Outsourcing Accountability to the Political Opposition: The Beltway Media’s Agency Problem

Outsourcing Accountability to the Political Opposition: The Beltway Media’s Agency Problem

Outsourcing Accountability to the Political Opposition: The Beltway Media’s Agency Problem

Eric Alterman’s weekly media-roundup and Reed Richardson’s take on the  “60 Minutes” Benghazi debacle.


My new Think Again column is called “A Bully Pulpit for Billionaires” and it examines The Economist’s odd coverage of the New York City mayor’s race.

My Nation column is called “Village People” and it discusses the sequel to Game Change, Double Down and its authors’ contempt for liberals.

A few final words (I hope) about You Know What.

I am resisting the urge to delve back into the muck with regard to the Blumenthal book—recently endorsed, I see, by the website of famed neo-Nazi, David Duke—I do, however, feel a need to clarify two points that may be lost to those who are still paying attention amdist all of the hysterical (and patently false) accusations I’ve experienced as a result of my column, “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook.”

1) There were no errors in my column. None. Zero. Zilch.* If there had been, The Nation would have run a correction in the magazine. It didn’t and it won’t.

2) It is nonsense to claim, as the website “Mondoweiss” did, that I publicly refused to debate Blumenthal and secretly demanded $10,000 to do so.  What happened was this. Phil Weiss has been hassling me for years to debate him about Israel. I have said “no thanks” for years, but try to get him to leave me alone, I told him that if someone wanted to pay my speaking fees, I would debate anyone at all. I’m hardly afraid to debate people. I just don’t believe in giving away my time for free, especially to people like Weiss.

When the Blumenthal column came out, Phil started hassling me again. I said “no” again, adding the same conditions I had given him years ago still applied no matter who he wanted me to debate. Phil broke all the known rules of journalism by not only publishing my private responses to his entreaties when I had clearly and explicitly refused permission for this–he asked twice and I said “no” twice–but also making it appear that I had said things I clearly had not. Looking back, I don’t know why I was surprised. I do know it’s the last time I will ever answer an email from Phil Weiss.

And speaking of Jews, I love this anecdote about Norman Mailer and Philip Roth that I noticed in Andrew O’Hagen’s review of the big new Mailer bio in The London Review of Books

 ‘You know,’ he said, ‘when you get to my age you have to pee a lot. And there is no distance at all between knowing you want to pee and then just peeing. I was at Plimpton’s funeral in St John the Divine not long ago, and they sat me near the front, you know. Suddenly, I had to go. I knew I wasn’t gonna make it all the way down the aisle so I spotted a little side door and I got the canes and nipped in there. Halfway down the corridor, I was looking for a john and who do I see but Philip Roth. “Hey, Philip, what you doin’ here?”

“Oh, I had to pee,” Roth said.

“Happens to me all the time,” I said. “You just have to pee.” The previous week I went to see my daughter in Brooklyn and I couldn’t make it up the hill and had to stop in a telephone kiosk to pee.

“Oh, that’s happened to me,” Roth said. “I’ve done the kiosk thing.”

“Well, Phil,” I said. “You always were precocious.”’


Ladies Sing the Blues at the Allen Room @ Jazz@LC

Jacky Terrasson at Dizzy’s @Jazz@LC

Gary Clark Jr.@ the Apollo

Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings

It’s A Scream The Way Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story 1940s-1960s

I try to see Catherine Russell every chance I can, sometimes in a back up roll with Steely Dan or Paul Simon, among others, but  especially when she singing her own sultry stuff from way back.  Last weekend at the beautiful  Allen Room, she was joined by young singers Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade in an evening of tribute to the songs of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and others called (not so imaginatively, I must say) “Ladies Sing the Blues.” The song selection leaned heavily on the salacious and the women and the crowd milked every available entendre, whether double, triple or quadruple. There were too many highlights to pick anyone out–I’ve been killing myself trying to play “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” on the guitar and here I heard it turned upside down. The accompaniment was perfect, with a number of members of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks (who also tend to show up on “Boardwalk Empire.”) All three women found nooks and crannies and the material that you might not have known were there, no matter how many times you’ve heard “Am I Blue” or “Trouble in Mind”;  songs that are nearly a century old by now. I wonder what their authors would have thought had they known how fresh they could sound a century later. The blues truly are eternal.

