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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Justin, Janet and Weapons of Mass Distraction

The investigation will be "thorough and swift," Powell said yesterday. "Our nation's children, parents and citizens deserve better." That would be Michael--not Colin--Powell and this is not about that investigation into those pesky missing WMDs; it's that high-level probe into who knew what and when about how Janet Jackson's breast--adorned with a silver "nipple guard"--was exposed by pop idol Justin Timberlake before millions of upstanding Americans during the Super Bowl half-time show.

Surfing Tuesday's morning shows, I blearily counted more time devoted to heated discussion about what Timberlake called a "wardrobe malfunction" than to debate about the Administration's hyping and cherry-picking (excuse the word) of intelligence in order to mislead a nation into war.

But, I'm not shocked that our TV culture cares more for weapons of mass distraction. Nor am I shocked at Michael Powell's "shock." As executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy Jeff Chester points out, Powell is trying to distract the public and press from the impact of his decision last June changing the media rules and making CBS, among others, far more powerful. Powell's rule changes have done more than anything to support the "rude-lewd" business model of the big networks, a fact he's hoping his investigation will obscure.

And, let's not forget, as Chester reminds us, that CBS is now lobbying the Bush White House and the GOP leadership for more favors after the Administraton leaned on Congress to cut a special deal two weeks ago on TV ownership, allowing Viacom and Fox to keep extra stations over the previously-legal limit.

How about an FCC investigation into that kind of indecency?

First Ladies, the Media and the War

If you're fed up with First Ladies being pigeonholed into thetraditional Laura or careerist Hillary box (or, as Timothy Noah in Slate put it, the "victim" or "bitch" box), check out Katha Pollitt's sassy, smart and scathing look at media coverage of Judy Dean Steinberg.

After that--if you're not fed up with all the attention paid to the candidates' wives--check out the Washington Post's Outlook section this Sunday. I'm contributing to a forum (along with Wendy Wasserstein, Danielle Crittenden, Kati Marton and the First Gentleman of Michigan, Dan Mulhern) exploring America's attitudes toward First Ladies. Are we ready for one who would shun the traditional aspects of the role? I think so.

And on Sunday morning, I'm going to mix it up with Howard Kurtz, David Frum and Newsweek's Evan Thomas on CNN's Reliable Sources.

Topics: Kerry coverage; Dean's relations with the media (by the way, he's on for the full hour on Meet the Press this Sunday); and a question I debated last year, around this time, on Kurtz's show: Could the media have done a better job reporting how the Bush Administration misled us into war? You bet.

Of Horse Races and Issues

At the end of December, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ticked off a few pet peeves and proposals regarding the media's campaign coverage.

Peeves:

*Don't talk about clothes

*Beware of personal anecdotes

*Don't fall for political histrionics

Proposals:

*Actually look at the candidates' policy proposals.

As we leave New Hampshire, campaign coverage seems to be sixty percent horse race, thirty percent analysis of style and rhetoric, and ten percent coverage of issues. Sure, the volatile fluidity of the Democratic primary lends itself to Racing News-style coverage, but what about some rigorous reporting on pesky issues and policy proposals?

For savvy political consumers who want a quick survey of where the candidates stand on the central issues affecting America's middle class--the cost of housing education, childcare, and healthcare; unemployment; the minimum wage; the right to organize; credit card debt; bankruptcy--check out the Drum Major Institute's (DMI) valuable survey, "The Myth of the Middle? Campaign 2004 on America's Middle Class."

Over the last few months the New York-based non-partisan, non-profit organization sent questionnaires to all the campaigns, in an effort, as Institute President (and former Bronx borough president) Freddie Ferrer says, "to get rid of rhetoric and begin a true discussion on the concerns relating to America's struggling middle class."

In surveying the candidates, DMI "intends to help Americans form an opinion about where the Presidential contenders stand on protecting the middle class and restoring the mobility of poor and working families who want to earn their way into the middle class."

Some of the report's key findings:

*Most candidates agree that the main challenges facing the middle class are falling incomes and job security, affordable health care, and the rising cost of higher education.

