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.
Black pathology is big business. Two-thirds of
teenage mothers are white, two-thirds of welfare
recipients are white and white youth commit
most of the crime in this country.
George W. Bush's State of the Union address has laid bare his Administration's political strategy. It is to manipulate the grief, anger and patriotism inspired by September 11 to fit the contours of the right-wing Republican agenda of September 10. What that Day of Infamy means to George W. Bush & Co. is more tax cuts for the wealthy, more money for wasteful weapons schemes and the back of their proverbial hand to those who suffer the misfortune of not being rich in Bush's America.
Viewed under any other rubric, Bush's speech--received so rapturously by a well-stroked punditocracy--is entirely incoherent. Does war demand sacrifice? Let's give more tax breaks to the rich. Did stateless terrorists attack us wielding only box cutters? Let's build a nonfunctional $250 billion missile defense system. Does the bond market demand fiscal responsibility for sustained growth? Suppose we spend down the surplus, raid the Social Security trust fund and create deficits of a size unseen since the bad old days of Reagan/Bush. Do we need allies now more than ever in the fight against terrorism? Why not alienate all of them with a unilateral declaration of a global war against an imaginary "Axis of Evil"--nonsensically invoking Hitler and Tojo for good measure? Never mind that Iraq, according to the CIA, has not attempted a terrorist act against us in nearly a decade, or that Iran and Iraq hate each other, or that Iran has democratic elections (and the winner even gets to be president) and that North Korea has nothing to do with any of this. Just to be safe, perhaps we'd better give a pass to friendly terrorists like the Russians, currently engaged in the wholesale rape and pillage of Chechnya, and China, doing a quieter but more effective job in Tibet.
Bush's hyperbolic oration, inspired no doubt by the vanity and indiscipline of his speechwriters, recalls another President's politically inspired scare tactics. In late 1947 Clark Clifford and James Rowe instructed Harry Truman, "The worse matters get, up to a fairly certain point--real danger of imminent war--the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis the American citizen tends to back up his President." The result was the famed war scare of 1948, in which that accidental President started trumpeting "the critical nature of the situation in Europe," the necessity for "speedy action," the "great urgency" of the problem of the Soviet threat. He did this even though, as State Department counselor Charles Bohlen explained in a confidential January 1948 memo, the government considered its position "vis-à-vis the Soviet better now than at any time since the end of the war."
As in 1948, we face a military threat that requires a vigorous, but proportional, response. And the government has no more critical responsibility than the defense of the "homeland." But once again the disjunction between those ends and the eternally expansive means proposed by Bush is so vast as to render transparent the political motivations behind it. Karl Rove nearly admitted as much when he recently advised a group of Republican activists to use the war in Afghanistan to win elections here at home. The Evil Empire has expired, but the Evil Axis is open for praxis.
As Slate reported, the response overseas to Bush's speech was almost uniformly disapproving, with editorialists condemning the "Hate of the Union" (The Guardian); the "distinctly disturbing" message (The Independent); a tone "more martial than ever" (Libération); containing "no hint here that he understands that he is talking of sovereign nations" (the Sydney Morning Herald).
Alas, foreigners don't vote. In fact, Americans don't vote until long after favor-seeking corporations like Enron have decided which candidates to fund in exchange for favors and after pundits have chewed up and spit out the issues and candidates sufficiently to determine who is a serious, responsible candidate and what might be prudently said about the issues on the campaign trail. For the latter reason, it is rather alarming to notice that conservative extremism has become so commonplace that even on allegedly nonpartisan broadcasts, it is treated as conventional wisdom.
Take the minor but emblematic example of CNBC's coverage of the Bush speech. The network's deal with the Wall Street Journal allows genuine reporters to provide viewers with a respite from the constant stream of analysts and CEOs showing up to hawk their portfolios and jack up stock prices. But as everyone but the network's executives seems to know, the Journal is really two newspapers: one with a crack news staff and one with a crackpot editorial staff.
