Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

The Media Did Not Have Relations With ‘That Story’

Lewinsky Post cover

The May 7 New York Post cover featured Monica Lewisnky and the accompanying headline, "My Life Sucks!" (New York Post)

Have the media grown up half as much as Monica Lewinsky?

From the looks of it, Lewinsky, now 40, has learned something from the humiliating fallout of the amour fou she had at 22. Unlike most of the stupid things people do at that age, her stupid thing led to the impeachment of a president and made her name into a national punch line for the last sixteen years. “Now,” she writes in an essay for Vanity Fair, “I am determined to have a different ending to my story. I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.”

CNN New Day co-host Chris Cuomo said last week that if “Monicagate” had occurred today, the press wouldn’t overreact as it did in the 1990s. After all, media attitudes have changed in the last generation. Outside of Fox and some stragglers, the corporate media officially love gay marriage and hate bullying; some MSMers are aware of this thing called “slut-shaming”; and, hey, we have social media, where bullies themselves can be shamed and then tweeted away into the ether. Because Bill Clinton himself survived the scandal, you could conceivably argue that the media sniggered past its adolescence and learned to treat at least some sex scandals (Mark Sanford, David Vitter) with a sense of proportion.

But evidence of a mature media response to Lewinsky is pretty thin. There are plenty of understanding pieces online, of course, like Emily Shire’s “Stop Slut Slamming Monica Lewinsky!” or Mel Robbins’s “Stop judging Monica Lewinsky.” But much of the mainstream media are still writing on the bathroom stall.

The New York Post, for instance, put Lewinsky on its cover last week with the headline, “MY LIFE SUCKS!” Inside, columnist Andrea Peyser was at her ugliest best, making sure you knew it was middle-school pun intended.

She’s America’s favorite beret-wearing former intern, whose very name has become a synonym for a sex act she eagerly performed on her knees, a dame who rocketed to fame for failing to dry-clean a blue dress stained with the seed of the then-leader of the free world.

Now, Lewinsky, 40, wants our pity and, perhaps, a job she can perform while sitting upright.

Peyser has a record of shaming women for daring to speak up. She wrote a column about one of the women who charged former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain with sexual harassment titled “Jobless & shameless gal going for gold.”

Robin Abcarian updates the ancient gold-digger motif in the Los Angeles Times by adding a soupçon of entrepreneurial envy. “’Take back my narrative?”” she scoffs at Lewinsky. “This is a hilarious misstatement considering she spent a decade leveraging her infamy and earning who-knows-how-much money, exploiting her affair with Clinton. Abcarian indicts Lewinsky with a list of her gigs—SNL guest, Jenny Craig spokeswoman, dating-show host. Worse, somehow, Lewinsky “became a handbag designer whose pricey haute hippie knit bags were retailed at Henri Bendel,” Peyser writes. “Not too shabby.”

Maybe the most telling responses to Monica’s plea for understanding in Vanity Fair have been silent, like Michael Isikoff’s (not to mention Bill and Hillary Clinton’s). But the most slippery by far are those from media figures who sound sympathetic to Lewinsky, while somehow managing to misremember their behavior back in the day.

Joe Scarborough, whose passive-aggressive feelings about women are buried in a very shallow grave, launched into an epic rant last week against female columnists now attacking Lewinsky. He even threw down a copy of the NY Post, calling it “a disgrace.”

“Why is it in 2014 it’s the women who are turned into the bad guys?” he asked. “I never got it, and after all these years there are females going out protecting Bill Clinton for his horrific acts.” Lewinsky, he said, “shows a lot of dignity, a lot more dignity than people who preyed on her and then tried to turn her into a slut or a nut.”

On that last line, I completely agree. But then Joe continued, “You all are sick. You were sick into the ’90s, you women’s rights ladies…. you defended the wrong person.”

Joe Scarborough has to attack Bill Clinton—and the “women’s rights ladies” who defended him for his policies despite his rotten behavior—because, as a young gun in Congress, Scarborough voted to impeach Clinton over the Lewinsky affair. If Bill hadn’t committed a “horrific act,” it would have been horrifically political indeed for Joe and his cohorts to impeach him. Besides, Scarborough’s take on Lewinsky can be folded rather neatly into the judo defense move, pushed most prominently by Rand Paul, that it’s really the “sexual predator” Bill Clinton and the Democrat Party who are waging a war on women.

At the end of his rant, Scarborough absolved the deftest judo master of them all, Maureen Dowd, saying, “I’m not talking about Maureen at all.” Which is a nice white lie to tell about MoDo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1998 columns on the Clintons and Lewinsky.

Amanda Hess at Slate lays out how Dowd evolved from targeting the Clinton machine (“Should they paint her as a friendly fantasist or a malicious stalker?…. It is probably just a matter of moments before we hear that Ms. Lewinsky is a little nutty and a little slutty”) to tarring Lewinsky herself. Dowd, Hess writes, eventually devoted columns “to arguing that, come to think of it, Lewinsky was both nutty and slutty”:

Dowd penned Lewinsky’s book proposal for her: “Preface: Powerful men who are busy running things aren’t as hard to get as you think. It’s really, really easy if you show a little gumption and a lot of cleavage.” Later that month, she wrote, “It is Ms. Lewinsky who comes across as the red-blooded predator, wailing to her girl friends that the President wouldn’t go all the way.”

