Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

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.




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.


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.



Above the Fold: Media Wolves, Draped in Sheep's Clothing

    Once upon a time, not so very long ago, public figures who used lies and hatred to incite violence within the most hysterical part of the population were treated like pariahs by the mainstream media.   

    The reasons why that was a sensible approach were especially obvious this week, as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and their legions of less-well-known imitators used their programs to compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler (“Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate,” Rush intoned)–and to organize the mobs which turned town hall meetings about health care into riots.

    Congressmen were the subject of death threats, as giants of the conservative commentariat like Charles Kruathammer decried the efforts of the Obama administration to confront the multiple lies about its health care plans as “unbelievably hypocritical.”

        “This only happens when you have a conservative protest,” said Kruathammer.  “It is called a mob. If it’s a liberal protest, it is called grassroots expressing themselves.”  Actually, these things are only called mobs when they include physical threats against the elected officials hosting them.

    What’s new, nowadays, is the hip, post-modern, and utterly-repellent impulse of everyone from The New York Times and Time magazine to The New Yorker to write fawning profiles of these “zany entertainers” instead of dissecting the garbage they routinely disseminate.

    Last summer, FCP thought it couldn’t possible get any worse than Zev Chavetsappalling love-letter to Limbaugh in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, which featured fabulous aperçus like these:

* “Limbaugh’s program that day was, as usual, a virtuoso performance.”

*  “He’s a phenomenon like the Beatles”

* Limbaugh entertains, but he also instructs. He provides his listeners with news and views they can use, and he teaches them how to employ it. “Rush is an intellectual-force multiplier,” Rove told me.

* “Unlike many right-wing talk-show hosts, Limbaugh does not view France with hostility. On the contrary, he is a Francophile. His salon, he told me, is meant to suggest Versailles. “

* A fastidious man, Limbaugh has a keen eye for domestic detail.”

*  “He lives the way Jackie Gleason would have lived if Gleason had the money. Some people are irritated by it.”

* “Limbaugh sees himself as a thinker as well as showman.”

*“He’s a leader,” Rove said. “If Rush engages on an issue, it gives others courage to engage.”

    But instead of an aberration, Chavets’s piece turned into a template for how to describe these magnificent men.   On Time magazine’s website, its infantile TV critic, James Poniewozik, gurgled on about Beck’s program this way:

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. ..There’s this livewire sense of unpredictability to his show, a compulsion to constantly put on a show—be it with Barbies, cutting a cake to illustrate the budget, or building a Jenga tower—that is at least a corrective to being growled at by Papa Bear for an hour.  Of course, it is also a grown man whipping up a vague conspiracy on national television by playing with dolls. So there’s that. But there’s a part of me that has to respect Beck for at least being willing to own his nuttiness.

    Maybe all this affection developed because Poniewozik was once a guest on Beck’s earlier program on CNN.

    Over on the front page of the New York Times last spring, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter offered a similarly brain-dead approach : “Mr. Beck presents himself as a revivalist in a troubled land…Mr. Beck’s emotions are never far from the surface. ‘That’s good dramatic television,’ said Phil Griffin, the president of a Fox rival, MSNBC. ‘That’s who Glenn Beck is.’ 

    They quoted Beck as saying that those “who are spreading the garbage that I’m stirring up a revolution haven’t watched the show”–and added that Beck had offered “a 17-minute commentary — remarkably long by cable standards — last Monday, answering criticisms, including one from Bill Maher that he was producing “the same kind of talking” that led Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

     “Let me be clear,” Mr. Beck said. “If someone tries to harm another person in the name of the Constitution or the ‘truth’ behind 9/11 or anything else, they are just as dangerous and crazy as those we don’t seem to recognize anymore, who kill in the name of Allah.”

     (Young Mr. Stelter’s most recent accomplishment–dissected here  by Glenn Greenwald–was to report on corporate efforts to silence the war between Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.  “Incredibly,” wrote Greenwald, “Stelter, doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone examine, what makes the story so significant”–the fact that the corporate suits at both networks were trying to censor their own news operations.)

    But all of these articles pale in comparison to Kelefa Sanneh’s profile of Michael Savage in last week’s New Yorker magazine, perhaps the most embarrassing article to appear in those pages since Tina Brown ran a piece in the “Talk of The Town” devoted entirely to the size of the male-member of an actor then appearing nightly on Broadway.

    This week, Savage has been as active as anyone in fomenting violence, with wonderful monologues like this one  : “We’ve been taken over by a group of criminals.  I want to see all the disparate groups joining together. I want to see the motorcycle groups–and I mean from the far-extreme violent motorcycle groups to the motorcyle groups that are disorganized and nonviolent. When they start joining the citizen groupss and they start revving up their motorcycles outside these town hall meetings, you’re going to see change in this country.”

    But in his relentlessly fawning piece, Mr. Sanneh explained that “the immoderate quotes meticulously catalogued by the liberal media watchdog site are accurate but misleading, insofar as they reduce a willfully erratic broadcast to a series of political brickbrats.” This brings to mind George Orwell’s famous observation that “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”  In Mr. Sanneh’s case, perhaps that’s because he was a relatively talented pop critic for The New York Times before he made the fatal mistake of turning his attention to politics in The New Yorker.

