Note: My column this week in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune
Just when it seems that our politics can’t possibly produce yet one more head spinning moment we get one.
An amazing thing happened this week. The world laughed at the American president. While he was making a speech. At the United Nations.
Oh, I know, Trump fans will discount the importance of a spontaneous outburst of chuckling from the world’s diplomats. European elites, they will scoff. A reaction coming from African nations that are, well, it rhymes with lit holes.
While it’s tempting to toss off yet another Trump moment as just the latest Trump moment the reaction to the president of the United States boasting about his greatness at the U.N. is really a symptom of a larger, more serious problem for the United States and the world. At the same time the United States has retreated from a position of international leadership we continue to suffer a difficult to correct deterioration of democratic practice at home. Unfortunately we are not alone.
As Edward Luce, a writer for the Financial Times, notes in his brilliant little book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary.)” Luce is, of course, using the term “liberal” in the classic sense: liberal democracies encourage people to vote in free elections, they welcome dissent, they value a free press, they respect differences and find ways to compromise in the cause of an unruly, yet broadly universal understanding of progress.
Yet, the prevailing momentum in the world is not toward greater equality either political or economic. By one recent estimate, a third of the world’s people now live in democracies in decline. All the energy from the British exit from the European Union to new U.S. trade wars is in the direction of isolation, retrenchment and conflict. We see the telltale signs of this new world order playing out in real time. For 70 years the NATO alliance has provided security for Europe, Canada and the United States, yet the current administration, apparently ignorant of that history, picks fights those allies and plays nice with a Russian dictator. Rather than thoughtful engagement with China – Ed Luce calls the emergence of China as world power “the most dramatic event in economic history” – we apply time dishonored methods of tariffs and taxation that will soon enough hurt Idaho potato growers, Montana wheat farmers and Iowa soybean growers. China, meanwhile, consolidates its influence across the Pacific basin, while we tax ourselves thinking we will bring them to heel.
Americans are badly, one hopes not fatally, distracted at the moment. The constant political turmoil, the blind partisanship, the disregard for fundamental political and personal decency is part of a pattern across the globe. As the European scholar
Anne Applebaum put it recently, “Polarization is normal. More to the point … skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”
Ask yourself a question: How much of what you hear and read about politics today do you really trust?
Authoritarians like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey have mastered manipulation on public opinion, they control the sources of information if they can, intimidate those they can’t and dominate and denigrate the rest. Democracy does not thrive in spaces where leaders label as “fake” or a “hoax” that with which they disagree. But demagogues do get ahead in societies where distracted citizens come to believe that nothing is real, that there are versions of the truth. More and more political leaders, even a candidate for governor in Idaho, seem comfortable with their own versions of Trump’s “fake news” mantra.
It used to be that political leaders, real political leaders, practiced the old political game of addition. How do I add to my support? How do I bring people together? How do we solve problems even if my side can’t prevail completely? How do we strengthen the often-fragile norms that define acceptable behavior? How do we strengthen the rule of law rather that assault it? Those were the days. Now it is all about juicing the base or perhaps even worse, depressing the vote.
The retreat of western liberalism is happening at precisely the moment the United States is fighting to lead the retreat. At a moment that demands American leadership, fresh thinking about old problems and a commitment to pluralistic societies, we are hunkered down building walls and denying climate change. And the world is laughing at words like, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Ironically, Donald Trump’s moment at the United Nations this week is, like so much of the man’s story, a fulfillment of his own expectations. Trump “has always been obsessed that people are laughing at the president, says Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution. “From the mid-’80s, he’s said: ‘The world is laughing at us. They think we’re fools.’ It’s never been true, but he’s said it about every president. It’s the first time I’m aware of that people actually laughed at a president.”
The laughter is on us, as is the future. It is nowhere ordained that American democracy will forever flourish and carry on. In fact the opposite is true. Modern world history is the story of one democracy after another – Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s and Poland, Brazil and India today – facing internal turmoil, political polarization, decline or worse. We are not immune.
Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher put it succinctly, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
“One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles.”
– Edward R. Murrow in 1958
The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is many things – a narcissist, a psychopath, misogynist, authoritarian, Islamophobic, racist, but also the most accomplished manipulator of mass communication maybe in the history of American politics.
Donald Trump has completely figured out the relentless ebb and flow of modern political communication. He understands in detail the need to “feed the beast” and that the feedstock for television has little to do with substance. The modern news cycle is about always being available, responding immediately and constantly raising the bar of outrageousness. Trump’s unhinged personality and incessant need to be the center of attention is a perfect match for the tools of social media and 24-hour cable news.
Near as I can tell Trump never turns down an interview request unless it’s from Megyn Kelly on Fox, a level of accommodation for cable television’s conflict driven programming that has been irresistible as CNN’s president confirmed recently. Trump “has been much more available than many of the others who have been or are still in the race,” Jeff Zucker said. “Just because he says ‘yes’ and has subjected himself to those interviews, and [other candidates] don’t, I’m not going to penalize him for saying ‘yes.’”
