Unclaimed Territory - by Glenn Greenwald


I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

More on Mark Halperin's sad little crusade for right-wing blessings

I honestly didn't think it was possible for Mark Halperin's behavior to become any more craven or cringe-inducing than it was during his three-hour submissive inquisition with Hugh Hewitt last night. But I was so wrong.

Today, Halperin is very upset -- very emotionally distraught -- because Hewitt remarked both during and after the interview that he thinks Halperin is "very liberal." Halperin spent three hours in the interview desperately trying to convince Hewitt that he is on Hewitt's side, but that wasn't enough to win Hewitt's approval. Nonetheless, Halperin is willing -- actually, quite eager -- to go to still greater and more horrifying lengths to obtain Hewitt's blessing.

First, Halperin e-mailed Hewitt today to again try to persuade Hewitt that he is not a liberal. Hewitt didn't print the e-mail but wrote about it on his blog, and claimed that Halperin "asked that [Hewitt] apologize for the characterization and remove the description or post" in which he called Halperin "liberal." Hewitt also quoted Halperin's e-mail by writing that Halperin "considers the description a 'a serious affront to [his] professional integrity,' and requested that I "note [Halperin's] strong objection to [my] characterization." Unconvinced by Halperin's pleas both in the interview and again today that he is not a liberal, Hewitt rubbed the comment in Halperin's face again: "Not only do I think that Mark Halperin is very liberal, I don't think it is possible to conclude anything else."

In response, Halperin returned to Hewitt yet again, this time to request that Hewitt allow him to post a statement on Hewitt's blog, in which Halperin expressed how hurt he was that even after he agreed with almost everything Hewitt said during the interview, Hewitt is still calling him a liberal:

Dear Hugh,

I really enjoyed our radio talk and I appreciated the opportunity to appear with someone I respect so much.

I have gotten a lot of positive feedback, mostly from conservatives, including this reaction on Powerlineblog.com.

But, as I have said to you privately, I am beginning to think you are intellectually dishonest on a few points. It seems strange that someone who seems to be trying to bring truth to people would do such a thing, but I can't really explain your behavior any other way. As I said on the show, you and I agree on almost everything we discussed. On most of the points of disagreement, I respect your position and accept our disagreement. . . .

As for your repeated insistence that you could reach no other conclusion but one that says that I am "very liberal," I'm sure if you think it over, you will reconsider. You went to a liberal school and you appear to not be liberal. And I am sure you have heard of people having different political views than their parents.

Again, I respect much about you, but I am mystified by your determination to lump me in with others. Acknowledging the liberal bias that exists in the Old Media -- as John Harris and I do in The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 doesn't necessarily prove that I am not liberal, but I would think you would be open to giving me the benefit of the doubt, when you have no actual evidence to the contrary.

The letter ended: "And I'm still waiting for the offer to appear again on the show. Thanks so much, Mark Halperin." Halperin just can't understand why it is that after he went to such lengths to be such a good boy -- the book, the interview, the confessions all over the place, the Drudge worship -- he is still being punished. He is clearly hurt and bewildered by this. He thought he would be welcomed by them and yet they are still hitting him. Why?

In response to all of that, Hewitt kicked some more dirt in Halperin's face by escalating the mockery: "the condescension in [Halperin's] offense taking is startling. This is the MSM disease, one associated with all aristocracies --that it will not endure criticism or questioning, is easily offended, and quick to cast aspersions on opponents." For good measure, Hewitt added: "His anger with me comes from my opinion that he is very liberal. I don't think it is easy to come to any other conclusion with the evidence at hand." I'm sure Halperin is working on his apology now.

I don't think I've seen self-debasement like this outside of Arlen Specter. Hewitt rudely badgered a pitifully meek and agreeable Halperin for three straight hours in the interview, including subjecting him to a rather disgusting line of McCarthyite inquiry about whether Halperin's "famous radical left wing father [ACLU Director and Nixon enemy Mort Halperin] . . . shaped Mark Halperin’s political values." Hewitt demanded to know:

But given that you come from a liberal, or in Ponte’s view, radical family, doesn’t the American people (sic) have a right to know whether or not you share, for example, those opinions that permeated your household growing up before they absorb your analysis and your protestations of neutrality?

Still, Halperin couldn't praise Hewitt enough. And in his e-mail today, he tried to re-assure Hewitt specifically: "I am sure you have heard of people having different political views than their parents."

Apparently, the most traumatizing and horrifying thing that could ever happen to Mark Halperin is for Bush followers like Hugh Hewitt to think he's a liberal. It is self-evidently very important to Halperin -- on an emotional and deeply personal level -- to demonstrate that he is one of them, or at least not one of those liberals. To achieve this, he made an extraordinary vow to Sean Hannity when trying to win Hannity's approval, in which he pledged that the media would spend the next two weeks compensating for all of their anti-conservative sins over the past decades, and now he is engaged in a truly debased and highly emotional crusade to obtain Hugh Hewitt's affection.

I really question whether someone who has obviously made it such a high priority to obtain a very personal form of right-wing absolution can possibly exercise appropriate news judgment. If Halperin is willing to expend this much time and energy and shower Hewitt with such gushing praise -- and if he's willing to make such a public spectacle of himself when doing so -- all in order to convince Hewitt that he isn't liberal, won't that goal rather obviously affect Halperin's news coverage? Isn't there something extremely unseemly about the political director of ABC News engaging in such an intense campaign to win the approval of one of the most blindly partisan, extremist Bush followers in the country?

Mark Halperin is really showing his true colors here, and it is extremely unpleasant to watch. Part of me really hopes -- just for the sake of Halperin's dignity -- that he sends no more pleas to Hewitt and that he stops seeking benedictions from the likes of Sean Hannity. But ultimately, it's necessary to put one's personal concern for Halperin to the side because this exercise is truly revealing. The need of journalists to please right-wing extremists and convince them that they are good and fair is very pervasive among the national media, and Halperin's highly emotional interaction with Hewitt is placing a high-powered microscope on how that dynamic works. As ugly as it is, it is highly instructive.

Mark Halperin and Hugh Hewitt -- all you need to know about the national media

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

One could argue that Mark Halperin, Political Director of ABC News (and author of a new book with John Harris, The Washington Post's National Political Editor) is the living, breathing embodiment of the "mainstream media." In order to promote his book, he went on Hugh Hewitt's radio show for a three hour interview last night, and Hewitt spent the entire time trying to attack Halperin as one of the symbols of overwhelming, systemic left-wing bias in the "mainstream media."

The ironic problem for Hewitt? Halperin -- like so many of the most entrenched establishment journalists -- not only agrees with Hewitt about virtually everything, but was literally desperate to convince Hewitt that this is the case, that he is on Hewitt's side. In front of an approving Sean Hannity, Halperin last week announced his self-debasing quest "to prove to conservatives that we understand their grievances." He escalated that crusade by many levels with yesterday's interview.

So many "journalists" like Halperin seemingly have as their principal objective convincing right-wing extremists like Hewitt that they are good boys and girls and do their job in a way that pleases the Right. The effort is always tinged with self-flagellating confessions that they have not been Good enough -- they have been trying to be more fair to the Right, they insist, but they still need to do much better -- but these assurances are accompanied by pleas for the Right to recognize that they are not as bad as most of the other journalists.

Just survey some of these grotesquely obsequious pleas from Halperin for Hewitt to recognize Halperin as a good boy, along with Halperin's willingness to endorse the most inane right-wing myths in order to win that approval. This really is a vivid view into how the core of the national media thinks and behaves:

First, Halperin pleas with Hewitt to recognize that Halperin shares his core world view, and to convince him, Halperin couples that with some drooling praise for Hewitt:

HH: And so why is she…I think this is going back to media again. I think my giant unified field theory here is that liberal media has destroyed the necessity of the left having to debate, having to reach a message across, because you guys have always papered over the weakness of their arguments. And so, in essence, by creating an echo chamber, and by allowing them to get away with saying silly things, you’ve destroyed the incentive to be smart and facile.

MH: I agree.

HH: (laughing) That’s too easy. I’ve stormed the castle.

MH: Hugh, you and I have agreed on a lot during this show. For the purpose of jacking up your already sky-high ratings, occasionally you pick fights with me where they don’t exist. But you and I agree about that basic premise. I’m keeping notes here on the things we disagree on.

Halperin, on the goodness and innocence of the victimized Karl Rove and the terribly unfair media depictions of him:

MH: Let me say one thing we say in the book about Karl Rove, who I respect and enjoy…I enjoy his company. If you look at the allegations of Karl Rove that have been propagated in Texas and in Washington by the media, the liberal media, and by Democrats, and you look at the allegations, there’s…except for the useful indiscretions to which Karl has admitted, there is no evidence for the allegations against him.

