The Houston company was part of the biggest "big idea" of the past decade.
Nation pay rates, you may have heard from brother Trillin, are not those of Condé Nast. Every once in a while I don't mind this, because the job just kind of does itself. Take this week: I couldn't decide which of the many McCarthyite wing-nuts currently accusing ex-lovers and comrades of being liars, gay-bashers, anti-Semites and spouse-abusers merited an entire column. None of them did. But hey, I got a column out of just trying to figure it out.
(1) Weekly Standard writer David Frum took a job as a supposedly anonymous White House speechwriter. But his wife, novelist Danielle Crittenden (yes, she's the one who tells women to use their husband's name professionally but doesn't bother with that silliness herself), could not bear to see hubby's genius go unrecognized and sent out a mass e-mail claiming his authorship for Bush's nonsensical "axis of evil" formulation. Tim Noah, Slate's Cindy Adams, owns this baby. He published the offending e-mail. ("It's not often a phrase one writes gains national notice...so I hope you'll indulge my wifely pride in seeing this one repeated in headlines everywhere!!") He quoted her stepdaddy's Canadian newspaper telling the same tale. And he cited other possible authors. Later Frum, thinking twice, decided Bush had thunk it up all by his lonesome. (When you think about it, it's just foolish enough...) Anyway, speechwriters are not supposed to take credit for anything, even dumb ideas, and now Davy's unemployed. Bob Novak blames wifey's e-mail. Davy says Bobby's a liar and he was quitting anyway. Now, "Nofacts" is a well-known McCarthyite fabulist, but Mr. Crittenden does not improve his own credibility much by claiming that W. has "proven himself to be one of the great presidents of American history." So who's really writing fiction here? You be the judge.
(2) Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund has landed on Page Six in a bizarre tale that is almost too weird to write down. It seems that a woman with whom Fund had an affair twenty years ago named Melinda Pillsbury Foster sent her daughter, Morgan, to look up Fund when she came to town. One thing led to another and the results appear to have been a live-in relationship and an abortion. This is strange enough for a Wall Street Journal editorial writer who, although very much a gentleman in person, penned some of the most vicious and irresponsible material about Clinton and the Democrats outside the columns of this magazine. (Fund is also a ghostwriter for Rush Limbaugh and, irony of ironies, is widely believed to be the source of Matt Drudge's libelous claim that Sidney Blumenthal is a wife-beater.) Anyway, things did not exactly work out. Mother and daughter decided to take their revenge by uploading onto the web a taped telephone call in which John attempts to reconcile his support for Morgan's abortion with his "family values" politics. They then informed the media that John and Morgan had decided to wed after all. This turned out to be false, but the next thing you know, Fund is gone from the Journal's editorial page, arrested in Manhattan for battery of Melinda and under a restraining order. (Join me for a moment in imagining what the Wall Street Journal/Washington Times/New York Post/Fox News/Rush Limbaugh/American Spectator scandal machine would do with this crazy story if it were about, say, Frank Rich.) In the meantime, I am inclined to accept Fund's denials absent contrary evidence. Politically the man may be a menace, but his accusers have already proven themselves to be--to coin a phrase--"a little bit nutty." You pays your money and you picks your liar.
(3) Ever wonder what it must have felt like to be a right-winger and lay your hands on Whittaker Chambers's Witness for the first time? Run, don't walk to your corner bookstore. David Brock's Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative is a liberal's Stairway to Heaven. Absolutely everything we thought about these bozos in the vast right-wing conspiracy turns out to be true and then some. Meet Anti-Semite Ann Coulter, Homophobe Johnny Podhoretz, Lovesick Matt Drudge, etc. Like Chambers, Brock is a confessed liar, an ex-ideologue and a formerly closeted homosexual who conspired with people and publications specializing in McCarthyite slander of innocent liberals, minorities and gays. For Chambers fans, anyway, that should do it.
