August 2010 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

August 2010

Winners & Sinners / Summer Edition

Winner: Todd Purdum, for “Washington, We have a Problem,” in Vanity Fair (September print issue only, so far).  This is the best piece FCP has read about Washington in many years, the obverse of  Mark Leibovich’s 8,100 word love letter to Mike Allen on the cover of The New York Times Magazine last April (which FCP described here).

Purdum is the quintessential Washington insider, a long-time Timesman turned Vanity Fair correspondent, married to ex-Clintonista Dee Dee Myers. But somehow, Purdum manages to avoid all the Washington cliches so prominent in pieces like Leibovich’s.  Here is a small sample of Purdum’s pungent aperçus in that rarest of 10,900 word pieces – the kind you actually want to read all the way to the end:

* over many decades…the neural network of money, politics, bureaucracy, and values becomes so tautly interconnected that no individual part can be touched or fixed without affecting the whole organism, which reacts defensively.

* a new president…found himself for much of his first year in office in stalemate, pronounced an incipient failure, until the narrowest possible passage of a health-care bill made him a sudden success in the fickle view of the commentariat, whose opinion curdled again when Obama was unable, with a snap of the fingers or an outburst of anger, to stanch the BP oil spill overnight. And whose opinion spun around once more when he strong-armed BP into putting $20 billion aside to settle claims, and asserted presidential authority by replacing General Stanley McChrystal with General David Petraeus. The commentariat’s opinion will keep spinning with the wind.
* The evidence that Washington cannot function…is all around. For two years after Wall Street brought the country close to economic collapse, regulatory reform languished in partisan gridlock. A bipartisan commission to take on the federal deficit was scuttled by Republican fears in Congress that it could lead to higher taxes, and by Democratic worries about cuts to social programs. Obama was forced to create a mere advisory panel instead. Four years after Congress nearly passed a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, the two parties in Washington are farther apart than ever, and hotheaded state legislatures have stepped into the breach. Guantánamo remains an open sore because of fearmongering about the transfer of prisoners to federal prisons on the mainland.

* To Rahm Emanuel…Washington is just “Fucknutsville.”

* The press may claim the vestigial title of Fourth Estate, but it is the lobbying industry that is now effectively the fourth branch of government. Lobbyists had their biggest year ever in 2009, with expenditures of $3.5 billion, or $1.3 million for each hour that Congress was in session, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The total number of officially registered lobbyists in Washington is now about 11,000, down from a peak of nearly 15,000 in 2007, due in part to new restrictions. But that number doesn’t come close to reflecting reality…. If you throw in all the people doing “government outreach” and “congressional liaison” at the countless trade associations and advocacy groups, the total number of people in Washington working to influence the government in one way or another actually runs closer to 90,000. There were 2,500 registered lobbyists working on financial-industry reform—mainly against it—or roughly five for each member of Congress. The biggest single lobbying effort last year was mounted by the United States Chamber of Commerce (an opponent of much, if not most, of Obama’s agenda), which by itself shelled out $144 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than the total annual payroll for every elected official in Congress. (On this subject Purdum acknowledges FCP mishpokhe Robert G. Kaiser, and his splendid book, So Damn Much Money. OK, so there is a media conspiracy.)

* In the 1974 congressional elections, total spending on Senate and House races came to only $77 million. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, by 2008 the figure was $1.36 billion

* Thanks to cable, the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook, there is no such thing as a “news cycle” in Washington—only one endless, undifferentiated full-color stream of fact, opinion, and attitudinizing, where lies and misinformation flourish equally with truth.
* Fox News is waging a fiercely partisan war against the administration. When Obama flew to Prague this spring to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, continuing a process put in place by Ronald Reagan, the Fox News midday anchor, Megyn Kelly, took note of the trip as she cut to a commercial break, then added, “Now critics are asking, Will the new deal leave the U.S. defenseless until it’s too late?” Kelly’s face disappeared from the screen and was replaced by grainy black and- white footage of an exploding nuclear bomb.

* Rahm Emanuel—describing how the administration had managed the Afghan surge, which deeply divided Democrats at the very time it was counting solely on Democratic votes to get the health-care bill through the Senate, without either effort derailing the other—works himself into the ultimate insider’s amazement that “not one journalist out of 150” in “this entire fucking town” took note of the White House’s skill. “Nobody put two and
two together.”

And most importantly:

* The pace of the modern presidency—or, rather, the pace of modern life, as amplified by the media and by the impatience of the public for action of any kind—has the perverse effect of making the most measured of politicians seem out of sync, and the most visionary policies seem incremental and thus unsatisfying. By definition, it will take years for the result of changes in the nation’s health-care system, or its energy policies or education policies—or anything else of note—to be fully in place, much less fully understood, much less proven effective.  Anyone who risks taking on the toughest problems automatically risks being seen as not having done enough about them to get any credit by the time the next news cycle, or election cycle, rolls around. It’s a conundrum that vexes any president: there’s no short-term gain for long-term wisdom. Durable achievement demands a long time horizon—something that the country as a whole seems to have lost. We can’t wait for the carrots to grow—we keep pulling them up to see how they’re doing. Thus, deeply complex problems, from illegal immigration to the BP oil spill—problems that by definition have no quick or easy solution, despite their obvious urgency—become easy emblems of presumptive failure, whatever the president may actually be doing to address them.

