My new Think Again column is George McGovern—A Lifetime of Conscience and ourage

And I did a longish article for The Nation called “The Mainstream Media's Trivial Pursuit of Campaign 2012”

Have you seen the video a fan made for Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s “I Don't Believe A Word You Say?”

I was among the fortunate who go to see Crosby Stills and Nash do their entire first album in its entirety—the only time they have ever done so—at the Beacon on Monday night. And what a thing of beauty it was. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was done with just Stephen’s guitar until the “dododododo” part when the full band came in and one got to relive one’s entire life for the past half century or so, depending on how one felt about it (and assuming one’s memory had not been destroyed, which in this crowd…) In any case, I saw the full show on Saturday night and it reinforced my belief that these three guys (and this crack band) have never sounded better. It’s a really strong argument for getting old. They made their own lives impossible when they were at their peak in the early seventies, and had Graham Nash not been one of the most decent men on the planet, who knows, someone might have gotten killed. Now everybody’s all grown up and been through who knows what and so how lucky they feel to be able to make these lovely sounds—and to play some real rock that flows from Stephen’s intense lead guitar—before people who appreciate them and will pay good money—good enough, at least to sell out the Beacon for five straight shows.

The guys are touring in support of the CSN 2012 CD/DVD/Blu-ray they’ve just released so conveniently, you can see if I know what I’m talking about. I can’t imagine anyone who is interested will be disappointed. (And hey, I’ve failed entirely, but perhaps you can teach your children well…)

Also in the Alterman music-to-work-to rotation is Jerry Garcia/Marle Sanders Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings. It’s four cds of relaxed, extended jams on songs that have since become classic but you’ll hear them differently here than anywhere else, even when you hear them more than once. Close your eyes and you’re in club, listening to music the way music should be heard, by people playing for the love of it. The harder dey come….

Oh and yes, Dave’s Picks Vol. 4 appears to be sold out already. I have it on now. It’s from my favorite period of the Dead-1976 at the College of William and Mary—before the band got so big you had to see them in hockey arenas—and sounding tight with Keith and Donna before the latter two lost it. It’s a soundboard recording and has the requisite Help/Slip/Frank that divides the good from the great in my view. All these Dave’s Picks are limited editions that appear to sell out right away so keep your eye the ball. The site says you can pre-order them, but I’m confused as it also says they’re sold out. So maybe you want to try, I dunno. Good set though.

Finally, Jazz @Lincoln Center is in the midst of a Coltrane Festival. I’m seeing McCoy Tyner’s group tonight and Josh Redman with the J@LC orchestra tomorrow night. I’ll report back on the shows but if you’re in town with nothing to do, well, now you have something to do.

Now here’s Reed:

Beltway Journalist Job Requirement: Deficit Hawk, Climate Change Cynic?
by Reed Richardson
For those of us obsessively watching the scoreboard of this knife-edge presidential campaign, there’s one small but illuminating metric where the numbers are an utter blowout, worse even than one of those early season, creampuff vs. powerhouse college football mismatches. This imbalance is indicative of how, on two policy issues, our supposedly liberal Washington press corps has thoroughly inculcated the right-wing’s framing. As such, here’s a final tally from the four debates I think is worth noting:

103: Number of times the national “debt” or federal budget “deficit” was directly mentioned by the moderator or candidates

0: Number of times the term “climate change” was spoken or even indirectly referenced

That, over the course of six televised hours of discussion, talk of the former was so dominant and talk of the latter was conspicuously absent is striking. All this non-talk about climate change has even spawned, as is common nowadays, an Internet meme: Climate Silence. As others have pointed out, the lack of any climate change discussion effectively rolled back the clock 28 years; 1984 being the last election the topic did not get an airing during a vice presidential or presidential debate. (Even more frightening in terms of how far our current discourse has regressed on this issue—in 1988, the Democratic and Republican VP hopefuls both acknowledged climate change and agreed it deserved action to mitigate it.)

