Politics, media and the politics of media.
For once, Democrats have come up with a killer buzz phrase: Tea Party downgrade. It’s the most dead-on, easy-to-understand handful of words since, well, Tea Party itself. And, especially in the lead-up to the debt “supercommittee,” Dems should use it as tirelessly as Republicans are still reciting We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.
It doesn’t matter how boring or robotic it becomes to repeat a particular phrase, or how much Fox News blames Democrats for blaming the Tea Party—this is Advertising 101: Repetition is how talking points get internalized and persuade, and it’s how death panel and government takeover of healthcare kicked liberal butt and influenced policy.
But unlike those GOP Big Lies, the Tea Party downgrade has the virtue of being true. The mainstream media are predictably blaming Standard & Poor’s US credit downgrade on both parties (a fiction Obama endorsed in his speech last week by faulting not Republicans, but “gridlock in Washington”). But S&P, self-serving though it is, deemed it a Tea Party downgrade in all but name. Its report refers to the “political brinksmanship of recent months,” complains that the debt deal “contains no measures to raise taxes” and despairs that the Bush tax cuts won’t expire next year “because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues.”
Tea Party downgradecuts through even those niceties. And it cuts through the hilarious Republican lie that this is Obama’s downgrade because--my God, they’re bold--it happened on his watch! They never give up, not even when caught with their pants down, as Fox News’s Neil Cavuto was for saying, before S&P’s move, “I would welcome a downgrade.” (See Media Matters’s “Fox News Gets Its Downgrade.”)
Tea Party downgrade cuts through all that because like Tea Party itself, it tells a story. If Tea Party evokes valiant revolutionaries overthrowing tyrants, Tea Party Downgrade evokes psychological tyrants overthrowing our nation’s stability. Like TP, TPD tells you who’s the villain. That is, the phrase could help do what Obama won’t: galvanize political energy by pointing fingers in no uncertain terms. Anger at Republicans and the tail that wags them is already out there—polls show favorable ratings for the GOP sinking and those for the Tea Party hitting an all-time low—but most Democrats, as usual, are failing to channel it.
I first heard Tea Party downgrade from John Kerry on Sunday’s Meet the Press, and I thought he hadn’t sounded so persuasive in years. My fear is that he and other Dems will let the phrase—and the anger propelling it—drift away, whether because they have an aversion to name-calling or a dread of appearing in a Jon Stewart montage.
Obviously, phrases alone won’t save or destroy the union. But especially as we enter the supercommittee stage of the story, Tea Party downgrade is a bold talking point worth repeating. After all, by preemptively agreeing to cuts in Medicare, Democrats have already pulled their last best verbal punch: Medicare-killing Republicans.
Right before a break on The Daily Rundown the other day, host Chuck Todd was talking about the debt deal and mentioned “unemployment lines.” Then he announced, “Coming up: Did Washington take its eye off the ball of what really matters?”
For one naïve moment, I expected that “what really matters” would entail the debt deal’s effect on actual people, maybe even a sound bite or two from someone who depends on the newly threatened Medicare coverage or unemployment benefits (Congress’s “compromise” failed to extend federal emergency jobless benefits).
Instead, Todd returned to talk with two Washington journalists on what the deal means to the larger economy. A necessary discussion, for sure, but like most TV politi-chat these days, it didn’t touch onhow “the deal savages programs for the lower and middle classes,” as my colleague George Zornick put it in a post that breaks down the likely effects on veterans, students, seniors, the poor, and the unemployed. This Nation slideshow illustrates what most MSM avert their eyes to.
You can’t really expect much from the dank Beltway dome where the press and politicians inhale each others’ hot air; this week, the endless speculation was over how the debt battle will tilt the political fortunes of Obama, Boehner, Mitch, Mitt, et al. I enjoy a good who’s-up/who’s-down game as much as anyone. But I’d have been much more satisfied with, say, three parts political-process talk to one part real-life talk--something like that meager 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax revenue that Obama and many Dems held up as the “balanced” way to succumb to rightwing extortion. But, alas, in both the corporate media and in Congress, the vaguely progressive part never quite materialized.
Later in his show, Todd told a new set of panelists, “I want to go a little bit into the politics of this.” Just a little bit. At one point, his voice alight with the political chase, Todd talked up a poll showing Romney beating Obama (by two points) in Pennsylvania.“If Pennsylvania’s really in play in October of 2012,” he said, “it’s already over!”
