left to endure. Is it really too much to stop the pedantic rhetorical scorekeeping and instead focus on the very real choice America faces this fall? Do the members of our not-so-esteemed political press corps, come next year, really want to risk looking back on yet another momentous story with regret and remorse? I can already hear Vidal’s four favorite words ringing in their ears: “I told you so.”

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

The Mail:
Joe Mielenhausen
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Hey Reed,

Just wanted to say thanks for the great review you posted through Eric Alterman today. Having worked at the Boston University School of Law for the past two years while finishing up my undergraduate degree, I can say that Ken Feinberg is extremely well respected in academia—if only in the Northeast. Your continuation of the point in his epilogue is really one of the more powerful things I've read recently, Keep up the good work and let me know if you need any contacts at BU Law (Cornelius Hurley is a great source for banking and housing policy and is an unabashed lefty like you and me).

Thanks again,


Reed replies: Joe’s onto something here, and I say that not just because Prof. Hurley hails from my alma mater. Just last week, Hurley was writing about a clever idea for breaking up the big banks without government intrusion.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Cover Me

My new Think Again column is called “Bad News About the News” and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “Let's Just Say It: The Republicans AND the Media Are the Problem” and it’s here.

I did a list of my favorite Springsteen covers for David Remnick to accompany his 17,000 (or so) word Bruce profile and that’s here. I did it kinda fast, so I forgot to suggest these two gems. And also the wonderful acoustic “I Don’t Want to Go Home” he did with Steve in Jersey in 1996, here.

Not everything got included. Here are the ones for which there was no room, or good audio or whatever, I dunno, but I also strongly recommend:

Back in the USA ,The Main Point, 1975
High School Confidential, MSG, 1978
It’s My Life Passaic, 1978
Heartbreak Hotel, Roxy, 1978
I Fought the Law, Palladium, 1978
Follow That Dream, Stockholm, 1981
Drift Away, Meadowlands, 1984
Across the Borderline (Christic Institute, LA) 1990
I Don't Wanna Go Home with Little Steven, Count Basie Theater, 1996

And in retrospect:
Angel Eyes from that Sinatra tribute
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with U2 at U2s Hall of Fame Induction
And any version of “Up on the Roof” and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”


And you know, if you watch the Bruce/McCartney video on backstreets, you get pretty much all of Twist and Shout. I didn’t realize that the song was pretty much over when the Live Nation guy killed the sound. Anyway, Im pleased with the song choice. I think “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist” are two of the most pristine, nearly perfect examples of what a rock song is, say for martians, that have ever been written or performed. Having Paul and Bruce pick those was right on (though I know Paul’s been doing that all over, still.) And if you want my other three nominations for this category I’d go with: Double Shot of My Baby’s Love, Do Ya Love Me, and the Beatles’ version of “Money.”

Oh, and I see new dates have dropped here (I think I’m goin’ to Kansas City…)


Columbia has been putting out a nice, relatively inexpensive series of “complete” box sets with reproductive covers and decent notes, especially for the price. The three most recent in the jazz series include Weather Report’s early, pre Jaco work. Weather Report: The Columbia Albums 1971-1975, contains Weather Report, I Sing the Body Electric, Live In Tokyo, Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveller and Tale Spinnin' with remastered sound plus Live In Tokyo, which was previously unreleased, except as part of I Sing the Body Electric and features the band at its best, in 1972.

The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums is a goldmine, bringing together Monk's Dream (1962), Criss Cross (1962), It's Monk's Time (1964), Monk (1964), Straight, No Chaser (1966) and Underground (1967). This was arguably Monk’s most fertile and creative period, and really, if you don’t have these albums, you should. Nice photos, too.

