Politics, media and the politics of media.
Funny how tea partiers, Fox News-ers, and most movement conservatives have not been protesting the new Arizona immigration law that's stirred widespread fears of a jackbooted police state grabbing people off the street, taking away their rights, and ending the American dream. Maybe these Don't Tread On Me types simply can't imagine this happening in a GOP-dominated state government because they're so focused on the federales--after all, it's Obama who's grabbing people off the street, taking away their rights, and ending the American dream, right?
That, at least, is the message of this web ad, posted on a new site called Remember November, which is run by the Republican Governors Association (of which AZ Gov. Jan Brewer is, of course, a member and a fundraising beneficiary):
The Republican party has been struggling to find a voice that will please what it believes to be the all-powerful Tea Party movement and its paranoia, while at the same time quashing Obamaoid optimism. John Boehner overshot the mark with his orange-red-faced "Hell no, you can't!" speech right before the House passed health care reform. For his trouble, his chorus of "No, you can't!" was injected into a funny mash-up of Will.i.am's pro-Obama "Yes, we can" video. Now, in a scarier mash-up, red state govs are injecting Obama's "Yes, we can" before the printed words "BANKRUPT OUR COUNTRY," "CORRUPT YOUR REPRESENTATIVES," and "END THE AMERICAN DREAM."
None of this doom would feel quite as frightening, however, without that music you hear thumping in the background. It sounds a lot like "O Fortuna," the classical cliche to signify eschatological terror. Carl Orff's 1935-1936 movement has been used or imitated in movies (Excalibur, 300, Demons and Angels to name a few), commercials (Carleton beer), and in an earlier GOP ad (the spot that scared Senate Democrats away from transferring Gitmo prisoners to the U.S. may be "O Fortuna's" greatest performance, as Rachel Maddow pointed out last year.). Orff's classic isn't just horror-movie scary, like the creepy ringing tones of the "Excorcist" theme. "O Fortuna" suggests an end-times terror, the kind you get when worlds collide, gods fall, or a black Muslim socialist rules a white Christian nation by fooling all of the people all of the time.
And if ever there was a time to crank up the dog whistle symphony it's now, when, by Jehosaphat, blacks run the White House, flout the rules in Congress, and are so damn brazen they're boasting on Fox News itself of Obama's socialist takeover! And Fidel is right behind them, too, waiting for his old-age benefits!
Since that's obviously absurd, the RGA (chaired by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who says the flap over deleting slavery from Confederate History Month "doesn't amount to diddly") has to make up crazy things for black people to say. Sure, Al Sharpton said, "the American public overwhelmingly voted for socialism when they elected President Obama." But the spot edited out a few key words: "Some would argue it's socialism?" a Fox talking head asks Sharpton about the health care bill, to which Al replies, "Well, first of all, then we'd have to say that the American public overwhelmingly voted for socialism when they elected President Obama."
And indeed, part of what Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Florida) said, also about health care reform, was "there ain't no rules here." But he was actually quoting someone bemoaning how too many rules kill creativity, not gloating over Dem control. Hastings: "I wish that I had been there when Thomas Edison made the remark that I think applies here. `They ain't no rules here--we're trying to accomplish something.'"
Much has been written this week comparing the RGA's "Remember November" video with the 2005 movie V for Vendetta. In addition to urging us to vote, "Remember November" evokes the famous poem that begins "Remember, remember, the fifth of November," the date that Guy Fawkes, a Catholic revolutionary, tried unsuccessfully to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. In the movie, a guy wearing a Fawkes mask is a kind of populist-terrorist hero battling (to a "Fortuna"-like beat) a brutal totalitarian state:
Lines like "People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people" made Vendetta a fave of the Ron Paul people, many of whom now steep in the tea parties. And the red V in the GOP governors' logo does resemble Vendetta's bloody red V. Not to mention the V (for Victory) in the recently revived '80s TV series V, in which human-looking aliens offer mankind technological advancement and hope for a better world, only to be later unmasked as Nazi-like lizards. Who have no birth certificates.
Nonetheless, it's a long way to travel from a failed 17th century anti-Protestant terrorist to contemporary anti-Big Government protestors, and such routes are usually terribly muddied. The "Remember November" ad is yet another in a long line of GOP efforts to rally the crowd with thoughts of their own persecution: V stands less for Vendetta or Victory or Vote (or even Violence), and more for Victimhood.
So, if you're feeling your personal V-hood this fall (and who isn't?), the spot says, just vote R for your governor.
Which, if Newt Gingrich is right, could be as good as G for Gerrymandering. At the Southern Republican Leadership Committee convention last month, he said that, with so many open governor's seats this year, the 2010 gubernatorial races could swing the House of Representatives red: "If we win these seats, it could be worth as many as 25 or 30 seats in redistricting."
If the Dems let the Repubs get away with all this V business unanswered this summer, it'll be their own damn vault.
Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel and the editorial page of his Wall Street Journal may scorn global warming as an anti-capitalist hoax perpetrated by greedy scientists, but when his media empire's own vast butt is concerned, he's hedging his bets. Murdoch's Dow Jones & Co., which publishes the Journal, released a memo on Monday announcing that it is building "the largest solar power installation at a single commercial site in the U.S." And guess what: Instead of strangling free enterprise or other such rightwing claptrap, Dow Jones says, "We save the earth's resources and save money too."
All the stats of tree-huggy goodness--more than 13,000 solar panels covering nearly 230,000 square feet to generate 4.1 megawatts of electricity from the sun, etc.--are detailed here.
But seeing News Corp., Murdoch's overall company, earnestly brag about its environmental foresight, you would never know that Fox News is, hands down, the world's loudest pusher of the lie that "There's no global warming" (Hannity), that it's a "global warming scam" Glenn Beck), or, as Fox's newest hire, Sarah Palin, scoffs, it's "a bunch of snake oil science." Over at the Journal, Bret Stephens wrote last week, "global warming is dead... Which means that pretty soon we're going to need another apocalyptic scare to take its place."
