April 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

April 2011

Extremism In Defense of Idiocy

Quick Takes

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says  the only thing left that is holding up a bill that would prevent a government shutdown is the intransigence of Republican extremists in the House, who are demanding the complete defunding of Planned Parenthood.

    How extreme are those extremists?  As the indispensable Steve Benen has reported, Oklahoma neanderthal Senator Tom Coburn, and Minnesota’s maniacal Michelle Bachman–yes, Michelle Bachman!–have both said they are in favor of a bill without the Planned Parenthood rider.   So the Tea Party members in the House are way to the right of Coburn and Bachman–which means they probably think Glenn Beck is a hopeless moderate.

    Meanwhile, Paul Krugman vivisects the “responsible conservatives”–everyone from David Brooks to The Economist–who have been praising Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget.  (The Economist called it “a brave counterproposal” which “puts fiscal responsibility at the centre of his plan”–although even this Republican-friendly publication admits that “Too much of the gain goes to the rich, and too much of the pain is felt by the poor.”)

    Krugman sees things rather differently in today’s Times.
    “…The G.O.P. plan turns out not to be serious at all. Instead, it’s simultaneously ridiculous and heartless. ..Republicans have once again gone all in for voodoo economics — the claim, refuted by experience, that tax cuts pay for themselves. [The Congressional Budget Office] finds that a large part of the supposed savings from spending cuts would go, not to reduce the deficit, but to pay for tax cuts…

    “The point here is that privatizing Medicare does nothing, in itself, to limit health-care costs. In fact, it almost surely raises them by adding a layer of middlemen. Yet the House plan assumes that we can cut health-care spending as a percentage of G.D.P. despite an aging population and rising health care costs.

    “The only way that can happen is if those vouchers are worth much less than the cost of health insurance. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2030 the value of a voucher would cover only a third of the cost of a private insurance policy equivalent to Medicare as we know it. So the plan would deprive many and probably most seniors of adequate health care…

    “In short, this plan isn’t remotely serious; on the contrary, it’s ludicrous.  And it’s also cruel.”




Brian Chokes on The Donald; Fox Bids Beck Good-Bye


Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, Brian Williams

Above the Fold

    Glenn Beck and Fox News have finally parted company–a welcome event which the New York Times chose to bury deep inside the Business Section this morning.  Beck’s contract expires in December, but the Times predicted he would leave the network long before that.

    In yet another ridiculous on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand story, Times reporters Bill Carter and Brian Stelter barely hinted at all of Beck’s on-air felonies, calling his show
“a daily broadcast platform for a libertarian strain of politics that is also evident in the Tea Party, a movement he embraced. Critics loudly condemned him for living with his own facts — but that only seemed to widen the conspiracy that he outlined each night, aided by a growing number of chalkboards in his studio.”

    Yesterday’s announcement came just one month after anonymous Fox officials had leaked their plan to get rid of Beck to New York Times media columnist David Carr, who wrote that Beck’s future was in jeopardy in part because he had lost a million viewers since the peak of his show’s ratings. 

    Carr explained, “The problem with ‘Glenn Beck’ is that it has turned into a serial doomsday machine that’s a bummer to watch.” Then Carr quoted David von Drehle, who had written a pathetically soft profile of Beck for the cover of Time magazine.  “He used to be a lot funnier,” Von Drehle said. 

    This, mind you, is the broadcaster who managed at least 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, “and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels,” according to Dana Milbank.  “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.’

    I guess von Drehle thought that was pretty damn funny.

    For the most part “sophisticated” media reporters like Carr refrained from giving their readers any real idea of what Beck was doing, while he was riding high in the ratings.   As a result, the job of sharing Beck’s rantings with a larger public was left almost entirely to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Media Matters, which lists fifty of Beck’s most disgusting statements here. 

    The growing failure of journalists to call things by their proper names was exemplified by the refusal of the news department of The New York Times to call torture “torture” when it was carried out by the Bush administration–simply because the government didn’t want Times reporters to do so.

    A particularly egregious example of the this growing embrace of sloppiness was on display last night  on NBC Nightly News, when Brian Williams used a clip from what he called a “boisterous” interview that Meredith Viera had conducted with Donald Trump for use on Thursday morning’s Today show.

    Williams prefaced the excerpt with this bland statement: “While we have talked with President Obama about his birth in America, that has not stopped the group Trump today called the birthers from stirring up doubts…Trump continued on this issue which has given him some traction.”