I don’t mean to single out Chuck. He simply represents the broader media’s bedazzlement with the horserace, beside which ordinary people and their depressing problems seem to disappear, especially if they’re poor. Oh, the network news will eventually give us some vivid profiles of debt-deal victims. But over the last few weeks, when an onslaught of such stories could have possibly influenced legislation, they were nowhere to be seen. On Morning Joe last week,Sam Stein had to repeatedly cajole Joe Scarborough in order to squeeze in a few words about just this media deficit. “The point is,” Stein said, “people’s lives, their livelihoods are at stake if we actually default…. I think that’s something that’s been totally absent from the debate.”
Political-process punditry is nothing new; it’s always been far easier and more fun than reporting on people in pain. And in a crisis, real or fake, when the adrenalin’s flowing, it’s especially tempting to play talking-point ping pong till you’re too numb to imagine that anyone might really get hurt.
The fake crisis over the deficit that led to the debt deal is, nauseatingly, like the fake crisis that led to the invasion of Iraq. (Which, along with the Bush tax cuts, created the deficit that created the GOP’s latest excuse to invade Social Security, Medicare, and more.)
In the lead up to the war, the press fell for the lies about weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds. This time, the media fell for the Republicans’, the rating agencies’, and Obama’s argument that the deficit itself a mushroom cloud and that if we don’t rout out our “spending problem” like so many WMD, it’s ka-boom for us all.
Even as a congressional “super committee” lines up to slash more spending, the media are repeating their decade-old mistake: They’re giving as little air time to economists’ warnings that spending, not austerity, is the way out of a recession as they gave to UN weapons inspectors’ warnings that there were no WMD.
Coming up: the mainstream media’s ever-so-mild self-criticism for, again, ignoring real suffering and letting Republicans set the terms of the debate.
It may take weeks or years, but one day they’ll wonder, “Did we take our eyes off the ball of what really matters?”
Yesterday, an American Dream Movement rally demanding a debt deal that “protects seniors and makes corporations and the rich pay [their] fair share” drew a significantly larger crowd than a Tea Party rally a day earlier that essentially demanded the opposite. Both were held on Capitol Hill, both focused on the same ginned-up debt ceiling “crisis,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find the Beltway media noting the difference in crowd size—or even reporting on the progressive rally at all.
Wednesday’s conservative rally, organized by the Tea Party Express, was a bust: only about fifty people showed up to see presidential candidate Herman Cain and hear Senators Jim DeMint, Rand Paul and Mike Lee speak. “It had all the makings of a big time Tea Party rally,” Politico wrote. But “by the time the senators had spoken there were still fewer than 50 tea partiers in attendance.”
But then, Thursday’s American Dream rally—organized by MoveOn, Rebuild the Dream, AFSCME and AFGE, and featuring speakers like Van Jones and Representatives Keith Ellison and Jan Schakowsky—clocked in an estimated 450–500 people, according to the coalition. Oddly, though, as of twenty-four hours later, Politico didn’t mention it. CNN.com, meanwhile, talked up the Tea Party rally both the day before it took place and afterward—when it spun the measly crowd (and its own pre-event notice) by writing: “Don't be fooled by the tiny turnout at the Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The conservative movement doesn't much need rallies anymore. November 2010 changed all of that.”
That’s a handy excuse. And maybe that’s why CNN.com didn’t bother to mention the American Dream rally at all. What could it have said?: “Don’t be fooled by the larger turnout at the progressive rally on Capitol Hill Thursday. The liberal movement desperately needs rallies. November 2010 made it so”?
Thursday’s rally was built on the progressive coalition’s mass action on Tuesday: 20,000 people protesting the various debt deals at more than 800 Congressional offices across the country. For those smaller rallies, MoveOn’s Justin Ruben told me, “We received a huge amount of local coverage, and very little national coverage.”
Readers, if I’ve missed any mainstream reporting on the big American Dream rally, let me know. But I won’t hold my breath. For the most part, the corporate media has been Pavlovian in breathlessly covering even the tiniest TP event—really, anyone tripping into a public space wearing a tricorn hat will do—while virtually ignoring similar gatherings with a progressive tilt. (Exception proving the rule: the Madison, Wisconsin, rallies were too massive to ignore.)
