| Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Obama, So Far

   Above the Fold

    On the eve of the most important foreign policy speech of his presidency, pundits are more divided than ever over what Barack Obama has or has not accomplished in the first ten months of his presidency.

    FCP’s common-sense-of-the-week-award goes to Jacob WeisbergWriting in Slate, Weisberg makes a series of extremely sensible observations.

Among them:

* This conventional wisdom about Obama’s first year isn’t just premature—it’s sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

* Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.

*  If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ.

* Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone. There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter.

    That’s all true.  The other side of the coin, which Weisberg ignores, is best expressed by Glenn Greenwald, who has become the conscience of America on all questions of torture and civil liberties.  Greenwald takes Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Yglesisas to task for giving Obama more or less of a free pass for his failure to reverse many of Bush’s policies in these areas.   Yglesias, for example, wrote “I agree that the civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted, but I’m continually surprised that people are disappointed in this turn. Of all the things for an incumbent President of the United States to take political risks fighting for, obviously reducing the power of the executive branch is going to be dead last on the list. If you want to see civil liberties championed, that’s going to have to come from congress.”

    For Greenwald, and for anyone who shares George Orwell’s conviction that one’s own side must live up to its own principles, Yglesias’ analysis simply won’t do.

    “It’s interesting how what was once lambasted as ‘Constitution-shredding’ under George Bush is now nothing more than:  Obama’s ‘civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted,’ writes Greenwald.  “Also, the premise implicitly embedded in Matt’s argument is the standard Beltway dogma that there would be serious political costs from reversing the Bush/Cheney abuses of the Constitution and civil liberties.  The success of Obama’s campaign – which emphatically and repeatedly vowed to do exactly that  – ought to have permanently retired that excuse.”

    “Whatever else is true,” Greenwald continues, “watching Obama embrace extremist policies can still be ‘disappointing’ even if one isn’t surprised that he’s doing it.  I could understand and accept a lot more easily this blithe acquiescence to Obama’s record if it weren’t for the fact that progressives and Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush’s use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy – policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own.”

    FCP shares all of Greenwald’s disappointment over Obama’s failure to repeal all of Bush’s extra-consitutional policies.   So far, the only major act of the administration on the other side of this argument–besides the outright banning of torture–has been the appointment of Michael Posner as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

   Posner, who headed Human Rights First for three decades, has as good a record of fighting the Bush administration’s torture policies as anyone else in America,  so his selection was extremely encouraging.  It has also gone almost completely unreported by the MSM and the blogosphere alike.

    Meanwhile, holding up the radical fringe this week is Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, with a piece which could easily make him even more of a laughing-stock than he was before. So far, Meacham is the only “mainstream” pundit I know to take Liz Cheney seriously, after she suggested her father really ought to run for president.

    Ignoring the fact that Cheney was the author of almost all of the foreign policy decisions which have brought the nation to the edge of catastrophe, Meacham heartily endorses Liz Cheney’s suggestion–“Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people. The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting. A contest between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama would offer us a bracing referendum on competing visions.”

    Bracing indeed.   Apparently, the plight of Newsweek is now so desperate, Meacham will do literallyanything to try to bring attention to his magazine.

—————-

Update: For a shameful example of the non-journalism so often favored by Washington journalists, don’t miss this morning’s appalling interview  with Meacham’s would-be Republican presidential nominee in Politico.  Conducted by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, the 90-minute exchange does not include a single tough question.   It also contains absolutely zero news, just an endless repetition of the same Cheney rant we have heard over and over again this year.  I guess that’s why Politico is leading with it today.

   The intrepid Politico reporters reported:

   “Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. ‘I basically don’t,’ he replied without elaborating.”

   Follow up, gentlemen? Naturally, there was none.

   If either of these reporters knew any of the details about this subject, they might have asked the former vice president why reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 to 37,000 in Cheney’s final year of office–and slashing aid to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense from $9.6 billion to $5.4 billion during the same period– had nothing to do with the current meltdown over there.   But the pristine ignorance of these reporters insures an utterly free ride for the their subject.

   As the indispensable Steve Benen points out  at The Washington Monthly this morning, “there’s no real journalism to be found. No fact-checking, no pushback, no scrutiny. Just an uninterrupted string of predictable, misguided nonsense. Cheney could have just written a blog post/screed, and had Politico publish it. This would have saved Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei the trouble of adding quote marks to their stenography.”

   Amen.

-30-

 

Lessons for Afghanistan from Lyndon Johnson's last Secretary of Defense

 Above the Fold

   Forty odd years ago, in the spring of 1968, when America was trapped in another terrible quagmire, William Westmoreland, the commanding the general in Vietnam, made a startling request of  president Lyndon B. Johnson: on top of the 500,000 American troops already serving in Southeast Asia, Westmoreland said he  needed 206,000 more to finish the job. 

    When that 206,000 number was reported in a headline on the front page of The New York Times, it caused “a national disturbance,” Clark Clifford remembered.

    Clifford had been brought into Johnson’s administration in 1968 to be the new Secretary of Defense, because he had been a reliable hawk on the Vietnam war and–to Johnson’s dismay–Clifford’s predecessor, Robert McNamara, had lost confidence in America’s ability to prevail in Vietnam.   But after Clifford arrived at the Pentagon, his views about the war underwent a very rapid metamorphosis.

    “Will three hundred thousand more men do the job?” Clifford asked his generals, and he received no assurance that they would.  How long would  the war last with hundreds of thousands of more troops to wage it?  Six months?  A year? Two years?   No one could agree.  Worse still, Clifford couldn’t even find a single man willing to express any confidence in his own guesses.

    “It all began to add up to the realization on my part that we’d been through a period of the never-never land in thinking that we were going to win this,” Clifford told me twenty years later–and  Clifford ended up convincing Lyndon Johnson that another huge troop increase in Vietnam would be a disaster.

    Now we are mired in another unwinnable war, half a world away, in a country governed by a deeply corrupt president.   If we are lucky–really lucky–Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired lieutenant general now serving as America’s ambassador to Afghanistan, will have the same effect on his president that Clark Clifford had on his.

    Just as Clifford had special standing as a hawk on the Vietnam War, Eikenberry’s words carry special weight because he is the former American military commander in Afghanistan.  The news last week that Eikenberry had sent two cables questioning the wisdom of General Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops may have come just in time to prevent Obama from drowning his presidency in another hopeless war.

    Eikenberry’s sensible skepticism was a refreshing contrast to the attitude of so many Washington “journalists” who are, almost unbelievably, repeating all of the mistakes they made as cheerleaders in the run up to our last spectacular national adventure, the War in Iraq. 

    Why are they doing this?

    As Hendrik Hertzberg explained the fundamental problem of Washington to me a couple of years ago, “It’s much harder to damage your career by consistently supporting war and cruelty than by consistently supporting peace and love. The default position is ‘bombs away.’”

   And that goes for journalists and public officials alike.

    In that venerable “bombs away” spirit,  David Broder echoed dozens of his confreres when he wrote in The Washington Post last week  that “the cost of indecision is growing every day.”   Instead of rejoicing that there was now some real debate within the administration over the idiotic idea of sharply escalating American involvement in Afghanistan, Broder reached for exactly the wrong quote from exactly the right person.  Broder wrote that “Obama needs to remember what Clark Clifford, one of Harry Truman’s closest advisers, said: that the president ‘believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all.’ “

   If only Broder wasn’t too senile to remember what Clifford had said to Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, instead.

