Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

The War on Labor: Required Reading (II)

While the media’s attention has pivoted toward the civil war in Libya and the multiple catastrophes in Japan, the war against labor goes on across America.  Here are some of the best places to keep up with it:

Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin provides crucial historical context in The New York Times: “Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well. “

Abe Sauer has done excellent coverage of Wisconsin since the beginning of the crisis.   His latest, today,  is about the extreme partisanship on display in the run-up to the Wisconsin election coming on April 5

Chris Dykstra’s The Uptake has been another source of consistently first rate, comprehensive coverage.

Wisconsin State Senator Randy Harper, his wife, his mistress, and the governor who loves (two of) them: Keith Olbermann’s take is here.
The Daily Kos and Politicusa have addtional details here and here.

 Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols reports that Governor Walker loved one story in The New York Times–because it was largely wrong.  FCP has also dissected the failings of the same Times piece.

Sarah van Gelder and Brooke Jarvis run down the national reaction  to events in Wisconsin: “From Indiana to Ohio and Tennessee to Texas, workers are demanding to know why corporations and the wealthy get bailouts and tax breaks while teachers and steel workers bear the burdens of budget crises they didn’t cause.”

War On Unions Goes Viral, Wisconsin is Patient Zero:
an overview of anti-union actions in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin; plus the growing number of commentators discussing the need for a general strike.

Columnist Harold Meyerson reminds us of what hasn’t changed in the one hundred years since the Triangle Shirt Factory fire: ” A century after Triangle, greed encased in libertarianism remains a fixture of — and danger to — American life.”

 

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Winners & Sinners: from Remnick to Gupta

 

David Remnick, Benjamin Netanyahu, Bill Keller

Winners: The Security Council of the United Nations. The news that the UN has authorized military force against the Gaddafi regime is the best thing that has happened this year.

FCP first wrote about Libyan terrorism and the assassination of Libyan dissidents  abroad by Qadafi’s thugs more than thirty years ago.  From the downing of the Pan AM jetliner over Scotland, to the fomenting of civil wars all over Africa,  there has been no tyrant worse that Gaddafi for many decades.

For all of my enormous reluctance to see the United States involved in any way in another foreign war (FCP thinks the “Vietnam Syndrome” was the best thing that ever happened to us) it was unthinkable to sit by and do nothing, as Qadafi gradually rolled up the valiant rebellion against him–especially after the Arab League came to the same conclusion.

Winner: David Remnick, for an exceptionally sane and courageous “Comment”  in this week’s New Yorker about Israel’s four-decade long occupation of the West Bank.  The essentials:

*This waiting game is a delusion.

* In the midst of a revolution in the Arab world, Netanyahu seems lost, defensive, and unable or unwilling to recognize the changing circumstances in which he finds himself.

*The occupation—illegal, inhumane, and inconsistent with Jewish values—has lasted forty-four years. Netanyahu thinks that he can keep on going, secure behind a wall. Late last month, he called the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to register his displeasure that Germany had voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Jewish settlements. According to an account in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a German source said that Merkel could hardly contain her outrage. “How dare you?” she said. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

*It is time for President Obama to speak clearly and firmly. Concentrating solely on the settlements, as he has done in the past, is not enough;

*The importance of an Obama plan is not that Netanyahu accept it right away; the Palestinian leadership, which is weak and suffers from its own issues of legitimacy, might not embrace it immediately, either, particularly the limits on refugees. Rather, it is important as a way for the United States to assert that it stands not with the supporters of Greater Israel but with what the writer Bernard Avishai calls “Global Israel,” the constituencies that accept the moral necessity of a Palestinian state and understand the dire cost of Israeli isolation.

*If America is to be a useful friend, it owes clarity to Israel, no less than Israel and the world owe justice—and a nation—to the Palestinian people.

Many readers were shocked by what some mistakenly perceived as an anti-Israeli tone in the piece.   In fact, Remnick’s Comment is the most pro-Israeli article imaginable.   He believes deeply and viscerally in the need for a healthy Jewish state in the Middle East–and he understands better than many of Israel’s most fervent supporters what will be necessary to make that possible.

And there is nothing new at all about his attitude toward the current Israeli prime minister: His profile of Netanyahu way back in 1998 was one of the toughest pieces Remnick has ever written.

Sinner: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, for a perfectly ridiculous piece in the Times magazine.  Keller began  by celebrating his supreme importance according to others: 50th most imortant person in the world (Forbes); 26th most influential (Vanity Fair) and 15th most powerful (The New York Observer “Power 150.”)

 Then he pretended to be offended by all this: “By turning news executives into celebrities, we devalue the institutions that support them, the basics of craft and the authority of editorial judgment.”

 This is a journalistic classic of saying exactly what you want to say–and then feigning embarrassment over what you’ve done.  Keller’s unsuccessful legerdemain reminds FCP of nothing so much as Time magazine’s legendary solution to the Polish joke problem in the 1960’s.   Polish jokes were suddenly sweeping America–and Time was desperate to print all of them.  But the magazine was also terrified of alienating Polish Americans.   The solution was a Warsaw dateline:   Poles are appalled by the Polish jokes now sweeping the United States, the magazine reported.  Among the jokes that are upsetting them the most are…..