Compare, for instance, how the MSM handled the Tea-Partyed-up town hall meetings protesting healthcare reform during the summer of 2009 to this year’s town halls protesting the GOP bill that would end Medicare, as Rachel Maddow did in April. If the Beltway media treats Tea Partyers like celebrities, it covers liberals, she said, “almost as foreign news.”
And it’s just that sort of double standard that helped create the myth of the Tea Party’s power before which an insane Washington, DC, believes it must genuflect.
That is, the media helped manufacture the Tea Party’s power every bit as much as the Tea Party manufactured our current debt “crisis.”
We can now all agree that throwing a foam pie at Rupert Murdoch while he and son James were getting nailed during Parliament’s phone-hacking hearings couldn’t have gone better for the moguls had Fox News staged the scene itself. As James Wolcott wrote of the too-smart-by-half activist splatter, “this guy has made Murdoch senior look vulnerable and sympathetic and Wendi heroic.”
Wendi, of course, is Rupert’s 42-year-old wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch. By walloping the pie-thrower, Deng instantly became a worldwide sensation, and is now variously known as Tiger Wife, Ninja Wendi, or, as CNN.com exuded: “It's no longer Wendi the ‘gold digger’—as some called her—who snared the aging boss of News Corp. Now she is being dubbed Crouching Wendi: Hidden Tiger.”
A stereotype is born!
But as media endlessly replayed the footage of Deng punching the pie guy, they never mentioned the obvious, that another woman was actually Rupert’s first responder rescue hero. That woman wearing a gray suit, sitting next to Wendi during the hearings—she’s the one who jumped up and blocked Murdoch from a full-frontal shaving cream assault; then Wendi reached over her to hit the guy—and in the process, she and woman #1 fell to the ground. (Wonder if they glimpsed any floor ads there?) Watch:
Who was that woman in gray, and why were most media—MSNBC, CNN, all but a handful of websites and, of course, Fox News—pretending she didn’t exist? Obviously she was on the Murdoch team. Why not sing her praises too?
Because crediting anyone but Wendi for heroics would have diluted the stereotype and botched the narrative. Which was: strong woman singlehandedly saves her man. And its auxiliary: a Murdoch woman is tougher than any bleeding-heart liberal dude. Fox.com even went all feminist for the occasion with the headline: “She Is Woman, Hear Her Roar.” Whatever the easiest, clichéd, black-and-white interpretation of a conflict is, that’s the corporate media’s first choice, and once set, it sticks.
That most media didn’t acknowledge a whole other person right before their eyes may seem a small thing, but this simple act of omission is a micro version of what much of the MSM do reflexively: if an inconvenient fact gets in the way of a good story, they blind themselves to the fact—whether it’s that tax cuts actually don’t create jobs, or that we need to increase spending to get out of the recession. Or that Rupert had two girls come to his rescue.
As it turns out, soon after the Tuesday attack, the Associated Press did name the first woman; she’s Janet Nova, one of Murdoch’s lawyers. But that piece of info was barely picked up by the rest of the press. Even on Thursday, when the New York Times spelled out Nova’s role—a caption reads, “Before a pie-thrower was ‘Wendied,’ he was ‘Janeted’ ”—most media continued to stick to the tidier and, uh, punchier story of a Solo Superwoman. CNN.com, for example, not only ignored Nova’s presence but figuratively knocked her down a second time by writing of Wendi, “nothing comes between the slap-down sister and her mister.”
And, be warned yet again, nothing comes between the mainstream media and an oversimplified, tabloid tale.
Earlier this week, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman posited that Fox News chief Roger Ailes stands to gain from the phone-hacking scandal enveloping the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Sherman figures that the scandal could take down Ailes’s most powerful rival, James Murdoch, Rupert’s son. And he believes that with the demise of News of the World and Murdoch withdrawing his bid to control all of BSkyB, the highly profitable Fox News will be even more indispensable to the bottom line of parent company News Corp. That’s all feasible.
But then Sherman goes out on an odd limb, writing: “Whatever Jon Stewart and fellow liberals may think of Fox News, the network's journalistic transgressions are entirely legal [my emphasis], which is something that no one can say about the News of the World.”