    Then we have intrepid TV reporters like Chip Reid, the chief White House Correspondent for CBS News.  Why Reid holds that title is another deep Washington mystery–except that he looks right for the job.  Last Thursday, Reid filed a lengthy and not completely unbalanced report for the CBS Evening News,  about the president’s deliberations on Afghanistan.  It was perfectly OK, really, until Reid got to his kicker–the place reporters often use to put their own opinions in someone else’s mouth.

    “That the president is so thoroughly researching such a critical decision is a good thing,” said Reid, “according to CBS News national security consultant Juan Zarate.  But, there’s great danger,  [Zarate] says, if it looks like uncertainty.”  Then we got Zarate himself, the only talking head in Reid’s whole piece:

    “It’s the body language of indecision, or the perception of indecision, that may matter more, in some ways.  It matters in terms of how our allies view our sense of resolve in Afghanistan, how our enemies perceive our willingness to have backbone for whatever decision is made.”

    Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when the former deputy national security advisor to the previous president made a completely mindless observation like that one, he would at least have been identified as a former Republican official now challenging  a Democratic president. But in the wonderful world of 21st century Washington, a Bush aparatchek like Zarate can now have his past magically erased by CBS News, where he is reborn on the evening news as an objective “national security consultant to CBS“–with no mention whatsoever of his previous employment.

    There’s another piece of extremely recent history that all of the Washington hawks demanding that Obama escalate the war have conveniently forgotten.   In his final year in office, it was George Bush who reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 in June of 2008, to 37,000 in January of this year.  During the same period, aide to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense was slashed almost in half, from $9.6 billion in 2007 to $5.4 billion in 2008, according to an excellent new report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

    So after spending more than $167 billion on the war in Afghanistan, and failing for seven years in a row to come up with a winning strategy, Bush sharply reduced American resources in Afghanistan during his final year in office, pretty much guaranteeing the god-awful mess Obama inherited when he took office. 

   Now we can only pray that Obama will follow the advice of his ambassador and his vice president, and reverse course before this war buries his presidency exactly the same way Vietnam buried Lyndon Johnson’s.

                                                                          -30-

Update: For Ed Koch’ clarion call for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan go here;
 and for additional, relevant Westmoreland quotes, see Barry Eisler’s post.


Winners & Sinners

Sinner  Dexter  Filkins  and  Winner  Jane  Mayer


Sinner: Dexter Filkins.

Filkins is a fine reporter, one of the best foreign correspondents working for The New York Times, and the author of countless scoops, including the one he co-authored this morning  about the regular payments the CIA has been making for years to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president who has repeatedly been accused of being a major player in that country’s drug trade.

    Given Filkin’s track record, FCP was extremely eager to read his recent piece about Stanley McChrystal and the Afghan war in The New York Times magazine.  The cover line suggested Filkins had written something particularly important: “Is it just too late — politically and militarily — for Gen. Stanley McChrystal to win in Afghanistan?”

    That head made me hope that Filkins might have written a piece like Walter Cronkite’s famous report from Vietnam, right after the Tet Offensive in 1968, in which Cronkite concluded, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion..It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate…”

    However,  Filkins failed to reach any clear conclusion about our prospects in Afghanistan the same way Cronkite had in Vietnam.  But that was not the main problem with his article.   Like so many other reporters before him, Filkins had clearly been seduced by the general.  Here is a typical passage: “With his long and gaunt face and his long and lean body, McChrystal looks almost preternaturally alert — coiled, hungry. He pushes himself mercilessly, sleeping four or five hours a night, eating one meal a day. He runs eight miles at a clip, usually with an audiobook at his ears. ‘I was the fastest runner at Fort Stewart, Ga., until he arrived,’ Petraeus told me recently. ‘He’s a tremendous athlete.’” (What is it about being a jock that is so irresistible to so many male reporters?)

    Seduction, of course, leads to sloppiness.   As FCP pointed out earlier this month, McChrystal has some very large skeletons in his closet,concerning  the torture of prisoners interrogated by his men, and his central role in covering up the fact that former football star Pat Tillman had been killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

    Regarding the multiple accusations of prisoners tortured by men under McChrystal command, this was all Filkins wrote: “One of JSOC’s units, Task Force 6-26, was cited for abusing detainees, many of them at a site known as Camp Nama, in Baghdad. McChrystal himself was not implicated, but at least 34 task-force members were disciplined. ‘There were cases where people made mistakes, and they were punished,’ McChrystal told me. ‘What we did was establish a policy and atmosphere that said that is not what you do. That is not acceptable.’

    As for his role in the Tillman cover-up, McChrystal gave Filkins the same misleading, non-denial-denial that the general had offered at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year: “McChrystal said he never intended for Tillman’s death to be exploited politically or to convey an incorrect impression about his death. ‘I certainly regret the way this came out,’ McChrystal told me.

    In an e-mail to Filkins, FCP reminded The Times reporter what Tillman’s father had written about the Army’s supposedly unintentional deceptions:

The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military’s claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up “facts” and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army’s reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son’s] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful – conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.

    I also reminded Filkins that the officers at the camp where McChrystal’s men had been accused of routinely torturing their prisoners never used their real names–to make it more difficult to prosecute them later.  They also allowed their soldiers to decorate the base with signs reading “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL“–which the Times itself had reported in 2006 “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’”

    Then I asked Filkins these questions:

1.  Don’t these facts make it impossible to believe that “McChrystal… never intended for Tillman’s death to be exploited politically or to convey an incorrect impression about his death,” or that he “certainly regrets the way this came out?” Is there some reason you don’t find Tillman’s father’s description of the Army actions to be credible?  That the deceptions were willful, and repeated many times?

2.  Do you not find the interrogator interviewed by Human Rights First and the Esquire reporter [who described the torture committed by McChrystal’s troops] to be credible?  I think it’s flatly false–or at least gravely incomplete–to assert that McChrystal was “not implicated” in any of the abuses at Nama.  In fact, I believe he was questioned behind closed doors about these allegations by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
3.  And then there’s this:  “What we did was establish a policy and atmosphere that said that is not what you do. That is not acceptable.”  How could you allow the posting of signs reading  “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL” if that you were trying to establish “such a policy and atmosphere”?

    Filkins did not reply.

Winner:   Karen DeYoung for a powerful portrait of Matthew Hoh, a former Marine corps captain turned  Foreign Service officer, who was “exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.”  Last month Hoh resigned from the State Department in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.  “I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan,” he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department’s head of personnel. “I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”  DeYoung’s piece gives a far better sense of the hopelessness of the American effort than Filkins’ did.

Winner: Nathaniel Frank for the most thorough evisceration in memory at The Huffington Post of an appalling piece by Sinner James Bowman in The Weekly Standard.   Bowman’s essential argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the military: “We know that soldiering… is inextricably bound up with ideas of masculinity… ‘Being a man’ typically does mean for soldiers both being brave, stoic, etc.–and being heterosexual…. [and] includes the honor of being known for heterosexuality.”

Frank’s rebuttal makes it clear that Bowman’s pristine ignorance of all of the actual data on this subject leads him to get almost every single fact wrong in his piece.   Bowman’s piece is a classic example of stupidity and intellectual dishonesty masquerading as objective analysis.

Frank is the author of Unfriendly Fire, the brilliant and definitive book he published on this subject earlier this year.

