| Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Remembering Washington's Loved Ones

 Above the Fold

   Nothing brings out Washington’s passion for mediocrity like the death of one of its favorite pundits.

    When syndicated columnist and long time TV personality Bob Novak died last August, he was lionized by David Broder, praised by Howard Kurtz, and given a mostly friendly obituary in The New York Times.

    Nowhere in in The Times or The Post could you find a hint of the fact that Novak and his late partner Rowland Evans had pioneered the corruption of Washington journalism, by charging lobbyists to attend annual conferences populated by sources corralled by the columnists–sources who felt compelled to attend, lest they fall out of favor with two of Washington’s most successful opinion makers.  (It was this model that the Atlantic Magazine has emulated for several years, and which Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth briefly, and disastrously, embraced last summer,  until the newsroom rose up in disgust, forcing Weymouth to abandon it, at least temporarily.)

    What you did learn from his loving colleagues after Novak died was that he was “notable… for the energy with which he tackled his assignments” and “his instinct was to help his friends whenever they needed it” (Broder); that Fred Barnes thought he was “ideological but not partisan at all” and that he “prided himself on being a shoe-leather reporter” (Kurtz); and “he was also a great reporter who liked a good story even more than his ideology” (The New York Times.)

    Now it is true, as any knowlegeable Washington octogenarian will tell you, that Novak was a great reporter when he covered Capital Hill for The Wall Street Journal–in the late 1950’s.  But that was five decades ago.  When he switched from reporter to columnist, Novak’s pieces were so riddled with factual errors that he and his partner Rowland Evans quickly became known as Errors and No Facts.”

    In one of dozens of famous non-scoop-scoops, the column reported days before the 1980 presidential election that Jimmy Carter’s White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, had just flown back from Geneva, where he had secured a “handshake” agreement with the Iranians to release the American hostages in Teheran.   Had the columnists taken the elementary precaution of telephoning Cutler before writing that, they would have learned that hehadn’t been out of the country at all–since the previous summer.

    LAST WEEK, IT WAS DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN, with the death of Bill Safire, the Nixon flak turned Times columnist, whose hiring by Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger ssent shivers through the rest of The New York Times at the end of 1972.

    But Safire quickly won over his Washington bureau colleagues by feeding them the scooplets that he didn’t use in his own column.   And while Nixon was still in office, he occasionally got a special leak–as he did the day the White House gave him the transcripts of an early set of Nixon tapes, several hours before other news organizations received them.

    Last week his Times colleague Maureen Dowd caught Washington’s mood with a worshipful column extolling Safire as “a man who loved women,” wrote novels “full of zesty sex scenes,” and had “none of the vile and vitriol of today’s howling pack of conservative pundits.”  Her kicker was to declare him a “mensch”–the ultimate Yiddish compliment, which, in this case, could not have been more inappropriate.

    Only Slate’s Jack Shafer suggested Safire’s true nature: “A human hybrid of flack, hack, speechwriter, book author, novelist, and politician, he answered to nobody but himself, and for all his alleged skill as a reporter, he never asked himself any tough questions.”  Many years ago, writing in Newsday, Sydney Schanberg made a similar point, when Safire suddenly embraced Al D’Amato for his ethical zeal, because he was investigating Bill Clinton’s alleged misdeeds in the Whitewater affair–even though, as Schanberg pointed out, the New York Senator had “perhaps the most dubious ethics record of any figure on the national scene.”

    (Full Disclosure: when I was the press critic at Newsweek, I wrote a piece accusing New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal of using the paper to “reward his friends and punish his enemies,” after he commissioned Times reporter John Corry to write a 6,500 word apologia for Jerzy Kosinski on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section.  Corry’s piece was a response to an article in The Village Voice, which  had accused Kosinki of not being the sole author of all of his novels.  Corry suggested that the writers at the Voice had been duped by a Polish government campaign defaming the emigré author–because he was an anti-commnist.  Almost every senior Times critic told me they were horrified by Corry’s piece, because they believed it had been motivated solely by Rosenthal’s close friendship with Kosinski.   But Abe’s other close friend, Bill Safire, responded to my criticism with a column which attacked me for attacking Abe–and extolled Corry’s article as “a piece of cultural sleuthing worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.”)

    David Broder unwittingly identified the real problem with writers like Novak and Safire, when he described Novak as one of those reporters who “cultivated not just sources but friendships with many of the main players in the drama they loved.” Broder meant that as a compliment, of course, even though such a posture actually makes it impossible to practice real journalism.  George Orwell, the antithesis of this kind of pundit, once explained to Stephen Spender that he didn’t “mix much in literary circles” partly because “I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.”

    The one person toward whom Safire almost never showed any “intellectual brutality” was his first important patron, Richard Nixon.   Safire labored in Nixon’s White House with Pat Buchanan, and togther they wrote the speeches that vice president Spiro Agnew delivered in the mid 1970’s, which inaugurated the right-wing war against the mainstream press, which has been waged so successfully ever since then.

    When Abe Rosenthal died  three and a half years ago, Safire was one of the speakers at his funeral, at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.

    He recalled that Rosenthal often said that he wanted his epitaph to be, “He kept the paper straight”–words which actually appear on Rosenthal’s grave stone.

    Then Safire recalled being in The New York Times newsroom in the summer of 1974, on the day when the news came over the wire that Richard Nixon had decided to resign.  According to Safire, the entire Times newsroom had erupted in applause.

    There was only one problem with this anecdote, as I pointed out to Safire on the synagogue’s steps when the funeral was over: it never happened.   I was in the Times newsroom for twelve hours that day, because I was Abe Rosenthal’s news clerk, and there was never any applause to celebrate the president’s resignation. If there had been, Abe would surely have fired any reporter who had put his hands together at such a moment.

    Like many of Safire’s own columns, this was another story “too good to check”–but he used it anyway, because it worked so well to confirm his  life-long prejudices.

                                                                                                      -30-

The Wall Street Journal, Re-invented

    It’s Rupert’s Journal now.

    The big question twenty-two months ago, when Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal for $5 billion from the Bancroft family, was how long he would wait before he started to transform the business newspaper of record in his own image.

    For many decades before Murdoch acquired the Journal, news aficionados revered the paper as the only national news outlet in America where special interests of any kind never seemed to interfere with the news pages.  (The hard-right editorial page was always another matter altogether.)  Of the three publications where FCP worked as a staffer--The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Journal–the Journal was the only one where there was never any evidence of anyone tampering with my copy to satisfy someone else’s prejudices.

    Since Murdoch had never owned any news organization with that kind of reputation, the consternation over the paper’s future was understandable.

    The first font dropped just five months after his purchase was completed when Marcus Brauchli was pushed out of the managing editor’s slot, and replaced by Robert Thomson, a News Corp veteran who started his career as a copy boy at Murdoch’s Herald in Melbourne in 1979.  Before coming to the Journal, Thomson was the editor of Murodch’s Times of London, where he drove the paper’s content relentlessly down market (and obliterated much of its reputation for factual accuracy.)

    When Brauchli left the paper (he later became executive editor of The Washington Post), one Journal staffer told Politico, “This is a clear sign that it’s over—the Dow Jones culture is dead.”

    Now that trend seems to be accelerating.

    When Teddy Kennedy died last August, the Journal posted a lengthy and balanced obituary on its website by Naftali Bendavid.  But when the same article appeared on the front page of the newspaper   the next day, the piece had a new seventh paragraph which hadn’t been there before:

    Blasting what he called “slobbering media coverage” of Mr. Kennedy’s death that ignored his past “bad behavior,” conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday said Mr. Kennedy was a politician who “uses the government to take money from people who work and gives it to people who don’t work.”