But a peek behind the denier emissions reveals some countervailing do-gooderism. "Dow Jones will be a leader in renewable energy," the company memo reads. The solar installation on the South Brunswick, N.J., corporate campus "reduces the need for electricity from non-renewable energy sources." And it's not just about big bucks--the staff working on this energy initiative, called Cool Change, "imbued the effort with a justification beyond spreadsheets or blueprints."
Didn't know that Murdoch Land had an energy initiative? Well, Fox News didn't exactly blare Rupert's clean little secret. But in a company-wide address on the subject in 2007, Murdoch said, "Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats." He pledged to make News Corp. carbon neutral, and even said, in an interview with Grist magazine, that he'd be "subtly introducing [the climate issue] into our content"--heros driving hybrid cars and such. Which is just the sort of green-themed "behavior placement" that a recent Wall Street Journal piece showed is popping up in a slew of NBC TV programs.
The conservative media mogul might well have gone the way of Fox's big anti-eco egos, but as Murdoch explained in the speech, his native Australia "is suffering its worst drought in 100 years." Not to mention the influence of his liberal wife, Wendi, and his son (and heir apparent) James, "who converted me."
Murdoch does seem vaguely aware that his Fox News anchors didn't get the (literal) memo on going green. He told Grist that he'd probably bring Hannity around yet, because "he's a very reasonable, very intelligent man. He'll see, he'll understand it." Oh my. Does he really know or, as long as it makes money, does he really care about the extent to which the Roger Ailes-led anti-science battalion is aggressively working against his new found ideals?
Murdoch seems as much in the dark about Fox's Neanderthal stance on the environment as he is about its deep complicity in far-right politics. In a painfully embarrassing public interview with Marvin Kalb last week, Murdoch claimed he had no idea that Fox News has been actively and directly promoting the tea party movement. Fox shouldn't be "supporting the tea party or any other party," Murdoch said, adding, "I'd like to investigate what you are saying before I condemn anyone." So Media Matters handed him the dossier.
Maybe he actually read it, because yesterday, as the L.A. Times wrote, "Angry Fox News executives ordered host Sean Hannity to abandon plans to broadcast his nightly show as part of a Tea Party rally in Cincinnati" after learning that he was going to headline the paid event and that proceeds would go to the local TP organization--a much more glaring conflict of interest than usual.
Next challenge: Educating Rupert that Hannity really isn't a "very reasonable, very intelligent man."
After lauding CNN for its in-depth Haiti and stimulus coverage in a previous post (CNN Un-Dobbed!), I'm disheartened that the channel that finally found the backbone to dump Lou Dobbs has decided to redobb up on the angry white man punditry, this time with RedState.com's Erick Erickson. Erickson had barely signed up as a CNN contributor when he let rip some vio-sympatico spoutings about grabbing a shotgun to scare big government off his lawn. It would be unfortunate for CNN to stand by its man, as it so far has, any time of the year, but especially now, during the cruelest, militia-crazed month of April.
We haven't even reached the peak pique dates of the Waco and Oklahoma City anniversaries, yet we've already had: slavery-ignoring Confederacy lovers in Virginia; a would-be cop-killing militia in Michigan; the murder by plane of an IRS employee in Texas; arrests for serious threats to lawmakers; the N-wording of black congressmen, including civil right hero John Lewis, followed by conservatives like Laura Ingraham and Andrew Breitbart denying the word was ever hurled because no video caught it (like, why take a black man's word for it?). Not to mention assorted pipe bombs, severed gas lines, and widespresad Census paranoia.
It's on that last point that Erickson entered the fray. On an April 1 radio show, he said that while he supports the basic, 10-question Census form, no way, no how would he ever fill out the Census's more detailed American Community Survey, which samples about 2 percent of the population and could require house calls if the forms aren't returned. "I'm not filling out this form," he said. "I dare them to try and come throw me in jail. I dare them to. Pull out my wife's shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door. They're not going on my property."
Small fact: The government doesn't throw people in jail for ACS noncompliance; it could charge a fine, but rarely if ever does.
Why Erickson would use his wife's shotgun must be another story. But the day after his rant, he went off on his critics: "Where do you get off misconstruing that I'm agitating for killing Census workers when you people are out there advocating for the killing of the unborn on a regular basis?"
And he was right: Erickson didn't advocate actually killing Census workers, only threatening them. The problem is that any hypothetical Census worker, looking down the wrong end of shotgun, might not immediately appreciate the difference. And neither would all of Erickson's actual, perhaps incitable, listeners.
This weird denial was even weirder because, just days earlier, Erickson had told CNN's Howard Kurtz that he has "evolved" and has "had to grow up" since his old incendiary days. But, in fact, Erickson is still defending some of those incendiary remarks, like the one about taking out a gun to defend his right to use (get this) dishwasher detergent with phosphates, which Washington state, and now 14 other states, are banning as environmentally unsafe. "Were I in Washington state," Erickson blogged in March, 2009, "I'd be cleaning my gun right about now waiting to protect my property from the coming riots or the government apparatchiks coming to enforce nonsensical legislation." You've been warned, bubble police.
Granted, Erickson has done his major dissembling on radio and in his blog, not on CNN. But if only to avoid being blamed for stirring up gun-owners with grudges in the month of McVeigh, you'd think that "the most trusted name in news" would have asked its new contributor to at least "clarify" his shotgun remark on air.
But no. On Friday, discussing the GOP on John King, USA (the show that replaced Lou Dobbs Tonight), King didn't ask and Erickson didn't tell a thing about scaring off Census workers with firearms. Meanwhile, CNN refuses to officially comment on Erickson, and apparently it has no plans to ease him off camera. An occasional bad-boy controversy may even create a blip in CNN's tanking ratings, which continued to decline even (especially?) during its terrific Haiti and economic stimulus coverage. CNN apparently can no more quit its penchant for spicy rightwing flavoring than Erickson can his guns.