Winner: The great Jane Mayer for another superb New Yorker article  excerpted here about the steep decline in the moral standards associated with the way America now conducts its wars.  Mayer’s subject this time: the predator drones used by the CIA to assassinate “terrorists.”   Piloted by remote controllers thousands of miles from their targets, the drones are regarded within the American government as one of our most effective tools against terrorism.  But Mayer makes it clear that the collateral damage they often cause is probably creating even more terrorists than they are destroying.
                                                                 -30-

General McChrystal: American "Hero"

                                     

                                                 General Stanley A. McChrystal 

  Above the Fold

   The next time John McCain or David Gregory or some other Washington sage demands to know why President Obama hasn’t already acceded to General Stanley A. McChrystal’s demand that we immediately send 40,000 additional troops to the bottomless cesspool known as Afghanistan, (just imagine: A Commander-in-Chief who thinks that generals are supposed to work for him, rather than the other way around) consider these facts:

* McChrystal was a personal favorite of George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney;

* Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh says that McChrystal ran what Hersh called Cheney’s personal “executive assassination wing”;

*Newsweek reported in 2006 that “Rumsfeld is especially enamored of McChrystal’s ‘direct action’ forces or so-called SMUs–Special Mission Units–whose job is to kill or capture bad guys…But critics say the Pentagon is short-shrifting the ‘hearts and minds’ side of Special Operations that is critical to counterinsurgency–like training foreign armies and engaging with locals.”

* A former interrogator at an American-run prison outside Baghdad called Nama, (soldiers said that stood for Nasty Ass Military Area), told a reporter for Esquire  that all of the officers there went by first names only, and that prisoners were repeatedly beaten, and exposed to all of the torture techniques that the Bush administration pretended were only administered by “rogue soldiers.”

*The Colonel the interrogator worked for at Nama promised him that the Red Cross would never visit the facility. The Colonel was certain of that because “He had this directly from General McChrystal.”

* The same interrogator said that the Colonel was fully aware of all of the abuses taking place on the base. Asked by an investigator from Human Rights Watch where the Colonel’s orders were coming from, the interrogator said, “I believe it was a two-star general. I believe his name was General McChrystal. I saw him there a couple of times.”

* According to Jon Krakauer’s new book, Where Men Win Glory, McChrystal was at the center of the effort to pretend that former football star Pat Tillman had been killed by the enemy, instead of being a victim of friendly fire. At the same time that the general was approving a Silver Star for Tillman, he was cabling the White House, to warn, in secret, that the soldier had actually been killed by his American comrades.

* Krakauer says that Tillman’s uniform and body armor were burned, and his weapon, helmet, and even a part of his brain, which fell to the ground after the attack, disappeared.

* Queried about the cover up during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McChrystal said he had failed to review the Silver Star citation “well enough to capture” the fact that it implied that Tillman was not a victim of friendly fire.

* Although McChrystal told the committee that those involved with the Tillman cover-up “just didn’t line things up right,” the general also said “it was not intentional…I didn’t see any activities by anyone to deceive.”

   Pat Tillman, senior had a very different view of the cover-up of his son’s death in which McChrystal was a principal participant. In a letter to the Washington Post, Tillman wrote,

   The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military’s claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up “facts” and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army’s reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son’s] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful – conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.  I have absolute respect and admiration for Army Rangers acting as such. As to their superior officers, the West Point-Army honor code is: ‘I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those that do.’ They should reissue the booklet.

   The reference of the interrogator to the failure of officers at Nama to use their real names describes one of the most serious breakdowns in the chain of command sanctioned by the Bush administration. The purpose of this anonymity, of course, was to make it as difficult as possible to prosecute officers for the war crimes which they had sanctioned.  And the strategy was extremely successful.

   In 2006, a superb story  by New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall reported that soldiers from McChrystal’s Task Force 6-26 had been accused by the son of one of  Hussein’s bodyguards of forcing him to strip, punching him in the spine until he fainted, putting him in front of an air-conditioner while cold water was poured on him, and kicking him in the stomach until he vomited.

   “Army investigators were forced to close their inquiry in June 2005,” the Times reported, “after they said task force members used battlefield pseudonyms that made it impossible to identify and locate the soldiers involved. The unit also asserted that 70 percent of its computer files had been lost.”

    McChrystal refused to be interviewed by The Times, which also reported that the general’s soldiers had decorated the post with signs reading NO BLOOD, NO FOUL.” The signs “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’”

   The Times also said, “the abuses [at Nama] appeared to have been unsanctioned, but some of them seemed to have been well known throughout the camp. For an elite unit with roughly 1,000 people at any given time, Task Force 6-26 seems to have had a large number of troops punished for detainee abuse. Since 2003, 34 task force members have been disciplined in some form for mistreating prisoners, and at least 11 members have been removed from the unit.”

   Despite all of this excellent reporting in the Times, when McChrystal was chosen to be the new American commander in Afghanistan earlier this year, the same newspaper published a worshipful profile,  which described the general as someone who had “moved easily from the dark world [of killing terrorists] to the light.” The Man in the News article mentioned McChrystal’s central role in the Tillman cover-up only in passing, calling it  “one blot on his otherwise impressive military record.”

   The story made no mention at all of the involvement of McChrystal’s men in torture, but it did quote a retired general as saying that the new commander was “lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier” who  has “all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.”

   Now the General who orchestrated one of the Bush administration’s most famous cover-ups, and whose men were specialists in torture and assassination, has been reborn with a brand new preoccupation with the fate of civilians in Afghanistan.

   As The Times of London observed a couple of weeks ago, “This compassion [for civilians] was a long way from the reputation McChrystal had enjoyed as America’s ruthless ‘chief terrorist pursuer’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught up in a scandal over torture and prisoner abuse. His transformation into a ‘scholar-soldier’ is perhaps one of his greatest achievements in a remarkable career.”

   There is a searing irony to the fact that McChrystal is the man President Obama selected to re-invigorate the American effort in Afghanistan–and that the general has now gone public, in London, with a demand for 40,000 additional troops for this quagmire. (That was such an egregious abuse of the chain-of-command,  even Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a mild reprimand.)

   The presidential candidate who campaigned on the promise of a sharp break with the shameful abuses of the Bush administration now seems to have made himself hostage to one of the men most closely identified with all of them.

                                                                                                     –Charles Kaiser

                                                                 -30-

Remembering Washington's Loved Ones

 Above the Fold

   Nothing brings out Washington’s passion for mediocrity like the death of one of its favorite pundits.

    When syndicated columnist and long time TV personality Bob Novak died last August, he was lionized by David Broder, praised by Howard Kurtz, and given a mostly friendly obituary in The New York Times.

    Nowhere in in The Times or The Post could you find a hint of the fact that Novak and his late partner Rowland Evans had pioneered the corruption of Washington journalism, by charging lobbyists to attend annual conferences populated by sources corralled by the columnists–sources who felt compelled to attend, lest they fall out of favor with two of Washington’s most successful opinion makers.  (It was this model that the Atlantic Magazine has emulated for several years, and which Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth briefly, and disastrously, embraced last summer,  until the newsroom rose up in disgust, forcing Weymouth to abandon it, at least temporarily.)

    What you did learn from his loving colleagues after Novak died was that he was “notable… for the energy with which he tackled his assignments” and “his instinct was to help his friends whenever they needed it” (Broder); that Fred Barnes thought he was “ideological but not partisan at all” and that he “prided himself on being a shoe-leather reporter” (Kurtz); and “he was also a great reporter who liked a good story even more than his ideology” (The New York Times.)

    Now it is true, as any knowlegeable Washington octogenarian will tell you, that Novak was a great reporter when he covered Capital Hill for The Wall Street Journal–in the late 1950’s.  But that was five decades ago.  When he switched from reporter to columnist, Novak’s pieces were so riddled with factual errors that he and his partner Rowland Evans quickly became known as Errors and No Facts.”

