January 2010 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

January 2010

State of the Union


Above the Fold

    Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts result, Congressional Democrats seem to be running for the hills instead of making every possible effort to pass a health care reform bill.
                                 –FCP, January 22, 2010

    To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.
                                –Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 28, 2010

    There was quite a lot to admire in last night’s State of the Union speech–a combination of plain truths and worthy policy proposals.   These were some of the highlights:

* The lobbyists are trying to kill [the financial reform bill passed by the House.] But we cannot let them win this fight.

* We still need health insurance reform

* From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument -– that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped us into this crisis [although that’s what created this crisis would have been stronger–and more accuate.]

* Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

* With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests–including foreign corporations –to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.  They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps  to correct some of these problems.

* Let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years –- and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service to correct some of these problems.

* This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.  It’s the right thing to do.

    These were all admirable declarations–and none more so than the president’s reminder to the Senate Democrats that even after their defeat in Massachusetts, they still have their largest majority in decades. 

    Of course, Obama has never had a problem giving a fine speech.

    The problem, so far, has been follow-up.

    I always thought the fact that Obama was the product of the Chicago Democratic machine was one of the most appealing parts of his resume–because it made it plausible that this freshman Senator could be strong enough to become an effective president.

    Confronted by a Republican minority which is reflexively committed to going for the jugular, what the Democrats have needed for years is a comparable toughness.   If Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi can’t provide that, the White House somehow has to find a way to provide that missing backbone.

    As Frank Rich pointed out last Sunday, in one of his most powerful columns, patricians like FDR and JFK never hesitated to battle their own class.  Rich wrote that Obama desperately needed something like JFK’s U.S. Steel moment–the president’s broadside against the steel maker after its chairman decided to “break a White House-brokered labor-management contract agreement and raise the price of steel (but not wages).”  Kennedy’s assault left reporters “literally gasping,” according to Dick Reeves, and U.S. Steel backed down two days later.

    So populist rhetoric against the banks–“We all hated the bank bailout”–is fine as far as it goes.  But what this administration needs more than anything else right now is proof that there will be serious consequences for anyone who derails its agenda.  It needs actual results, on health care, and financial reform, and it needs them well  before Washington’s cherry blossoms reach their peak at the beginning of April. 

    Up until now, the hallmark of Rahm Emanuel’s political management has been a terror of replicating the mistakes of the Clinton administration.   That’s why Obama waited much too long to roll up his sleeves, and involve himself directly in the health care negotiations.  And that is also why Obama’s campaign promise to repeal Clinton’s idiotic don’t ask, don’t tell policy for gays in the military remains unfulfilled twelve months after Obama took office–even though the political climate (and the poll numbers) are dramatically different in 2010 than they were in 1993.

    Instead of reflexively avoiding Clinton’s mistakes, it’s time to emulate Lyndon Johnson’s mastery at manipulating the Congress.   Rahm Emanuel played a big role in creating the large majorities the Democrats enjoy right now in both houses.  Now it’s time to make them produce the kind of legislation we can all be proud of.

    If that doesn’t happen soon, all the predictions of disaster for Democrats in the fall are certain to come true.


Coakley, Schilling, Obama and Sawyer

Above the Fold

   It’s a toss up as to which is worse: the news out of Massachusetts and the Supreme Court, or the way some network news broadcasts are covering these disasters.  Call it a pitcher’s choice.

    Let’s start with Massachusetts, where Martha Coakley will be remembered as one of the most incompetent Senate candidates of modern times. Overconfident and out-of-touch: with just six weeks between the primary and the general election, Coakley took a full week off for Christmas, according to Nagourney, Zeleny, Zernkike and Cooper  writing in the Times. 

    The race formally ended two weeks later on January 15th, when Coakley identified legendary Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling as a Yankee fan.  Is there anything more important to the average Massachusetts voter than the Red Sox?   No, there is not.   And a candidate trying to become the first woman ever elected to the United States Senate from Massachusetts really needed to know that.

    The failure of the Democratic establishment to recognize that a disaster was brewing until it was too late to do anything about it is also a severe indictment of White House political guru Rahm Emmanuel, the DNC and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, all of whom seem to have been asleep at the plate.

    Of course, we didn’t lose just because Coakley was a terrible candidate–all those independents who voted for Obama plus a lot more switched eagerly to the Cosmo model because of the gigantic dissatisfaction with everything that is going on in Washington.  Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts result, Congressional Democrats seem to be running for the hills instead of making every possible effort to pass a health care reform bill.

