Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity

Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity

Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity

Eric on this week in concerts and new music releases and Reed on how the mainstream press is always trying to tell the same (false) story about the Republican Party.

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Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My Nation column is called “Midterm Media Meltdown.” The subhed says “The election results reflect a complex reality; the press prefers simple narratives.”

Here’s a piece on “Why Liberals Need Radicals,” though it could have been called “Why Liberals Need (Some) Radicals (and Not Some Others),” that I published in Democracy.

I also did a really long interview with Graham Nash about music and politics and Crosby and Stills and Young (and Joni Mitchell). Graham’s fans may have missed it as I haven’t seen it on The Nation homepage, but if you’re interested, it’s here.

Alter-reviews:
Lake Street Dive live at Terminal 5
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs” at the Café Carlyle
Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11
Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection
Rereleases of Paul McCartney’s Venus and Mars and Wings’ Wings at the Speed of Sound

Saturday night I joined a surprisingly enormous crowd of hipsters who had made the hegira from the hipper precincts of Brooklyn to Terminal 5 in the far west 50s to see Lake Street Dive. I saw them at the concert last year in honor of “Inside Llewyn Davis” and like so many people at Town Hall, I was mightily impressed. Then I looked up their EP and their great covers on YouTube and was totally smitten. I thought they were new then, but it turns out they’ve been around since 2004. They were founded in Boston by Rachael Price, who does all the singing, all the talking, all the dancing (since she’s not holding up any instruments) and most (if not all) of the sex appeal. The band also has Mike “McDuck” Olson (trumpet, guitar), Bridget Kearney (upright bass) and Mike Calabrese (drums). They met while attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and are named after a street with many dive bars in Olson’s hometown of Minneapolis. (I had thought it might be an “LSD” reference. I’m glad to see it’s not.) Apparently other commitments, including legal commitments to other labels, prevented them from recording for a long time, but in February of this year they put out Bad Self Portraits.

I had no idea they had become so popular. (Neither did they, by the way—they kept marveling at how many people had come to see them two nights a row.) They sure did pack Terminal 5 and demonstrated a powerful connection with their fans. And what an enthusiastic crowd it was. It’s kind of hard to describe their sound. It’s a little bit Amy Winehouse but relying more heavily on jazz and soul than blues. It’s an interesting amalgam of styles and talents that, if you ask me, will only get better as it coheres and grows more self-confident.

Speaking of self-confidence, I returned one more time to the Café Carlyle to sit at the bar and take in John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs.” And while seeing John with just Bucky (and his brother, Martin, on bass and two other guys) was a lot of fun, this show was really something special. It was almost an overdose of charm and good taste and wonderfully presented (and conceived) music. Some of it was written by Molaskey. (I would not put it past either one if Molaskey also wrote some of Pizzarelli’s A+ patter since she comes off so well in that too.) Anyway, the Café Carlyle, while tremendously expensive, is a kind of sacred space for this kind of music, and nobody fills it better than these two. John is so funny and such a great guitarist and not a bad singer, and Molaskey and he have a rapport that is so charming it cannot possibly be real (except on stage). It’s their eighth year there, and if you had to pick one night to spend all your money on a romantic evening—or even a pretend romantic evening—I’d pick this one. (I’d also try to get John to play that Jersey thing when it’s over, which is not the second best song about Jersey, and he is not the second best singer from Jersey, but it is the best song I’ve ever heard written about Jersey—except for all of those written by the guy who wrote ALL of the best ones (and also not including Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl,” of course).

You may have heard that we finally have something like the complete Basement Tapes that Bob Dylan and The Band recorded in 1967 on a six-disc box set with extensive notes and photos. (There is also a two-CD set if you don’t want to lay out the $120 or so for the complete version.)

Perhaps no unreleased music has ever received the attention that this set received; it literally began the bootleg business. Part of the mystery is derived from the fact that Dylan, at the height of perceived prophetic significance, had a motorcycle accident—we still don’t know how serious—and disappeared from view.

While (apparently) recuperating, he got together with what had once been the Hawks, behind Ronnie Hawkins, and became The Band (because, after all, if they are playing with Dylan, they are The Band) made up of (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and, later, Levon Helm) in the basement of a small house, dubbed “Big Pink” in West Saugerties, New York. They recorded over one hundred songs; many just because they were drunk and/or high and thought it would be fun and a whole bunch because Dylan wrote them and wanted to make them available to others for recording. In 1975, Robbie Robertson put together sixteen of them, cleaned them up, added eight Band songs and released them on Columbia. Everybody loved it, but that’s all we got, save for crappy-sounding bootlegs…until now.

Thanks to an incredible salvaging effort, including a whole bunch of songs recently discovered recorded in the “Red Room” of Dylan’s home in upstate New York. Garth Hudson worked closely with Canadian music archivist and producer Jan Haust to restore the deteriorating tapes and turn it into these six CDs.