*The candidates disagree on their approaches to expanding access to health care, on support of a National Usury Law to limit credit card companies' interest charges, on an increase in the minimum wage with annual adjustments for inflation, and on their plans to restructure the tax code to best meet the needs of middle class families.

*General Clark refused to commit support for increasing federal regulation of the credit card industry, Howard Dean wouldn't commit to increasing the ceiling for eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Joe Lieberman didn't take a stand on increasing the minimum wage.

*All of the candidates supported the expansion of eligibility for unemployment insurance, making college tuition tax-deductible, and the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows a union to be certified if a majority of employees have signed authorization cards.

*When asked what each candidate had already done to improve the lives of the middle class, responses ranged from Clark's efforts to improve the quality of military housing for soldiers under his command, to Dr. Dean's creation of 56,000 new jobs as Governor of Vermont, to Senator Kerry's defense of Medicare and Social Security during the Newt Gingrich years.

In contrast, Bush's GOP has steadfastly refused to raise the minimum wage (stuck at $5.15 since 1997), has forestalled all proposals to address the dramatically increasing healthcare costs borne by the middle class, and has effectively eliminated overtime pay for some eight million American workers.

As Rep. Bernie Sanders wrote recently in a powerful piece for The Progressive titled " We Are the Majority," currently, "40 percent of American workers are working fifty hours a week or more...The scandal of our time is that with all the explosion of technology and productivity the average American is not working fewer hours and making more money. We are not down to a thirty-hour week. The middle class is not expanding, and poverty has not been eliminated. On the contrary, it has increased."

Fortunately, groups like DMI are around to inform Americans of policies which counter the GOP's ruthless war against the middle class. Click here to help spread word of DMI's valuable new report.

Oligarchs for Bush

Do you have 250 family members, friends, associates, and colleagues who can afford to give $2,000 to President Bush?

On January 22, the Washington Post reported that there's now "whispered talk on Wall Street of a new category of super-fundraiser, those able to bundle $500,000 or more" for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign.

These super-fundraiser would supercede the Rangers (who raise a paltry $200,000 for the President) as the measurement of ultimate loyalty to the Bush White House. The campaign denies it will name the new category but it was just too tempting for reformers to leave alone.

So, the Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform organization, has launched a contest to help name the category for Bush-Cheney Inc. (And I've agreed to help select the five finalists from which the public will choose the winner.)

Click here to submit your suggestion. Each finalist receives a Fat Cat T-Shirt, a poster and the satisfaction of helping raise public awareness of the brazen corruption of this Administration. Bring those names on.

Thoughts on the SOTU

1/Bush may want to strengthen marriage in this country but he strained mine last night. Just as he launched into sermon about how "a strong America must also value the institution of marriage," my husband was furious with me for making him miss the end of the Tennessee/Kentucky college basketball game. (Yes, we are a two TV family, but the other one was broken.) And, as for trying "to send the right messages to our children," I did make my daughter watch the speech. Her response was to ask why Bush doesn't propose a constitutional amendment making it illegal for pop stars like Britney to marry if he cares so much about preserving the sanctity of the institution of marriage.

2/The New York Times observed today that the President concluded his address by echoing the words Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote on the day he died in April 1945: "My fellow citizens, we now move forward with confidence and faith." Faith and confidence in this speech? Pleeez. In a time of revolutionary despair, during the Great Depression and World War II, President Roosevelt gave America a vision of hope, confidence and courage and told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Instead, Bush just reminded us last night that this Administration has nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.

3/Watching Teddy Kennedy's expressions during the speech almost made up for the fact that there were 71 rounds of applause. (71 rounds? They didn't even get that in Soviet Central Committee meetings.) The first shot showed Kennedy's despair; the second showed his disbelief when Bush brandished the new threat--"weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," by the end Kennedy was downright grimacing. And, in a post-speech interview, the senior Senator from Mass. was literally hopping mad as he lashed out at Bush's mendacity--"see what he does, not what he says," he warned.

4/Hopeful sign of life in the Congressional chamber: the small round of applause which greeted Bush's warning that "key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year."

5/And what was all that stuff about steroids? Was it Bush's way of taking a shot at Arnold in case California's new governor succeeds in getting an amendment passed allowing US citizens born outside of the US to run for President? As Bush warned, steroid use "...sends the wrong message--that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character."

