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The new Daedalus is out. I have to admit to having not read Daedalus with much fervor in the past, say, fifteen years (well, if ever, to be honest), but I was curious about the venerable journal now that it's under the editorship of James Miller, professor of political science and director of liberal studies at the New School, and author, most notably, of Flowers in the Dustbin, a book about rock and roll that actually won a music-book award, to say nothing of his other books (one on Foucault, another on the SDS, another on Rousseau, plus History and Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty).

Miller's first issue (Winter 2002) is about inequality. Whoever would have suspected twenty or thirty years ago that inequality could be considered good or that a discussion about its attributes could fuel an entire 117 pages of intelligent commentary? I'm aware of the debates--say, since Reagan--about the societal advantages of greed and inequality, but has any decent person ever seriously thought that inequality was good for anything other than sustaining the kind of high culture that produces journals like Daedalus, and of course for people like Marie Antoinette and Kenneth Lay? Anyhow, as Daedalus has traditionally, the new magazine suffers painfully from the kind of writing academics do ("In this essay, I shall attempt...," etc.) and the kind of writing policy wonks do ("The Luxembourg Income Study, which is the best current source of data on economic inequality in different countries, has calculated 90/10 ratios for fourteen rich democracies in the mid-1990s").

Yet because Daedalus has in the end a liberal mind, the new issue provides, if you can plow through it, a strong restatement of the value (economic, political and moral) of equality; and convincing arguments that inequality is pretty regularly--if sometimes more subtly than one would imagine--an evil. A historical essay that happens to be written by my distant cousin Sean Wilentz offers, among other things, lively illumination of the idea, dimly seized by me in my sporadic and unsuccessful attempts to buy a house, that the ability to purchase real estate lies at the heart of all equality or inequality.

In spite of the general impenetrability, many of the pieces have good bits. Martha Nussbaum's essay on women in India begins with an unforgettable story: A Bangladeshi woman waiting for a train at Howrah Station in Calcutta is first gallantly helped by railroad officials, and then drugged, kidnapped and gang-raped by four station employees; when she finally makes her way back to the station, battered, blood-stained and disoriented, she's tricked once again by other kindly, courtly, decent-seeming chemin de fer types into another gang-rape hideaway. Amazingly (cheerful Indian ending), she survives to bring suit against her attackers. This one anecdote brings life to Nussbaum's piece, while reminding us (as if one needed reminding, after the recent train burnings, etc.) that all the exotic incident and violence in Indian literature does not come from nowhere.

Quarrel & Quandary

As long as we're looking at venerable journals that I haven't read recently (an ever-widening category, it seems), let's talk about Partisan Review. I picked up the first issue of 2002 because it contains an article arrestingly titled "Melville's Skull and the Idea of Jerusalem," by Cynthia Ozick. Ozick is a great writer; her style is fluid and personal, and there is wonderful voice in everything she touches. This essay is no exception--if I agreed with any of its passions or arguments, it would be a beloved object of reflection. In it, among other things, Ozick claims that the modern state of Israel has at its foundations "ethical visionariness," unlike the states of Europe and other contemporary nationalist movements. Zionism, she says, "is distinct because it is inextricably bound with a coherent concept of the moral obligations of civilization: land cannot mean land alone, land bare of civilized purpose, land bare of law." This, by the way, is someone writing about Zionism not in the nineteenth century or two years ago, but today, as Israel's tanks roll back into the territories (land bedecked, no doubt, in "civilized purpose," so long as it remains occupied by those equipped with ethical visionariness). Ah, well; in her Zionist arrogation of all indignation, all righteousness, all suffering, Ozick even indicts Herman Melville for not recognizing Jerusalem's holiness, because he preferred the whiteness of the whale. She can't bear that.

Woman Is the Deejay of the World

Yoko Ono, an equally self-possessed woman, is on the cover of Mixer magazine, a decidedly unvenerable journal devoted to "music, clubs, life." In my house, we have a Don't Diss Yoko rule. Amazingly, my small sons have learned to despise her. They've informed me that Yoko "broke up the Beatles" and that she is "bad"--by "bad" they mean "bad." The great thing about Yoko is that, at age 68, she goes on being herself. She recently refused to give Paul McCartney any special credit on the Lennon-McCartney songs that he in fact wrote himself ("Yesterday" comes to mind), keeping the old enmity with Sir Cheerful simmering. Ono's latest prank: She's become an occasional club deejay down in New York's meatpacking district. "It's weird," says Peter Rauhofer, a city deejay, "when you're in a deejay booth...and find Yoko Ono standing beside you...at 3 am." He goes on: "Her manager asked me if I had a microphone, because Ono wanted to do some 'orgasmic moans.' I thought he was joking." He wasn't, of course. She does the moans, to the supposed delight of the dance floor. Later she repairs with a reporter for further insight to her "vast, conservatively decorated kitchen" in the Dakota. Yoko's evolution from child of Japan's banking aristocracy to alternative artist and outrageous darling of New York's demimonde would make an instructive entry in the annals of inequality. But if someone has to be rich, it should be Ono. Why? Because at a happening in Hyde Park in 1968 or so, she blindfolded an entire fashionable audience with sanitary pads--and then silently left them there to contemplate their own ridiculous abandonment. That's visionariness.

