May 2010 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

May 2010

Finally, A Chance for Equality

 Above the Fold

 

Second Update: History In the Making: (11:36 PM Thursday) So far, the Service Chiefs are getting exactly the attention they deserve: none.  In an historic action, the House of Representatives voted today 234 to 194 to repeal the loathsome policy which has forbidden gays and lesbians from serving openly for decades.  Two hundred and twenty-nine Democrats and 5 Republicans voted  in favor; 168 Republicans and 26 Democrats voted against.  Bravo! to Congressman Patrick Murphy of Pennslylvania, the Iraqi veteran who led the fight in the house.   And kudos to Joe Lieberman and Carl Levin in th Senate, who achieved the same result in the Senate Armed Services Committee, by a vote of  16 to 12.

Bottom line,”  said Joe Lieberman, “thousands of service members have been pushed out of the U.S. military not because they were inadequate or bad soldiers, sailors, Marines or airmen but because of their sexual orientation. And that’s not what America is all about.” 

Which proves that if you live long enough, you can hear anything–even a noble statement from the Independent Senator from Connecticut.

Update: (1:07 AM Thursday):   In act as despicable as it is extra-constitutional, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marines wrote letters to Senator John McCain late yesterday, directly challenging the position of the President, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all of whom have endorsed the compromise legislation before Congress to repeal don’t ask don’t tell.

In the letters solicited by McCain,  the chiefs asked Congress to delay voting on the bill until after the Pentagon completes its wholly superfluous review of the current, disastrous policy.

Together with everything else he has said and done this year, this action makes McCain as craven as any other slave of the lunatic fringe of his party.

If anything like this had happened when Harry Truman was president, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Naval Chief of Operations Admiral Gary Roughead would surely have been fired for outright insubordination.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman John M. D. Shalikashvili immediately fired back at the Service Chiefs in a letter to Senators Carl Levin and Joe Lieberman.  Shalikashvili wrote  “there is nothing in these letters that gives Congress any reason to delay enacting the legislative compromise that was proposed this week….It is not only preferable, but essential that 10 U.S.C. § 654 be repealed in order for the service chiefs to retain the very authority they require to do their jobs effectively.”

————————————————————————————————————

     For the last time–please god!–there is no serious reason grounded in policy or politics to prevent gays and lesbians from serving openly in the United States military.

    The current policy damages national security, baffles most soldiers under 30, has cost taxpayers $1.3 billion–and is opposed by at least 75 percent of American adults, according to recent polls for CNN  and ABC and The Washington Post

    Will this be the week when the White House finally demonstrates that it has understood that?

    So far, the indications are murky at best.  Although the White House did sign off on a compromise which would allow Congress to repeal the current law–but let the president decide exactly when that repeal will take effect–it announced its support in the most tepid way possible.

   As Kerry Eleveld pointed out at advocate.com, “Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag joined Defense Secretary Robert Gates in saying that ‘ideally’ the Pentagon’s study would be completed prior to a vote. But since ‘Congress has chosen to move forward with legislation now,’ Orszag conceded the proposed amendment “meets the concerns” that have been voiced by Defense secretary Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

    That’s a position that puts the White House several steps behind Senator Joe Lieberman on an issue of common sense and fundamental human justice. Several steps behind Lieberman isn’t a bad place for the White House to be on this subject–it’s a humiliating and disgraceful place.

    Barack Obama promised dozens of times during the presidential campaign that he would repeal this idiotic policy, and repeated that promise in his most recent State of the Union message–promises which prompted Jon Stewart to point out that “‘yes we can’ doesn’t mean that we will.”

    Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen gave courageous testimony  last February calling for repeal of the policy, and declaring, “the great young men of our military can and would accommodate such a change–I never underestimated their ability to adapt.” And speaking to graduating Air Force Cadets today, Mullen reiterated: “Few things are more important to an organization than people who have the moral courage to question the direction in which the organization is going–and then the strength of character to support whatever final decisions are made.”