Keller then concluded with an entirely gratuitous assault on The Huffington Post:
“Arianna Huffington..has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.”

This in turn earned him an unusually well-deserved rebuke from Arianna, who rightly pointed out that her site actually has much more original content than any of the other aggregators Keller finds so loathsome.

Winners: 60 Minutes producers Robert Anderson, Daniel Ruetenik and Nicole Young and correpondent Scott Pelley for a heartbreaking piece  from Florida about the budget motels which have become the permanent homes for hundreds of children made homeless by the foreclosure crisis.   The piece generated a huge response from viewers asking how they could help  the helpless children portrayed in the report.

Sinners:  60 Minutes Producers  Kyra Darnton, Sam Hornblower and Michael Radutzky and “special” correspondent Sanjay Gupta for one of the worst pieces FCP has ever watched: “a new front in the war on drugs.”  Presented as an expose of the supposedly dangerous drugs flooding America from abroad, this was nothing but an extended advertizement for CBS advertizer Pfizer, designed to scare consumers away from purchasing any of the hundreds of generic drugs which are now available by mail–usually costing 10 percent (or less) than their Pfizer equivalents.  By focusing exclusively on the handful of dangerous counterfeit drugs seized by regulators, the piece completely ignored the real reason these drugs have become so popular: Most of them work very well.   And in every developed country in the world, when a new drug is introduced, the drug company has to negotiate the price with the government.  Every developed country in the world, except one: The United States of America.

 

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Labor's Last Stand

Here is a sampling of some of the best recent coverage of the ongoing war against unions all over America.

At thenation.com, John Nichols has an excellent primer explaining why the only constitutional crisis in Wisconsin is the one created by Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.  The state’s constitution clearly prohibits Fitzgerald from issuing last week’s order to arrest absent Democratic state senators.

Also in The Nation, former labor organizer Jane McAlevey gives a clear-eyed description   of why so many progressives lack compassion for labor unions–“progressives in academia and journalism, and the staff of most nonprofits from all movements, think tanks and foundations, are from a class that has little to no contact with unions.”  She also explains the divisions between public and private sector unions.

NPR’s Liz Halloran explains why efforts to recall 16 Wisconsin state senators–eight Democrats and eight Republicans–are likely to fail.

Politico has an excellent account of all of the allies of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which have been pushing for years to eviscerate the benefits and salaries of public employees, “including the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute and Ohio’s Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions.”

Michael Moore
gives a powerful stemwinder about of the real causes of the current crisis: “Contrary to what those in power would like you to believe so that you’ll give up your pension, cut your wages, and settle for the life your great-grandparents had, America is not broke. Not by a long shot. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It’s just that it’s not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich.”
Read the rest here.

Bob McChesney joins John Nichols (The Nation), Frank Emspak (Workers Independent News), Molly Stentz (WORT-FM Community Radio), Matt Rothschild (The Progressive), and Lisa Graves (Center for Media and Democracy) in a discussion of how the newsmedia have reported on and influenced the American labor movement historically, and in the context of the recent Wisconsin Labor Struggle.

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Winners & Sinners: On Wisconsin

Hendrick Hertzberg, Steve Greenhouse

Governor Scott Walker’s attack on the public employee unions of Wisconsin is the most vicious assault on labor since Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controller’s union in 1981.  In an effort to score points with his most extreme right-wing supporters, the governor wants to strip the unions of their 50-year-old right to collective bargaining—“except over base pay, which can never be increased above inflation without a public referendum. It makes union dues purely voluntary and prohibits their collection via paycheck deduction. It requires the unions to face a certification vote every year—and, to get recertified, a union must win a majority of all employees, not just a majority of those voting.”

These facts are all from Winner Rick Hertzberg’s characteristically lucid and authoritative
Comment” in last week’s New Yorker.  In a subsequent online chat, Hertzberg exploded a number of myths about the controversy perpetuated by other reporters much less competent than the dean of American political reporters.

Hertzberg’s New Yorker colleague, Winner Dan Kaufman, also contributed a lovely blog post—“Notes on the Cheddar Revolution”—about how the current the protest was informed by Wisconsin’s (mostly) liberal past.

Sinners Arthur Gregg Sulzberger and Monica Davey attracted plenty of unwanted attention with a seriously sloppy hatchet job on the labor movement which ran on page 1 of The New York Times.  Demonstrating once again that journalists can prove almost any premise, if they’re careful to skew their interviews so that at 80 percent of the people you quote agree with you, Sulzberger and Davey tried hard to prove that union bonds were fraying in Wisconsin.