Remember, CNN wasn't home only to Lou Dobbs; Glenn Beck got his TV start on CNN's Headline News. The gutsy Joy Behar is now on HLN, Rick Sanchez leans progressive, and CNN tapped David Schuster for a pilot (for this, he was unfairly fired by MSNBC, as if he were the first TV person to ever test other waters), so you can't say that CNN overall tilts right. But it does tilt bland. They've tried to remedy the blah with everything from a techno-manic "magic wall" of digital delights to, now, grabbing a new media, red-faced red-stater off the shelf.
These days, CNN might even regret that it axed its right/left screamfest, Crossfire. But Jon Stewart's famous warning to its hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, that they were "hurting America," which pretty much killed the show, still holds true. Or, as Stewart now says, CNN could "lead a new generation of truth-seekers on an anti-talking point jihad"; instead, they hired Erickson.
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Over the past week or so, stories about conservative hypocrisies have been popping up in mainstream media like cute kitten videos on the internets. There was the Vatican blaming the news media for the pedophilia practiced by priests; the Republicans blaming the violence against Democrats on the Democrats themselves; Sarah Palin, intoning that "violence isn't the answer," studding a map with gunsights to target the Dems who should be gotten rid of come November; and, of course, fundraisers for the family values party trying to expense-account their visit to that faux-lesbian, bondage-themed nightclub in West Hollywood. It almost made you think the conservative movement was about to collapse under the weight of its own delusions.
But then the cable ratings came out and showed that Fox News had had its best quarter ever, and that it's the second most-watched cable channel in prime time, right after USA Network.
And that made me think of another recent story, the purge of former Bush speechwriter David Frum from the American Enterprise Institute, largely for delivering quotes like this: "The Republicans originally thought that Fox works for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox. The balance here has been completely reversed, and the thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican Party."
How is it that conservatives keep getting caught violating their supposed bedrock values, weakening and ultimately discrediting the party that carries their political hopes, yet the network that promotes their cause continues to soar above its competition?
What neocons obsessed with Israel and American foreign policy (like Frum, who coined the term "axis of evil") can't seem to grasp is the domestic failure of the Bush administration at just about every level. Frum believes his own hype, and thinks the battle can still be joined for a "muscular" foreign policy. But Roger Ailes and Fox News realize that the worm has turned. They recognize the need to wage a rear-guard fight in defense of fragile right-wing victories (from tax cuts to a packed courts system) won over the past quarter century. They also need to keep their people out of jail for war crimes. And the best way to do that is to keep American politics in a state of chaos, with tea parties and fresh social outrages at every turn.
And that's Fox's storyline, which happens to be pretty good TV. It's like an episode of Lost--it doesn't have to make sense, it just has to keep the feeling of claustrophobic, terror-induced suspense bubbling away.
So, in Fox's Sim Nation, white America feels victimized, spat upon, and ultimately vindicated by the outcome of every story. Fox allows viewers to complete each arc of moral judgment in their minds, if they keep watching long enough. For example, Republican whip Eric Cantor started last week as the hamhanded apparatchik who tried to say the Dems were attracting violence by whining about it. Someone had shot a bullet through his office window after the health care bill passed, too, he said, but you didn't hear him complaining about it--that is, until he mentioned it in a press conference, provoking local cops to announce it was only random gunfire and not a deliberate attack.
Embarrassing, isn't it, when reality mocks your spin? Fortunately, Fox viewers didn't hear all that much about the Virginia police report, but they got an earful about Philly resident Norman Leboon, who was arrested a few days later for threatening Cantor and his family in a weird YouTube rant. That Leboon had threatened people of just about every political persuasion--he was arrested last June for threatening to have the angel Gabriel kill his roommate--wasn't nearly as important to Fox as the fact that his threats, circulated when they did, seemed to vindicate Cantor's original thesis.
Today's left doesn't have a dream machine that makes whatever they do seem to come out all right in the end. Quite the opposite, in fact. Always open to self-doubt and willing to acknowledge that the truth might yet be hidden from view, science-friendly liberals gravitate toward complexity and even ambiguity, themes difficult to squeeze into a bumper sticker. The left has its own spin, of course, and I'm all for it (luv ya, Ed Schultz), but it's not the spin that eludes us, it's the big-picture arc that we miss.
And the big picture is an art form, not a term paper. The left was once the master of such forms, couched in popular traditions and served up with brio, like the "Four Freedoms" FDR preached in 1941 (freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear). Two years later, at the height of World War II, Norman Rockwell did four patriotic paintings that have gone on to become his most memorable images ("Freedom from Want" is the Rockwell used every year as an illustration for a family Thanksgiving).
Those schmaltzy pictures are as phony as John Boehner's tan (absent as they are of blacks, Asians, gays, etc.), but they capture the promise of a democratic America that cares for all its people. The elisions in their cast of characters are a little like the details Fox de-emphasizes in its presentations--like, for example, the pre-recorded celebrity interviews that Sarah Palin never conducted but was able to commandeer for her Fox special last night, Real American Stories. Fox knows never to let the details get in the way of its message, which in this case is that Palin is a caring television professional, not to mention a "real" American. The show strings together inspirational people profiles like those that end each nightly network newscast (ABC's "The American Heart" is the most treacly titled). Palin, of course, benefits by the association with courageous citizens, and Fox is able to use Oprahanian TV techniques to domesticate her virulent rightwing politics.
And that's why even when the Dems win, they don't always gain traction (post-health care vote poll numbers are all over the place). They have to reconquer the same territory over and over again, in no small part because Fox is maniacally faithful to its big picture.