    In one of dozens of famous non-scoop-scoops, the column reported days before the 1980 presidential election that Jimmy Carter’s White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, had just flown back from Geneva, where he had secured a “handshake” agreement with the Iranians to release the American hostages in Teheran.   Had the columnists taken the elementary precaution of telephoning Cutler before writing that, they would have learned that hehadn’t been out of the country at all–since the previous summer.

    LAST WEEK, IT WAS DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN, with the death of Bill Safire, the Nixon flak turned Times columnist, whose hiring by Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger ssent shivers through the rest of The New York Times at the end of 1972.

    But Safire quickly won over his Washington bureau colleagues by feeding them the scooplets that he didn’t use in his own column.   And while Nixon was still in office, he occasionally got a special leak–as he did the day the White House gave him the transcripts of an early set of Nixon tapes, several hours before other news organizations received them.

    Last week his Times colleague Maureen Dowd caught Washington’s mood with a worshipful column extolling Safire as “a man who loved women,” wrote novels “full of zesty sex scenes,” and had “none of the vile and vitriol of today’s howling pack of conservative pundits.”  Her kicker was to declare him a “mensch”–the ultimate Yiddish compliment, which, in this case, could not have been more inappropriate.

    Only Slate’s Jack Shafer suggested Safire’s true nature: “A human hybrid of flack, hack, speechwriter, book author, novelist, and politician, he answered to nobody but himself, and for all his alleged skill as a reporter, he never asked himself any tough questions.”  Many years ago, writing in Newsday, Sydney Schanberg made a similar point, when Safire suddenly embraced Al D’Amato for his ethical zeal, because he was investigating Bill Clinton’s alleged misdeeds in the Whitewater affair–even though, as Schanberg pointed out, the New York Senator had “perhaps the most dubious ethics record of any figure on the national scene.”

    (Full Disclosure: when I was the press critic at Newsweek, I wrote a piece accusing New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal of using the paper to “reward his friends and punish his enemies,” after he commissioned Times reporter John Corry to write a 6,500 word apologia for Jerzy Kosinski on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section.  Corry’s piece was a response to an article in The Village Voice, which  had accused Kosinki of not being the sole author of all of his novels.  Corry suggested that the writers at the Voice had been duped by a Polish government campaign defaming the emigré author–because he was an anti-commnist.  Almost every senior Times critic told me they were horrified by Corry’s piece, because they believed it had been motivated solely by Rosenthal’s close friendship with Kosinski.   But Abe’s other close friend, Bill Safire, responded to my criticism with a column which attacked me for attacking Abe–and extolled Corry’s article as “a piece of cultural sleuthing worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.”)

    David Broder unwittingly identified the real problem with writers like Novak and Safire, when he described Novak as one of those reporters who “cultivated not just sources but friendships with many of the main players in the drama they loved.” Broder meant that as a compliment, of course, even though such a posture actually makes it impossible to practice real journalism.  George Orwell, the antithesis of this kind of pundit, once explained to Stephen Spender that he didn’t “mix much in literary circles” partly because “I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.”

    The one person toward whom Safire almost never showed any “intellectual brutality” was his first important patron, Richard Nixon.   Safire labored in Nixon’s White House with Pat Buchanan, and togther they wrote the speeches that vice president Spiro Agnew delivered in the mid 1970’s, which inaugurated the right-wing war against the mainstream press, which has been waged so successfully ever since then.

    When Abe Rosenthal died  three and a half years ago, Safire was one of the speakers at his funeral, at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.

    He recalled that Rosenthal often said that he wanted his epitaph to be, “He kept the paper straight”–words which actually appear on Rosenthal’s grave stone.

    Then Safire recalled being in The New York Times newsroom in the summer of 1974, on the day when the news came over the wire that Richard Nixon had decided to resign.  According to Safire, the entire Times newsroom had erupted in applause.

    There was only one problem with this anecdote, as I pointed out to Safire on the synagogue’s steps when the funeral was over: it never happened.   I was in the Times newsroom for twelve hours that day, because I was Abe Rosenthal’s news clerk, and there was never any applause to celebrate the president’s resignation. If there had been, Abe would surely have fired any reporter who had put his hands together at such a moment.

    Like many of Safire’s own columns, this was another story “too good to check”–but he used it anyway, because it worked so well to confirm his  life-long prejudices.

                                                                                                      -30-

The Wall Street Journal, Re-invented

    It’s Rupert’s Journal now.

    The big question twenty-two months ago, when Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal for $5 billion from the Bancroft family, was how long he would wait before he started to transform the business newspaper of record in his own image.

    For many decades before Murdoch acquired the Journal, news aficionados revered the paper as the only national news outlet in America where special interests of any kind never seemed to interfere with the news pages.  (The hard-right editorial page was always another matter altogether.)  Of the three publications where FCP worked as a staffer--The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Journal–the Journal was the only one where there was never any evidence of anyone tampering with my copy to satisfy someone else’s prejudices.

    Since Murdoch had never owned any news organization with that kind of reputation, the consternation over the paper’s future was understandable.

    The first font dropped just five months after his purchase was completed when Marcus Brauchli was pushed out of the managing editor’s slot, and replaced by Robert Thomson, a News Corp veteran who started his career as a copy boy at Murdoch’s Herald in Melbourne in 1979.  Before coming to the Journal, Thomson was the editor of Murodch’s Times of London, where he drove the paper’s content relentlessly down market (and obliterated much of its reputation for factual accuracy.)

    When Brauchli left the paper (he later became executive editor of The Washington Post), one Journal staffer told Politico, “This is a clear sign that it’s over—the Dow Jones culture is dead.”

    Now that trend seems to be accelerating.

    When Teddy Kennedy died last August, the Journal posted a lengthy and balanced obituary on its website by Naftali Bendavid.  But when the same article appeared on the front page of the newspaper   the next day, the piece had a new seventh paragraph which hadn’t been there before:

    Blasting what he called “slobbering media coverage” of Mr. Kennedy’s death that ignored his past “bad behavior,” conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday said Mr. Kennedy was a politician who “uses the government to take money from people who work and gives it to people who don’t work.”

    Journal reporters immediately started complaining to their friends at other newspapers that the Limbaugh paragraph had been inserted at the insistence of editors in New York.  Naftali Bendavid and Journal Washington Bureau Chief John Bussey both  refused to comment when asked by FCP about the change.

    A former top Journal editor told FCP that he saw evidence of ideological meddling “seeping into the paper all the time.   I heard that story about Kennedy, and I hear they’re under pressure to be tougher on Obama all the time.  I also heard the labor reporter in Washington was told her stories were too pro-labor.”

    Contacted by FCP, Journal labor reporter Melanie Trottman declined to comment.

    Although it may be becoming more common, ideological tampering within the news columns is still relatively rare.   The trouble is, because of the identity of the new owner, news professionals are constantly questioning the way the paper plays stories in ways that they never would have before.

    “I find myself now almost dismissing a story,” said another former top Journal editor.  “When they were way ahead on the Denver terrorist story, my presumption was, this was the Fox News filter–when in fact they were just doing a really great job on the story.”

    But the biggest difference between the old Journal and Rupert’s Journal is a sharp shift toward more general interest stories, and away from the in-depth business coverage which was always at the heart of the paper’s franchise.

    “I read the paper all the time thinking how incredibly different it is,” said a former Journal reporter who wrote for the paper at home and abroad for more than a decade.  “The  editing is a different thing now.  First of all, there’s less of it.  It used to be so buttoned up.  Now there are weird attributions, and graphs toward the end where you can tell they cut out two graphs and just left the last one.”