Really? Entirely legal? How can Sherman know? True, he wrote a fine and sometimes critical piece on Ailes for New York two months ago, and has signed a contract for a book on Fox News. But if Sherman’s truly certain that Ailes & Company are as clean as a whistle, he should hurry over to tell federal investigators that when they look into News Corp.’s US media properties, they can skip Fox News entirely.
A growing number of senators and congresspeople, including frequent Fox guest Rep. Peter King (R-NY), are calling for federal agencies to look into possible illegal activities by News Corp. in the United States; yesterday, the FBI confirmed that it has opened investigations into allegations that News Corp. hacked into phones of 9/11 victims. The nonprofit watchdog group CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) is asking Congress to hold its own hearings, a la Parliament’s.
Of course, it’s possible that any and all of News Corp.’s illegal transgressions stop at water’s edge. However, employees of Rupert’s New York Post have been involved in plenty of extralegal hijinks in the past, and as I wrote Tuesday, a former Fox News executive alleges that Ailes may have broken into phone records in the ‘90s. In May, as Sherman himself writes, a lawsuit was settled out of court that has effectively buried allegations that Ailes told Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators about her ex-lover Bernie Kerik in order to protect the then-presidential candidacy of Ailes’s good friend and Kerik mentor Rudy Giuliani.
Fox News may or may not have anything to do with the burgeoning News Corp. scandals. But remember, there once was a time when “something that no one” could say was that News of the World’s journalistic transgressions weren’t also entirely legal.
“Has Roger Ailes been keeping tabs on your phone calls?”
That’s how Portfolio.com began a post back in 2008, when a former Fox News executive charged that Ailes had outfitted a highly secured “brain room” in Fox’s New York headquarters for “counterintelligence” and may have used it to hack into private phone records.
All this week people have been looking for links between the Murdoch empire’s burgeoning phone-hacking scandal in Britain and News Corp.’s sprawling political/communications juggernaut in the United States. The links so far include a former New York City cop alleging that Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World offered to pay him to hack into 9/11 victims’ phone records, and a News Corp. US shareholders’ suit in Delaware already targeting the company for nepotism adding British phone hacking as evidence of a corporate culture “run amuck.”
But rumors have floated in the press and on the Internet about possible phone hacking in that special-security-clearance-only bunker at Fox HQ for years.
Dan Cooper was one of the people who helped create the Fox News channel with Roger Ailes, and was fired in 1996. In 2008, Cooper wrote on his website that David Brock (now head of Media Matters) had used him as an anonymous, on-background-only source for an Ailes profile he was writing for New York magazine. Before the piece was published, on November 17, 1997, Cooper claims that his talent agent, Richard Leibner, told him he had received a call from Ailes, who identified Cooper as a source, and insisted that Leibner drop him as a client--or any client reels Leibner sent Fox would pile up in a corner and gather dust. Cooper continued:
“I made the connections. Ailes knew I had given Brock the interview. Certainly Brock didn’t tell him. Of course. Fox News had gotten Brock’s telephone records from the phone company, and my phone number was on the list. Deep in the bowels of 1211 Avenue of the Americas, News Corporation’s New York headquarters, was what Roger called the Brain Room. Most people thought it was simply the research department of Fox News. But unlike virtually everybody else, because I had to design and build the Brain Room, I knew it also housed a counterintelligence and black ops office. So accessing phone records was easy pie.”
Media writer Jeff Bercovici, then at Conde Nast’s short-lived Portfolio, was skeptical of such claims, writing in early 2008 that Cooper was massively “disgruntled” (which appears to be true) and that “potentially the most explosive among Cooper’s many lurid claims, assuming anyone believes them” arose from his phone-records allegation. “A Fox News spokeswoman says there’s no truth to the claim that the network has the capability to snoop through phone records,” Bercovici noted, adding, “Leibner says it’s ‘not true’ and that he didn’t fire Cooper as a client.”
Cooper’s long post, called “Naked Launch,” which also served as a book proposal, is as much about him as it is about Fox News.
Tim Dickinson relays Cooper’s description of the brain room (though he doesn’t mention anything about phone records) in his fascinating piece on Ailes that ran in Rolling Stone two months ago. “In a separate facility on the same subterranean floor,” Dickenson writes, “Ailes created an in-house research unit–-known at Fox News as the ‘brain room’–-that requires special security clearance to gain access. ‘The brain room is where Willie Horton comes from,’ says Cooper, who helped design its specs. `It’s where the evil resides.’ ”
“If that sounds paranoid,” Dickinson adds, “consider the man Ailes brought in to run the brain room: Scott Ehrlich.” Ehrlich “had taken over the lead on Big Tobacco’s campaign to crush health care reform when Ailes signed on with CNBC.”