Just last week, Dowd penned an equally imaginative proposal: that she was never part of the gang attacking Lewinsky. From Dowd’s May 6 column:

My columns targeted the panting Peeping Tom Ken Starr and the Clintons and their henchmen, for their wicked attempt to protect the First Couple’s political viability by smearing the intern as a nutty and slutty stalker. I did think Monica could skip posing for cheesecake photos in Vanity Fair while in the middle of a plea bargain. But I felt sorry for her…. Her bullies were crude strangers in person and online who reduced her to a dirty joke or verb.

Dowd, as Hess says, “appears unaware that it’s the caricature she helped to build that’s still haunting Lewinsky after all these years.”

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The uses of the Clinton/Lewinsky story are so multiple and so crisscrossed that you could almost believe the theory Lynne Cheney introduced on The O’Reilly Factor—that Lewinsky’s essay is “an effort on the Clintons’ part to get that story out of the way. Would Vanity Fair publish anything about Monica Lewinsky that Hillary Clinton didn’t want in Vanity Fair?” To which guest host Laura Ingraham responded, “I love this theory. It actually makes perfect sense.”

When Monica did something stupid, she at least had the excuse of being 21 years old. The media, on the other hand, are ageless.

Read Next: Richard Kim on what Monica Lewinsky gets wrong about Tyler Clementi

Why Is the Right Obsessed With Castration?

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin speaks at a campaign rally in Leesburg, Virginia, in 2008.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Right-wing pols and militia men seem to be thinking about castration an awful lot lately. In speeches and in campaign ads, they’re threatening to cut off their enemies’ balls, and it’s getting weird.

We can only speculate over why some on the right have castration on their minds. Conservative white males, now a minority in a country led by a black president, are losing their demographic cojones. Maybe they’re threatening their foes with what they fear most—or maybe talking like a mohel allows them to sound violent and still be considered vaguely humorous.

Over at Cliven Bundy’s ranch, the folks fighting federal tyranny (that is, refusing to pay for grazing rights on federal land) are still gathering and making speeches.

“All over this country, we are still staring civil war in its bloody face,” said Mike Vanderboegh, leader of the militia group Three Percenters and author of a novel that allegedly inspired a domestic terrorist plot in 2011. He blames Senator Harry Reid (who’s called Bundy supporters “domestic terrorists”) for inciting civil war against a “free people who are armed and who are willing to use those arms in defense of liberty.” And Vanderboegh warned, “Don’t poke the wolverine with a sharp stick, Harry, unless you want your balls ripped off.” That brought hoots and hollers from the crowd.

Bundy’s boys weren’t the first to thrust the image of torn-off testicles onto the 2014 political stage. That honor goes to a woman, Joni Ernst, “Mom. Veteran. Conservative,” who is running for US Senate from Iowa. As her now famous ad goes, “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.” The spot ends with Ernst promising to get tough on the “big spenders” in DC: “Let’s make ’em squeal.”

While Ernst is not a demographically challenged white male, she is of the Sarah Palin school of righteous gals who talk up the kind of casual brutality usually associated with tough dudes. Palin, who recently boasted that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” and who regularly argued that “mom jeans” Obama has no balls, said at a Sunday rally for the pig castrator, “I haven’t been this excited about a candidate in quite a while.”

Bob Quast, whose sister was murdered by her abusive husband, is also running for that Iowa senate seat. To introduce his long-shot candidacy, he says in a web ad called “Got Balls?”: “If you are the sexual predator and sociopath who murdered my sister Lynette, and you come to my front door to do harm to my girls, I’m going to use my Glock. To blow your balls off.” On that line, he smiles and his front tooth sparkles with a predatory gleam.

Holding up a knife and the Glock, Quast then invites Bruce Braley, the presumed Democratic nominee for Senate, to a debate. “Congressman Braley, you have nothing to fear,” Quast says. “I will leave my gun at home, Jodi can leave her knife on the farm, as long as you agree to leave your elite law degree in DC,” an elite law degree being, manhood-wise, the opposite of a gun.

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Even without evoking images of making men squeal like a pig, manhood and its supposed absence permeate politics, of course. It’s just that the more “moderate” emasculators don’t get so earthy about it. David Brooks recently said Obama had “a manhood problem in the Middle East,” and Maureen Dowd taunts him regularly, if more coyly.

Here’s the video of Vanderboegh. When the crowd laughs over the “soap dish” he holds up, the reference is to the legend of an Alabaman woman, Jenny Brooks. According to Right Wing Watch, which distributed the video, “…in Vanderboegh’s telling, [Brooks’s husband and son] were killed by state law enforcement collecting taxes for the Confederate government. According to the tale, Brooks went after the men who had killed her family, killed two of them in return, and turned one of their skulls into a soap dish.”

That was the only body part that Vanderboegh held up.


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This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Paper Towel

One of the more creative uses for a paper towel (psyberartist/Flickr)

I’ve been using paper towels a lot—a lot—more often lately, and every time I do, I feel a spark of guilt. It’s wasteful, bad for the environment, I know, but I’ve been sick lately, so I need it. I figure that paper is more sanitary than the cloth towel that’s been sitting out for days. (I can understand the woman with sick kids who said on the radio, “Thank god for paper towels.”)

