Media, politics and culture.
A man fills out an information card during an Affordable Care Act outreach event. (Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn)
Update: A second poll, this time from CBS, confirms findings in CNN poll.
One of the many disgraceful aspects of the media coverage of Obamacare—and criticism of the ACA, and the Tea Party claims in general—is the rote depiction of the new law as “very unpopular” or “opposed by most Americans according to polls” because it goes too far. Most people are said to be happy with the healthcare system as is, and so on. In other words, repeating the GOP line.
Now, those who have supported the law have long claimed that the simple bottom line poll numbers are misleading. Yes, those numbers generally show that, say, 51 percent don’t like the ACA and only 44 percent approve. Yet, as we know (but many in the media fail to recognize, even beyond Fox News), a lot of Democrats and liberals are unhappy, wisely, because the law doesn’t go far enough, or that President Obama didn’t fight for the public option or single-payer or Medicare for all. So how many of them are included in that bottom line number who “oppose” the ACA—but from the left?
Polls have indicated there’s a fair number but now there’s a new one today that CNN actually took the trouble—at the end of its online report, true—to break out. And, lo and behold, it turns out that fully 12 percent of those opposed feel the law doesn’t so far enough.
So, as they note, that means that instead of just over 50 percent being against the law because it goes too far—the impression most in the media have left—at least 53 percent actually back the law or believe it should be expanded. And the poll was taken at the worst possible time—amidst the current widespread complaints about the roll-out of the ACA sign-up provisions.
The other numbers in the poll bear out support for the ACA, as they show that the shutdown has inspired growing unpopularity for the GOP and John Boehner (even among Republicans), but Obama’s standing has remained the same:
This is the first time since the Republicans won back control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections that a majority say their control of the chamber is bad for the country.
Meanwhile, an expert on the ACA has fact-checked a Sean Hannity segment last Friday and exposes the misinformation there—and also suggests, sadly, that many Fox viewers who could save thousands of dollars each year, and gain coverage for pre-existing condition and for their children by embracing Obamacare, probably will not. That’s the true evil of Fox propaganda.
George Zornick picks through Ted Cruz’s lies about Obamacare.
Defense attorney Joseph DiBenedetto, appearing on the Fox News program Shepard Smith Reporting, questions the testimony of a Maryville, Missouri, teen who claims she was raped last year. (Courtesy of Fox News)
For several days, following a bombshell article in The Kansas City Star, the national media—with CNN this time in the forefront—have offered generally sympathethic coverage of the two teenage victims in the Maryville, Missouri, rape case (see my earlier posts and previous Nation piece).
The KC Star piece and activism centered on social media have produced, out of nowhere, a welcome result: The local prosecutor, who had dropped the charges, reversed course in a matter of days and now joins the state’s lieutenant governor in calling for a special prosecutor.
Now the girl at the center of the case, Dasiy Coleman, who was 14 when the sexual assaults took place last year, has penned her own harrowing first-person account of the night in question and brutal aftermath. I’ll get to that below, but first, a sobering reminder of the issues at play: A defense attorney named Joseph DiBenedetto appeared on Fox News yesterday and essentially blamed the two girls, claiming they were virtually asking for it when they joined the two older boys and let them ply them with alcohol.
He even uttered this classic line about Daisy Coleman (who he thinks may be lying about the night): “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped,” indicating that even he knew that viewers might recognize that actually this was what he might be saying between the lines.
“She is leaving her home at 1 am in the morning and nobody forced her to drink.… what did she expect to happen at 1 am after sneaking out?” he asked. Then she probably “took the easy way out” and claimed to her mom that she’d been raped.
The attorney’s claim that “this case is going nowhere” has already been proven wrong.
Shep Smith, to his credit (after for some reason giving this clown four minutes of face time), did respond, in closing, “What you’ve done, Joseph, is taken an alleged victim of rape and turned her into a liar and a crime committer.”