Today, Cooper stands by his story. “I believe exactly what I wrote. The only alternative is that David Brock told Ailes well before publication that he spoke with me,” he e-mailed me. “The story is true.” Brock has declined to comment.
Of course, at this point it’s pure speculation as to how Ailes may have known that Brock interviewed Cooper, and it may have had nothing to do with illegally accessing private phone records.
Still, that possibility looks more plausible by the day. For one thing, we’ve learned quite a bit over the past week about the value of the conglomerate’s corporate denials of wrongdoing. In the British phone-hacking scandal, various company players at first denied it, then blamed it on a single “rogue reporter,” then admitted the phone-hacking was systemic, and finally admitted paying large sums of money to certain victims in exchange for their silence. That’s lying, lying about the lying and paying to cover-up the lying—pretty much the liar’s trifecta.
If you’re wondering whether Roger Ailes is capable of urging people to mislead authorities, just start combing the cotton of his involvement in the Judith Regan/Bernie Kerik affair. The latest is that Ailes allegedly told Regan to lie about her relationship Kerik to the feds when they were vetting him for a cabinet position as Secretary of Homeland Security. (The onetime Giuliani protégé now sits in federal prison.)
In any case, on Monday, CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics), called on the House and Senate to investigate whether News Corp. employees “have hacked into the voicemails of Americans.”
“It is becoming increasingly clear this scandal was not perpetrated by a few rogue reporters, but was systematically orchestrated at the highest levels of News Corp.,” says CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.
“Given the ever-increasing number of Murdoch publications involved, combined with the allegation that News Corp. journalists sought access to the voicemails of 9/11 victims and their families, America cannot leave this investigation entirely to the British.”
Senators Jay Rockefeller and Frank Lautenberg have called for federal agencies to investigate whether the empire has violated privacy laws in the United States.
UPDATE: I've changed Cooper's title at Fox News to more accurately describe his role there.
When I first saw that Mark Halperin was indefinitely suspended from Morning Joe for on air that Obama was “a dick,” I thought it was a rather classic case of projection.
Then I read Greg Sargent, who reminded me that of all the reasons to push this most sour face of Beltway smuggery off the air, saying a dirty bad word wasn’t it:
Halperin’s use of an expletive is trivial when compared with the degradation of our political discourse we witness on a regular basis from Halperin and many others—degradation that is seen as perfectly acceptable because no curse words are employed. Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of “civility” in our discourse, in which it’s unacceptable to use foul language and be “uncivil,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.
And why did Halperin deem Obama a “dick”? As Sargent writes, Halperin had been arguing “that Obama somehow stepped over some kind of line in aggressively calling out the GOP for refusing to allow any revenues in a debt ceiling deal.”
Halperin has been the haughty dispenser of pinched political pronouncements for a long time now. (Pronouncements that are often simply wrong, says Alex Pareene. And so it might be too much to hope that his suspension—for whatever reason—will last for more than a week or two. But, boy, it’d be nice to have breakfast without him.
Last spring, when Fox News announced that Glenn Beck had been chosen for the rapture from their ranks—his last day will be Thursday—the network started playing a promo for Beck’s personal end-time that could have been a trailer for Enemy of the State. Called “The Final Chapter,” it flashes words of evil like “Obamacare,” “net neutrality” and even “Food regulations” with black-and-white photos of President Obama, Van Jones, George Soros et al., casting Beck and, by extension, his audience as characters in a national security state thriller:
The heart-pounding staple of fear-inducing Republican ads, sounds a lot like the music backing Tim Pawlenty’s much-mocked action-thriller campaign video, which in turn echoes the theme to The Dark Knight, one of the right’s favorite flicks. Conservatives see that Batman movie as a 9/11 allegory, a municipal security thriller—the posters showing Obama in Joker make-up were spin-offs, and no less than the New York Post once swooned that the Dark Knight was “Dick Cheney with hair.”