Literally everything is here (though the sixth disc is of such low fidelity, it’s here just for completeness’ sake). It’s almost all pretty wonderful and will enrich the lives of anyone who is open to it. I am particularly enamored, for the first time ever, of the fact that sometimes there will be three or four versions of the same song in a row—usually something I can’t stand—but they are so different from one another, that it is both fun and interesting to hear them in a row. Overall, it’s one of the greatest collections of American music by a single source you will find anywhere, reaching the listener from multiple directions, simultaneously: the head, the heart and everything in between. I feel lucky to be alive now that it’s finally available and feel a sense of sadness for all the Dylanites who did not live long enough to experience it.

Also from my friends at Columbia Legacy, we got Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection. It’s maybe the third time you could buy everything they did in the studio together, though it’s been remastered and this collection includes those five records, plus first-time remasters of The Graduate, The Concert in Central Park (recorded in 1981 before half a million people), a double live album from their 2004 reunion tour, plus live albums from 1967 and 1969, both released pretty recently. I love the fact that they come in their original sleeves and that you can listen to the albums as individual historical artifacts—rather than as a collection of songs—as they appear on the box sets. (It also includes the greatest hits record, which strikes me as silly.) Paul Simon has often said he is not so crazy about this music—he finds is both musically and intellectually simplistic—but it’s all pretty damn good in retrospect, if a bit twee on occasion. Again it would be hard for anyone not to like this, even if they’ve got one of the previous box sets. I sure do. The sound is pristine and the packaging brings back the pheromones of the time.

Finally, we also got two remastered re-releases of early Paul McCartney and Wings albums. I have a theory that each Beatle had one great album and one near-great album in them and that was it. After that, each album only had a decent song or two but was otherwise uninspired. They needed both the cooperation and the competition for the magic to make its appearance. John’s Plastic Ono Band is great and Imagine is near-great. George’s All Things Must Pass, is the best post-Beatles album ever, and Living in the Material World, is not bad at all. Ringo’s Ringo, which is, in some ways, an actual Beatles album, is also great. The near-great part of my theory kind of breaks down with Ringo, though I suppose he must have also put out a good album at some point. I seem to remember Beaucoups of Blues was not bad.

Paul’s great album is Band on the Run. His near-great album is Venus and Mars. (I also like McCartney a lot, but it’s more like half an album.) I remember when these two albums came out; people thought they could now look forward to Paul being great again and a lifetime of almost Beatles quality music from the Cute One.

Band on the Run got the re-release treatment two years ago, and now here is V & M, and while it is not quite as good—Band is good enough to be a Beatles album—it’s enormously satisfying on its own. Wings at the Speed of Sound, however, has a couple of decent songs, “Beware My Love,” and “Time to Hide,” some throwaways and more than few that should have been strangled in their respective cradles (“Let ’Em In,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Warm and Beautiful” and “Cook of the House” for starters…).

Both have been released in a variety of formats. I got the two-CD standard edition, with the original remastered album, and the second CD includes bonus audio made up of material including demos and unreleased tracks. The V & M bonus material is excellent and every Beatles person will want this collection. As for WATSOS, well, the extras don’t help much either. But if you know someone with really bad musical taste, it will make a fine gift.

This reminds me, John P. and Jessica M. resurrected Paul’s “Heart of the Country,” and it was better than I remembered it, even if I’m guessing they chose it so John could tell his “Bucky and I played guitar for Sir Paul” bit for the umpteenth-million time…

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity
by Reed Richardson

Since 2008, it has become a biennial ritual in the political press. In the aftermath of every election—no matter the outcome—the media establishment carefully explains that the Republican Party will now have to move to the center, accept compromise and govern more responsibly. And each and every time—no matter the circumstances—the Republican Party ignores this counsel and instead becomes more extreme, more intransigent and more antagonistic toward governance.

You would think that, by now, the press would have learned this lesson. That after six years of getting it wrong, the press would have figured out that a relentless GOP campaign of unswerving opposition—launched mere hours into the Obama presidency—would never be so easily relinquished.

After its drubbing in the 2012 election, you’ll recall, the GOP commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to conduct a post-mortem on the party’s mistakes. When they were released to much fanfare in March of 2013, the final recommendations of the Growth and Opportunity Project were lauded by Beltway pundits as “bold” and “comprehensive” and received some egregiously positive and credulous coverage. The Republicans, so went the DC thinking, had finally woken up. To remain relevant, the party could no longer afford to substitute xenophobia, obstruction and anti-government nihilism for a policy agenda. And among the most notable and newsworthy of the GOP project’s priorities, it’s worth remembering, was this:

“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”

It didn’t take long, however, before this clarion call to solve one of our nation’s biggest challenges—implicitly by working with the recently re-elected President Obama—was drowned under a riptide of GOP nativism. In fact, in their progress “check-up” one year later, the GOP report’s authors omitted any mention of immigration reform—like the whole idea of supporting its passage had never even happened. On the GOP’s website, a series of congratulatory quotes from conservative leaders about the GOP’s progress in Hispanic outreach trotted a lot of vague marketing spin about better “engagement.” The phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” was, again, nowhere to be found.

Did the establishment media make a point of noticing the party’s huge feint toward the center on immigration reform over the past year-and-a-half? Not so much. Months after barely noticing that the Republican National Committee’s Director of Hispanic Outreach had quit in protest over the GOP’s “culture of intolerance,” major news organizations could still be found regurgitating party press releases and glossing over the growing anti-immigrant tenor of GOP rhetoric and its policies.