And the ability of the press to paint him as this evil guy, and say that accounts for his success, is fundamental and outrageous. Maybe he did the things he’s accused of, but to have this guy’s image portrayed and defined by things that are accusations that are unproven, we say in the book is really outrageous.

Halperin, trying to convince Hewitt that he is not like those horrible biased lefties who dominate the media, because at least Halperin confesses the sickness:

MH: If, though, you want to in a casual introduction, lump me in with people in my business who are liberally biased and don’t seem to care about it, I think that’s doing your listeners a disservice. They should read the book and what we say in The Way To Win about how the media’s been liberally biased in presidential campaign coverage, what needs to be done to try to fix it, and why the current system may not be any better with new media. But to lump me in with everybody else, I think, is doing people a disservice, because most of my colleagues, as you know, are in denial about it, or blind to it.

Halperin, begging Hewitt to recognize that his new book is appropriately reverent of the Leader:

MH: Number two, you keep saying how much nice stuff there is in the book about Bill Clinton. The book writes at length, in fact, half the book is about Karl Rove and George W. Bush, and I would believe is one of the most favorable, in terms of judging them, and not treating them as evil, things that have been written about Karl Rove since he came to Washington.

Halperin, desperately displaying his contempt for the handful of White House journalists who are not sufficiently reverent of the Leader, including his own colleague:

HH: Mark Halperin, is David Gregory [Halperin's colleague at ABC News] a buffoon?

MH: Define buffoon for me.

HH: Oh, just use your own operational definition.

MH: I wouldn’t use that word, no.

HH: Is he a journalist?

MH: He’s definitely a journalist.

HH: Does he make you proud of being a journalist?

MH: I think that the relationship between the Bush White House Press Corps, and the Bush White House press staff has not produced a pretty picture for either side. . . .

HH: Does Helen Thomas make you proud?

MH: She…the questions she asks, that represent a point of view, have no place in the briefing room.

In contrast to the undignified and biased Helen Thomas and David Gregory, here is Halperin paying homage to the objective, unbiased journalist Brit Hume (while obediently adopting Hewitt's idiotic nomenclature of the "center-right" versus "the left"):

HH: Do you watch Special Report?

MH: With Brit Hume?

HH: Yeah.

MH: I do.

HH: Do you admire it?

MH: Do I admire it? I like it. It’s an entertaining program.

HH: Why do you think Brit Hume has the trust of the center-right?

MH: Because the center-right is looking for voices who are experienced journalists, who aren’t liberally biased. And Brit is not liberally biased.

HH: Coming right back. That’s exactly right.

Halperin eagerly and self-consciously touting his Red America roots to a disbelieving Hewitt:

HH: And so, I want you to finish off by telling me about your project…Nick Lemann’s got a project where he’s going to add another extra year of power skills, and it’s not going to work, because everyone who enters the place is a hard lefty. You’ve got an ambition, but you’re not transparent. The media keeps hiring from the Harvard Crimson. It keeps self-perpetuating from self-elected elites.

MH: Can I introduce you to my interns from Bob Jones University?

HH: I’m glad that you have one. They must feel like a stranger in a strange world.

MH: No, because within my unit, we’re all about being fair and non-partisan [ed: like Brit Hume].

Halperin, like a battered wife, blaming himself and his colleagues -- and defending Bush and Rove -- for the endless, vicious attacks from the Bush administration on journalists:

The founders saw the importance of a free press. What this country has now is a press that no one likes, and which is weak. And the reason George Bush and Karl Rove found the way to win in dealing with the old media, which Richard Nixon dreamed of doing, but couldn’t do, is because they recognized that we were seen as a spoiled, corrupt, biased, special interest that wasn’t interested in the public interest, and they’ve taken advantage of that.

I deplore it, or I decry it in the sense that I wish everybody was helping build up the media, but I don’t blame them from a tactical point of view, because their supporters do not trust the old media, and do not like the way we behave in the briefing room, the output that we produce, and conservatives are trying to deal with an America more on their terms. And I understand why they’re doing that, and like I said, we are responsible for that, not George Bush and Karl Rove, not Richard Nixon.

Halperin, explaining how Bill Clinton destroyed the dignity of Washington and drowned politics in tactics of personal destruction -- trends which Bush has heroically reversed (seriously):

HH: Did [Bill Clinton] radicalize politics by inventing the politics of personal destruction?

MH: I think what Bill Clinton did, we say in The Way To Win is, he helped usher in this freak show. The politics of personal destruction was part of it, but it was also making the office of the presidency undignified, wearing shorts into the Oval Office, answering boxers and briefs…

HH: That was hardly how he made the Oval Office undignified.

MH: Well, there’s that, too. But we’re talking about early on in his presidency, with the birth of the freak show, in the early 90’s when he got elected. Obviously, he did more to further this along later on through his personal conduct. But the ability of this president, and certainly this first lady, as we write in the book, to restore some of the dignity, personal dignity to the office, has been quite an achievement in the wake of what Bill Clinton did, given the freak show environment in which we live.

Halperin, teaching us who the serious and unserious people are in Washington:

HH: Do you see any evidence of superior brainpower in places like Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha, as opposed to Rove and Cheney?

MH: Those specifically?

HH: Are they on the same playing field?

MH: You want me to compare those specific four people?

HH: Yeah, because you’ve got two leaders…

MH: If I were running for president, I’d hire Rove and Cheney over Pelosi and Murtha.

It goes on and on like that. I had other selected excerpts but reading these engenders a strong urge (one could even say a need) to stop reading them. The intrepid Halperin, for instance, bravely refused to take a position one way or the other on whether The New York Times should have published the story of the President's warrantless NSA eavesdropping program ("In this case, without knowing the arguments that were made, it’s hard to know which it is") and repeatedly affirms the right-wing view that the media is hopelessly stacked against them ("for forty years, conservatives have rightly felt that we did not give them a fair shake").

In sum, Halperin, in one interview, illustrated the crux of the sickness of the national media -- every tenet of right-wing mythology, embraced. Every opportunity to debase himself before Hewitt in the hope of getting a little head pat as one of the Good Boys, seized. Every left-wing bogeyman, bashed. Every right-wing hero, glorified and praised and treated with intense reverence.

Poor Hewitt and his right-wing comrades. How do you maintain your sense of victimhood and persecution at the hands of the "MSM" when the Mavens and Lords of the "MSM" do nothing but crawl around, agree with you and embrace your entire world-view?

UPDATE: More rave reviews for Halperin from the unbiased, honorable, serious precincts -- this one from the upstanding, objective John Hinderaker:

It was one of the most remarkable interviews I've listened to in a long time. Remarkable, in part, because Halperin came across very well. . . . That kind of honesty deserves to be applauded. As I say, I found Halperin likable and intend to buy his book. Check out the entire interview; it is fascinating and intelligent.

If Halperin is pleasing the John Hinderakers of the world this way, that is as good an indication as one can imagine of what Halperin is -- and, by extension, what most national journalists have become.

UPDATE II: None of this is to deny that many reporters and journalists are more politically liberal than conservative (primarily on social issues). But on the critical, predominant issues -- and especially with regard to the framework for how our national political debates are viewed -- national journalism, as Halperin illustrates, has largely come to embrace the right-wing perspective.

In an excellent comment, Inactivist's Mona outlines some of the ways in which that is true. Two other comments -- from Paul Dirks and Paul Rosenberg -- also add some important observations (without my necessarily agreeing with all of the assertions in any of these comments).

UPDATE III: As Digby documented at the time, "liberal MSM journalist" Joe Klein of Time Magazine also went on Hugh Hewitt's show and did exactly what Halperin did -- pleaded with Hewitt to recognize Klein as one of the Good Journalists by lavishly praising the President and the full pantheon of right-wing icons (proclaiming that Bush is an "honorable man" and "I really like the guy"; proudly showing off the affectionate nickname the President gave him; touting his deep friendship with Bill Bennett; and best of all: "I've always really respected Newt, because he's a man of honor, and he is a real policy wonk, and he really cares about stuff").

By sad and glaring contrast, Klein also sought Hewitt's approval by devoting equal attention and energy mimicking right-wing demonization efforts to bash "the Left" (Democrats have a "black soul" that is anti-military -- Democrats are so "lost" and "off the cliff" that it makes Klein want to "cry" -- Democrats are now "harsh and stupid" -- insisting that he doesn't want to be called a "liberal" any longer because he doesn't want to be associated with people like Al Gore and Michael Moore (Bill Bennett is great, though, and he loves George Bush)).

These are the biased leftist titans of the tyrannical, liberal MSM who persecute the Hugh Hewitts and George Bushs of the world (from their kneeling position, while dutifully reciting, and nodding in desperate agreement with, every right-wing talking point).

UPDATE IV: Eric Boehlert comprehensively documents the deep (and by now depressingly familiar) dishonest tactics which drive virtually every page of Halperin and Harris' new book.