Charles Mingus: The Complete Columbia and RCA Albums Collection is a more demanding collection but intensely rewarding as well. Stretching from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the 10-CD set includes Tijuana Moods (1957) (now 2 CDs); Mingus Ah Um (1959), Mingus Dynasty (1959), Alternate Takes (1959), Let My Children Hear Music (1971) and the double disc, Charles Mingus And Friends In Concert (1972). The addition of Epitaph (1989), which captures an all-star ensemble led by Gunther Schuller interpreting Mingus's epic composition, rounds it out. The booklet features photos from the various recording sessions as well as liner notes by Sue Mingus, Charles's wife and keeper of his flame. An education in and of itself.

And our pal Harry Shearer has a new cd called “Can’t Take a Hint,” and being such a great guy and so he got Dr. John, Nicholas Payton, and the Fountains of Wayne and a bunch of other people too. Harry plays the bass on many of the songs. It’s the only album this year that has a song from the point of view of a BP executive who wants his life back after the oil spill. More here.

Now here’s Reed.

Who Gets What?
by Reed Richardson

As far as marketing strategies goes, naming one’s book Who Gets What bespeaks a rather insightful understanding of the American condition. We, as a nation, have long suffered from a love that dare not mention its salary, so to speak. “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, and that was roughly 150 years before the first collateralized debt obligation ever appeared.

Near the end of the introduction to his new book, Who Gets What: Fair Compensation after Tragedy and Financial Upheaval (PublicAffairs, $26.99), mediator Kenneth Feinberg cites a line from Democracy in America as well. But his chosen quote from de Tocqueville seeks to make the point that our country’s fondness for cold, hard cash even extends into our court system, where it has always been the preferred form of judicial redress. Righting wrongs here in America is a mostly a matter of leveling out account balances. And when it comes to putting an exact dollar figure on an individual’s tragic circumstances, one could argue that Feinberg, best known for his role as the special master overseeing the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, knows more about this unfortunate process than anyone else. There is a reason, in other words, that his book’s title is not posed as a question.

Nevertheless, Feinberg makes it clear he is no cold-eyed, green-shade-wearing automaton. In fact, he comes across as a fairly dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Of his youth growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, he says he was a devoted JFK fan and gained an appreciation for good citizenship, the collective goodwill, and a “notion of communitarian reinforcement and obligation.” Thus, by page two of his book, he has already lost the 27 percent of the country who will read those comments as tantamount to someone foreswearing the free market and insidiously humming the “Internationale” during the national anthem. Then, on page three, Feinberg no doubt makes matters worse when he speaks of “socializing in Greenwich Village” during his years attending law school at NYU.

Perhaps his strongest liberal credentials can be traced back to an interesting historical anecdote from his days working in the federal government. In it, he explains how the current Supreme Court might be much different had he not convinced his former boss, Senator Ted Kennedy, to go along with an idea of his in the last weeks of 1980. Only days after Reagan had trounced Carter at the polls, Kennedy suggested that 68-year-old Archibald Cox of Watergate fame fill a vacancy on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in the hopes that the lame-duck Congress would approve a bipartisan choice. Carter shot down the name, however. Seizing the opportunity, Feinberg says he convinced Kennedy to nominate a Senate staff colleague of his instead—the then chief counsel of the Judiciary Committee, a 42-year-old jurist by the name of Stephen Breyer.

After this brief biographical business of name-dropping, however, the book’s narrative engine takes over, driven by Feinberg’s five separate stints—organized in five separate chapters—as special master during his career. Whether it be the Agent Orange lawsuit settlement, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, whenever national calamity has struck, it seems Feinberg has been called in to sort out the aftermath and, inevitably, cut the checks.

Though the book’s emphasis remains firmly rooted in the specific, sometimes arcane, details of each case, as a whole, it nonetheless functions as an interesting prism through which to view what kind of lives and livelihoods our democracy sees fit to value. Due to their unique circumstances, each of these payout funds Feinberg has commanded should be considered sui generis, yet a common thread to their existence can be detected: Only those disasters created by the hand of man are deemed worthy of extra-judicial reward. Thus, Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina don’t enjoy additional payback, while Gulf Coast victims of BP’s negligence do.