Indeed. why penalize Trump when it is so lucrative to ratings and cash flow to constantly provide a forum? CNN has been charging 40 times it’s normal price for a commercial during the “Republican Debates Starring Donald J. Trump.” Co-dependency is obviously lucrative.
Trump has re-written the rules for the Sunday morning shows featuring what the great Calvin Trillin correctly terms “the Sabbath Gasbags.” Twenty-nine different times since the beginning of the campaign Trump has “phoned it in” to one of the Sunday programs and almost daily he does the same with television’s morning shows.
The telephone “interview” gives the small-fingered vulgarian a home field advantage. He tends to easily dominate these exchanges by filibustering and refusing to be interrupted. By conducting his media outreach by phone, Trump doesn’t have to put himself out by actually showing up in a studio and facing a questioner. As a result he rarely gets asked a follow up question, although he almost never provides a real answer in the first place. The “journalists” know, of course, that they are being played, but until recently everyone played along. Only when Trump’s tactics finally became the focus of print media coverage did Chuck Todd on NBC, for example, call a halt to the phone-a-phon.
Trump completely understands the weirdly perverse symbiotic relationship that links a no-nothing big-mouthed candidate with the venality that has come to characterize modern television news. The vicious and almost always vacuous cycle of personality and enabler goes something like this: TV needs ratings in order to sell commercial time. Outrage and spectacle drive ratings. Trump delivers outrage and spectacle. TV gives time to Trump. Ratings sore and cash registers ring. Voila!
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” That is a quote from CBS Chairman Les Moonves who spoke last month to a media conference in San Francisco. It was a rare moment of illuminating candor from the top guy at the network that was once home to Cronkite and Murrow. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Moonves continued, “and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
“There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years,” writes the New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. “But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.” Just ask Les Moonves.
Vulgarity Meets the Broadcaster’s Bottom Line…
By one measure Trump has received nearly two billion dollars in free media coverage since his announcement of candidacy was, of course, carried live on cable television last summer. At one level the Trump phenomenon is easily explained: free advertising works. At least it works with 35-40 percent of the Republican electorate.
The “old media” – read “print” – scrutiny of Trump, by contrast, has been unrelenting and often excellent, with the New York Times and Washington Post producing detailed and often fascinating (as well as disturbing) accounts of the billionaire (is he really?) blowhard’s often unsuccessful business practices. The Post’s recent story on the lawyer Trump tried to conflict out of a lawsuit is both a great piece of reporting and one suspects a genuine glimpse into Trump’s sleazy approach to business and everything else.
Columnists like the Times’Tim Egan and Frank Bruni have laid bare Trump’s complete disregard of facts and his fourth grade grasp of policy. Conservatives like David Brooks and Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, have taken on Trump from the right with Gerson particularly challenging Trump enablers like Chris Christie and Ben Carson. Politico’sRoger Simon has a wonderful ability to burst the media bubble around El Trumpo and get to the essence of why he is so unprepared for the job and so dangerous in even seeking the job.
Even the sanctimonious George Will, a Sabbath Gasbag if ever there was one, has consistently hammered Trump, although Will’s groping for the principled high ground is increasingly hard to take since he has been among the chief conservative enablers to the “establishment” Republican Party that has done so much to create a genuine American demagogue.
Still every candidate for alderman knows that in politics you want to get your mug on tube. Trump rails against the “dishonest media,” but really could care less when a well-informed columnist calls him what he is. Trump is all about the airtime.
While media moguls like Moonves and Zucker count their millions it is worth remembering a simpler time when another powerful demagogue ranged across the land. Ed Murrow, the North Carolina-born broadcaster who came of age in the Pacific Northwest, was accused at the time of being late to the dissection of the demagogue from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. Still, watching Murrow’s riveting thirty-minute takedown of “the junior senator from Wisconsin” in 1954 is a reminder of what television can do to puncture the bloated ego of a dangerous authoritarian.
When Murrow Took on McCarthy…
Murrow (and his producer Fred Friendly) used McCarthy’s own words to do him in during their famous See it Now broadcast. In his concluding essay Murrow, the Washington State University grad, reminded his generation that every citizen has a responsibility to speak out when evil lurks in the body politic.
Substitute “Trump” for “McCarthy” and you may experience an eerie sense of déjà vu when reading Murrow’s words from 1954.
“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night, and good luck.”
McCarthy responded the following week, of course, by labeling Murrow a communist dupe. A few months late the Senate censured McCarthy and his influence rapidly cascaded into history.
In his engaging 1970 study of McCarthy and the United States Senate, which for too long abetted his undemocratic tactics, historian Robert Griffith used words that might have been written by a contemporary observer of our politics.