    Having devoted most of 2009 to this effort, is there anything  they could do that would do more to reinforce their reputation for incompetence than a decision to abandon health care right now?

    No, there is not.

    Two days later the Supreme Court weighed in with one of the most radical decisions in its history, wiping away dozens of federal & local laws and decades of precedent, with a 5 to 4 vote to give corporate America even more complete control over the government than it already enjoys.

   Why didn’t the rest of us realize that this was what America needed the most right now?

    And the next time you hear someone repeat the idiotic myth that liberal judges are the real “activists” in the judiciary–well, just slap them.

    Here is part of Rachel Maddow’s excellent  summary of the decision’s effects:

    [This is] one of the most radical Supreme Court actions in years.   Corporations are free to inject unregulated billions, absolutely unlimited money into the political system now.   If you are a regular person who’s ever made a campaign donation before, forget about ever having to do that again.  What’s the point of an individual trying to make a donation if Exxon or some other corporation can quite literally match and therefore cancel out the combined donations of every single individual donor in the nation in one check, in every year, in every state, in every race?…This ruling rolls back decades of protections against corporate interference and control of governance…I personally think it is impossible to overstate the impact of this decision on American politics.

    In a scathing 29,000 word dissent, some of which he read from the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens declared that “five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”  Stevens continued,

    At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.   It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.   While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

    Given the gigantic importance of this decision to American democracy, some of us naively expected that this was the news that would lead each of the network evening news broadcasts that night.

  Forget about it.  Over at ABC, where Diane Sawyer is having the rockiest debut of any new anchor in memory, these were the stories deemed more important than the Supreme Court’s action at the top of the broadcast:

* A recall of Toyota automobiles
* A really, really big mudslide in California
* John Edwards’ belated acknowledgment of paternity of the daughter he had with his mistress
* Obama’s sweeping new proposal to reform the banking system
* A “pillow talk” story which apparently was enchanting the cable news networks.

    For the first nine minutes of her broadcast, Sawyer managed to say nothing at all about the Supreme Court.   But a little later, she did manage thirteen whole seconds to report that Nancy Pelosi had declared there were not enough votes in the House to pass the Senate version of the health care reform bill.

    FCP also loved the way Sawyer and just about everyone else that night seemed to assume that when it came to judging the worthiness of Obama’s announcement that he would push for the broadest reform of the banking system since the Depression, the only thing that really mattered was the reaction of the stock market.  Therefore:

    Market down; proposal, bad!

    This is roughly equivalent to reporting that the government is planning a  new crackdown on child molestation–and then using the reaction of the nation’s most prominent child molesters to gauge the worthiness of the government’s proposal. 

    Except, of course,  that the banks always prefer to molest adults.

    Was this the most disgraceful series of “news judgements” FCP has ever witnessed on a network evening news broadcast?

    Yes, it was.


Winners and Sinners

Winners & Sinners / Martin Luther King Jr. Day edition.

Winner:  Scott Horton.  This morning Harper’s Magazine jumped its publication date for the March issue by thirty days to rush out Scott Horton’s blockbuster cover story  about three possible murders at Guantanamo which the government and the mainstream media have always described as suicides.

    The piece also identified a black site on Guantanamo where those who died may have been tortured on the night of their supposed suicide.

    Horton is a law professor, a contributing editor at Harper’s, and one of the finest torture reporters of our time.

    At the heart of the cover-up Horton alleges is the fact that the Pentagon told the press–and convinced most reporters–that the three prisoners who died had hanged themselves.  However, Horton has interviewed five American servicemen who gave this account of what Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the Camp America commander, told a meeting of fifty guards at 7am the morning after the prisoners had died.

    The commander said to the guards, “you all know” that the prisoners committed suicide by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death.  “But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells.  It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes.”

    Horton says Bumgarner refused all of his requests for interviews, although Bumgarner did attack the story today to the Associated Press  after it was posted on the Harper’s website.

   The guards interviewed by Horton said the night of the prisoners’ deaths, the guards believed that they had witnessed the prisoners’ removal to the black site away from the prison compound.  They also said that their clear site lines from the guard towers made it possible for them to know that none of the prisoners had been taken from their cells to the medical center on the night of their deaths.