Workers themselves, being pitted against one another, are finding it hard to feel sympathy or offer solidarity, with their own jobs lost and their benefits and pensions cut back or cut off,” the Times reporters wrote, and “away from Madison” [a notorious left-wing stronghold, of course] “many people said that public workers needed to share in the sacrifice that their own families have been forced to make.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel, David Cay Johnston, Harold Myerson

Just how far the reporters had been forced to been over backwards to make their point quickly became apparent after

1) “Union guy” Richard “Hahan,” who had worked for GM, and was described in the lead of their story as a strong supporter of the governor’s “sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin”–turned out to be a lifelong scab, who according to a subsequent correction, had “worked at unionized factories,” but never actually belonged to a union himself (also, his name was really “Hahn,” not “Hahan”).

2) Winners Richard Simon and Abby Sewell reported a couple of days later in The Los Angeles Times that the dispute had actually ignited a profound new solidarity between public sector workers and private sector union members–not only in Wisconsin, but across the country.

3) A new poll conducted by their own newspaper, The New York Times poll released a couple of days ago,  showed that most Americans supported public employee unions in their battles against newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio.  In what was perhaps the most heartening news of the week, despite the widespread Republican perception that unions are politically useful whipping boys, The Times reported that

* Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.
* Those surveyed said they opposed, 56 percent to 37 percent, cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits.
* Sixty-one percent of those polled—including just over half of Republicans—said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either “about right” or “too low” for the work they do.

Winner David Cay Johnston of tax.com accused Sulzberger and Davey of being among the legions of reporters who were reporting “economic nonsense” as “fact”–“the product of a breakdown of skepticism among journalists multiplied by their lack of understanding of basic economic principles.”

Johnston is incensed because he believes that every time a reporter says the Wisconsin governor is asking public employees to increase their contributions to their pensions, they are repeating an outright lie. Here’s why:

Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’ s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.

How can that be? Because the “contributions” consist of money that employees chose to take as deferred wages – as pensions when they retire – rather than take immediately in cash. The same is true with the health care plan. If this were not so a serious crime would be taking place, the gift of public funds rather than payment for services.

Thus, state workers are not being asked to simply “contribute more” to Wisconsin’ s retirement system (or as the argument goes, “pay their fair share” of retirement costs as do employees in Wisconsin’ s private sector who still have pensions and health insurance). They are being asked to accept a cut in their salaries so that the state of Wisconsin can use the money to fill the hole left by tax cuts and reduced audits of corporations in Wisconsin.

(Sulzberger and Davey wrote that the Governor “would raise the amount government workers pay into their pension to 5.8 percent of their pay, from less than 1 percent now.” Sulzberger is the son of the current Times publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who is perpetually at odds with the unions at the Times, the Boston Globe, and the rest of his newspaper properties, so it’s unlikely that the son grew up in a household where people like former U.A.W. president Walter Reuther were portrayed as revered figures by his parents.)

    On the other hand, the Sulzbergers are the last newspaper family in America that still employs a fulltime labor reporter…

Winner  Steve Greenhouse, whose reporting on Wisconsin has been characteristically fair and thororough–from a feature about the pizza parlor which delivered hundreds of pies a day to fuel protesters inside the Wisconsin state capitol building to a profile of Marty Bell, the executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, whose bare-knuckled styled helped to “transform Madison into a national battle ground over labor rights.”

Winner:  Katrina vanden Heuvel gets to the heart of the matter   in The Washington Post:  “unions…have been central to the rise and fall of the American middle class.  There is a strong corrleation between states with right-to-work laws that outlaw majority rule onunionization, a worse quality of life for workers and a more hostile climate to any progressive cause. The average worker in a right-to-work state earns $5,333 less than his or her counterpart in a pro-worker state.”

Winner: Madison’s venerable Capitol Times, now online only, has been a reliable source of hard hitting editorials like this one, and articles explaining exactly what is at stake for the Koch brothers, like this one.

Sinner USA Today gave big play to a piece comparing public and private sector wages and benefits, without adjusting for specific jobs, age, education or experience–which basically rendered all of the comparisons in the piece completely meaningless.  (Surprise! College professors and nurses make more than burger flippers at McDonald’s) while the Economic Policy institute showed how these comparisons should actually be done.
(h/t GK.)

Winner: Columnist Harold Meyerson, whose extensive coverage included this eye opening column about the GOP’s much broader efforts to undermine unions everywhere, way beyond Ohio and Wisconsin.

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The Frank Rich Bombshell

    Frank Rich is the best newspaper columnist in the business.  Period.  And that has been true for a long time.  Week after week, he has provided facts and insights and connections and a very special kind of intelligence which simply aren’t available anywhere else in The New York Times.

    I hope that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Andy Rosenthal moved heaven and earth to try to hang on to him.  If they didn’t, they have gravely underestimated Rich’s importance to their readers.   Very few journalists ever manage to make themselves indispensable, but that is exactly what Rich did, starting with his very first year as the newspaper’s drama critic–when FCP wrote him the first of many, many herograms.

    When he switched from drama to politics, it took him a while to find his voice.  Eight-hundred-word columns were not his metier.  But when he followed Arthur Gelb’s suggestion to write once a week at twice that length, he gradually became what he is today: the single most important progressive voice in America.