“To a considerable degree ‘Joe McCarthy’ was the creation of our communications system,” Griffith wrote in “The Politics of Fear,” his scholarly study of McCarthy, his methods and the Senate. “Like most instruments through which the past is mediated the press was an active and not a passive agent. They very questions asked determined the answers it reported. And these answers in turn shaped the total political context. Nor were these actions always conscious, consistent, or premeditated. The nation’s prestige press was overwhelmingly opposed to McCarthy, yet by the very intensity of its coverage it helped to assure his permanence as a symbol of Republican partisanship.”
Once upon a time executives at CBS, no doubt reluctantly and even frightened by what might happen, had the guts to allow Ed Murrow to unmask Joe McCarthy’s methods. The moment stands as one of the greatest in the history of a medium that has few enough great moments.
In his most famous speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 1958, Murrow offered what is still a remarkably trenchant observation about television. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
But does anyone in a position of authority at the big television conglomerates have the guts and the integrity to make it useful? The network run by the guy who says “Bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” doesn’t seem too likely to turn ’60 Minutes loose, even on a dangerous demagogue.
It is hard to find a parallel in American political history when one news organization – perhaps I should put that word “news” in quotes – has played such an outsized role in determining who gets covered and ultimately who gets nominated by one of the major political parties.
For good or bad much of the Republican presidential primary process is now largely in the hands of Fox News boss Roger Ailes, a profoundly partisan fellow who displays a deft touch for marketing the outlandish and who has built a brand and banked a bundle by zealously appealing to the shrinking band of very conservative older white voters who will decide who wins the Republican nomination in 2016. Ailes will ultimately determine which of the GOP candidates crowd on to the debate stage in Ohio on Thursday just as he will decree who watches from the wings.
There have been occasions in American political history when one media big foot or another have wielded disproportionate sway over a nomination or a candidate, but there has never been anything like Fox News.
Crusty old William Loeb ran his hard right Manchester Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire like the tyrant he was and often shaped the outcome of his states first in the nation primary. Loeb used his front-page editorials to call Democrats ”left-wing kooks,” John Kennedy ”the No. 1 liar in the United States,” Nelson A. Rockefeller a ”wife-swapper” and Dwight Eisenhower a ”stinking hypocrite.” Loeb wasn’t above publicizing a phony letter designed to diminish Maine Senator Edmund Muskie’s 1972 candidacy. The letter was later shown to be part of a “dirty trick” effort promulgated by Richard Nixon’s campaign, which not incidentally employed Roger Ailes to help Nixon win in 1968. Loeb, a bully with barrels of ink, even attacked Muskie’s wife. It was one of the great smears in American political history and it worked.
In earlier decades press barons like McCormick and Hearst controlled their home state delegations and fancied themselves kingmakers, but none had the national reach of Fox and the personal sway of Roger Ailes.
Fox and Republicans Captives of Each Other…
Fox has become the Republican brand and vice versa, which seems to delight the most passionate and most conservative voters, but also means the network and those favored with its air time are mostly preaching to the Tea Party choir – 30 or so percent of the American electorate that thinks the last great president was Barry Goldwater. As if to underscore the tangled lines among Republicans and Fox News, Governor John Kasich over the weekend “walked back,” as they say, which is to disavow the pithy tweet from his strategist that begins this piece. John Weaver’s comment was funny, aimed it would seem at both Donald Trump and Fox and had the added benefit of being true. You won’t be surprised to know that Kasich did his walking back during an interview on Fox.
Fox fans will instantly dismiss the informed critique as the work of eastern elites – the Shorenstein Center is at Harvard, after all – but it’s difficult to dismiss comments like this from academic Geoffrey Kabaservice: “These people,” Kabaservice says in speaking of right wing media in all its forms, “practically speaking, are preventing the Republican Party from governing, which means they’re really preventing it from becoming a presidential party as well.
[Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. He is a Republican.]
The Shorenstein report was authored by one of the better “old media” political reporters Jackie Calmes, a New York Times national correspondent, who did a stint as a fellow at the Center.
No Incentive to Bother With Reality…
Here’s one quick take from her report where she quotes a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, “who has worked in the top ranks of congressional and presidential politics, but, like some others, asked to remain unidentified lest he provoke the far-right messengers against his current boss: ‘It’s so easy these days to go out there and become an Internet celebrity by saying some things, and who cares if it’s true or makes any sense. It’s a new frontier: How far to the right can you get? And there’s no incentive to ever really bother with reality.’ Or to compromise: ‘There’s no money, ratings or clicks in everyone going along to get along.’”
In other words, the Fox approach, exemplified by the self righteous bomb-thrower Sean Hannity, as well as dozens of others on right wing talk radio and in the blogosphere, is to crank up the outrage meter, pour ideological gasoline on any smoldering fire – immigration, Benghazi, Obamacare, shutdown the government, Iranian nuclear deals, etc. – and stand back and watch the flames scorch anyone left of Ted Cruz who might offer a sane, moderate, middle ground approach. The influence of right wing media on hard right and more moderate Republicans has served to substitute indignation and anger for anything like a real political agenda. Real policy that involves anything other than saying “NO” in a very loud voice is as foreign to Fox and friends as are real facts.