UPDATE V: This sad Halperin drama continues, and worsens, here.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Jim Webb, Marty Peretz and our "serious" national security leaders

(updated below)

One of the most harmful flaws in our political system is the irrelevance of rightness and wrongness. While George Allen was "arguing" in favor of the invasion of Iraq by spewing all of the standard, trite, adolescent GOP talking points about the Threat Posed by Saddam-- almost all of which turned out to be completely false -- Jim Webb, in September, 2002, wrote an Op-Ed in The Washington Post vehemently arguing against the invasion of Iraq. It is striking just how right Webb was about virtually everything he said, and it is worth quoting at length to underscore what "serious, responsible national security" viewpoints actually look like:

Meanwhile, American military leaders have been trying to bring a wider focus to the band of neoconservatives that began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center. Despite the efforts of the neocons to shut them up or to dismiss them as unqualified to deal in policy issues, these leaders, both active-duty and retired, have been nearly unanimous in their concerns.

Is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq? And would such a war and its aftermath actually increase our ability to win the war against international terrorism? On this second point, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, mentioned in a news conference last week that the scope for potential anti-terrorist action included -- at a minimum -- Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Georgia, Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and North Korea.

America's best military leaders know that they are accountable to history not only for how they fight wars, but also for how they prevent them. The greatest military victory of our time -- bringing an expansionist Soviet Union in from the cold while averting a nuclear holocaust -- was accomplished not by an invasion but through decades of intense maneuvering and continuous operations. With respect to the situation in Iraq, they are conscious of two realities that seem to have been lost in the narrow debate about Saddam Hussein himself.

The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences -- ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days. The second is that a long-term occupation of Iraq would beyond doubt require an adjustment of force levels elsewhere, and could eventually diminish American influence in other parts of the world.

Other than the flippant criticisms of our "failure" to take Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, one sees little discussion of an occupation of Iraq, but it is the key element of the current debate. The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. . . .

The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. Indeed, this very bitterness provided Osama bin Laden the grist for his recruitment efforts in Saudi Arabia when the United States kept bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.

Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall. Indeed, if one gives the Chinese credit for having a long-term strategy -- and those who love to quote Sun Tzu might consider his nationality -- it lends credence to their insistent cultivation of the Muslim world. . . An "American war" with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.

These concerns, and others like them, are the reasons that many with long experience in U.S. national security issues remain unconvinced by the arguments for a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Unilateral wars designed to bring about regime change and a long-term occupation should be undertaken only when a nation's existence is clearly at stake.

It is true that Saddam Hussein might try to assist international terrorist organizations in their desire to attack America. It is also true that if we invade and occupy Iraq without broad-based international support, others in the Muslim world might be encouraged to intensify the same sort of efforts. And it is crucial that our national leaders consider the impact of this proposed action on our long-term ability to deter aggression elsewhere.

Each and every one of the dangers about which Webb warned has come to fruition. But thoughtful, sophisticated, rational and -- as it turns out -- prescient analysis like this was haughtily dismissed away by the tough-guy political and pundit classes as unserious and wimpy, even when coming from combat heroes. Instead, those who were deemed to be the serious, responsible, and strong national security leaders -- and who still are deemed as such -- were the ones shrilly warning about Iraqi mushroom clouds over our cities; handing out playing cards -- playing cards -- with pictures of the Bad People underneath their comic book nicknames; and making predictions about Iraq which the most basic working knowledge of that country should have precluded.

And such individuals, rather than hiding in shame or expressing remorse for their grave errors, continue to prance around pompously as the Foreign Policy Experts and Serious National Security Adults. Witness Marty Peretz's revolting (though revealing) homage today on his New Republic blog to Bush-worshipping warmonger Mark Steyn as "a brilliant writer, a funny writer and a persuasive one" who "on the real agenda of the time, the challenge to civilization that you won't avoid even if it you ignore it (sic), he is absolutely correct."

In a minimally rational political culture, political figures like George Allen, Marty Peretz, Mark Steyn, and most of the somber pro-war Beltway pundits would be hounded out of public life and would suffer a total loss of credibility, at least for a good long time if not permanently. They were so profoundly and patently wrong about the most important political issue of the decade and, much worse, demonized those who were right. Worse still, most of them continued to defend the war long after its failures were manifest and, through today, remain so unrepentantly wrong (George Allen, April 2006: "'You have to stay the course.' Defeating the 'vile terrorists' in Iraq is 'going to take perseverance and resolve'").

By contrast, in a rational or honorable world, those who knowingly subjected themselves to an onslaught of vicious attacks from all corners for having been so right, such as Jim Webb -- and Howard Dean -- would be heralded as the serious and wise leaders whose judgment can be trusted. In such a world, there wouldn't be a close race between George Allen and Jim Webb. There wouldn't be a race at all, because George Allen wouldn't have the audacity and shamelessness to seek re-election.

But, lamentably, that is not the political world we inhabit. As a result, the political party that, from top to bottom and with very few exceptions, was wrong about virtually everything with regard to Iraq still preens around as the serious national security party that can be trusted, while those who were right are still somehow depicted as the hapless, confused losers whose judgment can't be trusted to "protect" the country (John J. Miller: "The problem with Webb is that he's too liberal"). Those premises have eroded substantially this year, but the fact that they endure at all -- and continue to be particularly strong among the guardians of our political discourse -- is really one of the great and enduring mysteries of our political culture.

UPDATE: The latest Rasumussen poll has Webb leading Allen, 48-46. That same link shows the Democratic candidate leading in every key Senate race (including Tennessee), with the sole exception of Missouri, where the candidates are tied.

UPDATE II: As Markos explains, when undecided respondents were pushed to respond in that Rasmussen poll, Webb's lead increased to 51-46, which suggests that undecided voters (despite, or perhaps because of, the sex novel "scandal") are trending to Webb.

Additionally, I realize that the link above to the Webb Op-Ed is now broken. The link was to Webb's site, which seems to be down, and I could not find any other place where the Op-Ed is available (it is in the paid archives section of the Post). If you know of another link to that Op-Ed, please e-mail me or leave it in comments. (Link above now fixed, thanks to sysprog).

Wolf Blitzer's shock over Lynne Cheney's attack

One of the most revealing incidents in some time is Wolf Blitzer's reaction this weekend to Lynne Cheney's questioning of his patriotism. "Questioning someone's patriotism" is an overused and even trite phrase, but no other characterization exists to describe her attack (L. Cheney: "Running terrorist tape of terrorists shooting Americans. I mean, I thought Duncan Hunter asked you a very good question and you didn't answer it. Do you want us to win?").

During the interview itself, Blitzer rather sadly, even pathetically, sought to assure Cheney that he was a Good American, as though she is the Arbiter of Patriotism: "The answer of course is we want the United States to win. We are Americans. There's no doubt about that. Do you think we want terrorists to win?" But he presumably thought about it more overnight, returned to the subject yesterday when she wasn't there, and said this:

Still, I was frankly surprised when she came out swinging on Friday, surprised by what she said about CNN's "Broken Government" series, specifically the excellent one-hour report by our chief national correspondent, John King, one of the most precise and respected journalists in Washington, and CNN's decision to air sniper video provided to our intrepid Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware by insurgents in Iraq, which Anderson Cooper specifically branded, and I'm quoting now, "a single propaganda tape;" surprised at her sniping at my patriotism.

No sentient person could be "surprised" when Bush followers attack someone's patriotism and accuse them of wanting The Terrorists to win. That is what they do. It is who they are. They have been doing exactly that for five years now and one could quite reasonably suggest that this has been their principal political tactic.

As Lynne Cheney noted, her attack on CNN's patriotism was preceded by an identical attack from GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter. And just this week, Bill O'Reilly went on David Letterman's show to promote his book, and when Letterman expressed opposition to the war in Iraq and questioned its worth, O'Reilly demanded to know, in language almost verbatim to that used by Hunter and Lynne Cheney: "And this is a serious question. Do you want the United Sates to win in Iraq?"

But Wolf Blitzer isn't surprised and upset over Lynne Cheney's use of this "ally-of-the-terrorist" weapon. He's surprised and upset that she used it against him. He thought he was exempt, that he has proven to them through many years of obsequious and mindlessly glorifying "journalism" that he is a Good Boy, that he is one of them. It's one thing to label as "pro-terrorist" most national Democratic politicians, American citizens who oppose the war in Iraq, or anyone who criticizes the Commander-in-Chief in any meaningful way. To Blitzer, that is all fine and acceptable and to be expected.

But Blitzer is different. The Cheneys know him and know that he has shown his Loyalty. Why are they doing this to him?:

First, though, some history. I've been covering the Cheneys for many years, including on a day-to-day basis, when he was the defense secretary during the first Gulf War and I was CNN's Pentagon correspondent.

