September 2010 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

September 2010

Winners & Sinners


Left to right: Derek Leebaert, Jonathan Karl, Lisa Meyers




Winner, Derek Leebaert, author of Magic And Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan.

        Forget about Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, full of pettiness (and petty scooplets) and devoid, as always, of any meaningful analysis whatsoever.  By far the most interesting book this month from Alice Mayhew (and Simon and Schuster) is Magic and Mayhem, a superb account of the “magical thinking” responsible for America’s capacity to repeat the same foreign policy disaster over and over again since the end of World War II.

        Written by Derek Leebaert, a management consultant who has taught foreign policy at Georgetown since 1996, the book describes America’s interventions in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq as “surrounded by a host of dangerous self-deceptions” that he sums up as “magical thinking.”

        I call it ‘magical’ because shrewd, levelheaded people are so frequently bewitched into substituting passion, sloganeering and haste for reflect on, homework, and reasonable objectives…When we think magically, we expect to  astounding outcomes of our own design…Magical thinking entails seductive, familiarizing rituals.  In the excitements of global policy, we court some truly grim entities as imginary friends, such as venal client states that eventually implode and splatter us in their collapse…We resort to bad analogies and inferior quanitative techniques while stilling our doubts with mantras of ‘stabiility’ and ‘democratcy’ accompanied by the usual creepy euphemisms like ‘collateral damage,” “enhanced interrorogation,’ or percentage of ‘DOE,” meaning ‘Death on Earth.  When the outcomes do not match expectations, as has been to often the case, it is magically assumed that it was the particulars that were gotten wrong, not that the overall objective was misconceived.”

        Barack Obama should make this book required reading for everyone participating in the Afghanistan review due to be completed this December.

Sinner: ABC’s Jonathan Karl, for a World News piece about Christine O’Donnell which was devoted exclusively to the irrelevance of attacks on the Delaware Republican Senate nominee for her admitted dalliance with Satanism.    By focusing exclusively on that charge, Karl’s piece made O’Donnell look like a victim of elitists–instead of the dangerous fool who promised  George Stephanpoulos   that when elected, she would fight “to defend the homeland of our security.”  Among O’Donnell’s other greatest hits, none of which is getting the attention it deserves from the MSM:

* O’Donnell excused gay bashing as ‘kids being kids’; asked if she could “understand why gays might be upset?” by someone calling homosexuality a “deviant sexual orientation,” O’Donnell replied, “Absolutely not. I cannot understand.”

* She believes the proper role of a woman is to “submit” to her husband. ”This is not about merely a Baptist doctrine. This is a biblical doctrine.”

* She thinks that spouses who have been cheated on possess compromised ‘purity.’

* She once told Joe Scarborough that she wants to stop “the whole country from having sex.”

 * She thinks that distributing condoms to teenagers ‘reduc[es]them to the level of a dog.’ and that condom distribution is “‘just going to further the spread of AIDS.”
* She warned that allowing women to attend military academies “cripples the readiness of our defense.”

And finally, FCP’s personal favorite (Satanism, anyone?):

*  O’Donnell thinks The Sopranos are a model family. “The thing that attracts people to The Sopranos is the family element. It shows that America still has a longing for that traditional upbringing.”

For the complete list, see this excellent compilation from ThinkProgress.

Sinners:  Ariana Eunjung Cha and Nia-Malika Henderson of The Washington Post  and the always-ordinary Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times for two woefully inadequate accounts of the president’s interview by John Harwood of CNBC. (The account on NBC’s Nightly News was just as bad.)  All three focused almost exclusively on the unhappiness of some of the president’s questioners, while ignoring the real lead of the story, which was only available from
Michael A. Memoli in The Los Angeles Times: “President Obama sought to challenge critics who say his administration has been hostile to businesses, arguing in a televised forum Monday that measures he has taken to stabilize the economy have boosted the private sector….While some have accused him of being hostile to Wall Street, Obama said a “big chunk” of the nation “feels like I’ve been too soft on Wall Street.”