    To his credit, Mr. Sanneh does quote Mr. Savage’s most famous outburst on his short-lived MSNBC brodacst–“Oh, you’re one of the sodomites.  You should should only get AIDS and die, you pig.”  But then he goes on to make a whole series of observations that might even make Zev Chavets blush:

    * Savage is “a deeply sentimental man.”

    * “Limbaugh’s main legacy might be his media criticism”

    * “G Gordon Liddy’s show, which had a peculiar hypnotic power”

    * “Glenn Beck, who conjured a mystical fervor..”

    And finally, there is Mr. Sanneh’s uplifting kicker, taken, naturally, out of the mouth of his beloved subject, Mr. Savage: “I’m their voice of freedom.  I’m the last hope.  I’m the beacon.  I’m the staute of Liberty.  I’m Michael Savage.  I’ll be back.”

    The one thing Mr. Sanneh’s article does reaffirm is the utter stupidity of Janet Malcolm’s most famous declaration in the pages of very same New Yorker magazine, many years ago: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.  Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone,   so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns–when the article or bookappears–his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their
temperaments.  The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

    What Ms. Malcolm was “too supid” or “too full of herself” to mention is the fact that all too often, it is the subject who seduces the journalist, instead of the other way around: “When he invited the journalist into one of his undisclosed locations, he proved to be a first-rate host, chatty and solicitious.” Mr. Sanneh enthused about Mr. Savage.  “A steady supply of beer refills lubricated the conversation.”

    When this sort of thing happens, the result is truly the most morally-indefensible kind of journalism–the kind written by Messrs. Sanneh, Stelter, Carter, Poniewozik and Chavets, which celebrates the most dangerously despicable “commentators” of our time.

(Special thanks to FCP contributor EG)


Winners & Sinners

     Sinner: President Barack Obama, who, exactly one month ago, told the guests at a White House cocktail party held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot that he strongly favored Congressional repeal of the military’s idiotic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy.  This week, Winner Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act that would have banned the Defense Department from spending any money on investigations leading to the expulsion of gay and lesbian service members.   The Congressman told Winner  Rachel Maddow last night that he had withdrawn the amendment–at the request of the Obama White House.

       Sinners: Every single MSM news organization, including ALL newspapers and ALL wire services, who, as far FCP can determine, have so far completely ignored this appalling decision by the White House (as of 11 AM Thursday morning.)  How could something like this happen? Because no one in the MSM is serious about covering gay issues on a timely basis.

The Bottom Line to FCP from Nathaniel Frank , who wrote Unfriendly Fire, the brilliant and definitive book on this subject: “The White House has made a decision to avoid this issue like the plague.  There is part of me which understands what they’re doing, in terms of prioritizing health care and the economy.  The reason I have limited sympathy for the president is, this is not a hard thing to do.   Issuing an executive order or supporting the Hastings amendment would cost much less political capital than some White House aides seem to think, some of whom are still scarred by the Clinton experience.  I just think if you do something cleanly and swiftly as commander in chief, you’re not going to get all this blow back.”

    Winner: President Barack Obama, for accurately stating that the Cambridge Police Department had acted “stupidly” by arresting a man in his own home after confirming that the man resided there.   The police report written by arresting officer James Crowley makes it abundantly clear that Henry Louis Gates had confirmed with a photo ID that he was indeed standing inside his own home at the time that Crowley arrested him.  “While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence,” Crowley wrote, “I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me.”

The Bottom Line: Gates obviously did everything he could to provoke Crowley, but a better policeman would have ignored the professor’s taunts and left the premises, instead of arresting him.

    Winner : Senior Daily Show Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore, for the best take on this colossal waste of time (segment begins at 5:55 in this clip.)

    Sinner: CNN/US president Jon Klein, who ever-so-briefly behaved like a responsible network news executive, when he sent out an e-mail saying that the wholly invented story that Barack Obama has never supplied his Hawaii birth certificate had been completely debunked by CNN’s political researchers (and every other serious reporter in America).  CNN’s experts told Klein that “In 2001 - the state of Hawaii Health Department went paperless. Paper documents were discarded. The official record of Obama’s birth is now an official ELECTRONIC record.  Janice Okubo, spokeswoman for the Health Department told the Honolulu Star Bulletin, “At that time, all information for births from 1908 (on) was put into electronic files for consistent reporting.”

    Klein wrote that this “seems to definitively answer the question. Since [Lou Dobbs’] show’s mission is for Lou to be the explainer and enlightener, he should be sure to cite this during your segment tonite. And then it seems this story is dead - because anyone who still is not convinced doesn’t really have a legitimate beef.”