Now to Daisy Coleman’s moving piece today. Read the whole thing here. It goes through the night of the assault, and the sad destruction of her life afterward, including two suicide attempts and much “cutting.”
Days seemed to drag on as I watched my brother get bullied and my mom lose her job. Ultimately our house burned to the ground. I couldn’t go out in public, let alone school. I sat alone in my room, most days, pondering the worth of my life. I quit praying because if God were real, why would he do this? I was suspended from the cheerleading squad and people told me that I was ‘asking for it’ and would ‘get what was coming.’
She does in the end hail her four brothers for not acting like typical young males—as they stand behind girls, and do not “prey” on them.
Jessica Valenti parses the issues stirred up by the Maryville and Steubenville rape cases.
A helicopter flies over Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad. (Reuters/Stringer)
I first reported this at my blog a couple of days ago and feared it would disappear without a trace. But now it’s been covered by everyone from MSNBC to Stars and Stripes, so perhaps its impact will linger.
Remember, around 2006, when a couple of studies (including one published by prestigious Lancet) found that up to 600,000 Iraqis died in the years after the US invasion? The studies were derided, even mocked, by most in the Bush administration, the mainstraim media and expert commentators. The critics pointed to more reputable exacting counts of those known to be killed in the conflict, often right down to their names, which placed the number at “only” about 100,000.
When WikiLeaks released its Iraq War Logs, the documented deaths shot up another 10,000 or so.
Now it turns out the early studies might have been a bit inflated for that time frame, but close to correct for the entire conflict. What the studies perhaps got wrong was not so much the number of fatalities but the cause—almost half we now learn were related to the war but not directly caused by the weapons of war. But still: just under half a million died in any case—that is, they were “excess deaths,” above the number of Iraqis who would have died in the normal scheme of things for that period, which stretches past the time frame of the earlier estimates. So, sadly, my book on the media and the war, So Wrong for So Long, had it right when I questioned those who insisted the death toll reached 100,000 at the very most.
NBC reported this on Tuesday:
About a half million Iraqi people died during the eight-year war in that country, and among those casualties roughly four in 10 perished due to Iraq’s decimated infrastructure—from crippled health-care and power systems to interruptions in water and food supplies, according to a study released Tuesday.
US researchers hired Iraqi physicians to go door-to-door at randomly selected homes in 100 Iraqi neighborhoods to ask families what members died between 2003 and 2011 and how they lost their lives, the report states. Among non-violent deaths tied to the war, the most common cause was heart attacks or cardiovascular conditions, followed by infant or childhood deaths other than injuries, chronic illnesses and cancer.
Here’s a later Los Angeles Times report, as published by Stars and Stripes:
The study’s release follows several controversial and widely varying estimates of Iraq war deaths. It is the first analysis published since 2006, the bloodiest period of the war.
Lead author Amy Hagopian, an associate professor of global health at the University of Washington, said the analysis was limited by a lack of accurate health and census reporting in Iraq. However, she said, it was a duty of public health officials to assess the effects of war.
“It’s a politically loaded topic,” Hagopian said. “Everyone’s against polio and wants to eradicate it, but it’s different with war.”
According to Hagopian and her colleagues, at least 60 percent of the excess deaths were the result of violence. The rest were linked to so-called secondary causes.
“War causes a huge amount of chaos, disruption and havoc,” Hagopian said. “Some deaths are direct, but there are also deaths that result from destroyed infrastructure, increased stress, inability to get medical care, poor water, poor access to food. … These are all reasons why people die.”
Of those deaths determined to be the result of direct violence, the study attributed 35 percent to coalition forces, 32 percent to sectarian militias and 11 percent to criminals. Contrary to public perception of mayhem in Iraq, bombings accounted for just 12 percent of violent deaths. The overall majority of violent deaths, 63 percent, were the result of gunfire.
The Nation presents a special report on America’s Afghan victims.
(AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Wednesday Updates: Pierre Omidyar just out with his own statement. Among other things: "I developed an interest in supporting independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible, all in support of the public interest. And, I want to find ways to convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens. I think there’s more that can be done in this space, and I’m eager to explore the possibilities."