Calmes asked one Capitol Hill Republican if he could offer examples of legislative outcomes affected by conservative media. His response: “Sure. All of ‘em…the loudest voices drown out the sensible ones and there’s no real space to have serious discussions.”
Export-Import Bank: the Latest Litmus Test…
Take, for example, the current controversy involving re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank, a little known government agency that provides loan guarantees for foreign purchases of American goods. Tea Party-types – read Fox News viewers – see the program as a prime example of “crony capitalism” even though as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera points out the bank “generated enough in fees and interest to turn over $675 million to the Treasury. Why would anyone in their right mind want to put such a useful agency out of business?”
Why indeed, but you need look no farther than the right wing media to see the issue is perfect for the politics of outrage that are the staples of Fox, Rush Limbaugh and a hundred others who have made it difficult – if not impossible – for a Republican Congress to actually make sensible decisions, embrace the occasional compromise and, well, govern.
“This is a battle,” Ted Cruz proclaims, as he attempts to elevate his presidential candidacy with a constant stream of attention getting hyperbole. “Do you stand for the rich and powerful who corrupt Washington,” the senator asks, “and use this institution against the American taxpayer, or do you stand with the taxpayer?”
Don’t debate the facts, the hell with nuance, Cruz knows “there’s no incentive to ever really bother with reality.”
In the Import-Export Bank issue Cruz is, by the way, standing with the no taxes, ever Club for Growth, the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action for America. All are fervent practitioners of the politics of outrage and a governing strategy based on “NO.” The “corrupt Washington” Cruz attacks includes such obviously rotten Americans as Boeing, GE, the United States Chamber of Commerce and a small business guy by name of Michael Hess in little Malad, Idaho.
Hess wrote recently in the Idaho Statesman that the demise of the Export-Import Bank will damage his and other Idaho small businesses. “We’ve been mining, processing and distributing pumice in Idaho for almost 60 years,” Hess wrote. “And with the bank’s insurance, we’ve been expanding our business abroad. Our products are now distributed in 23 countries across six continents. Since 2009 alone, the bank has helped Hess Pumice generate more than $16 million in sales. That new revenue enabled us to hire more employees and further support the local economy.”
And Hess correctly nails the ideologues in his own Congressional delegation, elected officials more and more afraid or unwilling to stand up to the outrage caucus, which more and more takes its marching orders from conservative media. “Despite the bank’s obvious benefits,” Hess pointed out, “some critics want to keep it shut down. Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, along with Representative Raul Labrador, are in this camp, contending that Ex-Im represents an unnecessary government intrusion into the private sector.”
It is worthy noting that Idaho’s other federal office holder, Congressman Mike Simpson, has not be part of the effort to stop the Ex-Im Bank. Simpson, the one Idaho Republicans to actually face a Tea Party-inspired opponent, who he beat handily, has often stood up against the most far out elements in his own party and attempted to be a legislator who governs. For that Simpson deserves bi-partisan praise.
Right wing media, particularly Fox, have created a political environment on the far right that disdains the type of reality that small businessman Michael Hess represents. Otherwise sensible people like Mike Crapo, who must know better, embrace the extremist line afraid to buck the hard, hard right and not surprisingly the wheels of government crank to a halt.
The Loudest Voice in the Room…
Reviewing Gabriel Sherman’s book on Fox and Boss Ailes last year in the New York Review – the book is appropriately entitled The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country – Steve Coll connected the dots this way: “Fox owes its degree of profitability in part to its most passionate, even extremist, audience segment. To win national elections, the Grand Old Party, on the other hand, must win over moderate, racially diverse, and independent voters. By their very diversity and middling views, swing voters are not easy to target on television. The sort of news-talk programming most likely to attract a broad and moderate audience—hard news, weather news, crime news, sports, and perhaps a smattering of left–right debate formats—is essentially the CNN formula, which Fox has already rejected triumphantly.”
When you tune into Thursday’s debate – how can you not tune in – in order to monitor the vitriol from Trump and Cruz and Walker and the rest, Roger Ailes, the majordomo of the outrage wing of the Republican Party, will be nowhere to be seen. But he’ll be there determining who plays and under what rules. He’ll be calling the shots, pouring the gasoline and fanning the fire. Like a good ventriloquist, Ailes no longer needs to move his lips in order to get the words to leave the mouth of an outraged Republican.
“Even inside Fox,” as New York Magazine reported last week, “some are awed that a presidential race is being influenced by a television channel. ‘Crazy stuff,’ another personality told reporter Gabriel Sherman, ‘you have a TV executive deciding who is in — and out — of a debate!’”
Who is the Dummy Here?
Crazy stuff? Of course it’s crazy, but it’s also the reality Republicans have bought into by handing policy development and candidate vetting to Roger Ailes and a handful of other outraged voices who make a living trying to blow things up. Jackie Calmes’ Shorenstein report quotes another exasperated Republican as saying of the right wing media, “they don’t give a damn about governing.”