    Meanwhile, three openly gay officers from Holland, Sweden and Great Britain ridiculed the current policy in a piece in Politico.  Among their points:

* Though we maintain a respect for the American people, their military and political process, we share a sense of puzzlement — and a sort of shock — at the rhetoric we heard surrounding “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”..We are aware of colleagues in our own militaries who don’t like it that gays and lesbians serve openly. However, despite considerable fears before we enacted these policies, such attitudes are rare.

* Moral opposition to homosexuality, while real, is just not allowed to undercut our militaries’ missions. Nor do we think it will have any impact on yours after you repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

*This is an important point, because many Americans seem to believe that ending anti-gay discrimination in European and Israeli militaries faced no resistance because our cultures are more tolerant. In fact, our polls, rhetoric and even threats of mass resignations were quite similar to the continuing resistance in America. Yet none of the doomsday scenarios came true.

    And as anyone with regular contact with modern American officers will tell you,  many field grade officers think the ban should be lifted, and virtually all of them recognize that most of today’s younger troops see nothing wrong with openly gay service. The climate is very different today from what it was in the early 1990s.

    It is time for Barack Obama to prove once and for all that he realizes that discrimination against gay people is just as heinous as discrimination against African-Americans–and to show the same kind of gumption that Harry Truman demonstrated when he integrated the Armed Forces after World War II

   Idiots like Republican congressman Mike Pence say “the American people don’t want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda”–but 75 percent of the American public say they disagree with him.  As Rachel Maddow asked last night, “Do 75 percent of the people even believe that the earth is round?”

    The most courageous man in this fight has been Patrick Murphy, an Iraq veteran and a Pennsylvania Congressman who has fought tirelessly to get the current law repealed.  Passage of the reform law in the House this week seems likely.  The outcome in the Senate Armed Services Committee remains in doubt.

   Aaron Belkin and Nathaniel Frank have spent most of the last decade laying the intellectual groundwork for this change.  “If this goes through the Senate, this is going to be historic,” Belkin told FCP today. “Forecasting is an inexact science but hopefully we will have reason to celebrate soon.”

    Since the passage of health care reform, we have known that this White House is capable of twisting arms on Capitol Hill when it thinks it is necessary.   Now is the time for Barack Obama to prove to his progressive constituency that at least some of their ideals still matter to him.  Late this afternoon, Senator Ben Nelson announced his support for the compromise–a very good sign indeed.

    But if the president fails to convince the Senate to pass the necessary amendment to the Defense appropriations bill this week–an amendment supported by three quarters of the public–none of us should ever forgive him.

                                            

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The Times and Its Sources

Above the Fold

         The New York Times reported yesterday that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had lied about serving in Vietnam, although he was a member of the Marine Corps reserves during the Vietnam War.

     The next day, the Times reported that his best-financed Republican opponent, Linda McMahon–the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, who promises to spend up to $50 million of her own money in the campaign–had taken credit for feeding the story about Blumenthal to the Times.

          “Ms. McMahon’s campaign sought to claim credit for aspects of The Times’s article, apparently in a bid to impress Republican delegates that her resources would give her the greatest chance of defeating Mr. Blumenthal, who had seemed invincible,” David M. Halbfinger and James Barron write in today’s paper.

    All of which left this reader with one glaring question: Was it true that the Times was prompted to do this hatchet job on Blumenthal by one of the candidate’s mortal enemies?

   If McMahon’s campaign was the source of the original story, it probably made a deal with the reporter to shield its identity.  But once the story had appeared and her campaign had taken credit for it on its own website, clearly the Times was no longer bound by any such agreement.  So why did it report that she “sought to take credit for aspects of The Times article”–but then failed to tell the reader whether she really was the source or not?

