Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

A Magazine That Mattered




Above The Fold

   Newsweek went on the block yesterday, four months after posting a $29.3 million loss in 2009, and thirty years after media “experts” started to predict the imminent demise of the modern news magazine.

    If you’re not old enough to remember the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (February 9, 1964) you probably can’t remember a time when Newsweek really mattered.

   But mattered it did–almost from the moment Ben Bradlee convinced Phil Graham to buy it for The Washington Post Co., right through the end of the 1970’s.  (FCP arrived there as its press critic in 1981, when it was still healthy, but no longer Important–at least, not the way it had been in its heyday.)

    The secret to its early success was simple: it did a better job of capturing the Zeitgeist of the ‘60’s than any other magazine except one–the Esquire produced by Harold Hayes. And with all the  explosions and transformations of that amazing era, there had never been a better time to be a journalist in America.

   When Phil Graham installed Oz Elliott as the chief editor of his newest acquisition, no one in Manhattan had bluer blood than Oz–his Dutch ancestor, Stephen Coerte van Voorhees, had reached New Amsterdam early in the 17th century.    But Elliott quickly proved to be the ideal person to transform Newsweek into the perfect David to take on the Goliath of  Time.

   “Oz Elliott was the first editor I worked for,” remembered Lucy Howard, a Newsweek  researcher who became a Washington correspondent and later Periscope editor–and who was FCP’s indispensable partner in the media department in the 1980’s.

    “He was a great leader,” Howard remembered.  “He was a great newsman.  He was curious, he was open; he could be tough, but he was very dedicated to what he was doing.  He had a tremendous ability to balance competing interests and ideas–hence the term Wallendas”–as Newsweek’s top editors dubbed themselves, in homage to the high-wire circus act.  (Hence, their offices were the “Wallendatorium.”)

   “It was a juggling act, a balancing act,” Howard continued.  “Oz knew his limitations as a WASP New Yorker, and he was smart enough to surround himself with Gordon Manning and Kermit Lansner”–the two men Elliott named as the executive editors immediately below him.

   “”With Kermit, we had a Jewish intellectual from New York, and with Gordon, an Irish Catholic sportswriter from Boston, and in my case, a WASP from the Upper East Side,” Elliott told The New York Times.   ”It made for a wonderful balance.”

   “It was three very different sensibilities that came together early on,” said Howard.  “And each brought competing strengths.  They fought; but because Oz was a really good leader, it all worked.”

   “Oz was a lovely man,” Ben Bradlee told FCP today.  “He was very good–very good with owners and very good with employees.” And he had one more crucial quality, which is especially unusual in a top editor: “He didn’t ignore little people,” said Howard.  “He just didn’t.  If you could help out, he appreciated you.”  

   In 1962, Elliott made his most important hire–a 29-year-old journeyman reporter from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat named Peter Goldman.  That year Goldman had sent his clips to Newsweek, where they were promptly lost by Kermit Lansner.  But Newsweek’s Nation department had slots for seven writers, and it was down to only three, so Gordon Manning had been searching for replacements.

   As fate would have it, the same week Goldman arrived in New York on vacation, and phoned Newsweek for an interview, Manning had been on the phone with Bill Mauldin, the great cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who mentioned that Goldman was the best writer he knew in St. Louis.   “I called,” Goldman remembered today, “and they said, we’ve been looking for you!”

   The drinking habits of the ‘60’s made famous by “Mad Men” were exactly the same for journalists as they were for ad men, so Goldman’s first big test was to survive two rounds of drinks at the New Westin Hotel with two different editors, the same day he was asked to write his first complicated story.  When he proved he could drink and write at the same time, he was hired–and the extra Jack Daniels actually had helped him.  It had given him the courage to up his salary demand to $11,500–and he got that sum, a hefty increase from the $8,000 he had been making in St. Louis.

   After that, a combination of quiet conviction and gigantic journalistic talent quickly make Goldman the magazine’s conscience, and its number-one star.

   To distinguish itself from Time, its heavily right-wing competitor, Newsweek had just launched a new ad campaign when Goldman arrived: “The one newsweekly that separates fact from opinion.”   The slogan wasn’t true, but it was a huge success.      “We did anything but,” Goldman remembered.  “Certainly during the Civil Rights movement, we took sides–we were journalistes engagés.”

   What they did was remarkably simple: they began to cover the news–with an energy and a fearlessness no modern weekly had shown before.

   Goldman’s first big assignment was to write about the admission of James Meredith as the first black student at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi in the fall of 1962.  Writers at Time were almost never sent into the field, but Newsweek was already experimenting with that idea.

   Joe Cumming (from Georgia) was the magazine’s Atlanta bureau chief and Karl Fleming (from North Carolina) was his number two there. Bill Cook, Marv Kupfer and later, Vern Smith were other star civil rights reporters for the magazine–as well as the great Marshall Frady–“a South Carolina preacher’s son and a crazed Faulknerian, who really got both sides of the story, black and white.”

   “Joe Cumming was sort of a fragile, poetic soul,” Goldman continued, “old South but in a kind of Atticus Finch way, and Karl had spent his childhood in an orphanage.”

   “Karl was kind of rough and tumble.  His heart was totally with the movement and what were then the more militant elements, like SNCC and the younger SCLC kids; and totally fearless. He’d gone to places where a sane person wouldn’t go; the first time I met him was Ole Miss.”

   “We went through a couple of really harrowing scrapes.  There was tear gas from the Feds–a riot going on in this very large mall.  We bumped into a Mississippi state trooper who was missing more teeth than you want to be missing, and he asked us who we were and we told him, which was dangerous. And he smiled at us, showing all these gaps, and said ‘You may proceed at your own risk.’”

   “We parked the car outside the campus; and sort of made our way on foot on the periphery, and tear gas was getting too thick, so we ducked into a science building. Then we made our way to the administration building, which was where the Feds were headquartered.

   “Karl and I were standing outside on the front steps, and between us was a wooden replica Greek column, and we heard some shots.  And we looked up and there in the column, there was a row of four or five bullet holes. I suspect they were aimed at Karl because he was taller than I was, and the highest shot had hit right at his head level.   I looked at him, and he said, ‘If I was James Meredith, I wouldn’t go to school with these bastards.  And he looked so calm and so cool.  And I told him that later and he said, ‘I was fucking terrified!’”

   “I was down there Sunday and Monday, left on Tuesday and went back to New York. “It was my first cover story”–the first of thirty-five that Goldman would write about the black struggle in America.  “I got my name in Top of the Week for the first time.”

   In 1963, the magazine partnered with Lou Harris and did the first poll of black residents in the inner cities.  Then in 1967, there was The Negro in America: What Must be Done, which Goldman wrote with Ed Kosner, Larry Martz and others.  The cover was an abstract image of two black hands (which belonged to Newsweek photographer Jim Cummins), and inside there was an editorial–the magazine’s first–which offered a 12-point program  to accelerate the progress of black Americans in American society.

   In 1968, the magazine waded into the next great national debate, over Vietnam, and once again, it got things exactly right: “The war cannot be won by military means without tearing apart the whole fabric of national life and international relations.  Unless it is prepared to indulge in the ultimate, horrifying escalation–the use of nuclear weapons–it now appears that the U.S. must accept the fact that it will never be able to achieve decisive military superiority in Vietnam.”

   “Oz’s distinguishing mark to me was his conscience,” said Goldman–“his moral compass. To me he was like the old Progressives of the very late 19th and early 20th century–WASPS who were appalled at the way things were going in America, and as a matter of conscience involved themselves in politics. He set a tone for the place that made the ‘60’s a fabulous experience for a young writer.”

   Culturally, the magazine also had good antennae for the new–although it sometimes got things horribly wrong, even when they put them on the cover.   The magazine was way ahead of Time when it put Bugs about Beatles on the cover a week after their Ed Sullivan appearance; but this time, the writer got everything backwards:

Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair.  Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody.  Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.

   Its biggest early rock and roll scoop was revealing the fact that Bob Dylan had been born Robert Zimmerman–a story the fact checkers only allowed after forcing a reporter to obtain a copy of Dylan’s birth certificate in Minnesota–a document FCP later discovered in the Newsweek archives, while researching 1968 In America.