Mrs. Cheney has been a frequent guest on my programs. In recent years, I've often invited her to discuss her new children's books, but she always is open to discussing the news of the day.

The Wall St. Journal published an Op-Ed yesterday, ostensibly by a pseudonymous Iranian journalist (who claims to be prohibited from writing in Iran). The column details the way in which the Iranian upper class is perfectly tolerant of the increasing religious repression by Iranian mullahs, because they believe that their coddled, privileged status immunizes them from real repression, and that, in turn, renders them more or less indifferent to extreme abridgments of civil liberties and basic freedoms:

In other words, the well-to-do Iranian drinks and reads and watches what he wishes. He does as he pleases behind the walls of his private mansions and villas. In return for his private comforts, the affluent Iranian is happy to sacrifice freedom of speech, most of his civil rights, and his freedom of association. The upper-middle class has been bought off by this pact, which makes a virtue of hypocrisy.

The Iranian elites know that there is extreme oppression and a denial of virtually all liberties in their country, but their bloated comforts convince them that there is no real or serious threat, that things might not be perfect but there is no real reason to take any action or complain.

That dynamic, as much as anything, accounts for the neutered, mindless national media we have. Most national media figures -- like Blitzer -- are wealthy, coddled, privileged, and enjoy the material fruits of their elite status. They are a central and highly rewarded component of the country's power structure, duly admitted to the king's court and bestowed with all sorts of comforts and rewards for the role they play.

As long as that is the case, they will be the last ones to feel dissatisfaction, to be moved by a passionate sense that something is going terribly wrong with our country and its government. They are happy and satisfied with their personal situation -- and the ones who enable these rewards are the very political figures they cover -- and they thus perceive little grounds to complain or object. For the same reason, national journalists perceive those who criticize the Government too strenuously and aggressively as being shrill, radical, irresponsible, overwrought, and too mean. After all, things are good. What is there to be so upset about?

It is certainly true that journalists now have multiple incentives to avoid genuine or effective criticisms of the government, and that this incentive scheme causes them actively to downplay or even help conceal governmental deceit, corruption and abuses of power -- even when they are aware of it. But it is also the case that journalists, by virtue of their coddled and satisfied state, are likely to be the last people who even recognize true abuse, corruption and extremism. Why would they be able to see a system that bestows such lavish rewards on them as being anything other than good and just?

Of course, as noted in the post below, attacking and demonizing journalists for political gain is a staple of the Bush movement, but it's not usually as personal as Cheney made it with Blitzer. Blitzer's comfort and coddled status was disrupted -- an extremely rare event -- and it was that fact, and that fact alone, that caused him to take notice and to object.

UPDATE: Dave Neiwert has more on the absurdity of Wolf Blitzer's "surprise."

What the Bilal Hussein detention reveals about the Bush administration

Bilal Hussein is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photographer who was detained by the U.S. military in Iraq back in April -- almost six months ago. Along with 14,000 other people around the world (at least), he continues to remain in U.S. custody without being charged with any crime. The U.S. military has vaguely claimed that he has close ties with Iraqi insurgents but refuses to specify what it is specifically that he is alleged to have done, refuses to provide any hearing or process of any kind for him to learn of the charges or contest them, and refuses to respond to AP's requests for information about why he is being held.

Hussein's detention in April was preceded by months of vicious complaints from Bush followers that his photojournalism was anti-American and suggestive of support for the insurgents. Before there were even any news reports anywhere about Hussein's detention, Michelle Malkin learned of Hussein's detention -- she claims "from an anonymous military source in Iraq" -- and blogged about it. She claimed that "Hussein was captured earlier today by American forces in a building in Ramadi, Iraq, with a cache of weapons." It will surprise nobody that, as was conclusively revealed once AP was able to talk publicly about Hussein's detention, many of the "factual claims" on which these accusations against Hussein were based were just outright false.

The power to detain people indefinitely -- meaning forever -- without so much as charging them with any crime is, of course, the very power that Congress just weeks ago vested in the President when it enacted the so-called Military Commissions Act of 2006. While it is customary for soldiers captured on a battlefield to be held as prisoners of war until the end of hostilities, Hussein and many (if not most) of those who have been detained around the world were not captured on any battlefield at all, nor were they caught in the act of waging war against the U.S. Instead, they have simply been arrested in apartments, homes, and off the street and then thrown into prisons with no charges or process of any kind.

What is notable and encouraging in the Hussein case is that AP has become increasingly aggressive about defending press freedoms and objecting to the U.S. Government's lawless detention of one of its journalists. After first attempting unsuccessfully to negotiate with the U.S. military to obtain either formal charges against Hussein or his release, AP, with increasing passion, has been publicly complaining about the treatment of its employee. Within the last couple of days, they escalated their campaign:

The U.S. military's indefinite detention of an Associated Press photographer in Iraq without charges, is an outrage and should be seen as such by the journalistic community, AP editors said Friday.

We are angry, and we hope you are, too," AP International Editor John Daniszewski told a gathering of the Associated Press Managing Editors.

Given the irreplaceable function of journalists to expose and convey truth, especially in war zones, such lawless detentions pose extreme and obvious dangers which require safeguards. But the Bush administration has simply arrogated unto itself the power to detain whichever journalists they want, while accounting to nobody. In the Hussein case, there are, at the very least, compelling grounds to believe that the Hussein detention was motivated by his legitimate work as a journalist:

Daniszewski said that when the news cooperative pressed for further details, the best it could learn was that Hussein was allegedly involved in the kidnapping of two journalists by insurgents in Ramadi.

However, Daniszewski said the two journalists were asked by AP about the incident and that they recalled Hussein as a "hero," who helped evacuate them from harm's way.

Lyon said he reviewed Hussein's images and interviewed his colleagues and found nothing to suggest he was doing more than his job in a war zone. The vast majority of images depicts the realities of war, Lyon said, and "may be an inconvenient truth, but a truth nonetheless."

David Zeeck, president of ASNE and executive editor of The News Tribune, of Tacoma, Wash., called Hussein's detention without charges "contrary to American values."

"This is how Saddam Husseindealt with reporters; he would hold them incommunicado," Zeeck said.

This overt assault on press freedoms internationally is consistent with the administration's incremental attacks on the American media domestically -- attacks which have been met with virtual silence from most of the national media. In that regard, perhaps this exchange is the most revealing part of the latest AP article:

Rosemary Goudreau, editorial page editor of The Tampa Tribune, asked AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll what papers like hers could do.

"You run an editorial page, as I recall," Carroll said.

Just as astonishing as the Bush administration's attack on the work of journalists is the almost total acquiescence of the American media to those attacks -- so much so that AP is forced to explicitly beg their fellow journalists to editorialize against the administration's lawless and dangerous detention of one of its journalists. If -- as has been the case to an astonishing extent -- American journalists are unwilling to defend their press freedoms, who is going to?

At a time when the Bush administration claims that the centerpiece of its foreign policy is to spread democratic values around the world, the U.S. is rapidly gaining a reputation among international journalists as a country that is overtly hostile to press freedoms and which poses real danges for journalists:

The press is freer in Mozambique than it is in the United States, according to the latest Worldwide Press Freedom Index, published by the Paris-based press freedom body, Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF - Reporters without Borders).

The RSF index gives each country a score, based on the degree of freedom for journalists and media organisations. . . .

But the United States has been falling steadily. In the first year the index was published it was in 17th position. Last year the US was in 44th position, and this year it is ranked as number 53 alongside Botswana, Croatia and Tonga.

RSF explains that this decline arises from the deterioration in relations between the Bush administration and the media "after the President used the pretext of "national security" to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his "war on terrorism".

RSF also points out that US federal courts refuse to recognise journalists' cherished right not to reveal their sources. This includes "even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism."

RSF notes, in particular, the cases of freelance journalist Josh Wolf, imprisoned by the US authorities when he refused to hand over his video archive; of Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj held without trial at the US military base of Guantanamo since June 2002; and of an Associated Press photographer, Bilal Hussein, held by the US in Iraq since April this year.

Compare the first RSF press freedom rankings from 2002 (when the U.S. was near the top of the list) to the latest rankings (in which the U.S. falls below countries such as Ghana, El Salvador, Namibia, Chile, Israel, and virtually every European country). This list cannot be dismissed away by Bush followers as the work of some sort of left-wing, tyranny-blind international group, since the bottom of the list is filled with exactly the countries one would expect to find there, such as North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and Iraq. In Iraq alone, anti-press-freedom incidents like Hussein's detention, perpetrated by the U.S. Government, are becoming commonplace:

Not all the threats faced by Iraqi journalists come from the insurgents.

In September, Kalshan al-Bayati, whose reporting had been critical of security forces in Tikrit, was arrested twice by the Iraqi army for alleged terrorist links, and remains in custody. . . .