    Then Trump was shown spouting various blatant lies–Obama “spent two million dollars in legal fees trying to get way from this issue” and “three weeks ago I thought he was born in America.  Now I have real doubts.”

    Once upon a time, when a bizarre buffoon was allowed to shout such idiocies on NBC News, the network’s anchorman would have had the decency to specify to his viewers that everything they had just heard was false.   But then, that might have discouraged one or two of them from tuning into the Today Show the next morning–and the only purpose of this obscene exercise was to increase the ratings of a sister show on the same network.

    Fortunately, one or two print reporters are still willing to describe things as they actually are, which is what the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart did today.

    In a post headlined Trump’s disgusting, dangerous dance with birthers Capehart did exactly what Williams should have done: he told it like it is:

    In double-barreled interviews on NBC’s “Today Show” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump continued his disgusting and dangerous dabbling in the disproved conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States. This might be good for the ratings of his television show. This might even be good for his business. But it is terrible for the nation and public discourse that someone who claims to be so smart is so willing to perpetuate a lie.

    Then Capehart recited all of the indisputable evidence that Obama was indeed born in Hawaii when he said he was, including the completely authentic birth certificate which he produced long ago.

    Good grief, even Glenn Beck was more sensible about this than Brian Williams, saying that Trump had made Beck feel “a little uncomfortable lately.”  In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Beck said Trump was merely getting attention for attention’s sake–something Beck could achieve by walking in the streets with his pants off.  

    Naturally, O’Reilly thought there was nothing wrong with that: “I understand why [Trump is] doing that–he’s getting a massive amount of attention quickly”–by repeating one of the most discredited lies in the history of American politics. 

    The daunting mystery is why supposedly respectable reporters like Brian Williams are such willing co-conspirators in this despicable fraud.





Quick Takes

Paul Ryan’s budget is being championed by “sensible” conservatives like David Brooks  To read the sober truth about it, don’t miss the great Harold Meyerson in Wednesday’s Washington Post, where he explains what it really is: “the repeal of the 20th Century.”

The cover under which Ryan and other Republicans operate is their concern for the deficit and national debt. But Ryan blows that cover by proposing to reduce the top income tax rate to just 25 percent. He imposes the burden for reducing our debt not on the bankers who forced our government to spend trillions averting a collapse but on seniors and the poor. The reductions in aid to the poor, says the budget blueprint that Ryan released, will be made “to ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” That’s a pretty good description of America’s top bankers, but Ryan’s budget showers them with tax cuts.

And for the most amazing television experience of the 21st Century, don’t miss The Kennedys, which is so much worse than anything you have read about it.  The first challenge will be finding ReelzChannel  on your cable box (131 for Time-Warner subscribers in Manhattan.)

Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker and Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times both gave the miniseries mixed reviews, and praised the acting of Tom Wilkinson–who is not quite as terrible as everyone else in this disaster.   Whatever Franklin and Stanley are smoking, FCP doesn’t want any.

Forget about all the historical inventions: they are overwhelmed by pathetic writing, terrible acting–and the cheesiest wardrobe in cable history.  Whatever else you think about him, Jack Kennedy wore the most beautiful shirts of any modern American president; here, they are all off the rack from Filene’s Basement.  

Spoiler alert: if you can’t Tivo it, you’ll be bombarded by what must be the longest commercial interruptions in television history.



Fortune and ProPublica Attack The New York Times--Without Any Facts

Fortune Magazine and ProPublica humiliated themselves this morning with a story  by Jeff Gerth and Allan Sloan which purports to debunk the story in The New York Times which said that General Electric paid no taxes in 2010.

Fortune and ProPublica say they were also working on the GE tax story.  Apparently they are unhappy because the Times beat them into print.

These are their two complaints about the Times piece:

1. GE will not receive a $3.2 billion tax refund for 2010.
The poblem with that complaint: as even Sloan and Gerth concede,  the Times never said that GE would receive a tax refund.  The Times said GE would receive a “tax benefit.”

2. The Times said GE would pay no American tax on its worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, including the  $5.1 billion of that total which came from its operations in the United States.

Fortune and ProPublica say that is false.  How do they know?

GE chief spokesman Gary Sheffer told the Fortune/ProPublica team,  “We expect to have a small U.S. income tax liability for 2010.’”

Is that liability $10?

Is it $10 million?

Gerth and Sloan have no idea–and their story says they probably never will: “The number is unlikely to ever be disclosed unless GE goes public with it, or is forced to do so. “

Sloan and Gerth write, “We’re certainly not trying to denigrate the Times.” 