But I’ve also been destroying groves of trees for reasons that have nothing to do with health or hygiene. Paper towels are easier; there’s a slight satisfaction when the perforated seam rips just right, and when I tear off a piece, I’m participating a little bit more in America and its corporate pleasures. To ignore your worries about waste is itself a kind of pleasure, and for a moment, I imagine that Sarah Palin isn’t scorning me as a wimp mom-pants green do-gooder. That bright white, clean slate of a paper towel momentarily wipes my politics clean enough to join the ranks of both corporate and red America.

My guilt and good sense usually win out over such ridiculous pulp fictions. I recycle and, in the summer, I compost. I try my best to boycott the long list of Koch-owned household products, like Stainmaster carpet and Lycra, that have invaded the world. (So no Brawny paper towels or other Georgia-Pacific products in my house.) I bring my own shopping bags.

But… I eagerly stock up on plastic shopping bags, for the kitty litter. I get a lot of take-out and, not always bothering to track what’s recyclable and what’s not, I throw out tons of plastic containers and unused knife and fork sets. Water? I often forget and let it run and run.

And I rationalize: I’ve never been a purist, I tell myself. We’re all a little corrupt. As long as I’m pointed in the right direction, that’s good enough. Excuses and small daily denialisms course through our minds as much as fire retardants, pesticides, BPA, phthalates and PFOAs (the magic ingredient in Teflon) course through our bodies.

It is comforting, after all, to think that everything is OK. In fact, only since writing this have I dared look into the dioxins that are a byproduct of the chlorine used to bleach paper towels and tissue.

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Corporations depend on our rationalizations: it absolves them of doing anything wrong and it creates guilt-free consumers. That’s why they run all the ads that tell us, “What, you worry?” Falling back on wasteful or toxic products not only has its perverse pleasures, but it can seem “natural,” especially if those products are featured in ads with wild animals and awe-inspiring landscapes.

So of course it’s better not to go with the corporate flow. But if you sometimes do, mop up the excess with old rags.

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Will George Bush Ever Paint the Ghost of an Iraqi Child?

Bush painting

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, painted by George W. Bush as part of his exhibit, “The Art of Leadership: A President”s Diplomacy“ (AP Photo/Benny Snyder)

The Onion News Network was always the best place to look for an honest review of George W. Bush’s post-presidential painting hobby, and here it is at last—including an analysis of the “ghost of an Iraqi child that follows him everywhere” that should be in every painting but, sadly, is usually replaced by a puppy dog or an impersonal caricature of some foreign leader’s Google photo.

It’s hard to tell which is funnier: the paintings themselves (the Onion artist who copied Bush’s primitive style captures his flat planes and between-the-lines coloring practice), or the upbeat chit-chat of the Onion News host and correspondent, who perfectly mimic the mainstream media’s happy-talk accounts of Bush’s surprising hobby.

Showing one morbid painting after another, the host says, “You can see that Bush’s art is improving over time. At first he could barely draw the Iraqi child’s transparent hands, but now they look much more realistic!” George and Laura are shown smiling in one work, and seem not to notice that W is holding the bleeding, dead Iraqi child in his arms.

This is, of course, the opposite of what Bush’s paintings really do, as they tend to hide things about the ex-POTUS rather than reveal them. Just as his self-portraits in the shower cover up his private parts, Bush would rather paint Putin or a Saudi noble than one of his own controversial lieutenants, like Cheney or Rumsfeld. That would be getting too close to home.

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The Onion paintings get grislier and grislier. One depicts Bush’s bedroom at the Crawford ranch splattered in blood with Manson-like zeal. “Laura Bush says he’s more focused than ever, locks himself away for hours at a time and won’t talk to anyone while he’s painting,” the host says.

It’s more or less what many of us have imagined: that George Bush is going quietly bonkers after years of repressing the reality of what he’s done. In real life, however, Bush paints to forget, not to expose.

Watch the Onion video below (and a similarly themed video from cartoonist Mark Fiore here):

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Joy Behar Beats Chris Christie—and Women Love It

Joy Behar

Joy Behar at the 2010 GLAAD Media Awards (Nick Stepowyj/Flickr)

A couple days ago, a friend of mine witnessed this scene on West 65th Street in Manhattan: in a crowd lining up to get tickets for The View, two middle-aged women were talking excitedly about Joy Behar, though the comedian hasn’t co-hosted the show for nearly two years. Suddenly, one of the women lunged at her friend, acting out that startling moment when New Jersey governor Chris Christie stole the podium from Behar during a ninetieth-birthday roast of former Governor Brendan Byrne on April Fool’s Day.

“She’s my heroine,” the lunging lady said. “She stood up to that fat man.”

The second woman replied, “She’s fearless. She got right up in front of him.” Then she mimed the stern posture of what might be a mother reprimanding a son who towered over her. “I’ve known women like her in my neighborhood all my life,” she said.

Other women in line were nodding in agreement, one saying to another, “If Chris Christie thinks he’s going to get somewhere by treating her this way, he’s a fool.”

It’s easy to overlook the effect Behar’s run-in with Christie has had on public perception, especially on women. When the governor tried to intimidate the 71-year-old comedian, as he has so many women before her, she called him a bully and a coward. And when he physically got up in her face, she came back at him with more searing jokes.