   FCP telephoned Times metropolitan editor Joe Sexton, and was told that he was off for the day.   Then David Halbfinger told FCP he would “not be interviewed for a blog,” and referred FCP to the metro political editor, Carolyn RyanJames Barron  also referred FCP to Ryan; then Barron went off the record–to refuse to provide FCP with Ryan’s e-mail address.  By happy coincidence, ten minutes later, FCP received an e-mail from another Times editor which just happened to include Ryan’s address.

   FCP then left a voicemail for Ryan, and followed up with an e-mail, both of which were apparently passed to Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty, who wrote FCP: “As a matter of general policy, The Times does not discuss sourcing for its stories. The reporting about AG Blumenthal’s Vietnam War era service was based on many sources and countless hours of research.”

   Of course, the truth is, a reporter’s first obligation is to reveal as much as he can in his own story about who his sources are–which is why the paper requires every reference to an anonymous source to include an explanation of why the source needed to be anonymous.

   In any case, McNulty’s statement ignored the fact that the author of the original Times story, Ray Hernandez, had discussed the sourcing of his story on the Brian Lehrer Show  on NPR yesterday, when Hartford political reporter Colin McEnroe pressed him on whether or not McMahon’s campaign had been his original source.

   “In general I don’t discuss this level of detail” about his sources, Hernandez said.  Pressed again, Hernandez said, “Did this story have its origins in the McMahon campaign? The answer is no.  This story was the product of independent, dogged reporting.”  But then Hernandez seemed to undercut his own denial when he added, “So, the point of the question is what?  Does it mean what you see or reading is not so?”

   As one former top editor of The Times e-mailed FCP this evening, “Hernandez on Brian Lehrer sounds very lame–unprepared to deal with the sourcing issue.”  And another former top editor of the paper agreed that it was outrageous for the Times not to tell its readers in its own story whether or not McMahon was its source–especially after reporting that her campaign had said that it was.

   It is certainly true that on one occasion–and only one occasion which the Times could document–Richard Blumenthal did say the words “I served in Vietnam.” And a couple of other times he said ambiguous things about his service in the Marine Corps Reserves that might or might not imply that he served in Indochina.  But it is also true that during a debate with another Senate candidate, Blumenthal made it clear that he had not served in Vietnam.

    Today a new Ramussen poll showed Blumenthal’s support plummeting because of the Times story.  But many of Hartford’s most senior political reporters said they had never heard Blumenthal misrepresent his military service.

    For example, on Hartford’s Channel 8 tonight, the station’s veteran political reporter, Mark Davis, declared, “I’ve covered him for 30 years and I’ve never, ever heard him say he served in Vietnam.”

    In a post on the Harford Courant website, Colin McEnroe–who is another widely-respected political reporter–made the following points, all of which FCP heartily agrees with:

* Raymond Hernandez’s story is paper-thin and overplayed. No question, he’s got one video clip in which Blumenthal says he was in Vietnam. And he’s got, five years earlier, a quote attributed to Blumenthal where he says “we” in way that’s at least open to multiple interpretations. And that’s it. That – and those recollections by Jean Risley who has apparently repudiated the Times’s reporting – are the whole basis for his huge above-the-fold page one story. In all the other times that Blumenthal put his military service on the record, as far as I can tell, he’s been truthful about who he was. Certainly, in his debate with Merrick Alpert, he clearly said he did not serve in Vietnam.

*  If Blumenthal can produce extensive evidence that he’s been truthful, repeatedly, about his service record, it would be fair to ask whether the Times has taken one stumble or slip of the tongue and turned it into a page one story alleging, without really proving, a pattern of deception.

*  I’m disturbed by the divergence in accounts between the McMahon campaign and Hernandez about where this story came from. Hernandez’s defensiveness with me on the Brian Lehrer show was odd, especially his insistence that he does not discuss in detail how he gets his stories. I thought the drift of the Times, post-Jayson Blair, favored full disclosure of sources unless there were a material reason for letting them go off the record. Certainly the McMahon campaign doesn’t seem to have considered itself off the record.