    In a  article entitled “The Battle for Guantánamo” in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, Tim Golden wrote about Col. Bumgarner’s efforts to humanize conditions at Guantanamo.  He also reported the “suicides” of these three prisoners as an established fact.

   Golden never interviewed any of the guards quoted in Horton’s story.  Yesterday, he told FCP that he had read Horton’s story “quickly,” but he refused to make any comment about it.

   Some of the guards interviewed by Horton ridiculed Golden’s piece as “stenography” for Col. Bumgarner.

    Horton’s story also accuses the Obama administration of allowing the Justice Department to conduct an investigation of these deaths which was nothing more than a continuation of the cover-up that started under George Bush.

    He writes that the chief investigator in the case, Teresa McHenry, “has firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department’s role in auditing such techniques, having served at the Justice Department under Bush and having participated in the preparation of at least one of those memos” which authorized the torture conducted at Guantanamo and elsewhere.  McHenry refused to discuss her role in the preparation of that memo with Horton.

    Tune in to Keith Olbermann’s Countdown tonight on MSNBC, where Horton is expected to produce new evidence casting doubt on Col. Bumgarner’s credibility.

Sinners: David Carr and Tim Arango, who wrote a worshipful, 1,943 word profile
 of fox News Chief Roger Ailes
for the front page of The New York Times–which included exactly one paragraph of balance:

         “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to,” said Matthew Freud, who is married to Ms. Murdoch and whom PR Week magazine says is the most influential public relations executive in London.”

    The other 1,878 words were favorable–because Fox is supposedly the most profitable division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  And why would anyone bother to mention that those profits come from constantly stirring up the dumbest 1 percent of the American TV audience with lies, hatred, and the never-ending tears of Glenn Beck?  The sad truth is, readers of The New York Times almost never learn the truth about Fox or Beck or the rest of the serial prevaricators on that network.  For that information, you have to be a regular viewer of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Sinner: Lloyd Grove, for his appalling review of a new biography of Molly Ivins in The New York Times Book Review–one of the worst FCP has ever read.  Who was the genius editor who decided that a failed gossip columnist like Grove would be the best person to evaluate the life of one of the most important progressive journalists of the 20th century?  According to Grove,  “Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life isn’t convincing as the biography of a significant figure in journalism”, mostly because “Ivins never wrote the big, important book about Texas that she’d always wanted to.”

The fact that she was one of the great newspaper columnists of her era, who was right about Iraq, George Bush and oh-so-much else when the geniuses in the Washington press corps were getting it all wrong, well, Grove (an alumnus of that fabulous group) doesn’t mention that.  To understand who Ivins really was, read Paul Krugman’s great column about her or FCP’s own tribute.   Or CJR’s excellent review of the book here.

Winner: The indispensable Hendrik Hertzberg, for his laugh-out-loud review  in this week’s New Yorker of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book–the first account of the 2008 campaign to be “told in the style of an airport potboiler.”  Says Hertzberg:

      Game Change is a bit like those tabloid photo features in which celebrities are caught with their cellulite showing. What do we learn from it, apart from the news that the thighs of the famous may be lumpier than they look onscreen? One lesson is that the eagerness of political operatives to trash tends to be inversely proportional to the power, present and future, of the trashee.

Winner: Tony Judt, for one of the most important pieces of 2009: What is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy, published last month in The New York Review of Books. His 6,600 word article is a devastating account of the sharp decline of the Western World over the last three decades–and essential reading for anyone disturbed by the perilous condition of American democracy.  For this, it was also the winner of the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award for December.

The Tower of Dubai

Above the Fold

 Dubai–When the world’s tallest tower was inaugurated last week, the lavish ceremony began with bag pipes and seven precision parachutists, each one jumping from the top of the 2,717 foot tower into the same small spot just in front of the VIP area, which was populated by hundreds of local residents in turbans and flowing white robes, and an equal number of business-casual-attired Westerners.

    What bridged the cultural divide between the suited and the robed?  Everyone from Judy Miller–yes, that Judy Miller–to the Sheikh of Dubai was texting, almost all the time.

   The new building, nearly twice the height of the Empire State, features the world’s
highest swimming pool, (76th floor), the highest observation deck, (124th floor) and the highest–and probably smallest–mosque (158th floor).  It’s a mix of offices and apartments, with an Armani Hotel at the base (the designer’s first).  Some days the temperature is 15 degrees warmer at the base than it is at the top.   When the building went on the market two years ago, it sold out within two days, although Dubai now has a glut of office and residential space all over the city.