The following night, across the hall at Dizzy’s I caught a set by pianist Jacky Terrasson, who was joined by a bass player and two percussionists.  Terrasson, who grew up in Paris, won the 1993 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition and has been recording ever since.  He’s proven incredibly versatile, working with in Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, and Ry Cooder and his own band. Last Saturday, he did that thing that jazz musicians do, of not saying a single word and not even really pausing between songs. The songs, though were ones you knew–from the great American songbook–or at least they started out that way–and then travelled into other spaces and places before doubling back. The double percussion provided a powerful counterpoint to Terrasson’s exquisite piano work and together, they created just the kind of hypnotic effect you get in a jazz club even without the usual stimulants. It was my first time seeing Terrasson, but he and his band are highly recommended if you like melifluous, unflashy playing and beautiful noodling.

You can find the upcoming schedule for Jazz@ Lincoln Center here

It’s been hard, merely listening, to separate Gary Clark Jr. from the hype that has surrounded his rise.  Before he had issued a major label album, he had already been embraced as a guitar god, first by Clapton’s Crossroads and then by the Stones and by the White House blues festival. I saw him do a solo set at Clapton’s show last year and could not get a feel for what the big deal was. The word “Hendrix” was frequently mentioned.

His album, “Blak and Blu” came out last year and last night, I caught his show at the Apollo. What he shares with Hendrix, in my view, aside from color–there are not many African-American guitar gurus once you get past the founding generations of blues-focused players-and so the comparisons are inevitable–is an addiction to power chords that tend to overwhelm the melody. But coming from Texas, it should surprise no one that his style is more Stevie Ray than Jimi.  He is a comfortable front man and he does not allow his virtuosity to overwhelm the music or the rest of the band. And yes, there’s plenty of charisma. The dude can sing, too. What I wonder about–at least so far–is the material. Perhaps it’s me, but I’m not feeling it yet.  There’s another issue. After I left the show, some deep cuts from the outtakes from “Exile” and “Some Girls” came onto my Ipod and I marveled at the economy, the self-discipline and, if I may say so, the organicism of Keith’s playing–all the more powerful because its unflashy and blends into the music. Clapton’s playing is like this too. Not everyone’s is, but one gets tired of just flash and I’d like to see Clark develop in this direction; more of band man than a front-man, since the world doesn’t really need much more in the way of pyrotechnics but does need a lot more good music. The crowd sure loved him though, I’ll say that. You had to stand for most of the show if you wanted to see the guy play. You can read more about Gary here.

If you’re looking for Hannukah presents to buy, here are two really, um, different suggestions.

First is the nicely compact and admirably complete Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings. Comprised of nine CDs in mini-LP replica jackets, it’s a perfect way to get introduced to Miles, given that it’s got the classics from the “first great quintet” at Columbia, (with John Coltrane) ’Round About Midnight, Milestones, Jazz Track, Kind Of Blue, Someday My Prince Will Come, and Miles And Monk At Newport; as well as the groundbreaking Gil Evans, albums, Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, and Sketches Of Spain. It’s also got two brand new albums, Jazz Track, presenting 10 improvised tracks that Miles recorded in Paris with European musicians in 1957, for director Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator To the Gallows), plus three tracks by Miles’ own sextet in New York—featuring Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb—from their only other studio recordings of 1958, prior to the Kind Of Blue sessions in ’59; and Miles And Monk At Newport, featuring four songs  recorded live by the Miles Davis Sextet at the jazz festival in 1958, followed by two classics recorded at the festival in 1963 by the then-newly-signed Thelonious Monk Quartet. And it’s not that expensive.