Another quote from the president you didn’t see in The New York Times or Washington Post stories:

A big source of frustration – this quote that you just said, this was me acting like Hitler going into Poland, had to do with a proposal to change a rule called “carried interest,” which basically allows hedge fund managers to get taxed at 15 percent on their income. Now, everybody else is getting taxed at a lot more. (Laughter.) The secretary of the hedge fund is probably being taxed at 25, 28 – right? And these folks are making – getting taxed at 15….The notion that somehow me saying maybe you should be taxed more like your secretary, when you’re pulling home a billion dollars or a hundred million dollars a year, I don’t think is me being extremist or being anti-business. (Applause.) And that’s the confusion we get into.

Sinners: Anne Thompson and Lisa Myers, both of whom took turns on NBC’s Nightly News this week, attacking Ken Feinberg for making payouts too slowly to victims of the Gulf Spill from the BP relief fund.  Thompson said Feinberg’s record was no better than BP’s, and Myers followed up a couple of days later with multiple complaints against Feinberg’s performance.   What neither of them reported: according to a Reuters story earlier this week, from Aug. 23 to Sept. 3 Feinberg was paying out roughly $3.5 million a day, about the same daily amount as BP had been paying when it operated the fund. But since September 3, Feinberg has been paying out an average of $12.5 million–an increase of much more than 300 percent.

Reached by FCP, Myers said: “I have no doubt that the numbers reflect that more checks are going out,” and she acknowledged that her main sources for the story were lawyers for people seeking payouts.  She added.  “I would be surprised if Mr. Feinberg thought that we were unfair.”

Anne Thompson acknowledged receipt of FCP’s inquiry, but did not respond to it.



Remembering Paul Conrad

An FCP guest post

By Harold Meyerson

    In bestowing our awards on trenchant, progressive journalism here at Hillman, there’s one category of TPJ we have generally overlooked: editorial cartooning. But if ever there was a journalist with a trenchant, progressive body of work, it was Paul Conrad, the great editorial cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times, who died earlier this month at age 86. Conrad was surely the nation’s pre-eminent editorial cartoonist from the mid-Sixties through the early Nineties, as the Washington Post’s Herbert Block (Herblock) was in the decades before.
   Conrad cartoons didn’t speak to the reader; they shrieked. He drew from a well of Swiftian savage indignation, and splashed his ire over racists, militarists, and right-wingers in general, and Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan (both as governor and president), and Sam Yorty (the demagogic mayor of Los Angeles in the Sixties and early Seventies) in particular.
    Like his fellow Angeleno Raymond Chandler, Conrad was at home in noir. There was often a lot of black in Conrad cartoons – in particular, shading or surrounding that most noir-ish of politicos, Nixon. For an Angeleno such as I, steeped in lore and power of the Times, Conrad’s war on Nixon (who, in turn, put Conrad on his enemies list) was the happiest of turn-abouts. The pre-Otis-Chandler Times had virtually created Nixon, with political editor Kyle Palmer making sure that the news pages sung his praises from his first congressional campaign in 1946 through his first presidential campaign in 1960. But that was the year that Otis took over the paper from his father and, to the dismay of the rest of the Chandler family, began remaking the Times into a great paper. Nothing sped that conversion more than his hiring of Conrad (from the Denver Post) in 1964. 

    For the next 22 years, as publisher and then as chairman of the company, Otis protected Conrad from the rage of L.A.’s conservative elites, prominent among whom were other members of the Chandler family, which owned the paper.  But in 1986, the Chandler cousins – a collection of paleo-Birchers and kindred yahoos – ousted Otis. In 1990, Cardinal Roger Mahony and other local conservatives successfully prodded the paper to oust liberal (and pro-choice) editorial page editor Anthony Day.
   Most of Conrad’s obituaries simply noted that he stepped down from the Times in 1993, but that’s not really a true picture of what happened. Times management, inhabiting a conservative cocoon and increasingly isolated from their increasingly liberal city, had clearly come to believe Conrad was more trouble than he was worth to them – a judgment they made known by deed if not by explicit word to Conrad himself. When he left, they hired a conservative non-entity to take his place, pledging, however, to continue running Conrad with some regularity. As the paper’s former longtime city editor Bill Boyarsky has documented, though, that meant they ran him no more than sporadically.

            Conrad kept cartooning, but without a steady platform for his work. His attacks on George W. Bush were brilliant and fierce – when and if you could find them. Nonetheless, they added to a body of work that had already established Conrad as a peer of Thomas Nast and Herblock, as one of America’s great editorial cartoonists.