Christie attacks anyone who publicly disagrees with him, of course, but he’s best known for bullying the female teachers who’ve protested his cuts to education, or the mother who politely asked, “You send [your children] to private schools, so I was wondering why you think it’s fair to be cutting funding to public schools?” (“Hey Gail,” Christie responded, “…it’s none of your business. I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school. Don’t bother me where I send mine.”) His lawyer’s report that “exonerated” him of Bridgegate tried to paint Bridget Anne Kelly as psychologically unstable after another Christie aide broke off a relationship with her. As if feminine emotion caused the five-day traffic nightmare on the world’s busiest bridge.

Five former governors and five comedians spoke at the Governor Byrne roast, and Behar wasn’t the only one who detoured to roast Christie instead. But she was the only one he took on physically. We know all this thanks to Ryan Lizza, who led a long New Yorker piece, “Crossing Christie,” with the roast incident and put his cellphone video of it (below) on YouTube. (A clearer but edited version is here.)

It went down like this: Like others at the event—including Governor Byrne himself—Behar cracked wise about Christie’s weight. “You have to have your eye on the White House,” she said. “It used to be the House of Pancakes.” Sitting on the dais next to the lectern, Christie touched Behar’s arm and reminded her, “This is a Byrne roast.” When that got big applause, he stood up and, amazingly, tried to grab Behar’s notes. “Stop bullying me,” she told him. The audience laughed awkwardly: She called him the B-word to his face. Back in his seat, Christie said something that was inaudible and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?”

No doubt she provoked him, but, unable to control himself (you might say he was too emotional), he took the bait. He stood up again and, as she backed away in fear, he took over her space at the lectern, asking her, “Really? Really, is that what you’re thinking?” Christie went beyond, say, Rick Lazio’s infamous move into Hillary Clinton’s space during a 2000 debate and into something more reminiscent of Ralph Kramden telling Alice “to the moon!” But Christie regained his composure, delivered a zinger (“At least I don’t get paid for this”), and returned to his seat.

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Behar was noticeably rattled, as Lizza says, but she didn’t back down. “I really don’t know about the presidency,” she jibed. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”

In this brief encounter, you could find Christie’s entire governorship: he intimidates, he threatens, he can’t stand not to control the mic and he always gets the last word.

But Behar was, for once, a female who got the last word—she signed off with a joke about feeling safe from Christie’s wrath because she was “taking mass transit home.” Sure, she was scared of him, but she rebounded. Repeatedly. That’s why she’s a hero to the women waiting in line to get into The View.


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Why Does ‘Morning Joe’ Throw Mika Into the Toilet?

Mika and Joe

Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough (Flickr/US Department of Labor)

I’ve tried to avoid posting yet again on Morning Joe, but the strained psychodynamics of the show have bumped it into the faux news again. And it’s just so irresistible.

On The Daily Show last week, Samantha Bee did a nearly seven-minute bit on MJ, portraying Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and supporting players as a sicko family. It was painfully unfunny, but it did get in some jabs about how the “boy pundits” are “always completely agreeing with their dad.”

The more amusing and yet more damning parody of the show, however, came in the form of “Morning Jolt,” a 4:23-minute video from Morning Joe itself. Launched last week, with clips from it now running as MSNBC promos, “Morning Jolt” (see it below) inadvertently reveals why the relationship between Joe and Mika, and between Joe and the boy pundits, is getting increasingly hard to watch.

Starting with a gospel singer belting “Jesus get me through this day,” “Morning Jolt” is intended to be a self-deprecating and obviously exaggerated look at what the MJ crew goes through to get to work in the still dark hours of the morning. They did something similar in 2011, in a bit panned as “icky” and sexist—Joe and the boys carouse all night while Mika jogs before dawn in a skin-tight dress. But this newest video moves beyond sexism: the real jolt is the smell of a little S&M in the morning.

Mika portrays herself (as she often does on the show) as an overly diligent but discombobulated dame. She drops her coffee and her many newspapers; she trips and breaks a stiletto heel; driving herself to work (what, no limo?), she nearly runs over a construction worker and parks her SUV right on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.

Joe is the laid-back screw-up, a guy’s guy who oversleeps and casually rebels—when the alarm clock rings at an ungodly hour, he throws it onto a pile of other clocks.

It’s then that the promo starts to edge into Republican war-on-women territory. When Mika calls and Joe sees her photo on his smart phone, he hurls it too, but this time into the toilet. Other cell phones marinating there indicate that she bothers him daily. So, hmmm… maybe she’s a little unstable, stalkerish even—the next time we see Mika’s picture on a cell, she's bugging sex symbol Bradley Cooper, who tosses his phone into the trash. The camera catches Brzezinski’s face landing on a paper plate smeared with leftovers.

When Joe and Mika eventually meet in the corridor leading to their studio, they become the normals, braving a gauntlet of stereotyped New York weirdos—a juggler, a mariachi band, a half-naked guy throwing glitter at them, two hot babes fighting. At the end, in the video’s only dialogue, Mika tells Joe, “I tried to call you.” “Yeah,” he says, “I, um, dropped my phone.”

Even if Mika and Joe’s bickering has become their trademark shtick, what goes down in “Morning Jolt” is different. It’s not about politics or even who interrupts whom. Putting her face in the toilet and then the trash is simply demeaning. It’s odd that Mika (not to mention the show’s producers) would want to blare that to a national audience.

And you might think that Joe himself wouldn’t want to go there. After all, he was pretty humiliated last year when, after Mika called him a chauvinist, he angrily snapped his fingers at her, as if to make her come to heel. (They later apologized to each other.) And the same day that “Morning Jolt” debuted, Mika and Joe both railed against the report that “exonerated” Chris Christie for branding Bridget Kelly as an emotionally unstable wreck after she was dumped by a guy she worked with, Bill Stepien. The report’s sexist, gratuitous attack, Joe later said, was “shameful.”

