Home » Archive by category "Media"

The Loudest Voice…

“Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate is like.”

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.

Roger Ailes, the Big Boss at Fox News

Roger Ailes, the Big Boss at Fox News

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.

William Loeb made his Manchester, N.H. paper both feared and hated

William Loeb made his Manchester, N.H. paper both feared and hated

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.

Meanwhile, a fascinating new report from the Shorenstein Center for the Media, Politics and Public Policy explains in vivid detail how conservative media in general and Fox in particular, “shapes the agenda of the [Republican] party, pushing it to the far right – at the expense of its ability to govern and pick presidential nominees.”

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Geoffrey Kabaservice

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.’”

sean_hannity_024In 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.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gestures as the key speaker at the annual Reagan Republican Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, October 25, 2013. (David Peterson/MCT via Getty Images)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gestures as the key speaker at the annual Reagan Republican Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, October 25, 2013. (David Peterson/MCT via Getty Images)

“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?

Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy

Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy

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.

The Most Interesting Man

Conversations with ConservativesEven 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.

Putting the former political writer and columnist for the Idaho Statesman on his payroll just adds to Labrador’s fascinating spring and summer. Consider:

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.

Labrador endorsed the insurgent gubernatorial candidacy of state Sen. Russ Fulcher who mounted a remarkably strong challenge to incumbent Gov. Butch Otter and then the Congressman presided over the chaotic recent GOP state convention that ended in turmoil, lawsuits and very likely lasting intra-party hard feelings. Still, while navigating the rapids at the center of the Idaho GOP, Labrador seems hard to have missed a beat or stubbed a toe over the last few months.

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.



New – and Old – Lows

When Limbaugh Wore a Fedora

Rush Limbaugh apologized over the weekend for a choice of words that he admitted “was not the best,” a reference to his radio show delivered “slut” and “prostitute” characterization of a  Georgetown University law student.

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.”

Poor Rush. One day, when the excess finally really drives away the advertisers and the Republican politicians who so carefully calibrate their responses to his outrages cease to do so, he’ll go the way of the Winchell. Another name, as Neal Gabler put it, “on the ash heap of celebrity.”

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 Nation Sunday. “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.


All the News

From Ridiculous to Scandalous

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.)

For once it seems the great Australian press baron has got his comeuppance. Don’t bet on it. This guy has more lives than Donald Trump and a lot more money. Reportedly he left the super-secret Allen Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho to tend to the mess in London. Hanging in the balance is Murdoch’s effort to further expand his empire by fully taking over British Sky Broadcasting, a major television network.

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.

I do love the headline in the Telegraph: Goodbye, Cruel World. That about says it.

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.


The Great Divide

An Uber Gilded Age

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.

The Giffords Story

Mourning GiffordsThe Whole World is Watching

“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.”

In a round-up of world coverage of the story, the GlobalPost site noted:

“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. This profoundly 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.”


Now…the News

chartPew Survey: Internet Grows As News Source

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.

Looking More, Believing Less

newspapersThe Survey Says…

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.

Just Plain Getting it Wrong

Park51300Don’t Confuse Us With Facts, Please…

The photo is of Park51, the proposed site of an Islamic cultural center, two Manhattan blocks north of where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

By now, I suspect, everyone in the country – except perhaps that escaped prisoner caught late last week in Arizona with his accomplice girl friend – has an opinion on whether the so called “Ground Zero mosque” is appropriate for this site.

(I’m making the assumption that the jail breaker might just have been too busy while out on the lamb to check in on cable TV or pick up a paper to follow this controversy, but who knows? Seems like everyone else is weighing in.)

There are many things of interest about the hottest story out of New York since Chelsea’s wedding. The “mosque issue” is fast becoming a political litmus for this year’s candidates and political analysts are debating how much voicing support and then walking it back a bit it is hurting the President. Republicans, for the most part, have jumped all over the issue and made the case that this is the worst idea, well, since Mohammad demanded the mountain come to him.

President Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and some of former President George W. Bush’s guys have made the case that the issue must be about religious freedom and not condemning an entire religion by saying all Muslims harbor radical, violent intentions. Others ranging from Newt Gingrich to Harry Reid, in various shades of heated rhetoric, have condemned the location of the proposed Islamic center and, in many cases by extension, also condemned the religion to which 1.5 billion of the world’s people adhere.

One more thing of interest in this story, a story that has dominated the news now for close to three weeks, says a great deal about how information gets disseminated and used in the digital age. It is fascinating to me just how many of the essential elements of the story lack factual basis or have been so distorted in the repeated re-telling that they have little resemblance to the truth.

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the August 16 edition of The New Yorker tried to catalogue some of the details that have just gotten lost, or been distorted, or are just plain wrong as the story has picked up steam and controversy.

“Well, for a start,” Hertzberg wrote, “it won’t be at Ground Zero. It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronic, porn, you name it) churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic “prayer room,” which presumably qualifies as a mosque. But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001 (emphasis added), and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y – a Y.M.I.A, you might say, open to all, including persons of the C. (Christian) and H. (Hebrew) persuasions.”

Hertzberg went on to note, as others have, that the principal backers of the center are immigrants from Kuwait (a country we went to war to liberate) and Kashmir and the man who is now routinely referred to in press accounts as “a controversial imam,” Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Columbia University grad who has been in charge of a mosque in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York for nearly 30 years.

Rauf is so dangerous that the Federal Bureau of Investigation enlisted his help to “conduct ‘sensitivity training’ for agents and cops” after 9-11. Rauf is also the vice-chair of the New York Interfaith Council, which means he regularly associates with Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who, one assumes, thought enough of him to elected him vice-chair of their organization. (The founder and chairman emeritus of the Interfaith Council, by the way, is the retired Dean of the Cathedral of St. Patrick the Divine. Those Anglicans can be pretty radical.) Rauf has also often and at length, it is important to note, denounced terrorism in general and the 9-11 attacks in particular. Before it became popular for Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh to denounce him, Rauf palled around with Condi Rice and Karen Hughes of the Bush Administration.

Not quite the story that appears in the thousands of words written daily about this issue, but it does help explain, if not excuse, why so many people have made up their minds that the “Ground Zero mosque,” promoted by “radical Muslims” will be a threat to all Americans and an insult to the 9-11 victims and their families. Lots of folks believe that, it’s just not true.

When I went to journalism school back in the dark ages, a old prof told us over and over that reporting a story – particularly a story steeped in controversy – required more than merely recounting what “he said and what she said.” That kind of journalism, the old, green eye shade guy would say, almost always ensures that “the truth goes and hangs itself.” Seems like that is what has happened on the south side of Manhattan.

There us much more evidence, everywhere you look, of the truth looking for a place to die. Consider, for a moment, the President’s religion and place of birth.

Barack Obama wrote two best selling books about his life and background, books that have been poured over by reporters and his political enemies for years now. Books that discuss at some length his views on religion and what it means to him to be a Christian. Obama has given interviews and made speeches talking about his faith and, in particular, how those of us not of the tradition can begin to understand the black Christian church in America.

Yet according to a new Pew Research poll 20% of Americans now firmly believe the President is a Muslim. In the same survey, fully 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

In his book The Audacity of Hope – you can look it up on page 208 – Obama writes about his decision to fully embrace Christianity:

“It was because of these newfound understandings – that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic or social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved – that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany…I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to His truth.”

Reading those words, one who continues to believe Obama is a secret Muslim simply has to believe he is a serial teller of untruths, which may actually help explain the 34%. The opinion page editor of the Dallas Morning News wrote about this the other day and made a telling point when declaring that the paper would quit printing letters making religious claims about the President for which there is absolutely no evidence and that are clearly not true.

“Aren’t the people who claim Obama is a Muslim,” the editor asked, “some of the same people who said they could not trust a man whose Christian preacher said racist and unpatriotic things from the pulpit? Which is it? Is he a follower of a controversial Christian preacher or a Muslim?”