    Journal reporters immediately started complaining to their friends at other newspapers that the Limbaugh paragraph had been inserted at the insistence of editors in New York.  Naftali Bendavid and Journal Washington Bureau Chief John Bussey both  refused to comment when asked by FCP about the change.

    A former top Journal editor told FCP that he saw evidence of ideological meddling “seeping into the paper all the time.   I heard that story about Kennedy, and I hear they’re under pressure to be tougher on Obama all the time.  I also heard the labor reporter in Washington was told her stories were too pro-labor.”

    Contacted by FCP, Journal labor reporter Melanie Trottman declined to comment.

    Although it may be becoming more common, ideological tampering within the news columns is still relatively rare.   The trouble is, because of the identity of the new owner, news professionals are constantly questioning the way the paper plays stories in ways that they never would have before.

    “I find myself now almost dismissing a story,” said another former top Journal editor.  “When they were way ahead on the Denver terrorist story, my presumption was, this was the Fox News filter–when in fact they were just doing a really great job on the story.”

    But the biggest difference between the old Journal and Rupert’s Journal is a sharp shift toward more general interest stories, and away from the in-depth business coverage which was always at the heart of the paper’s franchise.

    “I read the paper all the time thinking how incredibly different it is,” said a former Journal reporter who wrote for the paper at home and abroad for more than a decade.  “The  editing is a different thing now.  First of all, there’s less of it.  It used to be so buttoned up.  Now there are weird attributions, and graphs toward the end where you can tell they cut out two graphs and just left the last one.”

    “There’s also a sense of campaigns,” the former reporter continued.  “Remember the private aircraft fleet for Congress?  That was a big story, a legitimate story, but they rode it like a campaign trying to stir up the readers.  That’s something the old Journal never did.  It would pat itself on the back, but it wasn’t that sort of campaigning style.  That’s  a Murdoch formula–although not unique to Murdoch.”

    “The news judgment is bizarre,” said a veteran Washington Post editor.  “They’re throwing away the franchise on sophisticated business stories.   They don’t make as much of them or devote as much space to them.  It’s become a very chatty and much more informal enterprise.”

    Another Journal veteran said, “They now have the news judgment of  The Sydney Daily Telegraph.  It’s not the judgment of The [more serious] Australian.” 

    Finally, there’s the problem of tips from Rupert.  A former Journal staffer said he had frequently heard from current Journal reporters that those tips work like this:    

    “It’s always the same thing.  Rupert has an idea, and because it comes from him, he doesn’t want people called to see if it’s true.  So you can’t confirm it, but you have to treat it as a fact because it came from him.  There are good things and bad things about that.  He’s plugged in, and  he has excellent news judgment.  But then there is this presumed god-like quality to what he says. So you’re not supposed to follow up on what amount to rumors, in a way that you would if it came from anyone else.”

    The most famous instance of a Murdoch tip being “too good to check” was John Kerry’s “choice” of Richard Gephardt as his running mate in 2004.  An unequivocal report of that nonexistent event ended up as the wood on the front page of Murdoch’s New York Post, after the owner insisted upon it.  Afterwards, “senior editors warned that those who discussed the Gephardt gaffe with other news organizations would lose their jobs,” according to The New York Times.

    So far, none of Murdoch’s tips to the Journal have led to a disaster of those proportions.

    John Bussey, the Washington bureau chief, told FCP he had forwarded all of my inquires about each of these issues to Alix Freedman in New York, who last year was given “expanded authority as a defender of the paper’s ethical and journalistic standards” by Robert Thomson.

    There was no response from Freedman.

                                                                   -30-

Time Magazine Loves Glenn Beck (Again)

   Last month FCP discussed the revolting tendency of “liberal” publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker to publish gushing profiles of repellent public figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and, especially. Glenn Beck.   This week the trend accelerated as David von Drehle profiled Beck for the cover of Time magazine.

    Von Drehle’s piece is so humiliating on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.   But at least the web version of the piece carried a headline which FCP thought posed a reasonable question: “Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?”

    Trouble is, after reading the piece, it was still impossible to know how Von Drehle might answer that query.  So FCP telephoned the Time writer to find out more. 

   “I haven’t seen the layout on the web,” Von Drehle said, “So [that question] is news to me.  I personally wouldn’t take one guy and say he’s bad for America.”

    You see, even though Von Drehle’s piece was–ostensibly–a profile of a media figure–von Drehele  is not interested in writing “media journalism,” the kind in which you actually try to evaulate the person you’re writing about.

    “I do not want to give every single person a score card,” Von Drehle told FCP.  There has obviously been no “shortage of rants against Glenn Beck,” so rather than give an intelligent appraisal of what Beck actually says each night, von Drehele wrote a story which focuses on the fact that “this is is a big business and a lot of people are making a lot of money.”

    Von Drehle’s total lack of interest in actual facts is briskly displayed in the very first paragraph of his profile, describing the tea party in Washington last weekend, which was largely the result of Beck’s six-month-long on-air organizing effort for what he called his “9/12 project.”

     “If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists,” Von Drehle wrote.  “If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic.”

    Members of the Washington, D.C., Fire Department will no doubt be delighted to be identified as a “liberal source,” since they originated the crowd estimate of  70,000 people.   As for the higher crowd estimates, the biggest one, of 1.2 million, was simply invented by Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, one of the protest’s main organizers.  Kibbe announced from the stage that ABC News had reported the 1.2 million figure.   This led to an e-mail to news outlets from ABC, very shortly thereafter, pointing out that the network  had never done any such thing–but instead had relied on those “liberal” firemen who offered the lower 60,000 to 70,000 figure.  But you would never know any of that from reading Time.

    Jamison Foser of Media Matters does his own fine dissection of Von Drehle’s drivel here.   In an e-mail exchange with FCP, Foser listed some of the other lies from the organizers of the Washington protest: “they invented a Park Service spokesperson, they used a quote from an actual Parks Service employee saying it was the biggest gathering ever – a quote that was actually about the inauguration;  they made up that ABC report that never happened, and they claimed that photos of the Promise Keepers march were photos of last Saturday’s protest, in order to substantiate their claims of massive crowds.  Time, however, thinks their ‘estimates’ are just as valid as those of the ‘liberal’ DC Fire Dept.”

    Foser also highlights Von Drehle’s hideous tendency to draw utterly false equivalencies throughout his piece, like this one: “Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you’d think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.”  Which leads Foser to ask:

    “What in the world is Time talking about?   Conservatives have been yelling about President Obama being a secret Kenyan bent on sending granny to the Death Panel, comparing him to Hitler and Mao and Stalin and who-knows-who-else – and that, apparently, is matched in intensity and paranoia by liberals pointing out this unhinged behavior? Insane.”

   Von Drehle seemed to be more eager to point out to FCP all the nice things Beck says on his show: “work hard; love your country; be kind to each other; spend more time with your kids.”

    “What about comparing Obama’s non-existent death panel to Nazi eugenics?”  FCP asked.

    “That probably would classify as not productive in my book,” the Time writer replied. 

      These are some of the other lovely things Von Drehle  managed to say about his subject:

*  He is the hottest thing in the political-rant racket, left or right. A gifted entrepreneur of angst in a white-hot market.

*  A man with his ear uniquely tuned to the precise frequency at which anger, suspicion and the fear that no one’s listening all converge.

* Beck is 45, tireless, funny, self-deprecating, a recovering alcoholic, a convert to Mormonism, a libertarian and living with ADHD.

* He is a gifted storyteller with a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies — if he believed in conspiracies, which he doesn’t, necessarily; he’s just asking questions. He’s just sayin’.