Jay Rosen just interviewed Omidyar, his longest chat so far.
At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.
Earlier: Glenn Greenwald, in this case, had to deal with a hot news leak himself. News about him leaving The Guardian, apparently on okay terms, got out late yesteday afernoon before he had a chance to decide how he would describe the new media venture he is helping to launch. What this means about the future of further Edward Snowden/NSA stories was unclear. Buzzfeed reported it first:
Greenwald declined to comment on the precise scale of the new venture or on its budget, but he said it would be “a very well-funded… very substantial new media outlet.” He said the source of funding will be public when the venture is officially announced.
“My role, aside from reporting and writing for it, is to create the entire journalism unit from the ground up by recruiting the journalists and editors who share the same journalistic ethos and shaping the whole thing—but especially the political journalism part—in the image of the journalism I respect most,” he said.
Greenwald will continue to live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he said, and would bring some staff to Rio, but the new organization’s main hubs will be New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
But who was the moneyman behind the new venture? A short while later Reuters was the first to report this scoop on the man behind the offer: “Glenn Greenwald, who has made headlines around the world with his reporting on U.S. electronic surveillance programs, is leaving the Guardian newspaper to join a new media venture funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, according to people familiar with the matter.”
The Washington Post claims the new outlet is seeking to hire Laura Poitras (the filmmaker and writer who was a key part of the Snowden bombshells) and Jeremy Scahill. Those two have not commented.
More from the Post:
Omidyar, who grew up in the Washington area, founded eBay in 1995 and became a billionaire two years later with its initial public stock offering. Forbes estimated that his net worth was $8.5 billion in September.
He has been involved in funding journalism projects before, including Backfence, a defunct network of “hyper-local” news sites in the Washington area...
Greenwald, 46, who left Salon for The Guardian last year, offered this statement to Buzzfeed:
My partnership with the Guardian has been extremely fruitful and fulfilling. I have high regard for the editors and journalists with whom I worked and am incredibly proud of what we achieved. The decision to leave was not an easy one, but I was presented with a once-in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity that no journalist could possibly decline.
And Erik Wemple at his media blog at the Post adds:
The new media organization, said Greenwald, will be a general-interest proposition, including coverage of sports and entertainment. Greenwald told BuzzFeed that his role would be to build the “entire journalism unit,” particularly the part that bears on political coverage. It will be online in time to publish NSA-related stories that stem from the documents he received from Edward Snowden. He would not hazard a guess on the launch date.
Should the outlet seek headquarters outside the legal reach of the US? Greenwald said it was “an important question.”
Rick Perlstein discusses Greenwald’s sizable fanbase.
Protesters affiliated with Anonymous protest outside a state courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, earlier this year. (AP/Michael McElwain)
A case likened to the infamous episode in Steubenville—but in many ways worse (all charges were dropped)—sparked national publicity, then widespread qeb activism and hackery, after a full account was published by the Kansas City Star on Sunday. The tactics of the protesters are sure to inspire debate.
As promised, Anonymous is already at work. Hacktivists took down the county website last night and #OpMaryville was announced via statement at PasteBin. After others called for action to re-open the case, via Reddit and elsewhere, the Facebook account of the accused perp was IDed, then taken down, as were those of friends. The Los Angeles Times this morning provided an update.
A local rally to re-open the case is planned for October 22. Anonymous has released a video. They claim the girl, Daisy Coleman, backs their efforts. (Her family has allowed her name, and photos, to be published, hoping it will help reopen the case.)
I don’t know if it’s accurate, but after a Maryville restaurant was IDed as either owned by the alleged perp’s family or the place of employment of him or the second boy (take your pick), people started posting nasty or darkly humorous “reviews” of the eatery at Yelp.
Prosecutors in recent days claim the Coleman family refused to cooperate fully and this allegedly torpedoed their case. For more updates.