    His decision to join Adam Moss is not as surprising as it seems.  The two of them have been close collaborators for almost a quarter of a century, ever since Moss commissioned Rich to write a landmark feature about gay culture in Esquire magazine.   This is a triumphant day for Moss, and he deserves gigantic credit for the coup of bringing Rich to New York Magazine.

    Already, media pundits like Jack Shafer are suggesting that Frank Rich without the Times will not be Frank Rich.   That would be true of anyone else on the paper except Frank.  But in a world where the Web is already king, Rich’s move is merely the latest evidence of the long, slow, steady and irreversible decline of print.   His legions of fans will simply bookmark his new location at nymag.com, and Rich will remain just as important as he has been, for more than three decades at the Times.

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Winners & Sinners: From Obama to Brisbane

 

Lisa Sotto, Arthur Brisbane

 

Walfrido Martinez, Zach Wahls

Winner: Barack Hussein Obama, whose decision to instruct his Attorney General to stop defending crucial provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act is quite simply the most important presidential act in support of equal rights for gay people ever.   Combined with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Obama has now undone the two worst things Bill Clinton did to gay people during his presidency.   And with this splendid act, Obama has also  displayed exactly the kind of political courage that all of us have been waiting for since the day he was inaugurated.

One of the cases challenging DOMA was brought with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP and the New York Civil Liberties UnionACLU executive director Anthony Romero said the president had “propelled gay rights into the 21st century, where it belongs.  Our government finally recognizes what we knew 14 years ago — that the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ is a gross violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection before the law.”

Sinners: John Woods, Richard Wyatt Jr. and Robert Quanckenboss (talk about onomatopoeia!), all members of the law firm of Hunton & Williams, which so far has maintained a stony silence in the face of allegations that it asked various security firms to suggest ways to undermine the supporters of WikiLeaks and the opponents of the Chamber of Commerce.

VelvetRevolution.us and StopTheChamber.com have now filed a complaint with the Washington, D.C. Bar Association seeking the disbarment of Woods, Wyatt and Quackenboss because of e-mails suggesting they may have advocated domestic spying, cyber stalking, spear phishing, cyber attacks, and theft.

As Forbes.com reported “Earlier this month, a trove of emails hacked from the servers of security firm HBGary Federal by the loose hacker group Anonymous revealed that Hunton & Williams had asked HBGary Federal and two other security firms to put together a proposal to address Bank of America’s fear that WikiLeaks would release leaked documents from the bank sometime early this year.”

The spectacular irony here is that all of the ammunition in the new complaint comes from e-mails stolen by Anonymous from the account of Aaron Burr, an executive of HBGary, after Burr boasted of his ability to penetrate Anonymous and identify its leaders.

As its website trumpets, Hunton & Williams is a huge multi-national firm, with “1,000 attorneys in 18 offices.”

The other huge irony which FCP has not seen in any of the coverage of this burgeoning scandal is the fact that “for the fourth consecutive time, Hunton & Williams LLP was named the top firm for privacy by Computerworld in its 2010 report on “Best Privacy Advisers.”

FCP queried Hunton managing partner Walfrido Martinez, and its privacy expert partner, Lisa Sotto, on how they thought these allegations might affect its status as “best privacy” advisor.

So far, no response to FCP’s e-mails.

The other thing lacking so far in all of the coverage is a major take-out on the rest of the activities of this sprawling firm–and how these grave allegations are affecting its attempts to recruit new lawyers.

Sinner: New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, for practicing exactly the kind of shoddy journalism he is supposedly paid to criticize.   Brisbane was outraged  that the Times identified Stephen B. Burke, the new chief executive of NBC Universal, as an “Irish Catholic.”

Brisbane reported that “Raymond G. McGuire, a reader in New York City, found “Irish Catholic” to be a “jarring” reference and that “Mr. McGuire recalled growing up in New York City from the 1940s to 1960s, ‘when its Catholic residents universally understood that the N.Y. Times was vaguely hostile to institutionalized Catholicism and deployed reporters and columnists who had little understanding of the daily lives of the city’s Catholic residents, or of the rich culture Catholics of Irish ancestry enjoyed during those years. I thought those days were past.’”

Unfortunately, Brisbane took this single reader’s allegation as gospel, without bothering to investigate whether it had any genuine connection to the truth.  If Brisbane had taken this most elemental journalistic step of checking the reader’s allegation, he would have learned that the somewhat-embarrassed-to-be-somewhat-Jewish owners of The New York Times had, for decades, been famously fawning in their coverage of insitutionalized Catholicismu in the news pages of the newspaper–especially from the ‘40’s through the ‘60’s.

And as late as 1995 the paper assigned an Irish Catholic reporter to write a hugely favorable profile of John Cardinal O’Connor, the hugely controversial head of the New York Catholic Church.

Winner: Russ Buettner, for a superb piece of investigative reporting in the New York Times about how court documents that were supposed to have been kept secret described how Fox News chairman Roger Ailes may have counseled former Murdoch publishing honcho Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators who were vetting Bernard B. Kerik for the job of homeland security secretary.  As Buettner points out, “The dispute involves a cast of well-known and outsize personalities” including several “New Yorkers who have had spectacular career meltdowns.”