Feinberg’s last two examples—which cover his tenure running the TARP executive compensation board and the BP Gulf Coast claims fund—provide the most compelling parts of the book, by far. This is mostly because of the grand scale involved and their ongoing relevance. (A successor to Feinberg continues to set executive pay at TARP recipients AIG, GM, Chrysler, and Ally, and a subsequent, court-managed fund still pays claims to Gulf Coast residents affected by the BP oil spill.) Still, it’s worth a brief aside to point out the sad poignancy, at this particular moment, of his work on a much smaller in scale man-made disaster—the mass shooting at Virginia Tech five years ago.

Indeed, to read Feinberg’s short chapter on running the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund is to be frustrated at the shocking sameness that incident shares with last week’s gun-driven massacre in an Aurora, Colorado theater. Then, as now, compassionate donations poured in after the fact through a variety of platforms. (For a list of those supporting the victims of the Aurora shooting, go here.) And Feinberg’s decision to distribute this money in equal amounts to victims and/or their families was a masterstroke, one that served to unite rather than divide the community and facilitated healing. Yet what he leaves unsaid is the failure of the policymakers to address the root cause of these types of tragedies and to prevent adding yet one more place name to the tragic roll call of places like Columbine and Virginia Tech, a list to which Aurora will sadly now be added.

The gun lobby will, shamefully, survive this latest outrage, as the political willpower to staunch these self-inflicted wounds simply doesn't exist. Likewise, this hunker-down-until-it-all-blows-over mentality colored the Wall Street mentality Feinberg encountered when he took over the TARP executive compensation board. Even as the nation's financial structures teetered on the brink of collapse due to rampant negligence, many of the people who had been a big part of creating the problem wanted to be paid as if, J. Pierrepont Finch-style, they thought they could still do no wrong.As a result, Feinberg explains how the seven biggest TARP-funded companies that fell under his purview “spent millions of dollars” to justify their executives’ exorbitant pay to the Treasury’s overseers. This whining from the boardroom, he notes, concluded in thinly veiled threats—give us what we want or we might just leave for the competition, either here in the U.S. or abroad. One quickly gets the sense that, if there was a market that traded on these executives' sense of honor and patriotism, one could make a lot of money selling short.

I discovered that contrary to public perception, compensation meant much more to a senior corporate official than mere material gain. Although not minimizing the benefits of wealth—a second home at the beach, a second (or third) automobile in the driveway, private schools for the children—most corporate executives who came to see me emphasized that adequate compensation was a symbol of self-worth. Compensation mirrored individual fulfillment, that without generous pay, company officials would view themselves as failures. Individual success could be determined only be comparing oneself to the competition, and dollars paid would be the deciding factor. By comparison, family, friendship, and community respect paled in significance.

This peek into a world 99 percent of us will never experience is perhaps the most powerful lesson of Feinberg's book. It reveals how our society's values have been radically skewed to greatly reward those who take excessive risks in creating impenetrable 'vehicles' that have almost no intrinsic societal value. Just how steeply the scales are tilted toward the rich is hard to fathom. In fact, a recent "Building a Better America" study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that when showed two anonymized national breakdowns of 'who gets what,' 92% of Americans (which, presumably, includes a whole lot of 'free market conservatives') preferred the actual distribution of wealth that exists in Sweden rather than the lopsided one here in the U.S.

That this broad, almost unheard of level of bipartisan agreement on a political issue doesn't generate more news coverage is, of course, unfortunate yet old news. Case in point, the overwhelming stilted and sneering tone of most of the journalism covering the recent Occupy movement. And given enough time, the well-funded forces of excess count on a fickle public, an easliy distracted press corps, and an overweening punditocracy from dwelling too long on such a substantial, but often unsexy topic. And despite coming down firmly on the side capitalism and the free market in his book, Feinberg's time dealing with corporate America has clearly opened his eyes and taught him a lesson that we all should heed:

In past times of public anger over financial industry excesses, Wall Street has played a waiting game, lying low until the political storm subsides. History is on Wall Street’s side, at least when it comes to government fine-tuning of corporate internal decision-making. Add to this the government deregulation philosophy that followed in the wake of the Reagan administration, and it is easy to see why American businesses are emboldened when it comes to pay. To most on Wall Street, the seven companies had only themselves to blame forTreasury’s interference. They assumed that such interference would never, ever apply to them. And they’re almost certainly right.