*Beck describes his performances as ‘the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment’— and the entertainment comes first. “

* “Beck is a “radio nostalgic,” in love with the storytelling power of a man with a microphone.

    After all those glowing tributes, I guess David just didn’t have enough space left for Glenn’s most memorable sound bites–like his declaration that we “at least in this country [need to] start having the necessary discussion of, do we want communists in the United States government”–a question asked in a segment which was bolstered by actual sound bites of some of Joe McCarthy’s finest moments at the Army/McCarthy hearings.

   Von Drehle also forgot to mention that in 2005, Beck said, “you know it took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 families.  I don’t hate all of them.  I probably hate about ten of them.  But when I see a 9/11 family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up.’  I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them!”  (To which Stephen Colbert memorably added: “Good point! [Beck’s] 9/12 project is not for people directly affected by 9/11–just for people building their careers on it.”)

   Unfortunately, Beck’s mock poisoning of House Speaker Pelosi on air and his comparison of the Holocaust museum shooter to Thomas Jefferson also managed to escape the Time writer’s attention.   (Jamison Foser has the whole list of omissions here.)

    Von Drehle does mention in passing that Beck is currently the object of one of the most successful advertizer boycotts in history, sparked by Beck’s assertion  that Obama is a racist who harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

   Von Drehle identified the boycott as “a boon” to Beck’s ratings; but he didn’t say that it now includes more than sixty corporations, including Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Procter & Gamble.   

    FCP asked Von Dehele if sixty wasn’t a rather large number–one perhaps worth mentioning in his piece.  “Well,” he replied.  “There are millions of companies.”

    Von Drehle also seems to think that the progressive hosts on MSNBC are really just like the right-wing crazies on Fox.  But when FCP pressed him about that, he admitted that had no basis whatsoever for making any comparison: 

   “I haven’t seen Keith Olbermann for at least a year and a half,” the Time writer said.  “And I’ve never seen Rachel Maddow.  I have four children and a wife.  I don’t sit around watching cable TV.  I don’t understand why anybody watches any of these shows.  I know what these opinions are based on: they’re based on nothing.”

    Of course, Olbermann’s and Maddow’s opinions are actually all relentlessly fact-based–the real kind, not the sort routinely invented by Limbaugh, Beck and their scores of imitators.  And Maddow is easily the most intelligent addition to television in the last five years.  But Von Drehleis too busy raising his children to have noticed any of that.

    Perhaps it would help if Time  had chosen someone who actually watches cable TV to profile such an important cable personality?

    Probably not.  The magazine’s delightfully post-modern TV critic, James Poniewozik, has already written several hard-hitting assessments of the Beck oeuvre, including this one: “Sure, he may be selling a sensationalistic message of paranoia and social breakdown. But politics, or basic responsibility, aside, he has an entertainer’s sense of play with the medium of TV that O’Reilly, or perpetual sourpuss Neil Cavuto, don’t.”

    So why do magazines like Time put glowing profiles of Beck on their covers, while newspapers like The Washington Post invite him to lead chats on their websites?  

    For the very same reason that Beck tells disgusting lies on his program so frequently: there is money to be made.  News stand sales for Time as Beck’s fans gobble up copies of the magazine, and web hits for the Washington Post.

    And that, frankly,  is the most disgusting fact of all.

========================================================

   Once again, it falls to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to do the real journalism on this subject.  To find out what Beck actually does, see two of Colbert’s finest contributions to the Glenn Beck story,  here and here. 

   Stewart’s are here and, four days ago, describing America’s “favorite bi-polar” TV personality, here.

========================================================

 Update: The indispensable Scott Horton has another vintage Beck performance here.  Horton also links to an extremely sane and sensible piece by ex-George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.  The headline:  Gop Surrenders to Beck’s Mob Rule. Frum’s bottom line:  “Glenn Beck is not the first to make a pleasant living for himself by reckless defamation. We have seen his kind before in American journalism and American politics, and the good news is that their careers never last long. But the bad news is that while their careers do last, such people do terrible damage…We conservatives are submitting our movement to some of the most unscrupulous people in American life. This submission disgraces conservatism, discredits Republicans, and damages the country. It’s beyond time for conservatives who know better to join us at NewMajority in emancipating ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless.”  

Frum’s great piece was posted one week before Von Drehle’s; and yet, Time managed to ignore  this article of sanity as well.

                                                                                                          -30-

Above the Fold: Where Are the Editors?

    One of the main arguments for preserving the mainstream media is the idea that highly paid reporters supervised by highly paid editors are bound to produce stories that  are more sophisticated and more accurate than anything you are likely to read from the typical blogger.   However, three recent stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post were so egregious, they only make it easier to argue that accuracy, thoroughness and judgment are often strangers to our most “serious” journalistic institutions.

    The first one was written by FCP’s old friends Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti, the alliterative twins in the Washington bureau of The New York Times who have embarrassed themselves so often by acting as shills for their C.I.A. sources instead of behaving like objective reporters.

    Shane’s previous triumphs in the torture department include a Week in Review piece in which he found The Army Field Manual (which specifies how to interrogate a prisoner without torturing him) wanting because it had never “been updated to reflect decades of corporate analysis of how to influence consumers.”

    But the latest Shane-Mazzetti effort is so idiotic, it boggles the mind that none of the editors who read it before it was published noticed how flawed it was.   After noting that other reporters analyzing the most recently released torture memos focused on things like “threats of execution by handgun or assault by power drill; a prisoner lifted off the ground by his arms, which were tied behind his back; [and] another detainee repeatedly knocked out with pressure applied to the carotid artery,”  Shane and Mazzetti proceeded to focus on what was the real news here for them–and, just coincidentally, of course, for all the C.I.A. officials who are still terrified that they will be prosecuted for the war crimes that they committed.

    According to the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, what matters here is that these memos show that the Bush administration kept really, really careful records of the crimes they were committing:

   “Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program’s parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee’s daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis…The required records, the medical supervisors said, included “how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

    The obvious comparison that springs to mind here is to the splendidly detailed notes kept by Dr. Mengele’s acolytes when he was conducting his own ground-breaking experiments during World War II.   But that is very far indeed from  what Messrs. Shane and Mazzetti have in mind.

    After assuring themselves of what their editors apparently consider “balance” by quoting a couple of actual opponents of torture, the reporters get around to the real raison d’être of their piece: “…Defenders of the program say the tight rules show the government’s attempt to keep the program within the law. ‘Elaborate care went into figuring out the precise gradations of coercion,’ said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. ‘Yes, it’s jarring. But it shows how both the lawyers and the nonlawyers tried to do the right thing.’”
    Note to Shane and Mazzetti: when you commit an established war crime like waterboarding, following “tight rules” does not suddenly place your actions “within the law.”  And keeping careful records of your crimes should actually make you more likely to be prosecuted, rather than less.  Could anything be more obvious than that? 

    Not to The New York Times.

    To their credit, the reporters did manage to write one intelligent paragraph in their piece.  It was this one: “The records suggest one quandary prosecutors face as they begin a review of the C.I.A. program, part of the larger inquiry into abuse cases ordered Monday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Any prosecution that focuses narrowly on low-level interrogators who on a few occasions broke the rules may appear unfair, since most of the brutal treatment was authorized from the White House on down..”

    Over at The Washington Post, one of two journalistic felonies was committed by Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Julie Tate, which, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, could just as easily have been penned by Dick Cheney.

    Basing their account entirely on anonymous sources, Finn, Warrick and Tate wrote a full-throated defense of torture.  “After enduring the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency’s secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called  terrorist tutorials.