    For decades, Jack Kroll was the star of the culture department, along with movie critics Joe Morgenstern, Paul Zimmerman and later, David Ansen Walter Clemons set the standard for book criticism in the magazine world.   He was snapped up by Kroll after The New York Times failed to promote Clemons to daily book critic, because his colleague, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, had told Abe Rosenthal that Clemons was gay.    To cover sports there was Pete Axthelm (who put Secretariat on the cover) and later Peter Bonventre.  Axthelm had written his senior thesis at Yale about Dostoevsky, and one day a colleague asked him to explain the Russian novelist.  “Oh,” said Pete, “he was a guy who placed a bet every day.”

     In the 1970’s, a whirlwind of energy and ideas named Maureen Orth arrived from the Village Voice to cover movies and rock and roll, and quickly produced cover stories on Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Francis Ford Coppola, John Denver, Tatum O’Neil (when she won the Oscar), Disco music, and–most famously–Bruce Springsteen.   Ten days after she started to report the Springsteen story, Time decided to try to match it.

      Orth had a novel approach for fending off Time: “I told Bruce it was going to hurt his career if he allowed them both to do it, because he wasn’t big enough yet.  And it was true; it did hurt his career!”   She also flew to the Philippines, took a two-and-half-hour bus trip and and one-hour boat ride to reach the set of Apocalypse Now.   “I did the reporting and the writing and took the pictures,” Orth remembered today.  And she discovered the film makers were “beginning to resemble the story they were making–they were using real dead bodies and all that stuff.  Coppola didn’t speak to me for years after that.  We sort of did investigative reporting for the culture department–and they weren’t used to that.”

    Orth was one of the first beneficiaries of the suit charging discrimination filed by Newsweek women forty years ago.   (Lynn Povich, one of the complainants, and the first woman senior editor at the magazine, is now writing a book about that suit for PublicAffairs.)

   Cathleen McGuigan, who was culture editor from 1992 to 1999, said the treatment of women improved steadily during her tenure there.

    “It was fairly enlightened; it got more enlightened; it kept getting better,” McGuigan told FCP today.  Men like Maynard Parker (a top editor of Newsweek in the ‘90’s) got divorced, and married strong women like Susan Fraker the second time around–women who had their own careers.  It hadn’t been a place where you could put your children first.  Later on, you worked incredibly har,d but if you had to go to your kid’s kindergarten on Friday morning for an hour, you could.  Before Maynard had his second family, no one would have dreamed of leaving the office on a closing day.”

    THE ECONOMIC DECLINE OF NEWS MAGAZINES started decades ago, when the three-sided pyramids which supported them–“butts, buggies and booze”–began to collapse.  As the health risks of cigarettes become universally recognized, advertising for them began to go do more downscale publications.  At the same time, hard liquor–unadvertised on televison at the time–was gradually displaced in popularity by wine and beer, which were staples of broadcast ads.  That left only a declining car industry as a reliable supporter of the format.   

    In recent years the economic model has collapsed altogether: Newsweek is expected to lose $20 million this year, on top of operating losses of $29.3 million in 2009 and $16.1 million in 2008 for the Post Co.’s magazine division.  As Jack Shafer noted,  “Pummeling the magazine have been the recession, the accelerating decline in advertising (down 30 percent in 2009 from 2008 and off 40 percent in the first three months of 2010, according to Reuters), and a generational change in reading patterns.”

     I’m not sure Shafer is right to say “Lack of editorial imagination isn’t the culprit, either.”  It is true that even under its current editor, Jon Meacham, Newsweek has had some excellent moments, including Voices of the Fallen, a chronological telling of the Iraq War through the letters of soldiers who had died there, and another cover called Voices of the Taliban, which told the story of the war in Afghanistan, from 9/11 onwards,  from the perspective of Taliban fighters.  It was reported by Newsweek veteran Ron Moreau,  and Sami Yousefai, the magazine’s “super-stringer” in Afghanistan, who has amazing sources there.   Its cover story about Eric Holder last July by Dan Klaidman was also way ahead of the news.

    But it is also true that,  under Meacham’s direction, Newsweek has become the dullest weekly read in America.  

    He may be living proof that it is impossible to edit a magazine, write two books, and co-host a weekly show on PBS (debuting this week), all at the same time.   So if there really are billionaires in the wings who might actually make a bid for the magazine, the worst thing they could possibly do would be to keep Meacham in charge of it.

   Ben Bradlee said today, “I wish I had the dough to buy it–and I was 20 years younger.”

   That would be the ideal solution.



Update:  An exceptionally knowledgeable reader writes,

The editors didn’t dub themselves the Wallendas; that was the sardonic coinage of a wonderful back-of-the-book writer named Leslie Hanscom. It started at some 12th-floor water-cooler in the old building at 444 Madison and spread like crazy; I confess to having been one of the spreaders. The Wallendas (or Wallies, as later generations called them) accepted and ultimately embraced the name, but they didn’t invent it.
And:   I think the ad slogan in the early 60s was “This magazine (not ‘the newsweekly that’) separates fact and opinion.” Not a grave mistake–you have to be as old as me to remember that far back.
A postcript to the etymology of the term Wallenda at Newsweek: it was outlawed by Meacham early in his editorishoip.  I guess it was beneath his dignity.

That certainly explains Mr. Meacham’s trajectory.

Second Update: When Newsweek still matters: usually when Mike Isiikoff is one of the reporters writing an important story from Washington like this one, co-authored by Michael Hirsh:   How British oil giant BP used all the political mucle money can buy to fend off regulators and influence investigations into corporate neglect.  And yet, the day after this story was posted on its website, it was nearly invisible on the Newsweek home page. (Jon Meacham’s picture wasn’t.)



The Most Important Reporter in America (but only for one news cycle)

Above the Fold

     If you’re looking for one article that encapsulates everything that’s wrong about mainstream journalism in general and Washington journalism in particular, don’t miss Mark Leibovich’s 8,100 word love letter  to Mike Allen on the cover of tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine.

    The theme of the piece is that Allen’s Playbook on Politico is the new bible of the Washington establishment, the must-stop shopping spot in the morning for everyone who wants to know what is going to be “driving the conversation” in the nation’s capital that day. (Times readers seem to have been instantly convinced: Two days after Leibovich’s piece was posted on the Times website, Allen reported that 7,500 new subscribers had signed up for Playbook’s morning e-mail.)

    Allen has all the talents needed to make him a superstar on the Internet–he seems to work about 23 hours a day, he has a good eye for a telling detail, and his morning summary of the must-read stories in the MSM is as competent as anybody else’s.  Serious analysis of an issue is not something he has ever excelled at–but that talent is completely irrelevant to  his current craft. 

   Allen has no known personal life, apart from attending an endless round of Washington love fests, kissing women’s hands and sending flowers to almost every acquaintance on his or her birthday–in short, all of the talents honed for generations by great Washington PR men on all sides of the aisle,  from  Mike Deaver to Bob Strauss.  As Leibovich puts it, “[Allen’s]mannerisms resemble an almost childlike mimicry of a politician — the incessant thanking, deference, greetings, teeth-clenched smiles and ability to project belief in the purity of his own voice and motivations.”

    Or as a former Allen colleague put it to FCP, “He lives to please authority”–which is probably the single worst quality a serious reporter can have.

    Has Allen ever had a girl friend, or a boy friend?  Apparently 8,000 + words weren’t enough to allow Leibovich to ask or answer those questions.   For the record, Allen’s friends told FCP he has had a few, short-term girl friends, but he seems to get most of his emotional sustenance from the “nondenominational Protestant church and a Bible-study group” he belongs to,  which Leibovich does manage to mention.

    But even if you don’t think that one of the longest profiles you have ever read should tell you much of anything about the subject’s personal life, except for the fact that he is so secretive that most of his closest friends don’t even know his home address, that is far from the biggest failure of this piece.

    While you do learn that “the political and news establishments love him,” that “the feeling is mutual and somewhat transactional,” and–according to Leibovich–“throughout his career, he has been known as an unfailingly fair, fast and prolific reporter,” what you don’t learn is the other side of the story: the fact that Allen is deeply loathed by the liberal blogosphere, for repeatedly acting as Dick Cheney’s stenographer, and for conducting an interview with then-president George W. Bush which prompted Dan Froomkin to ask on the Washington Post’s website, “Has there ever been a more moronic interview of a president of the United States than the one conducted yesterday by Mike Allen?” 