Studies at Cornell have shown that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals, and if ever there was an emblem of Republican disgust for the poor, the sick, and people of color, this has gotta be it:
Yes, that's George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in Port-au-Prince this week, shaking hands with Haitians, and Bush then wiping his hand on Clinton's shirt. It's hard to catch because it flicks by on screen so fast, but 43 then checks to be sure any cooties that may have migrated to his person have made the complete transfer to 42's right shoulder.
This may be the first time Bush has used a fellow former president as a towel, but it's not the first time he's done something like this in public:
The prodigal son's concern about germ-infested humanity was noted by none other than then-Senator Barack Obama in his book, The Audacity of Hope, where he recalled President Bush, after warmly shaking the junior Illinois senator's hand at their first meeting, turning to an aide for a squirt of hand sanitizer. "Good stuff," Bush helpfully told Obama, offering a dollop of anti-bacterial goo as a well-intended professional tip. Of course, lots of thoroughly modern pols credit sanitizers with fighting off colds and worse, though they usually acknowledge this only behind the scenes (it's bad form to be visibly repelled by your constituents).
The difference with Bush is that he rubs his schmutz on other people, much as he uses other people to clean up the messes that trail in his wake, from Iraq to the near collapse of capitalism. Barely noticing his human Handi-Wipes--much less asking their permission--W seems to be living in a bubble where other people are like inanimate objects placed in his proximity for his personal comfort. I bet he has an aide wipe down the pontius pilates machine every day before he hits the gym.
The analogy to rightwing indifference to the struggles of average people is so direct it's almost not an analogy at all, merely a statement. On Wednesday's Morning Joe, for instance, Mike Barnicle asked Rep. Mike Pence for specific examples of government programs he'd like "to see disappear" to help lower the deficit he's suddenly noticed. "Obamacare," Pence laughed. "How's that?" Then, after a good minute of the Indiana congressman's nonanswers, Barnicle asked again. "We proposed," Pence ponied up, "I think a half trillion dollars in cuts to pay for the cost of repairing the Gulf Coast after Katrina."
That went over well. Even if you're a conservative who abhors "government handouts," you don't talk out loud about shortchanging the victims of Katrina anymore.
And now we have Bush going to Haiti--in part to wipe out memories of his callous flyover of New Orleans after Katrina--only to undercut his simulacrum of care with a small gesture of disgust. It's like learning that the downright Dickensian goon who threw dollar bills at a man with Parkinson's during a health care protest in Columbus, Ohio, actually lives in a neighborhood called "Victorian Village."
Bush is not French, but folks in the French tradition--as the Haitians, of course, are--have long believed that the touch of a king has the power to convey good luck or heal the sick. War leaders in particular were expected to demonstrate their belief in their own divinity by touching the ill, as Napoleon Bonaparte is shown to do in this painting by Baron Gros.
Touching the sick to heal them was a head of state's way to show he's of the people. Obama, Clinton, and pro-reform Dems seem to have that impulse--if not always the policies necessary--down. The Republicans, however, are in a prolonged state of "eeeew!"
Think of Fox News as a vast rightwing theater production: Lately, the painted backdrops keep falling down, and the actors have to talk really loud to maintain the audience's suspension of disbelief.
Take Ingrid Martin, introduced as an "unemployed health care worker" on Thursday's Fox & Friends. Martin had been brought on the show because she "put the president to the test" by resolutely telling Obama she opposed health care reform after his speech in Strongsville, Ohio, last week--and the Fox folks clearly thought they had a female Joe the Plumber in the offing. Hoping that her almost two-minute chat with the president would turn up an incriminating quote or two, Steve Doocy asked her to dish: Well, Martin said, she'd been shaking her head "No" all through the speech, and when Obama came off stage to shake hands, he asked if she was OK. When she told him she was unemployed, he asked if she had COBRA. Then she informed this rotten fellow that she had lost her job because of the possibility that his Obamacare might become law. At this point, we are starting to see Joe the Tinkerbell flap its wings.
But then Martin lets it drop that she's not exactly a "health care worker," she's an insurance agent. And proud of it, adding that she's "very active in the National Association of Underwriters." And loyal Fox viewers need to suddenly avert their chastened eyes.
That was a bit like Glenn Beck's epic fail with Rep. Eric Massa (formerly D-NY), whose naked confrontation with Rahm Emanuel in the congressional gym showers would bring down the nazi-socialist presidency--at least, so Glenn promised the night before. But by the time Beck had wasted his entire hour trying to get Massa to reveal the true evil of Obamacrats, all we got was Massa's heartfelt assertion that Washington needs...campaign finance reform.
Beck threatened to bleed from his eyes. Maybe Fox should not in principle give air-time to real human beings caught up in real human crises, because amateurs can't be relied upon to know their lines. But even the pros have been giving Roger Ailes flop sweat lately.
Perhaps the biggest blooper of all came last month, when a VP from insurance giant WellPoint was scolded by a Fox Business panel--not so much for raising premiums in California by 25 percent, but for doing it in the middle of our monster health care debate. Why didn't WellPoint "wait for this to blow over and maybe a year from now try to hike rates?" asked an incredulous Charles Payne, as his cohost Stu Varney chided, "You handed the politicians red meat!"
Eric Fluegel, the VP, calmly said, in effect, Duh: With rising costs and a shrinking pool of healthy customers who can afford individual policies in this economy, a bottom-feeding company like WellPoint can't survive without government reform that forces the uninsured to buy coverage.
Whoa! You could almost hear Stu and Chuck's brains straining at their gaskets: The insurance cartel favors reform--does not compute, this guy's off script. A 3D reality pops out of Fox's 2D world once again.
As it occasionally did during Bret Baier's interview of Obama this week. Most coverage of the interview focused on the Fox host's 16 or so aggressive interruptions, but it was the weird subjectivity of the questions that stayed with you. They seemed to come less from a news anchor and more from a man with 40 pitchforks at his back. Bret tried, for instance, to vault over the possibility that reform might help some folks by quoting from Fox's "18,000" emails from "regular people" whose questions ("If the health care bill is so wonderful, why do you have to bribe Congress to pass it?") sounded suspiciously like Fox talking points.