….These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its  preeminent source  on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.”

    Greenwald gets to the heart of the matter here: “What makes the Post’s breathless vindication of torture all the more journalistically corrupt is that the document on which it principally bases these claims – the just-released 2004 CIA Inspector General Report – provides no support whatsoever for the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, despite the fact that it was based on the claims of CIA officials themselves.  Ironically, nobody has done a better job this week of demonstrating how true that is than the Post’s own Greg Sargent – who, in post after post  – dissected the IG Report to demonstrate that it provides no evidence for Cheney’s claims that torture helped obtain valuable intelligence.”

    New Yorker writer and Dark Side author Jane Mayer has made a whole career out of compensating for all of the inadequacies of the torture reporting in the Times and the Post.  Here is what she told Keith Olbermann about Khalid Sheik Mohammed:
“There is nothing but a mass of claims that they got information from this individual and that individual, many from KSM, who apparently has been the greatest fount of information for them, but there’s absolutely nothing saying that they had to beat them to get this information. In fact, as anybody knows who knows anything about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was dying to tell the world, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera before he was in US custody, about everything he knew and everything he did. He was proud of his role as the mastermind of 9/11. He loves to talk about it. So there’s no evidence that I see in this that these things were necessary. I spoke to someone at the CIA who was an advisor to them who conceded to me that “We could have gotten the same information from tea and crumpets.”

    FINALLY, WE COME TO the most disgusting story of all, a worshipful portrait by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post of Brian Brown, a leading crusader against marriage equality.   The catastrophe here begins with the headline: “Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile.”

    It continues with beautiful aperçus like these:

* “this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis. Brian Brown speaks to these people.”

 * “He shoulders the accusations of bigotry; it’s horrible when people say that your life’s mission is actually just prejudice.”

* “The reason Brian Brown is so effective is that he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.”

*  “The racial bigot comparison is the most troubling part of the argument,  Brown says. It’s horrible, offensive, deliberately incendiary. He thinks it is  irrational,  a word he uses often.”

* ” It is irrational when the opposition points to polls suggesting that most young people support gay marriage.  People mature,  he says. Their views change. It is irrational when people believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage is an inevitability:  We have the people. We have not had such an organized force  before, Brown says.”

    And so on.  Of course, Ms. Hesse did not quote a single representative of any gay organization to provide an iota of balance to any of these idiotic assertions.

    The trouble is, the truth here is quite simple: you cannot oppose marriage equality without being a bigot. The “racial bigot comparison” is entirely appropriate.  There is nothing “sane” or “sunny” about bigotry.  And there is nothing “irrational” about pointing out that every new generation of Americans is more tolerant of sexual diversity than the one that preceded it–and that most Americans under 30 recognize that opposition to gay marriage is as repugnant as it is antediluvial. 

   Because equal treatment of all men and women under the law is the most American value of all.

   Mr. Brown is actually part of that large and loathsome contingent of Americans who has decided to make a living based entirely  on hatred and irrational fear.  The only interesting things in Hesse’s piece are the quotes from Mr. Brown’s wife, which suggest that she might actually understand that.

    Writing a piece like this is the equivalent of going down to Mississippi in the early ‘60’s, and writing a worshipful portrait of Governor Ross Barnett, who devoted himself to an unsuccessful effort to prevent James Meredith from integrating Ole Miss.  Such a piece would have focused on Barnett’s charming demeanor, his fine works as president of the Mississippi Bar Association, and so on.   And it would have pointed out how Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was hopelessly out of step with centuries of wonderful southern traditions like slavery and segregation. 

    Why is it so hard for mainstream editors to understand this? 

    Mostly it’s the result of a willful effort to remain woefully uninformed about gay issues, from marriage equality to gays in the military.   FCP has learned Ms. Hesse is considered a rising young star at the Style section of the Post.  If its editors had any judgment, a piece like this would permanently derail her career.

    The only truly useful thing Mr. Brown has ever done was to produce an anti-marriage equality ad that was so inane and offensive, it inspired Stephen Colbert’s single finest piece of satire of 2009.  Watch it here.

   Happy Labor Day.

Special thanks to FCP contributors John Flannery and AN.

 

                                                                         -30-

 

Jack, Bobby, Teddy and me

    And then there were none.

    No other set of brother-senators has ever dominated half a century of American political life the way the Kennedys did.  The lives of all of them, and the deaths of two of them, lifted us up–and then crushed us–like nothing else ever could.

    My father was the fiercest Democrat I have ever known.  Like Joe Kennedy, he imbued all of his children, and his grandchildren, with his own values.  For Phil Kaiser’s descendants, that meant an unquenchable passion for justice.

    I was nine years old when I fell in love with John F. Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960.   He was young, he was beautiful, and he had the most amazing hair I had ever seen. The mystical connection he established between himself and the millions who adored him was unlike anything any other politician has managed since.

    In Mrs. Green’s 5th grade class, I was Kennedy in our mock debate, and Steve Lane was Nixon, and in my memory, at least,  my Kennedy crushed Steve’s Nixon with a series of seemingly unanswerable questions–nearly all of them lifted from an indispensable booklet published by the Democratic National Committee.  (When I saw Steve again forty years later, he apologized for having been on the wrong side!)  I spent all of election day at my local polling place in Potomac, Maryland, festooned with Kennedy campaign buttons–and I was utterly baffled when my Republican neighbors delivered our precinct to Richard Nixon.  I had no idea I was living in a Republican neighborhood.

    On January 20th, 1961, I got up early to shovel the snow out of our suburban driveway so that my mother could drive me downtown to watch the inaugural parade.  When Kennedy’s open car passed in front of me and my shivering pal in the reviewing stand,   I shouted out, “Good luck, Jack!”   When the new president jerked his head around to look in my direction, my friend and I were certain he had heard me.  (I lost track of that friend when we moved abroad later that year, but when he read that passage in my first book, twenty-eight years later, he turned to his wife and exclaimed, “That’s me!”)

    I was ten when my father was chosen by Kennedy to be his Ambassador (“extraordinary and plenipotentiary”) to Senegal and Mauritania–my father’s reward, in part, for working with his college roommate, Byron White, for Citizens for Kennedy in Illinois.  Bobby came to my father’s swearing-in ceremony at the State Department, and that was the only time I shook one of the brothers’ hands.

    Teddy White was a good friend of my family when he published The Making of the President, 1960–an extended love-letter to Jack which also transformed the way American reporters have covered politics ever since.  When I read it as a young teenager, it was also the book that made me want to write nonfiction myself.

    When the Kennedys decided to give Teddy Jack’s old Senate seat in 1962, even the Kaisers thought this was an extreme example of the first family’s extraordinary sense of entitlement.   (Up until then, Teddy had been most famous for cheating on a Spanish exam at Harvard, although–like his brother Bobby before him–he had also won a varsity letter on his college football team.)

    I was thirteen when we were back in the states on home leave the year after that. I was sitting in my 8th grade history class at Thomas W. Pyle junior high school on November 22nd, when a student with a transistor radio ran in and said, “Kennedy has been shot!”  Our beloved teacher, Mr. Buckley, had worked in one of Kennedy’s Senate campaigns in Massachusetts, and he worshiped JFK as much as anyone did.  “It can’t be true,” he said.  It was 1:49 in the afternoon on the East Coast.  When it turned out that it was true, Mr. Buckley was so overcome, he stayed out of a school for a month. 

    My parents picked me up at school that Friday afternoon.   I remember it being a very, very dark afternoon.  That weekend there were torrential rains in Washington.  One of my thirteen year-old classmates wrote a poem.  Part of it said, “those were surely the tears of God.”