    Sample Allen fastball to Bush:  “Now, Mr. President, you and the First Lady appeared on American Idol’s charity show, Idol Gives Back.  And I wonder who do you think is going to win? Syesha, David Cook, or David Archuleta?

    To his credit, Leibovich does explain why his piece is so wholly inadequate, but not until you are 2,000 words into it:

    I should disclose a few things: I have known Mike Allen for more than a decade. We worked together at The Washington Post, where I spent nine years and where I came to know VandeHei and Harris. We all have the same friends and run into each other a lot, and I have told them how much I admire what they have achieved at Politico. I like them all.  In other words, I write this from within the tangled web of “the community.” I read Playbook every morning on my BlackBerry, usually while my copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post are in plastic bags. When Allen links to my stories, I see a happy uptick in readership. I have also been a source: after I “spotted” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood last year — picking up kung pao chicken with brown rice (“for Tim”) — I dutifully e-mailed Allen with the breaking news.

    In other words, if Leibovich had the slightest notion of what someone as hopelessly old-fashioned as FCP considers journalistic “ethics,” he never would have considered himself qualified to write this profile for The New York Times Magazine.   The even deeper mystery is why his editors didn’t realize that either.  Or why they permitted this extraordinary display of boastful journalistic laziness:

    “I asked Allen if I could talk to his siblings. He said he would consider it and maybe set up a conference call but never did. I did not press. It felt intrusive.”

    So there you have it: never interview a members of a subject’s family, unless he produces them for you in a conference call!

    For the record, FCP’s first instruction to every journalism student he has ever taught about how to write a profile is: never write one until you have interviewed at least one member of your subject’s immediate family.  Whether or not you are being “intrusive” is not a question any serious journalist would ever ask himself in this circumstance.  (On the other hand, asking the parent of the victim of an airplane crash, “How do you feel?” is another matter altogether.)

    FCP does retain a faint hope that Leibovich did not actually do what he said he did, since the only important scoop in his piece is about Allen’s father, a person none of Allen’s friends seems to have known anything about, until Leibovich unearthed these nuggets.  Perhaps this information actually came from one of Mike Allen’s siblings, but Leibovich didn’t want his subject to know that:

    “Gary Allen was an icon of the far right in the 1960s and 1970s. He was affiliated with the John Birch Society and railed against the ‘big lies’ that led to the United States’ involvement in World Wars I and II. He denounced the evils of the Trilateral Commission and ‘Red Teachers.’  Rock’n’roll was a ‘Pavlovian Communist mind-control plot.’  He wrote speeches for George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate.”

    In Leibovich’s defense, if you manage to get six thousand words into this unfortunate specimen of hagiography, you will learn the real contribution of Politico and its star reporter to political discourse in America, in this rare paragraph of  “balance.”  According to Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, it is this:

     “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel,” Salter says. “It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news.  It’s the self-promotion.”

    No wonder The New York Times has now anointed Mike Allen one of the most influential journalists in America.  For twenty-four hours.





Update: The New Yorker’s George Packer compares  Allen’s contributions with those of Nay Phone Latt, a young Burmese blogger honroed by PEN, now in the second year of a 12-year prison sentence.   The effect is stunning.

Winners & Sinners: From Jacobs to Kroft


Sinners: Pulitzer jurors in the investigative reporting and commentary categories.  Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer-winning piece about “urgent life-and-death decisions” made by a New Orleans doctor after Memorial Medical Center was cut off by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina was miserably edited, and replete with implications of guilt that were wholly unsupported by Fink’s sprawling reporting.  This collaboration between ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine did not deserve this prize, despite its fancy provenance.

Kathleen Parker, who won for commentary, is another third-rate neo-con who has charmed Fred Hiatt and the rest of the journalistic establishment; her selection is just slightly less embarrassing than the prize given long ago to Charles Krauthammer.  In any case, the persistent failure to award a Pulitzer to Frank Rich, who writes a prize-worthy column almost every week of the year, actually rendered this category quite meaningless a long time ago.

Pulitzer Board members Jim VandeHei of Politico, whose lobbyist wife is an alumna of Tom Delay’s Congressional office, and Paul Gigot of The Wall Street Journal, must have been especially pleased by Parker’s selection.

Winner: Supreme Court expert and budding Obama-biographer Dave Garrow, who has the best dark-horse pick for Justice John Paul Stevens’s seat on the Supreme Court: Attorney General Eric Holder.  This would be a graceful exit indeed for Rahm Emanuel’s nemesis at Justice.

Sunday’s New York Times had its usual mixture of hits and misses…

Winner: The always thorough, sophisticated and nuanced Andrew Jacobs, who used the hacking of his own e-mail account as the jump-off point for a splendid history of harassment of foreign correspondents in China, in the lead position of the front page of the Times’s Week in Review.   Once, correspondents were tailed in the street; now they are trailed on the net.

Winner: Nobel-Prize-winner Paul Krugman performed the nearly impossible feat of making cap-and-trade genuinely understandable to the layman, in “Building a Green Economy,” his cover story in the Sunday Times magazine. Krugman’s bottom lines:

* There is widespread agreement among environmental economists that a market-based program to deal with the threat of climate change — one that limits carbon emissions by putting a price on them — can achieve large results at modest, though not trivial, cost.

* Despite those heavy snows this winter which convinced Fox News global warming had ended, the upward trend is unmistakable: each successive decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the one before.

* The supposed “climate-gate” scandals, in which scientists were accused of suppressing data that undermine the theory of global warming, actually “evaporate on closer examination”

* The “tremendous uncertainty” in long-term forecasts “makes the case for action stronger, not weaker.”

* While opponents of a climate-change policy assert that any attempt to limit emissions would be economically devastating, the truth is a strong climate-change policy would leave the American economy only something between 1.1 percent and 3.4 percent smaller by 2050 than it would be without any new policy measures.

* “Utter catastrophe” is “a realistic possibility,” even if it is not the most likely outcome, and Krugman agrees with Harvard’s Martin Weitzman “that this risk of catastrophe, rather than the details of cost-benefit calculations, makes the most powerful case for strong climate policy.”

Krugman’s final bottom line:

* “We know how to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. We have a good sense of the costs — and they’re manageable. All we need now is the political will.”

Unfortunately, since the United States Senate is even greedier and more shortsighted than the typical American, FCP believes that finding that political will quickly enough to avert catastrophe is almost inconceivable.

* Sinner: On the front page of the Times Book Review, distinguished author and historian Garry Wills wrote a balanced, interesting and intelligent review of The Bridge, David Remnick’s new biography of Barack Obama–until the final paragraph, where Wills declared that Obama had “wasted the first year of his term.”  

You can abhor the president’s decision to expand the war in Afghanistan (as Wills did at the New York Review of Books Website last fall), and you can be repelled by Obama’s continuation of many of his predecessor’s anti-terrorism policies, including rendition–but no reasonable person can call his first year a “waste.”

Obama prevented a severe recession from becoming a depression by passing an essential stimulus bill, he got a highly qualified woman confirmed as the newest associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, he saved Chrysler and GM from insolvency, and he laid the groundwork for two spectacular achievements: the passage of health care reform and a very significant arms reduction agreement with Russia.

Whatever that record is, it cannot be called a “waste.”

Winner: As usual, in his opening Comment in this week’s New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg provides exactly the right historical context for Popegate by taking us back to Martin Luther’s complaints about the sale of indulgences, just five centuries ago. 

Winner: Steve Croft, who provided the comic relief we needed by the end of the weekend, with his double-segment interview with retired(?) mobster John Gotti Jr. on last night’s 60 Minutes.


Winners & Sinners: From Schanberg to Bingham

Sinners: E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, and all of the reporters who have failed to point out that Gee earned nearly $2 million serving as a member of the board of Massey Energy and chairman of its Safety, Environmental and Public Policy Committee.  (See the relevant SEC filing here.) Gee has publicly portrayed himself as a fierce advocate of green energy while feeding at the trough of one of the worst coal companies in America.  FCP sent him this query:

1. How long did you serve as the chairman of the safety and environmental and public policy committee of Massey Energy?
2. What steps did you take to reduce the number of safety citations against Massey during your chairmanship?
3. Was your total compensation during your years on the Massey Board more than $1 million and less than $2 million?