At the other end of the world from Miles is handsome set of two cds and lots of historically minded liner notes called It’s A Scream The Way Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story 1940s-1960s. It’s the 2014 annual release from the nonprofit Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a small, all-volunteer non-profit organization who work hard to preserve this kind of thing and spread the joy it inspires. They can describe it better than I can:

“The sweaty mambo dance-floors of the legendary Palladium nightclub. The weekend Borscht Belt ballrooms of the Catskills hotels. The bar mitzvah bandstands of Brooklyn. The Fania All-Stars stages of the Cheetah and Yankee Stadium. The pianos of the Brill Building. The bullrings of Tijuana. The confluence of Jewish and Latin cultures expressed in music is what you’ll find here, featuring legendary names like Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Herb Alpert, Carole King, Tito Puente to name a few.

Welcome to one of the great unsung currents of American pop music: the forgotten musical mash-up of Latin and Jewish, bagels and bongos, Spanish and Yiddish, manteca and schmaltz, that’s been a bubbling undercurrent of American pop music since the early 1900s. It’s a story full of Jewish mambo dancers, Jewish salsa greats, beloved sidemen, and record label chiefs on the one hand, and Latino bandleaders, singers, composers, and entrepreneurs on the other.”

Your move: Now here’s Reed:

Outsourcing Accountability to the Political Opposition: The Beltway Media’s Agency Problem

by Reed Richardson

There’s a term in poker for having a strong hand and nevertheless losing due to an unfortunate, last-minute turn of the cards: “bad beat.” And after two big stories unexpectedly blew up this past week, folks at CBS News might be cursing their luck.

On Sunday, Lara Logan of “60 Minutes” was forced to air a 90-second correction that effectively undermined most of her yearlong, blockbuster story that alleged a flawed administration response to the 9/11/12 terrorist attack on the U.S. Benghazi Consulate. Logan’s primary source for the story, it turned out, is a self-aggrandizing fabulist. Three days later, CBS Evening News reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s supposed exposé on the security risks inherent to the troubled Healtcare.gov website unraveled too. In this case, the key piece of evidence, a leaked, “partial transcript” of Congressional testimony, proved to be flagrantly and deceptively edited to make the White House look bad.

But rather than dig into why these embarrassing mistakes occurred, CBS News seems fine with chalking them up to isolated failures of judgment and move on. For example, Attkisson, as of this writing, has issued no correction to her misleading report, and Logan’s on-air admission of error represented but the bare minimum of disclosure that should occur when a story of this magnitude blows up. (The network has announced it is conducting an internal “journalistic review” of what went wrong with the Benghazi report, but it’s worth noting that the person most likely to lead such an investigation, Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News, does double duty as the executive producer of “60 Minutes.) Meanwhile, there’s been no public talk from CBS News of firing or even disciplining anyone connected to either story. As I said, bad beats, I guess, better luck next time.

Except, of course, this isn’t just about CBS News and this isn’t about journalistic misfortune. Indeed, the establishment press in New York and Washington consistently make these same mistakes. Time and again, whether it’s the New Black Panthers, Solyndra, Fast and Furious, IRS audits, Benghazi, or nearly anything related to Obamacare, the presidential scandals hyped by the Beltway conventional wisdom amount to little more than busted flushes, gut-shot straights…a whole lotta nothing. Initial, ominous reports about broad conspiracies and rampant abuse of White House power inevitably collapse into banal examples of governmental friction and democratic messiness. And no sooner does one phony crisis deflate and flutter harmlessly off the front pages before another one pops up to replace it. So, what’s really going on here?