During the Clinton Administration, no nutty rumor or oddball allegation about the President was deemed too goofy to publish by those editors. I have on my shelf six fat volumes containing some 3,000 pages of the Journal's editorial page fulminations regarding an Arkansas land deal called "Whitewater" in which both Clintons were found to be innocent of any criminal conduct by Republican-appointed special prosecutors. And yet following Bush's speech, the editors were invited by CNBC to comment on Bush and the Democratic respondent, Richard Gephardt, with no balance at all. To go as far left as the Journal editors are to the right, CNBC would have to convene a roundtable featuring Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Fidel Castro.
Were any CNBC viewers surprised to hear that Paul Gigot thought Bush gave "a muscular speech, a speech of old-fashioned muscular virtues--justice, honor, courage, responsibility"? Or Susan Lee's view that Bush had been "very polished...very laserlike...extremely intense," with "fantastic" rhetoric she found to be "incredibly manly and muscular"? How generous, too, of Gigot to note that Gephardt had given "a good speech...for one reason. It basically said: I agree with the president." Robert Bartley didn't think it mattered. "You know, Bush is going to win again the next time out." But didn't the sane portion of Bartley's newspaper publish its own poll showing that "a clear majority" of Americans would choose "delaying the already enacted tax cuts for the rich" to protect domestic programs? "That's a loaded question," says Bartley. Planted no doubt by an evil pollster with an axis to grind.
Black Hawk Downer
The New York Times's Martin Arnold calls the success of Bernard Goldberg's Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News "perhaps the most astonishing publishing event in the last 12 months." I concur. A number-one best-seller is indeed an impressive accomplishment for a clumsily written screed whose author never even bothers to prove his thesis, much less attempts to convince anyone who does not already know the conservative secret handshake.
Never mind that in their more genuine moments, conservatives from William Kristol to Pat Buchanan admit that the claim of liberal media bias is bogus, cooked up for political advantage. Conservative book buyers, fortunately for Goldberg, are rather late in getting the news. "Just turn on your TV set and it's there," the author, a twenty-eight-year veteran at CBS News, declares. In doing so, he echoes the line of many a know-nothing conservative before him. "There are certain facts of life so long obvious they would seem beyond dispute. One of these--that there is a liberal tilt in the media...," sayeth the editors of the Wall Street Journal. "The fact is everybody knows that Dan Rather is an egomaniacal liberal. Everybody knows that the major news networks lean to the left," chimes in Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online. Never mind, dear reader, that young Jonah was recently signed up by CNN, where he joins liberal Robert Novak and liberal Tucker Carlson as a regular commentator on what Tom DeLay calls the "Communist News Network." He can expect to compete with liberal lunatic Alan Keyes on MSNBC, who replaces liberal criminal Oliver North and liberal miniskirt model Laura Ingraham, and joins liberal carnival barker Chris Matthews, in being given his own show on that liberal network. Thank goodness for the fairandbalanced folks at Fox.
Taking time out from the 200-300 talk-radio programs that regularly feature authors of the conservative publishing house Regnery, which published his book, Goldberg appeared on Jeff Greenfield's Communist CNN program, where he told his host, "I could give you right now, Jeff, about 100 examples of liberal bias in the media that are current." Yet over the course of 230 pages, he manages to string together little more than one idiotic accusation after another. Goldberg reports, "Everyone to the right of Lenin is a 'right-winger' as far as media elites are concerned." He explains that the news bias comes from the same "dark region that produces envy and the unquenchable liberal need to wage class warfare." He insists, "If CBS News were a prison instead of a journalistic enterprise, three-quarters of the producers and 100 per cent of the vice-presidents would be Dan's bitches." Just about the only piece of actual news Goldberg produces is unproven and, I'm guessing, imaginary. According to the author, CBS News president Andrew Heyward once told him: "Look, Bernie, of course there's a liberal bias in the news. All the networks tilt left.... If you repeat any of this, I'll deny it."