And it would be just like Beck to overdramatize his departure as a coup d’état, or a final plot twist in an Allen Drury script. Of course, Beck has been shedding advertisers and viewers for more than a year as his paranoid vigilante shtick wore thin, but that isn’t the reason he’s been axed: Rupert Murdoch subsidizes many projects that don’t turn a profit, the New York Post for one. No, Beck is leaving because he’s served his purpose for Fox and its subsidiary, the Republican Party. And the kind of movie that Beck’s audience has been cast in isn’t a superhero thriller or even a standard save-the-world spy thriller but a very specific genre all its own: the amnesiac national security melodrama, like Matt Damon in the Bourne movies or Gregory Peck in Mirage.
Those movies always start with the hero waking up just after a blinding psychological trauma that has left him unable to remember who he is or what he’s done. As he begins his search to find his identity, he comes to believe that danger is all around him. Only by relying on his most violent instincts can he hope to survive; slowly, with the help of a flawed, unprepared and often compromised helper (usually a woman, but Glenn Beck is very good in this role), the hero comes to terms with who he really is and finds the courage to live as that reintegrated personality.
This plotline pretty much describes the hysterical reaction of the Tea Party to the calamity of George W. Bush’s presidency and Beck’s role in reviving their will to live. After the economic collapse and the elections of 2008, the panic on the right was completely understandable. Bush made it clear that everything conservatives had fervently believed was false: tax cuts and deregulation don’t create jobs, American armies can’t remake the Middle East, capitalism is really socialism for the very rich, and the party of fiscal conservatism is in fact more profligate than generations of Democrats.
Taken together, this succession of ideological impossibilities hit the Republican base like the two bullets in Jason Bourne’s back. (Unfortunately, the rank and file do not have a laser signal for a numbered Swiss bank account buried in their hips—only their leadership gets that.) They underwent a severe psychological break, and when they came to they were no longer Republicans at all: They were Tea Partyers.
These conservative voters might well have awakened as progressives, given what had happened to them and at whose hands. Hollywood’s national security thrillers always have an anti–right-wing spin (even when the books they’re based on don’t, like the Tom Clancy adaptations), because the idea of leftwing authoritarians taking over the country is, frankly, not believable.
But through the alchemy of wild hysteria and Vick’s Vapo-Rub-induced tears, Beck convinced his audience that their values had never been wrong, they had simply been betrayed by conservatives-in-name-only—that the GOP’s ideology wasn’t flawed, only its leadership was.
Like, mirabile dictu, George W. Bush himself. To them, Bush’s worst lie wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction but about just how conservative he really was. During the Egyptian uprising, Beck told his audience that both Bush administrations “told our bombers not to bomb…ancient Babylon. Why? Because the Bible tells us that that is the seat, right here”—he points to a small blob on his chalkboard—“of power, of a global, evil empire. Well, that's also where the twelfth imam from Iran is supposedly going to show up…” (See?)
Beck’s querulous, portentous, giddily apocalyptic delivery was perfect for this message of shocked—shocked!—realization. Once through the looking glass of Bush’s perfidy, you could sell these people almost anything: the Democrats had somehow managed to steal away the bonny effects of trickle down, the stimulus had actually made things worse, taxes just never got low enough or regulations lax enough to really let the free market deliver us its riches, and so on and on. There were enough conspiracy theories in the John Birch archives to keep it all spinning like a top, at least for a year or so. By that time, Obama had been in office long enough to own America’s problems—and Beck’s form of extreme psychotherapy, once so useful in nursing the right through a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, was superfluous.
So now it’s time for Beck, like the dead girlfriend in The Bourne Supremacy, to float off into the dark river of talk radio and the Internet, his role accomplished, the hero—a k a “the base”—restored. With the confused, nerve-wracking, touch-and-go exposition now over, Fox is moving on to the part of the script where the beleaguered hero begins to take his vengeance. And for that, there’s a new supporting cast made up of 2010 freshman governors—Walker, Scott, Christie, Kasich, LePage—each a union-slaying, New Deal–demolishing enforcer.
Which brings us to the Beck Ultimatum. Glenn has jumped so many sharks in the past year that he couldn’t possibly have satisfied even his shrunken audience’s sense of impending doom day after day for much longer. Toting a sign around that reads The End Is Near will, sooner or later, force you to deliver an event of commensurate desperation—even if it’s only your own departure. Fortunately, the oligarchic economy itself, crippled by the radical policies of those Republican governors and their cohorts in Congress, is making good on Beck’s prophecies. The world is ending, in a way, for a lot of people, and so is that idyllic postwar dream.