*  Some of you asked whether the provenance of the information matters. It’s not the primary issue in this story, but it does matter. The SPJ Code of Ethics is clear that the motivation of sources matters. I think there’s a difference between a story that is the fruit of hundreds and maybe thousands of hours of opposition research, combing tapes and transcripts for a Blumenthal slip-up, and a story that evolves organically in the way Hernandez is claiming this one did, after he “had heard varying stories” about Blumenthal’s inflation of his record.

   And then there is this.  Hernandez wrote in his piece that “in early1968” President Johnson “abolished nearly all graduate deferments and sharply increased the number of troops sent to Southeast Asia.”  But only half of that statement is true.

    Johnson did abolish nearly all graduate deferments–but LBJ (very famously) rejected William Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 additional troops, on top of the 510,000 already serving in Vietnam in March of 1968.  Instead, Johnson withdrew from the race for the presidency, and approved only 13,500 additional troops for the war–an increase of less than 3 percent over the number already there in March of 1968.

    On this point, Times night metro editor Peter Khoury told FCP, “I spoke with Ray Hernandez, who provided me with figures showing the number of US troops in Veitnam went from 485,000 at the end of 1967 to 536,100 at the end of 1968, an increase of more than 10 percent.  We feel the wording was appropriate.” 

   Whether or not a 10 percent increase is “sharp increase,” there’s another problem with Khoury’s statement: According to The New York Times of October 9, 1967, the number of troops in Vietnam at that moment was 500,000–not the 485,000 Hernandez told his editor.

   You could look it up–in your own archive.

Martha Ritter contributed essential  reporting from Hartford.

 

                                                                -30-

 

Update: Colin McEnroe is now reporting that he has heard from nine senior Connecticut reporters today–all of whom said they had either heard Blumenthal describe his military service correctly, or, they had never heard him say he had served in Vietnam.   Just one photographer remembered things differently.

Second Update: It’s interesting that Carolyn Ryan was willing to go on MSNBC’s  Morning Joe to promote the Hernandez story yesterday, but refused to answer any questions from FCP about it today.

Winners & Sinners : 60 Minutes Scoops the World

 

The week’s Biggest Winners: 60 Minutes producers Solly Granatstein and Graham Messick, and correspondent Scott Pelley, for the most revealing story anywhere about the catastrophic oil rig explosion in the Gulf.

   It’s a very rare event, nowadays, when a network news division scoops everybody else on the biggest story of the moment, but that’s exactly what 60 Minutes did last night, when it found  two key people who could blow the Deepwater Horizon story wide open. 60 Minutes did not draw this conclusion, but the implication of criminal malfeasance by BP permeated the broadcast.

   Mike Williams was the chief electronics technician, working for Transocean on the rig, and he exudes the kind of all-American-Atticus-Finch-authenticity that makes him a uniquely credible witness.  He was also one of the last men to leave the rig alive.  His appearance on the double-length 60 Minutes segment was edge-of-your-seat television from start to finish.   According to the overnights, 11.5 million viewers tuned in.

    Williams said he was pinned down by two different three-inch-thick, steel, fire-rated doors–after each of them was blown off its six stainless steel hinges by successive explosions on the rig–before he finally managed to get outside and jump one hundred feet into the ocean.

    After he hit the water, Williams thought, “I must have burned up, ‘cause I don’t feel anything, I don’t hear anything, I don’t smell anything. I must be dead.’ And I remember a real faint voice of, ‘Over here, over here.’ I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’ And the next thing I know, he grabbed my lifejacket and flipped me over into this small open bow boat. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know where he’d come from, I didn’t care. I was now out of the water.”

    But just as dramatic as Williams’ survival is his account of the successive mishaps on board the giant rig that led inexorably to the final catastrophe.  These were the story’s key findings:

* The tension in every drilling operation is between doing things safely and doing them fast; time is money and this job was costing BP a million dollars a day. With the schedule slipping, Williams says a BP manager ordered a faster pace–bumping up the rate of penetration of the ocean floor.