    My father was invited to view the president’s casket at the White House and for some reason I was already downtown.  But he decided I wasn’t dressed well enough to accompany him, so he went to the White House alone.  “We’ll never laugh again,” Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory said to Pat Moynihan that weekend.  “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again,” Moynihan replied.  “We’ll just never be young again.”   

    Four and a half years later, that part of America that yearned for a restoration went crazy all over again, mobbing Bobby Kennedy wherever he went as a presidential candidate, stealing his cufflinks and squeezing his hands until they bled.   I was clean for Gene McCarthy, so I hated Bobby that spring, for stealing McCarthy’s thunder by coming into the race, after McCarthy had come close to beating Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary.  Then Bobby, too, was murdered, and the whole country went numb.   “Now R.F.K.”–that was the whole headline in the “extra” edition of The New York Post.

    Murray Kempton spoke for millions of us that weekend. The great liberal columnist (who was also a McCarthy delegate to the Democratic convention that year) had excoriated Bobby when he first entered the race (he has “come down from the hills to shoot the wounded” Kempton had written).  But now Kempton was just as devastated as everyone else: “The language of dismissal becomes horrible once you recognize the shadow of death over every public man.  For I had forgotten, from being bitter about a temporary course of his, how much I liked Senator Kennedy and how much he needed to know he was liked.  Now that there is in life no road at whose turning we could meet again, the memory of having forgotten that will always make me sad and indefinitely make me ashamed.”

    Then all the pain and all the hope and all the psychodrama which was never far from the fabled family descended on to Teddy’s shoulders.   And he was never more magnificent than he was that weekend.   When he delivered his eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the fact that he sounded almost exactly like his brother Jack made the whole thing even more poignant.

    The last brother began by quoting words Bobby had spoken to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation in 1966.  “There is discrimination in this world, and slavery and slaughter and starvation.  Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nations grow rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere… The answer is to rely on youth–not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity…A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France.  It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that `all men are created equal.’”

    Then Teddy spoke for himself: “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life–to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.  Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.”  Here, his voice was breaking:  “As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
    `Some men see things as they are and say why.
    `I dream things that never were, and say why not?’”

    (I only met Jackie Kennedy once.   When I told her I had written a book about the ‘60’s, she said, “Well, I suppose if you were a dress designer or something like Oleg Cassini, they were fun.  But I never miss the ‘60’s at all!!” )

    Chappaquiddick came only thirteen months after Teddy delivered  his eulogy for Bobby. Then Teddy was re-elected to the Senate in 1970, but he lost his job as Senate whip to Robert Byrd.  As John Broder put it in the Times today, “his heart did not seem to be in his work any longer.”   But after the loss of his position in the Senate leadership, he seemed to snap out of it–and he began a long and illustrious career as one of the Senate’s lions.

    In 1980 he ran for president–even after he had humiliated himself when Roger Mudd asked him why he wanted the job, and the candidate didn’t really have an answer.  The race split the party, and helped Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the fall.  Teddy’s speech at the Democratic convention that year is still remembered as magical, but his campaign for president was far from his finest moment.

    He voted against the war in Iraq, and in 2004, he delivered a brilliant speech delineating every lie and deception of the Bush administration on its way to that catastrophe.  (Read it today at Juan Cole.)

    His last important act came in January of last year, when  he and his niece Caroline literally passed the torch to a new generation by endorsing   Barack Obama for president: “I feel change in the air!” he shouted.  “What about you?…I believe there is one candidate who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history.  He understands what Dr. Martin Luther King called, ‘the fierce urgency of now.’”
   With those words, he had given Obama the momentum he needed to get all the way to the White House.

    For decades, health care was one of Teddy’s signature issues.  Now, if only the Congress can summon the courage to pass genuine reform, the senior Senator from Massachusetts will get the legacy he so richly deserves.

                                                        -30-

Catastrophic Coverage of the Health Care Debate

Above the Fold

   Last Wednesday, the CBS Evening News managed to capture almost everything that is inadequate about the MSM’s coverage of the health care debate in a single broadcast.

    CBS ran reports from three different correspondents that night, including a “fact-check segment” narrated by “investigative” correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.   On the question of whether or not a new health care reform bill would cover illegal aliens, Attkisson said the answer was “unclear”, even though the bill specifies that coverage would only be available to people in the US legally.  But Attkisson chose to accept the Republican talking point that because there is “no provision for verification,” no one could be sure whether illegal immigrants would be covered.  Then she added, with no basis in fact whatsoever, that if one member of undocumented family was covered, the rest of them could be too.

    But far worse was the profile by correspondent Cynthia Bowers of Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee.

    The big news on the morning of the broadcast had been Grassley’s willingness to feed the flatly false rumor that one of the bills before Congress would give the government the right to kill your grandmother.   All the bill actually does is authorize Medicare to pay for consultations so that anyone can write a living will laying out what kind of care the individual wants to specify at the end of his or her life.   If you don’t want a living will, there is nothing in the legislation that would require you to get one.

    Nevertheless, Grassley waded knee-deep into the Republicans’ chief scare tactic by declaring “We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.” As the indispensable Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly pointed out, Grassley was “no doubt aware of the fact that his comments were patently nonsensical.” 

    Benen also noted that Grassley added, “I don’t even think it’s right for me to call [the Finance discussions] negotiations.  We’re talking.”

    “Got that?” asked Benen.  “The leading Republican negotiator on health care reform doesn’t even want to admit that ‘negotiations’ exist. Grassley is willing to concede that he’s ‘talking” to other senators, but according to the Roll Call report, the Iowa Republican ‘downplayed the ongoing bipartisan Finance Committee talks, saying his decision to stay at the table allows him to keep his constituents and fellow GOP Senators informed.’
Grassley added that no matter what the final bill looks like, unless the reform legislation enjoys the broad support of the Republican Party, he’ll vote against it.  It’s remarkable. The chief Senate health care negotiator in the Republican Party wants his constituents to know that he doesn’t even consider himself to be part of “negotiations,” and is only there to acquire information. Grassley is also, apparently, negotiating the details of a bill he’s likely to vote against.  Democrats, in other words, are trying to strike a deal on health care reform with someone who doesn’t support health care reform.  That Grassley has cultivated a reputation for being a sensible moderate isn’t just wrong, it’s ridiculous.”

    What makes all of this even more obscene?  Amy Sullivan discovered that Grassley was one of 42 GOP Senators and 204 GOP House members who voted for the 2003 medicare prescription drug bill, which mandated funding to evaluate “the beneficiary’s need for pain and symptom management, including the individual’s need for hospice care; counseling the beneficiary with respect to end-of-life issues and care options, and advising the beneficiary regarding advanced care planning.”

    The only difference between the 2003 provision and the infamous Section 1233 that threatens the very future and moral sanctity of the Republic is that the first applied only to terminally ill patients. Section 1233 would expand funding so that people could voluntarily receive counseling before they become terminally ill.

    Somehow none of this managed to penetrate the brain of Cynthia Bowers or her CBS producer.  Someone had decided to air a puff piece about Grassley, and a puff piece it would be, regardless of the facts.   Bowers’ two-minute report didn’t even mention that Grassley had been promoting the “deathers” rumor a few hours before it aired–which was the most important news Grassley had made that day.  (Bowers did not respond to a phone message requesting comment on that failure.)  Instead her story was determined to portray Grassley as an admirable moderate, committed to bi-partisanship.

    Bowers piece included this memorable sound-bite from Politico’s Mike Allen: “both sides trust him; he’s not a kool-aid drinker for Repubicans; and he’s not a sellout.”