The problem with that sentence: there is no other discernible purpose to their story.

The Bottom Line: these reporters have no evidence whatsoever that the thrust of the Times story was wrong–or even any proof that any of the details were wrong,  either.

Isn’t it possible that GE is now recalculating its tax liability so that it has to pay something–“a small U.S. income tax liability for 2010”–just to make the Times look bad?

Gerth and Sloan never ask that question, and their story–headlined “Setting The Record Straight on GE’s Taxes”–does nothing of the kind
Gerth’s best-known previous contribution to journalism was Whitewater–which, of course, turned out to be no story at all.  As Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald wrote in 1996

The first reporter to fall for the tale was The New York Times’ Jeff Gerth, an investigative reporter. He produced an almost incomprehensible report on the Clintons’ Whitewater land investments in early 1992. But incomprehensible or not, the fact that it appeared in so prestigious a paper as The New York Times insinuated that something must have been wrong. And that meant that every other baying hound in the pack had to give chase.
The tale of the resulting journalistic feeding frenzy is artfully told in a new book titled Fools for Scandal, by Gene Lyons and the editors of Harper’s Magazine…

Lyons begins by showing how Gerth was duped by Clinton’s GOP enemies and how Gerth’s original stories were so error-filled, intentionally or otherwise, that one of the key figures, former Arkansas state securities director Lee Thalheimer, called them “unmitigated horseshit.”
…Nonetheless, with The Times’ imprimatur, the parade of reporters from Washington, D.C., to Little Rock began, and most, like Gerth, ended up dining on the table scraps served up by Clinton’s GOP enemies.

Now Gerth and Sloan have used the imprimatur of Fortune and ProPublica to smear The New York Times.

Update: ProPublica CEO Paul Steiger replies:

Charlie, I’m sorry you read it that way. We acknowledge aggressively that the nyt beat us on the story. We make clear that GE uses all kinds of maneuvers to cut its tax bill FAR below the statutory rate. We point out that GE’s statements were confused and confusing. We agree that for reporting to shareholders, GE shows no tax liability. But we say that GE will pay some taxes for its 2010 tax year. And we point out how all this complexity, put back into the code since the last great overhaul in 1986, makes reform in the current environment so difficult. I think that is the opposite of shameful.

The End Game in Libya


Barack Obama, speaking about Libya, and Muammar Gaddafi, the longest-lasting dictator in the world


Above the Fold

    I think it does show a huge amount of decay, distrust, and breakdown at the heart of the
Gaddafi regime.

    –British Prime Minister  David Cameron, speaking Thursday about the defection of Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa in London.   

    Although the Libyan rebels have been pushed back sharply by Gaddafi loyalists during the last forty-eight hours, the defections of Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa and former foreign minister Ali Abdussalam Treki (who only last month was appointed to replace the Libyan mission to the United Nations, after it resigned en masse), strongly suggest that the center around the world’s longest-serving dictator is dissolving so quickly, there may soon be no one left to cling to him except for his own sons.

    Koussa was a Gaddafi intimate (and former Libyan intelligence chief) who should bring the NATO coalition crucial information about 
Gaddafi’s remaining capabilities.  He and Treki were the eighth and ninth senior Libyan officials to flee the regime, following the former Justice and Interior Ministers, a former head of Libya’s national planning council, a Gaddafi cousin who was one of his closest advisors—and the Libyan ambassadors to the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, India, and Indonesia.

    Timesman David Kirkpatrick, who has led splendid coverage of the uprisings in Egypt and Libya,  reported Thursday night that Tripoli residents were “in shock” over the defections of the two former foreign ministers, and “rumors swirled of a cascade of high-level defections.”

    Meanwhile, the chattering classes on both sides of the aisle in Washington remain furious because the Obama administration refuses to predict how the war in Libya will end.  “What is the end game?” is their constant, ridiculous refrain.

    If only the Obama administration were more like its predecessor, there would never be any uncertainty about the outcome of any military operation.  Thus, in February, 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were both certain that Gen. Eric K. Shinseki had been crazy to suggest that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to pacify Iraq.  Wolfowitz told Congress he was also sure 100,000 would be plenty—partly because there was “no history” of ethnic conflict in Iraq!

    Wolfowitz was equally certain that the upper estimate of the cost of the war in Iraq—$97 billion—was way too high.  The generally accepted figure today is at least $1 trillion.

