August 2009 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

August 2009

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.


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.



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 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)