On this sad day, my Dissent essay on Christopher’s memoir is here and here we argued about the Iraq war on Charlie Rose and here we argued about it again, though as I recall, I didn’t do a very good job and Christopher did, weak as his position may have been. (It’s a small irony that Christopher died on the day the war officially ended.)
My new Think Again column is called “Is Inequality Over? News That’s Not Fit To Print” and it’s here.
My Forward Column on the drift toward Israeli theocracy is here.
Unsurprisingly, that column generated some criticism; some of which I might share were it not for the fact that people don’t understand that when you have a strictly limited amount of space, it’s impossible to do justice to specific, even important nuances in any given issue. Still there’s this:
Israel earns another failing score on freedom of religion index CIRI ranks Israel on par with Afghanistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia; indicates severe and widespread governmental restrictions on religious freedom.
And this: "This is an ideological wave that wishes to institute a different country here with a world view that forces something that is unrelated to a Jewish tradition on a secular majority," Livni said, adding: "This is nothing less than a struggle for the nation’s character sponsored by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s silence."
George Whitman also died this week. I lived in the “Writer’s Room” over Shakespeare and Company for five weeks in 1984 and wrote a piece for the Boston Globe about him called "Feasting on Literary Intrigue by the Seine" in The Boston Globe in June of 1985, but I can’t find it. George claimed to be the illegitimate son of Walt Whitman, but he was born in 1913, and the poet died in 1892.
I went to Hot Tuna at the Beacon last Friday night. In case you are unfamiliar with them Hot Tuna is Jack Casady (Bass) and Jorma Kaukonen (Guitar and Vocals), both originally in Jefferson Airplane, with the rest of the band filled out by Barry Mitterhoff (Mandolin and Tenor Guitar) and Skoota Warner (Drums). I was looking forward to seeing them not only with G.E. Smith and Larry Campbell, both great, but especially with David Bromberg, whom I love and whom I’ve seen with Jorma as a duo. But nobody told me that Bromberg would only be there Saturday night, so, as dependable as these guys are, I was still disappointed to learn that I was there on the wrong night. Steve Kimock also only showed Saturday night. Still, Steady As She Goes is a pretty excellent album, and these boys just don’t know how to put on a bad show
Seven years ago, I saw the opening night engagement of Steve Tyrell at the Café Carlyle a big move uptown for a guy I was used to seeing at the Blue Note and other um, jazzier places. Steve is terrific entertainer and his voice is a weird a wonderful thing. In the olden days it sounded like a cross between Tom Waits and Dr. John. Now he’s much more a crooner, but a deeply charming and engaging entertainer. Nobody could have replaced Bobby Short, but Steve does a nice, respectful job.
The one thing that pisses me off about the guy is how he won’t shut up about the Yankees. Seven years ago George Steinbrenner was the audience and Steve acted like this was a good thing. Wednesday night, there was another Steinbrenner in the audience– “Jenny”—and I had to hear about it all over again.
Steve’s proud to be making a career, as he puts it as “America’s Wedding Singer,” which, together with his entire career as a singer, as opposed to a producer, grew out of his version of “The Way You Look Tonight” in the remake of the movie “Father of the Bride” Bill Clinton told him one night at the Carlyle that he should record a wedding album and now he has, which is a kind of genius, and it will be released before Valentine’s Day. My guess is that it will become so ubiquitous as to begin driving us crazy. Hd has an awesom band, featuring the pianist Quinn Johnson, the guitarist Bob Mann and the saxophonist Dave Mann and the sound in that small room is just wonderful. He’ll be there through New Year’s Eve and it ain’t cheap, but it’s an extragance that like Bobby Short, helps make New York, New York.
Now here’s Reed.
Too Little, Too Late—Too Long, Too Much, Too Many
by Reed Richardson
After 3,192 days, finally, the war is over. (Well, at least one of them.)
But not really.
For, even on the very day the U.S officially declared the end of the conflict in Iraq, we learned something else that makes it all too clear the past sins and permanent scars we inflicted upon that nation as well as our own will live on.