Edgar Bergen, the brilliant and elegant ventriloquist of my youth, had his Charlie McCarthy, a wisecracking dummy sitting on his knee. We all knew Charlie was just a wooden prop given life and opinions by the man with the hand in his back, but it was still an entertaining act. Roger Ailes now has his Republican Party in pretty much the same position. I leave it to you to complete the analogy as to who plays the dummy.
Even before he hired Idaho’s most senior political journalist to run his press operation this week you would have had to say that Idaho Republican Congressman Raul Labrador was the most interesting, unpredictable, and arguably most important political figure in the state.
He mounted a high profile, but too-little, too-late campaign to become House Majority Leader when Rep. Eric Cantor very unexpectedly lost a primary election in Virginia. That effort might have seemed quixotic, but it also kept the First District Congressman in the middle of the tug of war between the establishment and Tea Party forces in the U.S. House of Representatives. Labrador continues to receive lavish attention from the national media. Among the House’s most conservative Republicans he remains a go-to critic of the president on immigration and House Speaker John Boehner on almost everything. His semi-regular appearances on the Sunday morning talk circuit, especially Meet the Press on NBC, means he gets more national press than the rest of the Idaho delegation combined and, I suspect, as much national political TV time as anyone since Sen. Frank Church investigated the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s.
Little wonder that the most interesting man in Idaho politics again dominated the political news this week with his hiring of Dan Popkey as his press secretary, a move that I suspect surprised nearly everyone who pays attention to such things. Labrador has guaranteed that every move he makes in the near-term will be dissected to determine the level of Popkey influence. It will be great grist for the political gossip mill and will serve to make Popkey’s new boss, well, interesting.
Having made the leap over the line from journalism to politics nearly 30 years ago, I am certain of only one thing: My old friend and occasional adversary, Dan, is in for a thrilling ride. Think about the possible stops: Congressional leadership, a U.S. Senate seat perhaps, the governorship one day. Who knows? Labrador is one of those politicians who is routinely underestimated and yet regularly overachieves and modern politics – think about the guy in the White House – tends to reward a young man in a hurry who has a plan. It helps, as well, not to commit the cardinal sin of politics – being dull. Raul Labrador isn’t.
The other thing the Popkey hire illustrates, sadly, is the continuing and steady demise of real political journalism, and not just in Idaho. Dan’s reporting – along with the excellent work of the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell – has long been required reading for anyone in the state who cares about politics and public policy. The kind of perspective, experience and knowledge of the political players that a reporter develops over 30 years can’t easily be replaced. Here’s hoping the effort continues to be made, but the trend lines are hardly encouraging.
Popkey likely reached the zenith of his reach as a columnist several years ago when the Statesman featured his work several times a week and often on the front page. His major investigative pieces on the University of Idaho’s mostly botched real estate development in Boise and on Sen. Larry Craig – that work put his newspaper in Pulitzer contention – haven’t for the most part been matched since. Coverage of the Idaho Legislature has declined dramatically, and not just on the part of the Boise media, in the last fifteen years and real critical and insightful coverage of the Idaho delegation in Washington, with the regular exception of opinion pages in Lewiston and Idaho Falls, is virtually non-existent.
Politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin have found they can override the media filter by creating their own content and then by targeting that material to specific audiences. This is the new normal in politics and the media and it increasingly narrows the space for reporters like Popkey and for news organizations in general. Rep. Labrador said in the news release announcing the hiring of his new press secretary that he had “learned that one has to have an exceptional communications strategy to effectively represent Idaho in Congress. I know that Dan will help me better communicate my message to constituents and the media.”
I would fully expect Popkey will do just that, leaving us to reflect on the irony of a politician improving the communication of his own message, while further hastening the demise of old style political reporting.
Conservative commentator David Frum summed up El Rushbo’s latest tirade when he wrote, “Limbaugh’s verbal abuse of Sandra Fluke set a new kind of low. I can’t recall anything as brutal, ugly and deliberate ever being said by such a prominent person and so emphatically repeated. This was not a case of a bad “word choice.” It was a brutally sexualized accusation, against a specific person, prolonged over three days.”
“Brutal, ugly and deliberate” for sure, unprecedented not so much.
Mostly forgotten now, and that may be the ultimate justice, is the man who was Rush before Rush. Limbaugh with a fedora – Walter Winchell. From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Winchell commanded a national radio audience vastly larger than Limbaugh’s, plus he held forth in a daily newspaper column where he savaged his enemies, coddled his friends and was with great regularity brutal, ugly and deliberate.
Neal Gabler wrote the definite biography of Winchell and when you read his often searing descriptions it’s easy to substitute the name Winchell with the name Limbaugh. The two “entertainers” were cut from the same cloth and their style – a half century apart – is strikingly similar.