NOTE: Click here for Robert Borosage's "Kitchen Table State of the Union," which offers a true look at America at the dawn of 2004.

It's Just Opposition, Stupid!

Have you noticed how sensitive some of these Republicans are? When did plain and simple opposition become political hate speech?

After former Vice-President Al Gore delivered a smart, sometimes humorous, and ultimately scathing critique of the Bush Administration's assault on the environment in a speech in New York City last Thursday, GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie characterized Gore's remarks as "political hate speech" and called on him to repudiate such "vile tactics." (Click here for the full text of Gore's speech.)

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay--who dishes it out but can' t take it--had the same overheated reaction to Senator Edward Kennedy's powerful talk last week in which he accused Bush and his advisers of capitalizing on fear from the September 11th attacks and putting "a spin on truth to justify a war that could well become one of the worst blunders in more than two centuries of American foreign policy." (Click hereto read Kennedy's remarks.)

Kennedy's speech, according to DeLay--the man aptly called the Hammer--was a "hateful attack" that "insulted the President's patriotism." Someone's gotta get these guys into a good Con-Law class fast before they brand the Bill of Rights a subversive document because it protects the right to dissent--or what Gillespie calls "political hate speech."

NOTE: Thanks to longtime Nation reader Adam Komisaruk from Morgantown, West Virginia for his help with drafting "Parallel O'Reilly Factor."

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Grover's World

Talking about political hate, did you see the Washington Post's January 12 profile of anti-tax guru Grover Norquist? Norquist, an intimate of Karl Rove is the head of Americans for Tax Reform and the architect of a rightwing infrastructure designed to implement his long-cherished plan to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

More recently, Norquist has made comments like "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape," or fantastically compared the estate tax to the Holocaust. (His reasoning: Referring to the supposedly specious argument that the estate tax was worth keeping because it really affected only "two percent of Americans," Norquist went on, "I mean that's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it's only a small percentage,' you know, I mean, it's not you. It's somebody else.")

Now, he's ready to crush and purge. According to the Post profile, Norquist says "Democrats used to anger him." But "he's past angry now. 'Do you get mad at cancer? We'll defeat and crush their institutions, and the trial lawyers will go sell pizza, We're not going to hang them. Most of the the people on the left will be happy in Grover's world. I feel about the left the way Rumsfeld felt about the Iraqis." Welcome to Grover's world. Talk about haters.

NOTE: Thanks to longtime Nation reader Adam Komisaruk from Morgantown, West Virginia for his help with drafting "Parallel O'Reilly Factor."

The Arrogance of George Will

The tale of Conrad Black, the media magnate facing inquiries by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department for looting millions from Hollinger International, the newspaper company he controlled, is foremost a story of rotten greed and corporate abuse. But, it's also a tale about media corruption and the lack of journalistic ethics.

"My business is my business. Got it?" That was syndicated columnist George Will's reply when asked why he didn't tell his readers in a column--defending Black's political views on Iraq--that he had been a member of an advisory group set up by Black and had received $25,000 per diem for each meeting he attended.

You'd think that Will's arrogant reply would have elicited quick rebuke--hell, even outrage--from his editors at the Washington Post. Instead, after theNew York Times revealed Will's renumerative affiliation with Black in a front-page story, Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of the Washington Post Writers' Group, peeped up: "I think I would have liked to have known."

So, it was heartening to see the Post's Ombudsman Michael Getler finally weigh in last Sunday. After quoting Fred Hiatt, editor of the Post's editorial page--who argued lamely that Will's "lack of disclosure doesn't strike me as a major lapse"--Getler blasted the Post's influential and widely syndicated columnist for his arrogant failure to disclose his conflict of interest.

"My own view," Getler wrote, "is one that is troubled by this omission. It is important to be reminded, as Hiatt points out, that this financial relationship ended more than two years before the column reference. Yet it seems to me that all journalists and commentators need to be scrupulous in making known any possible conflict of interests, real or likely to perceived. Sometimes it needs to be done in print, but it certainly must be made known to editors, who can make their own decision before publication or distribution. It shouldn't be so easy to just say 'got it' when it comes to conditions for access to the columns of the country's newspapers and magazines."