Read the full Kansas City Star account and earlier local radio piece. But in a nutshell it is truly disturbing, while fitting a pattern in many ways. A young girl, after drinking some alcohol, gets mixed up with an older (football) player, trusts him as she is given much more to drink, and then gets sexually assaulted (or, in his view, has consensual sex). In this case, she gets dumped on her doorstep in the middle of the night for two hours, passed out, in twenty-two-degree temperatures. An iPhone that likely captured some of this on video is passed around, and the kid who shot it also faces charges.
Townfolk side with the football player, who is related to a top GOP state rep. The girl’s mom, a veterinarian, gets fired from her job. All charges are dropped, unlike in Steubenville, even though authorities believe they had a strong case. The boy is well-connected, the girl is not. (Oh, and on the same night, a friend of the victim, a girl, 13, had sex with a boy, 15, who ended up in juvenile court.) The family moves out of town; then their house in Maryville, which they still own, burns down for some reason. The girl, who had been a cheerleader and beauty queen and got mainly A’s in school, allegedly tries to commit suicide twice.
I’ll update as day goes on. And we’ll also judge responses to the social media/hacker tactics.
Jessica Valenti dissects the Steubenville case and rape culture.
Screen from Wadjda (Courtesy of Koch Media)
Just saw a movie you might have heard about, Wadjda, the first by a female director/writer in Saudi Arabia, and it’s great—and not just for its cultural, political, historical element, or its amazing and brave feminist theme for that country. The writing, directing, acting and cinematography are all terrific.
I happened to see it at a nearby art house, but it also showed last week at the local mall—so look for it in your area. Here’s one review. It has a rare 100 percent favorable rating from critics as assembled by Rotten Tomatoes.
You may have seen the director, Haifaa al-Mansour, on The Daily Show last month, talking about needing to shoot some of the street scenes while giving directions from a van, as she would not have been allowed to do that in the open. The film itself is a humanist, feminist gem mainly about a young girl’s attempt to buy and ride a bike (very frowned on for females there). That part of the story is quirky and often humorous, although also quite revealing.
But Wadjda also focuses on her mom’s losing her husband to a second wife (partly because she cannot provide him a son). Another problem for mom: Since she’s not allowed to drive, she needs to rely on an abusive driver for a long commute. A friend urges that she join her in working at a local hospital, but she says her husband would never allow her to work where other men would look at her.
And a final miracle—the Saudis have picked it as their entry for the Foreign Language Academy Award. Even though, last I checked, it was not allowed to be shown widely in their country. Apparently pride in its accomplishment for the national cinema outweighs the controversy over its social criticism, as least in the Oscar derby. It surely deserves a nomination. Trailer:
Note: When I posted a brief tribute to the movie at my blog, one commenter offered this view:
Well, It is a step forward, but re-considering the matter, we have to admit that the director Haifa is not “the usual Saudi woman”. She is unveiled, married to an American diplomat, lives in Bahrain (within the security of US embassy where her husband works) and not in Saudi Arabia. Yet, this is great. I have always said that Saudi Arabia will be liberated by its women. Looking forward to see what will happen on 25 Oct. when some brave Saudi women will challenge the car driving taboo.
Katha Pollitt writes about the imprisonment of prominent female Saudi human rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider earlier this year.
Joe Scarborough. (AP/MSNBC, Virginia Sherwood)
I’ve had plenty of issues with PolitiFact over the years, but fact-checking news stories is certainly a worthy endeavor. Now those folks, and their related Poynter Institute, just announced they will soon launch PunditFact, covering print and web columnists, TV hosts and guests and other opinionistas.
Surely this is one of the all-time greatest challenges, especially since most commentators claim they are just offering opinions, and can play fast and very loose with the facts. The New York Times didn’t even correct their columnists (or ask them to do it) until recent years. Ombuds and public editors only handle a tiny number of cases.
From the announcement:
“Pundits on TV and radio, as well as bloggers and columnists, are prominent voices in our political discourse, yet sometimes they blur the lines between opinion and fact,” said Neil Brown, editor and vice president of the Times. “Now we will hold them accountable, much as we’ve done with politicians.”