According to CPJ, at least eight journalists have been detained for weeks or months by Iraqi and coalition forces. They include employees of CBS News, Reuters, the AP and Agence France-Presse among others. At least four of the detentions have exceeded 100 days, Campagna said.

The Bush administration and its followers have long equated the reporting of facts which reflect negatively on the administration with subversiveness and even treason-- a twisted, authoritarian mindset illustrated most recently by Lynne Cheney's accusation to an absurdly surprised Wolf Blitzer that CNN wants the terrorists to win because they broadcast video footage of insurgents shooting at American troops. That premise leads inexorably to the conclusion that journalists who report facts that undermine the administration's claims are not just unfriendly but criminal, that they are not just helping the Enemy but are the Enemy itself.

It is always worth underscoring the fact that these observations are compelled by what we know. There is a whole universe of Bush administration actions that we don't know. As Ron Suskind pointed out in an interview published this weekend by Der Spiegel, when asked: "You quote former CIA director George Tenet in your book as saying after Sept. 11: 'There is nothing we won't do, nothing we won't try.' Are there any other dirty stories?"

Logically, I would have to say yes. You're dealing with an oddity here, a secret war. Wars tend to be very public things, they are visible. There are correspondents traveling with the troops and you get daily dispatches. This is a new conflict, fought largely in secret. The public is only informed a kind of "need to know basis." Based on that, I would assume that there remains something of an undiscovered country of activity in terms of what we have done over the past five years.

This is precisely why I believe that commencing real investigations of the administration's conduct over the last five years is so imperative, perhaps uniquely so. What we know has been done is damaging and extreme enough, but it is almost certain that what we don't know is even worse (which, as Suskind suggests, is precisely why we don't know it).

The detention of Bilal Hussein -- the lawlessness of it, the naked attack on a free press and dissent of every kind, the insistence on blind faith in the administration's claims -- illustrates not only how we are now perceived around the world, but more importantly, what we have become as a country. With a true accounting and reckoning, that damage can be contained and then reversed, but it is clear that the time for that is rapidly running out.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Howard Kurtz's fear of facts

(updated below)

Howard Kurtz, media critic for CNN and The Washington Post, wanted to write a column about what he calls the "rather low state of this campaign season," and these are the five examples he provided to support his claim:

A GOP ad against Senate candidate Harold Ford -- featuring a white seductress who says she met the black lawmaker at a Playboy party and that he should call her -- is so odious and racially tinged that Ford's Republican opponent, Bob Corker, denounces it.

Republican Wyoming congresswoman Barbara Cubin tells a wheelchair-bound Libertarian candidate after a debate: "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you in the face."

Hillary Clinton's opponent says she used to be ugly -- and why did Bill marry her, anyway? -- but now looks okay thanks to millions in plastic surgery.

Rush Limbaugh says Michael J. Fox is exaggerating his Parkinson's in political ads.

A John Kerry spokesman calls carping liberal bloggers "cowards."

As we all learned to inquire from Sesame Street -- which of those examples does not belong on that list? The column is about mud-slinging in order to win political campaigns (the headline is "Down in the Mud"), and Kurtz's first four examples, appropriately enough, are ones in which partisan political figures spew repugnant personal insults against their political opponents in order to win elections -- which is the topic of Kurtz's column.

But then he tacks on an example at the end in which some spokesman for John Kerry, who isn't on any ballot, calls an anonymous blogger whose identity nobody knows a "coward" for insisting that Kerry donate more of his horded cash to Democratic candidates. That has nothing to do with Kurtz's topic, nor does it have anything to do with the lowly state of political campaigns or dirty ads. That incident might be an interesting example to illustrate the tensions between establishment politicians and bloggers, or to examine the competing views of Internet anonymity. But the Kerry-blogger exchange has nothing to do with the slimy, insult-driven state of political ads or the midterm campaigns, nor does it even arguably compete in the slime department with the other examples he provides.

The reason Kurtz added that incident is painfully and depressingly obvious -- it's because he had no examples of Democratic campaigns doing anything remotely equal to the acts of Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Cubin and Hillary Clinton's opponent, but he was afraid to point out that fact. So, instead, he cowardly strove to contrive the appearance of superficial "balance" and decorative nonpartisan objectivity, even at the expense of actual objectivity and factual reporting. Under the rules of the type of vapid and corrupt "journalism" which Kurtz practices, the overriding mandate is to criticize both sides equally and blindly even if only one side is guilty of the crime in question.

And therein lies the gravest illness of modern journalism -- the refusal on the part of people like Kurtz to report on matters honestly and factually. When reporters have as their central mandate that they must criticize each side equally -- even if doing so causes them to report on matters dishonestly -- it encourages one side to sink as low as possible, to be as deceitful, corrupt and dishonorable as possible, because the media will never report that fact and will never identify the guilty side as doing anything different than the other side. In the world of Howie Kurtz, both sides are always equal and identical and the same, even when they aren't.

It is just objectively true -- verifiably, demonstrably true -- that Republicans are running far more personal and scurrilous attack ads than Democrats are in this election cycle. Michelle Malkin went on John Gibson's Fox show yesterday -- let's repeat that: Michelle Malkin, John Gibson, Fox -- to discuss the repugnant state of political ads and they discussed only Republican examples, because those are the most glaring and abundant, by far. That Michelle Malkin and John Gibson can honestly confront an anti-Republican fact that Howard Kurtz is afraid to acknowledge and thus actively conceals speaks volumes about our national media.

There is no journalistic justification to avoid acknowledgment of this fact. It doesn't necessarily mean that Republicans are craven and evil and Democrats are angelic and noble. It is just a fact of political life that whichever political party which has the disadvantage concerning the most significant political issues will have more of an incentive to drag races into the gutter and have them focus on slimy personal assaults. In this case, Republican policies (particularly Iraq) and Republican political figures (starting with the President) happen to be deeply unpopular, and Republicans -- rationally enough -- are therefore seeking to have the election decided on less substantive grounds.

Even George Allen, ironically enough, described this dynamic in his interview this week with Captain Ed:

One of the most unfortunate aspects has been that we have been diverted for talking about the issues Virginians care about. Campaigns are supposed to be about a robust discussion of the issues so that voters can make educated and informed choices. I have said that I brought some of this on myself, but much of this is baseless allegations. It seems that those who are scared about running on issues try to change the subject because they know that if this election is decided on issues, we’ll win.

The fact that Allen delivered this sermon at the same time that his campaign was urging reporters for weeks to write stories on Jim Webb's novels -- finally settling on Matt Drudge to do the dirty work -- is as good an example as any of the lowly state of our political system. But Allen's abstract point is nonetheless correct -- candidates whose views on the issues (such as the Iraq War) are deeply unpopular will seek to have the election focus on other things, such as filthy personal assaults.

And in this election, it is the Republicans who are deeply unpopular on the issues and political substance, and they are therefore driven to drag the campaigns into the personal gutter because that is their only hope for winning. It also happens to be true that Republicans -- through the carousel of Lee Atwater, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, the Clinton sex scandals, and Karl Rove -- have perfected the art of personal assaults as a campaign device, but they have extra incentive to use such tactics now.

None of that is to say that Democrats are innocent, just that, for whatever reasons, Republicans in this campaign are far more active in the mud and filth department than Democrats are. That's just a fact (a fact which Michael Grunwald, Kurtz's colleague at the Post, honestly reported the day after Kurtz's column, in an article noteworthy because of how honest it was: "The result has been a carnival of ugly, especially on the GOP side, where operatives are trying to counter what polls show is a hostile political environment by casting opponents as fatally flawed characters").

But establishment journalists like Howard Kurtz will actively work to obscure and distort facts if those facts reflect too poorly on one side -- and, given their particular fear of being labelled part of the "liberal media," the fear is heightened substantially when the fact reflects poorly on the Bush movement. They would rather present a false and inaccurate (though superficially "balanced") account than a factual and accurate version, because they think that's what journalistic objectivity requires. False, dishonest "balance" is prioritized over accurate reporting. Howard Kurtz is the perfect person to serve as the referee for the way journalism is practiced in this country because he has such a deep understanding of its truth-distorting, shallow rules and adheres to them as diligently as anyone.

UPDATE: There is much more worth reading on this topic from Billmon, here.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Peggy Noonan and the rotting pundit class

One of the more corrupt pundit phenomena is the way in which the most loyal and worshipful Bush followers, who spent the last five years praising the President and doing everything possible to enable his most radical policies, are now suddenly pretending to be so deeply dissatisfied with his rule. Now that the Bush movement is collapsing, they all want to pretend that they knew all along that things weren't going well and that the President was deeply flawed. Suddenly, they're not a part of any of it and bear no responsibility for it because, all along, they felt the President wasn't doing the right thing and, besides, he was never really loyal to their political beliefs.