    Since Allen seemed to be speaking on the very same day that Grassley had indeed drunk deeply from the Republicans’ Kool-Aid, FCP asked Allen if he had made his comment before or after Grassley had embraced the rumor that the new bill might be promoting the death of the elderly.

    “We taped before that statement,” Allen told FCP by e-mail.  Asked if he would have said something different if he had been interviewed after Grassley’s statement, Allen would only say, “That was a general statement about his past positioning - since then, he’s made a number of statements critical of Democrats.”

    The CBS broadcast was emblematic of a general failure to characterize the Republican talking points as the outright lies they really are.  (CBS’s fact check segment that night didn’t  mention the euthanasia canard at all.) 

   Even Salon’s Washington correspondent, Mike Madden, did a sloppy job of clearing things up in a fact-check piece of his own.   Referring to the rumors about Federally sponsored euthanasia, Madden wrote “There is a kernel of truth at the root of this attack,” because “the legislation would order Medicare to pay for consultations between patients and doctors on end-of-life decisions, which it currently doesn’t cover.  But the consultations wouldn’t be mandatory; if your grandmother doesn’t want to go talk to her doctor about end-of-life care, she won’t have to.”  Obviously if the consultations aren’t mandatory, there is no “kernel of truth” here whatsoever–just another flat-out lie from the Republicans.

     The sad truth is, for decades, the GOP’s only consistent tactic has been fear mongering, whether the topic is national security, gay marriage, or health care.   The only hope for passing reasonable health care reform lies in Barack Obama’s capacity to convince a majority of Americans of the truth–that all of the opposition of Republicans in Congress is rooted in their addiction to the obscene profit margins of the health care industry.

 

                                                             -30-
 

Above the Fold: Media Wolves, Draped in Sheep's Clothing

    Once upon a time, not so very long ago, public figures who used lies and hatred to incite violence within the most hysterical part of the population were treated like pariahs by the mainstream media.   

    The reasons why that was a sensible approach were especially obvious this week, as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and their legions of less-well-known imitators used their programs to compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler (“Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate,” Rush intoned)–and to organize the mobs which turned town hall meetings about health care into riots.

    Congressmen were the subject of death threats, as giants of the conservative commentariat like Charles Kruathammer decried the efforts of the Obama administration to confront the multiple lies about its health care plans as “unbelievably hypocritical.”

        “This only happens when you have a conservative protest,” said Kruathammer.  “It is called a mob. If it’s a liberal protest, it is called grassroots expressing themselves.”  Actually, these things are only called mobs when they include physical threats against the elected officials hosting them.

    What’s new, nowadays, is the hip, post-modern, and utterly-repellent impulse of everyone from The New York Times and Time magazine to The New Yorker to write fawning profiles of these “zany entertainers” instead of dissecting the garbage they routinely disseminate.

    Last summer, FCP thought it couldn’t possible get any worse than Zev Chavetsappalling love-letter to Limbaugh in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, which featured fabulous aperçus like these:

* “Limbaugh’s program that day was, as usual, a virtuoso performance.”

*  “He’s a phenomenon like the Beatles”

* Limbaugh entertains, but he also instructs. He provides his listeners with news and views they can use, and he teaches them how to employ it. “Rush is an intellectual-force multiplier,” Rove told me.

* “Unlike many right-wing talk-show hosts, Limbaugh does not view France with hostility. On the contrary, he is a Francophile. His salon, he told me, is meant to suggest Versailles. “

* A fastidious man, Limbaugh has a keen eye for domestic detail.”

*  “He lives the way Jackie Gleason would have lived if Gleason had the money. Some people are irritated by it.”

* “Limbaugh sees himself as a thinker as well as showman.”

*“He’s a leader,” Rove said. “If Rush engages on an issue, it gives others courage to engage.”

    But instead of an aberration, Chavets’s piece turned into a template for how to describe these magnificent men.   On Time magazine’s website, its infantile TV critic, James Poniewozik, gurgled on about Beck’s program this way:

Sure, he may be selling a sensationalistic message of paranoia and social breakdown. But politics, or basic responsibility, aside, he has an entertainer’s sense of play with the medium of TV that O’Reilly, or perpetual sourpuss Neil Cavuto, don’t. ..There’s this livewire sense of unpredictability to his show, a compulsion to constantly put on a show—be it with Barbies, cutting a cake to illustrate the budget, or building a Jenga tower—that is at least a corrective to being growled at by Papa Bear for an hour.  Of course, it is also a grown man whipping up a vague conspiracy on national television by playing with dolls. So there’s that. But there’s a part of me that has to respect Beck for at least being willing to own his nuttiness.

    Maybe all this affection developed because Poniewozik was once a guest on Beck’s earlier program on CNN.

    Over on the front page of the New York Times last spring, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter offered a similarly brain-dead approach : “Mr. Beck presents himself as a revivalist in a troubled land…Mr. Beck’s emotions are never far from the surface. ‘That’s good dramatic television,’ said Phil Griffin, the president of a Fox rival, MSNBC. ‘That’s who Glenn Beck is.’ 

    They quoted Beck as saying that those “who are spreading the garbage that I’m stirring up a revolution haven’t watched the show”–and added that Beck had offered “a 17-minute commentary — remarkably long by cable standards — last Monday, answering criticisms, including one from Bill Maher that he was producing “the same kind of talking” that led Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

     “Let me be clear,” Mr. Beck said. “If someone tries to harm another person in the name of the Constitution or the ‘truth’ behind 9/11 or anything else, they are just as dangerous and crazy as those we don’t seem to recognize anymore, who kill in the name of Allah.”

     (Young Mr. Stelter’s most recent accomplishment–dissected here  by Glenn Greenwald–was to report on corporate efforts to silence the war between Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.  “Incredibly,” wrote Greenwald, “Stelter, doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone examine, what makes the story so significant”–the fact that the corporate suits at both networks were trying to censor their own news operations.)

    But all of these articles pale in comparison to Kelefa Sanneh’s profile of Michael Savage in last week’s New Yorker magazine, perhaps the most embarrassing article to appear in those pages since Tina Brown ran a piece in the “Talk of The Town” devoted entirely to the size of the male-member of an actor then appearing nightly on Broadway.

    This week, Savage has been as active as anyone in fomenting violence, with wonderful monologues like this one  : “We’ve been taken over by a group of criminals.  I want to see all the disparate groups joining together. I want to see the motorcycle groups–and I mean from the far-extreme violent motorcycle groups to the motorcyle groups that are disorganized and nonviolent. When they start joining the citizen groupss and they start revving up their motorcycles outside these town hall meetings, you’re going to see change in this country.”

    But in his relentlessly fawning piece, Mr. Sanneh explained that “the immoderate quotes meticulously catalogued by the liberal media watchdog site mediamatters.org are accurate but misleading, insofar as they reduce a willfully erratic broadcast to a series of political brickbrats.” This brings to mind George Orwell’s famous observation that “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”  In Mr. Sanneh’s case, perhaps that’s because he was a relatively talented pop critic for The New York Times before he made the fatal mistake of turning his attention to politics in The New Yorker.

    To his credit, Mr. Sanneh does quote Mr. Savage’s most famous outburst on his short-lived MSNBC brodacst–“Oh, you’re one of the sodomites.  You should should only get AIDS and die, you pig.”  But then he goes on to make a whole series of observations that might even make Zev Chavets blush:

    * Savage is “a deeply sentimental man.”

    * “Limbaugh’s main legacy might be his media criticism”

    * “G Gordon Liddy’s show, which had a peculiar hypnotic power”

    * “Glenn Beck, who conjured a mystical fervor..”