Gee’s assistants, Kate Wolford ( and Viviana Ruiz ( both acknowledged receipt of FCP’s inquiry, but no one in the president’s office responded to its contents.  After a massive campaign by Ohio Citizen Action, which included 6,800 letters and pictures drawn by children, as well as t-shirts sported by OSU students asking, “Why, Dr. Gee?”, the president finally left the board last year.  But he was careful to say that he was “retiring,” not “resigning,” to make it clear that he wasn’t succumbing to pressure from outsiders.

Update: In 2008 alone, Gee was paid $219,261 by Massey, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Second Update:  This is Dr. Gee’s second stint running Ohio State.  He has also been president or chancellor of Brown, Vanderbilt and the University of Colorado.  Four years ago The Wall Street Journal reported that those institutions had spent more than $10 million to build or renovate Dr. Gee’s various residences, including $6 million at Vanderbilt alone.  The annual tab for his personal chef and entertaining at Vanderbilt was $700,000.  Dr. Gee is described as a “Mormon teatotaler,” but his then wife, Constance, stirred controversy by using marijuana in the president’s mansion at Vanderbilt.  Her husband attracted additional headlines in 2002 by declaring his intention to boost the academic caliber of Vanderbilt students by soliciting more Jewish applicants.

Winner: The indispensable Clara Bingham, whose post today at The Daily Beast
makes it abundantly clear why “Hollywood couldn’t have invented a better villain” than Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy.  Bingham writes:

As the toxic streams and topless mountains multiply, the business community has embraced Don Blankenship and put him on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You would think that Blankenship’s board, which consists of prominent business figures like the former head of the National Security Council and CIA Deputy Director Council Bobby Inman and former SEC commissioner and chief counsel of News Corp. International Barbara Thomas Judge, would have intervened by now.

Winner: FCP colleague Sydney Schanberg, whose collected war correspondence, Beyond The Killing Fields, has just been published by Potomac Books.  Schanberg was one of the greatest war correspondents in Indochina, and this collection includes FCP’s favorite magazine piece of all time, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, which was the basis of the iconic anti-war film, The Killing Fields.  Schanberg’s book should be required reading for every journalism student in America–and everyone else who is serious about the history of the wars in Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh.  It includes details of John McCain’s shocking role in covering up credible reports that hundreds of his fellow American prisoners were left behind in Vietnam after the war was over.

Winner:  New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, whose new book, Why Architecture Matters, has become an instant classic, and is now going into its fifth printing from Yale University Press.  The Pulitzer Prize winner’s book was published simultaneously with a collection of Goldberger’s pieces, Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture, from Monacelli Press.

Sinners: The editors of The New York Times Book Review, who have ignored both of Goldberger’s books, after giving a full page to a collection of pieces by Ada Louise Huxtable, Goldberger’s predecessor as architecture critic at The Times, and the same space to a posthumous collection by Goldberger’s immediate successor, Herbert Muschamp.  Before joining The New Yorker, Goldberger was the Times’ architecture critic from 1973 to 1990, its culture editor from 1990 to 1993 and its chief cultural correspondent from 1994-1997.  The failure of the Times to write about either of his new books is beyond baffling.

Winner: The sublime Jane Mayer, for her devastating review in The New Yorker of Marc Thiessen’s appallingly dishonest book about torture and terrorism, Courting Disaster (published, of course, by Regnery, where all prosperous neocons go to publish their paranoid fantacies).  One significant example of Thiessen’s serial lying: according to Peter Clarke, who was the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism branch in 2006, Thiessen’s account of the thwarted plot to hijack seven airplanes at Heathrow airport and blow them up over the Atlantic is  “completely and utterly wrong.”  Thiessen, who has never met a torture technique he isn’t in love with, pretends that some of the information that prevented the plot came from the torture  of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  However, according to Clarke of Scotland Yard, “The deduction that what was being planned was an attack against airliners was entirely based upon intelligence gathered in the U.K.”

Very fortunately for Thiessen, massive intellectual dishonesty is no longer any barrier to working for…

Sinner Fred Hiatt, who baffled everyone with a still-functioning brain at The Washington Post and elsewhere when he made Thiessen the Post’s newest op-ed columnist.  How could Fred miss what is so obvious to Frank Rich and to so many others: that Thiessen’s “giggly, repressed hysteria” (as seen on The Daily Show) is “uncannily reminiscent of the snide Joe McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn.”

Winner: Jon Stewart, for once again performing his function as television’s leading press critic, by pointing out that Fox News is the only American television network where you can count on the guest and the host being equally dishonest, on virtually every program.  This time it was Newt Gingrich trading outright lies with the inimitable Sean Hannity about Barack Obama’s new nuclear policy.  Very fortunately for Gingrich, being completely dishonest has never been a barrier to being one of the most frequent guests of all of the network Sunday chat shows–where, naturally, Gingrich encounters just as much fact checking as he does on Fox.

Update: Jon Chait and the indispensable Steve Benen add this addtional important perspective on the former House Speaker:

With disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich having spent quite a bit of time this week in the national media – an oddly frequent occurrence – Jon Chait raises an objection that often goes overlooked.

On the subject of Gingrich, here’s one thing I don’t understand. John Edwards’ philandering has made him a public pariah, understandably so. But Gingrich’s marital behavior was probably even more disgusting. He cheated on his first wife and told her he wanted a divorce while she was recovering from surgery for cancer. He subsequently cheated on his second wife with a much younger aide. It’s fairly amazing how Gingrich has managed to avoid any stigma from this. He’s just a conservative “ideas guy.”

I’d go just a little further, still. Gingrich’s scandalous personal life and admitted adultery was concurrent with Gingrich launching an impeachment crusade against Bill Clinton for … his scandalous personal life and admitted adultery.

Gingrich then proceeded to characterize himself as an ally of the religious right, and started giving tours of Washington’s “Godly heritage.”

In other words, Gingrich’s political work was discredited, his moral standing was discredited, and his scholarship has been discredited. And yet, he remains a go-to guest for major media outlets, and has positioned himself as one of the right’s “big thinkers.”

When we talk about the bankruptcy of conservatism, Gingrich offers a helpful example.

Winners: The women writers of Newsweek, who convinced their editors to publish 2,500 words on how far the women’s liberation movement still has to go, forty years after 46 Newsweek women filed an anti-discrimination suit against their bosses.  The current Newsweek journalists acknowledged that until gender-discrimination scandals hit ESPN, David Letterman and The New York Post, the three of them knew virtually nothing about the struggle of their predecessors.  They needed to read Susan Brownmiller’s splendid memoir, In Our Time, to begin their education.  “We passed it around, mesmerized by descriptions that showed just how much has changed, and how much hasn’t.”  And don’t miss the accompanying feature displaying more than fifty years of women-themed Newsweek covers.



Sex and Violence à la GOP

  Above the Fold

   So here is how the leaders of the Republican Party work: after spending a year telling vicious lies about the health care bill, predicting Armageddon if it was passed, and standing  on the balcony of the Capitol to egg on demonstrators–who then spit on one congressman, called another one “nigger” and shouted “faggot” at a third–after this model of restraint, these same Republican leaders reacted in horror when the Democrats accused them of inciting the violence which included death threats or physical attacks against at least ten Democratic officials, or their offices. Finally, just for good measure, they invented an anti-Republican attack, just to try to change the subject.

    The invented attack came out of the mouth of Congressman Eric Cantor, the Republican Whip from Virginia, who called an angry press conference to announce that he had been “directly threatened” by “a bullet…shot through the window of my campaign office in Richmond.”  Cantor added his “deep concerns that some [senior Democrats] are dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon.”

    After that story had ricocheted around the waccosphere for a few hours, the Richmond Police reported the truth about the alleged “attack” on Cantor’s office: the police said they were investigating an “act of vandalism,” after a bullet had been fired randomly into the air–and on its way back to earth, hit a window in the building where Cantor’s office is located.  So much for the “direct threat” to a Republican leader.

    Sticking closely to the Republican talking point of the week, at her moving appearance for Senator John McCain’s campaign in Arizona, Sarah Palin derided “this ginned up controversy about us, common-sense conservatives, inciting violence, because we happen to oppose some of the things in the Obama administration…We know violence isn’t the answer.  When we take up arms, we’re talking about votes and getting involved in a contested primary like this.”

    All of which was deeply moving, coming from the woman who exhorted her “common-sense” followers: “Don’t Retreat, Instead–RELOAD!”–and whose Facebook page  still features a map with crosshairs over the districts of the 20 Democratic congressmen she has targeted for defeat.