The same phenomenon played out with fiscal policy as well. After pushing our fragile economy to the brink of disaster during the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the Beltway conventional wisdom told everyone that a chastened, post-2012 Republican Party wasn’t about to do that again. But then last fall, there did it again. Even worse, in fact, as a small band of fringe conservatives were able to hijack the party leadership and shut down the federal government for more than two weeks, costing the country billions. All as part of the GOP’s years-long, quixotic quest to repeal Obamacare.

True to form, the press seemingly did its level best to avoid holding Republicans accountable for this negligent economic stewardship. Emblematic of this flawed coverage last year were analyses that indulged in vague blaming of “Washington” and “lawmakers” and that crassly tallied up the “winners” and “losers” of the crisis without ever bothering to note the chaos inflicted on the lives of so many Americans. Rather than preventing the next paralyzing government showdown, the media’s toothless response last October actually made another one more likely, by normalizing the GOP’s recklessness as just another symptom of Capitol Hill gridlock. As a I wrote at the time:

“Stripped of any reportorial continuity, each crisis simply gets treated as sui generis. Divorced from a broader narrative, ongoing dysfunction begins to seem endemic to government itself. Neither is true. Debt limit threats, government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, sequester cuts: all of these are merely different varietals of the same, poisoned austerity fruit. Likewise, these crises do not naturally spring from, but are in fact artificially inflicted upon Washington, D.C.—and by extension, the country—by a Republican Party intent on delegitimizing every aspect of our federal government.”

Despite all this evidence, the media somehow still think the Republicans will change and become “serious” about governing again. After the GOP stormed to victory in the most recent midterms, a handful of Republican politicians said as much, pooh-poohing the notion of using another budget shutdown as leverage against the president. Right on cue, the media still started singing the same old song. Never mind what happened after 2008, 2010, or 2012. This time—this time—things will be different in Washington.

Wishing doesn’t make it so, though. This past week, for instance, GOP Rep. Steve King was already hinting at the Republican brinksmanship to come. In what amounted to several not-so-veiled threats, he talked of shutting down the government again if President Obama took executive action to deal with immigration. And while King is well known for his outrageous, extremist views, his bluster shouldn’t be taken as mere idle chatter from a powerless backbencher. Recall that last summer, Speaker John Boehner basically handed the legislative reins over to King and Rep. Michele Bachmann to shape the House’s draconian border security bill. Moreover, King is proudly and publicly allying himself with Senate gadfly and obstructionist par excellence Ted Cruz, who was the prime mover in last fall’s sixteen-day government shutdown.

Of course, another government shutdown would prove to be but a skirmish if the party followed through on the numerous calls within its ranks to unleash political thermonuclear war by impeaching the president. If, as expected, Obama does finally take executive action in the coming weeks on immigration—just as previous GOP presidents have done before, I should add—several House Republicans are already on the record arguing in favor of impeaching him for it. This thirst for political vengeance isn’t just the case of a few vocal House Republicans popping off; the conservative grassroots are firmly behind it. A recent Democracy Corps poll, for example, found that a slim majority of GOP voters want Congress to consider starting impeachment hearings on the president right now. Among self-identified Tea Party voters—who will make up a key part of the GOP’s 2016 presidential primary electorate—the prospect of impeaching Obama immediately triumphs by a two-to-one margin.

The fact is it’s far more likely that conservatives don’t want the Republicans to try their hand at governing. They see the mandate as a chance to undo as much of the past six years as possible. So, when the press portrays the political reality in Washington as something less ominous, less foreboding, it does the public a grave disservice, as Jay Rosen noted in this incisive post at his PressThink blog:

“Asserted as a fact of political life, ‘Republicans must show they can govern’ is a failure of imagination, and a sentimentalism. It refuses to grapple with other equally plausible possibilities. For example: that declining to govern will produce so much confusion about lines of responsibility and alienation from a broken political system that voters can’t, won’t, or in any case don’t ‘punish’ the people who went for obstruction.”

This is “objective” political journalism as its most insidious—projecting its can’t-we-all-get-along, centrist biases onto a increasingly hard-right party that has learned it can use the Beltway media’s “both sides do it” framing as political cover. Thanks to this false balance in the press’s political coverage, Republicans know they will rarely be held accountable for their unprecedented obstruction and reckless brinksmanship. Likewise, it works in their favor when the press overdoses on ambiguous complaints of “gridlock” and fuzzy talk of governmental dysfunction, by depressing voter turnout at the polls. Couple that smaller, more Republican midterm electorate with the GOP’s ruthless, state-level redistricting tactics, and you have a party that has managed to build an entrenched majority in the House and a stalemate in the Senate, all without having to compromise on a single piece of major legislation and without having had much of a policy agenda other than reflexively opposing the president at every turn.

In other words, with all of these factors working in their favor, why in the world would the Republicans ever bother to change? You might call the GOP crazy, but it’s not insane. No, that honor goes to a political press corps that keeps on enabling Republican extremism year after year and then can’t figure out why our broken democracy never gets any better.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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