    Then Klein immediately contradicted himself in a series of interviews, because a news division president is never allowed to criticize a profit center (like Dobbs) at a modern American television network. Klein told Greg Sargent that Lou runs “his own show” that merely hosts “panels” with birther theorists and asserted that CNN respects viewers enough to let them “make up their own minds.”  Klein added that what Dobbs does is “his editorial decision to make.”

The Bottom Line: No, Mr. Klein, it is NOT Mr. Dobbs’ decision to make: it is yours, because you are in charge of news standards at CNN, if there are any left.  Your statement is identical to what your counterpart at Fox News said after Glenn Beck declared that Obama hates white people (and then said he did not, 75 second later, and then said he did again, the following morning.)   Which means that CNN has no standards at all.

      For the fastest summary of all of this idiocy, see Winner Jon Stewart’s take from last night, which includes all of the clips of Dobbs for which he should have been fired by, instead of defended by, his boss.  Stewart’s Bottom Line: “Any jackass in a suit willing to go on television and criticize the president can make a pretty hefty living….Forgive me, George Bush.”

   Update: Over at Media Matters, Winner Jamison Foser, has pointed out  that Howie-the-King-of-All-Conflicts-of-Interest-Kurtz has said nothing about the role of Klein, Dobbs or CNN in promoting the phony birther story–but chose to blame Chris Matthews for it instead!! “Think about that,” wrote Foser.  “Howard Kurtz, who is a paid employee of CNN, blamed Chris Matthews, who hosts a show for CNN’s competitor, for giving the birther nonsense attention. This despite the fact that Matthews has been debunking the theories. And Kurtz didn’t say a word about Lou Dobbs, the person who has been pushing this garbage.”

   UpdateII: Felix Gillette reports the only good news here in The New York Observer: so far, Dobbs’ pathetic effort to generate controversy and ratings by promoting the birther debate is an abject failure.   Gillette writes that in the two weeks since he started highlighting this non-story, his total viewers have dropped 15%, from 771,000 in the first half of July, to 653,000 in the second half, while those in the ever-sought-after 25-54 demo have plummeted 27%, from 218,00 to 157,000.

   Winner: Washington Post reporter Dan Eggen, for a superb dissection  of all of the campaign contributions from health care providers to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus.

The Bottom Line, from FCP Contributor Meg Fidler: “Exactly the kind of reporting we the people should be reading routinely–but we’re not.”

    Winner: The comedian from the Australian TV show, Chaser’s War on Everything, who invaded chief Bush administration torture-promoter John Yoo’s law class and impersonated a hooded torture victim.  When the comedian was thrown out of the room, he said “I’ll go the human rights class down the road.  I think you probably won’t be teaching there, professor.” [Special thanks to FCP Contributor Hal Davis.]



Good-Bye to The Magic

Television news has always been a war between the reporters who care most about journalism and the corporate suits who care only about the bottom line.  It was so when Edward R. Murrow was the star of CBS in the 1950’s, and it remained so when Walter Cronkite became the most influential newsman in America, sometime around 1968.  What made Cronkite uniquely important was his status as the last anchor man in America with the clout and the judgement to make that permanent conflict a fair fight–most of the time.

Since his death last week Cronkite has been rightly celebrated for his two greatest moments of courage: his special report from Vietnam after the Tet Offensive–“Who, What, Where, When and Why” he called it–and his two lengthy reports about Watergate in October of 1972, when the only other news organization that was giving that story the attention it deserved was The Washington Post.   

Even as Cronkite was calling Lyndon Jonhson’s war a failure, Cronkite’s boss, CBS president Frank Stanton, was still giving LBJ endless technical advice, in a futile effort to make the Texan look better on TV.  Stanton even helped to redesign the presidential desk in the Oval Office to try to make it look more telegenic.

But because Cronkite was both the most serious and the most profitable anchor in the history of TV news, even as his bosses assiduously cultivated the president, Cronkite was usually able to keep his network straight.

Everything about TV news was more serious back then–from the 20 hours of documentaries CBS Reports routinely produced every year, to the quality of the correspondents in the field–men like Charles Collingwood, Robert Schackne, Morley Safer, Fred Graham, Mike Wallace and–especially–Roger Mudd.   Most TV men and women (including Cronkite) got their basic training at newspapers, at a time when their brains were still considered more important than their haircuts.  And the networks actually paid attention to criticism from the print press, not only because the TV types were more serious about the news then, but also because the criticism from people like New York Times TV critic Jack Gould was vastly more sophisticated than anything being written today.

The CBS support team you didn’t see was just important as the one you did.   Producers like the legendary Mark Harrington were always nearby–or during the conventions, actually sitting in a hole at Cronkite’s left, from which Harrington passed up a steady stream of cue cards with minute pieces of astute political analysis.

Cronkite had amazing timing–and nothing is more important for a newsman than that. He had the good fortune to be the most important face on TV during every major event from the assassination of JFK in 1963 through the evacuation of American hostages from Iran in 1981.  And through every kind of mayhem, he was cool, calm and intelligent.