Truth and logic there, but is anyone paying attention?

Another 41% of Republicans in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll believe Obama was “probably” or “definitely” born in another country. Even when a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, certified as authentic by officials in Hawaii, was posted on the Internet, the so called “birthers” continue to believe what just ain’t so.

Of course, there is more. The story continues to circulate that current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used to work at Goldman Sachs, one of the big, bailed out Wall Street banks. Nope, the Goldman guy was the last Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Or, what about the now accepted notion that the terribly unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – hated left and right in a rare show of bipartisanship about anything – was all Obama’s doing. Wrong again. TARP occurred on the Bush watch late in 2008 with W’s full backing, as well as that of John McCain.

What’s going on here? There are lots of theories, including one called the “backfire effect.” This notion holds that when a person harbors a particularly strong view, that is shown by facts and logic to be wrong, they often actually reject the facts and logic and strengthen their belief in what is false. It is a sort of “don’t confuse me with the facts” response, on steroids, to something that may be personally comforting or important to believe even if it is just not true.

One theory is that some folks so dislike Barack Obama – much as some folks so disliked George W. Bush – that they need/want to believe things that reinforce their views even if those things aren’t true. The human mind is a curious thing.

A political scientist, Brendan Nyhan, who is a Robert Wood Johnson scholar in health policy at the University of Michigan, has studied the “backfire effect” and recently told NPR’s Talk of the Nation that misinformed people – conservatives and liberals – rarely change their minds once they are made up. Now, there’s a cheery thought.

As traditional journalism declines apace, one of the promising new developments has been a greater commitment by some news organizations to good, old fashioned “fact checking.” There are websites devoted to this. One of the best is FactCheck.org that tries to keep politicians and others making public claims honest. It is, after all, possible to research and find real answers to many things.

Yogi Berra was right, once again, when he famously said “you can look it up.” Yes, you can, if you will.

Nevertheless, Nyhan and others say fact checking, no matter how well it is done, may not have much impact on those who simply won’t be confused by, well, facts.

If, when talking or speculating about things that we believe that just aren’t true, we were focused on whether Elvis is really dead or whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon or why the U.S. Air Force just won’t come clean with all it knows about UFO’s, it would be a mild curiosity. We could write it off as just a fact of life that some people will believe what they want to believe. But, when the myths continually trump the facts for a significant number of people in the every day political and policy life of the nation, it is a cause to wonder – can this be good for the country?

The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page calls what is going on “American dumb-ocracy” and cites as proof of the dumbing down not only the recent Pew survey about Obama’s religion, but also Jay Leno’s on-street interviews and evidence that way too many Americans, for example, have no idea what the First Amendment protects. Civic engagement, Page says, has to mean more than closely following Lindsay Lohan’s drinking problems. Page is discouraged about dumb-ocracy and me, too. He simply says, “heaven help us.”

Lincoln, I think, talked about not being able to fool all the people all the time. That is some cold comfort, but I’m also reminded of the old line, often attributed to Mark Twain, that “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

News, Money and Politics

murdochBlurring the Lines a Little More

I’ve long been a believer that the best defense against what is often referred to as “the nefarious influence of money in politics” is the disinfectant that comes with vast amounts of sunshine. In short, let the sunshine in and disclose, disclose, disclose.

As long as the Supreme Court equates First Amendment rights with essentially unlimited political contributions, even from corporations and unions, full disclosure is about all the assurance anyone has that we have the means to judge who – or what – is bankrolling a campaign.

My personal preference would be for even more disclosure, including more frequent requirements for reporting and more disclosure of the ultimate sources of political action committee, union or corporate contributions. If money in politics is poison – even Teddy Roosevelt said it was – then tighter limits on the amounts of individual, corporate and union contributions seems like a sensible approach. But, thanks to a tangled web of laws, regulations and court rulings, we have an increasingly wide-open system where every election cycle the money flows farther and faster and the candidates spend vast amounts of their time, as the campaign language goes, “dialing for dollars.”