Rehashing the previous administration’s countless lies, many strategic blunders, and untold political smears that, respectively, justified, magnified, and fortified this terrible war is, by now, sadly unnecessary for most of us. Still, as we suffer through the inevitable retrospective video packages and ‘by-the-numbers’ summary boxes that our national media will doubtless offer up, it’s important not to overlook the key role its credulous reporting played in igniting and then enabling the Iraq war’s prosecution.
Sure, some media organizations, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Republic, have long ago written mea culpas about their flawed coverage. (Although TNR’s actual apologia has conveniently gone missing from its website.) Many of the stars in our nation’s punditocracy firmament likewise changed their tune about the war in the intervening years as well. And now that a black Democrat is in the White House, it’s perhaps not surprising to find Fox News suddenly quite comfortable airing terms like“big, big failure” and “strategic tragedy” in discussions about the war’s end. But if you step back, it’s hard to see what real lessons the press or the commentators learned from their abject failure in the run up to and early years of the Iraq war.
Indeed, re-reading all those detailed journalistic confessions one starts to see a theme. Yes, there’s contrition, but also an underlying sense that the whole sorry saga was just a one-off, a mistake of weird, cosmic alignment or incredibly bad execution that is unlikely to ever happen again. (And often there’s more than a whiff of the tried-and-true excuse: ‘Everybody was doing it.’) Noticeably absent is any talk of what intellectual safeguards or new editorial procedures needed to be put in place to prevent the next Judy Miller from being manipulated by a compromised source or the next Andrew Sullivan from effectively slandering war dissenters as a ‘fifth column.’
And speaking of folks like Miller and Sullivan, what reputational price did they or, for that matter, anyone in the media who so vociferously supported the Iraq war (or who so viciously maligned those who didn’t) pay for their massive errors in judgment? I’m trying hard to think of someone and I’m drawing a blank. OK, maybe Miller’s having fallen from reporting for the Times to plying her pundit trade at a right-wing propaganda nuthouse does count for something. But not much. And when you stack Miller’s relatively unscathed post-Curveball media career up against someone like MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield, who spent nearly six years in media exile after offering up just one minute of analysis on the inherent biases in war coverage, it pales in comparison.
This concept of reputational cost is of particular interest because of something I wrote in this space two weeks ago. There, in a discussion about the fact-checking frenzy now gripping political journalism, I noted results from a recent Univ. of Michigan study that found the practice usually backfires with the public. Many of them are going to believe what they want to believe, facts be damned.
So, rather than continue to pursue a demonstrably counterproductive relationship with the public, the study’s authors instead suggested the media use fact-checking as more of a self-diagnostic tool. By tracking which of its sources and commentators were most accurate and forthright, reporters, op-ed page editors, and cable TV news producers could then reward the ‘good’ with more coverage, column-inches, and airtime. By contrast, they could punish the ‘bad’ with less access and exposure. Over time, the thinking goes, this process would heighten the intellectual discourse by marginalizing those who traffic mostly in erroneous invective or vague, unfounded hearsay.
This got me to thinking about a serious question: If today’s more robust fact-checking infrastructure had existed nine years ago, could it have prevented the Iraq War?
Honestly, it’s hard to see how it could. The Bush White House, we now know, was intent on invading regardless of events on the ground or dramatic revelations in the press. And in fact, in the months leading up to the war’s start there was plenty of accurate reporting—Knight Ridder, the Post’s Walter Pincus to cite two examples—that investigated the Bush administration’s WMD and Iraq-Al Qaeda link claims and found them wanting.
The facts, as they stood, were checked time and again and found to conflict with the prevailing political wisdom. And so rather than change our politics to fit the facts, many in the press began to succumb to this pressure—either consciously or subconsciously—and skewed the facts to fit the politics. The fundamental failure of the press, in other words, wasn’t an inability to find the truth about Iraq; it was lacking the courage to stand behind it when it did.
This timidity remains one of journalism’s core weaknesses. The strongest fact-checking operation ever conceived is helpless if the news organizations behind it fear openly challenging authority and holding politicians or others in the media accountable for their words and deeds. Case in point, this enlightening survey of every fact-check done by PolitiFact in 2010. The results, which covered a roughly equal breakdown of 370 statements by Republican and Democratic politicians, might not come as much of a surprise for readers of this blog:
Republican statements were graded in the dreaded "false" and "pants on fire" categories 39 percent of the time, compared to just 12 percent for statements made by Democrats. (emphasis original) That means a supermajority of falsehoods documented by PolitiFact over the last year–76 percent–were attributed to Republicans, with just 22 percent of such statements coming from Democrats.