But Joe and Mika are going there because they’ve apparently convinced themselves it’s all a joke. Last week Joe had to fend off people who didn’t get how funny it was when, after Mika told him to stop obsessing over the missing Malaysian jet, he told her to lower her voice. “For humorless liberals who thought I was being rude to Mika today,” he tweeted, “my sincere apologies that you are too thick to get the joke.”

Ok, let’s say it was a joke. But the lameness of such jokes and his thick sarcasm often make it hard to see the humor. It’s not like Scarborough is Colbert, comedically playing the role of a guy who condescends toward women. With the possible exception of his #CancelColbert fracas, it’s usually crystal clear where Stephen stands.

Joe, however, operates from a more passive-aggressive place. There’s an anger in him that he denies but can’t quite hide from view. For her part, Mika swings between vigorously defending herself and willingly making herself the butt of a joke gone ugly.

As Samantha Bee points out, you tune into Morning Joe to see Joe and Mika squabble and wonder how far they’ll go. But the dramatic tension only works if you think they have a real reason to stay together, like Archie and Edith or Ralph and Alice.

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Joe, of course, wants us to believe he’s just horsing around, and the video’s fantastical morning commutes are supposed to clue us in: Scarborough stands in the prow of a small boat crossing the Hudson, à la Washington crossing the Delaware, as if he’s invading New York to bring some red-state virtue to Sin City. The guys—Mike Barnicle, Willie Geist, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Donnie Deutsch, Steve Rattner, Dan Senor, et al. (Tina Brown is one of only two women; Al Sharpton’s the sole black person)—arrive together on the subway, like working-class stiffs, setting them apart and below the more individualistic Joe.

Mika and the boys humor Joe, and themselves, that he’s only kidding. But hoping you’re not going to be flushed down the can isn’t the same thing as love.


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True or False? Koch Brothers Group Abandons Its Misleading Anti-Obamacare Ads

David Koch

David Koch (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Have Harry Reid and the order of the fact-checkers beaten back the the brothers who shall not be named (at least in their own ads)? That is, has a Koch-supported group been forced to “abandon” its powerful but false Obamacare “horror story” commercials, as some believe?

After Senate Majority Leader Reid attacked the oil billionaires for trying to “buy” elections by blanketing battleground states with more than $30 million worth of ads that he called “lies,” the Koch-funded advocacy organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) appears to be easing off the misleading campaign. In it, real people claim that they can’t afford Obamacare or that they’ve lost coverage because of the Affordable Care Act.

In the most glaring case, a spot targeting Democratic Senate candidate Representative Gary Peters, a Michigan woman with leukemia, Julie Boonstra, says she was forced off her old plan and onto Obamacare, which makes her life-saving medications unaffordable. “If I do not receive my medication, I will die,” she says. But the Detroit News found that Boonstra would actually save more than $1000 a year on the ACA plan. (She insists that “can’t be true.”)

Maybe it’s because of Reid’s barbs, Representative Peters’s letter telling TV stations they’re violating FTC rules by airing a misleading ad about health or all the Pinocchio noses and “False” ratings the ads have garnered from fact-checkers, but the AFP has just laid out $1.7 million to run a spot so understated and reasonable-sounding that it might indeed seem as if the Kochs are backing off.

Running in Colorado against Senator Mark Udall and in Louisiana against Senator Mary Landrieu, the spot doesn’t feature an aggrieved real person sitting at home but a slightly hip, even liberal-looking, actress standing against the kind of all-white background you’d find at an art gallery. She speaks straight to the camera and makes empathic hand gestures.

“People don’t like political ads,” she says. “I don’t like them either. But healthcare isn’t about politics. It’s about people. It’s not about a website that doesn’t work, it’s not about polls numbers or approval ratings, it’s about people.”

Up until this point, this could be an ad from Planned Parenthood, or any group supporting the ACA. Healthcare, it seems to say, shouldn’t be based on the GOP’s cynical politics, and getting rid of Obamacare is going to hurt people—real, uninsured and poorly insured pre-existing people.

But the actress (Where have we seen her before? Anyone?) continues: “And millions of people have lost their health insurance. Millions of people can’t see their own doctors. And millions are paying more and getting less. Obamacare doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.” Onscreen at the end: #PeopleNotPolitics.

Who knew the Kochs were such people persons? At this rate, they’ll one day add Orwellian hashtags like #PeopleNotProfits or #PeopleNotPipelines.

It’s hard to tell which people this ad is targeting. People who are sick of the scare tactics that the Koch millions are incessantly hitting them with? Politically moderate people who’d like a plausible but un-angry bottom line (“Obamacare doesn’t work”) to take to the voting booth? Harry Reid and the fact-checkers, who might figure that this time the ad is too vague to be lying?

Turns out, though, that even this seemingly “fact-checker-proof” ad is rife with falsity, particularly the claim that under Obamacare people are “paying more and getting less.” PolitiFact, noting “signs that the rate of the increase [of premiums] has declined since the law was passed,” said: “Most people on the individual market are getting more benefits under the law. At worst, they’re paying more to get more, though in many cases they’re actually paying less.” It rated the ad as “False.”

