November 2010 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

November 2010

Winners & Sinners: Theatre-Film-TV Edition

Harvard’s John Cambell, Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, Columbia’s Frederic Mishkin; Charles Ferguson


Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; John and Yoko in American Masters’ John Lennon


That Hopey Changey Thing; Christopher Eccleston in “Lennon Naked”

Winner: Inside Job, in theaters now.

    If you only see one movie this fall, buy a ticket to Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s devastating exploration of the $20 trillion meltdown caused by the conscious malfeasance of the wizards of Wall Street.

     A classic piece of investigative journalism, Ferguson traveled the world to interview everyone from French finance minster Christine Lagarde–whose reaction to Lehman’s collapse was “holy cow”–to a Wall Street psychiatrist whose high-rolling patients freely described their symbiotic addictions to prostitutes and cocaine.

    Ferguson has a B.A. in mathematics, a Ph.D in political science, and the very special gift of knowing how to take a hugely complicated subject and breaking it down into small, digestible parts.

    Here is the director’s own synopsis of his film, which is narrated by Matt Damon:

    The progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose “innovations” have produced a succession of financial crises. Each crisis has been worse than the last; and yet, due to the industry’s increasing wealth and power, each crisis has seen few people go to prison. In the case of this crisis, nobody has gone to prison, despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses. I hope that the film, in less than two hours, will enable everyone to understand the fundamental nature and causes of this problem. It is also my hope that, whatever political opinions individual viewers may have, that after seeing this film we can all agree on the importance of restoring honesty and stability to our financial system, and of holding accountable those to destroyed it.

    The number of crimes committed by the financial industry and the abject failure of the Obama administration to bring criminal prosecutions against any of the executives responsible for them are two of the most depressing aspects of Ferguson’s story.   Although Ferguson does not make this point explicitly, it’s now obvious that this failure to prosecute by the Obama Justice Department was both bad policy and extremely bad politics.   Because the administration never sent any Wall Street executives to jail, it was easy for the Republicans to attack the administration for coddling the financial industry–even though many Republicans had united with Democrats to enact the bailouts which sparked such primal rage across America.

    One of the more original aspects of the film is its portrayal of the utter corruption of economics professors and business school deans, who  seem to have been bought lock, stock and barrel by the financial industry and/or foreign governments in need of a clean bill of health– usually just before they go bust.

    Columbia Business School dean Glenn Hubbard, Harvard economics chair John Cambell, and Columbia Business School professor and Frederic Mishkin are each shown in the film to be either personally corrupt, absurdly in denial about their own conflicts and those of their colleagues, or both.

    The film begins with a concise description of how bank de-regulation in Iceland quickly brought that country to its knees.   Among Professor Mishkin’s many accomplishments is a report he co-authored for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to deflect sharp criticism of that country’s economy in 2006.  The report, entitled “Financial Stability in Iceland” asserted that the fundamentals of Iceland’s economy remained strong–and it earned Mkiskin the tidy sum of $124,000.

    A year later Iceland’s economy suffered a spectacular collapse–and a couple of years after that, the title of Mishkin’s report had a small but spectacular transformation: Ferguson discovers “Financial Stablity in Iceland” is now listed on Miskin’s c/v as “Financial Instability in Iceland.”

    Oh, Miskin replies–“just a typo,” I guess.

    As the movie’s own publicity puts it, “This is the film that cost over $20,000,000,000,000 to make.” 

   A.O. Scott noted in his rave review  in The New York Times, the film includes “pervasive obscenity, though not the verbal kind.”

Winner: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, now at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre in New York.

     This musical transplant from the Public Theatre to Broadway is a campy history lesson done with  charm and enormous energy. With music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, and a book by its director, Alex Timbers, the musical views the modern preoccupations of the Tea Party through the Lens of Jackson’s early-19th century populism.

    Twenty-something Broadway veteran Benjamin Walker gives an ironic and beguiling performance in the title role.

Sinner: That Hopey Changey Thing at the Public Theatre Lab in New York.

    Written and directed by Richard Nelson, this new political play  opened on the very night it portrays–election night, 2010.  But it isn’t even ripped from the headlines; it just regurgitates them.  This makes for an endlessly didactic evening about one family of mostly liberal Democrats dining in the Hudson Valley and bemoaning the state of the world.   Most of the actors are just fine; unfortunately they  have woefully little to work with.

Winner: Fair Game, in theaters now.