“Creating broad and nuanced media coverage of complex social issues is all the more difficult when the facts are often disregarded or ignored,” said Jonathan Barzilay, director of the Freedom of Expression Unit at the Ford Foundation. “PunditFact is poised to play a critical part in reaffirming the role of facts in our civic dialogue.”
Now that’s all well and good, but one would need an battalion or brigade of fact-checkers to tackle a fair share of the opinion-mongering out there. Hell, they may have to launch a FoxWatch just for that outlet (but they won’t).
So how will they decide what to probe? One suspects they may, in most cases, do fair-minded and effective work on individual cases—but go out of their way to balance their choices, left and right. Even if, say, the right is far less reality-based than left.
Nevertheless, right-wingers freaking out over this on Twitter, as you can imagine.
Perhaps PunditFact's first case could be Joe Scarborough claiming this week that an unnamed New York Times public editor told him, years ago, that Paul Krugman's column caused more headaches ("the biggest nightmare") in this area than anything. Should be easy to check. Right-wingers won't like the result. Scarborough already has had to admit that he lied when he said he was told this "after" his televised debate with Krugman not long ago—when actually it happened years ago. Pants on fire.
This part of the PunditFact does sound somewhat promising:
PunditFact will be an edition of PolitiFact that will invoke the look and feel of the national site. Each fact-check will be part of a pundit’s report card, so readers can see whether his or her ratings skew to the True or False end of the scale. PunditFact will publish analyses of its findings—the patterns of the falsehoods, the most popular talking points and stories about how they originated. The website also will tally ratings by news organization and will publish periodic report cards.
“PunditFact will be about accountability, not sanctimony,” Brown said. “We think consumers of political information will welcome our independent and credible reporting.”
Reed Richardson discusses the follies of fact-checking.
A white defender prepares to strike Speedy Cannon, number 21. (Courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)
In the wake of last night’s important PBS Frontline on concussions and the NFL (and a cover-up), here’s a quite different angle on helmet-to-helmet hits: a remarkable Sports Illustrated feature on the death of Speedy Cannon, a star black running back in Alabama back in early 1970s, when racism was even stronger there than it is today.
Cannon, who went to a racially mixed high school and served as junior class president, died a few hours after being brutally struck, when he was on the ground and out of bounds, with the helmet of a white rival, IDed in the piece only as “Number 70,” who played for a team with exactly one black player. Was it an accident? Murder? Credible reports cite the “nigger” chants in the crowd that night, the Confederate flags, the cheers for the brutal hit. Rumors, not confirmed, had the coach instructing players to deliberately injure Cannon.
The site even presents a clip of the fatal play. You can watch it in slow motion. There can be little doubt that the hit was not a mistake. And remarkably, the writer, Thomas Lake, tracks down the kid, now a man (age 56) who launched himself like a missile at Cannon’s head, and his coach, among others. Stil, the mystery remains.
See if you agree with the writer’s conclusion. I don’t want to give it away, but let’s say I think he cops out just a bit. It’s possible for a perp to not be an out-and-out racist but still deliberately try to hurt someone, especially in a highly racialized context. Lake may also lean too heavily on a theory that Cannon must have suffered concussions earlier that year from hard tackling. Perhaps it’s really “just” about football (again, see the Frontline report), and not Alabama racism. But read it and watch the play and comment below, please.
Dave Zirin takes down the NFL concussion deal.
Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes introduces the episode “Disability, USA.” (CBS).
George Zornick at The Nation yesterday wrote a strong critique of Sunday night’s 60 Minutes hatchet job on the alleged massive fraud in our Social Security disability system and claims that the system is about to run out of money. Senator Tom Coburn, with a radical pro-austerity bias, was the star—citing his own “investigation” and his “common sense” about the “scalawags”—so one’s antennae must be raised. Amazingly, the 60 Minutes report comes fast on the heels of a similar, and much-derided, NPR report.