Anyway, the new toned-down ad isn’t new and isn’t a reaction to backlash over the horror story spots. It ran before and simultaneously with some of them, in November of last year against Senator Kate Hagan of North Carolina and in early February in Arkansas, against Senator Mark Pryor. Nor have the Kochs “abandoned” the personal victim MO. Just last week AFP dropped $700,000 to launch another real person ad against Pryor. This time a woman named Wanda says her insurance company told her that because of Obamacare it would no longer cover her. Though this claim, too, hits a big pothole.

And Julie Boonstra is still the first one to greet you at the AFP website, which maintains, “She lost her insurance and now the left is trying to discredit her, silence her and all Americans.”

However, we should definitely believe the Koch group when it says it has no intention of abandoning the horror stories. “We are currently on-air with many different types of ads, including personal testimony of Obamacare impact,” AFP spokesman Levi Russell told TPM. “This is the same strategy we’ve been using for 6 months.”

It’s going to take far more than Harry Reid and dogged fact-checking to blunt their campaign. The real question is, as Dave Weigel asks, “Why aren’t Democrats running ads showcasing the people who have been helped by Obamacare?” It’s a strategy, he notes, the Dems “perfected” in ads featuring workers who were laid off by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. (PolitiFact gave one of those ads a “False” rating, too.)

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The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee sent out an e-mail a couple days ago, saying “our grassroots fundraising is on pace to match the Kochs’ $30 million dollar-for-dollar.”

Good. But what are they going to do with it?


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Washing Koch As White As Snow

Charles Koch

Charles Koch, half of the Koch brother duo (AP Photo/Topeka Capital-Journal, Mike Burley)

Joe Scarborough recently got into quite a huff—and got the Morning Joe crew to huff with him—over Harry Reid’s attacks on David and Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialists who fund dozens of conservative causes and Republican campaigns. Reid had said, rather catchily for him, that Senate Republicans “are addicted to Koch.” The Senate majority leader also said the brothers “have no conscience and are willing to lie” in political ads, and that they’re “un-American” for trying to “buy America.”

Reid said he doesn’t begrudge the Kochs their wealth, but “what is un-American is when shadow billionaires pour unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system and benefit themselves and the wealthiest 1 percent.”

That might sound hyperbolic unless you have followed the long list of ways the Kochs are indeed buying America. For starters, while their Koch Industries is the one of the nation’s largest air polluters, their money is a huge factor in blocking climate change progress and spreading know-nothing denialism; they fund ALEC and its stand-your-ground political agenda; and they’re waging a multimillion-dollar war against the Affordable Care Act, trying to convince young people, through ads like the one with the creepy Uncle Sam gynecologist, that they should be afraid, very afraid of Obamacare. Through innumerable think tanks, PACs, nonprofits and dark-money trap doors, Koch money has formed a veritable “Kochopus” that reaches deep into academia, industry, state legislatures and Congress. (For more, see here and here.)

But what’s really gotten Harry Reid to put up his dukes is that the Koch-funded PAC Americans for Prosperity (AFM) has spent more than $30 million, and counting, on ads attacking Democratic senate candidates in the upcoming midterm elections. To defeat Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, for instance, AFM has already dropped $8.2 million on TV, radio and digital ads. As Politico puts it, that’s more “than all Democratic outside groups in every Senate race in the country—combined.” Koch money could easily flip the Senate to a Republican majority, leaving little but presidential vetoes to blunt the GOP House’s politics of cruelty.

Joe Scarborough understandably fumed at the “un-American” charge, but he framed the Koch’s power quite differently.

“Let’s first tell the truth about them and what they do, put some perspective in it,” he said Thursday. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve done for cancer research, what they’ve done for the arts, what they have done for education.”

Indeed, you can tell by the way the bros have been slapping their names on cultural institutions that they think they can get their reps fixed wholesale. In New York City alone, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center has become the David H. Koch Theater. As you enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, signs tell you you’re standing on the new David H. Koch Plaza. David Koch’s name had also been elevated by his contributions to WNET, the city’s PBS affiliate. That ended last year, however, when WNET ran an independent documentary critical of him. To placate Koch, they axed a second similar film, but Koch resigned from the board and took his money with him.

But by emphasizing the Kochs’ philanthropy—which, come on, is the least two men worth $40 billion each and tied at number four on the Forbes rich people list, can do—Scarborough was providing exactly what their largesse was intended to produce: praise and a media force field that can deflect political criticism. Not that Joe is terribly adverse to their politics, but the point of his outrage in the Morning Joe banter was to shift focus away from Koch policies to Reid’s breach of polite discourse. Willie Geist said that the “addicted to Koch” line “seems beneath the office.” Former congressman and nominal Democrat Harold Ford sniffed, “There’s no need for that kind of vitriol.” Only Donnie Deutsch got close to the heart of the matter, asking whether the “Koch brothers spending a billion on advertising is good for democracy.”

Training your eyes on an oligarch’s philanthropy and away from what it camouflages is to accept in some way the essential justness of great wealth. As if to second that notion, Governor Chris Christie said at CPAC last week that Reid was “rail[ing] against two American entrepreneurs who have built a business, created jobs, and created wealth and philanthropy in this country. Harry Reid should get back to work and stop picking on great Americans who are creating great things in our country.” Some of those great things include millions in donations to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie (still) heads.