To those of us who first “met” Cronkite as the anchor of “You Are There,” a history program for children which re-enacted great events, he entered our psyches as a literally omniscient reporter, a time traveler who was able to interview everyone from Paul Revere to Thomas Edison.  And when “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became the battle cry of the Vietnam generation, Cronkite remained nearly alone on the other side of the generation gap as the man who never lost our confidence, and our reverence.  When everything was exploding in the ‘60’s, in the streets at home and on the battlefields half way around the world, Walter was the only public figure who still had the capacity to unite us.

What we called “youth culture” was hardly a staple of the CBS Evening News, so a piece about Don McClean’s “American Pie” jumped out at you as a rare concession to youthful tastes.   But that kind of resistance to pandering was just another pillar of Cronkite’s extraordinary authority.     

Like the front page of the New York Times (especially in its heyday), Cronkite’s news had a capacity to bestow seriousness on a subject that was unmatched by any of his competitors.  So it was enormously important to the Washington Post when Cronkite gave his blessing to the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein at the height of Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972.

It was a political year, and everyone was saying, ‘Well, it’s just politics, and here’s the Post trying to screw Nixon,” former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee remembered this week in Newsweek.   “We were the second-biggest newspaper in the country trying to scramble for a good story—whereas Cronkite was the reigning dean of television journalists. When he did the Watergate story, everyone said, ‘My God, Cronkite’s with them.’” But even Cronkite’s powers were limited.   When Nixon hatchet man Chuck Colson screamed at the corporate suits after the first 14-minute piece aired, the second one was cut back to (a still remarkable) 8 minutes.

When Cronkite was pushed out, at the age of sixty-four, to make room for a younger man, CBS had the perfect successor in Roger Mudd, a superb newsman and a natural anchorman who had been Cronkite’s substitute for years during his many lengthy vacations.   But Mudd was a terrible office politician, and Dan Rather was a brilliant one, so the job went to Rather instead–a bombastic reporter whose demeanor was the antithesis of Cronkite’s soothing calmness.   That disastrous choice was the beginning of the end of network news as we had known in, from the dawn of Huntley and Brinkley, who debuted on NBC in 1955, until Cronkite’s departure from his anchor seat in 1981.

What Cronkite was, really, was an old-fashioned newsman with old-fashioned values, the perfect blend of middlebrow intellect and superb showmanship–the kind that’s so good it’s never even identified as craft.   In Cronkite showmanship was the opposite of  flashiness: it was an innate capacity to look more comfortable in front of a camera than anyone else ever had before.  Indeed, his delivery was so admired within the network, his moments alone in front of the teleprompter were known simply as “the magic.”

Those of us who grew up with him will always miss that magic, and his seriousness.  And like him, we will always bemoan what Glenn Greenewald rightly identified as Cronkite’s greatest failure.

 “What do I regret?” Cronkite asked an interviewer in 1996.  “Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick.  We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.”

The news business and our democracy have never stopped bleeding because of that failure.


Winners and Sinners

Winner: Victoria Cruz, a 17-year-old star of WNYC’s Radio Rookies, for a lovely piece about how she and her girlfriend became the first same-sex couple to be named “Best Couple” in her Bronx high school’s yearbooks.  The story, produced by Kaari Pitkin, edited by Marianne McCune, and broadcast on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, also brought Cruz the Hillman Foundation’s very first Sidney Award for an outstanding piece of socially-conscious journalism.

WinnerNewsweek managing editor Dan Klaidman, for a superb cover story about Attorney General Eric Holder. Klaidman’s scoop–that Holder is likely to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the torture abuses of the Bush administration–got all the attention, but the piece also offered splendid insights into all of the tensions between Holder’s Justice Department and Obama’s White House.

Sinner: Scott Shane, for the umpteenth piece about investigating torture in The New York Times which cast the debate purely in political terms and characterized Holder’s intention to appoint a prosecutor as one of “four fronts on which the intelligence apparatus is under siege”–without ever quoting any of the thousands of people who believe that such an investigation is a moral imperative. Shane also wrote that Holder “was close to assigning a prosecutor,” without giving any credit to Klaidman for breaking that story in Newsweek. Meanwhile, Shane’s erstwhile boss in the Washington Bureau, Sinner Doug Jehl, who led the battle inside the Times to prevent torture being described accurately as “torture,” has been chosen by Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli to be the Post’s new foreign editor.

Winner: Arianna Huffington for snatching up Winner Dan Froomkin, who was idiotically let go by The Washington Post last month, mostly because he had no “rabbi” at the Post–and none of the Post’s top editors appreciated the fact that he regularly broke important stories that the rest of the paper’s staff had ignored. Sinner Brian Stelter wrote a remarkably superficial piece in The New York Times about Froomkin’s move, which didn’t even manage to include a full description of Froomkin’s new responsibilities. Besides blogging twice a week for The Huffingon Post, Froomkin will oversee the site’s Washington coverage, supervising four reporters and an assistant editor.

Sinners: Touré, and all the other ahistorical commentators, who said that Michael Jackson was the first artist to get black and white audiences to worship the same music. That crucial crossover was achieved by Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and scores of other black artists of the 1960’s–all before the Jackson 5 released their first single. For one of a thousand examples, listen to this immortal cut from Marvin and Tammi.  [FCP contributor Gregory King points out that this trend actually started even earlier with Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Lena Horne.]