Winner: Zach Wahls, an engineering student at the University of Iowa, raised by two women, who gave a brilliant speech, humiliating Iowa legislators determined to overturn the decision of the Iowa Supreme court which legalized gay marriage.  “You are voting for the first time in the history of our state to codify discrimination in our constitution” Wahls declared. “My family isn’t really so different from any other Iowan family.”  For the rest of Wahls’ brilliant indictment of prejudice, go here.

And if you missed the other best piece of oratory of 2011, watch Barack Obama’s speech after the Tuscon massacre (below)  Although it was one of the defining moments of his presidency, neither NBC Nightly News nor ABC’s World News bothered to devote a whole story to the speech the night after it was delivered. 

 

Winners & Sinners: From Egypt to Mississippi

 

Elizabeth Palmer of CBS News

 

 

Kate Ellis, Stephen Smith, Filmmakers Brent and Craig Renaud

 

Winner: Elizabeth Palmer, a CBS News correspondent of the old school, who provided calm, thorough and fascinating reports from Egypt every night on Katie Couric’s evening news.

Winners: Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith, for a superb documentary for American RadioWorks with many fascinating details about how Mississippi whites organized to resist segregation throughout the early 1960’s.  A splendid example of bringing history to life through sound, with intelligence and care.

Sinner: New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters, for a woefully inadequate piece about reader dissatisfaction with a shrunken Los Angles Times.  Peters got a “no comment” from the Times publisher.  Then he didn’t bother to include a single quote from a current editor or reporter for the newspaper.  FCP asked Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, “How would you feel if the LA Times did a story about the decline of the NYT by talking to half a dozen random readers, a couple of ex-staffers, got a ‘no comment’ from Arthur — and then failed to include a single comment from a current NYT editor or reporter?

That’s what Jeremy Peters did today to the LA Times.  Does this meet current NYT standards for fairness and thoroughness?”

Keller acknowledged receipt of the e-mail but did not reply to it.

Winner: Sandy Hausman, for an in-depth look, for Virginia Public Radio, into the completely counterproductive anti-gang policy of Virginia’s Attorney General.

Winners: Brent and Craig Renaud and Dave Rummel for a personal and powerful ten-minute video about the continuing, devastating effects of the earthquake in Haiti.

Sinners: The law firm of Hunton & Williams and the security firm of HBGary, for promoting a bizarre scheme to undermine the allies of WikiLeaks, partly by submitting fake documents to WikiLeaks, and partly by threatening its supporters, including Glenn Greenwald.  Hunton & Williams represents Bank of America, and HBGary proposed these clever ideas to the law firm after rumors circulated that WikiLeaks was about to release a deeply damaging set of documents about America’s largest bank.

Another set of documents proposed similar ways to embarrass adversaries of the Chamber of Commerce for an initial fee of $200,000 and $2 million later.

Winners: Eric Lipton and Charlie Savage, two of the finest reporters in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, who did a fine job of unraveling this mess.

 

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Winners & Sinners: Egyptian Edition

Diane Sawyer on top of Egypt

 

Brian Williams and Lester Holt in Egypt

 


Jane Mayer and Steve Coll of the New Yorker     

    As Facebook and Twitter (with an apparently significant assist from Al Jazeera) prepared to claim their latest scalp of a head of state–Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak–the world’s media descended en masse on Cairo, just as thousands of foreigners were streaming out of the airport in the opposite direction.

    NBC’s Brian Williams was the first American network anchor on the scene, but the evening news broadcast to watch last night was definitely the one on CBS.   CBS Evening News executive producer Rick Kaplan showed that he still knows twice as much as his competitors about how to cover a huge breaking news story.  So while Katie Couric arrived in Egypt a day later than Brian, the  CBS broadcast last night–subbed by Harry Smith–included stories that were vastly superior to the very ordinary ones done by Richard Engel and his colleagues at NBC.

    Veteran CBS foreign correspondent Elisabeth Palmer did an especially sophisticated and thorough summary at the top of the broadcast, followed by an equally good sidebar by Mark Strassmann about when the Egyptian police force first disappeared from the streets of Cairo, before slowly returning to select Cairo neighborhoods.

    Over at ABC News, since Diane Sawyer hadn’t managed to cross the ocean to reach the exploding scene, she tried to compensate by standing on Egypt, in the center of a vast floor map of North Africa and the Middle East.  ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who seems to alternate between flaking for the Pentagon and the C.I.A., continued her rapturous account of Egypt’s vital role in the war on terror, but last night she came a little closer to explaining to what that actually meant: “capturing and brutally interrogating suspects”–i.e., torturing them–often on behalf of the CIA, which made Egyptian prisons one of its favorite destinations for victims of American rendition.

    But to understand just how effective this cooperation was, once again it was necessary to turn to the indispensable Jane Mayer, who did a post at newyorker.com
 which made all of the important points which most of her competitors left out of their reports.  Among Mayer’s crucial details:

* Newly chosen Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman  is actually not so new to anyone who has followed the American policy of renditions for terror suspects

* In fact, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for American renditions.