    As usual, Stephen Colbert had the pithiest summary of all of this behavior:

   We’re not responsible for these nut jobs–it’s not like we shouted ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.  We shouted, ‘Everyone in that theatre is a Nazi Commie death worker.’  And then simply pointed out that they were also flammable.

    Just as predictably, the loathsome Mark Halperin was one of the very few journalists who really was moved by Palin’s latest campaign appearances.  Halperin wrote these repellent sentences for Time:

   With a trio of short, spunky speeches, she leaped back to the top of the broadcast networks’ evening newscasts and a dominant position on cable TV, simply by stating her unvarnished opposition to Obamacare and deriding Democrats, Washington élites and the press… Quippy and tart, she mocked the “lamestream media,” and offered her usual punch of charm and charisma, something the public and the press have hungered for since she mostly limited her exposure to Facebook updates, Twitter tweets and calculated appearances on Fox News.

    (Note to Mark: not every one of us has been “hungering” quite the way you have.)  


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   For her appearance with her former running mate in Arizona, Palin chose what Tina Brown called a “fetching black leather dominatrix jacket,” a wardrobe choice which at least provided a useful bridge to the next big Republican story of the week: the expenditure of  $1,946.25 in Republican National Committee funds for a really fun night out for young Republicans at Voyeur, a Hollywood club featuring lesbian dominatrixes whirling around in exotic positions on the club’s floor.

     This event was an afterparty right after an official Young Eagles dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel, attended by about 50 hip young Republican donors.  The trip to Voyeur was apparently the idea of Allison Meyers, the director of the Young Eagles program, who promptly lost her job after the expenditure was revealed.  This Republican effort in damage control provoked real outrage from senior Daily Show political correspondent John Oliver:

    I’m here to say that this is outrageous!  Have we become so politically correct that a party operative can no longer use political donations to slate his or her thirst for hot simulated sapphic bondage?  The money they used was given to them.  As a donation or a gift.  In my America, Jon, you’re allowed to use a gift however you want–even if it violates the core values of the donor and the organization you represent.

    For those of you wondering exactly what you missed by not joining the Young Eagles night out, the club’s website  promises “provocative revelry that combines eroticism and nightlife exclusivity. An alluring ambience designed with elegance and comfort while maintaining underground vitality.”

    And–since this is California, after all–“Voyeur’s signature cocktail menu includes sugar–free, all organic creations including watermelon jalapeno, blueberry mint and cucumber olive shots.”

    Thank god those young Republicans were at least able to watch their waistlines.



Winners & Sinners: Health Care Reform Edition

Winners & Sinners / Health Care Reform Edition


Overnight is a long time in politics; a week is forever.
FCP’s favorite American Political Proverb

    The Obama administration was spiritually and substantively reborn yesterday when Barack Obama use twenty-two pens to sign the most important piece of legislation into law in four decades.  (why did Stolberg and Pear say “20” in the Times??)

As always, the media did a wildly un-even job of understanding and explaining the significance of this extraordinary moment.

The Biggest Winner: David Leonhardt got right to the heart of matter, with a point I didn’t see made anywhere else: “The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago… Beyond the health reform’s effect on the medical system, it is the centerpiece of his deliberate effort to end what historians have called the age of Reagan…The bill is the most sweeping piece of federal legislation since Medicare was passed in 1965. It aims to smooth out one of the roughest edges in American society — the inability of many people to afford medical care after they lose a job or get sick. And it would do so in large measure by taxing the rich.”  Of course, FCP believes it doesn’t do nearly enough to tax the rich–but at least it is a beginning.

The Biggest Sinner: Brian’s Williams’ NBC Nightly News last night devoted 53 seconds to a favorable account of the president’s bill signing–followed by 3 minutes and 7 seconds of Republican soundbites attacking the bill, 1 minute and 50 seconds about the Republican Attorneys General who have filed an almost-certainly doomed suit to overturn the law in Federal Court–and 1 minute and 55 seconds to an utterly clueless small business owner and his wife, who admitted they had no idea whatsoever how the bill would affect them–but still managed to repeat several of the most well-worn Republican sound bites.   And if you actually wanted to know anything about what was in the bill?  “Go to our website”–that was the anchor’s sole contribution to his viewers’ knowledge about that.  One of the shoddiest reports about an historic event FCP has ever seen on a network newscast.

Winner: ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer, which not only managed a much more balanced report, but also was the only network evening newscast to report the most relevant poll result of the day: Gallup found that 49 percent of Americans believed the bill was a good thing, and only 40 percent  did not.   On the other hand, the ABC broadcast reported just one Democratic congressional or party  office had been vandalized; on MSNBC,  the always much-more-thorough Rachel Maddow found five sites of vandalism across the country, as well as the ex-militia man in Alabama who claimed credit for inciting all of the violence.

Winner:  The CBS Evening News (Harry Smith was sitting in for Katie), which actually managed to describe some of the specifics in the bill–including tax savings of up to 4 percent for small businesses.

Sinner: The always-awful Kathleen Parker for repeating the bold-faced lie that the health care bill “expands public funding for abortion” and then attacking Bart Stupak for finally doing the right thing by voting for the bill.  Parker wrote that the Congressman “will forever be remembered as the guy who Stupaked health-care reform and the pro-life movement.”

Winner:  FCP’s  colleague, fellow Hillman Prize Judge Harold Meyerson, for writing the clearest column in The Washington Post about the president’s action:  With the enactment of health-care reform, the often hapless, sometimes hopeless Democrats have transformed themselves into something America has not seen in decades: a governing party. By passing the most significant social legislation since the ’60s, they have ended the policy gridlock dating to the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. They have revalidated the almost quaint notion that – despite the ever greater role of money in politics – elections have consequences, too…Obama and Pelosi became a legislative force that Democrats have not seen since Lyndon Johnson. Pelosi’s contribution, no less than Obama’s, is one for the history books.” 

Then Meyerson laid out the rest of the necessary road to victory in the fall:

“To continue as a governing party beyond November, Democrats must apply the lessons of their health-reform victory to more popular causes. They need to establish a powerful consumer protection agency and rein in bank speculation – causes that some congressional Democrats decline to embrace. They must pressure those Democrats relentlessly, as they did those who wavered over health reform. They need more job legislation, beginning with California Rep. George Miller’s bill to save the teaching and public safety jobs on numerous states’ chopping blocks, and with Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s bill to establish an infrastructure bank to revive our construction sector.

Sinner: Ruth Marcus, also in The Washington Post, for boldly stating the obvious–we don’t know exactly how the one of the most complicated pieces of legislation ever enacted is going to work–and then casting doubt on its effectiveness with this factoid: “A study… by Richard Kronick, a former health-care adviser to President Bill Clinton, found ‘little evidence to suggest that extending insurance coverage to all adults would have a large effect on the number of deaths in the United States.’

Note to Marcus and Kronick:  Nothing will ever have any effect on the “total number of deaths in the United States”–except for the total number of births, and immigrants.


Winners & Sinners

Winners & Sinners

Winner: Barack Hussein Obama, for triumphing where every other president of the United States has failed. It won’t include a public option, and even the Health Insurance Rate Authority, which could have cancelled premium increases, has been kicked out of the reconciliation fixes by the Senate parliamentarian.  And yet, if the House manages to pass the health care reform bill tomorrow, after countless near-death experiences, this will be a gigantic achievement for Obama and his much-maligned White House political machine.  In years to come, the bill will require endless additions and revisions–but that only makes it exactly the same as the original laws enacting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  And despite the endless palaver of Republican officeholders, this is a huge political plus for Democrats fighting for re-election in the fall.  If nothing had been passed, the Democrats never would have been able to shake their reputation for legislative impotence.
Somewhere, Teddy Kennedy is smiling.

Update: Sinner Dan Balz has the worst kind of Washington on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand analysis in Sunday’s Washington Post, in which he boldly argues that the Democrats will pay a big price for enacting an historic health care reform bill–or they won’t. Spoiler alert! Newt Gingrich believes the former.

History is made:  At 10:45 PM EDT on Sunday, March 21, 2010, the deed was finally done, when the 216th vote was recorded in favor of HR 3590, the Health Care Reform Bill  approved by the Senate last December.  The final vote in the House was 219 to 212.  It came two and a half hours after 60 Minutes aired Kati Couric’s highly favorable profile of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.  Well, tonight he deserved it.