Winner:  The sublime Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, for managing to link Bob Dylan’s Sara with Alaska’s Sarah, in a piece that was as hilarious as it was substantive: “In Palin’s case, the government that she was declaring independence from is the one that she herself is governor of. She was therefore in the awkward position of having to argue that she has had “so much success in this first term” (e.g., “We took government out of the dairy business”) that “doing what’s best for Alaska” requires her to abandon her post.”  And Winner Frank Rich for reminding us why she remains formidable even though most people find her laughable: “she stands for a genuine movement: a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind.”

SinnersThe op-ed editors of The New York Times, for asking disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to provide questions for Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing. Once upon a time, discredited former public officials were consigned to the obscurity they so richly deserve when they leave public office. Now they are brought back relentlessly by the MSM to provide “balance”–the way only wise old men like Karl Rove can. (Special thanks to FCP contributor SM.)

Of Orwell and Ensign

 …It  is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts….

All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.

                                         —George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946

One of the reasons George Orwell was the greatest English-speaking journalist of the 20th century was his insistence on calling things by their actual names. Now more than ever, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness,” as Orwell put it sixty-three years ago. In Orwell’s time, when defenseless villages were “bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned” and “the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets,” this was called “pacification.” 

In our own time, when the American government engages in known torture techniques–including waterboarding (183 times for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 83 times for Abu Zubaydah), forced standing, freezing temperatures, Palestinian hanging (handcuffing a prisoner behind his back until fatigue sets in, the prisoner falls forward, and his full body weight rests on shoulders, thereby impairing breathing), sexual degradation (including the smearing of menstrual blood on prisoners’ faces), and bombardment for twenty-four hours a day with loud music–most of the mainstream press agrees, at the government’s request, to call these things “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Then mindless “ethicists” like New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt write long pieces defending this shameful euphemism–although first prize for stupidity in this category surely belongs to NPR’s Ombdusman, Alicia Shepard, who told Glenn Greenwald, “There are two sides to the issue. And I’m not sure, why is it so important to call something torture?”

Among recent examples of Orwellian misrepresentation, all else pales in comparison with the whitewashing of waterboarding. Still, it is a source of considerable amusement to see Sarah Palin describe her decision to quit the Alaska governorship as the latest proof that she is a “fighter,” or, in the case of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, have your spokesman re-invent an affair with “a dear friend from Argentina” as a hike up the Appalachian Trail.

But it is this week’s newly exploding Republican sex scandal which has inspired some of the most creative use of the English language of all. Earlier, Nevada senator John Ensign admitted that he had had an affair with Cindy Hampton, the wife of his former chief of staff, Doug Hampton.

During the affair, Cindy worked for both the Senator’s re-election committee and his political action committee, and had her salary doubled at both places while she shared her bed with her boss. At the same time, the national Republican party paid off Cindy’s teenaged son, and her husband got a job with a consulting firm run by two more of the senator’s friends, and then another job with an airline owned by an Ensign contributor.

However, all of this this largesse was not nearly enough to shut up the ex-mistress or, particularly, her husband–-both of whom (nearly alone among Republicans) are now calling for Ensign’s resignation from the Senate.

Doug Hampton told a cable-TV interviewer in Nevada earlier this week that his wife had actually received a kind of severance payment of $25,000 from the senator when the affair was winding down. (Hampton also said the payment was an idea of Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn. Coburn denied that he had suggested the payoff, and then said he would never testify about this to anyone, because “I was counseling him as a physician and as an ordained deacon,” and therefore this was “privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody.”)

The report of a $25,000 payment was quickly knocked down by Senator Ensign’s lawyer, Paul Coggin. Coggin said the the payment was actually nearly four times that much–$96,000 for the Hamptons and their children. And since it all came from the senator’s parents, “no laws were violated,” as they might have been, had the money come from the senator’s campaign or political action committee.

But the really creative part of Coggin’s statement was the way he re-branded Ensign’s affair with his former staffer, and its impact on her family. The payments from the senator’s parents, Coggin explained, “are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons.” 

Well, I guess if you ignore the affair and just count the four jobs found for Mr. And Mrs. Hampton and the one job secured for their son, “a pattern of generosity” is exactly what it was.

For the definitive account of this tangled mess, see the transcript of Rachel Maddow’s Thursday night broadcast.

The Washington Post: RIP

The Washington Post died today.  It was five months short of its 132nd birthday.

News of the demise of the once-great news gathering organization came in a story by Mike Allen at, which reported that Post publisher Katharine Weymouth has decided to solicit payoffs of between $25,000 and $250,000 from Washington lobbyists, in return for one or more private dinners in her home, where lucky diners will receive a chance for “your organization’s CEO” to interact with “Health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post” and “key Obama administration and congressional leaders …”

The decision by the Post’s publisher to sell access to government officials was the latest–and, by far, the most horrific–in a series of disastrous decisions in the last two weeks which, taken together, have destroyed what was once one of the proudest brands in American journalism.