Though the "they" at hand in the passage above is more narrowly defined, the larger point can and should be taken. Perhaps, then, it is no great mystery why Feinberg entitles the epilogue of his book "A Sense of Entiltement." Seen as a microcosm of our nation's larger and ongoing discussion about wealth, his book underlines the dichotomy of our democracy: A tiny portion of it currently enjoys almost uninterrupted access to power and freedom from accountability, yet when those of us who don't find ourselves (increasingly, because of who are parents are) in this moneyed class finally do get some sort of recompense—only after having suffered horrendous tragedy, I might add—it is ironic that the latter get all the scrutiny and opprobrium for "getting something for nothing." So maybe the point here is that it's time to stop thinking about "Who gets what" in our democracy as mere statement, something that merely is and cannot be changed. Instead, it's time start talking about how our nation’s wealth should be distributed and to put the question mark back on the end of “Who gets what?”

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

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

The Low Spark of Well-Heeled Boys

My new Think Again column is called “Our Broken Political System,” and it’s really about what a much better country Canada is than this one. You can find it here.

I didn’t go see any live music this week, sorry. And I don’t have a time machine, but if I did, one of the things I would use it for, after killing Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and teaching the old Jews in Florida how to use their voting machines, would be go to the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago on November 22nd, 1981 at the Muddy Watters show when Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Ian Stewart showed up together with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and an unfortunately soused Lefty Dizz, who eventually gets pushed off the stage, belatedly I might add. Still, it’s all pretty cool and new you can see it on DVD and listen to it later on cd, that is if you buy the package which you can find here.

You can also watch the dvd (or bluray, in my case) and listen to the cd of Jimi Hendrix and a reformed Band Of Gypsys at the Berkeley theater in 1970.  The show drove a lot of people crazy and it’s kind of a mess but I’m told it’s a big improvement, aurally, over previous editions of the same show. I’d use my time machine for this too, but it would not be that high on my list. More here.

Now here’s Reed.

The Low Spark of Well-Heeled Boys: How Citizens United Undermines the Press and Democracy
by Reed Richardson

Democracies as large as ours routinely suffer from an electoral paradox—voters know the least about those elections where they can have the most impact. We tend to care more about who’s running for president rather than city council or state legislator, in other words, even though the latter often has a more significant impact on our day-to-day lives than the former. How low-information voters make their choice on election day (providing they vote at all), then, can provide valuable insight as to how to make our democracy more engaged and vibrant.

This past week, David Schleicher, an electoral law professor at George Mason University, makes the argument in an Atlantic essay that many voters now rely upon national-level political cues to inform their votes in local races. The common piece of ballot box shorthand, of course, is a political party label. This is not exactly a revelation. Twenty-five years ago, a House back-bencher by the name of Newt Gingrich was utilizing his political action committee, GOPAC, to sell thousands of cassette tapes to budding GOP candidates, training them how to parrot national-party talking points in winning local races.

One consequence of this trend, Schleicher says, is that campaigns are frequently uncompetitive at the local and state level. What’s more, he points out that these electoral outcomes have become divorced from actual in-office performance of local politicians and instead ride upon the larger electoral tides at work in Washington, D.C.

“The implications of the mismatch problem are dramatic, as it leaves very little space for local accountability or representation…State legislatures are the workhorses of policy-making in this country, producing our contract and tort law, marriage policy, much of our criminal law, and lots more. But the content and effects of that policy don't have much effect on state elections.”