This election season, however, an uninitiated observer might be forgiven for thinking that, based on discussions both on and off the debate stage, it was this horrific “debt” thing that was already threatening millions of Americans with rising sea levels and more wildfire outbreaks, starving our agricultural base with increasingly severe droughts, and killing our citizens in an epidemic of extreme heat waves. By the same token, the issue of “climate change,” this same clueless spectator might surmise, must be more of a long-term, structural budgetary challenge and certainly not something that must be obsessed over and painfully addressed right now at the expense of wrecking a still fragile economic recovery.

To be fair, the presidential campaigns must shoulder a portion of the burden for so skewing the talk away from climate change. During the debates—and the final one, in particular—we clearly saw that both Romney and Obama were more than willing to stray from the format to discuss their preferred issues, if they so choose.

That Romney made no effort to bring up climate change is, to put it mildly, no surprise. After all, his most notable discussion of the topic came during his GOP convention nominating speech, when he tossed some red meat to his party’s rightmost flank by snarkily dismissing the president as having promised to “slow the rise of oceans” and “heal the planet.” Obama, on the other hand, did at least declare in his corresponding speech “climate change is not a hoax.” Still, it becomes apparent the president has all but abandoned climate change as a campaign issue when the chair of the Energy and Environment Team for Obama, a voluntary group of officials advising the campaign, recently circulated a not-very-convincing memo stating that Obama had mentioned climate change—get ready for it—a whole 15 times in the last three months. Why that’s an average of more than once a week!

The Beltway media has both played along and encouraged this climate change freeze-out, however. And to get a glimpse of its cloistered, upside-down reasoning, we turn to CNN’s Candy Crowley, whose skills for debate moderation I mainly applauded last week, but this week, paraphrasing Shakespeare, I come to bury, not to praise. That’s because, when expressly asked about the absence of the topic from the town hall debate she oversaw, we got this:

“For what it's worth, Crowley did say after the debate that an audience member had wanted to ask a climate change question. ‘Climate change, I had that question,’ she said. ‘All you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing.’

First of all, it shouldn’t be overlooked here that, in her defense, she gently bats away the criticism by modifying the tried-and-true elitist rejoinder “you people.” But even setting aside the unpleasant historical connotations of her rhetorical phrasing, it’s Crowley’s parochial, hidebound viewpoint about climate change that should be setting off the real alarm bells. For a prominent member of the establishment media to myopically view climate change as merely a discrete, fringe issue, implicitly only of interest to dirty, Prius-driving, hippies is inexcusable.

Indeed, that climate change is easily pigeonholed into one of these “special interest” categories is dangerously naive. The effects of climate change are wide ranging, rippling into nearly every corner of our political debate, whether it’s economic productivity or energy policy or health care or even national security. Hmmm, if only there was a good example of how legislation that addresses climatic and environmental change can have a immensely powerful impact across the entire policy spectrum, that way the press might reawaken to its importance. Oh wait, there is.

The Clean Air Act, first passed in 1970 thanks to a Republican president and Democratic Congress and then strengthened substantially in 1990 through another bipartisan effort, has demonstrated the kind of long-lasting positive benefits that are often promised but rarely realized in our government. (To really see how regressive the modern Republican Party has become in just 20 years, read President George H.W. Bush’s Clean Air Act signing statement.) What was ostensibly an environmental and public safety bill actually turned into a landmark piece of healthcare, jobs, energy, and—yes—deficit reduction legislation. According to data compiled by the NRDC and the EPA, beside the direct successes in reducing smog, curtailing acid rain, and mending the hole in the ozone layer, the Clean Air Act can claim:

  • Successfully launched a cap-and-trade market to incentivize regional energy producers to modernize their facilities and decrease pollution

  • 2 million lives saved and 1.04 million ER visits prevented since 1990

  • 170.6 million lost work-days prevented since 1970 (roughly equivalent to the working-age population of New York City working an entire extra year)

  • 1.6 million environmental technology jobs created

  • $40 billion in exports realized

  • $33.7 trillion in net monetized benefits over the first 40 years (a figure more than double our entire annual GDP last year)

  • 42 to 1, the overall benefit-to-cost ratio of the legislation

Unfortunately, the climate change freeze-out in the other debates and among the campaign trail coverage demonstrates that this side of the ledger no longer merits much attention among the rest of the Washington press corps.