Leave it to Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, as his recent biographer described him, to add a new wrinkle to the long-running saga around campaign finance. Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and, most importantly, Fox News, just had his News Corporation write a $1 million check to the Republican Governors Association. Perfectly legal, properly disclosed by all accounts, but a further and unmistakable blurring of the lines between news and politics.

The News Corporation contribution to the Republican governors is certainly not unprecedented. GE, Disney and other “media companies” have been players in this space for a long time. What is unusual is the size of the check and the partisan implications.

News Corporation maintains the corporate side of the house made the contribution with no involvement from the guys who run the cable network where Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck hold court nightly, almost always in high dudgeon about the latest Democratic action, and where a sort of GOP shadow government – Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich – gets paid to comment.

Predictably, Democrats were outraged and demanded disclaimers on future RGA sponsored ads taking on Democratic gubernatorial candidates. It was also widely noted that the News Corporation donation some how didn’t generate much coverage on Fox News. I wonder how Fox might cover a million dollar contribution from the New York Times to a Democratic committee?

The trouble with the News Corporation explanation that this was simply a corporate decision with no connection to the hot house cable network – and let’s assume for the sake of argument that News Corporation is giving us the fair and balanced truth here – is that it just doesn’t pass the old smell test.

As a friend regularly reminds me, the Murdoch explanation lacks the quality of verisimilitude. That ten dollar word is defined as “the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability” As in “the play lacked verisimilitude.” This play lacks.

It reminds me of the newspaper that editorially endorses one candidate over another and then says, as I almost always believe, that the editorial opinions of newspapers are totally walled off from the newsroom and news coverage. Few readers believe such explanations. They have become as cynical as many reporters. In the age of a more and more sharp edged, opinionated, point-of-view media, Fox News, or anyone else playing at the million dollar level in partisan politics, shouldn’t be surprised that the explanation of separation between the corporate side of Murdoch’s empire and the news side just doesn’t pass the basic test of seeming to reflect, well, the truth.

Here’s the real issue, I think, with Murdoch and his approach. The guy is a businessman, and a very successful one by most accounts, and he is also a committed conservative. In keeping with his personal politics and political philosophy, why not just drop the pretense of “fair and balanced” and engage in the market place of ideas in a fully transparent, genuine manner. If Murdoch would just acknowledge what everyone believes – detractors and fans, alike – that Fox is the conservative opinion network, it would be liberating. Well, on second thought, that may be a poor choice of words. It would be honest.

As I’ve noted in the past in this space, the news business – and it is a business – that we once knew is as dead as a dodo bird. We are going back to the future with “news” organizations becoming more and more identified with a point of view and a partisan agenda. In my perfect world – I remember Walter Cronkite – I think this is a bad trend, but it is also not likely to be reversed. It was, after all, good enough for the days of Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson and it is going to have to be good enough for the days of Obama and Palin, Fox and MSNBC.

Rupert Murdoch’s big check to the RGA is all right by me as long as he plays by the rules of disclosure. I just wish he’d take the next step, conduct himself like a Hearst, a Pulitzer or a McCormick (partisan news moguls of the past) and drop the pretense that his politics and his cable news operation is anything but a major political player, in both opinions and money, in American conservative politics. Fox News regularly wins the ratings battle against left-leaning MSNBC and CNN, which finds itself in the ill-defined middle, so why not just admit that Fox is the home of conservative opinion and will support conservative causes with its really big checkbook and its really big megaphone.

I happen to think Murdoch is brilliant from a business standpoint in occupying a space where he can shape opinions and influence policy completely in sync with his own views. That is the American way, even if you are Australian. Just go the final step and admit that is what you’re doing.

Jon Stewart – he of the obvious truth – said what lots of folks must be thinking: “This (the News Corporation contribution) is a travesty. I really think if anything Republicans should be paying Fox News millions and millions of dollars. Not the other way around.”

Now, there is some verisimilitude for you.