News and Features
Should the question of personhood at the embryo stage really be decided by politicians?
Not every citizen has accepted the Court's momentous presidential decision.
Under pressure from activists, the city agreed to assist its poorest residents.
At the end of this summer, an event will take place that could change the way the world thinks about one of its most vexing problems--racism.
Only hours into the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) national conference in Chicago--before half of the participants had even arrived--students were walking the picket line in s
The problem of punditocracy ignorance does not usually constitute a national security threat. If most Americans walk around misinformed about Gary Condit's sexual escapades or Elián González's emotional state, the Republic will probably survive. But on an issue like missile defense--where so many generals and admirals consider it part of their patriotic duty to mislead the public--its ramifications become considerably more worrisome.
When a Pentagon spokesperson recently announced that it had carried out a "successful test in all respects" over Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, some pundits swallowed this line faster than you can say "student deferment."
In a column titled "The 'Smart People' Were Wrong," the Washington Post's Michael Kelly beat his chest and snarled: "In the blink of a video screen going blinding white on July 14, it became impossible to offhandedly disdain a missile defense system as 'weapons that don't work.' It does work. No one can any longer assert that missile defense is unattainable." Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal crowed about the "resounding success--putting the lie to the it-can't-be-done crowd."
I don't know Kirkpatrick, but the gullible Mr. Kelly covered the Gulf War and should know better. It was back then that the Pentagon sold the pundits on a remarkably successful "kill ratio" for US Patriot missiles attempting to destroy Iraqi Scuds over Israel. This too was said to be proof that Star Wars worked. Kelly's conservative comrades like Fred Barnes insisted that the Patriot's alleged success proved that "we need SDI." Patrick Buchanan declared: "The debate is over." Then-President Bush "ought to insist on the restoration of full funding for SDI and entertain no counterargument." Wall Street Journal editors concurred, adding, "The epic debates over ABM and SDI, after all, were over whether to give American civilians the kind of protection Israeli civilians have just received."
In fact, according to a GAO study released in 1992, Patriots had a success rate of only 9 percent during the war. Israelis were actually safer without them, suffering more damage in fewer attacks when "protected." In the event of a genuine attack on the United States, a missile defense system like the Patriot would have left Barnes, Buchanan and the Journal editors a heap of radioactive ash.
Pundits seem to lose not only their skepticism when writing about Star Wars but much of their intelligence. William Safire is no dummy, but swearing fealty to Star Wars last year, he committed perhaps the single silliest sentence his newspaper published since A.M. Rosenthal accused a man of killing Abe's sister with his penis. Admitting that the technology for missile defense was nowhere to be found on earth, the former PR man countered, "But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon." Aside from the obvious illogic involved here, are there actually any mortals on the planet who fit Safire's description? Repeated entreaties to Safire and his editors have failed to turn up any such evidence.
Any journalist with even a hint of historical memory would know better than to accept at face value what Pentagon officials claim for Star Wars technology. A year ago William Broad of the Times quoted a top Star Wars official admitting that "none of the tests address the reasonable range of countermeasures." It found a retired scientist who had worked on the program at Lockheed who explained, "The only way to make it work is to dumb it down. There's no other way to do it.... It's always been a wicked game."
In 1984, in an instance of fraud that remained a secret for a full nine years, a test of Lockheed's Homing Overlay Experiment turned out to have been rigged by the placement of a beacon in the target missile so that it could easily signal its location to the interceptor missile. In 1996, Nira Schwartz, a computer software expert who worked for TRW, sued her employer because, she said, she was being forced to misreport her data on the crucial matter of whether the interceptor missile could discern the difference between a real warhead and a decoy. Denials ensued, of course, but she was backed up by other witnesses. After reviewing the classified data on these and other tests, MIT missile expert Theodore Postol concluded that Pentagon officials "are systematically lying about the performance of a weapon system that is supposed to defend the people of the United States from nuclear attack."
Even the July 14 "successful" test that sent Kirkpatrick, Kelly and others into such rapture hardly stood up to a single day's scrutiny. In a story reported by the Los Angeles Times, but followed up by few others, the program's spokespeople were forced to admit in the test's aftermath that its radar system proved unable to tell ground controllers whether a kill vehicle had destroyed its target, falsely reporting that the interceptor had missed the dummy warhead. In the event of a genuine attack, this failure would cause a system to waste missiles on targets already destroyed, making it even easier to overwhelm. No surprise there, I'm afraid. In May, after fighting ferociously to keep it secret, the Pentagon reluctantly released its own internal study reporting that despite an investment of more than $70 billion, Star Wars technology remains so elementary that "a rigorous assessment of potential system performance cannot be made."