    But no one on television in Washington can remember anything that happened earlier than the day before yesterday, so the cable crazies (and the echo chamber of the wackosphere) continue to highlight the keen insights of Republican sages (and of quite a few Democrats) into the alleged dangers of the current operation in Libya.

    Donald Trump is worried that Libya could end up as a pawn of Iran because of the allies’ air operation—even though, as the indispensable Juan Cole has pointed out,  “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei roundly condemned the US action in Libya, accusing Washington of seeking a toehold in that country. In other words, bringing up some sort of alleged link of the Benghazi provisional government, which has reached out to Washington, and Iran is about the stupidest thing anyone could say about the situation.”

    Similarly, the brilliant Michelle Bachman opined that, “We don’t know if this is led by Hamas, Hezbollah, or possibly al Qaeda of North Africa. Are we really better off, are United States, our interests better off, if, let’s say, Al-Qaeda of North Africa now runs Libya?”

    Cole noted that “Hezbollah is a Shiite movement of southern Lebanon. There are no Shiites in North Africa, where almost all Muslims are Sunni. Hamas is a Palestinian movement and does not have a branch franchise in Libya. The people of Benghazi and Misrata, together amounting to 1.3 million, the backbone of the liberation movement, are not al-Qaeda, which is not a mass movement. In fact, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is like a few hundred guys and is an Algerian organization. I know, I know, pointing out that Michelle Bachmann has said something uninformed is like pointing out that Lady Gaga has done something outrageous.”

    And then there is Newt Gingrich, a completely discredited demagogue whose only purpose in life is to enrich himself through dubious get-rich-quick schemes—and yet remains among the most popular of all guests on all the Sunday chat shows.  Newt has the distinction of having been strongly in favor of a no fly zone—until Obama implemented one.  Then, of course, Gingrich was totally against it.

    The truth is, the speech that Obama gave earlier this week about Libya embodied all of the qualities which attracted so many of us to him in the first place: He was rational, he was intelligent, he had an impressive grasp of the issues at hand—and he was persuasive.

    While those same Washington talking heads demanded to know whether our action in Libya represented some kind of new Obama doctrine—and if not, why not—the president was careful to explain exactly why what was appropriate for us to do here would not work elsewhere in the region:

    Much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya. On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all — even in limited ways — in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing needs here at home.

    It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

    To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

    While Juan Cole has provided the most intelligent defense of the president’s decision from the left, The Economist has performed the same service from the center right.  Its Libyan leader a week ago was refreshingly sane, and—so far—remarkably prescient:

    One of the skeptics’ complaints “is that the West has entered this campaign without defining the mission,” the magazine wrote.  “That is both unfair and true…because dictators do not work to a diplomatic timetable. Colonel Gaddafi’s rapid advance to Benghazi meant that the outside world had to intervene within days or not at all.”

    It’s clear that one reason Obama finally decided to act was that he became convinced that what is actually an extremely modest military operation—especially in comparison with Iraq and Afghanistan-—has at least the potential of achieving an extremely positive outcome.

    As the Economist pointed out,

     Libya is not Iraq. The West has learned through bitter experience to avoid the grievous mistakes it made from the outset of that venture. For one thing, the current mission is indisputably legal. For another, it has, at least for now, the backing of Libya’s own people and–even allowing for some wobbles from Turkey and the Arab League–of most Arab and Muslim countries.  Libya’s population is a quarter the size of Iraq’s, and the country should be easier to control: almost all its people, a more homogeneous lot albeit with sharp tribal loyalties, live along the Mediterranean coastal strip. If Colonel Gaddafi’s state crumbles, the West should not seek to disband his army or the upper echelons of his administration, as it foolishly did in Iraq. The opposition’s interim national council contains secular liberals, Islamists, Muslim Brothers, tribal figures and recent defectors from the camp of Colonel Gaddafi. The West should recognize the council as a transitional government, provided that it promises to hold multiparty elections. Above all, there must be no military occupation by outsiders. It is tempting to put time-limits on such a venture, but that would be futile.

    The Economist’s conclusion is especially on target:

    Success in Libya is not guaranteed—how could it be? It is a violent country that may well succumb to more violence, and will not become a democracy any time soon. But its people deserve to be spared the dictator’s gun and be given a chance of a better future.

    And if Obama had remained motionless while Gaddafi had carried out his planned massacre of the rebel residents of Benghazi, the reaction of Republicans and everyone else would, of course, have been vastly more violent than any of the criticism the president has endured so far for acting—carefully, and intelligently.