    “There’s also a sense of campaigns,” the former reporter continued.  “Remember the private aircraft fleet for Congress?  That was a big story, a legitimate story, but they rode it like a campaign trying to stir up the readers.  That’s something the old Journal never did.  It would pat itself on the back, but it wasn’t that sort of campaigning style.  That’s  a Murdoch formula–although not unique to Murdoch.”

    “The news judgment is bizarre,” said a veteran Washington Post editor.  “They’re throwing away the franchise on sophisticated business stories.   They don’t make as much of them or devote as much space to them.  It’s become a very chatty and much more informal enterprise.”

    Another Journal veteran said, “They now have the news judgment of  The Sydney Daily Telegraph.  It’s not the judgment of The [more serious] Australian.” 

    Finally, there’s the problem of tips from Rupert.  A former Journal staffer said he had frequently heard from current Journal reporters that those tips work like this:    

    “It’s always the same thing.  Rupert has an idea, and because it comes from him, he doesn’t want people called to see if it’s true.  So you can’t confirm it, but you have to treat it as a fact because it came from him.  There are good things and bad things about that.  He’s plugged in, and  he has excellent news judgment.  But then there is this presumed god-like quality to what he says. So you’re not supposed to follow up on what amount to rumors, in a way that you would if it came from anyone else.”

    The most famous instance of a Murdoch tip being “too good to check” was John Kerry’s “choice” of Richard Gephardt as his running mate in 2004.  An unequivocal report of that nonexistent event ended up as the wood on the front page of Murdoch’s New York Post, after the owner insisted upon it.  Afterwards, “senior editors warned that those who discussed the Gephardt gaffe with other news organizations would lose their jobs,” according to The New York Times.

    So far, none of Murdoch’s tips to the Journal have led to a disaster of those proportions.

    John Bussey, the Washington bureau chief, told FCP he had forwarded all of my inquires about each of these issues to Alix Freedman in New York, who last year was given “expanded authority as a defender of the paper’s ethical and journalistic standards” by Robert Thomson.

    There was no response from Freedman.

                                                                   -30-

Time Magazine Loves Glenn Beck (Again)

   Last month FCP discussed the revolting tendency of “liberal” publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker to publish gushing profiles of repellent public figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and, especially. Glenn Beck.   This week the trend accelerated as David von Drehle profiled Beck for the cover of Time magazine.

    Von Drehle’s piece is so humiliating on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.   But at least the web version of the piece carried a headline which FCP thought posed a reasonable question: “Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?”

    Trouble is, after reading the piece, it was still impossible to know how Von Drehle might answer that query.  So FCP telephoned the Time writer to find out more. 

   “I haven’t seen the layout on the web,” Von Drehle said, “So [that question] is news to me.  I personally wouldn’t take one guy and say he’s bad for America.”

    You see, even though Von Drehle’s piece was–ostensibly–a profile of a media figure–von Drehele  is not interested in writing “media journalism,” the kind in which you actually try to evaulate the person you’re writing about.

    “I do not want to give every single person a score card,” Von Drehle told FCP.  There has obviously been no “shortage of rants against Glenn Beck,” so rather than give an intelligent appraisal of what Beck actually says each night, von Drehele wrote a story which focuses on the fact that “this is is a big business and a lot of people are making a lot of money.”

    Von Drehle’s total lack of interest in actual facts is briskly displayed in the very first paragraph of his profile, describing the tea party in Washington last weekend, which was largely the result of Beck’s six-month-long on-air organizing effort for what he called his “9/12 project.”

     “If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists,” Von Drehle wrote.  “If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic.”

    Members of the Washington, D.C., Fire Department will no doubt be delighted to be identified as a “liberal source,” since they originated the crowd estimate of  70,000 people.   As for the higher crowd estimates, the biggest one, of 1.2 million, was simply invented by Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, one of the protest’s main organizers.  Kibbe announced from the stage that ABC News had reported the 1.2 million figure.   This led to an e-mail to news outlets from ABC, very shortly thereafter, pointing out that the network  had never done any such thing–but instead had relied on those “liberal” firemen who offered the lower 60,000 to 70,000 figure.  But you would never know any of that from reading Time.

    Jamison Foser of Media Matters does his own fine dissection of Von Drehle’s drivel here.   In an e-mail exchange with FCP, Foser listed some of the other lies from the organizers of the Washington protest: “they invented a Park Service spokesperson, they used a quote from an actual Parks Service employee saying it was the biggest gathering ever – a quote that was actually about the inauguration;  they made up that ABC report that never happened, and they claimed that photos of the Promise Keepers march were photos of last Saturday’s protest, in order to substantiate their claims of massive crowds.  Time, however, thinks their ‘estimates’ are just as valid as those of the ‘liberal’ DC Fire Dept.”

    Foser also highlights Von Drehle’s hideous tendency to draw utterly false equivalencies throughout his piece, like this one: “Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you’d think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.”  Which leads Foser to ask:

    “What in the world is Time talking about?   Conservatives have been yelling about President Obama being a secret Kenyan bent on sending granny to the Death Panel, comparing him to Hitler and Mao and Stalin and who-knows-who-else – and that, apparently, is matched in intensity and paranoia by liberals pointing out this unhinged behavior? Insane.”

   Von Drehle seemed to be more eager to point out to FCP all the nice things Beck says on his show: “work hard; love your country; be kind to each other; spend more time with your kids.”

    “What about comparing Obama’s non-existent death panel to Nazi eugenics?”  FCP asked.

    “That probably would classify as not productive in my book,” the Time writer replied. 

      These are some of the other lovely things Von Drehle  managed to say about his subject:

*  He is the hottest thing in the political-rant racket, left or right. A gifted entrepreneur of angst in a white-hot market.

*  A man with his ear uniquely tuned to the precise frequency at which anger, suspicion and the fear that no one’s listening all converge.

* Beck is 45, tireless, funny, self-deprecating, a recovering alcoholic, a convert to Mormonism, a libertarian and living with ADHD.

* He is 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 questions. He’s just sayin’.

*Beck describes his performances as ‘the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment’— and the entertainment comes first. “

* “Beck is a “radio nostalgic,” in love with the storytelling power of a man with a microphone.

    After all those glowing tributes, I guess David just didn’t have enough space left for Glenn’s most memorable sound bites–like his declaration that we “at least in this country [need to] start having the necessary discussion of, do we want communists in the United States government”–a question asked in a segment which was bolstered by actual sound bites of some of Joe McCarthy’s finest moments at the Army/McCarthy hearings.

   Von Drehle also forgot to mention that in 2005, Beck said, “you know it took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 families.  I don’t hate all of them.  I probably hate about ten of them.  But when I see a 9/11 family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up.’  I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them!”  (To which Stephen Colbert memorably added: “Good point! [Beck’s] 9/12 project is not for people directly affected by 9/11–just for people building their careers on it.”)

   Unfortunately, Beck’s mock poisoning of House Speaker Pelosi on air and his comparison of the Holocaust museum shooter to Thomas Jefferson also managed to escape the Time writer’s attention.   (Jamison Foser has the whole list of omissions here.)

    Von Drehle does mention in passing that Beck is currently the object of one of the most successful advertizer boycotts in history, sparked by Beck’s assertion  that Obama is a racist who harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

   Von Drehle identified the boycott as “a boon” to Beck’s ratings; but he didn’t say that it now includes more than sixty corporations, including Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Procter & Gamble.   

    FCP asked Von Dehele if sixty wasn’t a rather large number–one perhaps worth mentioning in his piece.  “Well,” he replied.  “There are millions of companies.”