“Over the years,” Gabler wrote in his 1994 book, “Walter Winchell would lose his reputation as a populist who had once heralded an emerging new social order, lose his reputation as a charming gadfly. He would be remembered instead, to the extent that anyone remembered him at all, as a vitriolic, self-absorbed megalomaniac an image indelibly fixed by Burt Lancaster’s performance as gossipmonger J.J. Hunsecker in the 1956 film Sweet Smell of Success, which everyone assumed had been inspired by Winchell’s life.”
By the early 50’s Winchell’s bright light had flamed out. He became an apologist for Joe McCarthy and, as Limbaugh will become soon enough, he was only important because he had once been important. The meanness, the ego, the brutal, ugly, deliberate excess brought him down. The great wit Dorothy Parker quipped, “Poor Walter. He’s afraid he’ll wake up one day and discover he’s not Walter Winchell.”
Winchell died in 1972. His daughter was the only person at his funeral. As one observer wrote at his death, “In the annals of addiction nobody ever turned more people on than Walter Winchell.”
Leave it to Ron Paul, the one Republican in the presidential field who has nothing to fear from Limbaugh, to put the latest brutality in perspective.”I don’t think he’s very apologetic,” Paul said on Face the NationSunday. “It’s in his best interest, that’s why he did it.”
There will come a day when it’s no longer in any one’s interest to put up with the guy.
You could not look at a website or pick up a paper over the weekend without seeing the nearly minute-by-minute coverage of the latest Rupert Murdoch outrage. Murdoch’s scandal peddling News of the World printed its final edition on Sunday. (Final that is until Murdoch can buy enough time to resurrect the sleazy tabloid under another banner.)
It would have been great to be in London on Sunday. I would have bought every paper in sight – at least those not controlled by Murdoch – to see how they covered the demise of the NTW and the still unfolding scandal of how Murdoch family members and assorted retainers presided over a newspaper that hacked into apparently thousands of mobile voice mails in pursuit of the “scoops” that made the now defunct NTW both profitable and the very definition of yellow journalism. Those hacked include murder and crime victims and military personnel. Find Murdoch’s photo next to sleazy in the dictionary.
The increasingly Tony Blair-like Prime Minister David Cameron underscores how deeply Murdoch has his claws into politicians on both sides of the pond. Apparently even Margaret Thatcher had a thing for Murdoch. Cameron, however, takes the prize for admitting the obvious. The PM had the gall to stand on the floor of the House of Commons and condemn his party and all the others for growing “too close” to the powerful press tycoon. Cameron was so close he hired the former News of the World editor to be his chief mouthpiece. That guy is now in jail. Even the Church of England owns shares in Murdoch’s enterprise.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, make that Murdoch owning (or renting) two of the three major political parties in Britain (his switch last election to the Tories was likely decisive for Cameron), a piece of the Church and even the Royals. Murdoch’s official biographer is doing the same air brush job for the Queen Mum. In the U.S., so far, Murdoch only dominates one national political party, but recall that he did make nice with Hillary Clinton when most everyone thought she might be the Democratic candidate for president. Murdoch is an equal opportunity co-opter.
There are predictions in Britain that the phone hacking scandal will finally rattle the all-too-cozy relationship among newspapers, broadcasters and politicians. If that happens, so much the better for the future of a truly great country. Either way it ought to be a cautionary tale for those of us in “the colonies” who like our news with a semblance of fairness, if not objectivity.
If the British papers will just print the truth about the News Corporation and it’s powerful, scandal and money soaked boss that should be more than enough to take care of King Rupert. But, then again, I never thought he could pull off buying – and remaking – The Wall Street Journal or get away with having half the Republican presidential candidate field on his payroll at Fox News. Nothing Murdoch does should surprise.
A book to put it all in context is Evelyn Waugh’s very funny novel Scoop written in 1938. The New York Times’ Nick Kristof suggests it for a good summer read and I agree. Waugh’s tale – farce is one word for it – focuses on the world of London tabloids trying to outdo each other covering an obscure war in an even more obscure African country.
One of the characters in Waugh’s book says: “I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom that they are absolutely, point-blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.”
You’ll read Scoop and laugh and then think maybe Rupert Murdoch read this, too.
A friend of mine has always said he never feels more patriotic than on the day he files his tax return and most years ships off a check to Uncle Sam.
Most Americans, I suspect, consider the tax obligation a necessary duty of citizenship. They may not like it much, but financing our government – yours and mine – is a fundamental obligation of citizens in a democracy. We band together to do for ourselves the things we can’t do alone – national defense, highways, airports, education and care for the poor and lame. That’s government and taking care to maintain it is patriotic no matter what the tax protests say.
Where the social compact starts to fray, however, is at the point where you and I pay and someone else doesn’t. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center says nearly 50% of Americans pay no income tax at all. They either have too little income to qualify or they qualify in our ridiculously complicated tax system for enough exemptions, credits and deductions to avoid any liability.