*Technically, U.S. law required the C.I.A. to seek “assurances” from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the intelligence service, such assurances were considered close to worthless.

* As Ron Suskind recounts in the The One Percent Doctrine,  Suleiman was the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of an Al Qaeda suspect known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi.   It was al-Libi who was then tortured by the Egyptians into giving false information that Saddam Hussein wanted to give biological weapons to  Al Qaeda–a fantasy which then found its way into Colin Powell’s notorious U.N. speech explaining why the United States felt compelled to invade Iraq.

* Several years later, however, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned up no such weapons of mass destruction, or ties between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Libi recanted. When the F.B.I. later asked him why he had lied, he blamed the brutality of the Egyptian intelligence service.

    Which demonstrates once again why Dick Cheney thought torture was so indispensable for the production of the information he needed–even (or especially) when it was entirely false. (h/t Syd Schanberg.)

    Steve Coll was also ahead of the curve in his post for the New Yorker  , when he wrote that Egyptian generals “may conclude that patriotism and justice require them now to switch sides, to stand with the population, which they are, after all, sworn to defend”–which now seems to be exactly what they’re doing, at least so far.

    Jon Lee Anderson offered a concise and useful history of American involvement in Egypt, beginning with our support of the coup which brought  Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952.  “In the end,” Anderson writes, “our serial monogamy with Egypt’s dictators, and the money we have given them—reportedly, sixty-eight billion dollars in all—bought us their loyalty, and years of borrowed time”–partly in the form of a very important thirty-year old peace with Israel.  “That time appears to have run out. In the days to come, it will become clearer whether our money has also bought us the loyalties of ordinary Egyptians, or whether, once again, we will have to pack up and leave.”

    Finally, The New Yorker’s Wendell Steavenson had a lovely on-scener from Tahrir Square:

    “It feels like a preëmptive celebration. People hugged each other—“Congratulations!”—sang the national anthem; punched the air shouting, “Viva Egypt!” Chants rose and fell. They had been singing, “The people want the fall of the regime,” since last Tuesday. Also popular is the blunt exultation, “Leave!”

    Meanwhile, the 1.6 million most-committed-American-news-junkies (including the ones in the White House) turned to Al Jazeera English’s live feed  on the internet, for the most exciting wall-to-wall coverage of all.

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Au Revoir to Mr. Olbermann

 

Keith Olbermann says good-bye on Friday night

Above the Fold

    Love him or loathe him, you have to give Keith Olbermann credit: he did more to re-balance the ideology of cable news than anyone else ever did.

    Olbermann’s success was entirely responsible for MSNBC’s decision to re-brand itself as the liberal alternative to Fox.   Before Olbermann landed there eight years ago, the network had never had any discernible identity, or consistent prime time success.

    Until Olbermann started drawing in new viewers at 8 PM, starting at a couple of hundred thousand, building to 726,000 by 2007, and toping out at more than a million, no cable network had discovered that a champion of progressive ideas could be nearly as profitable as a Bill O’Reilly or a Glenn Beck.

    In stark contract to those two serial prevaricators, Olbermann brought a keen intelligence and genuine intellectual honesty to his program.  Anyone who thinks that he and Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are “just the liberal version of Fox” either have never watched Roger Ailes’ network, or don’t know the difference between intelligent commentary and pure propaganda.

      No  one doubts that both Maddow and O’Donnell owe their current shows to Olbermann, not only because of his successful example, but also because they were his frequent guests and/or guest hosts.

      When O’Donnell assumed Olbermann’s slot this week–what he called “the most successful hour in MSNBC history”–he said, “I am here thanks entirely to Keith.” 

    That same night Rachel Maddow praised Olbermann for “clearing the space” for liberals to be liberals on television, by “not only voicing his own opinion but by being really freaking successful while he did it.  If you want to be a pioneer, don’t just be the first person like you to do something, be the first person like you to do it brilliantly. That’s how you change the world, so others like you get chances too.”

    To some Olbermann’s bombastic special comments made him look and sound too much like fictional anchorman Ted Baxter, but they were always full of unvarnished truths–especially when he described the right-wing’s attack on Shirley Sherrod:

        Let me make this utterly clear: What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites, is the utter and complete perversion of journalism, and it can have no place in a civilized society. It is words crashed together, never to inform, only to inflame. It is a political guillotine. It is the manipulation of reality to make the racist seem benevolent, and to convict the benevolent as racist — even if her words must be edited, filleted, stripped of all context, rearranged, fabricated, and falsified, to do so.

        What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites… is a manipulation. Not just of a story, not just on behalf of a political philosophy. Manipulation of a society, its intentional redirection from reality and progress, to a paranoid delusion and the fomenting of hatred of Americans by Americans…The assassins of the Right have been enabled on the Left.