Schleicher offers up some interesting recommendations to counter this low-information environment, but they all suffer from being fairly narrow, structural changes. What he notably, and frustratingly, leaves out of his analysis is any discussion of the broader, two-fold dynamic that is really exacerbating this problem right now—a frightening diminution of local media coupled with a simultaneous explosion of outside political spending.

Thanks to seemingly endless cycles of corporate mergers and acquisitions as well as the ongoing staff and publishing cutbacks they inevitably produce, local news organizations across the country now find themselves in a vicious cycle of trying to do more and more with less and less. Often, statehouse bureaus are among those on the chopping block. Sure, independent state political blogs and local online media hubs have sprung up to fill the void, but they too suffer from a lack of sufficient resources. And though the press has increasingly become inured of the importance of local and state politics, well-heeled conservatives have recognized their “workhorse” nature, as Schleicher calls it, and increasingly stepped into the information breech come election time.  

Weak though they may have been, the McCain-Feingold campaign reform measures passed 10 years ago had at least set a legal, if not philosophical, precedent that more money in politics isn’t something our democracy should encourage. The 2010 Citizens United ruling, however, ripped that idea apart and set it afire using hundred-dollar bills. Still, Matt Bai in this week’s New York Times Magazine tries to tell us that the conventional wisdom about the real effect of Citizens United upon our democracy is “at best, overly simplistic. And in many respects, it’s just plain wrong.” To prove his point, he cites statistics that show outside campaign spending hasn’t risen as fast between 2008 and 2012 as it did between 2004 and 2008. And there’s no doubt that, as he explains, there is a law of diminishing returns at play in presidential campaigns—what the Romney campaign will get out of spending its last $100 million this fall is probably very little in extra votes.

Still, three-quarters of the way into Bai’s article, we come across this passage:

“It’s worth asking just how much an advantage all of this outside money actually confers. The greatest impact of this year’s imbalance in outside money will be felt on the state level, where a lot of House seats and control of the Senate hang in the balance, and where a sharp gust of advertising can often blow the results in one direction or another. But a presidential campaign is different, focusing as it does on a dozen or so pivotal states and a limited number of advertising markets. There’s probably a limit to how many 30-second spots all of these groups can cram onto cable stations during late-night showings of ‘Turner & Hooch.’”   

Did you catch that? Right there in the second sentence, he rockets past a critically important point, but then never brings it up again. Essentially, he stumbles over the fact that his article, its myopic gaze firmly fixed on the presidential race, has spent almost all of its intellectual energy examining the least important example of Citizens United’s long-term impact upon our democracy. In other words, when it comes to winning the White House, one can likely find enough rich liberals (like, say, Lucius Fox) and like-minded progressive advocacy groups to make the funding race competitive, but when it comes to planting our nation’s electoral seed corn, as it were, just one sufficiently generous right-winger really can sway local or state elections.

It’s already underway in every corner of this country. But for a prime example, look no further than North Carolina, a state whose political agenda is quickly being overwhelmed by one rich conservative, Art Pope. Over the past few election cycles, Pope and his family have engaged in something of an electoral onslaught, funneling millions of ad dollars through outside political advocacy groups to elect rock-ribbed, anti-government conservatives. These groups, though ostensibly independent, are little more than cat’s paws for Pope’s extreme, right-wing agenda, since they depend upon his largesse for nearly all of their funding. And as the most recent midterm elections frighteningly demonstrated, Pope’s dumping of six or seven figures into key state legislature races resulted in nothing less than an electoral coup:

“Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focussed his spending, were routed.”

In fact, the same New Yorker story finds a local Democratic political consultant from the state saying that the local Republican Party has basically become a wholly owned subsidiary of Pope. “The Republican agenda in North Carolina is really Art Pope’s agenda. He sets it, he funds it, and he directs the efforts to achieve it. The candidates are just fronting for him. There are so many people in North Carolina beholden to Art Pope—it undermines the democratic process.”