Little wonder that taxes and sending spark such political outrage. Half of the country, understandably including the poorest Americans, paying no federal tax with increasingly a tiny handful of the richest citizens controlling an ever expanding share of the wealth and also paying little or no taxes.
As Catherine Rampell pointed out recently in a New York Times piece, “the top 1 percent of earners receive about a fifth of all American income; on the other hand, the top 1 percent of Americans by net worth hold about a third of American wealth.” During the so called Gilded Age of the 1890’s, wealth distribution in the United States was not as out of whack as it is today.
Writing in the May issue of Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz says: “In terms of income inequality, America lags behind any country in old Europe. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.”
Couple those statistics with the almost daily news that top corporate CEO’s, even in firms still struggling with the recession, are raking in big bonuses and pulling down big pay raises.
The only thing that seems to impact behavior at this rarified level is sunlight. After the outcry over the news that GE, with U.S. profits of $5.1 billion in 2010, paid no taxes, but rather received a $3.2 billion refund, the company has been forced to place further restrictions on the compensation of CEO Jeffrey Immelt.
In the now classic Hollywood portrayal of the ruthless characters on Wall Street, Michael Douglas, playing that Godfather of Greed Gordon Gekko is asked, “how much is enough?”
His answer: “It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another.”
I really didn’t mind sending in the tax return (and the check). I just hope Gordon Gekko sent one, too.
But, then again, greed knows no shame, or it seems, any limits.
“Anger, hatred, bigotry” – the headline in the Sydney, Australia Morning Herald.
“A disturbing story about American political culture” – said the editorial in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s major national newspaper.
A blogger for the Financial Times writes, “The idea that there is anything in common between the politics of the United States and Pakistan might seem absurd. But both countries have suffered appalling acts of political violence this week. And in both cases, the victims were moderate voices who spoke out for liberal values.”
While the debate continues in U.S. newspapers and over the air about the cause and meaning of the tragic attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson last Saturday, the press in the rest of the world is watching and commenting. It is a fascinating case study in how the U.S. is seen by much of the rest of the world.
A while back I heard a speaker who had lived in Canada for a number of years quip that “Canada is the place where everyone has health insurance and no one has a hand gun.” There was nervous laughter from the U.S. crowd.
The Globe and Mail’s editorial on the Tucson shootings got quickly to its point: “Start with guns: Legally, they are sacrosanct. And not just any guns. In Arizona, any ‘law-abiding’ person over 21 is allowed to carry a concealed handgun practically anywhere in the state, including into the state legislature, in bars and on school grounds.”
“Argentina’s biggest daily, Clarin, published a 500-word piece by their Washington correspondent, Ana Baron, who focused heavily on Arizona’s tough stance on Latino immigration and what she described as the ‘growth of hatred and intolerance in U.S. politics.’ Perhaps tellingly, the story’s first quote was Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik’s widely-recounted remark that his home state of Arizona has become a ‘Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.'”
The same site noted that Britain’s politically-oriented print media covered the shootings as political commentary. The right-leaning Daily Telegraph criticized American blogs and liberals for rushing to paint the attacks as a product of a right-wing fanatic despite the lack of evidence that the shooter had anything to do with the Tea Party or any other group.
“This is highly inconvenient for certain people on the Left so they ignore it,” wrote the paper’s Washington editor. “They would much prefer the shooter to have been a white male in his 50s.”
Outside of Britain, the GlobalPost site notes, “the story has received slightly less attention. The French press is consumed by the murder of two Frenchmen murdered in Niger by an African subsidiary of Al Qaeda. The German press has major flooding along the Rhine to contend with.
“But the lack of prominence given to the story could be down to this: For many in Europe, violence of the sort that occurred in Tucson on Saturday is almost expected in America.”
Major media outlets in the U.S. provided prominent coverage over the last several days to the assassination – and that word was always used and interestingly has generally been avoided in the coverage of the Gifford’s shooting – of a major political figure in Pakistan, indisputably a country with enormous strategic importance to the United States. The lead in the Washington Post, for example, said of the Pakistani killing, in words that might have been lifted from an article about Rep. Giffords: “an outspoken liberal in an increasingly intolerant nation, was shot…” because of his public stance on a controversial issue.
As the Financial Times writer, Gideon Rachman, pointed out it is not all that comfortable to be compared to the dysfunctional, frequently violent politics of Pakistan, but there we are.
Rachman wrote on Sunday: “Of course, the relative reactions to political violence in both countries show that Pakistan is much, much further down the road of violent intolerance. Thisprofoundly depressing report by Mohammed Hanif illustrates how cowed liberal and tolerant voices now are in Pakistan, where many television commentators essentially argued that the governor of Punjab had it coming to him.
“In the US, by contrast, all mainstream politicians and commentators are united in condemning the attempted murder of Giffords. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.”
The new Pew Research Center report dealing with where Americans turn for their daily news fix shows, not surprisingly, that the Internet’s impact is growing and newspapers are declining. Television is also in decline, while radio is essentially flat.