    As I wrote then,  “It has become fashionable to dismiss Keith Olbermann as an over-the-top ranter — or as the MSNBC host put it himself, ‘a mirror image of that which I assail.’  But there was nothing over-the-top about his special comment about Shirley Sherrod.  Every word he spoke was true.            

     “And the only thing that made his stance so remarkable is the abject failure of the mainstream media … to accurately describe the source of the allegation against  Sherrod, or to chronicle the long-term impact of the ‘complete perversion of journalism’ practiced 365 days a year by Fox News (and the right-wing bloggers and radio hosts that make up the rest of this wackosphere).”

    When Ted Koppel attacked Olbermann for his admittedly misguided contributions to three Democratic political candidates last year (including one to Gabrielle Giffords), Olbermann was equally accurate in his retort that the only times  the networks have made crucial contributions to the life of the republic have been when its anchors threw off their cloaks of objectivity–when Ed Murrow attacked Joe McCarthy, when Walter Cronkite devoted half of the CBS Evening News to Watergate, and–most importantly–when Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968, and declared the war an unwinnable stalemate.

    Olbermann said, “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.”

    Asked by FCP to summarize Olbermann’s contributions, longtime media student Martha Ritter described them this way:

    He asked all the questions I wanted asked that no one else would. Piercing through the haze, maze, sorting out what the hell just happened today in a three dimensional way. WHY did this happen? Is it the state of the country? Is it a couple of nut jobs cooking something up? Now what can we expect? Why? Can we do something about it? (Yes, in some cases…i.e. help organize medical clinics, put your money where your mouth is…Here’s the phone number, etc.)

     It was like coming home to a brilliant, cranky family member who had nothing better to do all day than follow the flow of muck that shapes our lives, and run around talking to everyone about EVERYTHING to do with it. You get him at the end of the day when he holds what he’s gathered up to the light. You get his opinion PLUS valuable info, and on top of that…the cathartic honor of throwing up with him, marveling at ineptitude, absurdities, cracking up together, sometimes even witnessing other well-intentioned, smart, deft people who are helping the muck flow in the right direction.

    He took nothing at face value. He served up motivations and belief systems, often through interviews right before our eyes at a level of reporting you don’t exactly get in, say, The New York Times–or, for that matter, on a regular basis from Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow, who, although they share Olbermann’s point of view, dig less and pontificate more.

    He expressed the outrage of millions in a razor sharp, nuanced, outsized, often entertaining way. What I am really going to miss is the feeling that, “Yeah, sock it to em, Keith. I’m going to relax and get something to eat.”

    Last Friday  Olbermann’s multiple battles with his bosses–perhaps combined with an eagerness by them to please the incoming owners from Comcast–culminated in the sharp surprise  of Olbermann’s final MSNBC broadcast.

            If the rumors are true that the cost of the separation to MSNBC was to pay Olbermann another $14 million for the last two years of his contract, it’s not  hard to understand why Keith took the deal.   According to Bill Carter and Brian Stelter, Olbermann’s deal with MSNBC will only keep him off television for nine months–at the most.

    That means he can return to the tube well beefore the 2012 presidential campaign begins in earnest. 

    Given his proven capacity to make money with often riveting television, there will be no shortage of cable outlets eager to get  him back on the air.  

    And that is good news for America.

 

 

 

The Hour When The Ship Comes In

 

Joshua Lott / courtesy The New York Times

Above the Fold

     To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people–especially [people] who are unbalanced to begin with.

                   –Pima County, Arizona  Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, January 9, 2011

    It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.

                    –Paul Krugman, January 10, 2011

    This morning in Arizona, this age in which this country would accept  “targeting” of political opponents and putting bullseyes over their faces and of the dangerous blurring between political rallies and gun shows, ended.  This morning in Arizona, this time of the ever-escalating, borderline-ecstatic invocation of violence in fact or in fantasy in our political discourse, closed. It is essential tonight not to demand revenge, but to demand justice; to insist not upon payback against those politicians and commentators who have so irresponsibly brought us to this time of domestic terrorism, but to work to change the minds of them and their supporters - or if those minds tonight are too closed, or if those minds tonight are too unmoved, or if those minds tonight are too triumphant, to make sure by peaceful means that those politicians and commentators and supporters have no further place in our system of government.

                  –Keith Olbermann, January 9, 2011

    No one knows what history will make of the present — least of all journalists, who can at best write history’s sloppy first draft. But if I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn’t choose the kabuki health care summit that generated all the ink and 24/7 cable chatter in Washington. I’d put my money instead on the murder-suicide of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the tax protester who flew a plane into an office building housing Internal Revenue Service employees in Austin, Tex., on Feb. 18. It was a flare with the dark afterlife of an omen…All it takes is a few self-styled “patriots” to sow havoc.

                    --Frank Rich, February 27, 2010

    A hard rain’s gonna fall means something’s going to happen.

                    –Bob Dylan

    There was nothing really surprising about Saturday’s massacre in Arizona; that was the most horrifying thing about it.

    Events like this are completely predictable in a country where so many pundits and politicians are addicted to apocalyptic rhetoric, and all serious attempts to restrict the use of firearms have been abandoned.