Obama responded that he gets "40,000 letters or emails a day," most asking why insurance rates are going up 40 percent or why pre-existing conditions can't be covered. But no matter how much Baier tried to stop Obama from saying such things, in the end he failed to paint the man who is still the most popular player on the national stage as a menace to America.
Baier's singleminded attempts to keep unreality in front of reality are of a piece with Fox's chyrons that can magically change a politician's party affiliation depending on the day's news. (Remember how Florida GOP Congressman Mark Foley was suddenly identified as a Democrat when the scandal broke that he was chasing male congressional pages, or South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford was listed as a Dem when he tried explaining how his hike along the Appalachian Trail ended up in Argentina?) Instead of "catapulting the propaganda," as George W. Bush once put it, these kinds of obvious flubs call attention to the propaganda-making itself.
No matter. On Thursday, Fox's on-screen graphics simply willed away the Congressional Budget Office's nonpartisan finding that the reconciliation bill would cut the deficit by $130 billion over 10 years, according to Media Matters. The network only mentioned the CBO's estimate of $940 billion in costs.
Fox's greatest achievement in news communications has been to show the world that politically convenient fantasies can outsell more-or-less honest attempts to wrestle with actual fact. So, for much of Fox's audience, a few glimpses of the backstage won't shake their suspension of disbelief in the least. I think a lot of people watch Fox and know perfectly well that large chunks of it aren't true, they just love and admire the utterly ruthless spin.
But over the next few days, we will learn if a handful of Democratic congresspeople will notice that the backdrop for Act III--"If you vote yes, we'll kill you with negative ads" (as if they wouldn't try anyway)--is just painted cardboard, too. Here's betting they do.
There was an intense, conspiratorial, crazily sincere man on Glenn Beck's show Tuesday, and it wasn't Glenn Beck. Recently resigned Democratic Congressman Eric Massa of New York took up the entire GB episode, which concluded with Beck apologizing for "wasting" his viewers' time. But I have to say, it was the best hour of Glenn Beck I've ever seen--not so much for what it revealed about poor Eric Massa, but because it exposed how the GOP's nationwide loss on the issue of gay rights has profoundly gummed up the Republican noise machine.
But first, Massa: If this guy is in the closet, it's not just a closet. It's not even a walk-in closet. He's a whole haberdashery of strangeness, best explained, perhaps, by a video mash-up of the interview's bizarre double entendres (the big catchphrase will probably be "tickle fights," but my fave is Beck saying, "You're a fireman coming out.... but they won't say, 'Over here, bring a hose over here.'"
Of course, it was Massa's verbal tics that got him on the show in the first place, in particular his description of an argument he had "naked as a jaybird" with Rahm Emanuel in the Congressional gym showers over the budget, one that moved Massa to suggest on a radio show that Emanuel was corrupt. Fox News has several irons in the fire in its ongoing attempt to Waterloo Obama and health care reform, among them the idea that Democrats are now as sexually and financially scandal-plagued as the Foley/Craig/Ensign/Sanford GOP. At the same time, Fox is pushing the "Chicago thugs" line, which insists that Obama's inner circle would, as Massa says, "tie...children to the railroad tracks" in order to get what they want. The story about Emanuel in the shower, "pok[ing] his finger in my chest" and twisting arms "17 times to Sunday," seemed tantalizingly close at first glance to melding both storylines into one neat, knickerless package.
Except, unfortunately, it doesn't. Beck is a monologist, not an interviewer, and he completely lost control of his show to Massa, allowing the former Republican who spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy to basically bitch about traditional politics and moan about his bad media rep without once establishing anything sinister or even manipulative in White House politicking. Beck has since said, "I almost threw him out of the studio three times." But he didn't, because he couldn't control his lust for dirt (Beck: "Tell me something about the unions and how the unions are working or any--I don't care. Any kind of corruption. Tell me about--what is the White House doing?" Massa kept deflecting from the specific to the general: "Glenn, it's not just unions. It's every special interest.")
Curiously, Beck failed to hit Massa's own admitted misbehavior, and veered away from accusing him of being a closeted homosexual (it was left to Larry King later that night to ask whether the congressman was gay so directly that it provoked a nondenial denial). The result was almost a mirror-image parody of Beck's own shtick: the hint that "they" are trying to get him, that it's all part of a larger puzzle that only he understands, and, most important, that by revising the past, he could sound plausible enough to get away with saying anything. Maybe Beck sniffed out the Secret Sharer aspect of Massa, or maybe he was crushed for having praised Massa as a "ray of sunshine" the night before. But by the next day Beck was declaring he was through with the whole story and would be moving on.
But not so the GOP. Ever since the first rumors surfaced, the Republicans have been coming up with as many collaterally damaging explanations of Massa's behavior as Massa himself has exculpatory ones for why he quit (cancer, saltiness, the Dem leadership was trying to destroy him for voting against health care reform). At first conservatives quite naturally saw Massa's disgrace as an opportunity to divide the Dems with a Larry Craig-like scandal. But Massa had only been in Washington for 14 months and had spoken out against Don't Ask, Don't Tell as well as an amendment to ban gay marriage--which is quite different from Craig's more than quarter of a century living a double life.
More generally, the Republican Party that won the White House in 2004 by vowing to protect us from homosexual terrorists has simply lost on the entire issue. Craig himself had something to do with that: The spectacle of a long-sitting senator lying to himself and his wife in front of the nation pretty well shattered the hardline pro-family scam the GOP had been running on since Reagan left office. Today, polls show a much broader acceptance of gays and lesbians. Consider Virginia, where the recently elected "moderate" Republican governor touched off a firestorm of campus demonstrations against his effort to remove antidiscrimination rules from state government and universities. Under pressure, Gov. Bob McDonnell has now tried to reverse himself, but the GOP may have lost the youth vote there for years to come.