The public is not clamoring for this silly science fiction project and, should they ever notice, will not appreciate throwing another $300 billion down this sinkhole. Yet the Bush Administration continues to push it in the apparent hopes of abrogating the ABM treaty, undercutting NATO, sparking a new cold war with Russia and China and inspiring a rash of nuclear proliferation on the Asian subcontinent. Meanwhile, "smart" pundits like Michael Kelly and William Safire cheer this insanity like drunken frat boys at a college football game. It's almost enough to make one despair of the value of the First Amendment, to say nothing of the alleged benefits of higher education.
Although it happened in early July after ethically challenged Congressman Gary Condit finally admitted to police that he'd had an adulterous affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, it's hard to say precisely when the media's obsession with the missing person case slipped into predictable absurdity.
Was it the night CNBC's Geraldo Rivera dialed up one of Condit's old motorcycle buddies to discuss on the air whether Condit had had a vasectomy? (That, of course, to answer the stitched-together what-if, "What if Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance?") The buddy said yes. Geraldo then quoted a "trusted" former FBI agent who insisted he had information that Levy had menstruated in late April, so she couldn't have been pregnant.
Was it the night when Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn, conducting her approximately seventy-eighth Levy-related interview in prime time, asked spiritual teacher Sylvia Browne where Levy's body was? Unlike everyone else in America, Browne knew the answer; Levy's body was located near "some trees down in a marshy area...but this girl is not alive."
Zahn: How do you know that, Sylvia?
Browne: Because I'm a psychic.
Was it when San Francisco Chronicle writer Dave Ford wrote "Condit's private life wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't lied about being involved with a young woman who remains missing" (emphasis added)? Because, naturally, if Condit had held a press conference the day Levy was declared missing and announced he'd had an extramarital affair with the intern and talked to her right up to the time of her disappearance, his private life would have been of no interest to reporters.
But that's what happens when the national press decides to tell a scandal story they like; preferred narrative trumps fact every time. The press doesn't have a clue about whether Condit played any role in Levy's disappearance, but that's not really the point. Journalism today, particularly the bold brand perfected in Washington over the past decade, has become such an odd, arrogant animal it no longer plays by any recognizable rules. In the wake of Katharine Graham's passing, her beloved Washington Post suffered an unwelcome reminder of just how badly its game has slipped since the paper's heady Watergate days. The Post was forced to run a lengthy recantation when a Modesto, California, minister admitted to the FBI that he had fabricated the story about his daughter having an affair with Condit seven years ago. The Post ran that irrelevant gossip as a page-one exclusive, even though it never confirmed the story with the daughter or the Congressman. Remember when Woodward and Bernstein had to three-source their stories?
Convinced, like the Post, that Condit's love life was in and of itself news, the Fresno Bee ran a story about a 31-year-old Congressional aide who said that five years ago Condit gave her his phone number! And not just any number--oh, no--a "mysterious" phone number. As the excitable aide explained, "When you call, you just hear music playing and then a beep. That is when you are supposed to leave a message."
It's called a pager.
And Dan Rather's CBS Evening News was chastised for not running this stuff?
The pundits got some things right, like taking Condit's spokeswoman to task for the slimy suggestion that Levy may have invited danger with a string of one-night stands. But then they went one step further, insisting that Levy's private life was irrelevant to the investigation. "This shouldn't even be an issue," argued Fox News Channel's Alan Colmes. So, for those keeping score at home, detailing the sordid details of a nonsuspect's sexual history is paramount for the press but discussing possible intimate relationships the missing woman may have had--other than, of course, with the nonsuspect Congressman--is completely out of bounds. How on earth does the press keep track of these arbitrary boundaries?
During a press feeding frenzy it's always easier if the good guys and bad guys are clearly identified. And from the press's perspective, clearly nobody associated with the Levy family--not their lawyers, private investigators or public relations experts--was open to question. What else would explain the silence surrounding this flip-flop?
On July 15 the Levys' Washington attorney, Billy Martin, was asked on Meet the Press whether Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
Martin: We do not yet have a final answer on that.