‘But the broader public doesn’t care about climate change!’ the press might argue. And as proof, it could offer up the latest Gallup survey, published on Monday, which lists the most important issues for voters as Election Day nears. The federal deficit, admittedly, ranks as number three in terms of priorities (12 percent), while climate change is nowhere to be found. What’s more, Gallup posed this “priorities” question as open-ended, meaning if the public doesn’t bring it up on their own, they must not care much about it. All of these are fair points, but taken in context they neglect the larger dynamic taking place within the press regarding its attitude about climate change and the debt.

Dig down into the recent history of other surveys asking this “priorities” question and you’ll find a distinct trend, year after year. More than half of these news organization polls take a different tack when it comes to this agenda-setting question, offering instead a finite list of topics for respondents to choose from when answering. And overwhelmingly, this “priming,” as its known in polling parlance, will include a mention of the deficit while omitting climate change.

A similar kind of self-fulfilling prophecy can begin to develop around media coverage of these two issues as well. Over time, a press corps that consistently ignores climate change and emphasizes the deficit begins to feel justified in doing so precisely because those topics begin to see corresponding decreases and increases in attention by the public. As a result, the establishment media’s take on these issues slowly but surely shifts the boundaries of public discourse, opening wide the Overton window on the debt while closing, if not slamming shut, the one on climate change.

This divergence in media attention has not occurred in a vacuum, however, nor is it an accident. Ever since mainstream conservatism’s recent decision to embrace climate change skepticism—if not outright denialism—and champion deficit-slashing austerity as part of its ideological ethos, the press, in its foolish pursuit of carefully-splitting-the-difference objectivity, has dutifully followed suit. Hence, the center of gravity for these two topics among Beltway pundits and the establishment media has shifted dramatically as Republicans have staked out positions at the extreme right of the party. Counting on, as it does, the press’s aversion for perceived bias, the right’s gaming of the discourse on these two issues has proved devastatingly effective.

Consequently, many among the highest reaches of the media firmament can now be relied upon to employ, whether self-consciously or not, these same biases. Appearing on a Sunday morning news show like “Meet the Press?” Pundits need not bother crafting some insightful talking points about the need for cap-and-trade or a compelling argument for shifting away from fossil fuels, better to bone up on how much “pain” they’re willing to inflict on American voters in order to reduce the debt and balance the budget. Think the need for more comprehensive greenhouse gas limitations can be an opportunity to pioneer a new industry for the country? First you’ll have to fight through the media’s incessant parroting of pejorative right-wing phrasing like “job-killing” regulations. Heck, even a supposedly liberal news bastion like NPR isn’t above falling victim to conservative framing and false equivalence when it comes to straightforward reporting about climate change.

In the fairly close-knit world of the Beltway media, where a pack mentality can quickly take hold and chasing narratives is seen as a way to attract more eyeballs, it’s perhaps no great shock that we’ve arrived at this point where no amount of debate about the debt is too much and no amount of debate about climate change is just fine. But ‘everybody does it’ isn’t any kind of legitimate excuse for what has turned into a tragic, institutional bias about these issues on the part of the Washington press corps.

Update: The original version of this post stated that a memo sent to Politico defending the number of times President Obama has mentioned climate change since late June came from the president’s official campaign. It did not. The memo was sent out by the Energy and Environment Team for Obama, a voluntary group of officials who are only advising the campaign.


Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

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