Purdum’s Bottom Line:

* Obama’s gamble is that, if you look after the doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself. The short-term price may come in stalled poll numbers, electoral setbacks, and endless contradictory advice from the kibitzers. The payoff, if there is one, lies out on some future horizon. Obama may be right about this strategy, or he may be wrong. But it is the strategy he is following nonetheless.

Winner: The Hillman Foundation’s favorite illustrator, Edward Sorel, for his brilliant drawing in Vanity Fair, accompanying Purdum’s Washington piece.

Winners: CNN producers Karrah Kaplan and Ines Ferre.  While practically everyone else in the media (and the White House and the NAACP) was convicting Shirley Sherrod on the basis of a crudely edited videotape, Kaplan and Ferre went after the only two people who could speak authoritatively about the charge being made against her: the farmer Roger Spooner, and his wife Eloise, both of whom ended the attacks on Sherrod by identifying her as their savior.  Kaplan was the producer who located the Spooners; Ferre was the person on the ground who convinced them to go on air after they initially refused to do so.  Proving once more that shoe leather can be much more powerful than base right-wing propaganda.

Winners: New York Times labor reporter Steve Greenhouse, for spotlighting a clothing factory in the Dominican Republic that is pioneering the concept of paying its workers a living wage, and Joseph Bozich, the C.E.O. of Knights Apparel, who is “hoping to prove that doing good can be good business, that they’re not mutually exclusive.” 

Sidney Hillman would definitely approve.

Sinner: Paul Steiger, who, for the second year in a row, contradicted the implied spirit of the name of the organization he helms — ProPublica — by paying himself $571,687 in salary, plus $13,430 in other compensation in 2009, which is almost identical to what he received in 2010. ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel had defended this compensation in the past because, he said, it was 59 percent less than what Steiger made as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

But as Dan Gillmor has pointed out, according to Charity Navigator’s 2009 survey of CEO compensation at medium to large charities, the average CEO pay (including bonuses and expenses) in New York (the highest regionally), where ProPublica is based, was about $220,000 — which is less than half of what Steiger makes.

Winner: The incomparable Hendrik Hertzberg for another superb comment in The New Yorker, this time about the mosque proposed for downtown Manhattan, the cause du jour
of the wackosphere — which, in this case, includes the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.  As Hertzberg mentions, the venerable Jewish civil-rights organization has “disgracefully” defamed its own name by joining Sarah Palin in fighting against construction of the mosque — and religious freedom — in opposition to saner Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and the U.J.A.-Federation of New York.

Winner: Khadija Sharife, for a penetrating look at the dark side of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) — the “non-profit” governing body of international soccer which earned $3.3 billion from this year’s World Cup.

Winner: Frederick Kaufman, for a fine expose of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index in Harper’s Magazine (subscription required) which explains how the Wall Street octopus brought chaos to grain prices, and thereby caused a surge in famine around the world.

Winner: William “Biff” Grimes, for a superb obituary of historian (and Sidney Award winner) Tony Judt.  Beautifully written and perfectly balanced, this is New York Times obituary writing at its very best.

Winner: Gloria Feldt for a splendid piece in The Washington Post about how popular culture has altered the debate about abortion in America.



A Voice of Sanity from the Federal Bench

Above the Fold  

    Chief District Court Judge Vaughn Walker’s opinion declaring that marriage equality is a fundamental right under the constitution is the third most important Federal Court decision for gay people since the modern gay rights movement was born forty-one years ago.

    Whether or not Judge Walker’s decision becomes the law of the land will almost certainly depend on Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court–the swing voter in virtually every 5 to 4 decision of the Court, who just happens to be the author of the other two most important federal decisions in this area: Romer v. Evans, which threw out a Colorado state constitutional amendment prohibiting laws protecting gay people from discrimination, and Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated all the remaining state laws which made non-heterosexual sex illegal.  (Interestingly, in his violent dissent to Lawrence, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that Kennedy’s majority opinion would open the way to gay marriage.)

    Much of Judge Walker’s decision echoes echos both Romer and Lawrence, especially this passage from the Lawrence decision: “The fact that the governing majority in a state has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice; neither history nor tradition could save a law prohibiting miscegenation from constitutional attack.”

    What was most heartening about Judge Walker’s decision was the way it explicitly validated the view of all of the sane people who followed this trial closely: the defenders of Proposition 8, the California initiative which forbade marriage equality, failed to provide a shred of serious evidence that marriage between two members of the same sex would have any deleterious effect on anyone, for any reason.