   The big news of the inaugural evening was the building’s exact height (a state secret until then) and the name change announced by  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

   What had been known during construction as the Burj Dubai had suddenly become the Burj Khalifa, in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, and the head of oil-rich emirate Abu Dhabi, which so far has provided $25 billion to prop up its over-extended neighbor.   “Abu Dhabi has the oil, Dubai has the chutzpah,” a local expat explained.

    That meant the $1.5 billion glass and steel structure designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had  set another record–the highest naming fee for any structure in the history of the planet.

    After the bag pipes, the parachutists, and the Sheik’s speech, the tower exploded from top to bottom in a spectacular fireworks display, echoed in the moat in front of it by the world’s largest fountain, whose geysers pulsated and swayed in time to an Arabic Ode to Joy.

    Drowning in bad publicity since last November, when the state-owned Dubai World group succumbed to the worldwide credit crunch and requested a six-month freeze on $26 billion of debt repayments, Dubai saw a chance to use the opening of the spectacular new structure to improve its image.

    “Brand Dubai” is a new government office headed by Mona Al Marri, a dazzlingly attractive former journalist who was previously president of the Dubai Press Club.  Created five months before the crash to coordinate all media affairs, Brand Dubai invited three dozen journalists and architects from around the world to a conference on sustainable architecture, which was thrown together just three weeks before the inaugural ceremony for the stunning new Burj (“tower” in Arabic.)    New York’s Cooper Union was recruited to be the co-sponsor of the all-expenses paid junket, to which FCP was invited.

    Besides Judy Miller, conference members included Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, as well as former Clinton White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis, who carried a personal message of congratulations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Also present was the architect of the 38-story monstrosity at Broadway and 99th Street, which is twice as tall as its neighbors, and could well be the worst building erected in Manhattan in the last forty years.  Its violation of the scale of the neighborhood was so severe, it inspired a change in the zoning law to prevent any future imitators.  

    That architect’s presence was appropriate, because Dubai is one over-the-top skyscraper after another.   Oddly, the only one which seems understated is the world’s tallest, because its elegant, set-back  design makes it fit perfectly on top of its gigantic base. 

   The city has exploded from a sleepy port just thirty years ago into a center of tourism, commerce and American-style consumerism, featuring 12-lane highways and a brand new (mostly above ground) Metro with wi-fi.   It boasts twenty-eight shopping malls (including the world’s largest, with a gigantic aquarium with sharks and barracudas) and a panoply of man-made islands. Streets filled with hundreds of Mercedes, Bentleys and Rolls Royces, and the presence of Tiffany’s, Cartier, Bloomingdales, Galeries Lafayette, and just about every other major Western brand you can imagine, combine to give the desert city something of the feel of a crowded East Hampton on a July afternoon.

    It’s a strange mix of ultra-modernism, and medieval instincts, the latter leading to zero tolerance for gays and drugs, and the periodic seizure of foreign newspapers, whenever they get a little too harsh towards one of the sheiks. Two years ago a Canadian changing planes at the Dubai airport was caught with .6 of a gram of hash and two poppy bulbs.  The fact that he had been working as a consultant for the U.S. State Department’s Afghan poppy elimination program did not prevent him from receiving a four-year prison sentence.

    There is one under-the-radar gay bar, but half of its patrons are apparently undercover policemen.

    It’s also a place where the “properties” section of the Gulf News features ads for villas, hard by another one offering “Labor Camp For Rent–183 rooms, generator provided; water + electricity extra.”   The labor camps are for the foreign workers who do virtually all of the construction, and are kicked out of the country as soon as their jobs are over.   Last year, 27,550 were arrested for over-staying their welcome.  In 2007, the US State Department estimated that less than 20 percent of the UAE’s population of 4.4 million are citizens–and 93 percent of its workforce is foreign.

    The big question is whether the Burj Khalifa will mark the end of Dubai’s glory days or the beginning of its resurrection after the financial bust.  The betting here is that the oil money of its neighboring emirate and the undaunted ambitions of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed will gradually lead to the city’s financial revival.  But the plan for a massive new seawater canal through the center of the city to create waterside properties in the desert hinterland is probably on hold– forever.