Here’s an excerpt from Zornick, who mocks the evidence-by-anecdote focus:
The report by Steve Kroft made big promises, purporting to reveal a “secret welfare system” with its own “disability industrial complex,” and an out-of-control bureaucracy “ravaged by waste and fraud.” He also said SSDI might be “the first government benefits program to run out of money.” But when it came time to deliver, Kroft didn’t have the goods….
In other words, SSDI is a very strict program that denies far more people than it accepts, and needs a modest congressional fix to stay at full solvency. An interesting issue, for certain—but nothing like the benefit-sucking dystopia portrayed by 60 Minutes.
Love the hard reporting about people going shopping after receiving their checks every month. Imagine that! And experts (envious or resentful neighbors) testify to the fact that few of the recipients are actually disabled—I guess because they can still drive their cars to a strip mall and stand in line with others.
Meanwhile, the report barely mentioned perhaps the most salient fact: the steep increase in the number of people in the program is mainly attributable to the aging of the enormous baby-boomer population and the vast number of women who have joined the work force in recent decades—not to mention the continuing high number of long-term unemployed.
Economist Dean Baker slams the program here: “Disability is a large program. That means there will be some fraud. This is not news, except perhaps at CBS. Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is that the 60 Minutes crew seem to think they are being tough for going after people on disability.”
And more criticism of the program from national disability groups has emerged.
Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities—a coalition of approximately 100 national disability organizations—told Media Matters[…]:
The recent 60 Minutes broadcast is just the latest in an array of sensational and misleading media reports that have perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the Social Security disability programs and the people they help. These media reports do a tremendous disservice to viewers as well as to people with disabilities. Any misuse of these vital programs is unacceptable; however it is unfortunate and disappointing when media reports mislead their viewers by painting entire programs with the brush of one or a few bad apples, without putting them in the context of the millions of individuals who receive benefits appropriately, and for whom they are a vital lifeline—as well as the many disability advocates around the country who work hard to protect the rights of individuals with significant disabilities and serious illnesses who have been wrongly denied Social Security disability benefits.
Just this past April, more than 100 organizations signed a letter criticizing the NPR American Life report as “unfit” for public radio and riddled with errors. The producers claimed to stand by their report but also “clarified” several claims they had made.
Knowing 60 Minutes was “probing” this issue, reps from twenty-three organizations had written a letter of concern to CBS before the segment was even aired. Part of it:
An array of recent media coverage of the Social Security disability programs…has painted a misleading and sharply inaccurate picture of these important programs, which serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with significant disabilities and illnesses. In so doing, [media have] done a tremendous disservice to readers, listeners and viewers, as well as to people with disabilities….
Media coverage has real consequences. Policy by anecdote has in the past led to significant and needless harm to Social Security disability beneficiaries. The wellbeing and economic security of millions of people with disabilities and their families—for whom Social Security disability benefits are nothing short of a lifeline—hang in the balance.
Here’s the 60 Minutes site with the complete segment and extras.
More from Dean Baker:
There were any number of experts who could have been interviewed on this topic to counterbalance the views of a far-right senator who is best known as a denier of global warming (Tom Coburn). But Sixty Minutes apparently could not be bothered to present a more balanced picture of the disability program.
The basic fact, which may be painful for CBS News and Sixty Minutes, is that it is not easy to get on Social Security disability. Close to three quarters of applicants are turned down initially and even after appeal, 60 percent of applicants are denied benefits.
George Zornick critiques the 60 Minutes episode.
Leonard Bernstein. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Allan Warren.)
As some may know, I have a special obsession with Beethoven. My last piece here explored longtime Nation contributor Edward Said’s co-founding (with Daniel Barenboim) of the unique and valuable West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of musicians, mainly young, from nearly all Arab lands, Israel and Iran. Now here’s a piece that I wrote with Kerry Candaele. It’s partly drawn from the book we’ve written, Journeys With Beethoven, which in turn is based partly on his new documentary, Folllowing the Ninth, which screens at Lincoln Center in New York on October 29 and then begins a run at the Quad in the Village on November 1.