Sinner: Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt.  First he hired ex-Bush speechwriter and fulltime torture apologist Marc Thiessen, whose “giggly, repressed hysteria” is “uncannily reminiscent of the snide Joe McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn,” as Frank Rich observed.  Then Hiatt wrote an exceptionally mindless column  about Obama’s “happiness deficit,” which was brilliantly dissected  by

Winner Greg Marx, paragraph by paragraph. Like this:

Hiatt: I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when Obama confidant David Axelrod, noting that the president always makes time for his daughters’ recitals and soccer games, told the New York Times, “I think that’s part of how he sustains himself through all this.”
Really? Is the presidency something to sustain yourself through?

Marx: Aspiring column writers: note the skillful use of a weeks-old boilerplate quote from an aide as the threadbare cloth from which a new column is spun. Also, the affectation of populist resentment. That’s how the pros do it!

Winner: The tireless Gabe Sherman, for his sparkling 7,300 word exegesis of the war between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  Sherman got just about everyone to talk on the record, including the get-of-the-year: Rupert Murdoch’s 101 year-old mother, whom Sherman reached on the phone at her home in Australia.  Dame Elisabeth had these sobering words for her grandchildren: “I’m sure [Rupert] will never retire.  I don’t intend to retire either, and I’m 101.”  And then there was this startling exchange between Sherman and ex-Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld:  “Hats off to Murdoch; he’s serious about print journalism. He’s the last guy standing who believes in it,” says Lelyveld. “Arthur [Sulzberger] is the guy who said a few years ago he didn’t know if the Times will be standing as a print newspaper.” When I asked Lelyveld if he thought his former boss Sulzberger believed in the value of the Times’ print edition, he grew quiet. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to answer that question.”  Which in turn inspired

Winner Howell Raines (Lelyveld’s successor) to write this about Lelyveld’s comment: “This is like congratulating museums for preserving antique masterpieces while ignoring their predatory methods of collecting.”  The rest of Raines’ attack in The Washington Post on the MSM’s kid-gloves treatment of Murdoch and Roger Ailes is also well worth reading. 

And speaking of Fox News, why is it that only

Winner Jon Stewart ever gives the words of Glenn Beck the attention they deserve, including these immortal declarations: “The roots of progressivism lead to fascism.  One had the hammer and sickle, the other was the swastika but on each banner, here in America, read the words, ‘Social Justice.’”  On Thursday, Stewart spent the first thirteen minutes and five seconds of his show  channeling Beck–brilliantly.

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Winner: Rachel Maddow, for her model visit with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, during which the smartest interviewer on cable television showed how you can be tough, thorough and sophisticated, without ever losing your temper. 

In other words, she displayed all of the qualities that

Sinner: the always smirking David Gregory, never displays on Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Winner: Marc Lacey for a terrifying account on the front page of The New York Times of the horrific effect of the Mexican drug wars on the reporters trying to cover them:  Traffickers have gone after the media with a vengeance in these strategic border towns where drugs are smuggled across by the ton. They have shot up newsrooms, kidnapped and killed staff members and called up the media regularly with threats that were not the least bit veiled. Back off, the thugs said. Do not dare print our names. We will kill you the next time you publish a photograph like that.  “They mean what they say,” said one of the many terrified journalists who used to cover the police beat in Reynosa. “I’m censoring myself. There’s no other way to put it. But so is everybody else.”

Winner: Nick Turse, for a superb expose of America’s appalling edifice complex in Iraq (a $750 million embassy and three hundred military bases) and Afghanistan (a $175 million plus expansion of the embassy in Kabul plus 400 U.S. bases, and another 300 for Afghan soldiers and policemen.)  Not to mention nearly a billion dollars more for a new embassy in Pakistan.

Winner: Ron Unz, for an in-depth debunking of the myth of an immigrant crime wave in America–published, remarkably, in The American Conservative.





The Odd Couple Fighting For Marriage Equality

 Above the Fold

    David Boies and Theodore Olson came to The New York Times headquarters in Manhattan this week to discuss the constitutional challenge they have brought against California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed marriage equality in that state at the end of 2008, after 18,000 same-sex couples had been married there.

    The left-leaning litigator and the right-leaning appellate lawyer, who squared off against each other in Bush v. Gore back in 2000, now seem like old acquaintances who suddenly realized how much they liked each other when they reached late middle age.  

    When they first announced their federal suit nine months ago, with the clear intention of litigating it all the way to the Supreme Court, they caused a quiet uproar within the gay legal establishment, which had made a collective decision to keep the marriage issue out of the federal appellate courts, at least until there was a greater national consensus in favor of marriage equality, or another conservative justice was replaced by an Obama appointee–or both.

    Some people were so skeptical of what seemed like Olson’s very sudden conversion to a left-wing position, they accused him of purposely trying to undermine the fight for marriage equality by pressing the case in Federal Court prematurely.  But Olson’s moving public declarations in favor of same-sex marriage–as well as his brilliant performance at trial before Federal Judge Vaughn Walker–gradually obliterated the doubts about his sincerity.

    New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak was a superb moderator at the Times confab, and he went straight to the controversy over the timing of the lawsuit. 

   Why now? asked Liptak.

   “You never know exactly what the right time is,” David Boies replied.  “But there were three things that made us think this was the right time:”

* We have clients who want to get married

* I think it’s very hard to sustain Prop 8 on any legal basis

* This suit was going to be brought by someone, somewhere, and we thought it was best to bring it with the best possible resources (which included at least thirty lawyers and assorted support staff from the firms of Boies and Olson).

    After the initial shock of the gay legal establishment, it gradually decided to embrace the Boies-Olson effort–and it ended up supplying many of the expert witnesses who helped the lawyers build such a brilliant record at trial.

    The lead lawyer on the other side of the case was Charles Cooper, with whom Olson had actually served in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department.  Judge Walker had repeatedly asked Cooper exactly what damage would be done to the institution of marriage by allowing same-sex couples to marry, and Cooper persistently avoided answering.  Finally, Cooper conceded, “I don’t know”–and Olson clearly viewed that as an important turning point in the trial.  Judge Walker’s decision in the case is expected sometime later this year.  From there the case will go to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and then, almost certainly, to the highest court in the land.

   The most unlikely fact about this case so far: according to a report last month in the San Francisco Chronicle, Judge Walker, a Republican appointee of President Geoge H.W. Bush, is gay.

    The first action the Supreme Court took in this case was to deny the trial judge’s request to allow the proceedings to be televised–by a 5 to 4 vote.  But Boies and Olson insisted it was a mistake to see that vote as predictive of the final outcome of the case.  They believe the Justices were merely reaffirming their longstanding opposition to cameras in their courtroom under any circumstances, and they were not about to establish any precedent that might undermine their determination to keep things that way–forever.

    To skeptics who can’t see how this particular Supreme Court could ever endorse same-sex marriage, Olson emphasized that the Court had repeatedly held marriage to be “the most fundamental right of associational freedom”–a right which applies to everyone, including even prisoners who have no chance of ever living with their spouses.

    What was even more remarkable than the spectacle of a Reagan appointee making a full-throated defense of marriage equality was the atmosphere in which this confab took place.  Most of those present were gay and lesbian New Yorkers invited to the event.  But in the third row sat New York Times publisher and chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. , and six rows behind him was Andy Rosenthal, the editor of the Times editorial page.

    Thirty years ago, their fathers, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger and Abe Rosenthal, were running this newspaper, and they shared such antipathy for homosexuals that gay employees of the newspaper believed that their careers depended on keeping their sexual orientations a secret.

    But as the younger Sulzberger began his ascension through the paper’s corporate ranks, he did a  remarkable thing: he made it clear to every single person who worked for him that he would not tolerate an iota of prejudice based on sexual orientation. 

   Practically overnight, he transformed what had been a relentlessly homophobic place into one of the most gay-friendly institutions in the world.  

    And when Sulzberger went against his father’s wishes and started publishing same-sex wedding announcements in the newspaper in 2002, he did at least as much as any state legislature could to legitimize the idea of marriage equality.

    Not at all coincidentally, Andy Rosenthal’s editorial page has published more brilliant editorials in defense of equal rights for gay people than any other editorial page in the world.

    What a difference a new generation can make!