Here is Peggy Noonan in The Wall St. Journal today, trying to demonstrate how objective and intellectually honest she is by claiming that even well-connected Republicans think that Republicans deserve to lose this election. For this, Noonan blames the President: "They want to fire Congress because they can't fire President Bush." When trying to explain why Republicans are dissatisfied with the President, this is what she says:

Republican political veterans go easy on ideology, but they're tough on incompetence. They see Mr. Bush through the eyes of experience and maturity. They hate a lack of care. They see Mr. Bush as careless, and on more than Iraq--careless with old alliances, disrespectful of the opinion of mankind. "He never listens," an elected official who is a Bush supporter said with a shrug some months ago.

Along the way the president's men and women confused the necessary and legitimate disciplining of a coalition with weird and excessive attempts to silence Republican critics. They have lived in a closed system. They now want to open it but don't know how. Listening is a habit; theirs has long been to suppress.

But in 2004, when arguing for President Bush's re-election, this is what Peggy Noonan said in The Wall St. Journal about George Bush (a passage I remember so vividly because it may very well be the most horrifying and cringe-inducing piece of punditry ever):

I was asked this week why the president seems so attractive to the heartland, to what used to be called Middle America. A big question. I found my mind going to this word: normal.

Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He's normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He's not exotic. But if there's a fire on the block, he'll run out and help. He'll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, "Where's Sally?"

He's responsible. He's not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world. And then when the fire comes they say, "I warned Joe about that furnace." And, "Does Joe have children?" And "I saw a fire once. It spreads like syrup. No, it spreads like explosive syrup. No, it's formidable and yet fleeting." When the fire comes they talk.

Bush ain't that guy. Republicans love the guy who ain't that guy. Americans love the guy who ain't that guy.

Someone said to me: But how can you call him normal when he came from such privilege? Indeed he did. But there's nothing lemonade-on-the-porch-overlooking-the-links-at-the-country-club about Mr. Bush. . . .

George W. Bush didn't grow up at Greenwich Country Day with a car and a driver dropping him off, as his father had. Until he went off to boarding school, he thought he was like everyone else. That's a gift, to think you're just like everyone else in America. It can be the making of you.

So, in just over two years in Noonan's world, George Bush went from being the responsible, concerned, trustworthy, humble neighbor-Everyman who realized that he was just another regular guy like the rest of us, to an arrogant, hubristic know-it-all tyrant who listens to nobody, stomps out dissent, and is completely irresponsible with his duties. And she now depicts Bush in this way while pretending that she never stumbled all over herself with oozing praise that was the very antithesis of what she is now describing.

The most corrupt and worthless pundits are those who never do anything other than spout the most conventional and recent partisan wisdom -- even if it directly contradicts what they had repeatedly said in the past -- and who always pretend that they possess the superior wisdom even when they have been so plainly wrong about everything. It's that dynamic that explains how hordes of Bush followers in the public sphere (such as Noonan) who spent years loyally defending his every step -- and demonizing those who opposed him ("criticizing the Commander-in-Chief during a time of war") -- are now posturing as hard-nosed critics who, all along, realized that Bush wasn't a "real conservative" and was too flawed for the job.

One thing that you can say about Bush is that, by and large, he doesn't change. Any basis for criticizing him has been glaringly apparent for quite some time. All that has changed is the fact that he is now wildly unpopular and that his failures are too glaring for most to deny. Because of that dramatic change -- and for no other reason -- these Bush-worshipping pundits are desperate to shed their Bush-following skin and pretend that they have been open-eyed realists and critics all along.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging one's errors and changing one's mind. When it is genuine, that is a commendable attribute which ought to be encouraged. But that isn't what is happening with the Peggy Noonans of the world (including the serious, moderate Beltway pundits who spent the last five years lecturing all of us on the importance of Supporting the President). They aren't admitting anything. To the contrary, they are pretending to be something that they are not -- namely, wise, objective, insightful analysts who all along have long seen the flaws in the President that have caused his presidency to collapse.

They are not analysts who have changed their minds or bravely recognized their errors. They are just self-serving, deceitful rats jumping a sinking ship that they long helped to keep afloat. Worse, they are doing so while pretending that they were never really on board (Noonan: "it's clear now to everyone in the Republican Party that Mr. Bush has changed the modern governing definition of 'conservative.' He did this without asking. He did it even without explaining"). If Bush's popularity skyrocketed tomorrow, their gushing praise would instantaneously return.

The only objective they have is to always appear to be omniscient, wise and right, and they will say anything to preserve that appearance. It's important not to allow these always-wrong individuals -- burdened with such horrendous political judgment and willing to follow such a radical political movement with blind loyalty -- to use these inauthentic, last-minute conversions in order to obscure how wrong they have been.

The disasters facing our country didn't happen because George Bush, the individual, was flawed. They have happened because the entire movement which propped him up and glorified him for so long is craven, corrupt and radical. It is critical that they not be permitted to jettison Bush (now that he has outlived his purpose) while pretending that he failed to adhere to what they wanted.

The networks' refusal to accept ads for The Dixie Chicks documentary

(Updated below - Update II)

The new documentary, Shut Up & Sing, chronicles the hostile and sometimes threatening conduct directed towards The Dixie Chicks after one of the group's members criticized the Commander-in-Chief, President George W. Bush, during a 2003 concert. The documentary is being distributed by Harvey Weinstein's film company, and a preview for the film can be seen here.

According to Matt Drudge (a phrase that does not roll out of one's mouth easily), both NBC and the CW Television Network (the joint venture of CBS and Warner Brothers that combines the WB and UPN Networks) are refusing to air ads promoting Shut Up & Sing on the ground that the ads are "disparaging" to our President:

In an Ironic Twist of Events, NBC and The CW Television Network Refuse to Air Ads for Documentary Focusing on Freedom of Speech . . .

NBC responded to a clearance report submitted by the Weinstein Company’s media agency saying that the network “cannot accept these spots as they are disparaging to President Bush.”

The CW Television Network responded that it does “not have appropriate programming in which to schedule this spot.”

According to Drudge, David Boies, presumably representing the Weinstein Co., said that "it is disappointing and troubling that NBC and The CW would refuse to accept an otherwise appropriate ad merely because it is critical of President Bush," while Weinstein himself said that “it’s a sad commentary about the level of fear in our society that a movie about a group of courageous entertainers who were blacklisted for exercising their right of free speech is now itself being blacklisted by corporate America."

Leave to the side for the moment the fact that this controversy is far more likely to help the film than hurt it. Far more important than that issue is the emergence of a very disturbing trend whereby television networks are refusing to broadcast political advocacy material that will offend the Republican power structure in Washington.

In 2004, CBS and NBC both refused to broadcast an ad from the United Church of Christ which touted its acceptance of all people, including gays and lesbians, into its congregations. CBS said it rejected the Church's $2 million ad campaign "because its ad implies acceptance of gay and lesbian couples -- among other minority constituencies -- and is, therefore, too 'controversial.'" During that incident, CBS all but acknowledged that its decision was based upon the White House's potential disagreement with the ad's message:

Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations . . . . and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks.

The ad did nothing other than promote the Church by featuring its policy of inclusiveness:

The debut 30-second commercial features two muscle-bound "bouncers" standing guard outside a symbolic, picturesque church and selecting which persons are permitted to attend Sunday services.

Written text interrupts the scene, announcing, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." A narrator then proclaims the United Church of Christ's commitment to Jesus' extravagant welcome: "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here.".

That was all there was to that ad. But because that message of inclusiveness was deemed by CBS to possibly diverge from the decree of the President on the topic, CBS refused to broadcast it.

Similarly, for the 2004 Super Bowl, CBS refused to air "an ad underwritten by the grass-roots political organization Moveon.org criticizing the ballooning budget deficit under George W. Bush" -- the ad which was selected by MoveOn members as the winner of its ad contest. And various ABC and CBS affiliates refused to run an ad in 2002 produced by Arianna Huffington and Lawrence Bender urging Americans to avoid SUV's on the ground that high gasoline consumption finances terrorist states.

The networks' claim is that they prohibit controversial political advocacy ads because allowing such ads would bestow an unfair advantage in political debates to those with the financial resources to afford to purchase such advertising. But that is just ludicrous, since the networks are awash with all sorts of overtly political ads, corporate ads that convey implicit political values, and politically charged programming content. Worse, the targets of the rejected ads are typically the most empowered and well-financed groups in our country, and it is just laughable for the networks to claim that allowing ads critical of them will put them at an unfair disadvantage in political debates.

Once corporate-owned networks start selecting which politically-tinged ads are "too controversial" and which ones are not, it is inevitable that messages which please the political leadership which regulates those corporations will be allowed, while messages that displease those political leaders will be rejected. That is plainly what is happening.