Certainly, there are many mechanistic factors contributing to this continual, Cassandra-like coverage of President Obama, from the voracious 24/7 news cycle and its rampant obsession with scooplets to the industry-wide denuding of journalistic resources and staff. However, the root cause of this behavior, I believe, stems from a press corps that has broadly conflated its efforts at impartial, accountability journalism with the partisan goals of the Republican Party. I’m not claiming individual members of the mainstream media possess an inherent, ideological right-wing bias that they are intentionally pushing into the news. But when the media, as a whole, routinely lets the political opposition serve as its proxy for setting the news agenda, the coverage provided to the public will naturally bend toward an inherent, practical right-wing bias.

On its face, this assertion seems counter-intuitive. How can striving even harder at being neutral exacerbate the partisan effect of one’s reporting? The devil is, of course, in the details. The modern conventional wisdom on objectivity effectively rewards a kind of institutional timidity and intellectual false equivalence—that is, it’s not the press’s job to tell us who is wrong or right, it’s merely their job tell us who says they’re wrong or right. As a result, the media increasingly has no agency in our democracy, no real role as an independent actor correcting and guiding the discourse. Instead, it now seeks to launder all arguments and judgments on an issue through external sources or political parties.

Dartmouth professor of government Brendan Nyhan gets at what I’m calling the media’s abdication of agency in a recent essay at the Columbia Journalism Review. “Skeptical reporting depends on the combination of technical policy critiques and attention from opposition elites. If either component is absent, journalists are all too likely to miss the story,” he writes. “The press often takes its cues about the flaws in a policy from the opposition party, which is part of a pattern of indexing coverage to the range of debate among political elites.” And when the party opposing the president has adopted a nihilistic, post-policy approach to governance, it’s no coincidence the press finds itself obsessed with process and blowing up at every little perceived slight by the White House.

This close marrying of the press’s accountability agenda with that of the Republican opposition’s political agenda has a doubly deleterious effect on our democracy. For one, it promotes a ridiculousboom-and-bust cycle of phony scandals that undermines the media’s reputation as an honest, accurate broker of debate in our democracy. When the only things fueling a DC scandal are Republican outrage and media oxygen, it’s no surprise, then, that said scandal coverage is swiftly snuffed out when the GOP talking points fizzle.

One need only look at Attkisson’s reporting over the past few years to get a clear picture of how this cycle manifests itself. Whether it’s been Fast and Furious, green energy loans, or Benghazi, Attkisson has been a reliable conduit for the GOP’s favorite manufactured indignations. This past week’s embarrassing episode with her Obamacare exposé wasn’t even the first time she’d been publicly burned by regurgitating doctored GOP documents. She is always careful to defend her reporting as done under the banner of objectively holding the powerful accountable, but disingenuously ignores how her coverage so neatly serves as a convenient cudgel for conspiracy-minded Republicans to attack the White House. (Attkisson’s unfocused zeal for questioning authority also includes a troubling history of enabling anti-vaccine truthers.)

The aftermath of CBS News Benghazi debacle speaks to the same institutional blind spot. In the days right after her report aired, the network arrogantly ignored critical voices from the left, like Media Matters, while Logan defended the piece to the New York Times, using telling language: “We worked on this for a year. We killed ourselves not to allow politics into this report.” The mindset on display here speaks to either invidious guile or incredible naiveté. Before the president had even announced the deaths of all four Americans in the Benghazi attack, Republicans were already using the tragedy as a political attack on the president. Save for Obamacare, there might not be a morepoliticized issue in America right now. So, is it any wonder that Logan’s attempt at reporting on Benghazi without honestly addressing this overarching reality would lead her to miss the many warning signs displayed by her story’s key right-wing source?

In this case, it seems, Logan’s personal biases about the Benghazi attack likely played a role in how she reported the story as well. And while I strongly disagree with Logan’s ominous, clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, I have no problem with a professional journalist covering a topic on which they have strong opinions. That’s what editors are for, to keep those prejudices in check and tell a fair story. But as is obvious, CBS News editors also fell victim to blindly wanting the tale of administration malfeasance to be true.