    The Times photographer for this week’s event was Sara Krulwich, a founding member of the New York Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.  In the audience sat Krulwich’s partner, Lynn Paltrow, and their 17-year-old twins, Allen and Samantha.

    Adam Liptak called on Allen Paltrow-Krulwich to ask the final question, and the senior at The Bronx High School of Science, who is also vice president of the school’s Speech & Debate Team, highlighted another difference between the generations.

    “My name is Allen and my two moms are here,” he said.  “And we have a split in our family–they’re skeptical about bringing this case right now.  But I don’t agree with them.  I personally think that even the worst case scenario leaves all the [other] political strategies in place” to advance the cause of gay marriage.

    David Boies said it was a “great question,” and he agreed with Allen enthusiastically that even a defeat at the Supreme Court would do nothing to undermine the other strategies for equality.

    If indeed that worst-case scenario should come to pass, and this Supreme Court rules against marriage equality–and assuming that Allen Paltrow-Krulwich decides to go to law school–look for him to be the lead lawyer on the next marriage equality case which reaches the top Court, perhaps twenty years from now.

    That case will surely culminate in the next great judicial victory for gay Americans in the Twenty-First Century.

    That eventual outcome is certain, because every new generation of Americans is dramatically more tolerant of sexual diversity than the one that preceded it.

    In our time, that is especially true, because of the example of families like Sara and Lynn and Samantha and Allen.




For the best guess about what will happen next in this case, see the typically brilliant analysis of ACLU LGBT Project Director Matt Coles.

The Boies-Olsen team introduced this anti-gay marriage ad made by the National Organization for Marriage, because they believed it made their opponents’ position look so ridiculous.

The ad’s most important effect was to inspire Stephen Colbert to do his own version: the single best piece of satire of 2009.

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Boies and Olson previously debated the prospects for marriage equality with Bill Moyers. Read the transcript of that program here.

Winners & Sinners /Oscars & Broadway Edition


Winner: If you only see one play this season, run to the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village to see Alexi Kaye Campbell’s splendid new play, The Pride, the 2008 hit at the Royal Court Theatre in London, reborn here in a brilliant new production directed by Joe Mantello.  Alternating between 1958 and 2008, the play is a searing portrait of gay life then and now–performed brilliantly by Hugh Dancy, Andrea Riseborough, and, especially, Ben Whishaw, the next big thing in the London theatre.  Must close March 28th!  And please ignore

Sinner Ben Brantley, whose review  completely misrepresented The Pride, especially this paragraph, in which virtually  every word is a lie: “Most of the people in “The Pride” are also, no doubt, in extreme pain. But they remain oddly unmoving, despite fluid direction by Mr. Mantello and polished performances from an ensemble that also includes Adam James in a juicy assortment of roles. Though you always understand the thematic import of what the characters say, it’s harder to credit that they would say it themselves, or in the way that they do. They often seem like illustrations of debate points — human evidence, as opposed to human beings.”

FCP has never seen five more compelling human beings on the stage anywhere.

Winners: Writer Mart Crowley, director Jack Cummings III and the splendid cast in the Transport Group’s gripping revival of  The Boys in The Band, the 1968 landmark play of gay theatre–the first time nine  gay  characters were accurately portrayed on the stage at the same time.  Again, Brantley’s review  is wholly off the mark.

Winners: Colin Firth in A Single Man and Morgan Freeman in Inviticus, both nominated for Best Actor this evening.  Neither of them is likely to win (Jeff Bridges is the favorite) but each of them gives one of the great performances of their careers, especially Freeman as a luminous Nelson Mandela.  Newcomer Nicholas Hoult also does a lovely turn in A Single Man as the student infatuated with the teacher portrayed by Firth.  And director Tom Ford makes sure every scene in A Single Man is beautiful to look at.

Winner: Kathryn Bigelow, who directed The Hurt Locker, the astonishingly good, lowest-budget hit of the year.  This great anti-war polemic will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.  If Avatar doesn’t make it tonight, The Hurt Locker will surely win best picture.

Winner: Laura Linney in Time Stands Still on Broadway.  The veteran actress gives a searing  performance as a war photographer addicted to her craft.

Plus FCP’s Special bonus pick for ink-stained wretches

Winner: Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers: John Rubenstein directs a superb ensemble in this riveting account of how Washington Post publisher Kay Graham found the courage to emulate Arthur Ochs Sulzberger by publishing the Pentagon Papers.  The New York Theatre Workshop is giving this radio play by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons its first full-scale Off-Broadway production.    Peter Strauss does an extraordinary impersonation of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and veterans Larry Pine and Peter Van Norden are equally good as Richard Nixon and Henry  Kissinger.  



Winners & Sinners

Winners & Sinners

The Conservative Political Action Conference is the marquee event of the conservative movement, which  this year was sponsored in part by the far-far-right John Birch Society.  The audience seemed to be dominated by the Tea Party Movement.

The way it was covered tells you a lot you might not want to know about the mainstream media in Washington.

Sinners Adam Nagourney and Kate Zernike of The New York Times led their first-day story with Mitt Romney’s “systematic indictment of what he described as the failed presidency of Barack Obama” and mentioned some “coy allusions” to Barack Obama’s youthful experimentation with cocaine, while Sinner Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post thought Romney “sounded every bit the party leader, denouncing the Obama administration as a ‘failure.’”

On the other hand, if you wanted to learn anything about the substance of Romney’s remarks–or anybody else’s at the conference–the person to listen to was Winner Rachel Maddow, who performed that oh-so-out-of-fashion journalistic function of fact-checking the remarks of the principals.  A few examples from the transcript of Maddow’s program the day the conference opened:

Romney: “Let’s ask the Obama folks why they say…no to malpractice reform” and “no to tax cuts that create jobs.” The former Massachusetts governor added, “On our watch, the conversation with a would-be suicide bomber will not begin with the words ‘You have the right to remain silent.’”

The Facts:  Obama is actually in favor of malpractice reform, and the year-old stimulus program included one of the biggest tax cuts ever enacted.  As for the suicide bomber, as Maddow pointed out, “Unless, of course, that would-be suicide bomber is would-be suicide bomber Richard Reid, who was told that he had the right to remain silent roughly five minutes after he was arrested back in 2001 when Republicans were running the show.”

Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCoutter: “When the American people asked for smaller deficits and a reduction of the debt, the Democrats said no.”

The Facts: As this chart reminds us, by far the biggest increases in the national debt took place under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush:

Former Congressman Dick Armey of Texas said Obama was “getting away with peddling” the notion that there is a crisis in health care, “despite the fact that America has the greatest health care in the world.” 

The Facts: As Maddow pointed out, in such a fake crisis, national spending on health care goes from 5 percent of GDP in 1960 to 7 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2000, and is expected to reach 20 percent in 2020. Maddow added, That‘s the crisis President Obama has apparently created out of thin air for his own political gain.  He apparently started working on this in 1970 when he was 9 years old.  He was very precocious.

But if the Times reporters had chosen to illuminate even one of these lies, that would have left them with less space for the jokes that were made about Obama’s cocaine use.

Meanwhile, network news reports like two from NBC’s Mike Viqueira on “Nightly” were virtually content-free, although Viqueira did manage to  include a tiny soundbite of Glenn Beck’s speech to CPAC, which at least hinted at the Fox News host’s absolute insanity.

Update: for a good piece in the MSM about the dark side of the Tea Party Movement, see Jonathan Capehart’s post.

Second Update: The only way to feel all of the love at the CPAC confab (including the Glenn Beck out-of-body experience) is to watch Jon Stewart–as usual.

Winner: Newsweek national security correspondent Michael Isikoff for revealing that a crucial CIA memo constantly cited by Dick Cheney as the source of his certainty that torture produced crucial intelligence actually contains “plainly inaccurate information” that undermined its conclusions.  Cheney has frequently demanded the publication of the still-classified document, but Justice Department investigators have now concluded “that it significantly misstated the timing of the capture of one Al Qaeda suspect in order to make a claim that seems to have been patently false,” according to Isikoff.   The reporter continued:

The memo also omitted any references to a notorious incident in which another high level CIA detainee, Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi,  provided ‘false information’ about Al Qaeda’s supposed connections to Iraq in order to stop his Egyptian interrogators from abusing him, the Justice report states.  (Al-Libi was transfered by the CIA to Egyptian custody under the agency’s “extraordinary rendition” program.)