    Directed by Bourne Identity veteran Doug Liman, this is a taut political thriller about the outing  of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent by the Bush administration in retaliation for her husband’s completely accurate op-ed piece, which undermined the Bush administration’s phony WMD rationale for going to war in Iraq. 

    All the cravenness of Karl Rove (who dodged prosecution for the illegal leak) and Scooter Libby (who was convicted for it, only to have his sentence commuted  by Bush) comes flooding back in this strongly-told morality tale.   Sean Penn is splendid as  Ambassador Joseph Wilson and Naomi Watts is superb as Plame, the working mother who tries to balance visits with covert operatives around the world with the demands of her two children–and a husband who is dangerously addicted to the truth.

Winner: John Lennon from American Masters on PBS.

    Written and directed by Michael Epstein and first broadcast earlier this week on PBS, this excellent two-hour documentary focuses on the last year’s of Lennon’s life with Yoko Ono in  New York City, and his long and ultimately successful battle against deportation by the thugs of the Nixon administration.  It also includes his Day of the Locusts period in Los Angeles, when the briefly single Lennon descends into alcoholism and madness.  

     The does a fine job of reminding us of Lennon’s admirable obsession with peace–and how wrong reporters like Gloria Emerson of The New York Times were to denigrate him for it (Emerson’s condescending questions are included here though she is never identified.)

Watch the whole film online here.

Sinner: Lennon Naked, from the BBC via PBS.

    This bio pic directed by Edmund Coulthard and starring Christopher Eccleston, also broadcast earlier this week on PBS, is occasionally compelling but generally much less interesting than its nonfiction counterpart.  Eccleston struggles valiantly to recreate the great troubadour, but ultimately his version is never quite as interesting as the real thing.


Olbermann v. Koppel, Alterman v. Hitchens


 Above the Fold

    Keith Olbermann was wrong to contribute $7,200 to three Democratic candidates.  It was a violation of company rules (whether he knew that or not), it was needlessly provocative, it offended many of his colleagues, and it undermined the credibility of his network.

    So a two-day suspension from the air was perfectly appropriate.

    But the torrent of criticism from everyone from Tom Brokaw (privately, according to Howie Kurtz) to Ted Koppel (very publicly, in The Washington Post) only emphasized the incompetence of Olbermann’s critics.

    Everything in Koppel’s 1,500 word diatribe in The Post reminded FCP of how pompous and shallow Koppel  always was, even in his prime.  

    The first problem was the idiotically false equivalence Koppel found among Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly–“individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship….”

    It is really nothing less than obscene to equate serious people like Maddow and Olbermann with dangerous clowns like Hannity and Beck.   The MSNBC anchors are, indeed, relentlessly liberal.  But they are also extremely intelligent, careful with the facts, and genuinely interested in the truth.

    Hannity and Beck are none of those things.  As Dana Milbank pointed out recently, during the short time Barack Obama has been president, Beck has managed “202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels”–and most of these were directed in some form at Obama.

    Olbermann may have made three small and stupid donations to Democratic candidates, but Hannity has been a full-time money-raising machine for everyone from Sharron Angle to Christine O’Donnell.  Nearly all the rest of Roger Ailes’ boys and girls are Reublican fundraisers, or prospective Republican presidential candidates, or both.

    And as Obama jetted off to Asia, Beck once again displayed his unrivaled capacity for prevarication:  “Have you ever seen the president, ever seen the president go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, $2 billion — $2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending — he’s traveling with 3,000 people.”  As Tom Friedman notes today, “In Beck’s rendition, the president’s official state visit to India became ‘a vacation’ accompanied by one-tenth of the U.S. Navy’ ” (all of which was based on the presumably pure invention of a single unnamed provincial official in India).

    Thus, anyone like Koppel who writes that “Fox News and MSNBC “show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be,” either never watches these networks on a regular basis, or simply has no judgment.

    The rest of Koppel’s piece tends to support the latter conclusion.   Besides the flatly false statement that 60 Minutes was the first network news program ever to turn a profit (see Jack Schafer’s excellent dissection of that fantasy), Koppel’s theme–that objectivity used to be the greatest strength of all the news divisions–is equally false.