    Where else but America could an obviously deranged college student be thrown out of school and forbidden to return without official certification of his mental health–and then proceed directly to a sporting goods store to purchase a 9 mm Glock pistol with a 30-bullet clip.  This kind of gun, according to Brady Campaign president Paul Helmke, “is not suited for hunting or personal protection.  What it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly.”

    As Gail Collins pointed out in a crucial column today, the only reason Jared L. Loughner was able to buy that semiautomatic weapon legally was “because the law restricting their sale expired in 2004, and Congress did not have the guts to face up to the National Rifle Association and extend it.”

    Today there is blood on the hands of all the legislators who failed to extend that law– and not just the blood of their colleague,  a federal judge,  four other dead and fourteen wounded innocents.   We can add to that the blood of tens of thousands murdered in the Mexican drug wars in the last four years–nearly all of them killed with assault weapons purchased legally on our side of the border, according to Mexican and American law enforcement officers.

  Arizona is  one of 12 “gold star” open carry states

    In a powerful  special comment on Saturday night, Keith Olbermann summarized the acts and the attitudes which contributed so much to this fatal climate–and which must now be repudiated:

    If  Sarah Palin, whose website put and today scrubbed bullseye targets on 20 Representatives including Gabby Giffords, does not repudiate her own part in amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics, she must be dismissed from politics - she must be repudiated by the members of her own party, and if they fail to do so, each one of them must be judged to have silently defended this tactic that today proved so awfully foretelling, and they must in turn be dismissed by the responsible members of their own party.

    If  Jesse Kelly, whose campaign against Congresswoman Giffords included an event in which he encouraged his supporters to join him firing machine guns, does not repudiate this, and does not admit that even if it was solely indirectly, or solely coincidentally, it contributed to the black cloud of violence that has envellopped our politics, he must be repudiated by Arizona’s Republican Party.

    If  Congressman Allen West, who during his successful campaign told his supporters that they should make his opponent afraid to come out of his home, does not repudiate those remarks and all other suggestions of violence and forced fear, he should be repudiated by his constituents and the Republican Congressional Caucus.

    If Sharron Angle, who spoke of “Second Amendment solutions,” does not repudiate that remark and urge her supporters to think anew of the terrible reality of what her words implied, she must be repudiated by her supporters in Nevada.

    If  the Tea Party leaders who took out of context a Jefferson quote about blood and tyranny and the tree of liberty do not understand - do not understand tonight, now what that really means, and these leaders do not tell their followers to abhor violence and all threat of violence, then those Tea Party leaders must be repudiated by the Republican Party.

    If  Glenn Beck, who obsesses nearly as strangely as Mr. Loughner did about gold and debt and who wistfully joked about killing Michael Moore, and Bill O’Reilly, who blithely repeated “Tiller the Killer” until the phrase was burned into the minds of his viewers, do not begin their next broadcasts with solemn apologies for ever turning to the death-fantasies and the dreams of bloodlust, for ever having provided just the oxygen to those deep in madness to whom violence is an acceptable solution, then those commentators and the others must be repudiated by their viewers, and by all politicians, and by sponsors, and by the networks that employ them.

    And if those of us considered to be “on the left” do not re-dedicate ourselves to our vigilance to eliminate all our own suggestions of violence - how ever inadvertent they might have been then we too deserve the repudiation of the more sober and peaceful of our politicians and our viewers and our networks.

    It has hardly helped matters that hate mongers like Roger Ailes and Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly are routinely treated so softly (or even warmly)  by pundits and reporters like David Carr and Brian Stelter and Bill Carter and David Gergen and James Poniewozik, and, worst of all,  David von Drehle, who wrote, obscenely,  in Time, that Beck is “tireless, funny, [and]self-deprecating…a gifted storyteller with a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies — if he believed in conspiracies, which he doesn’t, necessarily; he’s just asking.”

     And when incompetent repoters like NBC’s Mike Viqueira run clips of Sarah Palin saying that Barack Obama “wants to take all your guns away”–and then neglects to point out that this is a cold-blooded lie–they throw a different kind of fuel on the fire.  (The sad truth is,  the Obama admnistration has not done a single thing to try to encourage any kind of gun control in America.) 

    As Keith Olbermann said on Saturday, “we stand at one of the clichéd crossroads of American history. Even if the alleged terrorist Jared Lee Loughner was merely shooting into a political crowd because he wanted to shoot into a political crowd, even if he somehow was unaware who was in the crowd, we have nevertheless  for years been building up to a moment like this.  Assume the details are coincidence. The violence is not. The rhetoric has devolved and descended, past the ugly and past the threatening and past the fantastic and into the imminently murderous.”

    Yesterday, Matt Bai wrote in the Times,  “Tucson will either be the tragedy that brought us back from the brink, or the first in a series of gruesome memories to come.”

    If this is going to be the event that leads us away from the abyss, instead of plunging us to the bottom of it,  new and different kinds of courage and intelligence will be required from all of us.
 

                                                                         -30-

 

 

 

 

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