Here's what he said five days earlier on CBS's Early Show, when asked the exact same pregnancy question by Jane Clayson:
Martin: I don't think we want to answer that, but we do know the answer.
Clayson: You do know the answer?
Martin: We do know the answer.
The press politely looked the other way, never uttering a peep.
Incredibly, media bigfoots have actually toasted the press's performance. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, when not soliciting worthless opinions from true-crime authors on what had happened, insisted that the Levy story is "the stuff of great...journalism through the ages." Fox News Channel's Juan Williams suggested with a straight face that the press has been "restrained" in its coverage. (Will Williams ever challenge his employer on the air?) And the editor of the Beltway bible, The Hotline, was nearly moved to tears by the press's admirable job. Not only had the press "come through with flying colors" but the Levy story reminded us all that journalism "can be a dirty, ugly and even dangerous business. Those who aren't willing to take on those aspects of the profession might want to think about a new line of work."
Apparently, setting up a tripod for another day of tedious media stakeouts in front of Condit's district office is not for the faint of heart.
Joe Pulitzer famously said, "A newspaper should have no friends." Looking at the massed ranks of America's elites attending Katharine Graham's funeral in Washington on July 23, it's maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it's true. At least in political terms, Mrs. Graham had way too many friends.
The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs. Graham's name as a courageous publisher came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She'd had eight years to overcome the timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham's suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. The amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administration (Carter-time excepted) palavering happily in her dining room hadn't yet numbed the Post's spinal nerve.
Mrs. Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation's biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a proper setting for her passing. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with the nineteenth-century railroad bandit E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman was often to be seen at Mrs. Graham's house in Georgetown.
Mrs. Graham didn't strong-arm her editors and reporters, they say. But editors and reporters aren't slow to pick up hints as to the disposition of the person who pays their wages, and she sent out plenty such clues.
In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs. Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers' Association and issued a warning: "The press these days should...be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about overinvolvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist." She called for a return to basics. Journalists should stop trying to be sleuths. In other words: The party's over, boys and girls! It's not your business to rock the boat.
Mrs. Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father, Eugene Meyer. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored "those fucking environmentalists"--perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as "Kepone Kate" after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.
By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s, who would associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks, was long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen's strike in 1975, and the successful lockout. Rhetorically, at least, Mrs. Graham did not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen's Union with the disposition of the AFL-CIO, but I don't think she ever forgave labor; and that strike helped set Mrs. Graham and her newspaper on its sedately conservative course.
In the early 1980s she associated increasingly with Warren Buffett, the Nebraska investor who bought 13 percent of the Post's B stock and who was then riding high as America's most venerated stock player. Mrs. Graham simultaneously became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served.
The best evidence of the Post's decline, symbolic of what Mrs. Graham had overseen, was a seven-part, multi-thousand-word series published in January 1992. The series launching that election year was by two prominent Post reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who "for six months followed the Vice President everywhere" and "spent an unprecedented amount of time interviewing Mr. Quayle," discovering after these labors that the derided veeplet was a much underestimated statesman of discriminating stature.
In the early 1990s I used to get copies of letters sent to the Post's editors and ombudsman by Julian Holmes, a Maryland resident with a career in the Navy Weapons Lab, who read the Post diligently every day, firing off often acute and pithy criticisms. In all, Holmes told me the other day from his Maine home, he sent some 130 such letters to the Post and achieved a perfect record of zero published.
Deploring the Quayle series in a letter sent to ombudsman Richard Harwood on January 22, 1992, Holmes pointed out that nowhere in the "in-depth" exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, healthcare, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS.
No need to labor the point. The basic mistake is to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal in any active sense, unless you want to disfigure the word by applying it to such of her friends as Robert McNamara. When it came to war criminals she was an equal opportunity hostess. In her salons you could meet Kissinger, an old criminal on the way down, or Richard Holbrooke, a younger 'un on the way up. The Post's basic instincts have almost always been bad.
Former Mayor Marion Barry had some pro forma kindly words for Katharine Graham after her death, but I always think that one decisive verdict on the Post's performance in a city with a major black population came with the jury verdict acquitting Barry on the cocaine bust. Those jurors knew that the Post, along with the other Powers That Be, was on the other side from Barry, and I've no doubt that firmed up their assessment of the evidence. In that quarter, for sure, neither the Post nor Mrs. Graham had an excessive number of friends.
A world effort to force an end to the US death penalty is gaining strength.
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"