And without joining anti-gay hysteria to racism and the communist/terrorist threat, the Republicans' three-legged stool totters. Look at Beck, who was reduced to trolling for vague "corruption" charges while the man in front of him self-destructed in a scrum of naked salty firemen with hoses. No matter what they try to do with this story, it will always come back to a gay-hatred, although the GOP dare no longer speak its name.
The latest stab at using Massa is House Minority Leader John Boehner's resolution today for the House Ethics Committee to investigate what Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders knew about Massa and when did they know it; they're implying, of course, a cover-up. While the resolution passed nearly unanimously, Pelosi appears unconcerned about an investigation, because, as it's looking now, there's no there there.
Anything more that Republicans might turn up on Massa will probably play out as piling on, with the added spin of smearing gays--again. And piling on, clumsily overreaching, has become the dominant trope of the rightwing media operation. Sen. Jim Bunning's shut-out of unemployment extensions turned into a real black eye; so did Liz Cheney's Web ad against justice department lawyers defending GITMO detainees. Trying to align the GOP with the Tea Party has produced embarrassing flubs, like the recent RNC fundraising pitch depicting Obama in Joker whiteface.
The right may be full of conviction and prejudice, but they can't express it openly. Without the fear of gays to drive large numbers of religious and socially conservative Americans into their ranks, the Republican Party is but a fragment of the juggernaut that has dominated politics for the last 30 years. The party is getting small enough to fit into a closet, and not a walk-in.
A few weeks ago, Talking Points Memo started asking a question that now seems so obvious you wonder why you hadn't heard it before: Instead of blabbing on about filibusters, cloture, reconciliation, and other "arcana," as Josh Marshall put it, why aren't the Dems trying to pass health care reform with red-blooded American words like "up-or-down vote"? Or "majority vote"? After all, though the reconciliation procedure has been used 22 times, mostly by Republicans, since 1980 to pass major legislation, most Americans have no idea what it means (outside, perhaps, of a happy ending to divorce). But they do know up-or-down vote: Thumbs up, thumbs down, count 'em. Next.
Which is essentially what the White House has finally decided to say. Yesterday, President Obama called for an "up-or-down vote" on health care, without once mentioning "reconciliation." "The American people, all they want is an up or down vote," David Axelrod said earlier, adding a few other clear, slogany phrases like "let the majority rule and let's move on."
Oh, the Democrats aren't shouting "up-or-down vote" with as much bully-boy gusto as the Republicans incessantly did during the 2005-2006 battles over the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Sam Alito. Then, the constant cries from conservative politicians and media was that the two judges deserved a "fair up or down vote," the frequent fillip of "fair" tapping the put-upon resentment of the populist heart (and not seen much from Dems these days). But the daintier D's are at least now deigning to use some punchy, Germanic, monosyllablic words. By comparison, and with the aid of aggressive Republican dissembling, the Latinate, multisyllabic "reconciliation," has been made to seem serpentinely sneaky, if not also overeducated elite.
But no matter how much Fox & GOP Friends repeat that Obama is trying to "ram," "jam," and/or "cram" the health care bill through by reconciliation, it's hard to make the word sound downright evil. So, in a coordinated talking-point fulsilade, the right is trying, and often succeeding, to redefine reconciliation as something it's not, a "nuclear option."
"What used to be called the nuclear option is now kind of a warm and fuzzy phrase called 'reconciliation'" (Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett). "Reconciliation is what it's called now. It used to be called the nuclear option" (Fox anchor Bret Baier). "[Sen. Dick] Durbin said, the Senate could make changes to the bill by using the nuclear option, known formally as 'reconciliation'" (FoxNews.com). Durbin, of course, never used those words.
The right didn't just begin trying to ram/jam/cram the redefinition through. Fox was on the case back in May, when Chris Wallace prompted Senate minority Mitch McConnell to say reconciliation=nuclear option; by the Town Hall days of August, Sean Hannity, Dick Morris, and other Foxers were barking it in a redefining frenzy.
Maybe it's time for a glossary, starting with the best-known of the barely-known terms:
Filibuster: A Senate rule that allows for continuous debate over a bill and is cut off only if 60 senators vote to end debate (or invoke "cloture"). To see why it's so easy to bamboozle the public over Senate semantics, consider that a recent Pew poll found that a mere 26 percent of Americans know that 60 votes will end a filibuster, while 25 percent believe that only 51 votes are needed (7 percent say 67; 5 percent, 75; and 37 percent admit they don't know).
Nuclear option: The Republicans' threat to change the Senate filibuster rule itself. During the 2005 battle over President Bush's extremely conservative judicial nominees, the Republicans didn't have the 60 votes to overcome a likely Democratic filibuster, so majority leader Bill Frist threatened to do something that had never been done. Through a complicated series of procedural steps designed to bypass the normal two-thirds, or 67, vote requirement to change a Senate rule, the Republicans would use a simple majority vote to ban Senators from filibustering judicial nominees--not just the nominees under consideration, but any in the future. (Here's how it would have gone down in 2005 had not the Gang of 14 forced a compromise.)
"Nuclear option" was an apt term at the time, says a Senate rules expert who wants to remain anonymous, because "it would have been a major change in Senate rules that would have forever changed the right of senators to filibuster judicial nominees. It hadn't been done before because it would have thrown the Senate into chaos."
Soon, however, Republicans realized that the phrase made them look like the bad guys. Former majority leader Trent Lott, who originally coined the phrase, tried to rename it the "Constitutional option" (giving rise to jokier names like the "ExLax option"), and righties blamed the Democrats for creating the name in the first place. As Media Matters wrote at the time: "Many in the media have complied with the Senate Republicans' shift in terminology and repeated their attribution of the term 'nuclear option' to the Democrats." Sound familar?