This doesn’t mean Pope is content to just dabble in state-level politics, of course. State legislatures, after all, draw Congressional districts and, by all accounts, the new Republican majorities have done right by their Capitol Hill GOP kin. (Schleicher recently authored another, interesting study that recommended including media organizations in the calculus when drawing Congressional districts.)

In addition, one of Pope’s shadow organizations, Civitas Action, which, throughout its history has received 97 percent of its funding from Pope, frequently commissions in-state polls on federal elections. Their results, to no great shock, frequently lean to the right, feeding a narrative in the press that Republican candidates’ enjoy greater support than in reality. As the internals of this recent Romney-Obama poll strongly suggest, the methodology Civitas sometimes uses to get these numbers involves some ridiculous, even dishonest assumptions. For example, the notion that Romney could be beating Obama by 29 points among Hispanics when the latter is leading the former by 50 points in another recent poll of 13 battleground states, which includes North Carolina.

When confronted in the New Yorker piece, Pope trots out the same humble shtick that colored the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling: He just wants to participate in our democracy and, echoing Schleicher’s lament above, assist voters, is that so wrong?

“Pope sees himself as a reformer. The money that he spends on politics, he said, strengthens American democracy, by providing voters with more information and more choices: “Most of the efforts that I or my company have supported have been to get the message out on the issues, so that voters can make an informed choice.’”

Pope’s actual ads, you’ll no doubt be shocked, shocked to learn, commonly traffic in ugly stereotypes, gratuitous spin, and outright lies. Absent a strong public corrective, either from a similarly well-funded opponent’s own advertising or a robust, assertive press willing to document and then take apart the distortions, this kind of ruthless messaging serves to corrode the discourse. What’s more, it chills future political participation on the part of the right-wing’s ideological opponents. After all, what challenger would want to subject him or herself to a seven-figure character assassination just to run against a conservative political benefactor’s chosen candidate?

But it’s not just budding politicos and the public that suffers. Local media organizations can find themselves increasingly threatened by all this outside political spending as well. The risk, in fact, is two-fold.

On one hand, an influx of millions of dollars of campaign advertising can provide a much-needed windfall for newspapers and local TV stations struggling with slashed budgets. And indeed, many media organizations in the battleground states are enjoying a banner year right now. But as campaign advertising begins to account for more and more of local TV station’s revenue, the age-old temptation to shade editorial content or enforce a contrived "balance" in coverage to avoid turning off that lucrative ad spigot grows. Consider this—If Art Pope calls a local TV station owner in Raleigh or newspaper publisher in Greensboro to complain about a news story and warns he might pull all of his ads unless his hand-picked candidate gets treated more “fairly,” what do you think would happen next? Would Pope be told to go pound sand or would that station owner next pick up the phone and call the news director for a conversation about “objectivity?”

At the same time, news organizations should recognize that all this ad money also represents something of a poisoned chalice. There’s a reason political ad buyers pay top dollar to run their messaging adjacent to news broadcasts. Voters who tune in during these times are psychologically primed to accept new information. But with local news providing less and less actual political news, the repetitive, right-wing messaging viewers are subjected to during the commercial breaks can begin to serve as a de facto substitute. Rather than counter-programming the news, what Citizens United has done is open the door to a tidal wave of campaign advertising that can easily supplant the news for low-information voters.

In the end, to bemoan the fact that Citizens United has transformed the presidential campaign from a $500-million endeavor to a roughly $1-billion one is to miss the point. The ruling’s real, damaging legacy is being felt elsewhere, down at local races that are not only increasingly nationalized but monetized as well and in local newsrooms that can’t or won’t keep up with the distorted information flooding their communities. But before long, ideas and principles won’t have any significant role at all in our electoral politics. Instead, we’ll have arrived at a point where the only currency that matters in our democracy’s marketplace of ideas is, well, currency itself.

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

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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