    And finally, there is Mr. Sanneh’s uplifting kicker, taken, naturally, out of the mouth of his beloved subject, Mr. Savage: “I’m their voice of freedom.  I’m the last hope.  I’m the beacon.  I’m the staute of Liberty.  I’m Michael Savage.  I’ll be back.”

    The one thing Mr. Sanneh’s article does reaffirm is the utter stupidity of Janet Malcolm’s most famous declaration in the pages of very same New Yorker magazine, many years ago: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.  Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone,   so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns–when the article or bookappears–his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their
temperaments.  The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

    What Ms. Malcolm was “too supid” or “too full of herself” to mention is the fact that all too often, it is the subject who seduces the journalist, instead of the other way around: “When he invited the journalist into one of his undisclosed locations, he proved to be a first-rate host, chatty and solicitious.” Mr. Sanneh enthused about Mr. Savage.  “A steady supply of beer refills lubricated the conversation.”

    When this sort of thing happens, the result is truly the most morally-indefensible kind of journalism–the kind written by Messrs. Sanneh, Stelter, Carter, Poniewozik and Chavets, which celebrates the most dangerously despicable “commentators” of our time.

(Special thanks to FCP contributor EG)

                                                                                      -30-

Winners & Sinners

     Sinner: President Barack Obama, who, exactly one month ago, told the guests at a White House cocktail party held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot that he strongly favored Congressional repeal of the military’s idiotic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy.  This week, Winner Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act that would have banned the Defense Department from spending any money on investigations leading to the expulsion of gay and lesbian service members.   The Congressman told Winner  Rachel Maddow last night that he had withdrawn the amendment–at the request of the Obama White House.

       Sinners: Every single MSM news organization, including ALL newspapers and ALL wire services, who, as far FCP can determine, have so far completely ignored this appalling decision by the White House (as of 11 AM Thursday morning.)  How could something like this happen? Because no one in the MSM is serious about covering gay issues on a timely basis.

The Bottom Line to FCP from Nathaniel Frank , who wrote Unfriendly Fire, the brilliant and definitive book on this subject: “The White House has made a decision to avoid this issue like the plague.  There is part of me which understands what they’re doing, in terms of prioritizing health care and the economy.  The reason I have limited sympathy for the president is, this is not a hard thing to do.   Issuing an executive order or supporting the Hastings amendment would cost much less political capital than some White House aides seem to think, some of whom are still scarred by the Clinton experience.  I just think if you do something cleanly and swiftly as commander in chief, you’re not going to get all this blow back.”

    Winner: President Barack Obama, for accurately stating that the Cambridge Police Department had acted “stupidly” by arresting a man in his own home after confirming that the man resided there.   The police report written by arresting officer James Crowley makes it abundantly clear that Henry Louis Gates had confirmed with a photo ID that he was indeed standing inside his own home at the time that Crowley arrested him.  “While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence,” Crowley wrote, “I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me.”

The Bottom Line: Gates obviously did everything he could to provoke Crowley, but a better policeman would have ignored the professor’s taunts and left the premises, instead of arresting him.

    Winner : Senior Daily Show Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore, for the best take on this colossal waste of time (segment begins at 5:55 in this clip.)

    Sinner: CNN/US president Jon Klein, who ever-so-briefly behaved like a responsible network news executive, when he sent out an e-mail saying that the wholly invented story that Barack Obama has never supplied his Hawaii birth certificate had been completely debunked by CNN’s political researchers (and every other serious reporter in America).  CNN’s experts told Klein that “In 2001 - the state of Hawaii Health Department went paperless. Paper documents were discarded. The official record of Obama’s birth is now an official ELECTRONIC record.  Janice Okubo, spokeswoman for the Health Department told the Honolulu Star Bulletin, “At that time, all information for births from 1908 (on) was put into electronic files for consistent reporting.”

    Klein wrote that this “seems to definitively answer the question. Since [Lou Dobbs’] show’s mission is for Lou to be the explainer and enlightener, he should be sure to cite this during your segment tonite. And then it seems this story is dead - because anyone who still is not convinced doesn’t really have a legitimate beef.”

    Then Klein immediately contradicted himself in a series of interviews, because a news division president is never allowed to criticize a profit center (like Dobbs) at a modern American television network. Klein told Greg Sargent that Lou runs “his own show” that merely hosts “panels” with birther theorists and asserted that CNN respects viewers enough to let them “make up their own minds.”  Klein added that what Dobbs does is “his editorial decision to make.”

The Bottom Line: No, Mr. Klein, it is NOT Mr. Dobbs’ decision to make: it is yours, because you are in charge of news standards at CNN, if there are any left.  Your statement is identical to what your counterpart at Fox News said after Glenn Beck declared that Obama hates white people (and then said he did not, 75 second later, and then said he did again, the following morning.)   Which means that CNN has no standards at all.

      For the fastest summary of all of this idiocy, see Winner Jon Stewart’s take from last night, which includes all of the clips of Dobbs for which he should have been fired by, instead of defended by, his boss.  Stewart’s Bottom Line: “Any jackass in a suit willing to go on television and criticize the president can make a pretty hefty living….Forgive me, George Bush.”

   Update: Over at Media Matters, Winner Jamison Foser, has pointed out  that Howie-the-King-of-All-Conflicts-of-Interest-Kurtz has said nothing about the role of Klein, Dobbs or CNN in promoting the phony birther story–but chose to blame Chris Matthews for it instead!! “Think about that,” wrote Foser.  “Howard Kurtz, who is a paid employee of CNN, blamed Chris Matthews, who hosts a show for CNN’s competitor, for giving the birther nonsense attention. This despite the fact that Matthews has been debunking the theories. And Kurtz didn’t say a word about Lou Dobbs, the person who has been pushing this garbage.”

   UpdateII: Felix Gillette reports the only good news here in The New York Observer: so far, Dobbs’ pathetic effort to generate controversy and ratings by promoting the birther debate is an abject failure.   Gillette writes that in the two weeks since he started highlighting this non-story, his total viewers have dropped 15%, from 771,000 in the first half of July, to 653,000 in the second half, while those in the ever-sought-after 25-54 demo have plummeted 27%, from 218,00 to 157,000.

   Winner: Washington Post reporter Dan Eggen, for a superb dissection  of all of the campaign contributions from health care providers to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus.

The Bottom Line, from FCP Contributor Meg Fidler: “Exactly the kind of reporting we the people should be reading routinely–but we’re not.”

    Winner: The comedian from the Australian TV show, Chaser’s War on Everything, who invaded chief Bush administration torture-promoter John Yoo’s law class and impersonated a hooded torture victim.  When the comedian was thrown out of the room, he said “I’ll go the human rights class down the road.  I think you probably won’t be teaching there, professor.” [Special thanks to FCP Contributor Hal Davis.]

 

                                                                                       -30-

Good-Bye to The Magic

Television news has always been a war between the reporters who care most about journalism and the corporate suits who care only about the bottom line.  It was so when Edward R. Murrow was the star of CBS in the 1950’s, and it remained so when Walter Cronkite became the most influential newsman in America, sometime around 1968.  What made Cronkite uniquely important was his status as the last anchor man in America with the clout and the judgement to make that permanent conflict a fair fight–most of the time.

Since his death last week Cronkite has been rightly celebrated for his two greatest moments of courage: his special report from Vietnam after the Tet Offensive–“Who, What, Where, When and Why” he called it–and his two lengthy reports about Watergate in October of 1972, when the only other news organization that was giving that story the attention it deserved was The Washington Post.   