On a personal note: my daughter, her husband and young son are moving from Nantes to Berlin in a few weeks.
* * *
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may be the most popular and influential musical creation around the world, but it has a special place in the life of the New York Philharmonic. Four years after it was formed, the orchestra gave the opus its American premiere in 1846, to help raise funds for a permanent concert hall. The Philharmonic this week completes a cycle of performing the Ninth for five nights at Lincoln Center, but the high point of its history with the symphony took place twenty-four years ago this December.
After the Berlin Wall started to come down in November of 1989, Leonard Bernstein traveled to Germany to twice conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral shout out to the world to find our common humanity across all borders, Alle Menschen werden Bruder (“All men will be brothers”). Portions of the filmed concerts appear in Following The Ninth as well as the celebration in the streets as the wall fell, and interviews with a young East Berlin woman who joined in.
When Bernstein traveled to Berlin he was 72 years old, and in failing health. In ten months he would die of cancer. “Lenny” was a magnetic and enthusiastic advocate for the belief that music could transform lives and in the process transform the world in some small way.
His first concert in Berlin was timed to end at midnight on December 23, when the border dividing the two Berlins would be fully open for the first time in twenty-eight years. Then Bernstein conducted the Ninth at East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus on Christmas morning, with an orchestra that included members from the Dresden Statteskapelle and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as from orchestras from the four countries that technically still occupied Berlin—the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestra of the Kirov Theater, Leningrad. The chorus was made up of singers from both sides of Germany.
While more than a thousand gathered in the hall, hundreds more stood in the square in front to watch the performance on a giant television monitor. On the live TV broadcast, Bernstein declared, “I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life.” Indeed, the concerts were historic, as Bernstein wrote to a friend: “I’ll be reworking Friedrich Schiller’s text of the ‘Ode To Joy’and substituting the word Freiheit (Freedom) for Freude (Joy) Because when the chorus sings Alle Menschen werden Bruder, it will make more sense with Freiheit won’t it?”
The concert was broadcast live to twenty countries, to over 100 million people, with a popular recording to follow, Ode to Freedom: Bernstein in Berlin.
Bernstein was America’s first conductor/celebrity, audacious and at times self-adoring, so his changes to Beethoven’s iconic Ninth was to some the equivalent of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But those who had followed Bernstein’s career knew he was playing to the historic moment, to an audience of millions watching from across the globe. The massacre at Tiananmen Square (after Chinese students played the Ninth to rally their courage, also featured in the film) only five months earlier was horrifying. Unifying Berlin was a time for celebration and hope, words hardly worth uttering there only a few years before.
And Bernstein’s identification with Beethoven was long-lasting, and more than just musical. His social activism for liberal and left causes began in his youth, and was consistent throughout his life. Reflecting on the Ninth in one of his popular television broadcasts early in his career, Bernstein rightly insisted that this symphony “ranges from the mysterious, to the radiant, to the devout, to the ecstatic,” but the words of joy and peace are hollow and ineffective when “we have not yet found ways, short of murder, to act out our suppressed rages, hostilities, xenophobias, provincialism, mistrust and need for superiority.”
For Bernstein, Beethoven’s Ninth contains within it struggle, a “struggle for peace, for fulfillment of spirit, for serenity and triumphal joy. Somehow it must be possible to learn from his music by hearing it. No, not hearing it, but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration. Then, perhaps, we can grow into something worthy of being called the human race.”
And finally, “As despairing as we may be, we cannot listen to the Ninth Symphony without emerging from it changed, enriched, encouraged.”
Lenny certainly knew this man and his music. And more importantly, he understood that Beethoven’s music contained within it both a way of life and an ethics guided by the composer’s own personal and social affirmation of what is best in human beings.
Watch the trailer for Following the Ninth here.
Greg Mitchell tells the story of Beethoven and the Tiananmen Square massacre.