    The star witness for the Prop 8 supporters was David Blankenhorn, president of the
American Institute for American Values, which paid him and his wife $317,500 in salary in 2008, the latest year for which records are available.   Blankenhorn was also paid for his testimony in the Proposition 8 trial, although he has refused to tell FCP how much he received. 

    Whatever the sum was, Judge Walker made it clear that the Prop 8 supporters did not get their money’s worth.

    Judge Walker’s opinion devoted an extraordinary amount of space to make Blankenhorn sound like a complete charlatan.  Among the judge’s pithier observations about Blankenhorn’s testimony:

* Blankenhorn lacks the qualifications to offer opinion testimony and, in any event, failed to provide cogent testimony in support of proponents’ factual assertions.

* He has no degree in sociology, psychology or anthropology despite the importance of those fields to the subjects of marriage, fatherhood and family structure;

* His study of the effects of same-sex marriage involved “read[ing] articles and
ha[ving] conversations with people, and tr[ying] to be an informed
person about it

* He relied on the quotations of others to define marriage and provided no explanation of the meaning of the passages he cited or their sources.

* Nothing in the record other than the “bald assurance”of Blankenhorn suggests that
Blankenhorn’s investigation into marriage has been conducted to the “same level of intellectual rigor” characterizing the practice of anthropologists, sociologists or psychologists.

* Blankenhorn’s conclusion that married biological parents provide a better family form than married non-biological parents is not supported by the evidence on which he relied because the evidence does not, and does not claim to, compare biological to non-biological parents.

* Blankenhorn gave absolutely no explanation why manifestations of the deinstitutionalization of marriage would be exacerbated (and not, for example, ameliorated) by the presence of marriage for same-sex couples.

* Much of his testimony was contradicted by his opinions.

* Blankenhorn agreed that children raised by same-sex couples would benefit if their parents were permitted to marry. Blankenhorn also testified he wrote and agrees with the statement “I believe that today the principle of equal human dignity must apply to gay and lesbian persons. In that sense, insofar as we are a nation founded on this principle, we would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were the day before.”

* The court now determines that Blankenhorn’s testimony constitutes inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight.

    Judge Walker was equally contemptuous of the testimony of Kenneth P. Miller, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, whose opinions in the trial, the judge said, “were inconsistent with the opinions he expressed before he was retained as an expert.  Specifically, Miller previously wrote that gays and lesbians, like other minorities, are vulnerable and powerless in the initiative process, contradicting his trial testimony that gays and lesbians are not politically vulnerable with respect to the initiative process.”

    Since the judge, as the trier of facts, dismissed all of the testimony of the star witnesses in opposition to marriage quality, it will be  much more difficult for any appeals court to find a basis for over-turning his decision.

    As John Schwartz explained in a fine article in the Times “appeals court judges and the justices at the highest court in the land could find themselves boxed in by the careful logic and structure of Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s opinion.”

    And as Andrew Koppelman, a professor at Northwestern Law School, explained to Schwartz,  “while appeals courts often overturn lower-court judges on their findings of law — like the proper level of scrutiny to apply to Proposition 8 — findings of fact are traditionally given greater deference.  ‘They are supposed to take as true facts found by the district court, unless they are clearly erroneous.  This opinion shows why district courts matter, even though the Supreme Court has the last word.’”

    Furthermore, instead or relying on “strict scrutiny,” Judge Walker said Proposition 8 does not even meet “a rational basis review”–which also makes it harder for a higher court to over-turn him

    Judge Walker happens to be gay himself–the San Francisco Chronicle called his orientation “an open secret”–so naturally the wackos are already calling for his impeachment, in their never-ending quest to use hatred to raise money for their dubious organizations.  Tim Wildmon, President of the American Family Association, was among the very first to use the judge’s opinion to send out a new fund-raising appeal to his members.

    But as Monroe H. Freedman of Hofstra Law School pointed out in the Times   “You could say, ‘If a gay judge is disqualified, how about a straight judge?’ There isn’t anybody about whom somebody might say, ‘You’re not truly impartial in this case.’ ” And another legal expert said that if no one had tried to get the judge to recuse himself before the trial, it’s too late to call him unqualified after he had rendered his decision.

    Judge Walker’s opinion was a huge victory for the odd couple  who argued that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, David Boies and Ted Olson–who have said all along that the law was so clearly in their favor, the measure’s unconstitutionality would be self-evident to anyone who was serious about this subject.

    Judge Walker has written an opinion which has richly confirmed that point of view.  “The Judge obviously intended this to be his monument,” said Matt Coles, the eminence grise of gay litigation at the American Civil Liberties Union, “and it is his monument.”

    Now all we need is for Anthony Kennedy  to emulate Judge Walker, and genuine marriage equality will finally be the law of the land.