One of the pitfalls of publishing a weekly journal of critical opinion at a moment when the political culture has drifted to the right is that there is so much of which to be critical that we often don't take time out to count our blessings, hail our heroes and salute our comrades in arms. Add to that the liberal left's propensity for internecine warfare (see our editorial on page 3) and the temptation to pass over those guilty of committing good works is often too great to resist. So, let us take a moment to cheer two local heroes whose good works, not incidentally, have benefited Nation writers, among many others, over the years.

First, Bill Moyers. For years, his documentaries, speeches and articles have illuminated such subjects as the way money distorts politics, how secrecy perverts liberty and how, under the flag of free trade, NAFTA has permitted multinationals to undermine democracy. As Moyers (quoting John Dewey) wrote in our pages, it's not easy to interest the public in the public interest. In recent weeks Moyers has been the target of a Weekly Standard demolition job and a misguided assault by the Washington Post's Sebastian Mallaby. He must be doing something right.

Second, Jeff Chester, one-man monitor of concentration among the communications conglomerates, reminds us how we were almost deprived of the good works of Norman Lear. Citing a Writer's Guild of America statement on harmful vertical and horizontal integration in television, he notes that Norman Lear (and his colleague Bud Yorkin) made two pilots for ABC of the controversial series All in the Family. ABC kept asking him to water it down, soften it, blur the edges. Lear refused and took the series to CBS, where he was allowed to follow his vision and create one of the groundbreaking shows of all time. As the WGA notes, "He could do that only because he owned it. Today, the network would have an ownership position and would be able simply to fire Lear and replace him with a writer and producer who would do what they wanted." As a result Lear made his fortune and has used it, among other things, to purchase one of the few surviving original versions of the Declaration of Independence and to found People for the American Way, which fights to put the principles of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights into practice. A recent example: turning the national spotlight on a Bush court nominee with an abominable civil rights record, as described by John Nichols in this week's issue.

We take our hat off to Bill Moyers and Norman Lear.

What the Islamic fascists do, and what they believe, and what they intend, are three aspects of the same one-dimensional thing. It is ludicrous to accuse them of being untrue to themselves or their cause.  The usual rush to "understand" Pervez Musharraf's difficulties seems to supply a partial explanation for this moral feebleness.

The McLaughlin Group is about to "celebrate" its twentieth anniversary. We might as well "celebrate" the discovery of anthrax.

The show flatters itself--and its corporate sponsor, GE--that it is providing some kind of public service. It's even offered on PBS in many cities, and its website features such faux educational trappings as classroom guides and discussion-group questions, along with $50 golf shirts. And while ratings have dropped steadily and precipitously for the past seven years, that is due largely to the fact that it has very nearly taken over our media world. Entire cable networks are devoted to its ethos, and even the old reliables of respectable political discourse--like NBC's Meet the Press and CBS's Face the Nation--are dancing to its dissonant tune. Before McLaughlin, public affairs television programs were often dry and pompous, but with the exception of the painfully pompous Agronsky and Company, they were devoted to the proposition that reporters--like everyone else--should appear on news programs only when they've learned something of value of which most people are unaware (hence the word reporter). The McLaughlin Group transformed this essential qualification from specialized knowledge to salable shtick. Not only television but journalism itself has never recovered.

As evidence of how little education, expertise or good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting matters in this universe, consider McLaughlin himself. Before building his television empire, he earned his fame as a Jesuit sex lecturer. He ran a hapless Senate race in 1970 in Rhode Island as a McGovernite Republican--yes, you read that right--but still managed, with Patrick Buchanan's assistance, to land a job in the Nixon White House. There, in priestly garb, he defended the Unindicted Co-Conspirator as "a moral man, thirsting for truth." Nine days before Nixon's resignation, McLaughlin predicted that Watergate would soon be viewed as a "mere footnote to a glorious administration."