    Olbermann did a fine job of demonstrating that in a searing  “special comment”  on his program a couple of days after Koppel’s article appeared.  Olbermann reported quite correctly that the only times  the networks have made crucial contributions to the life of the republic have actually been when its anchors explicitly threw off the cloak of objectivity–when Ed Murrow attacked Joe McCarthy, when Walter Cronkite devoted half of the CBS Evening News to Watergate (at a moment when every other news organization except The Washington Post was ignoring it), and–most importantly–when Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968.  Cronkite courageously declared in a prime time special that nothing better than a stalemate was possible in Vietnam, and called on the United States to negotiate its way out, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

    Olbermann continued, “the great change about which Mr. Koppel wrings his hands is not partisanship nor tone nor analysis. The great change was the creation of the sanitized image of what men like Cronkite and Murrow and [others, including Koppel] did.  These were not glorified stenographers. These were not neutral men. These were men who did in their day what the best of journalists still try to do in this one. Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess — put together a coherent picture, or a challenging question — using only the facts as they can best be discerned, plus their own honesty and conscience.”

    Meanwhile, we have people like Tom Brokaw–who never used his anchor seat to do anything remotely as important as what Cronkite did–attacking Olbermann for compromising his network’s credibility.   And yet, almost simultaneously, Brokaw was going on NBC’s Nightly News this month to parrot Republican talking points, including the crucial need to redefine the rich in America  as anyone who makes at least $1 million, instead of a paltry $250,000.   Because editorializing from the right is always allowed on every network–and only a multimillionaire like Brokaw would consider someone earning $250,000 “poor.”

    There is one more problem with the idea that Keith Olbermann is, or ever could be, the biggest threat to the reputation of NBC News.  The people most responsible for diminishing it are the executives who are in charge of it.

    Two and a half years ago, David Barstow of The New York Times wrote a brilliant piece revealing that all of the major networks had been victims of a Pentagon propaganda scheme, which used legions of retired military officers to push the Bush administration’s line about Iraq and Afghanistan.   As Barstow wrote, “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.”

    That piece won the Pulitzer Prize.  And it was followed, six months after it was published, by another Barstow article  that focused on NBC’s favorite military analyst, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.  Entitled “One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex,” it described how McCaffrey’s ties to defense contractors made him the direct beneficiary of any on-air commentary which supported either war.

    And what did NBC News executives  decide was the appropriate on-air response to Barstow’s accusations? 

    Absolute silence, which continues to this day – and was mimicked by all the other evening news shows.  With that decision, all the network news divisions gave up their claims to being serious news gathering organizations.


                                                 *           *          *


    Christopher Hitchens is now fighting a gallant fight for his life against cancer.   He is one of the best-loved and most-despised writers of our time.   For the finest explanation ever written of those dueling points of view, don’t miss Eric Alterman’s brilliant review of Hitchens’ memoirs in the current issue of Dissent.   It begins this way:

    Has there ever been anyone quite like Christopher Hitchens? As a writer and a thinker, Hitchens may be the greatest performance artist the profession has ever produced. He is Oscar Wilde without the plays; Gore Vidal without the novels; Edmund Wilson without the ideas; George Orwell without the integrity; and Richard Burton without the movies (and Elizabeth Taylor). What he is not, however, is the author of lasting works of reportage, criticism, philosophy, or, dare I say it, literature.

    Despite his myriad (and on occasion, damn-near miraculous) talents as literary critic, columnist, and long-form journalist, Hitchens’s genius undoubtedly lies in the art of the argument. “The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them,” he has explained, adding, “I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract one for its own sake rather than concede even a small point.”

    For the rest of Alterman’s piece, go here.

   (H/T to Hal Davis for bringing it to FCP’s attention.)







That "Tsunami" Was Actually a Split Decision


Above the Fold

     It could have been worse–a great deal worse.

     Tuesday was a difficult night for the Democratic party, but with an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck above nine percent, the loss of the House of Representatives had been a foregone conclusion for some time.   And while it is true the Republicans won six more House seats in 2010 than they did in the genuine blow-out of 1994, this time they failed to capture the Senate, despite a stream of stories suggesting that  unlimited campaign spending by American corporations would put the Grand Old Party over the top in both houses of Congress.

    Especially on the two coasts (where Fox news may be somewhat less influential), it was a terrible night for right-wing women millionaires–and Democratic Senate candidates won by huge margins.   In Connecticut, former wrestling magnate Linda McMahon spent $50 million of her own money and still lost by twelve points to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the Senate Race.   In California, Carly Fiorina spent $5 million from her own pocket and got walloped 51. 9 to 42.6 percent by veteran Democrat Barbara Boxer–and Meg Whitman spent a staggering $140 million so that she could be humiliated by Jerry Brown in the Governor’s race.

    In another piece of good news, David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., will become the fourth openly gay member of the House of Representatives, joining Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin , Barney Frank of Massachusetts, and Jared Polis of Colorado in the 112th Congress.