To see that very disturbing dynamic in action, just contrast (a) CBS' capitulation to demands from conservatives that it not broadcast The Reagans at a time when both the network and its parent company, Viacom, had all sorts of critical legislative and regulatory matters dependent upon Washington Republicans, and (b) ABC's steadfast refusal to cancel Path to 9/11 even once it was revealed that the film contained patently false scenes that blamed the Clinton administration for the 9/11 attacks -- a film objected to by the powerless Democrats but loved by the in-power, Disney-regulating Republicans. As Law Professor Paul Campos pointed out during the MoveOn.org ad controversy:

Decisions of this sort are more than monuments to hypocrisy and double standards. Because those who have the right to broadcast over them have in effect a monopoly on the television airwaves, the television networks are regulated closely by the federal government. By law, the networks hold their broadcast rights in trust, and are thus obligated to do business in a way that is mindful of the public interest.

CBS doesn't serve the public interest when it rejects an otherwise appropriate advertisement because, in the opinion of the network's managers, the ad's message is too politically controversial. This is especially the case when the network broadcasts equally controversial political advertisements, during the same program for which the rejected ad was intended.

Given that CBS is regulated so heavily, and that indeed at this moment major legislation is pending that critics argue will unduly enhance the network's market share, is it possible that "too politically controversial" really means "harmful to CBS's corporate interests?" One need not be a cynic to suspect that, as a great American journalist used to put it, "that's the way it is."

The very idea that it is in the "public interest" to prohibit ads that criticize the Leader is ludicrous on its face. The President is constantly given free airtime to argue his views and propagandize on virtually every issue, and the networks endlessly offer forums for his followers and surrogates to defend him. And the networks' argument is particularly absurd now, given that networks are awash with cash from offensive, obnoxious, and repugnant political ads of every kind.

What possible justification is there for a network to prohibit the promotion of films which are critical of the nation's political leaders? Worse, the networks' recent history of ostensible avoidance of "controversial" political material seems extremely selective and one-sided. "Controversial" in this context seems actually to mean "likely to trigger displeasure among the Leader and his supporters."

The networks are still a very powerful public opinion instrument, and allowing them to become political propaganda venues -- where messages that "disparage" the Leader are prohibited while all sorts of pro-Leader messages are allowed -- has the potential to be quite harmful. We seem to be well on our way to that result.

UPDATE: As part of his superb report on political bias in the national media, eRiposte conclusively documents how this alleged network prohibition on "controversial political ads" virtually always operates to suppress political views that are critical of the administration and its allies.

UPDATE II: For those arguing that networks are private corporations free to do whatever they want, Rambuncle has a very clear explanation in comments as to why that is not the case. And see this comment from Ames.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rank ignorance posing as expertise

It should surprise nobody that armies of "conservatives" have become overnight experts in New Jersey Constitutional law and have pronounced the 66-page decision (.pdf) from the New Jersey Supreme Court to be a tyrannical embodiment of judicial activism. But in issuing these condemnations, none of them mentions a single provision of the New Jersey State Constitution or any precedent applying it that supports their righteous conviction that the decision was legally erroneous; they just know intuitively, deep in their soul, that it is.

Others are arguing that it would simply be "better" if courts stayed away from gay marriage rulings and left it to legislatures to decide. Typical of this latter form of condemnation is James Taranto's reaction: "We'd also be happier if this were thrashed over democratically rather than forced upon society by the courts." Tom Maguire makes essentially the same observation: "My personal opinion is that gay marriage or civil unions is fine if enacted by the state legislature but wrong if crammed down by judicial fiat."

This just isn't how the law works, and it is always so ironic -- and more than a little contempt-inspiring -- when people who proclaim to oppose "judicial activism" condemn a judicial decision based not on what the relevant constitutional law requires, but instead based on their personal opinion of the policy outcomes (or based on some informal "belief" about what courts should and shouldn't be "involved in," independent of what the Constitution requires). Such individuals are engaged in the very crux of the crime of judicial activism which they claim to despise (that is, deciding legal questions based not on law and precedent but on their own personal preferences).

Either the New Jersey State Constitution -- as defined by the governing precedents applying it -- compels the legal conclusion reached by the New Jersey Supreme Court or it does not. That is the only relevant issue. It's not a matter of picking and choosing which issues we think it would be nice for a court to resolve and which ones we'd sort of prefer -- given our subjective druthers -- the court leave to the will of the majority.

At the very center of our constitutional republic is the principle that the overarching obligation of courts is to nullify any and all laws that conflict with the guarantees of the Constitution. Or, as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 78: "wherever a particular statute contravenes the Constitution, it will be the duty of the judicial tribunals to adhere to the latter and disregard the former." Courts in these cases have only one question to answer -- do the relevant constitutional provisions (in this case, Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey State Constitution) bar the law in question? -- and if so, courts are required to nullify that law. There is no discretion or political judgment involved, and they are not permitted to simply decide that they won't involve themselves in such matters.

Thus, arguments which claim that "courts should stay out of debates over marriage laws and leave it to the legislature to decide" or "it would be better if these decisions were democratically resolved by majority vote" are -- even if true -- completely misguided and incoherent. Courts have no right to "stay out of" debates over laws if those laws violate constitutional guarantees. It's just that simple.

For that reason, in order to know whether yesterday's ruling is an example of great scholarly judicial care or unhinged judicial activism, at the very least one would need to be familiar with: (a) the interests claimed by New Jersey to justify the state's exclusionary marriage laws; (b) the arguments advanced by plaintiffs to support the claim that the law is violative of the state Constitution; (c) the provisions of the New Jersey State Constitution on which the plaintiffs rely; and (d) the history of how those provisions have been interpreted and applied by New Jersey State courts and the relevant precedents on which the court relied.

It is impossible -- at least without falling into total recklessness -- to simply look at the result of a court case, decide whether or not you like it, and then pronounce it as either judicially sound or judicially irresponsible. Yet that is what virtually all of these commenters are doing who are condemning the New Jersey Supreme Court for "judicial activism." They do not even purport to have even a casual familiarity with any of the issues one would need to know about in order to form a responsible opinion. They really have no idea what they are talking about.

The decision is 66 pages long. I've read it twice. But if you ask me what my view is as to the legal correctness of the decision (either the part which compels equal treatment of same-sex relationships or the part which refused to find a same-sex marriage right under New Jersey constitutional law), I would not be able to opine on that question, because I don't know enough about the scope and reach of Article I, Paragraph 1. Opining on the correctness of the New Jersey decision without that knowledge is nothing other than idiotic.

I have well-developed opinions about whether gay marriage is desirable and just from a policy perspective. And I have a fairly well-developed view of whether the U.S. Constitution prohibits the exclusion of gay couples from the institution of marriage. But the New Jersey State Constitution is its own document with its own guaranteed protections, and it grants broader and more extensive rights to New Jersey citizens than the U.S. Constitution grants to American citizens generally. Condemning this decision without knowing about the scope and reach of those New Jersey constitutional provisions is just indefensible.

This doesn't mean that only lawyers or constitutional law experts can form opinions about the court's actions. Anyone can read the judicial opinion, then go read the precedents on this provision, and inform themselves about what the New Jersey State Constitution does or does not guarantee. But -- as is true for any other topic -- a basic understanding of the relevant issues, so plainly lacking in all of these overnight experts, is required to be capable of anything more than baseless demagoguery.

This happens every time there is a controversial court decision like this, and the irony is overwhelming. We're subjected to all of these people parading around in protest of "judicial activism" who are doing nothing other than forming their opinions based on whether they like the outcome or whether they would "prefer" -- based on some tingly internal feeling -- that courts stay out of these issues.

Maybe it would be better in some political, societal or cultural sense if gay marriage and related issues were decided by legislatures and referenda rather than courts. A reasonable argument can certainly be made that it would be "better" for advocates of gay marriage if they win by convincing their fellow citizens rather than via judicial rulings which hold that denial of marriage rights is unconstitutional.

But that is just not how a constitutional republic works. Constitutional guarantees exist to limit majority will, and courts must nullify any laws which conflict with those guarantees -- even if it would be "better" in some vague political sense to leave it to the majority to decide.

To know whether the court here acted properly, one must know whether the New Jersey State Constitution grants the rights which the court here concluded (unanimously) that it grants. Any condemnation of the opinion that is not based on that factor -- such as all of the condemnations linked above -- are themselves the very embodiment of an unhinged judicial activism that has nothing to do with the rule of law (other than to subvert it).

UPDATE: Scott Lemieux notes that this strain of intellectual dishonesty -- condemning judicial rulings without bothering to ground such condemnation in any relevant legal analysis -- is prevelant even (perhaps especially) among many law professors, including some who love to sermonize (when it suits their agenda) about the Critical Importance of relying on solid legal reasoning when reaching legal conclusions.