As news of the Politico story raced across the Internet this morning, former and present news executives inside and outside The Washington Post Company reacted with stunned horror.  As Allen put it in his Politico story, “The offer ­ which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters ­ is a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival.”

Arthur Gelb, the legendary former managing editor of The New York Times, declared, “Say It Ain’t So, Katharine. Where are the principles set by your grandmother and Ben Bradlee that had for so long imbued the Post? How can your reporters and editors we so admire and respect sit on their hands while this degradation evolves?”

The Post issued a statement which perfectly fits what Washington Post legend Bob Woodward once defined during Watergate as a “non-denial denial”:

The flier circulated this morning came out of a business division for conferences and events, and the newsroom was unaware of such communication. It went out before it was properly vetted, and this draft does not represent what the company’s vision for these dinners are, which is meant to be an independent, policy-oriented event for newsmakers.

As written, the newsroom could not participate in an event like this.

We do believe there is an opportunity to have a conferences and events business, and that the Post should be leading these conversations in Washington, big or small, while maintaining journalistic integrity. The newsroom will participate where appropriate.”

FCP pointed out to the Post spokeswoman that unless the company repudiated this idea altogether by the end of the day, the company’s brand would be dead.

“I don’t appreciate that kind of talk,” said Kris Coratti, director of communications for Washington Post Media.

“You shouldn’t appreciate it,” FCP replied.  But the failure to repudiate this idea will be fatal:

“Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate,” says the one-page flier. “Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth…Bring your organization’s CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders …“Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it. What is guaranteed is a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds typically on the guest list of 20 or less. …”

Later in the day, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli made this stab at damage control:

A flyer was distributed this week offering an “underwriting opportunity” for a dinner on health-care reform, in which the news department had been asked to participate.

The language in the flyer and the description of the event preclude our participation.

We will not participate in events where promises are made that in exchange for money The Post will offer access to newsroom personnel or will refrain from confrontational questioning. Our independence from advertisers or sponsors is inviolable.

There is a long tradition of news organizations hosting conferences and events, and we believe The Post, including the newsroom, can do these things in ways that are consistent with our values.


Over at the Dow Jones-owned site All Things Digital, Peter Kafka offered the swiftest and most idiotic reaction to the news, ignoring the fact that there might be any significant difference between paid and unpaid dinner parties:

But let me play devil’s advocate: What exactly would be so wrong about getting the paper’s reporters or editors to to participate in one of these?

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the Post has been at the nexus of power, money and influence ­ in fact, Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, was famous for hosting gatherings much like these at her house. And publications of all stripes ­ including this one, as well as Dow Jones, which owns this site ­ frequently charge fees to attend networking events where their editorial staff participates.

In a chat today on, Post Congressional reporter Paul Kane cited Brauchli’s memo as proof that the newsroom would not participate in these confabs–even though the statement of the company’s corporate spokeswoman directly contradicted that. And even if newsroom staffers are excluded from these dinners, the idea that the paper’s publisher would be selling this kind of access remains far, far, far beyond the pale.

Early indications of the collapse of judgement at the Washington news organization included the decision to allow Glenn Beck to host a chat at–a scant two weeks before Beck hosted certifiably-maniacal Michael Scheuer on his own program, so that Scheuer could strongly advocate a massive new terrorist attack on the United States by Osama Bin Laden.

Next came the firing of Dan Froomkin, the best and most original reporter on the Post’s website–presumably because Froomkin wrote so many accurate stories pointing up the inadequacies of the national staff of the Post.

But both of those events paled next to this morning’s news, which was leaked to Politico by a healthcare lobbyist. In a piece of remarkable understatement, Mike Allen wrote, “it’s a turn of the times that a lobbyist is scolding The Washington Post for its ethical practices.”

For the first one hundred years of its existence, the Post was a respectable but unremarkable newspaper. All that began to change when Katharine Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, chose Ben Bradlee to lead the paper in 1968. During the next twenty-three years, by expanding the paper’s national staff, opening many new bureaus abroad, inventing the Style section and hiring some of the finest reporters in America, Bradlee gave The New York Times the first serious competition it had received from a general-interest newspaper since the death of the New York Herald Tribune.

The paper’s most celebrated period came when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did more than anyone else to unravel the Watergate scandal during the administration of Richard Nixon. Most famously, when Bernstein called former Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell to read him one of his stories, Mitchell exploded, “All that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published. Good Christ! That’s the most sickening thing I ever heard.”

Graham’s granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, was widely admired within The Washington Post Company as she climbed up the corporate ladder before finally succeeding her uncle Donald Graham as the paper’s publisher. But the extraordinary economic pressures faced by every American newspaper as their traditional business model has collapsed has now led to a comparable collapse in corporate judgment. When historians look back at this event, they will note it as the beginning of the end of newspapers as we have known them.