Harold Meyerson is a longtime judge for The Hillman Prizes, the editor-at-large of The American Prospect, and a weekly columnist for The Washington Post.  Currently he is also a guest columnist for The Los Angeles Times.  Last year The Atlantic named him one of America’s fifty most influential columnists.    He is the author of Who Put The Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz, a biography of Broadway lyricist Yip Harburg.



Winners & Sinners: from Mayer to Peretz


Winners: The incomparable Jane Mayer, for her devastating portrait in The New Yorker of David Koch,   who has bought his way into New York society with tens of millions of dollars of donations to cultural institutions like the American Ballet Theatre, while simultaneously financing climate-change denying and pollution promoting think tanks, and her editor, David Remnick, for publishing the piece after New York magazine had published a mostly-gushing profile  of the same subject.

Koch’s handlers used the hoary technique of trying to kill one piece by promoting another one, in this case by cooperating with New York’s friendly reporter,
Sinner Andrew Goldman, while denying Mayer access to Koch and most of his closest associates.  The strategy succeeded in producing the profile Koch wanted in New York, but failed to kill the devastating piece in The New Yorker authored by Mayer.   A few examples of the reporters’ contrasting approaches:

Mayer: Greenpeace issued a report identifying [Koch’s] company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.”  The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

Goldman: [Koch] also opposes the president’s climate-change proposals.

Mayer: In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States.

Goldman: In his office, Koch showed me a photocopied flyer Greenpeace had produced with sketches of him and Charles below the words “Wanted for Climate Crimes” and shook it in the air. Koch Industries’ emissions, Koch told me, are far less than legally required.

Mayer: Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”

Goldman: Richard Fink insists that Koch’s political activity is about principles, not money. “I view David as a courageous American who has a set of beliefs that he’s willing to support consistently over time despite all the flak he gets,” Fink says. “Very few people would do that.”

Sinner: Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch, for a bizarre op-ed piece in The Times, in which he praised Glenn Beck’s recent rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial because Beck “made peace for one day with the liberal half of the American heritage. That is a good thing. Our political health, in the spirit of Dr. King’s march, requires thoughtful and bold initiatives from all quarters.”

Branch noted that his “cringing search” of Beck’s  archives had turned up “diatribes on Dr. King as a dangerous socialist, and on President Obama as an alien Muslim,” but utterly failed to convey the right-wing pundit’s habitual tone (and perpetual tears).  

Among mainstream reporters, only Dana Milbank has managed to do that recently: “Consider these tallies from Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News since Obama’s inauguration: 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, according to transcripts, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels. Most of these were directed in some form at Obama – as were the majority of the 802 mentions of socialist or socialism on Beck’s nightly ‘report.’”

Note to Branch: one day without hatred does not compensate for 24 months of non-stop insanity.

As the great Arthur Gelb has pointed out, the kid-gloves treatment of Beck by so much of the mainstream press is revoltingly reminiscent of the way most of the establishment treated red-baiter Joe McCarthy, before Ed Murrow and others finally turned on him.   The reason then, and now, was fear.

Winner Michael J. Mishak for a brilliant dissection  of how Meg Whitman has already spent $104 million of her own money in her quest for the governorship of California–just $5 million less than Michael Bloomberg spent to be re-elected Mayor for a third term in New York City. 

Mishak reports: “Those donations have allowed her to target her campaign mailings to the smallest subsets of voters and sort out which television shows are popular among independent voters. (It turns out they are big fans of “Bones,” the crime show rife with romantic tension, on which Whitman has aired ads.) Dozens of outside consultants and a paid staff the size of some presidential campaigns run an operation that seems to be the living embodiment of Whitman’s book title: “The Power of Many.”“

Sinner: Martin Peretz for an even more repellent post than usual about the mosque controversy, in which he declared “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.  So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”  

Fifty years ago, it was singularly appropriate that the Jewish establishment in America was one of the pillars of the black Civil Rights Movement.   The contrast between that natural sensitivity to prejudice and the disgusting declarations of Peretz and the Anti-Defamation League  could not be more striking–or more distasteful.

Barry Eisler, for his splendid new novel, Inside Out–the first pro-gay, anti-torture C.I.A. thriller of the new millenium–a riveting page turner with a very unusual social-conscience.