Aside from talk-radio and religious writings, McLaughlin's most significant brush with journalism was a brief stint as Washington editor of National Review, where he would sign his own name to the work of the NR's interns and research assistants. But the show turned him into a superstar in Reagan's Washington. He bullied and humiliated fellow panelists and terrorized his young staff members, at least three of whom felt themselves to be victims of his sexual harassment. According to the court documents of the lawsuit Linda Dean filed against him, McLaughlin told her that he "needed a lot of sex" and "would take care of every material desire" she had, as he fondled her "intimately and against her will." Dean was fired, but her lawsuit resulted in a private settlement. (I guess this would be as good a place as any to plug the second edition of my book Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy from Cornell University Press.)

The genuine journalists whom McLaughlin casts as foils on his show tended to hate his guts but could not walk away from the unmatched buck-raking opportunities it spawned. While McLaughlin appearances paid a pittance, they came with invitations from corporate sponsors to recreate the show at conventions for five figures a pop. Mediocrities like Morton ("Ronald Reagan is a kind of magic totem against the cold future") Kondracke and Fred ("I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority") Barnes quickly developed celebrity cults. The more ambitious among them--like Kondracke, Barnes, Robert Novak and Chris Matthews--eventually used their newfound status to jump-start their own carnival-barking careers on rival networks. The warhorse Jack Germond stuck it out for fifteen years, at considerable cost to his self-respect as an honest reporter but considerable benefit to his income. (When Germond learned that the program would be distributed internationally, he replied that the panelists could now rejoice in "dumbing down the world." McLaughlin promptly benched him.)

In addition to debasing the culture of journalism, the McLaughlin monster also aided its corporate sponsors and conservative friends in shifting the foundation of political debate into the heartland of Reagan country--where it remains to this day. The group set up a center of gravity in which two right-wing ideologues, Buchanan and Novak, were "balanced" by the wishy-washy neoconservatism of Kondracke and the bourbon-laced, no-nonsense nonpartisanship of Germond--a down-the-line reporter with no political axes (or axises) to grind. McLaughlin acted--and I do mean "acted"--as referee. The net result was to bestow respectability on views that had only recently been the exclusive property of the caveman right and to marginalize liberalism beyond "responsible" debate.

The group's ideological legacy is hardly less significant than its deleterious impact on the civility of our discourse. I wonder how valuable it was, on a scale of one to ten, to George W. Bush in the late fall of 2000 to have a conservative punditocracy parroting James Baker's arguments before his case reached the Reagan/Bush-packed Supreme Court. And I wish I could predict whether Bush would have been able to shift the budget debate away from his showering trillions in tax breaks on the wealthy toward the alleged trade-offs between money for the war on terrorism versus that for health, education and the environment, without the spawn of the McLaughlinites marching in lockstep--like a parade of Stepford Wives--to the drumbeat of the Republican right wing. The ultimate public service of The McLaughlin Group has been to make it nearly impossible for anyone to speak to public issues on television except to repeat the most banal, and frequently conservative, clichés--albeit accompanied by snappy and self-serving wisecracks. Why not genuinely honor this signal achievement on its anniversary and start making calls to PBS and its local affiliates demanding that they stop wasting our precious contributions and tax dollars to broadcast it? Will it work? No predictions, there, I'm afraid, given the size of GE's sponsorship. But I promise you'll feel better about yourself.

John Stossel has high Q-ratings, so he doesn't have to worry about the rules.

Organic farming critic Dennis Avery is supported by generous contributions from several chemical companies, all of whom profit from the sale of products prohibited in organic production.

The rise of the media cartel has been a long time coming. The cultural effects are not new in kind, but the problem has become considerably larger.

Synergy—it's all well and good. But media consolidation's dark side often raises its head.

Right-wing climate-change deniers worked hand-in-glove with John Stossel to portray schoolchild as being 'scared green' on a recent ABC special.

Blogs

Google is one of the most important “publishers” in the world, and the company’s lucrative algorithm reveals a picture of the future of profitable content.

February 22, 2013

The comedy news host shouldn’t have exploited the trillion-dollar coin idea for cheap laughs, the columnist says.

January 14, 2013

A small-bore, context-free, artificially balanced press corps only serves the interests of the powerful.

January 4, 2013

Freedom of the Press Foundation aims to help groups survive government tactics to isolate or suppress them or limit their funds.

December 18, 2012

Chaos around the Newtown massacre left plenty of room for media error.

December 17, 2012

This week: a haunting piece from Aleppo, a debate in the trans community and much more.

December 16, 2012

After a wave of criticism, The New York Times finally sent a reporter to the Manning trial… for a few hours.

December 10, 2012

Costas has ignited a firestorm after his comments on gun culture during halftime of Sunday Night Football. He tells us now why he won’t back down.

December 6, 2012

This weel: a profile of civil rights champion Bryan Stevenson, an analysis of the Libor scandal, and much more.

November 30, 2012

This week: the ongoing fight against Citizens United, Obama's trip to Southeast Asia, and much more. 

November 26, 2012