Reconciliation, on the very other hand, does not nuke any Senate rules--it is a Senate rule. Established in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act and used by both parties to circumvent filibusters in order to vote through budgetary (and only budgetary, per the Byrd rule of 1985) legislation on a simple majority vote. "There's nothing nuclear about reconciliation," the Senate rules expert says. "It's been used most years since 1980, by both parties, Republicans more than Democrats, and for social policy like Medicare, Medicaid, welfare reform, and for both Bush tax cuts. They're trying to act like something scandalous is being done, and that's nonsense."
And as Democrats are having trouble making clear, reconciliation would not, could not, be used to pass the entire health care bill. It would apply only to the more House-friendly "fixes" to the comprehensive Senate healthcare reform bill--which, as the right wants us to forget, already passed, by 60 votes. (For a great explanation--with pictures!--of the reconciliation-equals-nuclear-option lie, see Rachel Maddow here.)
Majority, simple majority, supermajority, and megasuperamazing majority: While we're at it, let's define something so basic you'd think it would need no explanation. But in the GOP's down-is-up vocabulary, even "majority" is made to seem like a small-time loser. It means, of course, 51 votes or more; same for "simple majority." The "supermajority" required to end a filibuster is 60 votes. A few months ago, a couple Republican senators insisted that a health care bill shouldn't pass unless it reached a megasupermajority of 67 or more votes. Defining majority up obscures the fact that, without a filibuster threat, a simple majority vote is the normal way bills pass the Senate, as it always does in the House. Of course, GOP threats of filibuster have been de rigueur since Obama's been in office. And so you have insta-revisionists like Fox's Baier telling viewers that reconciliation "would only need 51 votes instead of the 60 normally required."
Up-or-down vote: But how can one reach this mysterious, increasingly exotic thing called a "majority vote"? By (drum roll) an up-or-down vote. It means whoever gets at least 51 votes wins. But more than that, "up-or-down vote" is a gut-simple way to cut through the Republican fog machine. Dems, let's hear it!
As CPAC opened its annual convention last Thursday, the same day that computer engineer Joe Stack flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS office in Austin setting it ablaze, the consensus about his violent anti-tax attack was remarkably sanguine.
On Friday Human Events editor Jed Babbin introduced Grover Norquist, the nation's most rabid anti-tax activist, with a little joke: "I was just really, really glad that it was not him identified as flying that airplane into the IRS building." Laughter all around. Then Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty strained to hit a Southern-sheriff note of populist threat by suggesting, rather oddly, that conservatives were cuckolded wives who, like Tiger Woods's spouse, should "take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country!"--thereby managing to invoke both the wall of shattered glass windows at the Echelon Building and the marital troubles that may have contributed to Stack's anger.
It didn't help the damage control when conservative pin-up Scott Brown said of the attack, just hours after it happened, "I don't know if it's related, but I can just sense not only in my election, but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated." Which is scary close to saying Stack's terrorist act came from the same set of emotions and attitudes that put Brown in office (talk about saying "No"!).
But by Saturday evening, after CPACers had given Dick Cheney a standing ovation, straw-voted for Ron Paul as their next presidential candidate, and shouted down anti-gay natural law fan Ryan Sorba, a clumsy instinct for damage control seemed to assert itself. Just how much wreckage had Joseph Stack inflicted on the anti-tax Tea Party passions when he flew his single-engine plane straight into the heart of their rage? Was the GOP, and in particular its spokeschannel Fox News, edging a bit too close to a rightwing equivalent of the 1968 riots in Chicago, when a majority of Americans turned against the Democrats because of the violence they saw on TV?
Those questions cannot yet be answered, but one man at least was completely aware of their importance: Glenn Beck, who gave the closing keynote speech Saturday evening. Whether or not Joe Stack had ever watched Fox, dug Glenn Beck, or ever darkened a website run by a Tea Party outfit (and we may never know the truth about these things, either), Beck was fast to assume that Stack's nutty tax-and-big-government-hating manifesto would tarnish Beck's own nutty tax-and-big-government-hating shtick.
Beck had already risen to the occasion on his Fox show the day of the Austin tragedy. Bucking and weaving his way around the accusations he knew were coming, Beck offered a full-court mea no culpa (the 20-minute version here): He denounced violence, advising you to "get away from anybody who's calling for revolution"; he insisted that Stack could be as lefty as he was righty, and that allowing Van Jones to leverage community organizing with green energy jobs was somehow like flying a plane into a windmill. Or something.
Of course, Stack did not fly his plane into a capitalist redoubt, like a bank too big to fail; he flew it into an IRS office, which just happens to be the focus of radical constitutionalist anger. That Beck's daily rantings make about as much sense as Stack's suicide note--which, in addition to inveighing against the IRS, also attacked corrupt politicians, the Catholic Church, and George W. Bush--is telling. Beck's tremulous lectures have long since veered away from any real political themes to emotional analyses of impending doom and strange, fractured fairy tales about American history--he is always mixing the colors on the Polaroid before they set, creating wildly distorted pictures of who we are. Confusion and paranoia are his goals, not merely his means.
So, as he tells you to reject violence, pay no attention to the man over there who said that Obama and Democrats are vampires "going after the blood of our businesses," suggesting we "drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers."
And draw no Holocaustal, or plane-crashing, conclusions when he exhorts us, like a later day Elmer Gantry, to "find the exit closest to you and prepare for a crash-landing because this plane is coming down because the pilot is intentionally steering it into the trees!... We will thrive--as long as these people are not in control. They [the White House and progressives] are taking you to a place to be slaughtered!"