[Special thanks to FCP contributors DEK & JWS]


UPDATE: The Post Caves In–To Sanity

Reacting to the uproar, Katharine Weymouth announced early this afternoon that plans for the dinners at her house had been cancelled.  Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz reported that   “Weymouth knew of the plans to host small dinners at her home and to charge lobbying and trade organizations for participation. But, one of the executives said, she believed that there would be multiple sponsors, to minimize any appearance of charging for access, and that the newsroom would be in charge of the scope and content of any dinners in which Post reporters and editors participated.”

Forty Years On

Frank Kameny takes the long view on the gay-rights movement

In the immortal words of Storme DeLaverie, a cross-dressing lesbian and a famous night club performer, “The cop hit me, and I hit him back.” This had never happened before.

Whether or not Ms. DeLaverie was the lesbian who sparked the most famous riot in gay history remains a matter of fierce dispute. But what happened next is a matter of record: a wildly unlikely collection of drag queens, gay teenagers, and their instantly-revolutionized elders suddenly rose up against their oppressors. First they threw coins at the cops (“This is your payoff”); then rocks; then someone shouted “gay power” and someone else lifted a parking meter out of the ground to use it as a battering ram against the barricaded door of the Stonewall. “The homosexuals were usually very docile, quiet people,” remembered deputy police inspector Seymour Pine. “But this night was different…I had been in combat situations, but there was never any time that I felt more scared than that.”

In the twinkling of a mascara-shaded eye, the streets of New York gave birth to a revolution whose echoes would eventually be heard in every country in the world. The riots were given scant coverage in the daily press, but the New York Daily News did produce one brilliant headline about it, as accurate as it was concise:
    Homo Nest Raided;
    Queen Bees are Stinging Mad

Within weeks there was an explosion of organizational activity, as lesbians and gays finally followed the path of the soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement to claim their rightful place inside America. One month after the riot, the newly created Gay Liberation Front produced one of its first pamphlets. This was its headline:


One of the most important reasons why progress would come so rapidly was a man named Frank Kameny. A World War II combat veteran with a Harvard Ph.D in astronomy, Kameny started his own battle for equal rights twelve years before the Stonewall Riot, when he was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Kameny filed the first federal law suit to challenge the executive order banning gays from employment by the federal government and all of its contractors, an order that had been signed by Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. Four years later, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Kameny’s case, but he remained unbowed. Over the next two decades, he would be responsible for most of the intellectual and strategic framework for the burgeoning gay movement.

In 1963, Kameny and five friends, including Jack Nichols, who became his essential co-conspirator, formed their own (unidentified) gay contingent to participate in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. In 1964, Kameny convinced the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to take the case of another federal employee who had been fired because he was gay; until then, even the ACLU had explicitly supported the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws and Eisenhower’s executive order banning gays from the government.

Then Kameny took what would be his most important step of all. He decided to make his own scientific examination of the psychiatric literature that described homosexuality as a pathology.
“As we got into things it became very clear that one of the major stumbling blocks to any progress was going to be this attribution of sickness,” Kameny told me many years ago. “An attribution of mental illness in our culture is devastating, and it’s something which is virtually impossible to get beyond. So the first thing was to find out if this was factually based or not. I had no idea what I was going to find. So I looked, and I was absolutely appalled.”

Everything Kameny encountered was “sloppy, slovenly, slipshod, sleazy science–social and cultural and theological value judgments, cloaked and camouflaged in the language of science, without any of the substance of science. There was just nothing there…. All psychiatry assumed that homosexuality is psychopathological.”

“It was garbage in, garbage out.”

This discovery led Kameny to a revolutionary pronouncement in New York in 1964–nearly as shocking to gay people as it was to everyone else: “I take the stand that not only is homosexuality not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and real sense, and are right, good and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.” 

A year later, the New York chapter of the Matachine society, one of the earliest gay groups, endorsed Kameny’s view with a two thirds vote–over the vociferous objections of a reactionary gay minority, who refused to believe that their orientation was not an illness.

In 1968, Kameny coined the phrase “Gay is good”–after seeing Stokely Carmichael declare on television, “Black is beautiful!”

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association adopted the view Kameny had promoted with others that homosexuality should be removed from its list of psychiatric disorders. This was probably his single most important accomplishment.

So it was especially appropriate last week that Frank Kameny, now 82, was standing to the president’s left in the Oval Office when Barack Obama signed a memorandum modestly improving the rights of domestic partners of federal employees. And it was Kameny to whom the president handed the pen he had used to sign the memorandum.

This was not an event Kameny had anticipated when he led the first gay picket line outside the White House in 1965, demanding an end to discrimination against gay employees. “FIFTEEN MILLION U.S. HOMOSEXUALS PROTEST FEDERAL TREATMENT” read the placard carried by Jack Nichols, an artifact now part of the political history collection of the Smithsonian’s National History Museum, which accepted Kameny’s 70,000 documents and pieces of memorabilia three years ago.

“This whole thing felt like a story book,” Kameny said about last week’s event. “Everybody lived happily ever after. The president was very well briefed: he was aware that he and I–in different years–share Harvard University in our background.”