Taking the conservative ideology of wealthy white male victimization to new heights, Goldberg pretends he has broken his pledge of omertà and suffered the horrifying consequences. He wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal attacking his colleagues. "So what happened?" he writes. "Well, as Tony Soprano might put it to his old pal Big Pussy Bompensiero in the Bada Bing! Lounge: Bernie G. opened his mouth to the wrong people--and he got whacked."
It's heartbreaking until you discover that while Goldberg admits that Heyward had every right to fire him for violating the terms of his contract, instead the boss whom "Bernie G." is either betraying or libeling in these pages found him a nice cushy job at 60 Minutes II and allowed him to serve out his time to qualify for a higher pension. Call me a liberal, but I believe the term "whack" carries a slightly different connotation among Mafia dons.
As for Dan's "bitches," this is likely a fantasy as well. The anchorman, according to Goldberg, "practically kissed Fidel Castro in front of the whole evening news staff when the dictator showed up at CBS News studios." Did I mention that Goldberg (though he'll probably deny it) "practically" beat my dog, raped my cat and exposed himself to a potted plant in front of the entire Nation staff? He "practically" did all this, by the way, before "practically" admitting that his book was cooked up in a few spare minutes to milk money from ignorant people willing to pay to see their prejudices confirmed. Go ahead, Bernie, "whack" me; baby needs a new pair of shoes.
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Speaking of liberals, George Will offered up yet another example recently of why the word "journalist" is considered so vicious an epithet among social scientists. Will has long been obsessed with education spending, which he finds wasteful and counterproductive. This leads him to twist arguments and statistics so shamelessly that one of his columns actually served as the subject of an article in the Journal of Statistics Education demonstrating how not to analyze SAT data.
Will's most recent foray into the topic is an almost perfect rewrite of a column he wrote a year ago. Writing on the Bear Left website (www.bear-left.com), Tim Francis-Wright notes that the College Board website contains at least three pages of warnings to journalists seeking to use state-level data, which Will ignores. He not only abuses the figures to denigrate the effects of investing in education, he constructs his entire argument on precisely two data points: test scores as reported by North Dakota and the District of Columbia. The divorced pundit distorts the implications of this tiny, intellectually immaterial comparison to support his own biased belief in strong nuclear families as the key determinant of educational success. Surprise, surprise.
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And speaking of the liberals at Enron, I could not follow this story were it not for the energetic reporting of the folks at Media Whores Online (www.mediawhoresonline.com) and the thoughtful analysis at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo website (www.j-marshall.com/talk). Check 'em out.
There is a value to the much-criticized crawl that zipped along at the bottom of CNN's window during the attack on Afghanistan, beneath clips of dirty traitors and soldier-heroes and starving refugees. As the world's other news ticked blithely by, trivialized by the pictures above it, the ephemeral, superficial crawl reminded us of the worth of words that do not move, and of stories told in columns of type, not in video clips or on film. I don't want to get too sentimental, but isn't the printed page reliable; isn't it familiar; isn't it decent? It feels immutable in a way that other things do not these days. As Walter Isaacson (who is now running CNN) said when he was still at Time: "If the world were based on computers and they told you about magazines, you'd think: 'Wow: what a great technology!'"
Magazines and newspapers (and online versions of these) still often manage to tackle complex stories and say things that have meaning, unlike so much of the media. And meaning, which is so unusual now that content is dead (a friend actually told me that several years ago), meaning generates a ripple of excitement. I found it fun, for example, when Lewis Lapham called the Attorney General "Mullah John Ashcroft" in print, in Harper's, of course. You won't find "Mullah" John Ashcroft doing the crawl on CNN beneath the story about President Bush and his FPS (Failed Pretzel Swallowing). Now that Talk, which had every kind of support behind it, has gone under (in the wake of other recent casualties like Brill's Content, Lingua Franca, Mademoiselle, ON magazine), we can be reasonably sure that the print media is in for further high-temperature shrinking as the economy tightens. This column will check in regularly on the health of content and highlight what's meaningful in print, in general interest and niche publications, and in the little, spirited, idiosyncratic guys one rarely gets to.