    This year was supposed to be all about the energy generated by the Tea Party, but that movement’s most important contribution to the election was to guarantee the Democrats control of the Senate, by nominating Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.  O’Donnell was crushed 56 to 40 percent by Christopher Coons, while Harry Reid beat back Angle by almost 6 percentage points.   Senate Democratic candidates also prevailed narrowly in Colorado and Washington, and by ten points in West Virginia.

     Despite the very best efforts of Roger Ailes and his minions, millions of Americans still won’t elect lunatics to the Upper House.

    But the split decision that was this  year’s  election did not fit the narrative the Beltway boys and girls had been pushing for three months.   All they could wonder about on Wednesday was why Obama wasn’t abandoning all of his policies in response to what Washington reporters thought could only be seen as a rejection of everything he has accomplished in his first two years in office.

    The president actually gave an extremely reasonable, and characteristically intelligent performance at his press conference the day after the election.  While acknowledging a “shellacking,” he correctly attributed the results to the deep frustration of voters “with the pace of our economic recovery and the opportunities that they hope for, for their children and their grandchildren.  They want jobs to come back faster, they want paychecks to go further, and they want the ability to give their children the same chances and opportunities as they’ve had in life.”

    The president added, “I do believe there is hope for civility.  I do believe there’s hope for progress.  And that’s because I believe in the resiliency of a nation that’s bounced back from much worse than what we’re going through right now.”

    And when Fox’s Mike Emanuel pointed out that exit polls showed that one in two voters favor a repeal of health care reform,  Obama quite sensibly pointed out: “It also means one out of two voters think it was the right thing to do.”

    Naturally these sentiments were judged wholly inadequate by a furious White House press corps.  NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, another TV reporter whose attractiveness is perfectly matched by her shallowness, told the president, “You don’t seem to be reflecting or second-guessing any of the policy decisions you’ve made, instead saying the message the voters were sending was about frustration with the economy or maybe even chalking it up to a failure on your part to communicate effectively.  If you’re not reflecting on your policy agenda, is it possible voters can conclude you’re still not getting it?”

    On Washington Week in Review last night, Gwen Ifill declared that there were just two possible interpretations of the president’s performance at his press conference, “and neither of them are flattering to the president.  He’s in the rock and the hard place.  Which is, one is, he didn’t really hear what the people really said, and the other is, he just is kind  of stubborn.  There’s not a good interpretation of his reaction at least his initial reaction to this drubbing.” 

    That statement was nearly as dumb as the one she made at the top of her show: “What happened on Tuesday,” Ifill declared, “was a wave so forceful that even political tsunami warnings didn’t prepare Democrats for what it would actually feel like.”  That was so far from the truth that even one of Ifill’s own panelists, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, felt compelled to correct her:

    “I got the sense from calling around to Democratic leaders that they weren’t quite as shell-shocked as they were after the 1994 election,” Tumulty said.  “They did see this one coming.  But also, unlike a lot of these big wave elections, in this case the Democrats did pull it out for some very high-profile governor races and very high-profile senate races.”

    The same night, over on NBC’s Nightly News, Tom Brokaw managed to sound as out-of-it as he looked, pompously forecasting  “a 21st century version of a Shakespearian drama” because of the newly divided government.

    The former $10-million-a-year man castigated Obama for calling families that make $250,000 a year “rich” ($1 million should be the cut-off, according to Brokaw).  He also said “influential Democrats” believe that the president should shake up his cabinet, go outside of his Chicago circle, and “move to the center.”

    Move to the center, of course, is Washington talk for returning to the extreme right positions which prevailed during the previous administration.   The truth is, Obama has never been anywhere except the center, accepting countless compromises to get a health care plan passed (including his abandonment of the public option) as well dozens of changes on the way to signing the first serious financial reform act since the depression.

    What this election really proved is that America remains split right down the middle, and victory always goes to the side that manages the best turnout among its supporters.   In 2008, that was the Democrats; in 2010, it was the Republicans.   If the economy finally manages a robust recovery by 2012, Obama will be re-elected by a wide margin.  If it doesn’t, he will almost certainly be defeated.  

    Just one thing is certain: just about everything you’ve heard on television during the last four days will have no relevance to the ultimate success or failure of his administration.


Jon Stewart summarized the questions at the President’s press conference this way: “Do you suck? And a quick follow up: Do you suck so bad, you don’t even know how sucky you are?”   For the rest of his roundup, go here.