    Von Drehle also seems to think that the progressive hosts on MSNBC are really just like the right-wing crazies on Fox.  But when FCP pressed him about that, he admitted that had no basis whatsoever for making any comparison: 

   “I haven’t seen Keith Olbermann for at least a year and a half,” the Time writer said.  “And I’ve never seen Rachel Maddow.  I have four children and a wife.  I don’t sit around watching cable TV.  I don’t understand why anybody watches any of these shows.  I know what these opinions are based on: they’re based on nothing.”

    Of course, Olbermann’s and Maddow’s opinions are actually all relentlessly fact-based–the real kind, not the sort routinely invented by Limbaugh, Beck and their scores of imitators.  And Maddow is easily the most intelligent addition to television in the last five years.  But Von Drehleis too busy raising his children to have noticed any of that.

    Perhaps it would help if Time  had chosen someone who actually watches cable TV to profile such an important cable personality?

    Probably not.  The magazine’s delightfully post-modern TV critic, James Poniewozik, has already written several hard-hitting assessments of the Beck oeuvre, including this one: “Sure, he may be selling a sensationalistic message of paranoia and social breakdown. But politics, or basic responsibility, aside, he has an entertainer’s sense of play with the medium of TV that O’Reilly, or perpetual sourpuss Neil Cavuto, don’t.”

    So why do magazines like Time put glowing profiles of Beck on their covers, while newspapers like The Washington Post invite him to lead chats on their websites?  

    For the very same reason that Beck tells disgusting lies on his program so frequently: there is money to be made.  News stand sales for Time as Beck’s fans gobble up copies of the magazine, and web hits for the Washington Post.

    And that, frankly,  is the most disgusting fact of all.

========================================================

   Once again, it falls to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to do the real journalism on this subject.  To find out what Beck actually does, see two of Colbert’s finest contributions to the Glenn Beck story,  here and here. 

   Stewart’s are here and, four days ago, describing America’s “favorite bi-polar” TV personality, here.

========================================================

 Update: The indispensable Scott Horton has another vintage Beck performance here.  Horton also links to an extremely sane and sensible piece by ex-George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.  The headline:  Gop Surrenders to Beck’s Mob Rule. Frum’s bottom line:  “Glenn Beck is not the first to make a pleasant living for himself by reckless defamation. We have seen his kind before in American journalism and American politics, and the good news is that their careers never last long. But the bad news is that while their careers do last, such people do terrible damage…We conservatives are submitting our movement to some of the most unscrupulous people in American life. This submission disgraces conservatism, discredits Republicans, and damages the country. It’s beyond time for conservatives who know better to join us at NewMajority in emancipating ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless.”  

Frum’s great piece was posted one week before Von Drehle’s; and yet, Time managed to ignore  this article of sanity as well.

                                                                                                          -30-

Above the Fold: Where Are the Editors?

    One of the main arguments for preserving the mainstream media is the idea that highly paid reporters supervised by highly paid editors are bound to produce stories that  are more sophisticated and more accurate than anything you are likely to read from the typical blogger.   However, three recent stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post were so egregious, they only make it easier to argue that accuracy, thoroughness and judgment are often strangers to our most “serious” journalistic institutions.

    The first one was written by FCP’s old friends Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti, the alliterative twins in the Washington bureau of The New York Times who have embarrassed themselves so often by acting as shills for their C.I.A. sources instead of behaving like objective reporters.

    Shane’s previous triumphs in the torture department include a Week in Review piece in which he found The Army Field Manual (which specifies how to interrogate a prisoner without torturing him) wanting because it had never “been updated to reflect decades of corporate analysis of how to influence consumers.”

    But the latest Shane-Mazzetti effort is so idiotic, it boggles the mind that none of the editors who read it before it was published noticed how flawed it was.   After noting that other reporters analyzing the most recently released torture memos focused on things like “threats of execution by handgun or assault by power drill; a prisoner lifted off the ground by his arms, which were tied behind his back; [and] another detainee repeatedly knocked out with pressure applied to the carotid artery,”  Shane and Mazzetti proceeded to focus on what was the real news here for them–and, just coincidentally, of course, for all the C.I.A. officials who are still terrified that they will be prosecuted for the war crimes that they committed.

    According to the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, what matters here is that these memos show that the Bush administration kept really, really careful records of the crimes they were committing:

   “Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program’s parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee’s daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis…The required records, the medical supervisors said, included “how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

    The obvious comparison that springs to mind here is to the splendidly detailed notes kept by Dr. Mengele’s acolytes when he was conducting his own ground-breaking experiments during World War II.   But that is very far indeed from  what Messrs. Shane and Mazzetti have in mind.

    After assuring themselves of what their editors apparently consider “balance” by quoting a couple of actual opponents of torture, the reporters get around to the real raison d’être of their piece: “…Defenders of the program say the tight rules show the government’s attempt to keep the program within the law. ‘Elaborate care went into figuring out the precise gradations of coercion,’ said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. ‘Yes, it’s jarring. But it shows how both the lawyers and the nonlawyers tried to do the right thing.’”
    Note to Shane and Mazzetti: when you commit an established war crime like waterboarding, following “tight rules” does not suddenly place your actions “within the law.”  And keeping careful records of your crimes should actually make you more likely to be prosecuted, rather than less.  Could anything be more obvious than that? 

    Not to The New York Times.

    To their credit, the reporters did manage to write one intelligent paragraph in their piece.  It was this one: “The records suggest one quandary prosecutors face as they begin a review of the C.I.A. program, part of the larger inquiry into abuse cases ordered Monday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Any prosecution that focuses narrowly on low-level interrogators who on a few occasions broke the rules may appear unfair, since most of the brutal treatment was authorized from the White House on down..”

    Over at The Washington Post, one of two journalistic felonies was committed by Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Julie Tate, which, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, could just as easily have been penned by Dick Cheney.

    Basing their account entirely on anonymous sources, Finn, Warrick and Tate wrote a full-throated defense of torture.  “After enduring the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency’s secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called  terrorist tutorials.

….These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its  preeminent source  on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.”

    Greenwald gets to the heart of the matter here: “What makes the Post’s breathless vindication of torture all the more journalistically corrupt is that the document on which it principally bases these claims – the just-released 2004 CIA Inspector General Report – provides no support whatsoever for the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, despite the fact that it was based on the claims of CIA officials themselves.  Ironically, nobody has done a better job this week of demonstrating how true that is than the Post’s own Greg Sargent – who, in post after post  – dissected the IG Report to demonstrate that it provides no evidence for Cheney’s claims that torture helped obtain valuable intelligence.”

    New Yorker writer and Dark Side author Jane Mayer has made a whole career out of compensating for all of the inadequacies of the torture reporting in the Times and the Post.  Here is what she told Keith Olbermann about Khalid Sheik Mohammed:
“There is nothing but a mass of claims that they got information from this individual and that individual, many from KSM, who apparently has been the greatest fount of information for them, but there’s absolutely nothing saying that they had to beat them to get this information. In fact, as anybody knows who knows anything about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was dying to tell the world, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera before he was in US custody, about everything he knew and everything he did. He was proud of his role as the mastermind of 9/11. He loves to talk about it. So there’s no evidence that I see in this that these things were necessary. I spoke to someone at the CIA who was an advisor to them who conceded to me that “We could have gotten the same information from tea and crumpets.”

    FINALLY, WE COME TO the most disgusting story of all, a worshipful portrait by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post of Brian Brown, a leading crusader against marriage equality.   The catastrophe here begins with the headline: “Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile.”

    It continues with beautiful aperçus like these:

* “this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis. Brian Brown speaks to these people.”

 * “He shoulders the accusations of bigotry; it’s horrible when people say that your life’s mission is actually just prejudice.”