Later he denied using the word slaughter, but hey, consistency is really the hobgoblin of big minds, not small ones. After dancing around on the edge of the sword at least since the '08 campaign, Beck pulls back in horror at violent opposition to the government now, when everyone is mourning the dead and wondering who else among us might lose it. Beck has always been careful not to advocate literal violence. Instead, he does his "I am every man" thing, voice quavering, while stumbling onto viscerally violent metaphors (you're the victim of Hitler! of Stalin! of Obama!), whipping up such a conspiratorial spiral of fury that low-info fans might just want to defend themselves by any means necessary.
And if they can't quite follow what he's saying, they can damn well follow how he says it.
Anyway, in his keynote speech at CPAC, Beck didn't mention a word about Stack or violence. Cutting taxes and spending, and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps when you're down, were the only practical policies offered--the speech was more AA than RNC, by a mile. He did tell Republicans that they needed to admit their addiction to spending. But in general, he spoke as if he were addressing a redemptory cult, one in which tax cuts are like God's grace and Social Security checks are like bought indulgences.
Cultists are the perfect political creatures--they will forget what they were praying for five minutes after you give them a new Sign.
Which reminds me, where's the outcry? Why aren't the rightwing media and their auditioning politicians getting hysterical over Obama taking so much time to make a statement about the IRS attack as they did over Obama's "slow response" to the Christmas bomber? I mean, Stack killed himself and another person and injured 13, two of them critically; the Nigerian guy just scorched his privates.
Why see the mote in thy brother's eye, but not the beam in thine own?
After the State of the Union speech last month, Jon Stewart chided the three cable news nets for fitting their respective caricatures all too well: "So the haters have Fox, the lovers who are afraid to be hurt again have MSNBC, but what about all the people who watched the speech and found it too straightforward and understandable? Well, there's always CNN."
Then followed a montage of CNN's embarrassing technoverkill--the panels of a thousand pundits seated behind consoles on the bridge of the Enterprise, the servile reading of anonymous Twitters on the air, the fetishistic touching of the "Magic Wall" of pixelated graphs and flash polls. But stuck in the middle of these laughable excesses (at about 1:50) was a shot of Wolf Blitzer giving a nod to "the stimulus desk," as if that were yet another desperate gimmick to make the oldest cable news outfit look with it.
But, like its excellent Haiti earthquake coverage, CNN's stimulus project is no gimmick. Rather, the stim desk is a glimpse of what being the no-drama cable outlet could mean in a hopelessly divided country. And it's a good thing.
Don't get me wrong: CNN is still the beige network, neither red nor blue, and often seems to talk out of both sides of its face at once. But you don't have to be a genius to see that that's where much of the country is right now, having rejected both parties for their timidity, stupidity, and moral querulousness in a time of crisis. And CNN's struggle to find its identity between MSNBC and Fox--especially now that it has finally dumped the dead weight of Lou Dobbs--has opened a window of opportunity for something that looks a lot like old-fashioned journalism.
The Stimulus Project has been a fair-and-balanced, in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the good-twisted-into-the-horrendous-by-the-right that the stimulus bill has wrought. Such basic reporting is obviously needed, since people like newbie senator Scott Brown are still wandering about claiming that the stim bill "didn't create one new job."
The way it works is plain and old-school: CNN has dozens of correspondents, factcheckers, producers, and "all-platform journalists," both in Atlanta and across the country, crunching numbers, finding people who are grateful for their stimulus-created job, or finding projects that produced fewer jobs than expected (like a bridge for a small town in Missouri). Along the way they've tripped over a few fancy-pants projects attacked by Republicans as a waste of money (like laying new tracks for a wine train in Napa Valley) that did not, in fact, receive "a single stimulus dollar," as CNN declared. Of course, in the time-honored tradition of TV news, CNN didn't necessarily discover all these stories itself, but it publicized them far beyond any local news outlet's reach: during the Stimulus Project's launch in late January, it ran two segments every hour every day for a week.
And the project is still kicking--running stories less frequently, of course, but now that the network has set up the infrastructure (so to speak), stimulus stories are shovel-ready and easy to shoehorn into the day's sked.
And then there's Haiti. While most media are long gone or have left only skeletal crews, CNN is keeping five news teams, totaling about 30 people, on the ground (down from about 60 during the first two weeks). And this week, Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta are back in Haiti, after about 10 days off in New York.
"CNN aired almost three times as many stories originating from inside Haiti than Fox and MSNBC combined," the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found, while the LA Times wrote that the "resources CNN poured into covering the destruction in Haiti in the [week ending January 21] helped the cable news channel nearly double its average viewership this year..."
While some think that CNN "exiled" Cooper and Gupta to Haiti to pump up ratings that have dived back to normal (which is last place in primetime among the three cable news channels) since their first two weeks there, I'd like to take the Katrina-seasoned Cooper at face value when he explains why he returned: "There is more happening here than 10 American missionaries in jail. I guess I came to remind myself of that. No one deserves to die in silence, and no one's struggle to live should go unnoticed as well."
Cooper and Gupta have been criticized for getting personally involved in Haiti, for saving a kid from the chaos or performing impromptu surgery, but I've never felt they were showboating. They're more like the Greek chorus of the news.
You can't say that about either of CNN's rivals. As much as I live by MSNBC, it's as ego and personality driven as Fox is ego and propaganda driven. Olbermann's fulminations are increasingly over the top, and enough already about Mika's book tour. Mass media incentivizes most of its talent (with exceptions like Rachel Maddow) to scream, score, and go all drama-queen over so-and-so "eviscerating" so-and-so--success, after all, is measured by internet hits and YouTube replays. Finding a place where no-nonsense reporting has a berth seems like shelter from a soundbite storm.
It's been just three months since Dobbs was forced from the network he helped found nearly 30 years ago, but you can almost sense the atmosphere of a house from which a crazy uncle, long confined to the attic, has finally been carted off for good. Everybody who lives there suddenly has a new energy, maybe even a new sense of self-respect. It's hard to say whether an Obama-like straddle of partisan passions will be enough to compete for impulse cable viewers in the American market, but it's pleasant to think it might.