Unfortunately, although Kameny’s name was mentioned in the pool report written about the Oval Office event, neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post mentioned Kameny’s presence at the ceremony–an oversight akin to leaving Martin Luther King Jr. out of the story when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (even though that law was vastly more significant than Obama’s modest memorandum).

Why was Kameny ignored–except in the caption of a page one photograph of the ceremony on the front page of The Washington Times? Because no ordinary political reporter in Washington knows anything about gay issues, and, therefore, none of them has any idea who Kameny is–even though Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas finally got his paper to profile Kameny (for the first time) four years ago. 

The ignorance of the White House reporters is regrettable but understandable, and when FCP contacted Scott Wilson of The Washington Post to ask him why he had left Kameny out, he at least had the good grace to apologize for being too ignorant to have realized how important Kameny was. “I wish I could do it over,” Wilson said.

On the other hand, when New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters wrote last Sunday about “Why the gay movement has no national leader” in the Week in Review section, his omission of Kameny a few days after his appearance at the White House was unconscionable. When FCP castigated Peters in an e-mail for leaving Kameny out of his story, Peters replied, “I am very familiar with who Mr. Frank Kameny is. But the fact of the matter is that if you were to ask Americans if they recognized his name, the vast, vast majority would not be able to say yes.” 

Which, of course, is because of the incompetence of generations of reporters like Mr. Peters.

What the Washington reporters who missed Kameny’s presence in the Oval Office focused on instead was the dissatisfaction of other gay leaders with Obama’s failure so far to redeem his promises from the campaign trail, especially his repeated pledge to end the military’s idiotic policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

But here again the MSM has completely ignored the main reason for unhappiness within the gay movement: a widespread belief that Obama could suspend the policy all by himself, even though it was enacted by Congress in 1993.

The Palm Center, a unit of the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the main source of most of the hard data about the disastrous effects of the current DADT policy. Its director is Aaron Belkin, who recently told an interviewer, “I think that issue after issue after issue, when it comes to gay rights, there is quite a divide between candidate Obama and President Obama.”

The Palm Center’s senior research fellow is Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, the definitive volume on this subject, which was published last spring to great acclaim. The book proved that the current DADT policy was based entirely on prejudice, rather than on any hard data proving that allowing gay people to serve openly would damage the military.

During the Obama transition, the Palm Center put together a team of legal scholars who concluded that the president could suspend Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell through a stop-loss order–but no one reading The New York Times or The Washington Post would know that.

“At first the White House wasn’t 100 percent sure they could do this,” said veteran gay activist Ethan Geto. “But they have since concluded that the president can do this.”

“People said, ‘We don’t want to Clintonize Obama,’” Geto continued, referring to the political damage Clinton suffered from his efforts to end the ban on gays in the military in 1993. “But 2009 is tremendously different from 1993. The culture has had a massive change; the reality is, every major poll in this country shows that an overwhelming majority of American voters support immediate repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So there is no political trap for Barack Obama here, in doing something unilaterally like a suspension of the policy.”

The other move that enraged many gay activists was the filing the government made in court in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act–even though Obama reiterated in the Oval Office last week that he favors the law’s repeal. Activists were particularly furious that the filing compared gay marriage to incest–another fact no New York Times reporter has managed to mention so far in any of their stories about DOMA.

Interestingly, the sexual orientation of an MSM reporter seems to have no effect whatsoever on his competence in discussing these issues. Jeff Zeleny is an openly gay White House correspondent for The New York Times. But when he was asked about this subject by Gwen Ifill on PBS’s Washington Week, Zeleny was unable to articulate a single sentence about the substance of any of gay issues currently facing the president–except to say that gay leaders were disappointed that Obama had failed to extend healthcare benefits to the spouses of federal employees.

As the man who has been fighting these battles longer than everyone else, Frank Kameny naturally takes the longest view on the matter. He said he is “very, very concious” of the criticism of the president–but he does not agree with it.

“That abominable brief that was filed in the DOMA case in California does have them embarrassed in the White House,” said Kameny. “And a lot of people have been blaming Obama for that. Obviously it’s self-evident that something like that was written by some two-bit, lower-level flunky. A lot of people seem to visualize it being written at a conference in the Oval Office presided over by Obama. Well, it’s nonsense.”

Kameny noted that a bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is moving through the Congress, and it already has more than 140 co-sponsors in the House. On the Defense of Marriage Act, the president “has indicated very clearly–and unmistakably restated on Wednesday afternoon–that he wants it to be repealed–but he can’t repeal DOMA until they put a bill on his desk from over in the capital. He can bring certain elements of pressure on Congress, but ultimately Congress is Congress, and it’s its own master.”

“Meanwhile he has a hideous economic mess to straighten out,” Kameny continued.  “And of course the whole far right and the conservatives are opposed to him tooth and nail. So he has to deal with all of that. So I’m willing to sit and wait.”
“I can understand why people are reacting as they are. But I’m not part of that kind of counter-reaction.”