* “The reason Brian Brown is so effective is that he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.”

*  “The racial bigot comparison is the most troubling part of the argument,  Brown says. It’s horrible, offensive, deliberately incendiary. He thinks it is  irrational,  a word he uses often.”

* ” It is irrational when the opposition points to polls suggesting that most young people support gay marriage.  People mature,  he says. Their views change. It is irrational when people believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage is an inevitability:  We have the people. We have not had such an organized force  before, Brown says.”

    And so on.  Of course, Ms. Hesse did not quote a single representative of any gay organization to provide an iota of balance to any of these idiotic assertions.

    The trouble is, the truth here is quite simple: you cannot oppose marriage equality without being a bigot. The “racial bigot comparison” is entirely appropriate.  There is nothing “sane” or “sunny” about bigotry.  And there is nothing “irrational” about pointing out that every new generation of Americans is more tolerant of sexual diversity than the one that preceded it–and that most Americans under 30 recognize that opposition to gay marriage is as repugnant as it is antediluvial. 

   Because equal treatment of all men and women under the law is the most American value of all.

   Mr. Brown is actually part of that large and loathsome contingent of Americans who has decided to make a living based entirely  on hatred and irrational fear.  The only interesting things in Hesse’s piece are the quotes from Mr. Brown’s wife, which suggest that she might actually understand that.

    Writing a piece like this is the equivalent of going down to Mississippi in the early ‘60’s, and writing a worshipful portrait of Governor Ross Barnett, who devoted himself to an unsuccessful effort to prevent James Meredith from integrating Ole Miss.  Such a piece would have focused on Barnett’s charming demeanor, his fine works as president of the Mississippi Bar Association, and so on.   And it would have pointed out how Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was hopelessly out of step with centuries of wonderful southern traditions like slavery and segregation. 

    Why is it so hard for mainstream editors to understand this? 

    Mostly it’s the result of a willful effort to remain woefully uninformed about gay issues, from marriage equality to gays in the military.   FCP has learned Ms. Hesse is considered a rising young star at the Style section of the Post.  If its editors had any judgment, a piece like this would permanently derail her career.

    The only truly useful thing Mr. Brown has ever done was to produce an anti-marriage equality ad that was so inane and offensive, it inspired Stephen Colbert’s single finest piece of satire of 2009.  Watch it here.

   Happy Labor Day.

Special thanks to FCP contributors John Flannery and AN.

 

                                                                         -30-

 

Jack, Bobby, Teddy and me

    And then there were none.

    No other set of brother-senators has ever dominated half a century of American political life the way the Kennedys did.  The lives of all of them, and the deaths of two of them, lifted us up–and then crushed us–like nothing else ever could.

    My father was the fiercest Democrat I have ever known.  Like Joe Kennedy, he imbued all of his children, and his grandchildren, with his own values.  For Phil Kaiser’s descendants, that meant an unquenchable passion for justice.

    I was nine years old when I fell in love with John F. Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960.   He was young, he was beautiful, and he had the most amazing hair I had ever seen. The mystical connection he established between himself and the millions who adored him was unlike anything any other politician has managed since.

    In Mrs. Green’s 5th grade class, I was Kennedy in our mock debate, and Steve Lane was Nixon, and in my memory, at least,  my Kennedy crushed Steve’s Nixon with a series of seemingly unanswerable questions–nearly all of them lifted from an indispensable booklet published by the Democratic National Committee.  (When I saw Steve again forty years later, he apologized for having been on the wrong side!)  I spent all of election day at my local polling place in Potomac, Maryland, festooned with Kennedy campaign buttons–and I was utterly baffled when my Republican neighbors delivered our precinct to Richard Nixon.  I had no idea I was living in a Republican neighborhood.

    On January 20th, 1961, I got up early to shovel the snow out of our suburban driveway so that my mother could drive me downtown to watch the inaugural parade.  When Kennedy’s open car passed in front of me and my shivering pal in the reviewing stand,   I shouted out, “Good luck, Jack!”   When the new president jerked his head around to look in my direction, my friend and I were certain he had heard me.  (I lost track of that friend when we moved abroad later that year, but when he read that passage in my first book, twenty-eight years later, he turned to his wife and exclaimed, “That’s me!”)

    I was ten when my father was chosen by Kennedy to be his Ambassador (“extraordinary and plenipotentiary”) to Senegal and Mauritania–my father’s reward, in part, for working with his college roommate, Byron White, for Citizens for Kennedy in Illinois.  Bobby came to my father’s swearing-in ceremony at the State Department, and that was the only time I shook one of the brothers’ hands.

    Teddy White was a good friend of my family when he published The Making of the President, 1960–an extended love-letter to Jack which also transformed the way American reporters have covered politics ever since.  When I read it as a young teenager, it was also the book that made me want to write nonfiction myself.

    When the Kennedys decided to give Teddy Jack’s old Senate seat in 1962, even the Kaisers thought this was an extreme example of the first family’s extraordinary sense of entitlement.   (Up until then, Teddy had been most famous for cheating on a Spanish exam at Harvard, although–like his brother Bobby before him–he had also won a varsity letter on his college football team.)

    I was thirteen when we were back in the states on home leave the year after that. I was sitting in my 8th grade history class at Thomas W. Pyle junior high school on November 22nd, when a student with a transistor radio ran in and said, “Kennedy has been shot!”  Our beloved teacher, Mr. Buckley, had worked in one of Kennedy’s Senate campaigns in Massachusetts, and he worshiped JFK as much as anyone did.  “It can’t be true,” he said.  It was 1:49 in the afternoon on the East Coast.  When it turned out that it was true, Mr. Buckley was so overcome, he stayed out of a school for a month. 

    My parents picked me up at school that Friday afternoon.   I remember it being a very, very dark afternoon.  That weekend there were torrential rains in Washington.  One of my thirteen year-old classmates wrote a poem.  Part of it said, “those were surely the tears of God.”

    My father was invited to view the president’s casket at the White House and for some reason I was already downtown.  But he decided I wasn’t dressed well enough to accompany him, so he went to the White House alone.  “We’ll never laugh again,” Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory said to Pat Moynihan that weekend.  “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again,” Moynihan replied.  “We’ll just never be young again.”   

    Four and a half years later, that part of America that yearned for a restoration went crazy all over again, mobbing Bobby Kennedy wherever he went as a presidential candidate, stealing his cufflinks and squeezing his hands until they bled.   I was clean for Gene McCarthy, so I hated Bobby that spring, for stealing McCarthy’s thunder by coming into the race, after McCarthy had come close to beating Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary.  Then Bobby, too, was murdered, and the whole country went numb.   “Now R.F.K.”–that was the whole headline in the “extra” edition of The New York Post.

    Murray Kempton spoke for millions of us that weekend. The great liberal columnist (who was also a McCarthy delegate to the Democratic convention that year) had excoriated Bobby when he first entered the race (he has “come down from the hills to shoot the wounded” Kempton had written).  But now Kempton was just as devastated as everyone else: “The language of dismissal becomes horrible once you recognize the shadow of death over every public man.  For I had forgotten, from being bitter about a temporary course of his, how much I liked Senator Kennedy and how much he needed to know he was liked.  Now that there is in life no road at whose turning we could meet again, the memory of having forgotten that will always make me sad and indefinitely make me ashamed.”

    Then all the pain and all the hope and all the psychodrama which was never far from the fabled family descended on to Teddy’s shoulders.   And he was never more magnificent than he was that weekend.   When he delivered his eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the fact that he sounded almost exactly like his brother Jack made the whole thing even more poignant.