Reid’s attacks are part of a larger Democratic pushback, which includes TV spots (see below) and sites like KochAddiction.com and StopTheGreedAgenda. The strategy is transparent: link GOP candidates to the Kochs and make the Kochs into villains.

Creating a visible villain is, of course, a time-honored political activity. The Dems have vilified Newt Gingrich and more recently Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, while the Republicans’ demons include Nancy Pelosi, the Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers. As for “un-American,” a few years ago Glenn Beck falsely portrayed George Soros, the closest big-time funder progressives have to the Kochs, as a Nazi collaborator.

But beyond a bunch of liberals who follow the Koch trail, will voters know or care about what the billionaire brothers do with their money?

Paul Waldman in The American Prospect doubts it. And so far, he says, the Democratic ads aren’t up to the job. In the very busy spot below, running in Michigan, the Koch brothers appear as barely identified ghosts amid a jumble of hard-to-follow words.

For what it’s worth, the things-don’t-go-better-with-Koch message is getting across, at least with focus groups. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told the Times, “Our research has shown pretty clearly that once voters recognize the source of the attacks [on Democratic candidates], they tend to discount them substantially.” Focus groups, he said, had an “overwhelmingly negative” reaction to the Kochs’ political involvement and believed that the Kochs’ “agenda will hurt average people and the undermine the middle class.’”

Billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins might have been only kidding when he said that democracies should be run more like corporations: “You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes.”

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But if you pay for enough misleading ads, that is, in effect, what a million bucks can do. And the more the media unthinkingly hail your charitable giving, the more mileage a million dollars will get you.


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MSNBC and Its Discontents

MSNBC hosts

MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow, left, Lawrence O'Donnell, center, and Chris Matthews at an NBC Universal panel discussion (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Lately, MSNBC seems to be waking up every few mornings to find a celebrity rattlesnake in its boot. First, Bill Maher said MSNBC was obsessed with Chris Christie and that Bridgegate had become its Benghazi. Then Alec Baldwin took to the cover of New York magazine to denounce his former network for running “the same shit all day long.” “The only difference” between shows, Baldwin wrote, “was who was actually pulling off whatever act they had come up with.”

MSNBC killed Baldwin’s Friday night talk show after only five weeks when the actor made a homophobic remark, which he contends in New York wasn’t homophobic at all. He also calls Rachel Maddow, whom he suspects was behind his ouster, a “phony.” But such Hollywood hairballs, coming on the heels of a series of apologies, anchor defenestrations and schedule rejiggering, could make a casual viewer wonder, Could there be buried in Baldwin’s bruised ego a critique of the network worth listening to? And is Maher right that MSNBC is in danger of becoming the Fox News of the left?

First, Baldwin: he’s right about one thing. With exceptions like Morning Joe with its center-right tilt, the wildly erratic Chris Matthews and Steve Kornacki’s and Melissa Harris-Perry’s two-hour, in-depth weekend shows, there is a sameness to MSNBC’s roster. The daily, hour-long format, often featuring hosts from other MSNBC shows and a familiar rotation of guest pundits can be mind-numbing—just as it can be on Fox News and CNN. (I’m tempted to say, just as it’d be on any cable news network with twenty-four hours to fill. But Al Jazeera, by emphasizing granular reporting across the world, is disproving that old saw.)

Ronan Farrow’s new show may evolve, but when I flipped it on Monday and saw him chatting it up with MSNBC’s favorite Republican, former RNC chair Michael Steele, and MSNBC host Alex Wagner, it could have been any one of the network’s shows—this one just had a young semi-celeb at the glossy desk. MSNBC should at least give him some fresh material—and running a daily segment called “Heroes and Zeros” doesn’t cut it.

I admit, most of my frustration with MSNBC is my own fault: I watch it too damn much! It pulls me in. I still marvel that a TV network can be so unabashedly left-liberal and survive in the corporate media—much as I marveled during the several years of Air America radio (where Maddow began). MSNBC is light years ahead of its rivals in its racial diversity; most of its hosts are super-smart (unfortunately, producers keep trying to leaven the wonk with whimsy, like the ironic music accompanying Chris Hayes’s pre-taped pieces or Maddow’s too-cute re-enactments); and the network delves regularly into under-covered subjects, like the environment (which, by the way, Hayes and Maddow excel at).

Of course, you don’t hear a peep from MSNBC about its corporate parent Comcast and its controversial proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable. And it doesn’t often venture off the Democratic Party ranch. But until Keith Olbermann—who not surprisingly endorses Baldwin’s rant—fitted MSNBC with a left foot, Fox seemed to have snuffed out any hope that “the liberal media” might actually live up to its name.

Saying things on national TV once relegated to The Village Voice or The Nation understandably lends MSNBCers a confidence, almost a sense of triumphalism, which sometimes trips them up into merely nyah-nyah-nyahing the right. Fox does this with far more gusto at the left, but it doesn’t serve MSNBC well. A friend of mine says she can’t watch MSNBC anymore, because “they’re smug. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them, they treat like they’re stupid.”

The flip side of smug is a sense of insecurity. Hosts are coming (the estimable Joy Reid, as well as Farrow, debuted a show this week) and going (Baldwin, Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Dylan Ratigan). Clearly they’re under constant pressure to rack up ratings, something the Chris Christie scandals have indeed helped them do.