(4) Washington Post writer Michael Kelly says of his column: "It's not that important to me.... It's a busman's holiday." Here I am pretty confident Kelly is telling the truth. Complaining of a negative reference to the State of the Union in a New York Times Op-Ed by Mark Lilla, Kelly, who edits both National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly, recently joked that the author was "a professor of something called social thought (presumably, there are professors of antisocial thought too, but no one knows who they are since they won't answer the phone)." LOL. Apparently nobody at the Post takes Kelly's column seriously either. Had Kelly spent a few minutes on research, he might have discovered that the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought has been the home of such nobodies as Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, Harold Rosenberg, Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom. Today the novelist J.M. Coetzee, the poet Mark Strand and George Bush's favorite bioethicist, Leon Kass, all hang their homburgs there alongside that of Lilla, who is also the ex-editor of the neoconservative Public Interest. Since none of the above are pacifists--or as Kelly would put it, "evil...objectively pro-terrorist.... Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites"--perhaps one might even rate a contribution to the once-great Atlantic.
(5) Speaking of verbal diarrhea, Scaife-funded David Horowitz has just published another of his entertainingly insane pamphlets; this one joining fellow McCarthyite Andrew Sullivan in blaming the "Fifth Column" left for September 11. Last time I mentioned Horowitz, he responded, "Eric Alterman apparently thinks lying is a form of mooning." I don't know what that means, but it does confirm my long-held belief that one Panther-loving Commie-turned-reactionary-racebaiter sure does spend a lot of time with his head up his ass.
The nation's largest media corporations are now poised to gain dramatically greater control over what Americans watch, listen to and read. A February 19 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit nullified two longstanding government regulations limiting the scope and size of media companies that use the public airwaves. If the decision stands, there will no longer be limits on the same company owning television stations and cable franchises in the same market. The court also ordered the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider a rule barring a TV network from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience.
The end result of this latest deregulation wave could be, in the words of Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union, "the most massive consolidation in media this nation has ever seen." The only good news in the appeals court's ruling was its rejection of a claim by media company lawyers that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. This means that even as FCC chairman Michael Powell seeks to repeal the remaining regulatory limits on media monopoly, Congress could reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful legislators, including Senator Ernest Hollings and Representative John Conyers Jr., want to do just that. But they are going to need public pressure from a real media reform movement if they are to have any hope of converting their fellow members to a fight for Americans' right to a diverse media.
With the looming prospect of one or two giant media conglomerates controlling almost all our news and entertainment, the survival of alternative, noncommercial media outlets becomes more important than ever. One of them--Pacifica radio--has famously been rocked by internal problems and requires support from all who care about independent media. The Nation is deeply committed to the Pacifica ideal of independent broadcasting (at both the national and local levels) and has many friends and longtime contributors involved in the network in various capacities. Now that an Alameda County Superior Court judge has replaced the old board with an interim body charged with restoring harmony and solvency to the battered network, it's vital that those of us in the penumbra of the Pacifica community do what we can to help the new cast of characters be true to the Pacifica ideal.
Recent events--including the axing of Pacifica Network News, the firing of KPFK station manager Mark Schubb, the suspension of Marc Cooper and the cancellation of his daily show on KPFK (Cooper is a contributing editor of this magazine and also the host of RadioNation)--suggest that all is not pacified at Pacifica. Further, the network is saddled with a debt of $4.8 million, partly as a result of litigation during the recent troubles.
We'll have a report in an upcoming issue on the latest developments. Meanwhile, Pacifica remains a beacon of independent thinking and progressive values in a sea of conglomeratized and homogenized media. Readers who have strong views on Pacifica's future course should convey them to their local station. For those of you who wish to send contributions to offset the alarming deficit: Make out checks to Pacifica Foundation and mail them to Pacifica Radio, Attention: Accounts, 2390 Champlain St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
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.
How to Honor Pearl
The Federal Communications Commission is presently conducting an inquiry--a "rulemaking"--to determine whether to relax, or even to eliminate, the remaining few regulations that limit how many me
The divergence in British and US views on the Middle East has become acute.
Some magazines have an identity problem, and some don't. The New York Review of Books doesn't, as you may have noticed. It's relentlessly highbrow, which is how we like it. For the most part. But every once in a while, a little bit of pop culture creeps in, hooray, and then the editors do their best to hide it. In the February 14 issue, for example, there's an ebullient review of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher, among a million other of his books, by the always bubbling and boiling John Leonard. But the cover gives no hint that this amusement lurks within. Instead, it plugs yet another review of yet another book on Anthony Blunt (Blunt and Kim Philby are to NYRB what the Beatles are to Rolling Stone: no issue complete without at least one mention, even if it has to be in the personals); a searing legal indictment of Bush's military tribunal "concept" by Aryeh Neier, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch; and, smack in the center, a piece by John Updike on Gustav Klimt in New York, the exhibit at the new Neue Galerie on Museum Row in New York.