“I have a strange relationship with you,” Beck confided to his TV audience in one of his “Final Chapter” shows. “I feel you when I look into the camera.… I feel you say, ‘We get it. We get it. Now what?’ ”
As Josh Marshall points out, the more “he-manish” and bellicose Tim Pawlenty acts, the more cowardly and weak he looks. The iconic moment for T-Paw’s desperate tough-guy act will always be when he whiffed at repeating his neologism “Obamneycare” to Romney’s face at the New Hampshire debate earlier this month. But he’s been over-manning-up ever since. Last night he complained to Bill O’Reilly about Obama’s speech on Afghanistan: “He said we need to end the war ‘responsibly.’ When America goes to war, America needs to win.”
“Pawlenty has been telegraphing this over-compensation for months,” Josh writes, and he refers us to Pawlenty’s Independence Day–like pre-campaign video from January.
Telegraphing is right: What I noticed about the vid only now is that at the very end, at the final, climatic drum beat, as the camera closes in on our would-be hero’s face, Pawlenty literally blinks.
Minus some new graphics and backdrops, the new Countdown with Keith Olbermann is identical to the old Countdown with Keith Olbermann. It includes his best—his delight in ridiculing the powerful and the awful, and his worst—his delight in ridiculing the weak and the merely foolish. For the premiere Monday night, Olbermann chose to publicly humiliate a previously unknown woman as the Worst Person in the World.
The woman, riding a train to visit her parents, had apparently been talking loudly and swearing on a cell-phone conversation when a conductor told her keep it quiet. The woman gets obnoxious, saying, “Do you know how well educated I am?…. I’m not a crazy person. I’m a very well-educated person.” Another passenger tapes and then posts the scene on YouTube, where it becomes yet another “sensation.” “You haven’t seen the video of the woman on a train? The greatest cell-phone video ever?” Keith giddily asks us, as if we just must keep up with the permanent mob’s latest piñatas.
He didn’t stop at showing the video. He gave out the woman’s name, and quoted from her LinkedIn profile, where she (like the other 50 million people on LinkedIn) claims to have “excellent management and communications skills” with “a passion for pushing the limits on expectations.” Those were ironies Keith couldn’t help but grind in. And get this knee-slapper: She’s “likely to be driving to her folks from now on rather than taking the train—today’s worst person in the wooorld!”
We’ve all had bad days and have said things we regret, but do those moments really deserve YouTube and then “Worst Person” notoriety? Even the person who originally posted the video has removed it (for reasons that aren’t clear). Keith, however, revived it and gave it a whole new audience. But he seems unaware that the segment is far more embarrassing to him than to the woman, who you only end up feeling sorry for. As one of Olbermann’s commenters wrote: “Keith, are you going to do stories that make a difference or just post cellphone videos to ruin the lives of people who are trying to get work on LinkedIn? Sickening.”
Olbermann’s had a hot-and-cold relationship to WPITW. After Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity, in which he equated Olbermann and other media liberals with Fox News’s O’Reilly and Hannity (I defended Keith against that gross false equivalency), Keith actually dropped the segment. “Its satire and whimsy have gradually gotten lost in some anger,” he explained. “So in the spirit of the [rally], as of right now, I am unilaterally suspending” it. He soon brought it back, though, but with an awkward “whimsy” alert, calling it “(Not Really) The Worse Persons in the World.”
As tired as the bit now is it still has value. The lies and sleaze of pols and pundits are simply made more memorable when stuck with a “Worse Persons” label. Last night, for instance, the WP runners-up were Sarah Palin (for trade-marking the term “Sarah Palin”) and Fox News’s Chris Wallace and Bill Sammon (for editing out of Wallace’s interview with Jon Stewart, Stewart’s mention of Sammon’s memos that tell those freedom-loving Fox News hosts what propaganda to mouth on any given issue).
But by taking as much glee at shaming some little guy as he does the Sammons of the world, Keith is doing his own false equivalency dance.
And this meanspirited tendency is almost the mirror image of the mission statement Keith proudly announced for the new show last night.
“This is to be a newscast of contextualization,” he said. “And it is to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation.”