Again, no big surprise, young people, in vast numbers, are surfing the net for news, while – as a former TV reporter I love this headline – TV news still dominates among what Pew calls “the less educated.” People in the West are more likely than any other part of the country to turn to the Internet for news, but I’m guessing those numbers are skewed by “the left coast” effect of California, Oregon and Washington. Still the trends in where we seek out news are dramatic and show no signs of changing.
Interesting to me, cable news and the traditional broadcast networks are both in steady decline as news sources, while local television news seems to be holding its own as a source of information. Older folks, again no big surprise, turn to television and much less to the Internet.
What the survey doesn’t answer is where on the Internet Americans are turning for information. Are they using the major newspaper and broadcast websites? Or are Internet news consumers turning to specialized sites that cover politics, business, energy or the environment? Or are they looking to sites like the Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, websites that aggregate news with a decided slant on what is featured and how the information is packaged? Or, as I suspect, based on the trend of increasing partisanship and a “point of view” approach on cable television, are Internet consumers seeking out information that already reinforces their political or social views?
This much is beyond debate it seems to me: there is no longer any comprehensive place where Americans can turn for a shared sense of what is happening in American politics and culture. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley once could gather us around the national hearth and we could share a national experience – men landing on the moon – or a national tragedy – the Kennedy assassination. No more.
Pew also offers some regular analysis of what type of information Internet consumers seek. In the week between Christmas and the New Year – a pretty quiet news cycle – the top story was the seriously bad weather on the east coast.
I’ve long subscribed to the “more is better” theory about news and information. More sources, more points of view and more delivery systems should make us smarter, more informed and better and more engaged citizens. I hope that instinct is true, but doubt it is. To make it true we must have not just consumers of news and information, but discerning, skeptical and critically thinking consumers.
Other recent Pew research suggests that Americans have a 30,000 foot view of the issues and challenges facing the country. We know a few basic facts, but very few details. Americans aren’t big on nuance. We know, for example, that the GOP made big gains in Congress, but not what those new members really intend to do, or even that the Republicans won control of the House. We know that BP ran the oil well that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, but no idea about who serves as the British Prime Minister. We know the budget deficit is a big problem, but have no idea where all that money is being spent. And, John Boehner. Whose he?
There is clearly a tremendous amount of information out there on the Internet, cable and broadcast television, even in shrinking newspapers, but the jury is out as to whether all that information, in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world, is making us any smarter or better able to understand and engage the world. That, in a modern democracy, seems to me to be a real problem.
The Pew Research Center for People and the Press is out with a new survey about where we’re going for news and why and at least one of the findings in a little surprising to me. Pew says Americans are spending more time following the news.
Meanwhile, the Gallup organization has its own research that shows that Americans are less confident than ever in what they are getting from newspapers and television. Fewer than 25% of those surveyed by Gallup say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers or TV. That number represents a 10% decline over the last five years or so.
Conclusion: we are more interested than ever in what is going on and we have less belief than ever that what we see and read is the straight scoop.
The Pew survey also seems to buttress a contention of mine that news organizations are more and more appealing on a purely ideological basis. This is the news of the future, but really is a return to the past when political ideology sharply defined newspapers and magazines.
A liberal – defined, for example, in the Pew survey as one who supports gay rights – tends, big surprise, to like the New York Times and National Public Radio. Supporters of the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party are big listeners to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Fox News. Libertarians like the Wall Street Journal. Pew also reports that more and more of us are using digital means to keep up on the world and younger Americans, those under 30, are fast forgetting what a newspaper is all about. More affluent and well-educated Americans, again big surprise, tend to shop around more using digital, print and broadcast sources for their information. Could be that they just have the time and ability to do so.
It may be a stretch to connect these two interesting surveys to some recent musings by former President Bill Clinton, but here goes. During a recent extended interview with the Times – former presidents do extended interviews, apparently – Clinton identified his favorite TV commercial of the last five years as the ESPN spot were the math nerds make fun of the jocks spewing sports stats in the high school cafeteria.
Clinton was making the point that the clever spot is a metaphor for American political life. Namely, if we cared as much about the “hard facts” that pertain to public policy as we do about football, it would be a better, at least in Clinton’s view, for Democrats.
Facts are good things, but Clinton, of all people, should know that politics is much more often – like football – about emotion, feeling and raw execution. I feel Clinton’s pain about the need for more focus on “hard facts” in our consumption of news, but, upon further reflection, the former president just might not be the best messenger for the “hard facts” approach to public life.
The reality of the moment is – and this is the truth – that we often place more emphasis in developing our positions on what Stephen Colbert has called “truthiness.” What we believe may not really be true, but it seems close enough, particularly when we factor in our emotions and ideology.
By the way, the Pew survey finds that among those 30 and younger, “about as many young people regularly watch the Daily Show (13%) and the Colbert Report (13%) as watch the national network evening news (14%) and the morning news shows (12%).”
Sounds about right. There is an element of “truthiness” in there somewhere. Just ask Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly.