Journalism, Trump

It’s the Truth…

Jim Lehrer, the old school journalist who helped invent a sane and sober television news program on public television that he co-hosted for years with Robert MacNeil, died recently and his passing is a reminder of how imperiled the craft of gathering and reporting the news has become.

“I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity,” Lehrer told The American Journalism Review in 2001. “News is information that’s required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”

Long-time PBS journalist Jim Lehrer, a beacon of professionalism in a craft under assault

Lehrer’s death and his warning about the commodification of news ironically coincide with a sham impeachment trial in the Senate that featured the president’s defenders shamelessly repeating Russian propaganda. In the same period we’ve seen an attack by the secretary of state aimed at both the truth and a distinguished reporter for National Public Radio, the Fox News host Lou Dobbs bizarrely asserting that life-long Republican John Bolton is a tool of liberal Democrats and Senate leadership eliminating the long established practice that allowed reporters easy access to the senators in the Capitol. 

Literally from its first day the Trump Administration has been at war with the truth, and with reporters and legitimate news organizations that try to discover the truth. It has been a systematic, unrelenting assault on a free press unprecedented in its scope and only rivaled by similar tactics employed by Richard Nixon a generation or more ago. 

But where Nixon – and his later criminally implicated vice president Spiro Agnew – kept “enemies lists” and tried to use the Federal Communications Commission to intimidate broadcasters, Trump isn’t nearly as subtle. As always incendiary rhetoric is his weapon of choice, from calling out individual reporters by name to labeling any report critical of him “fake” and reducing journalists to “enemies of the people.” 

Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” created a scandal when it came to light. Trump’s list is in plain sight

“It’s insidious, it’s aimed to intimidate, it’s a kind of dragging through the mud effort, a character assassination from as best as we can tell, and it’s alarming,” says Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, a leading free speech and human rights group. Nossel was reacting to reports that Trump campaign operatives were determined to plant derogatory information about reporters deemed critical of the president with pro-Trump outlets.

“We need the press to do its job. We depend on them to hold politicians to account, to cover what’s going to be a very fractious campaign.”

Trump’s toxic treatment of reporters is clearly spreading. Republican Senator Martha McSally, one of this year’s endangered incumbents, recently called a CNN reporter “a liberal hack” after the reporter asked her a simple, straightforward question: should the Senate consider new information in the impeachment trial. 

It wasn’t a “gotcha” question, wasn’t asked abusively and was completely legitimate. The encounter went viral, which may have been McSally’s motive, and within hours she was raising campaign cash based upon the phony courage standing up to a reporter with a microphone. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch has long had a contentious relationship with reporters, often popping off when he asked a question he’d rather not answer. “Oh, I don’t do interviews on any of that stuff,” Risch told the Washington Post when questioned about Trump’s shifting explanations on efforts to buy the silence of women who claimed sexual dalliances with him.

When the obvious follow up was asked – why not? Risch responded, “I don’t do any interviews on anything to do with Trump and that sort of thing, okay?” He then slipped into the Senate chamber. 

Last year when an Idaho radio reporter tried to ask Risch if it was appropriate for the president to implore China to investigate Joe Biden, Risch lost his cool, refused to answer and then walked away telling the reporter “don’t do that again.”

Risch almost certainly smiled his approval of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent silly run in with NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly. The two men are thin-skinned reactionaries who hate the scrutiny real reporters represent. You won’t be surprised that Risch has called Pompeo “a really good friend of mine,” adding, “he and I have very similar views on life in general.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another Trump “mini-me” when it comes to attacking reporter doing their jobs

That’s true, of course. Risch was once a Trump critic and is now among his biggest defenders. So, too, with Pompeo who in 2016 said a President Trump would be “an authoritarian President” who would ignore the Constitution. Now the blustering secretary of state and the subservient senator vie to be a Trump “mini-me.”

Asked to explain his unwillingness to defend a career State Department official, former ambassador Maria Yovanovitch, who has been slimed by Trump after being dismissed in what surely was an effort to further the president’s misconduct in Ukraine, Pompeo blamed a reporter for having the audacity to question a great man. Then he lied about the circumstances that led to the interview. 

The incident was Pompeo’s “don’t do that again” moment, particularly after he threated Kelly with “people will hear about this.” He then doubled down by banning another NPR journalist from the group covering a trip to Europe. And naturally Trump praised Pompeo’s brutish behavior. 

Years ago I managed press relations for an Idaho governor who admittedly didn’t always enjoy handling a tough question from a reporter, but who nonetheless recognized it was a requirement for serving in public office. I’ve forgotten the specific budget issue at stake all these years later, but I remember Democrat Cecil Andrus asking his budget director Chuck Moss if a certain administration initiative could successfully make its way through the Republican legislature. Moss deadpanned that the idea could probably be sold to lawmakers, but “we might not get it past Fick,” a reference to the irascible, deeply informed Associated Press statehouse correspondent, Bob Fick. 

Andrus knew if he couldn’t explain his idea to a reporter who understood the state budget better than any legislator he was going to pay for it. Fick was dogged enough in his pursuit of a story that he would occasionally park himself next to the governor’s car in front of the Statehouse in order to buttonhole the chief executive on his way to lunch. 

Frankly, that’s the way it is supposed to work. These politicians work for us. Good reporters, and there are a lot of good reporters, go to work every day trying to keep the bastards honest. It’s hard and vital work, particularly when politicians with authoritarian instincts are trying to hide things. 

Shortly before being verbally assaulted by Pompeo, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly was one of the few U.S. journalists to report from Iran

Kelly, the NPR reporter, said as much in an article in the New York Times that was both more substantive and credible than anything Pompeo – or Risch for that matter – has said in the last year. “There is a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution,” Kelly wrote. “There is a reason it matters that people in positions of power — people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations — be held to account. The stakes are too high for their impulses and decisions not to be examined in as thoughtful and rigorous an interview as is possible.” 


Further reading:

  • “The New Enemies List” from Princeton historian Julian Zelizer in The Atlantic.
  • Attacking reporters is just one tool of authoritarian regimes around the world. “Don’t blame democracy’s decline on ignorance. The problem lies deeper” from The Guardian.
  • A “Freedom House” report on propaganda at home and abroad.
  • And a piece by historian and journalist Michael Petrou on the famous columnist and shaper of public opinion Walter Lippmann.
Journalism, Politics, Trump

A Carnival of Buncombe

The journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken was made for the Trump era. Unfortunately Mencken, a guy given to using words such as buncombe, knaves, fanatics and fools in his Baltimore Sun columns and magazine articles, died in 1956, no doubt convinced that a Trump-like character was in the country’s future. 

“As democracy is perfected,” Mencken wrote, “the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

We have arrived. 

The Sage of Baltimore, Henry Louis Mencken

Not many Americans remember Mencken these days even though he was once the best-known journalist – and the most full-throated cynic – in the country. Mencken was an equal opportunity basher of politicians. One suspects he would have loved the daily business of scraping the hide off our current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls and he would have had an absolute field day with our deranged national tweeter. 

In 1920, while Republicans and Democrats jockeyed for position and the chance to succeed President Woodrow Wilson, Mencken took on the entire field. He might have been writing about Beto or Biden or Bernie.

“All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form,” Mencken wrote. “This is to say, they are all extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job; the necessary equipment of unescapable issues, immutable principles and soaring ideals can wait until it becomes more certain which way the mob will be whooping.” 

We can only imagine what the Sage of Baltimore would have made of Trump and the president’s whooping mob, but charlatan was one of his favorite words. Fraud was another of his prized descriptions.  

I got to thinking about Mencken this week after the most powerful man in the world spent most of last weekend attacking a decorated Vietnam veteran, prisoner of war and one-time Republican presidential candidate on social media. “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be,” the man with many grievances told us once again, seven months after most decent people came together, at least for a moment, to mourn one man’s courage and patriotism. 

Thoughts came again of Henry – Franklin Roosevelt, who detested the writer for his barbed takes on the New Deal and FDR’s patrician privilege, called Mencken by his first name hoping to diminish him – when the Tweeter-in-Chief took time out from ravaging American agriculture with his tariff policies to assault the husband of his White House counselor as “a total loser.” The reality show presidency has morphed into “real house husbands of D.C.”

Henry would have mocked such idiocy, such buncombe, such complete claptrap. 

What would one of America’s great social critics have made of the president’s daughter working in the White House while piling up patent approvals with a country we’re engaged with in a trade war? And what of the president’s grifting son-in-law, denied access to state secrets because he’s so clearly susceptible to – there’s that word again – fraud. And what of a political system that tolerates the nation’s chief magistrate maintaining a government lease on a gaudy hotel where every shade of influence seeker pays the rent knowing that their dollars flow directly to the cheater, the conman at the top? What a load of unmitigated rubbish. 

Henry Louis Mencken often bemoaned the American predisposition to be hoodwinked by shameless scoundrels. A favorite target was a prominent populist blowhard of his day, William Jennings Bryan, although unlike our own prominent populist blowhard Bryan had some genuine principles. Nevertheless to Mencken the three-time presidential candidate “was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted … [and] ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.” He could have been writing for tomorrow’s paper. 

William Jennings Bryan

“A culture,” the conservative writer Peter Wehner wrote this week in The Atlantic,“lives or dies based on its allegiance to unwritten rules of conduct and unstated norms, on the signals sent about what kind of conduct constitutes good character and honor and what kind of conduct constitutes dishonor and corruption.” By those standards, or better yet by the decline of standards observed long ago by a Mencken, we have ceased to progress as a culture. We’re settling for buncombe when we might better demand brilliance, or at least competence.

Often H.L. Mencken reserved his most scathing takes on American politics not for the fools and knaves who occupied the hallowed halls of government, but for the gullible voters who put them in power. “The whole aim of practical politics,” Mencken once wrote, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” And to think he didn’t even know about the make belief “invasion” of the southwest border, or the “witch hunt” or the “fake news.”

“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” Mencken once wrote. Cynics aren’t often the best judges of the overall direction of things, but our current tomfoolery is such that we’re left to a long-dead cynic to remind us that eventually “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”


2016 Election, Journalism, Trump

The Ministry of Truth…


      “By the way, newspapers are the first of over 50 companies that I started where my employees tell me how to run my business.”

Sheldon Adleson. Casino billionaire, Trump supporter, newspaper owner


There is a move afoot to bring a National Football League team to the city where things that happen there stay there. The most likely team to relocate to Sin City are, at least by Las Vegas terms, the aptly named Oakland Raiders, owned now by Mark Davis son of one the original NFL bad boys Al Davis.zVFIAIDi

But, as ESPN reported recently, the “sins” of Al Davis, including a penchant for litigation, might not hamper his son’s ambition to embrace the Valhalla of American excessiveness, the Shanghai of Sin.

The NFL and its billionaire owners once took a dim view of gambling, which ruled out locating a team where people bet on games all the time, but the NFL’s oligarchs have now set aside any misgivings about either excess or sin. What happens in Vegas wouldn’t really stay there, but would flow out across the country fattening the wallets of NFL owners. So bring on the Raiders, bring on billionaire Sheldon Adelson and bring on the money, money, money.

In order to host an NFL team, Vegas needs a big ol’ stadium and boy oh boy does Sheldon Adelson think building one is a great idea. His recently acquired Review-Journal newspaper – the Adleson clan originally attempted to keep its purchase of the paper secret – has lavished uncritical front-page coverage on idea of building the stadium, while breathlessly endorsing the convoluted financing that has been proposed. Meanwhile, as he maneuvers to bring the NFL to southern Nevada, Adelson has pledged $100 million to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and has his aides at work creating a Trump Super PAC.

Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson

Another of Trump’s billionaire friends recently secretly financed a lawsuit aimed at destroying an internet media outlet, a move that, at the least, will have a chilling effect for other outlets reporting on the lives of America’s high roller class.

The richest family in Utah now owns the venerable Salt Lake Tribune and, of course, Rupert Murdoch is in a class all his own. Influence is a growth industry even if real journalism is not.

What a country.

Adelson is frequently referred to as a “supporter” or “financial contributor” to the Las Vegas stadium project and perhaps a part owner on a relocated team, but it is clear, at least when it comes to football, that Adelson is really not that much of a gambling man. Back in January before his minions at the Review-Journal began sanitizing coverage of the stadium proposal the paper actually reported some news about who will pay for the expected $1.2 billion football palace.

“Developers would seek $780 million in public financing, according to a document provided by Las Vegas Sands Corp., which is leading a consortium behind the project,” the R-J reported.

“Private investors would contribute $420 million toward the planned 65,000-seat stadium, with various tourist-driven tax sources — commercial conveyance on taxicabs, rental car taxes or hotel room taxes — providing the bulk of the funding.”

Other accounts have indicated that the Mark Davis owner’s contribution will be conditioned on $200 million “loan” from the NFL, further decreasing the contribution of “private investors” like Adelson. It doesn’t take a PhD in finance to see who is really going to pay for the new stadium. At least two-thirds of the cost will be born by the public.

A former Review-Journal columnist, John L. Smith wrote recently in The Daily Beast: “There’s been a conspicuous lack of skepticism in the local press, which with few exceptions has obsessed on the odds of the Raiders’ arrival instead of the audacity of the stadium’s financing plan. Only political journalist Jon Ralston has consistently questioned the deal’s leaps of faith and lack of transparency.”

Ralston, Nevada’s most respected political journalist, has also reported on the “gag order” that prompted Smith’s departure from the paper. Smith had aggressively covered the big name Vegas casino moguls, including Adelson and Steve Winn, for years, often quite critically and that coverage occasional brought a lawsuit. Now, under the new Adelson regime, Smith was ordered not to write about anyone who had ever sued him. Poof. There goes coverage of the Las Vegas power structure.151222212046-las-vegas-review-journal-sign-780x439

Oh, yes. I forgot to mention that before Sheldon Adelson bought the Review-Journal the paper had been an outspoken critic of the process of financing a Las Vegas stadium project.

Now – are you surprised – the paper calls the stadium a “must do” project.

Adelson denies, of course, that his attempt to secretly buy Nevada’s largest newspaper at a cost substantially over its market value and then use it as a sort of house ad to enrich his Vegas hotel and entertainment empire carries any sinister connotations. If you want to believe that I know where you can buy a bridge.

With the “news business” now as fluid and in flux as it has been in generations, perhaps we should welcome guys with fat wallets bringing new resources to newsrooms, as Adelson claims he is doing in Las Vegas and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos clearly has done at the Washington Post. Still, put me down as a skeptic about the altruism of billionaires. As the New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg says, “billionaires do not become billionaires by being passive about their own interests.”

America has a rich history of rich guys owning newspapers – Hearst, Pulitzer and McCormick, to name just a few – and using their power to advance their interests and punish their foes, but this new trend of billionaires meddling in the media somehow seems more sinister and more dangerous, perhaps because it is happening at a time when so much of the media is financially weakened and vulnerable.

So this is America in the 21st Century. The Republican candidate for president calls for a crack down on a free press and wants to change libel laws, he routinely denies access to media organizations that offer critical (read factual) coverage of his nonsense and labels as “sleaze” reporters who dare ask legitimate questions. Meanwhile some of the pals of the Number One Media Critic in the country – fellow oligarchs all – use their unlimited money to intimidate and influence reporters, editors and news organizations. Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” doesn’t seem all that far fetched in 2016.

The rise of the American demagogue and the companion triumph of the fabulously wealthy has happened for many reasons, not least because there unfortunately exists an ill-informed or misinformed American public. It also doesn’t help that we have a political class that encourages a Sheldon Adelson and his favorite candidate.

It’s a leap of faith to believe that a bunch of self-obsessed billionaires owning their own newspapers is going to improve this dangerous reality. The old journalistic notion that the job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable has been turned on its head.


2016 Election, Arizona, Federal Budget, Film, Journalism, Trump

What I Got Wrong in 2015…


“Get ready for the “Bush Rebounds” stories. You heard it hear first.”

One of my less-than-perfect predictions from 2015


In the spirit of the late, great Washington Post political reporter and columnist David Broder, who annually devoted a year-end column to the mistakes, blunders and wrong-headed notions he consigned to print during the previous twelve months, I offer atonement. Or, as the old year passes, here is my “I really got that wrong” list.

Who wasn't wrong about Trump? Certainly not me.
Who wasn’t wrong about Trump? Certainly not me.

Trump – There is little year-end consolation in the fact that I was not alone in misreading, not understanding and failing to take seriously the Trump…whatever it is. Thousands of self-styled pundits missed the political rise of the orange haired billionaire. Lots of smart people made the same mistakes I made, the political equivalent of the generals fighting the last war and assuming that the rules of political warfare never change.

So, while I’m in good company, fairness demands that I acknowledge that back in the early summer I went so far as to opine of Trump that, “I still think he drops out before he really has to reveal more details about the web of financial deals and debt that undoubtedly define his business empire…” Boy, was that off the mark. Not only did he not drop out, he’s been leading the polls for months.

I redeemed myself (slightly) in the next part of that sentence by observing “but in the meantime Trump stirs things up and not in a helpful way for the more sane and sober Republican candidates.”

In July I was thinking that Trump would be a short-lived distraction, not unlike a really bad reality television show, and that soon enough the rules of politics would again take over. Now – I can’t believe I’m writing this – I’ve come to believe Trump has a reasonable chance of becoming the Republican candidate for president of the United States of America. Now, that is one prediction that I dearly hope will be WRONG.

Jeb! – I plead guilty to embracing the conventional wisdom that the former Florida governor would finally find his political sea legs and make a strong run for the GOP nomination. Never say never in this crazy political year, but that prediction is looking about as worn as last week’s tattered and torn Christmas wrapping paper.

Paul Ryan's beard surprised me, too
Paul Ryan’s beard surprised me, too.

Congress – I’m second to no one in my willingness to always expect the worst from our hyper-partisan, mostly do nothing Congress and those 535 helpless souls rarely disappoint. But…I didn’t see new House Speaker Paul Ryan stepping in an engineering a year-end budget deal that forecloses government shutdowns, etc. for an entire year. Congress, or at least Ryan, surprised me. Anyone remember John Boehner?

Hollywood – I have often allowed my cynicism about the movie glitz and gore factory get the better of me, but late this year I must admit I’ve been wrong. A slew of amazing and important motion pictures have reached the big screen in the last few weeks that (temporarily) renew my hope that Hollywood can produce real entertainment that is relevant, even profound. Films like Spotlight, The Big Short, Carol, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies and Trumbo make this Hollywood cynic want to head for the ticket line. Tinsel town ended the year with a flourish.

What else? I didn’t see the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series. I thought the Washington Nationals might win. And I never see the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series – period. I hope I’m wrong on that one.

I didn’t think the Washington Redskins would still sport that controversial name at the end of 2015. I wonder if that team name can really last?

I thought Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a better politician than he is turning out to be. Rahmbo’s tough guy bluster goes only so far when you have to actually try to govern and lead a city torn between the grievances of its minority community and deep-seated problems with its police culture. And what politician takes a holiday trip to Cuba while his town is in turmoil? I’m tempted to predict that Emanuel can’t last, but that may just be wishful thinking.

I didn’t see oil prices going this low. I guess it must be Obama’s fault.

I have long been dubious, cynical and concerned about the state of American journalism, particularly the continuing demise of newspapers, but I did not foresee the wonderful, even spectacular rise of high quality “long form” journalism and non-fiction writing. Some of the material being produced is phenomenal. If one only had all the time in the world to read it all.

And, finally I did not foresee the shocking level of xenophobia (thanks Trump) that seems to have overwhelmed a good segment of the population in 2015.

In a fine piece in The Atlantic Richard Yeleson reminds all of us that change in our system comes slowly – very slowly. Yeleson makes a compelling case that America in 2015, with the widespread disdain for those who seem to be “un-American,” is in many ways not unlike America in the 1920s when anti-immigrant furor spawned violations of civil liberties and hatred for the unwelcome of that era.

“Americans are still accusing each other of not being American,” Yeleson writes, “and are even debating who should have the right to call themselves Americans at all. Both the pluralist left and ethno-nationalist right have urged their adherents to ‘take back our country.’ The left wants to ‘return’ to a country that doesn’t yet exist except in the minds of its artists and activists, and in the rhetoric, but not the actions, of its venerated Founders. The right wants to ‘return’ to a country which is ever receding from its view, and will never quite again exist in the way it wishes that it might. Between that ‘doesn’t yet’ and ‘never quite again’ lies a struggle over which side will get to impose its understanding of what ‘America’ should mean upon America.”

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.

So, while I can believe that the xenophobia is distressing and ultimately works against the nation’s true best interests, I can be surprised – and even wrong – not to see a recent action like that of Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a genuine conservative of the Mormon faith, as hopeful, compassionate, courageous and very American.

While the blowhard leading his party’s race for the White House was calling for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country and threatening to “shut down mosques,” earlier this month Senator Flake took his wife and sons to a prayer service at a mosque in the Phoenix area.

“It’s just the antithesis of all we stand for here in America, and the freedom of religion that we all embrace so much,” Flake said of Trump’s anti-Muslim proposal. “I don’t think that it reflects well on, certainly not on the Republican Party, it doesn’t reflect well on us as a country if this were to go.”

The senator talked softly and humbly about the religious persecution his faith has suffered and, at least for a moment, he renewed one cynic’s faith in the good that exists within all of us. One Muslim participant in the service said,”To have him here today was really just powerful, very powerful, especially someone from the Republican Party joining our congregation was just a phenomenal moment for us.”

I was wrong to not to look for and find the bright candle of hope and tolerance amid all the dark, harsh rhetoric. I am delighted to atone.

Happy New Year.

Catholic Church, Economy, Film, Journalism, Wall Street

Grab the Pitchforks

     “The CDO – collateralized debt obligation – was, in effect, a credit laundering service for the residents of Lower Middle Class America. For Wall Street it was a machine that turned lead into gold.”
― Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine


If you are able to sit through a screening of Adam McKay’s outstanding new film The Big Short and not feel, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott says, like “going out to the garage to look for a pitchfork” in order to slay the villains, there is a good chance you are: 1) a partner at Goldman Sachs, 2) a Republican U.S. Senator who has been voting to dismantle the weak financial reforms put in place after the Great Recession, or 3) clueless.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an eccentric fund manager who bet short in The Big Short
Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an eccentric fund manager who bets short in the movie “The Big Short”

The Big Short, a wildly inventive and superbly acted film that is both comedy and tragedy, joins Spotlight, a morality tale, also superbly acted, in exploring the corruption inherent in absolute power.

Both films show us again that Hollywood, the very essence of America’s unceasing appetite for excess, can – at least once in a while – bring about the self-reflection that is distressingly missing among those wrapped in privilege and pampered by power and money.

Recent History…Already Being Forgotten

McKay’s film, based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, focuses on the years immediately before the Great Economic Meltdown of 2008 when a handful of investment “outsiders” detected the inevitable bursting of the housing bubble that ultimately brought the U.S. and world economy to its knees. These outsiders, seeing the interconnecting disaster of sub-prime mortgages, mortgaged backed securities, CDO’s, credit default swaps and billions and billions of dollars, decided to beat the rigged “system” where big banks, credit rating agencies and government regulators quietly (and in some cases ignorantly) allowed massive financial fraud to occur.

These outside guys bet “short,” made billions off the fraudulent system and then watched in disbelief as the high rolling Wall Street banking crowd walked away from the wreckage almost entirely unscathed. Others, of course, were not so fortunate. As the film points out a cool $5 trillion dollars was lost when the housing market finally crashed and took with it pension funds, life savings, 401K investments, and the jobs, homes and futures of people who deserved much better.

In the dying days of the George W. Bush Administration the American taxpayer stepped in and bailed out the banks, with the notable exception of Lehman Brothers. The bankers then used vast amounts of the bailout funds to reward themselves with huge bonuses. As the Times reported in 2009, “At Goldman Sachs, for example, bonuses of more than $1 million went to 953 traders and bankers, and Morgan Stanley awarded seven-figure bonuses to 428 employees. Even at weaker banks like Citigroup and Bank of America, million-dollar awards were distributed to hundreds of workers.”

No harm, no foul, but in fact there were both. There has been virtually no prosecution of the clear fraud that occurred – only one relatively low level banker went to jail – while business quickly returned to normal in the canyons of finance in lower Manhattan. Oh, there were financial penalties for many of the guilty firms, but most were sufficiently small to qualify as “a cost of doing business,” even  when the business is built on fraud.

Actor Steve Carrell in "The Big Short"
Actor Steve Carell in “The Big Short”

In one of the most chilling scenes in a movie full of startling scenes we look on as one of the “short sellers,” played perfectly by Steve Carell, is quizzing one of the big bank managers about who he really represents as he packages and repackages the mostly worthless mortgages – he knows they are worthless – that he then peddles to his unsuspecting investors.

“Who do you work for,” Carell’s character demands to know. The bank guy smiles and says, “the investors.” That is, of course, the very definition of fraud.

Given our startling short attention span it is probably not surprising that most of the political and economic elite – Bernie Sanders excepted – have moved on from these events of less than a decade ago. Wall Street is busy devising new, esoteric investment devices, many barely regulated and even more minimally understood. Meanwhile, as though it all never happened, Hillary Clinton – and every Republican who can – goes to Wall Street for campaign cash, while promising to be tough on the same people who write the checks. The recently passed federal budget deal included, thanks to lobbying by the financial industry, a provision blocking the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) “from taking action on a long-discussed rule requiring publicly owned companies to disclose their political giving.”

Surely They Have Committed a Terrible Crime

As stunning as the lack of fraud prosecutions is the easy return to the status quo for Wall Street. One voice in the wilderness has been U.S. Federal Judge Jed Rakoff who has courageously and indigently refused to sanction several settlement agreements struck by the SEC with the bankers who caused the big collapse. Rakoff has written and spoken widely on the tepid regulatory and prosecutorial response to the Great Meltdown and singlehandedly has shamed regulators into insisting that some banks pay higher fines. But, the judge remains dismayed – as viewers of The Big Short certain will – that individuals who clearly committed fraud are still spending their weekends in the Hamptons.

Federal Judge Jed Rakoff
Federal Judge Jed Rakoff

“You have to be careful,” Rakoff told The Nation in 2014. “It’s easy to descend to scapegoating here. But to this very day, it concerns me that too many people in positions of authority do not realize how, even now, there are so many people suffering as a result of this financial crisis. There are millions of people out there who have lost their jobs, have no prospect of getting any good job, have exhausted their resources and are living lives of destitution and hopelessness. If there are people to blame, surely they have committed a terrible crime.”

Indeed. Go see The Big Short and next time you encounter an elected official who could have done more back then and could still do more now ask them if they are ready to explain the next big crash; the economic turmoil that surely will tumble forth again from the greed and corruption that is so deeply embedded in our financial system.

Spotlight on Corruption in the Catholic Church 

The other great Hollywood study in power and corruption this season is the real life journalism drama Spotlight,the story of the Boston Globe’s investigations that exposed the extent of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese. The film is exceptional on several levels. It is the best thing Hollywood has every produced showing how journalism really works, but it resists glorifying the scruffy reporters who miss stories right in front of them, descend into numerous rabbit holes, but still doggedly pursue corruption in high places, in this case all the way to the top – Cardinal Bernard Law.

Poster for "Spotlight"
Poster for “Spotlight”

Tom McCarthy’s movie has generated much Oscar buzz despite or perhaps because, as Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers noted,”there’s not an ounce of Hollywood bullshit in it. Our eyes and ears are the Spotlight team, played by exceptional actors who could not be better or more fully committed.”

At the heart of the church’s ugly and widespread scandal is the sobering fact that so many knew for so long what was happening and still did nothing. Lawyers, priests, bishops, well-heeled Catholics who enjoyed being on a first name basis with the Cardinal simply chose to look away. Few, very few, attempted to confront the power and influence of the Catholic Church, an institution as big in Boston as the Red Sox.

Ultimately, it took a Boston outsider, a Jewish editor in a Irish-Catholic town, Marty Baron, now the executive editor of the Washington Post, to zero in on the obvious issue: where does the real corruption come from? At one point Baron’s reporters are ready to publish a story on abuses by a few priests, but he says no. The story is bigger than just the individuals involved, he thinks. They need to go work some more. Ultimately, this is a story of institutional corruption that goes all the way to the top and the Spotlight team got the story.

A Failure of Accountability

Spotlight also draws into sharp focus the genuine threat to a democratic system from the continuing disappearance of the kind of investigative and accountability reporting that made the Globe’s critical stories possible. Critic David Sims correctly says by not cheerleading the journalist’s efforts, but “by quietly celebrating the work of The Globe’s reporters, McCarthy makes a far more consequential argument for the value of smart reporting and robust local newspapers.”

Still one wonders in the era of “click bait” journalism, shrinking newsrooms and a constant re-definition of news whether in the not-too-distant future big, powerful, corrupt institutions will have little if anything to fear from their local newspaper.

Cardinal Bernard Law
Cardinal Bernard Law

Not unlike the guilty in the financial meltdown featured in The Big Short, Bernard Law mostly walked away from his fraud, the 550 victims of abuse in the Boston archdiocese and the $85 million the church paid to settle abuse claims.

The retired Cardinal was forced to step down in Boston, but now lives comfortably in a modern apartment “in a very nice building,” near the Vatican in Rome. Reporters tried to talk to Law when Spotlight was released, but he was not available to answer questions. He, unlike the victims he failed, seems to have moved on. Law will have to wait for his ultimate accountability, as he must surely know.

Both these stellar films are classic tales of corruption, greed and the corrosive effects of money and power, but perhaps what they most share is the spotlight they turn on our culture’s frequent failure to hold those responsible in such egregious cases truly accountable.

Both these films stop short of preaching and seem instead to suggest that all of us have moral choices to make about the frauds and failures in a society that too often has trouble separating the important from the trivial. If we are content to shrug off the latest outrage then can we ever hope that politicians and church leaders, regulators and bond rating agencies will do a better job exercising their responsibility?

When fraud committing bankers are allowed to walk away from the financial wreckage they created, pockets bulging with seven figure bonuses and when one of the high priests of the Catholic Church seamlessly moves on from what may be the worst failure of accountability in the modern history of the institution one is left to wonder only one thing: how bad will it be next time?


Afghanistan, John Kennedy, Johnson, Journalism, Uncategorized

First Draft

wicker_s160x162My closest personal connection to the events of this day 50 years ago were the few hours I spent more than 30 years ago with the reporter who literally wrote the first draft of history.

Tom Wicker was a southern liberal, born and educated in North Carolina and passionate about civil rights and civil liberties. He also early on developed the ability to write eloquent, piercing, streamlined prose and he just happened to be assigned to the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Wicker was 37 that day, a hardworking, but little known backbencher in the New York Times Washington bureau. It fell to him to write a story about an event that is still making news.

Wicker called the copy desk at the Times from a downtown Dallas pay phone – some of you may remember pay phones – and dictated his most famous story from notes scribbled on a copy of the official White House schedule for that fateful Friday. Every reporter wonders if they’ll be up to the task of describing a tragedy and a few find out. His voice breaking with emotion, Wicker dictated his lead:

Dallas, Nov. 22–President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.

Only twelve words in the first paragraph of Wicker’s story. In fact four of the first five graphs of Wicker’s story was but a sentence long. Here they are:

He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.

Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy’s, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy’s death.

Mr. Johnson is 55 years old; Mr. Kennedy was 46.

Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, who once defected to the Soviet Union and who has been active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was arrested by the Dallas police. Tonight he was accused of the killing.

In those five, sparse paragraphs you really have the complete essence of what we remember from Dallas half a century ago. No word is out of place or unnecessary. With so much drama and tragedy and with so little time it would have been easy to overwrite, but Wicker didn’t succumb. That first draft of history from Dallas is simply a first-class piece of reporting created under the most awful and demanding circumstances.

Tom Wicker went on to become one of the most respected and important journalists of the post-war period. He covered presidents, and held them to a high standard, from Kennedy to Carter, wrote 20 books, went inside the prison at Attica, New York during a riot that eventually claimed 39 lives, and made Nixon’s “enemies list.” He never had a bigger story than his story 50 years ago today.

Wicker came to Idaho in the late 1970’s as a guest of the Idaho Press Club. I was an officer in the organization all those years ago, had a drink with him, talked shop, had him sign a couple of books and was too shy – or maybe too naive – to ask him about the Dallas story. Only later did I realize what a masterpiece he crafted on that awful day. With all we know about that day, with all the pictures and books, the conspiracy theories and the what-might-have-beens, Tom Wicker’s first draft remains hauntingly moving and overflowing with sadness. It is a timeless piece of writerly craftsmanship.

Wicker brilliantly chose to end his Dallas story with four paragraphs devoted to the speech John Kennedy was to have delivered, but never did on November 22:

The speech Mr. Kennedy never delivered at the Merchandise Mart luncheon contained a passage commenting on a recent preoccupation of his, and a subject of much interest in this city, where right-wing conservatism is the rule rather than the exception.

Voices are being heard in the land, he said, “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness.”

The speech went on: “At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.

“We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.”

Afghanistan, Journalism

There is No Herald Tribune Today

ihtSome years ago we visited the land of big lakes in northern Italy. I had heard that George Clooney – the actor George Clooney recently seen hugging Katie Holmes in London – owned a smashing villa on the shores of Lake Como where he entertained his Hollywood friends. For some reason, even though we were in the area for several days, George neglected to invite us over for dinner. Or even cocktails. I would have gladly brought a bottle of the local wine.

So, no George on the trip to Varenna and Bellagio – the one on the big lake in Italy, not on The Strip in Nevada. I remember lovely Varenna most fondly, a little town perched rather precariously on a steep hillside above the frightfully beautiful lake. The lovely woman who ran one of the town’s small restaurants announced the menu of the day by saying simply, “we have meat and we have fish.” Perfect.

The first morning in Varenna I set off to find the European vacationing American connection to the New World – the International Herald Tribune. A small newsstand near our hotel turned out to be promising even as I entered with a certain trepidation, Italian not being my first language. The woman behind the counter waited patiently while I looked over the newspapers – La Monde, Corriere della Sera,  the Wall Street Journal and the jackpot the IHT.

I pointed in my best Italian at the Herald Tribune, smiled and put down what I was certain was enough money to pay for the paper. The clerk returned my smile, handled me the paper and, thankfully, a little change. I went away happy, as Ernest Hemingway and John dos Passos must have in their day, with the paper that would catch me up on the pennant races, give me a flavor of news from Washington and tell me of a gallery opening in Milan.

I’ve bought the IHT in Paris and London, Milan and Buenos Aires. I had one of the few truly enjoyable airplane rides of my life when I boarded a flight in Europe and the smiling flight attendant handed me that morning’s Herald Tribune. How very civilized. How very international.

The paper has been through its good times and bad since James Gordon Bennett started the paper in Paris in 1887. In the 1920’s it became the tip sheet for ex-patriots living in Europe and has always offered a take on the world as seen through the distinct lens of Americans living in Paris. Simon Tisdall, writing in The Guardian, remembers that the paper – then called the Herald – figured in Hemingway’s great novel The Sun Also Rises.  The “first thing the autobiographical hero, Jake Barnes, does on his return to France from Spain is buy the Herald,” Tisdall wrote, “and read it in a cafe with a glass of wine.” How civilized.

In their infinite wisdom the powers to be at the New York Times – they own what until today was the IHT – have re-christened the old girl The International New York Times. The Times brass says it is furthering  “the global brand” for the mother ship and I suspect there is marketing wisdom, if not great respect for tradition, in the new name. I’ll just need to get used to it, I guess, as I’ve gotten use to smaller and smaller print papers and shorter and shorter stories. This “old school” newspaper lover is trying to adapt to what the newspaper folks call their “digital platforms.” Give me ink on newsprint, thank you.

Maybe the best thing about the transition to the new name is that there has been respect for the features and style of the old IHT, including the columns that the great Art Buchwald wrote for many years. If you’re too young to know who Art Buchwald was then let’s just say I’m sorry for you. There is no one writing today quite like Buchwald. In April of 1956 he wrote his IHT column about covering the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, he of Monaco not the Washington volcano. Think of that celebrity wedding as on par with Kate Middleton and that British bloke she married a while back.

After reporting that his seat at the ceremony, courtesy of the bride’s family due to his feud with the Prince’s family, offered the choice of sitting behind a post or behind ex-King Farouk, Art decided he could see more from behind the post.

Buchwald wrote: “At the palace reception, after the wedding, the bridegroom’s relatives and the bride’s relatives kept separated and eyed each other suspiciously. Most of us from the Kelly side, as we ate foie gras, lobster, chicken and wedding cake, decided our Grace was too good for their Rainier, and she was a girl in a million. We decided that America had given Europe many things in the past, but nothing comparable to this beautiful princess.”

Buchwald might have actually been at the Kelly-Rainier wedding since he knew everybody, but the beauty of his very funny pieces was it was often impossible to separate his fanciful imaginings from his eyewitness reporting. Most of the time the fanciful won out. Buchwald once wrote, as NPR reported, “you know, there are only three things worth seeing in the Louvre museum. That’s the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. And the rest of the stuff is all junk.”

Art Buchwald was a treasure and the IHT was treasured because of his wonderful prose. He was also right about “our Grace.” She was a girl in a million…but that is another piece.

On my second morning in Varenna, still wondering why the less-than-gracious Clooney hadn’t called, I wandered down to my newsstand and after a few grunts in English and gestures in Italian I bought my Herald Tribune. Perfect. On the third morning, I repeated the ritual looking over the offerings and trying to spot the Herald Tribune among all the papers whose names I couldn’t pronounce let alone read. Finally after some moments of unsuccessful searching the woman behind the counter, who had always responded immediately to my graceless pointing, quietly said in perfect English – “There is no Herald Tribune today. Sorry.”

I smiled my Ugly American smile. She spoke English all along and I can almost hear her saying the same words this morning – There is no Herald Tribune today. I hope the International New York Times can somehow carry on the tradition. I’ll miss the quirky and beautiful International Herald Tribune, just as I miss the quirky Art Buchwald and the beautiful Grace.


Afghanistan, Journalism

Newspapers to Dodos


On Tuesday morning June, 23 1942 the Portland Oregonian newspaper reported on the details of a Japanese naval attack on the United States mainland. The first such attack on the continental U.S.

Late in the evening of June 21 – roughly 24 hours before the Oregonian published details of the incident – the Japanese submarine I-25 surfaced in the midst of a group of fishing trawlers near the mouth of the Columbia River offshore of Astoria. The sub’s captain unlimbered his deck gun and reportedly lobbed a handful of shells – the paper reported 9, other accounts say 17 – toward the shore and a coastal battery at nearby Fort Stevens. The submariners weren’t aiming at anything in particular, just attempting to create a little chaos. One shell reportedly destroyed a strategic target – a backstop at a local baseball diamond. While no one was injured the shelling indicated that World War II had come calling to the Pacific Northwest. It was big news and the diligent Oregonian played the story big on Page One with an Astoria dateline.

Had the new distribution schedule for Portland’s venerable daily paper been in effect back in 1942 the newsprint version of that Japanese attack story wouldn’t have been on front steps in Portland until Wednesday morning – 48 hours after the fact. As part of a comprehensive move away from print and to digital, the Oregonian, published in Portland as a daily since the Civil War, will soon offer home delivery only on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The paper will print every day – so it’s said – just not make home deliver available every day.

The paper also announced additional staff reductions on Friday, including apparently a sportswriter who was summoned home from covering the College World Series in Omaha where the Oregon State Beavers were competing. Reporter John Hunt tweeted “laid off and leaving Omaha.” Well, at least the baseball reporting Hunt knows what it’s like for a ballplayer to get an unconditional release.