Bush followers demand escalation in Iraq

Bush followers have finally been forced to accept as fact that the Iraq War has become widely unpopular among Americans. But a consensus among them has emerged that the war's unpopularity is not a repudiation of the war itself, but instead, is reflective of a belief that the war must be prosecuted more aggressively, with more resources, and with less restraint and caution. In their view, the problem isn't that Americans have realized that the war isn't worth the costs or is based on false pretenses, but instead, it's that Americans believe that victory is so urgent in Iraq that they're angry that we're not doing enough to achieve it.

Yesterday, the President -- as he has been doing regularly over the past couple months -- met with eight Bush followers who masquerade as "journalists," including Tony Blankley of the Washington Times, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn and Michael Barone. As Byron York (who was also there) reported, one of the principal themes was that Americans are dissatisfied with the war in Iraq because we aren't going all out to win (emphasis added):

The frustration in the room stemmed not so much from internal divisions and paralysis in the Iraqi government, or lagging indicators like oil and energy production. Rather, it came from the fact that American forces simply do not seem to be winning the war — on anyone’s terms — and that most Americans are disinclined to leave the troops in Iraq without some clear movement toward victory.

“The American people were solidly behind this when you went in and you toppled the Taliban, when you go in and you topple Saddam,” columnist Mark Steyn said to the president. “But when it just seems to be a kind of thankless, semi-colonial, policing, defensive operation, with no end — I mean, where is the offense in this?”

The President himself said that he believes dissatisfaction with the war is based on the view that we aren't being aggressive enough in fighting it:

Most of all, though, Bush said he realizes that the American people share that frustration, too. “People, most of them, are out there saying, ‘What are you doing? Get after ‘em,’“ Bush said. He’s heard it himself. “I’m from Texas,” Bush continued. “My buddies are saying, are you doing enough, not are you doing too little. They want to know, are we winning. They want to know, this mighty country, are we doing what it takes to win?”

Similarly, Ralph Peters wrote yesterday in his New York Post column that the solution to our woes in Iraq is to start doing a lot more killing, with a lot less restraint (emphasis in original):

Iraq deserves one last chance. But to make that chance even remotely viable, we'll have to take desperate measures. We need to fight. And accept the consequences.

The first thing we need to do is to kill Muqtada al-Sadr, who's now a greater threat to our strategic goals than Osama bin Laden.

We should've killed him in 2003, when he first embarked upon his murder campaign. But our leaders were afraid of provoking riots.

Back then, the tumult might've lasted a week. Now we'll face a serious uprising. So be it. When you put off paying war's price, you pay compound interest in blood.

We must kill - not capture - Muqtada, then kill every gunman who comes out in the streets to avenge him.

And in the Vice President's interview with the right-wing radio host I referenced in the prior post, the same point was stressed:

I've heard from a lot of listeners -- that's what we do for a living, talk to good folks in the Heartland every day -- and I've talked to as many who want an increased military presence in Iraq as want us out, which seems to be the larger debate, at least coming from the left -- cut and run, get out of there. One fax said, when you talk to the Vice President, ask him when shock and awe is coming back to Iraq. Let's finish the job once and for all.

This is all just from the last 24 hours. For months, the standard neoconservative complaint has been that their Great War was failing because it wasn't being prosecuted with enough violence, enough force, enough troops, enough killing. If only we would step up and act like we want to win, things would be great there.

This seems a critically important issue to note. Escalation of this war -- not a draw-down of it -- will become the new strategy after the election. There are simply no other choices. What we are doing now simply isn't working, so much so that not even the White House bothers to deny that any more. At the same time, the President yesterday made expressly clear what has been obvious for some time -- we aren't leaving Iraq. And we don't have nearly enough additional troops to make a meaningful difference in the troop strength we have there or to enable new strategies by increasing our military presence.

What other real option is there for trying to change the course of the war there other than to try to bomb and kill our way to "victory"? That is clearly what the President's hardest-core supporters are demanding, and the history of this administration is that it ultimately adheres to the views and demands of the extremists who comprise its base (largely because those who control the administration are themselves extremists in that mold). Nobody knows for certain, but it is a clear possibility that our post-election strategy in Iraq will entail a substantial escalation in violence, attacks, killings and resources. That is what the President's supporters believe is the missing ingredient to allow them to finally achieve Victory in this great war.

The Dick Cheney "interview"

Consistent with his standard practice, Dick Cheney yesterday submitted to an "interview" with yet another far-right, Bush-worshipping talk radio host (Scott Hennen), and Cheney was asked what might be the most ironic "interview" question ever:

Q. I want to ask you about after the election, lastly. David Limbaugh has written a devastating book on today's Democratic Party that depicts them as partisans that are essentially bent on undermining our national interest in the war on terror. And given that record, and a potential change in congressional control, his view -- and he argues in this book -- is that you'd have a disastrous situation that would tie your hands, the President's hands, the administration's hands in the critical prosecution of this war.

Do you agree with that premise, that's what would happen if the election changes congressional control? And how do we change that tone, change that debate from this awful -- the people in the Heartland just do not like the tone in politics today.

A couple questions earlier in the interview, Hennen asked Cheney: "Are the terrorists trying to influence our election in your view?" Cheney explained that, in essence, Democrats and The Terrorists are working together to defeat the U.S. in the Global War on Terror: "when you see the kinds of things that happened this year, for example, when the Democratic Party in Connecticut purged Joe Lieberman, in effect, drummed him out of the party on the grounds that he had supported the President in the global war on terror, that sends a message to the terrorists overseas that their basic strategy of trying to break the will of the American people may, in fact, work."

And when Cheney was asked whether "the terrorists" are trying to engage in more violence now in order to influence the midterm elections -- meaning that they are trying to make Americans support Democrats (because, presumably, they want Democrats to win) -- Cheney replied: "I wouldn't be surprised. It sounds right to me. " Cheney also blamed the increased violence in Iraq on the desire of The Terrorists to see the Democrats win: "I think they're very much aware of our political calendar here, I really do" and " I think they are very conscious of the electoral timetable in the United States. "

So, just to recap: Rush Limbaugh's brother has a great new book showing how Democrats want The Terrorists to win and they want to undermine the U.S. all for their own selfish political gain. Cheney agrees that The Terrorists are doing what they can to ensure that Republicans lose the midterm elections because both they and the Democrats have the same goal: they want the U.S. to lose the war on terror. And also - it's really terrible how we have such an angry and mean-spirited tone in our political dialogue, and we in the Heartland don't like that kind of tone and want it changed. And Hennen knows this because "that's what we do for a living, talk to good folks in the Heartland every day."

Hennen and Cheney also shared their affection for waterboarding. Hennen told Cheney: "I've had people call and say, please, let the Vice President know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives" and Hennen asked: "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" In reply to the latter question, Cheney replied: "It's a no-brainer for me" -- a statement understood, reasonably, to be the first open acknowledgement by a senior Bush official that we use waterboarding -- and Cheney agreed with Hennen that the torture debate "seems a little silly given the threat we face."

Somehow, this one short interview captures so much of the dysfunction and corruption at the heart of the Bush movement. Cheney, with rare exception, is willing to be "interviewed" only by the most sycophantic followers like Hennen, because our Leaders are to be praised, not questioned. The rabid sectarian violence in Iraq isn't a sign that their war policies have failed -- nothing is ever evidence of their mistakes or failures -- but instead is merely the by-product of the Terrorists' efforts to influence our elections so that their allies, the Democrats, win and are in a better position to undermine Bush's war on terror.

Our highest government officials now talk openly and enthusiastically -- almost playfully -- about taking people and "dunking them in water" -- meaning strapping them to a board, wrapping their faces in cellophane, and causing them to feel as though they are drowning to death -- only to then sermonize about the need for serious leaders to spread our civilized and democratic values around the world. And finally, Bush followers accuse their political opponents of being allies of The Terrorists and working to defeat the U.S. in its War -- indeed, that has become one of their core "arguments" -- and then afterwards piously lament that "the Left" engages in such angry and mean-spirited political dialogue and that people "in the Heartland" (who are always on their side) so very much wish the tone of politics would improve.

Most politicians are, to one degree or another, artificial, manipulative and hypocritical. One can argue that that's just the nature of what they do, particularly close to an election. But the mindset of the Bush movement is far beyond any of that. It is detached from reality in the most fundamental way, and the willingness to disregard and deny even the clearest of facts is literally without limits. It is difficult to overstate how urgent it is for our country that some serious limits be placed on what has been their unlimited and unchecked rule and how completely that need overrides all other considerations.

I think there is a tendency for many political commentators (myself included) to think about political matters in a more partisan-driven way than is typical as this election approaches, but there is good reason for that. Try to imagine the damage that will be done if they can act at will, without any real limits, for another two years, knowing that they face no other election and no real obstacles. What would be a more important political objective than doing what one can to prevent that?

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My Salon article on the New Jersey gay marriage ruling is now available here.

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