 *Going faster caused the bottom of the well to split open, swallowing tools and the drilling fluid called “mud.” “We actually got stuck. And we got stuck so bad we had to send tools down into the drill pipe and sever the pipe,” Williams explained. That well was abandoned and Deepwater Horizon had to drill a new route to the oil. It cost BP more than two weeks and millions of dollars

*  Williams says there was an accident on the rig that has not been reported before. Four weeks before the explosion, the rig’s most vital piece of safety equipment, its blowout preventer, or BOP, was damaged.

* The BOP is used to seal the well shut in order to test the pressure and integrity of the well, and, in case of a blowout, it’s the crew’s only hope. A key component is a rubber gasket at the top called an “annular,” which can close tightly around the drill pipe.

* While the BOP was shut tight, a crewman on deck accidentally nudged a joystick, applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of force, and moving 15 feet of drill pipe through the closed blowout preventer. Later, a man monitoring drilling fluid “discovered chunks of rubber in the drilling fluid.”

* Williams asked the supervisor if  the chunks of remember were unuusal, and he said, “‘Oh, it’s no big deal.’”  And Williams thought, “How can it be not a big deal? There’s chunks of our seal is now missing.”

*The BOP is operated from the surface by wires connected to two control pods; one is a back-up. Williams says one pod lost some of its function weeks before the explosion.

* A representative of Transocean was explaining how they were going to close the well when the manager from BP interrupted.  “I had the BP company man sitting directly beside me,” Williams remembered.  “And he…said, ‘Well, my process is different. And I think we’re gonna do it this way.’ And they kind of lined out how he thought it should go that day. So there was short of a chest-bumping kind of deal.”

* Several BP managers were on the Deepwater Horizon for a ceremony to congratulate the crew for seven years without an injury. While they where there, a surge of explosive gas came flying up the well from three miles below. The rig’s diesel engines, which power its electric generators, sucked in the gas and began to run wild.  After that there were “take-your-breath-away type explosions, shake your body to the core explosions. Take your vision away from the percussion of the explosions.”

* 60 Minutes asked Dr. Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, to analyze Williams’ story. The White House has also asked Bea to analyze the Deepwater Horizon accident.  Bea previously investigated the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster for NASA and  Hurricane Katrina  for the National Science Foundation.

* “According to Williams, when parts of the annular start coming up on the deck someone from Transocean says, ‘Look, don’t worry about it.’ What does that tell you?” Pelley asked Bea.

“Houston, we have a problem,” Bea replied.

* “So if the annular is damaged, if I understand you correctly, you can’t do the pressure tests in a reliable way?” Pelley asked.

“That’s correct,” Bea explained. “You may get pressure test recordings, but because you’re leaking pressure, they are not reliable.”

*In finishing the well, the plan was to have a subcontractor, Halliburton, place three concrete plugs, like corks, in the column. The Transocean manager wanted to do this with the column full of heavy drilling fluid - what drillers call “mud” - to keep the pressure down below contained. But the BP manager wanted to begin to remove the “mud” before the last plug was set. That would reduce the pressure controlling the well before the plugs were finished.

*Asked why BP would do that, Bea told Pelley, “It expedites the subsequent steps.”

“It’s a matter of going faster,” Pelley remarked.

“Faster, sure,” Bea replied.

Bea said BP had won that argument.

* “If the ‘mud’ had been left in the column, would there have been a blowout?” Pelley asked.

“It doesn’t look like it,” Bea replied.

*Weeks before the disaster they know they are drilling in a dangerous formation, the formation has told them that,” Pelley remarked.

“Correct,” Bea replied.

“And has cost them millions of dollars. And the blowout preventer is broken in a number of ways,” Pelley remarked.

“Correct,” Bea replied.