Updike's review is fine, but it gives me the feeling, again, that there are two sides to the man: Updike the great writer, and Updike the whiny curmudgeon who hangs out in New York, goes on taxing trips to China and believes he heard the twin towers "tinkle" to the ground from his vantage point in Brooklyn. Thus the Klimt review begins with a litany of complaints about traffic flow at the museum and the placement of the bookstore and gift shop on the ground floor (where else would they be?), with the brave Updike thrusting forward like a great beaky bird through the plebes. "As stated," he writes, "the café, with windows on Fifth Avenue, was thriving; in my haste to get to the art I missed the bookstore and 'design shop.'"
I'm glad the King review is there as a counterweight to the difficult walk amid the gifts and the latte drinkers and the Austrian furnishings, but it shouldn't be a secret kept from newsstand buyers. Leonard's encompassing review includes the funny and instructive story of King buying a table at the National Book Awards for himself and John Grisham (among others), who will never be invited or granted such a prize by what Leonard, borrowing a fine word from King, calls "those shit-weasels, the anal-retentive literary establishment." Not at the table, and not on the cover.
I've always been a coward, and the events of September 11 have not alleviated the problem. I own: one roll of duct tape, a medium-sized Leatherman tool, a small flashlight, seven surgical masks, a box of latex gloves, many cans of beans and a box of Carnation evaporated milk, all bought in the aftermath of that day. I admit it's not total coverage. But then, I am not much of a survivalist. Five months after the attacks, I went through some of the post-9/11 magazines, and I now know why survivalism is not for me. A person who depends on one box of Carnation (which, I have learned from my reading, lasts only six months) should not go on living on an earth that will be filled with post-Armageddon survivalists. We could not be friends. They call knives "edged weapons."
Of course, all the survivalist and mercenary magazines are pro-gun, and they seem to think that having a gun will somehow help you in the next new world. In Terrorism Survival Guide's second issue, an article about choosing the right firearm tells families that "self defense has reached a level in this era of murderous terrorism that to be unarmed is equivalent to surrendering to ruthless evil." It's hard to imagine how a handgun would help as a skyscraper flattens to the ground, but I suppose the civil unrest that might follow could justify it. (And I did like the look and name of that Black Widow .22 Magnum, which weighs in at just over 6 ounces and is only 5 inches long and would fit quite snugly next to my Leatherman and flashlight.) As ever, Soldier of Fortune is the most interesting of the wacko military mags. Like Aryeh Neier--to whom you can safely say its writers are not too often compared--it abhors Bush's military tribunals, and its March issue contains a semi-thought-provoking piece on Johnny Michael Spann and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, with most of the ideas and attitudes taken from Seymour Hersh's piece on Tenet in The New Yorker last fall. Hersh and SOF: another unusual team. But then again: The World Has Changed. You can tell it has, because in the photo of a young girl and her Barbie doll in Terrorism Survival Guide's article "What Do We Tell Our Kids?", the girl is wearing a supermodern protective plastic helmet, and Barbie has on a pink tank top, lace skirt and gas mask.
There's a new niche magazine: Heeb, the New Jew Review. Intended to stir up controversy, this sparky and slightly inane newcomer will reignite the old, old controversy over what it means to be Jewish. If it means skateboarding and deejaying and graffiti-writing, I've blown it completely. But there are some great things in here, too: a wrong-minded but amusing meditation on the use of Jews in The Simpsons; a lovely homoerotic paean to Allen Ginsberg, with a moving photo of the great one in his bathrobe, cooking; a twisted essay on Pizza Hut's new Twisted Crust pie, which the writer insists is a reference to the swastika (Hakenkreuz, in German, or twisted cross); someone's old bubbe reviewing the latest pop music ("Oh, I love that beat!"). Heeb takes only a minor interest in the major crisis facing Jews today--there's a short bit (in a department called Underground Oslo) on the Old City Peace Vigil, a small interfaith group that is bravely keeping up a protest in the shadow of the Western Wall. Everything in this eye-catching magazine is irreverent, but only a teaspoonful is important. Still, it's a rare pleasure to see my people not take themselves too seriously. Oh, and it has a centerfold of Neil Diamond. Not nude, but the mutton chops are swell; he's like a luscious pinup from another lifetime.
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.