Or as Gilbert Cranberg, the former Chair of the Professional Standards Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, put it in a letter to theNew York Times two weeks earlier, "The code of ethics of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the organization of editorial page editors and writers puts it plainly: 'The writer should be constantly alert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent, including those that may arise from financial holdings, secondary employment, holding public office or involvement in political, civic or other organizations. Timely public disclosure can minimize suspicion. Editors should seek to hold syndicates to these standards."

As Getler noted, Will is no novice when it comes to flouting journalistic ethics. In fact, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman makes clear in his valuable book, The Sound and the Fury:The Washington Punditocracy and The Collapse of AmericanPolitics, super-pundits like Will "never developed a recognizable code of ethics." Remember "Debategate"--when Will helped Ronald Reagan in his debate with President Jimmy Carter and then, appearing on "Nightline" as an impartial observer, credited his pupil with a "thoroughbred performance"? At the time, a Los Angeles Times media critic called Will "a political shill," Chicago columnist Mike Rokyo called him a "lapdog," and the New York Daily News kicked him off their editorial pages (though it reinstated him too soon after).

Even Ben Bradlee, Alterman reports, then the nation's most respected newspaperman, and editor of Will's flagship daily the Washington Post, later complained that if it had been up to him, "I would have canned him on the spot." The denunciations were so vehement that Will was forced to respond with some pap about how he had accepted the invitation to help prepare Reagan for his debate as a columnist, rather than as a journalist. "But, far from resulting in Will's losing his job," Alterman writes, "the controversy only added to Willian lore, further blurring the line between watchdogs and the watched."

These days, as that line has become ever more blurred--largely due to media conglomeratization, Murdochization and the media's political timidity--it's worth commending Ombudsman Getler for trying to hold lapdog Will to some standard of accountability.

Fire Chaney!

No, it's not a typo or misspelling. In my house, it often seems like we've spent more time lately talking about the other Chaney--that's Don, the just-fired coach of the New York Knicks, not Dick, the should-be-fired-Vice president.

(My daughter is a basketball junkie. Like her father, she knows stats I've never heard of; she can tell you where some NBA player played college ball; who famously failed in what playoff series or who coached which championship team in 1986. In the mornings, as I scan the news pages, she's got her nose buried in the New York Times sports section. She frequently ends her days with Pete Vecsey's New York Post column "Hoop du Jour." In between, she plays small forward for her JV team. Her ambition is to be the first woman coach in the NBA.)

Irate Knicks fans have been recently calling for Chaney's scalp for misleading the team into one too many losses. At last Friday's blowout home game against the Houston Rockets, the unforgiving crowd began chanting "Fire Chaney" before the first quarter even ended. The taunts re-surfaced this past Monday toward the end of an overtime loss to Dallas. Then, today, the axe finally fell (even though, as my daughter stresses, any coach needs a couple of weeks after a team gets new players, as the Knicks just did, before they can be fairly judged.)

So, if this Chaney can be fired for misleading a basketball team, shouldn't the other Cheney go as well for a far more serious offense--misleading the country?

Let's take a cue from Knicks fans and start calling for the other Cheney's scalp. Hell, isn't it time that America had some new coaches?

Lost in Space

So, we're destroying our own way of life on earth but Bush wants to establish a permanent base on the moon as a prelude to sending humans to Mars?

Isn't this just another sign, as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill reports in Ron Suskind's new book, The Price of Loyalty, that we have a space cadet as President? And don't these neocons have enough bases ringing the earth? Or is their desire for world domination so unquenchable that they're using this new initiative, as some believe, as a stealth program to speed up the militarization of space? And, not to be too visionless, but at a time of record budget deficits and massive tax cuts for the rich, where's the money going to come from for these adventures in outer space?

While the New York Times reports that Bush's space initiative "would allow the president to be portrayed as an inspirational leader whose vision goes beyond terrorism and tax cuts," it seems more wasteful indulgence than "inspirational" when our own planet is in such danger. Just last week, more evidence (if it was needed) came in a major scientific report showing that more than a million species will become extinct over the next fifty years as a result of global warming. Other recent studies show that the planet's rainforests are disappearing at a rate of one acre per minute.