* Asked what would be the right thing to do at that point, Bea said, “I express it to my students this way, ‘Stop, think, don’t do something stupid.’”

*  They didn’t stop. As the drilling fluid was removed, downward pressure was relieved; the bottom plug failed. The blowout preventer didn’t work. And 11 men were incinerated. One hundred and fifteen crewmembers survived.

The Bottom Line:
Who is responsible for the Deepwater Horizon accident?

Bea said, BP.”

—–

Winners: Stephen Colbert and veteran Daily Show correspondent Lewis Black for doing what the mainstream press consistently fails to do: giving Glenn Beck exactly the treatment he deserves.  Black focuses on Beck’s Nazi Tourette Syndrome, while Colbert describes Beck’s pornographic plan to gather his supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial next August–on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

See them both below:

  

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Glenn to the Mountaintop
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck’s Nazi Tourette’s
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Kagan, Obama, and the Uses of Distortion

Above the Fold

    President Barack Obama has nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be the 112th justice of the United States Supreme Court.  If the Senate confirms her–which today seems highly likely–she will also be the third woman, the third Jew, and the fourth New Yorker among the current justices.

    Kagan is acknowledged by nearly all sentient beings to be a brilliant lawyer, an extraordinary teacher, an impressive scholar, one of the most successful deans in the history of the Harvard Law School, and an extremely competent solicitor general.

    Presidents naturally gravitate toward people whom they fell comfortable with; and Obama obviously sees a great deal of himself in a highly intelligent, fiercely disciplined, and unabashedly ambitious lawyer who he has known since they were colleagues together at the University of Chicago, almost twenty years ago.

    Barack was famous for bringing harmony to the Harvard Law Review; Elena is famous for bringing harmony to the Harvard Law School.

    New York Times columnist David Brooks concedes that Kagan is, “smart, deft and friendly” and “a superb teacher” who “has the ability to process many points of view and to mediate between different factions.”   But, according to Brooks, she is also “apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious.”   And “strategic.”

    Good god!  A prudential, deliberate and cautious Supreme Court Justice.  What could be more dangerous than that?  Apparently not much, in the mind of the Times columnist, because he concludes his analysis by stating that “her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, [is] kind of disturbing.”

    In other words, because she has apparently wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice for a really long time (she’s already wearing robes in the photo of her in the Hunter College High School yearbook), she realized that her chances of reaching that goal would be greatly enhanced if there weren’t a hundred published opinions the Senate could grill her about when she was nominated.   So she has been relatively reluctant to express herself.

    This reticence has been twisted by Brooks and others into proof that she has never had any strong opinions (and actually “suppressed” her mind.)   Then, over on the left, the usually estimable Glenn Greenwald, sees “disturbing risks posed by Kagan’s strange silence on most key legal questions,” as well as “serious red flags raised by what little there is to examine in her record.”  Greenwald has also asserted that Kagan’s appointment “would shift the Court substantially to the Right on a litany of key issues (at least as much as the shift accomplished by George Bush’s selection of the right-wing ideologue Sam Alito to replace the more moderate Sandra Day O’Connor)”–a statement for which FCP frankly sees no convincing evidence whatsoever.

    What we actually have here are knee-jerk conservatives like Brooks, who are eager to invent any impediment they can to prevent Kagan’s confirmation, and knee-jerk liberals like Greenwald (who FCP usually admires), who may be making Kagan a vessel for all of their other disappointments with Obama, from his failure to get a public option included in the health care reform bill, to his embrace of some of the more egregious elements of George Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.

    On Cable TV, of course, the reductum ad absurdum is already everywhere, with great Americans  like Bay Buchanan regurgitating the right-wing talking-point du jour, which is that Kagan is exactly like Harriet Myers–“except for the Ivy League part.”

    Jon Stewart explained what Buchanan said really meant:  the two women are exactly the same “except for the dumb part.”  Stewart added Tuesday night, “that’s just like saying the only difference between me and Michael Jordan is athletic ability.”