Now, as I illustrated two weeks ago, individual fact checks can easily fall victim to semantic hair-splitting and obtuse logic. But a year-long meta-analysis that focuses on those statements rated as most extreme has the effect of canceling out that signal noise. So, if you want solid proof that Republican politicians lied more often than Democrats in 2010, well, here you go.
Nevertheless, the academic who conducted the survey inexplicably ignores this obvious conclusion and instead suggests, absent any evidence, that selection bias must be at work. All politicians lie in equal amounts all the time goes the conventional wisdom, so if the data shows otherwise, then it’s the data that’s wrong somehow, not the politicians. It’s the same old fit-the-facts-to-the-meme shuffle from the Iraq War.
Yes, PolitiFact and a few other fact-check platforms let you see the historical track records of some public figures. However, all this data, when it does exist, is too granular and compartmentalized to be useful in any larger context beyond figuring out that Michele Bachmann’s serial falsehoods should disqualify her from selling used cars, let alone serving in Congress.
But by refusing to draw larger conclusions from the fact-checks they conduct, these sites are, in effect, pulling their journalistic punches. Rather than trumpet an attention-getting headline like “Results show: Republicans Lying Three Times More Often Than Democrats!” Politifact is content to churn out small bore, PR-gimmick type items like its annual “Lie of the Year.”
That is to say, I’ve no doubt fact-checking sites like PolitiFact would have labeled the WMD claims that Bush used to justify the disastrous Iraq War as a “Lie of the Year” at some point, had they existed years ago. But by the time they did, of course, it would have been too little, too late.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Mr. Alterman: I read you pretty regularly, but I just wanted to say I particularly liked your Pearl Harbor column on presidential lying, since I have personal experience in the making of one presidential lie in particular, the Tonkin Gulf (never happened) "Incident." I was "present at the creation" as a low-ranking enlisted member of the staff of the Admiral in command of the two destroyers. As you’re no doubt aware (since you certainly read the Pentagon Papers), the Maddox and Turner Joy were actually supporting a South Vietnamese commando raid on the (recognized internationally) North Vietnamese island of Hon Me. According to the Chief Sonarman of the Maddox, there were never any North Vietnamese torpedo boats anywhere in the vicinity either night, and for sure there were no torpedos in the water (a sound unlike anything else). What you probably don’t know is that a large war was prevented the second night when a good friend of mine from Navy boot camp, by then a Third Class Fire Control Technician and the petty officer in charge of fire control on the Maddox refused three times the order to "open fire", telling his captain that the only target out there was the Turner Joy. For this, he was court-martialed for "disobedience of a direct order" and busted in rank back to Seaman. I found this out a month after the event when I ran into him in a bar in Olongapo outside Subic Bay Naval Station. The event was pretty much what turned me around politically. We had been planning a "limited series of air strikes" against four North Vietnamese ports "upon suitable provocation" since the previous June, and this was the "suitable provocation." It was all done to prove that Lyndon Bastard Johnson was "tough" in his campaign against the "war monger" Barry Goldwater. Another interesting bit of history: my old friend the late Dick Best, the man who won the Battle of Midway by single-handedly sinking the third Japanese carrier, the "Akagi", always said that he considered his greatest service to his country to have been the fact that when he was Librarian at the RAND Corporation, he "turned a blind eye" to Daniel Ellsberg taking the Pentagon Papers out and copying them. And since you like rock and roll as much as you do (from your reviews) you’ll find it interesting to know that the Admiral I was working for then was George Morrison, father of Jim Morrison of the Doors. Anyway, I always date August 4, 1964, as the day I stopped believing in the goodness of the American government and the trustworthiness of American politicians, and my involvement ever since in trying to change that.
San Luis Obispo, CA
Sorry Eric, Matt Gelfand’s right. Except for Mick’s voice, the Stones are tight on the 78 SNL show. Correct, its just my opinion, but SUCK it surely doesn’t. Still a big fan of your blog and your thoughts on all subjects. –Cliff
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