And, just the other day, in the prestigious journal Science, the British government's chief scientific adviser launched a withering attack on the Bush Administration for failing to tackle global warming. "In my view," he warned, "climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than terrorism."

Bush may think it's good politics to invoke the image of John Kennedy, challenging the nation to send a man to the moon. But these are times that call for a different kind of Apollo Project--on earth, not in space. We desperately need to harness the best scientific R&D in a crash effort to achieve energy independence from fossil fuels and to address the devastating impact of global warming.

For one terrific proposal, check out the Apollo Alliance, a new coalition of unions, environmental groups, consumer advocates and socially responsible businesses, whose bold program would advance energy efficiency and promote renewable energy, drive investment in new technology and public infrastructure and offer real stimulus to our flagging economy through long-term job creation. (Click here for info.)

In 1989, Mr. Bush's father proposed that America begin "the permanent settlement of space." If this President vowed to send all the neocons on a mission to colonize some distant planet, I just might reconsider my opposition to space exploration. But, short of that, let's put earthly needs first.   

Keep FDR on the Dime!

Have you heard about the attempt to replace Franklin Roosevelt with Ronald Reagan on our dime? Some 89 conservative co-sponsors of the "Ronald Reagan Dime Act" say that anger over CBS's docudrama about the Reagans pushed them to introduce the bill. Liberal congressman Jim McGovern (D, MA) is countering with a bill to keep FDR on the coin. (Fortunately, he has gathered 106 co-sponsors so far.)

McGovern argues that changing the dime is the wrong way to honor Reagan (who already has National Airport named after him, a major federal building in Washington and schools, roads and bridges around the country). He also points out that FDR's face is on the dime because of a specific and special connection to the coin. Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes, which funded the research that resulted in the polio vaccine which ended the scourge of the 20th century. (The disability community, it's worth noting, is outraged by this conservative gambit and plans to fight hard if the Republicans schedule the bill for the floor.)

The fact that the high priest of anti-tax activism, Grover Norquist, is involved in this fight--as chairman of the Reagan Legacy Project--imbues the coin toss with a distinct ideological flavor. After all, Norquist once said that he wanted "to shrink government in half to the point where we can drown it in the bathtub." Roosevelt, on the other hand, believed government could be a force for good. McGovern argues that Norquist and his fellow traveling conservatives are using this fight as part of their battle plan to diminish, dismantle, and eventually drown Roosevelt's New Deal legacy in its entirety. (Co-sponsors of the Reagan dime bill include the top pitbulls of the GOP, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom Delay, House Whip Roy Blunt and Rules Committee Chair David Dreier.)

But Norquist, Delay and their ilk may have met their match in a surprising adversary: Nancy Reagan. Her recent statement opposing the renaming effort may hopefully squash the bill's momentum. She is right to speak out--after all, unlike some of these rabid conservatives she retains a historical memory of her husband's four votes for FDR--Reagan often cited as the inspiration of his public life and the greatest president of the 20th century. She may also remember that it was Reagan who made possible the FDR Memorial in Washington.

But, as of now, Mrs. Reagan's statement hasn't discouraged the true believers who continue to push for the Reagan dime. According to one close observer of the fight, they are now arguing that Mrs. Reagan's comments show just how classy she is--that is, it would be untoward for her to publicly support replacing FDR on the dime, so it's up to others to take the lead in the fight. Even more preposterously, some of the bill's co-sponsors argue that when President Reagan was shot, the bullet was "flattened to the size of a dime," which is why it's appropriate to change the dime, rather than, say, the penny or the nickel.

Reagan's death is likely to let loose an enormous effort to rename everything, perhaps including the country, but, for now, let's keep Roosevelt's image on the dime and fight the dismantling of what's left of the New Deal.

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To Take Action:

1) Let your elected reps know that you expect them to sign on to the McGovern bill. Click here for contact info for your legislators.

2) Send letters to the editor of your local paper and make calls to your local talk-radio program showing support for keeping FDR on the dime. Click here for contact info for media in your area.

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