April 2010 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

April 2010

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.

 

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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.

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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 ([email protected]) and Viviana Ruiz ([email protected]) 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.

 

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