Sinner: The normally-reliable Clyde Haberman, for a column in The New York Times about Harold Ford, the former Tennessee Congressman threatening to run for the Senate from New York.  Haberman left the clear impression that Ford’s early claims to having paid New York taxes were true. Haberman wrote:

One question raised about Mr. Ford is how diligent he has been in paying taxes in New York. Several weeks ago, he said in an interview with YNN, a cable news station in Buffalo: ‘I pay taxes there. And once you pay taxes there, you feel like a New Yorker.’  That’s an awfully limited definition. I worked for years in foreign countries, paying their taxes, yet somehow never felt like a Japanese, an Italian or an Israeli.

The trouble is, Haberman’s column appeared exactly seven days after Gawker’s John Cook had done a thorough investigation proving that Ford had actually assiduously avoided paying New York State Income Taxes.  Asked by FCP if he had missed the fact that Ford was a New York tax dodger, Haberman replied, “As you surely could tell, that wasn’t really my focus this time around”–an answer which neither answered my question, nor explained why Haberman had implied that Ford had paid these taxes when he really hadn’t.

Update: A spokesman for Ford telephoned FCP today (Tuesday) to dispute the notion that the former Congressman had ever tried to avoid paying New York State income taxes.
Earlier this year, Congressman Ford told reporters in Buffalo, and his spokeswoman told John Cook of Gawker, that Ford would file a New York State Income Tax Return for the first time in April,  2010, although he began working for Merrill Lynch in New York City in 2007.

    The spokeswoman then contacted Cook again to say that Ford would actually file his first New York State resident tax return in 2010.

    Ford spokesman David Goldin told FCP today that Ford had filed a non-resident New York State tax return for 2007 and 2008.   You can only file as a non-resident if you can prove that you spent at least 182 days outside New York State.  So although Ford was working for Merrill Lynch in New York, he apparently was careful to stay out of the state for more than half the year, to limit his New York tax liability.

Winner: Environmental reporter Margot Roosevelt of The Los Angeles Times for two beautiuflly written and thorougly nuanced stories (here and here) about the continuing destruction of the Amazon Forest–and the chances that developed nations will spend enough quickly enough to end that destruction. The ghastly bottom line:

Slash-and-burn deforestation accounts for about 15% of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions. Despite activists’ efforts, forests have been disappearing at the rate of about 34 million acres a year for the last two decades. Globally, Indonesia and Brazil are the third- and fourth-largest emitters respectively of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S., because of their breakneck pace of forest destruction.

The stories demonstrate that even though it remains in bankruptcy, The LA Times will sometimes still invest a substantial sum to send a talented correspondent abroad to write about a crucial subject like this one.

Sinners: The editors of the op-ed page of The New York Times for printing, and their contributor, Lara M. Dadkhah, for writing, a fiercely incoherent argument in favor of sharply increasing civilian casualties in Afghanistan–by reversing the very wise directive Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued last July, which stipulated that air strikes (and long-range artillery fire) would only be authorized under “very limited and prescribed conditions.”

Besides the idiocy of the piece, there was the problem of who it was who had actually written it.  Times editors identified the previously unknown Dadkhah as “an intelligence analyst,” while the author herself slipped in the fact that she was “employed by a defense consulting company.”

Oddly, neither Dadkhah nor the Times recognized the obvious journalistic imperative to name that company.

Update: This afternoon, deputy editorial page editor David Shipley provided FCP with this explanation via e-mail:

We found Ms. Dadkhah from work she did in Small Wars Journal, work that was part of her Ph.D. dissertation at Georgetown.  Ms. Dadkhah only recently took a job at Booz Allen. We tend not to mention the names of companies – as it can run the risk of seeming self-promotional. I thought it was sufficient to have the author say, as she did high up in the piece, that “While I am employed by a defense consulting company, my research and opinions on air support are my own.” It’s worth underscoring that Ms. Dadkhah’s research regarding close air support came entirely from her doctoral research, and that these are issues she has written about over the the last couple years for Small Wars.

Second Update: The estimable Glenn Greenwald, who was one of the very first people to post about this monstrosity, adds these essential details in response to Shipley’s explanation:

Shipley’s answer strongly suggests that Dadkhah did not submit her Op-Ed unsolicited, but rather, the NYT purposely sought out an Op-Ed to urge more civilian deaths in Afghanistan (“We found Ms. Dadkhah from work she did in Small Wars Journal”).  Why would they do that?  Maybe tomorrow the NYT Editors can actively solicit an Op-Ed urging the use of biological agents and chemical weapons on civilian populations in Yemen.  After that, they can search out someone to advocate medical experiments on detainees in Bagram.  Perhaps the day after, they can host a symposium on the tactical advantages of air bombing hospitals and orphanages as a means of keeping local populations in line…Dadkhah’s employer – Booz Allen – has more overlapping ties with the Pentagon than virtually any other corporation on the planet.  The very idea that Dadkhah’s employment with a company that has its hooks in virtually every aspect of war policy need not have been disclosed, when she’s advocating greater use of air power, is absurd on its face.  And Shipley’s claim that the companies which employ Op-Ed writers are not typically mentioned by the NYT is insultingly false; just today, Newt Gingrich’s short Op-Ed contribution is accompanied by this tagline:  “founder of the Center for Health Transformation, a health-care policy consulting firm.”  Yesterday, the NYT published an Op-Ed from the “former general counsel of the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses,”  and throughout the month, the NYT had Op-Ed writers identified as “chairman of Convers Group in Moscow,” “a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004,” and “the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”  Suffice to say, concealing the employer of the Op-Ed writer is not customary policy.

Read the rest of Glenn’s latest post here.

Third Update: My brother David Kaiser, author of the excellent History Unfolding blog, informs me:

The work Dadkhah did in Small Wars Journal consists of exactly one article, makig the same basic arguent at greater lenght.  That article actually takes a considerably more balanced view of the issue. At the end of the article she is described as follows.
   Lara M. Dadkhah is a graduate student in Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She has worked as an open source analyst covering biodefense issues in Iran and Afghanistan, and as a data analyst for current coalition information operations in Afghanistan.

Winner: CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper, for leading his network’s superb coverage of the Haiti catastrophe.  Whether he was pointing out the critical shortage of medicine, or the absence of any organized system to take care of the newly orphaned, Cooper and the rest of the CNN team set the standard for coverage which was both detailed and empathetic–and thereby earned Cooper the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award for January.

Winners: Michelle and Barack Obama, for hosting one of the most spectacular musical events in the history of the White House–a Celebration of Music of the Civil Rights Movement.  The evening was pushed up 24 hours because of an impending snow storm, and broadcast nationally by PBS.  Morgan Freeman hosted, and the president offered this eloquent introduction:

The civil rights movement was a movement sustained by music.  It was lifted by spirituals inspired by the Bible.  It was sharpened by protest songs about wrongs that needed righting.  It was broadened by folk artists like a New York-born daughter of immigrants, and a young storyteller from Minnesota, who captured the hardships and hopes of people who were worlds different from them, in ways that only song can do. It was a movement with a soundtrack – diverse strains of music that coalesced when the moment was right.

A brilliant Bob Dylan stole the evening with a haunting The Times They Are A Changin’, accompanied only by piano, bass, and the bard’s own acoustic guitar.  (Dylan refused to tell the concert’s organizers which song he would sing until 20 minutes before his performance; Blowin’ in The Wind was naturally another finalist.)  Dylan was immediately followed by an equally powerful rendition by Smokey Robinson of Dion’s great lament of 1968, Abraham, Martin and John.  Obama thanked Dylan for being “a man who was good enough to take a night off from his never ending tour;” then the president shook the great man’s hand after he sang.

Astonishingly, it was the first time Dylan had ever performed at the White House.

Dylan first recorded The Times They Are A Changin’ in 1963,  four weeks to the day before JFK was assassinated.  On November 13, 1985,  Dylan told me,  it was “definitely a song with a purpose.  I knew exactly what I wanted to say and for whom I wanted to say it to.  I wanted to write a big song in a simple way.”

The evening ended when Obama joined all the other performers (except Dylan, who had exited earlier) in an unbelievably poignant rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Chris Richards of The Washington Post called it the “most stirring concert” ever performed at the White House.

Score 1 for the mainstream media.


To view the entire broadcast of the concert go here.

To read about and watch the original musical triumph of the Obama administration, provided by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, go here.