    Stewart also boiled down soundbites from everyone from John Heilemann to Diane Sawyer into just two sentences: “She’s a reckless blank entity with no paper trail” and “She’s a short, chimney-smoking, beer-guzzling poker player.”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Release the Kagan
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

    Of course, everything is relative, which means that some paperless trails are a good deal less paperless than others.    So while it is true that Kagan has only published a handful of scholarly articles, it is also true that  her article on Presidential Administration is 67,000 words long (How’s that for “mind suppression,” Mr. Brooks?)

    The heart of Kagan’s argument in that article is that Bill Clinton “made the regulatory activity of the executive branch agencies into an extension of his own policy and political agenda. He did so, primarily, by exercising directive authority over these agencies and asserting personal ownership of their regulatory activity–demonstrating in the process, against conventional wisdom, that enhanced presidential control over administration can serve pro-regulatory objectives.”

    Enhancing presidential control to serve pro-regulatory objectives strikes FCP as a firmly progressive position, and even Greenwald concedes that “what Kagan was defending back then was many universes away from what Bush/Cheney ended up doing, and her defense of Clinton’s theories of administrative power was nuanced, complex and explicitly cognizant of the Constitutional questions they might raise.”

    But then, in the same post, Greenwald goes on to quote approvingly from Neal Katyal, (currently Kagan’s deputy) who, Greenwald wrote, “emphatically criticized Kagan’s theories in that law review article as executive overreach and even linked them to the Bush/Cheney executive power seizures.”     A link which FCP frankly finds preposterous.

    Harper’s Scott Horton has been much more sensible than everyone else on the left about Kagan’s nomination.   Horton has been just as vitriolic as Greenwald about Obama’s embrace of some elements of his predecessor’s anti-terrorism policies.   And Horton is not unsympathetic to Greenwald’s argument that “Obama has missed the opportunity to appoint a worthy successor to Stevens to lead the fight against rampaging executive power.”

     However, Horton also describes  Kagan’s lengthy article on presidential administration as “a beautiful, extremely perceptive work, closely observed, brilliantly reasoned, and cautious.  In it, Kagan notes the increase of presidential power as Congress builds the administrative and regulatory state.  The powers that Congress vests in regulatory agencies are necessarily assumed and controlled by the president.  Kagan writes as a detached observer, yet there is much to suggest her admiration for the evolution of the strong presidency in the period after World War II.”

    Then Horton gets to the heart of the matter about Kagan’s nominaton, and in the process ends up sounding more sensible than anyone else FCP has read on this subject so far:

    The test is not whether Elena Kagan is the candidate each critic would have picked but whether she has the essential qualifications to be a justice of the Supreme Court and if so, whether she has any views on constitutional doctrine that are so far from the mainstream that they are disqualifying. Kagan will clearly pass this test, and civil libertarians need to get over their distrust of her capacity to listen to and understand conservatives with whom they disagree. That’s an admirable quality for a judge, and it will serve Kagan well on the Supreme Court.

   That is also a quality which may enable Kagan to get Justice Anthony Kennedy to vote with the liberal bloc on the Court at least as often as Justice Stevens did.  Since Kennedy’s swing vote is the only thing that presently makes progressive decisions possible, that capacity is more important to the future direction of the Court than anything else.   

                                                                            -30-

 

For everything else you need to know about Kagan’s record, go here on the New York Times website, or here at scotusblog.com

Special thanks to FCP contributor SRS.

—————–

Update: As the estimable James Barron points out on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times, if Kagan is confirmed, Staten Island will be the only one of New York City’s five boroughs without its own personal representative on the high court.   “Kagan is so Manhattan, Scalia is so Queens, Ginsburg is so Brooklyn and Sotomayor is so Bronx,’”  Joan Biskupic told The Times.

 

 

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.

                                                                       -30-

 

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.)