What 'The Arab' Thinks
Since the fall of the towers, I've listened to and read so much drivel about "Arab casbah culture" and the "Arabs' nomadic mentality" and about what Arabs think and what really drives "The Arab," that it was good to find Al Jadid, a quarterly published in Los Angeles devoted to Arab culture and arts. The way I found it was unfortunate, however--painful. Suffice it to say that my recent novel (which is about Jerusalem) received from Al Jadid its only English-language notice from an Arab point of view, and the review was not entirely kind. So I was led reluctantly to the magazine, but when I looked into its back issues, I discovered that it contains a wealth of opinion and information that no one else is publishing in English.
I knew Al Jadid was for me when one knowledgeable Arab of my acquaintance told me disdainfully that the magazine was "not influential." I love that; for me, "not influential" means you can read the thing without having to feel you must agree with it. Consider these noninfluential observations, by Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist, essayist and editor, on Saddam (yes, the Saddam) Hussein's first novel, Zubayba and the King (2000): For Arab military dictatorships, Khoury writes,
literature became somehow a field associated with the...dictatorship, perhaps because all writing in [such] regimes is like writing intelligence reports. We find a strange mixture between the writer and the intelligence analyst.... Creative writers first become intelligence report writers and then become authors!... The literary world suffered in a terrifying way thanks to this strange combination: Egyptian authors were imprisoned; Iraqi writers lived between exile, prison and assassination; literature in Syria knew a great decline; and in the Gulf regimes, monarchies, emirates and sheikhdoms, the censor is almost the sole author.
Magazines like Al Jadid, which are concerned with niche obsessions or particular groups, also often speak with unintentional authority to the universal, to the general human experience. One of my favorite examples of this--in the Al Jadid "Editor's Notebook" column by Elie Chalala, in the Winter 2001 issue--is called "Poet and Critic Nouri Jarah Laments Standards of Arab Literary Criticism, Rushing Poetry into Translation."
The first interesting thing you discover in this great piece is that "individuals seeking political asylum" are trying to pass themselves off as Great Poets from their home countries, in order to claim persecution. That's a good ruse. Unfortunately, this is the only eccentric thing you discover about the Arab publishing world. Otherwise, we might as well be in New York or London. Jarah states that "decisions of culture [in the Arab world] are based on exchanges of power and influence" rather than on sheer literary merit. He also points out that "the Arab critic-author relationship is one of enmity rather than amity."
Mmmmmm. Oh yes. Really.
Now I understand where my reviewer was coming from.
Woman on the Go
Working Woman was closed by new management (a bank) last September, on its twenty-fifth anniversary. The magazine went on "hiatus," as the holding company that still owns the name puts it. This leaves Woman's sororal twin, Working Mother, still out there in the market because, as one former employee says, "it's easier for advertisers to understand Working Mother's audience; the demographic is more tangible." Doctors' offices are among Working Mother's largest subscriber groups. (In case you are wondering, Ms. is still published but is not advertiser-supported.)
Working Woman was intended to target CEO-level women, who make about twice as much as, say, the readership of Good Housekeeping (which shows no signs of closing down). But the high-end women were more likely to subscribe to Business Week, Forbes or Fortune. Eventually the advertising community deserted the publication, because it could get at the actual Woman readers better elsewhere: at Family Circle, for example, or in the fashion and beauty and shopper magazines.
In an interesting note, Working Mother, which also changed hands and recruited a new staff in September, will now be put out by an editor in chief and a deputy editor neither of whom have ever had children. It's as if you had a white person editing Ebony.
What if we could see the Afghan dead as we've seen the September 11 victims?
Sure, he's a cartoon character, but it still takes courage to speak out.
Drug companies influence research; they also affect what gets published.
The New Republic strains credibility with its 'Idiocy Watch'—it might want to keep itself in its sights.