Surely, not everyone at “60 Minutes” shares Logan’s worldview, so how then did such a shoddy story still get on air? No doubt the concept of sunk costs had an effect—work on anything for a year and you too would be hard pressed to honestly look for reasons why all that effort should be just cast aside. But again, I believe a subtler, pernicious bias was at work, one that is indicative of a larger, almost sub-conscious absorption of right-wing political criticism into the journalistic bloodstream. How else to explain the network’s rather bizarre dismissal of the story’s potential to harm its long-term credibility?

“Over the weekend, CBS staff members expressed confidence that the damage to ‘60 Minutes,’ while certainly the worst it has had to endure in the decade since Mr. Fager succeeded Don Hewitt as the show’s executive producer, would not be enduring. One reason is the deep reserve of good will the program has built up both with viewers and in journalistic circles. But the staff members also agreed that the program would be helped by that absence of a cause to inflame right-wing media voices, as well as by the belated effort to apologize.” [italics mine]

There is a lot here to be troubled by. The network’s laughably anachronistic mindset toward its own authority as well as its viewers’ expectations of accuracy is bad enough. But to strongly imply one’s news organization is far more concerned with conservative, rather than liberal, media complaints? I mean, if that’s the takeaway CBS news bosses have from the Benghazi debacle, it’s hard to see how they aren’t further reinforcing the institutional sensitivity to right-wing rhetoric that caused the problem in the first place. Or, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, put it: “It is time to ask if inoculation against conservative complaints has become an action item at CBS News, leading to these dubious stories.”

This potential for bias and self-censorship leads to the other downside of the Beltway media’s fondness for right-wing accountability framing—the stories that don’t get covered. Whether it’s draconian deportation policiesimmoral drone strikes, or secretive trade deals, there are plenty of legitimate policy critiques of this administration that simply never get establishment media traction because they don’t dovetail nicely with a GOP bumper sticker. The only recent major news story that has included notable left-wing critiques of the White House—about the sweeping surveillance of our national security state—required an unprecedented leak of classified NSA documents from Edward Snowden to ignite it and a steady drip of other leaks to keep it alit. Whatever one’s feelings about Snowden, even President Obama has acknowledged his leaks have spurred a valuable debate about surveillance and privacy issues. But the complex nature of the NSA story doesn’t bode well for substantive reform. That’s because, without readymade soundbites from the GOP, the process-obsessed DC press isn’t really wired to dig into the details of the issue on its own and notice the administration’s deeds often don’t match Obama’s words. But of all these instances, A similar failure by the press has occurred with Obamacare.


In his CJR essay, Nyhan focused on why the press mostly ignored the now infamous promise by Obama that: “If you like your insurance, you can keep it.” As Nyhan points out, holding such a statement up to the light of truth would have necessitated a press corps that is more than a cat’s paw for angry Republicans intent on destroying Obamacare at all costs. Back in 2009 and 2010, could a more robust, honest debate on the law’s impact on the private insurance market have prevented millions of cancellation letters? Perhaps. We’ll never know because simply passing the current law was a Herculean achievement thanks to a press corps that chose to waste much of its coverage lending legitimacy to shameful conservative myths like the “death panels” lie.

In the end, this willingness on the part of the establishment press to forego its singular role as watchdog of the president hurts more than just journalism. We are all poorer for it, as it gives undeserved attention to partisan arguments made in bad faith and overlooks substantive critiques that could make our government and country work better. Making common cause with the right-wing may seem like an effective way for the media to foster more White House accountability, but as CBS News found out this past week, that’s playing in a game no amount of luck will let it win. And it brings to mind another old poker saying that the rest of the press would do well to remember the next time it thinks about sitting down with the GOP: If you look around the table and you can’t pick out who the sucker is, it’s you.

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

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor’s note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form. 

*A later blog post about the book did have a couple of small errors, but these were entirely technical matters, including a typo and an “a” that should have been a “the,” but these did not in any way affect any issues of substance with regard to my arguments or analysis of the work.

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