    The last brother began by quoting words Bobby had spoken to the young people of South Africa on their Day of Affirmation in 1966.  “There is discrimination in this world, and slavery and slaughter and starvation.  Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nations grow rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere… The answer is to rely on youth–not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity…A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France.  It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that `all men are created equal.’”

    Then Teddy spoke for himself: “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life–to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.  Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.”  Here, his voice was breaking:  “As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
    `Some men see things as they are and say why.
    `I dream things that never were, and say why not?’”

    (I only met Jackie Kennedy once.   When I told her I had written a book about the ‘60’s, she said, “Well, I suppose if you were a dress designer or something like Oleg Cassini, they were fun.  But I never miss the ‘60’s at all!!” )

    Chappaquiddick came only thirteen months after Teddy delivered  his eulogy for Bobby. Then Teddy was re-elected to the Senate in 1970, but he lost his job as Senate whip to Robert Byrd.  As John Broder put it in the Times today, “his heart did not seem to be in his work any longer.”   But after the loss of his position in the Senate leadership, he seemed to snap out of it–and he began a long and illustrious career as one of the Senate’s lions.

    In 1980 he ran for president–even after he had humiliated himself when Roger Mudd asked him why he wanted the job, and the candidate didn’t really have an answer.  The race split the party, and helped Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the fall.  Teddy’s speech at the Democratic convention that year is still remembered as magical, but his campaign for president was far from his finest moment.

    He voted against the war in Iraq, and in 2004, he delivered a brilliant speech delineating every lie and deception of the Bush administration on its way to that catastrophe.  (Read it today at Juan Cole.)

    His last important act came in January of last year, when  he and his niece Caroline literally passed the torch to a new generation by endorsing   Barack Obama for president: “I feel change in the air!” he shouted.  “What about you?…I believe there is one candidate who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history.  He understands what Dr. Martin Luther King called, ‘the fierce urgency of now.’”
   With those words, he had given Obama the momentum he needed to get all the way to the White House.

    For decades, health care was one of Teddy’s signature issues.  Now, if only the Congress can summon the courage to pass genuine reform, the senior Senator from Massachusetts will get the legacy he so richly deserves.

                                                        -30-

Catastrophic Coverage of the Health Care Debate

Above the Fold

   Last Wednesday, the CBS Evening News managed to capture almost everything that is inadequate about the MSM’s coverage of the health care debate in a single broadcast.

    CBS ran reports from three different correspondents that night, including a “fact-check segment” narrated by “investigative” correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.   On the question of whether or not a new health care reform bill would cover illegal aliens, Attkisson said the answer was “unclear”, even though the bill specifies that coverage would only be available to people in the US legally.  But Attkisson chose to accept the Republican talking point that because there is “no provision for verification,” no one could be sure whether illegal immigrants would be covered.  Then she added, with no basis in fact whatsoever, that if one member of undocumented family was covered, the rest of them could be too.

    But far worse was the profile by correspondent Cynthia Bowers of Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee.

    The big news on the morning of the broadcast had been Grassley’s willingness to feed the flatly false rumor that one of the bills before Congress would give the government the right to kill your grandmother.   All the bill actually does is authorize Medicare to pay for consultations so that anyone can write a living will laying out what kind of care the individual wants to specify at the end of his or her life.   If you don’t want a living will, there is nothing in the legislation that would require you to get one.

    Nevertheless, Grassley waded knee-deep into the Republicans’ chief scare tactic by declaring “We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.” As the indispensable Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly pointed out, Grassley was “no doubt aware of the fact that his comments were patently nonsensical.” 

    Benen also noted that Grassley added, “I don’t even think it’s right for me to call [the Finance discussions] negotiations.  We’re talking.”

    “Got that?” asked Benen.  “The leading Republican negotiator on health care reform doesn’t even want to admit that ‘negotiations’ exist. Grassley is willing to concede that he’s ‘talking” to other senators, but according to the Roll Call report, the Iowa Republican ‘downplayed the ongoing bipartisan Finance Committee talks, saying his decision to stay at the table allows him to keep his constituents and fellow GOP Senators informed.’
Grassley added that no matter what the final bill looks like, unless the reform legislation enjoys the broad support of the Republican Party, he’ll vote against it.  It’s remarkable. The chief Senate health care negotiator in the Republican Party wants his constituents to know that he doesn’t even consider himself to be part of “negotiations,” and is only there to acquire information. Grassley is also, apparently, negotiating the details of a bill he’s likely to vote against.  Democrats, in other words, are trying to strike a deal on health care reform with someone who doesn’t support health care reform.  That Grassley has cultivated a reputation for being a sensible moderate isn’t just wrong, it’s ridiculous.”

    What makes all of this even more obscene?  Amy Sullivan discovered that Grassley was one of 42 GOP Senators and 204 GOP House members who voted for the 2003 medicare prescription drug bill, which mandated funding to evaluate “the beneficiary’s need for pain and symptom management, including the individual’s need for hospice care; counseling the beneficiary with respect to end-of-life issues and care options, and advising the beneficiary regarding advanced care planning.”

    The only difference between the 2003 provision and the infamous Section 1233 that threatens the very future and moral sanctity of the Republic is that the first applied only to terminally ill patients. Section 1233 would expand funding so that people could voluntarily receive counseling before they become terminally ill.

    Somehow none of this managed to penetrate the brain of Cynthia Bowers or her CBS producer.  Someone had decided to air a puff piece about Grassley, and a puff piece it would be, regardless of the facts.   Bowers’ two-minute report didn’t even mention that Grassley had been promoting the “deathers” rumor a few hours before it aired–which was the most important news Grassley had made that day.  (Bowers did not respond to a phone message requesting comment on that failure.)  Instead her story was determined to portray Grassley as an admirable moderate, committed to bi-partisanship.

    Bowers piece included this memorable sound-bite from Politico’s Mike Allen: “both sides trust him; he’s not a kool-aid drinker for Repubicans; and he’s not a sellout.”

    Since Allen seemed to be speaking on the very same day that Grassley had indeed drunk deeply from the Republicans’ Kool-Aid, FCP asked Allen if he had made his comment before or after Grassley had embraced the rumor that the new bill might be promoting the death of the elderly.

    “We taped before that statement,” Allen told FCP by e-mail.  Asked if he would have said something different if he had been interviewed after Grassley’s statement, Allen would only say, “That was a general statement about his past positioning - since then, he’s made a number of statements critical of Democrats.”

    The CBS broadcast was emblematic of a general failure to characterize the Republican talking points as the outright lies they really are.  (CBS’s fact check segment that night didn’t  mention the euthanasia canard at all.) 

   Even Salon’s Washington correspondent, Mike Madden, did a sloppy job of clearing things up in a fact-check piece of his own.   Referring to the rumors about Federally sponsored euthanasia, Madden wrote “There is a kernel of truth at the root of this attack,” because “the legislation would order Medicare to pay for consultations between patients and doctors on end-of-life decisions, which it currently doesn’t cover.  But the consultations wouldn’t be mandatory; if your grandmother doesn’t want to go talk to her doctor about end-of-life care, she won’t have to.”  Obviously if the consultations aren’t mandatory, there is no “kernel of truth” here whatsoever–just another flat-out lie from the Republicans.

     The sad truth is, for decades, the GOP’s only consistent tactic has been fear mongering, whether the topic is national security, gay marriage, or health care.   The only hope for passing reasonable health care reform lies in Barack Obama’s capacity to convince a majority of Americans of the truth–that all of the opposition of Republicans in Congress is rooted in their addiction to the obscene profit margins of the health care industry.

 

                                                             -30-
 

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