Which brings us to Bill Maher’s critique. Unlike Baldwin, Maher “loves” MSNBC. But in a Valentine’s Day post he decided to break up with the network because it’s preoccupied with another man, the New Jersey governor.

Maddow defended the heavy coverage on Maher’s HBO show the next week. “I am totally obsessed with the Christie story, unapologetically,” she said, “and will continue to be obsessed with it while amazing things in that story continue to happen.” Maher conceded that Benghazi isn’t a real scandal while Bridgegate most definitely is—though, he added, “It’s just that it’s not Watergate.” And he softened that too-easy trope that MSNBC is the Fox News of the left, saying, “I hate false equivalency. MSNBC, one of the great things about it is that they are scrupulous fact-checkers whereas Fox News are scrupulous fact-maker-uppers.”

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If the non-Fox media have been hard on Chris Christie lately, it’s in direct proportion to how hard they fell for him before. For years, the media—and this includes MSNBC stars like Scarborough, Matthews and, on occasion, Al Sharpton—loved the blunt-talking, fuggedaboutit Jersey guy who had the guts to “work across the aisle.” When Bridgegate revealed that in fact he had been intimidating and threatening Democratic office-holders all along, it unleashed a torrent of pent-up, actual reporting.

So, yes, as Bill Maher says, MSNBC has been obsessed with Christie, but no, they’re not covering him too much. And yes, as Alec Baldwin says, in stronger words, the shows have fallen into a sameness.

It’s a problem, however, that can be remedied, sometimes as simply as having a host light out for the territory. Ed Schultz, for instance, is running a weeklong series on the Keystone XL Pipeline, reporting from Nebraska and listening to the citizens TransCanada is trampling over. Ed, who began as a (surprising) supporter of the pipeline, now appears to be leaning against it. It’s a change of heart and venue that’s making his show, and at least one hour of MSNBC, suddenly suspenseful and dynamic.

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Chris Christie Bullies Again

Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at a campaign event (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Governor Chris Christie says he’s been humbled, that he’s been doing some “soul-searching” after his staff got caught arranging traffic jams to punish political enemies.

But bullies bully out of weakness, and Christie is now weaker than he’s ever been. He can’t possibly give up his only real political asset—a talent for intimidation that makes victims want to be on his side to win his protection—when he needs it most.

In only the latest example, his legal team is spitting paper at the Jersey pols who’ve crossed him. Christie’s choice as lead attorney for his office’s “internal review,” Randy Mastro, sent a letter, obtained by the Bergen Record, to Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer requesting a “private interview” and documents, including her correspondence with the press.

“In a show of force,” the Record reports, Mastro also wrote to “Hoboken officials that he had assembled a team of ‘five former federal prosecutors’ to look into Zimmer’s claims.”

Zimmer, of course, claims that Christie officials had threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid if she didn’t support a particular real estate development, charges those officials deny.

At the same time Christie lawyers were beckoning Zimmer to their den, the governor’s office sent a memo to supporters with press clips about Zimmer that, it says, found “serious questions of authenticity, contradictions, and hypocrisy.”

Zimmer’s allegations are now the subject of a US Attorney investigation, and her attorney replied to Mastro by saying, “We question whether it is appropriate for the Governor’s Office, in essence, to be investigating itself, particularly when an investigation of the same subject matter is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

“Five former federal prosecutors,” charges of hypocrisy, a “private interview”—this stuff reeks of bullying. But Mastro, the Record writes, “seems to try to dispel any notion that the letter is meant to intimidate a witness—he notified federal authorities in advance that he would be contacting potential witnesses, he wrote.”

Still, as James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, told The Star Ledger, Mastro’s letters show him acting more like a defense attorney than as a fact-finder conducting an “internal review” to learn who dunnit. “The letters strike me as a fairly heavy-handed attempt to intimidate—and cleverly done,” Cohen said.

No matter how much humble pie Christie insists he’s eating, he just can’t quit the bullying. Remember how, during his marathon press conference, a reporter told him that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich said it’d be “premature” for the governor to visit his town and apologize for the dangerous, five-day traffic jam his people created at the George Washington Bridge? Christie ignored Sokolich’s wishes, parked his entourage at Sokolich’s office, staged some photo ops with citizens not throwing tomatoes and left the Fort Lee mayor saying he was relieved that Christie promised there’d be no more retribution. Now Christie’s lawyers have invited Sokolich and his staff to hand over documents, too.

The attempt to put the squeeze on New Jersey mayors does double duty by also intimidating other potential witnesses and officials receiving subpoenas (the New Jersey legislators investigating the bridge scandal issued eighteen new subpoenas yesterday).

It’s all part of the web of fear that Christie has established throughout New Jersey. It’s aimed as much, if not more, at Democrats than at Republicans, and until the GWB scandal broke, that fear was passed off as the Christie miracle of “bipartisanship.”

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Even though the former front-runner in the GOP presidential race now looks like he’ll never make it to the primaries, even though Christie boosters like Joe Scarborough say he should resign as the head of the Republican Governors Association, anyone who the governor’s office can conceivably touch still lives in fear of his wrath.

The bully can still steal their lunch.

UPDATE: This afternoon Christie spokesperson Colin Reed sent an e-mail pushing back against New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, saying she made “no fewer than five misleading statements” on Morning Joe today. Most irksome perhaps was what she said about Mastro’s letters: “They’re trying to sort of threaten people, not explicitly, but saying, you know, we’re going to go back after you if you come after us.”

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