Even as Cronkite was calling Lyndon Jonhson’s war a failure, Cronkite’s boss, CBS president Frank Stanton, was still giving LBJ endless technical advice, in a futile effort to make the Texan look better on TV.  Stanton even helped to redesign the presidential desk in the Oval Office to try to make it look more telegenic.

But because Cronkite was both the most serious and the most profitable anchor in the history of TV news, even as his bosses assiduously cultivated the president, Cronkite was usually able to keep his network straight.

Everything about TV news was more serious back then–from the 20 hours of documentaries CBS Reports routinely produced every year, to the quality of the correspondents in the field–men like Charles Collingwood, Robert Schackne, Morley Safer, Fred Graham, Mike Wallace and–especially–Roger Mudd.   Most TV men and women (including Cronkite) got their basic training at newspapers, at a time when their brains were still considered more important than their haircuts.  And the networks actually paid attention to criticism from the print press, not only because the TV types were more serious about the news then, but also because the criticism from people like New York Times TV critic Jack Gould was vastly more sophisticated than anything being written today.

The CBS support team you didn’t see was just important as the one you did.   Producers like the legendary Mark Harrington were always nearby–or during the conventions, actually sitting in a hole at Cronkite’s left, from which Harrington passed up a steady stream of cue cards with minute pieces of astute political analysis.

Cronkite had amazing timing–and nothing is more important for a newsman than that. He had the good fortune to be the most important face on TV during every major event from the assassination of JFK in 1963 through the evacuation of American hostages from Iran in 1981.  And through every kind of mayhem, he was cool, calm and intelligent.

To those of us who first “met” Cronkite as the anchor of “You Are There,” a history program for children which re-enacted great events, he entered our psyches as a literally omniscient reporter, a time traveler who was able to interview everyone from Paul Revere to Thomas Edison.  And when “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became the battle cry of the Vietnam generation, Cronkite remained nearly alone on the other side of the generation gap as the man who never lost our confidence, and our reverence.  When everything was exploding in the ‘60’s, in the streets at home and on the battlefields half way around the world, Walter was the only public figure who still had the capacity to unite us.

What we called “youth culture” was hardly a staple of the CBS Evening News, so a piece about Don McClean’s “American Pie” jumped out at you as a rare concession to youthful tastes.   But that kind of resistance to pandering was just another pillar of Cronkite’s extraordinary authority.     

Like the front page of the New York Times (especially in its heyday), Cronkite’s news had a capacity to bestow seriousness on a subject that was unmatched by any of his competitors.  So it was enormously important to the Washington Post when Cronkite gave his blessing to the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein at the height of Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972.

It was a political year, and everyone was saying, ‘Well, it’s just politics, and here’s the Post trying to screw Nixon,” former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee remembered this week in Newsweek.   “We were the second-biggest newspaper in the country trying to scramble for a good story—whereas Cronkite was the reigning dean of television journalists. When he did the Watergate story, everyone said, ‘My God, Cronkite’s with them.’” But even Cronkite’s powers were limited.   When Nixon hatchet man Chuck Colson screamed at the corporate suits after the first 14-minute piece aired, the second one was cut back to (a still remarkable) 8 minutes.

When Cronkite was pushed out, at the age of sixty-four, to make room for a younger man, CBS had the perfect successor in Roger Mudd, a superb newsman and a natural anchorman who had been Cronkite’s substitute for years during his many lengthy vacations.   But Mudd was a terrible office politician, and Dan Rather was a brilliant one, so the job went to Rather instead–a bombastic reporter whose demeanor was the antithesis of Cronkite’s soothing calmness.   That disastrous choice was the beginning of the end of network news as we had known in, from the dawn of Huntley and Brinkley, who debuted on NBC in 1955, until Cronkite’s departure from his anchor seat in 1981.

What Cronkite was, really, was an old-fashioned newsman with old-fashioned values, the perfect blend of middlebrow intellect and superb showmanship–the kind that’s so good it’s never even identified as craft.   In Cronkite showmanship was the opposite of  flashiness: it was an innate capacity to look more comfortable in front of a camera than anyone else ever had before.  Indeed, his delivery was so admired within the network, his moments alone in front of the teleprompter were known simply as “the magic.”

Those of us who grew up with him will always miss that magic, and his seriousness.  And like him, we will always bemoan what Glenn Greenewald rightly identified as Cronkite’s greatest failure.

 “What do I regret?” Cronkite asked an interviewer in 1996.  “Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick.  We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.”

The news business and our democracy have never stopped bleeding because of that failure.

                                                                                             -30-

Winners and Sinners

Winner: Victoria Cruz, a 17-year-old star of WNYC’s Radio Rookies, for a lovely piece about how she and her girlfriend became the first same-sex couple to be named “Best Couple” in her Bronx high school’s yearbooks.  The story, produced by Kaari Pitkin, edited by Marianne McCune, and broadcast on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, also brought Cruz the Hillman Foundation’s very first Sidney Award for an outstanding piece of socially-conscious journalism.

WinnerNewsweek managing editor Dan Klaidman, for a superb cover story about Attorney General Eric Holder. Klaidman’s scoop–that Holder is likely to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the torture abuses of the Bush administration–got all the attention, but the piece also offered splendid insights into all of the tensions between Holder’s Justice Department and Obama’s White House.

Sinner: Scott Shane, for the umpteenth piece about investigating torture in The New York Times which cast the debate purely in political terms and characterized Holder’s intention to appoint a prosecutor as one of “four fronts on which the intelligence apparatus is under siege”–without ever quoting any of the thousands of people who believe that such an investigation is a moral imperative. Shane also wrote that Holder “was close to assigning a prosecutor,” without giving any credit to Klaidman for breaking that story in Newsweek. Meanwhile, Shane’s erstwhile boss in the Washington Bureau, Sinner Doug Jehl, who led the battle inside the Times to prevent torture being described accurately as “torture,” has been chosen by Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli to be the Post’s new foreign editor.

Winner: Arianna Huffington for snatching up Winner Dan Froomkin, who was idiotically let go by The Washington Post last month, mostly because he had no “rabbi” at the Post–and none of the Post’s top editors appreciated the fact that he regularly broke important stories that the rest of the paper’s staff had ignored. Sinner Brian Stelter wrote a remarkably superficial piece in The New York Times about Froomkin’s move, which didn’t even manage to include a full description of Froomkin’s new responsibilities. Besides blogging twice a week for The Huffingon Post, Froomkin will oversee the site’s Washington coverage, supervising four reporters and an assistant editor.

Sinners: Touré, and all the other ahistorical commentators, who said that Michael Jackson was the first artist to get black and white audiences to worship the same music. That crucial crossover was achieved by Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and scores of other black artists of the 1960’s–all before the Jackson 5 released their first single. For one of a thousand examples, listen to this immortal cut from Marvin and Tammi.  [FCP contributor Gregory King points out that this trend actually started even earlier with Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Lena Horne.]

Winner:  The sublime Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, for managing to link Bob Dylan’s Sara with Alaska’s Sarah, in a piece that was as hilarious as it was substantive: “In Palin’s case, the government that she was declaring independence from is the one that she herself is governor of. She was therefore in the awkward position of having to argue that she has had “so much success in this first term” (e.g., “We took government out of the dairy business”) that “doing what’s best for Alaska” requires her to abandon her post.”  And Winner Frank Rich for reminding us why she remains formidable even though most people find her laughable: “she stands for a genuine movement: a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind.”

SinnersThe op-ed editors of The New York Times, for asking disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to provide questions for Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing. Once upon a time, discredited former public officials were consigned to the obscurity they so richly deserve when they leave public office. Now they are brought back relentlessly by the MSM to provide “balance”–the way only wise old men like Karl Rove can. (Special thanks to FCP contributor SM.)

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