The current owners of the Oregonian have adopted similar strategies for papers in New Orleans and Cleveland, so for anyone reading the ink blotches the further reductions in journalistic talent and the continual shrinking of news content shouldn’t have really been a huge surprise. I have no doubt that the economics of journalism have turned brutal and that new approaches are required. Newspaper circulation continues to decline – the Oregonian’s off about one-third in the last ten years – and ad revenue continues to hemorrhage. A newspaper lover is left to conclude that, like Detroit automakers of the past or health insurance company executives of the present, most of the folks running newspapers are decidedly ill-equipped to re-invent their products. Getting better almost never means getting smaller and harder to find.

Still, when a old, respected institution takes a turn for the worse it’s a sad day and, more importantly, cause for larger reflection on what it means to our culture.

When I first moved to Idaho in 1975 (I know, ancient history) you could buy the Oregonian in street boxes or at Hannifin’s Cigar Store downtown. I often bought the daily and Sunday editions to follow the paper’s generally solid coverage of regional issues and politics. Being able to by a neighboring state’s big city daily ceased a long time ago and the paper’s latest retrenchment means you soon won’t be able to get a copy at home every day. This is progress?

Oregonian’s announcement, complete with the kind of “this is good news, really” spin that most ink stained wretches disdain, is just the latest sad chapter in the slow, steady and apparently unstoppable demise of the great American newspaper. The march to the Internet with all its related impact on sense of community, real and serious journalism, politics and advertising (just to name a few) does appear inevitable, but just for a moment I’m going to bemoan the cost to a society that seems ever more fragmented with more and more of our citizens more than ever disconnected from one another.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow worries – I do, too – that “America is quickly dividing itself into two separate nations, regional enclaves of rigid politics, as the idea of common national priorities fades further into a distant past.” But how can we possibly have a common, shared idea of national priorities (or even citywide or regional priorities) when one of the great levelers of our society – carefully collected, written and edited information on our culture and politics, in other words serious journalism – is going the way of the dodo? In the new digital world who will cover City Hall and who will care about the school board? Who will help us determine our priorities or at least suggest that we should have some?

I’m not so nostalgic for the “good old days” of newspapers to believe that community or regional papers have ever been remotely close to perfect. They haven’t. Like all of us newspaper publishers, editors, columnists and reporters can be shortsighted, ill-informed, petty and even biased. I know because I was one and have known plenty of others. Franklin Roosevelt spent a good part of his presidency worrying about what arrogant publishers like William Randolph Hearst would write about him and well he should have. That’s called a democracy.

Still, as an old journalism prof once told us, in most American communities only a handful of people get up and go to work every day thinking about what information the citizens of their community need to know and have the skills and wherewithal to go collect and distribute that information. Some towns, fewer and fewer sadly, are lucky enough to have a publisher or owner who is willing to go out on a limb and set an agenda for change and progress in that town. Newspapers can, at their best, do more than entertain or inform. They can lead and force political and business interests to confront what is needed or needs to change. If not a perfect calling journalism is, and newspapers in particular are, can be a noble calling.

In a reality stinking of newsprint and irony the Mayor of Portland, Charlie Hales, has been a daily punching bag for the Oregonian recently over a series of controversies as City Hall that the paper has highlighted in considerable detail. Friday in the print issue of the paper Hales lamented the news of more layoffs and less visibility for the very institution that has been jabbing him. Then he contributed fifty bucks from his own pocket to the bar tab for Oregonian staffers drowning in the swamp of an industry that is attempting to recreate itself by generally becoming less-and-less vital to the community it seeks to serve.

I’m charging up the iPhone and downloading another less-than-adequate news website app. Such is the way of the world. But as another newspaper starts to slip from print and relevance to digital and something else, I may be the last guy clinging to newsprint. It’s true, as some analogize for newspapers, that we don’t need buggy whips or vacuum tubes any longer, but neither of those obsolete features of a bygone era helped to define community, touch a soul or cover a ballgame. Somethings old are still just better. Life will undoubtedly go on without the kind of journalism and sense of community that the Oregonian, the Plain Dealer, the Times-Picayune, the Seattle P-I, the Rocky Mountain News and a hundred other papers once provided, but will life in those communities be as good?

Put me down as highly skeptical as to whether such transitions are good for the future of the Republic. Ol’ Tom Jefferson both used and despised the press, but that indispensable founder also knew the essential role of the press was fundamental to the success of our noisy, often divisive democracy. “The press [is] the only tocsin of a nation. [When it] is completely silenced… all means of a general effort [are] taken away.”

Let’s hope that the continued migration of a once great industry to the uncertainty of the digital space, with almost certainly fewer reporters, fewer resources and a narrower focus, can make websites of papers like the Oregonian the “tocsin” of a 21st Century America. I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to happen.


Afghanistan, Baseball, Journalism, Politics

Dishing it Out

An old journalist friend of mine is fond of saying that “the press can dish it out, but we don’t have to take it.” I thought of that great one liner as what might have been – should have been – a serious discussion of federal budget policy over the last week turned into a junior high school style story about Bob Woodward, the ultimate Washington insider, being “threatened” by a mild-mannered White House economic adviser.

By now, unless you don’t follow what passes for serious news these days, you know that Woodward, the more famous half of Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame, has been all over the tube expressing dismay at White House staffer Gene Sperling for suggesting that the famous reporter might “regret” pushing his version of a story on the origins of the dubious sequester idea.

As a one-time reporter who was “threatened” over the years by tougher guys than Gene Sperling, I offer a couple of observations on the Washington culture of political reporting, at least as practiced by Woodward.

First, it’s impossible to believe that Bob Woodward hasn’t been roughed up in private before by a White House official who took umbrage at something he was about to write or had written. This is the guy after all who helped unravel the Watergate affair during the Nixon Administration; a White House staffed by a bunch of guys who maintained an “enemies list” that included at least two serious and often critical reporters – Daniel Schorr and Mary McGrory – not to mention Paul Newman and the president of the National Education Association. If Woodward can be “threatened” by an email from a presidential economic adviser – an email where Sperling apologized for losing his temper in an earlier phone call –  he either has been living a charmed existence as the only reporter on the planet never cussed out by a source or he truly has a journalist glass jaw that can’t absorb even the lightest tap. I suspect his motives for making a big issue of this little matter are more complex.

Second, this entire tempest in a thimble casts truly unfavorable light on what many serious people have know for a long time to be Woodward’s dubious methods to gain and hold access to the powerful in Washington, D.C. and, of course, those who hope to be powerful. The dirty little secret of politics and journalism is that reporters and political people engage daily in a carefully choreographed kabuki dance that involves the constant trading of little favors – information, access, quiet confirmation, invitations, tips – that ultimately works to the benefit of those doing the reporting and those in constant need of exposure. Woodward has developed this dance into a lucrative publishing and speaking career that mostly involves repeating the completely predictable wisdom of those willing to provide him access for what he then usually reports as the exclusive inside story of big decisions.

Writing in The New Yorker John Cassidy nailed it when he said Woodward’s real beat has become the Washington establishment; the Georgetown, Wolf Trap, Charlie Palmer Steak, K-Street crowd that lives and breathes the kind of gossip the Washington Post Style section exists to deliver.

“The real rap on Woodward isn’t that he makes things up,” Cassidy writes (and Woodward has been accused of that). “It’s that he takes what powerful people tell him at face value; that his accounts are shaped by who cooperates with him and who doesn’t; and that they lack context, critical awareness, and, ultimately, historic meaning.”

Or as Joan Didion wrote in a critical assessment of Woodward’s work in 1996 his books involve “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” The reality Didion describes is at the core of much of the alternative reality, fact-free debate that permeates American politics today. Woodward’s books top the best seller list – therefore, the logic goes, they are important – but when the real history of the Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations is written the Woodward tomes, free of footnotes, devoid of real analysis and based mostly on comments from unnamed sources, won’t be cited for the simple reason they can’t be trusted. After all Woodward hasn’t really been writing a first draft of history, but a thinly sourced account of people in power who provide access that they hope will, in the short term at least, cast them in the best possible light. What Woodward does is really not journalism, but more like the first draft of self-serving conventional wisdom from the people in the Washington establishment who will talk with him.

No one can take away from Bob Woodward’s (and Carl Bernstein’s) legacy as the shoe leather reporters who uncovered one of the great scandals in American political history and brought down a president. But the young Bob Woodward, who did old fashioned, grind it out police reporting to illuminate Watergate, has become at age 70 as much a fixture of the Washington establishment as the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel. His professional oxygen, just as with the people who cultivate his approving coverage, is publicity and acceptance. Without it he’s just another D.C. reporter in a wrinkled trench coat and not a real player, and to be somebody in D.C. you simply must be a player. Woodward has chosen to chronicle the conventional and the predictable and that will eventually be the way he is remembered – as the court reporter of the Washington establishment.

You could take Bob Woodward more seriously if he both dished it out and took it. Go back, if you can stand it, and read his account of George W. Bush’s decisions to go into Iraq and the subsequent make-up books critical of Bush. The latest Woodward non-scandal, after all those breathless books, is proof that he  doesn’t really either dish it out or take it very well. How Washington of him.


Cenarrusa, Idaho, Journalism, Medicaid

Sorry, Wrong Number…Many, Many Times

My Dad used to smile when telling his story about the young fellow who had just seen the classic 1962 World War II movie – The Longest Day – about the D-Day invasion of France in 1944 and was, in turn, telling his own father about the film.

The old man listens patiently and then off-handedly tells his son, “I haven’t seen the movie, but I was there for the play.”

In the same spirit as that old story, I have not seen the 1948 Barbara Stanwyck/Burt Lancaster movie – Sorry, Wrong Number – but I have definitely been living the play. My play is called: Trying to Reach Health and Welfare? Sorry, Wrong Number.

There is nothing special or particularly unique about my telephone number except that the first seven digits of my number match the first seven digits of a toll-free, helpline number – Medicaid Automated Customer Service – managed by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. I know this rather obscure fact because I have been averaging two or three “Health and Welfare calls” every weekday for the last two years or so. I long ago lost track of the number of calls, but it beyond hundreds and into the thousands. Thankfully, callers with questions about their Medicaid benefits must assume no state employee works on the weekend, so my phone tends to get the weekend off, as well.

Months ago I thought I had identified the answer to all these wayward calls, but alas it was a fix without a cure. On the state government website that promotes the toll-free number the “1” before the toll-free number had been, inexplicably, left off the rest of the number. So an unsuspecting caller, say from Weiser or Bonners Ferry – I’ve had calls from every corner of the big state of Idaho – would just dial the number shown (minus the “1”) and get me. I called a helpful state agent and asked if maybe, just maybe they could add the “1” and solve the problem of the call from Mrs. Jones from Caldwell, she needs to talk about her niece’s Medicaid needs, ending up on my voice mail. Problem solved, right? Not so fast. The wrong numbers declined a bit, but did not end. I have to assume regular callers to the toll-free number have made a note of the non-“1” toll-free number and were still calling, blissfully unaware that some public affairs consultant and part-time blogger was fielding their calls. The voice mail messages on my phone seemed to continue unabated.

So, believing that information is power, I changed the greeting on my phone. No longer was it, “You have reached me and I can’t take your call right now…” My message became much more Medicaid-centric: “If you are trying to reach the Department of Health and Welfare, you haven’t…hang up and dial a “1” before you call this number.” That’ll fix it, I happily proclaimed, as I began answering questions from people who were really trying to reach me and wondering why I had a Health and Welfare related message on my phone. You can inform some of the people some of the time, but…the calls continue.

I have genuine sympathy for my callers. They need answers to real questions. Judging by some of the hundreds of messages that have been left on my voice mail, many of the callers are confused and uncertain about benefits and responsibilities. If you have ever tried dialing into a government agency you know what an intimidating experience it can be. Imagine getting the wrong number and ending up in some civilian’s voice mail, while you worry and wait for a call back. It would be easy to conclude that government just doesn’t work.

My standard procedure now is to try and intercept as many of these calls as I can and re-direct them to a number that begins with that essential “1,” but it is not always possible. And, while I admit that I’ve been annoyed and frustrated by the calls that I get, wasted effort that doesn’t do the callers any good, the “sorry, wrong number” play I’ve been living has given me an entirely new appreciation of what one little glitch in a vast government program can do to create problems and frustrate users.

As Idaho contemplates a major expansion of Medicaid services under the Affordable Care Act – one estimate holds that 100,000 more Idahoans could be covered – and the state’s for profit Medicaid contractor continues to try to make the system work, here’s hoping, and not just for my sake, that they attend to all the details, small and large, involved in an expansion.

And, just for the record, I have equal amounts of sympathy for the state workers who, without much fanfare or appreciation, labor to make an essential program of our society work for people who really need the help. This is a vastly complicated government program, wrapped in layers of regulation and requiring immense levels of accountability. One little digit – that pesky “1” – can frustrate even the most essential government program.

And, yes, I could get a new phone number, but have ruled that out. If Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster can handle a wayward call, so can I. But, for future reference, do remember that “1” in front of a toll-free number. Given the vast proliferation of telephones these days, it is a given that someone has the number that is toll-free with a “1” and just some schmuck’s voice mail without.