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“Cheap Psychodrama Thrives”: Personality Politics And The Decline Of Political Journalism

Upon first venturing to write about politics 20 years ago, I held naïve views about political journalism. Specifically, I imagined that factual accuracy mattered as it did in the kinds of books and magazine pieces I’d written on non-political topics: opinionated, yes, but grounded in careful reporting.

Otherwise, why bother?

After 10 years, I became persuaded that the honor system supposedly governing journalists had broken down. “Claiming the moral authority of a code of professional ethics it idealizes in the abstract but repudiates in practice,” I wrote in Harper’s magazine, “today’s Washington press corps has grown as decadent and self-protective as any politician or interest group whose behavior it purports to monitor.”

And that was before Fox News.

Driven partly by cable TV celebrity, personality-based narratives rule. Politicians are depicted as heroes or villains in group melodramas as simplistic as any TV soap opera. Facts are fitted to the storyline. Cheap psychodrama thrives. The whole world’s a Maureen Dowd column.

Which brings us back to Harper’s and author Doug Henwood.  Because he finds her too close to Wall Street and too hawkish on foreign policy, Henwood evidently feels it his moral duty to blacken Hillary Clinton’s character. It’s not enough to say she voted for the Iraq War and favored bombing Syria. Henwood had to dig up “Whitewater” to prove her a liar and a cheat.

Then after I wrote a column pointing out that almost everything he’d written about that phony scandal was nonsense, Henwood began calling me bad names on social media. “Clinton towel boy,” was one.

So I posted the following on his Facebook page:

“I find it interesting that when confronted with several quite basic factual errors in his description of the great Whitewater scandal of legend and song, Doug Henwood’s response is name calling. That tells me pretty much all I need to know about him.

“However, it’s false to say that the late Jim McDougal’s savings and loan financed the Clintons’ Whitewater investment. He didn’t buy it until five years later. Another bank made the loan, for which both Clintons were jointly and severally responsible–meaning they’d have to pay it off regardless of what happened to McDougal or his other investments. Which they did. Whitewater cost the S&L nothing.

“It’s doubly false that ‘the Clintons, of course, were also investors in McDougal’s schemes.’ They had no other financial relationship whatsoever. That was the whole point of quoting the prosecutor’s closing argument in McDougal’s bank fraud trial: Convicting him depended upon convincing the jury that [he’d]…misled the Clintons about their investment and resorted to desperate measures to try to keep the bank afloat. In a word, they got conned.

“Regardless of one’s opinion about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy ideas, those are the facts, available for about 18 years now. Henwood simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Now if somebody took something of mine apart like that, I’d do my best to make them regret it. But Henwood can’t, because he was blowing smoke to begin with.

“What I don’t get,” he answered, “is why you’re so invested in doing PR for these [bleeps].”

Sorry, dude… not playing. Facts are facts.

Everybody makes mistakes. Professionals own them.

That wouldn’t be our Mr. Henwood. So let me add that almost everything he wrote about the Clintons in Arkansas reflects sheer incomprehension. Mostly, it’s what Joe Conason and I call “naïve cynicism,” in which a reporter innocent of basic political realities presumes corruption.

For example, he accuses Bill Clinton of a cynical ploy “aimed at distancing himself from traditional liberal politics” by not calling for a repeal of Arkansas’s right-to-work law. Shockingly, Clinton also failed to call for abolishing Razorback football and duck-hunting season.

Would it help to know that no Arkansas gubernatorial candidate has ever campaigned for union shops?

Henwood alleges that Clinton “went light on environmental enforcement,” covering the state in “chicken feces.” (Never mind that properly applied chicken litter is the best organic fertilizer on Earth, as my happy cows will attest.) Would it help to know that until Clinton wrestled the timber industry and Farm Bureau to the ground in 1985, Arkansas environmental agencies had virtually no enforcement powers?

Elsewhere, Henwood alleges that the Clintons schemed to earn the enmity of teacher unions. In vain, alas. But he left out town hall meetings Hillary held with educators and parents in all 75 Arkansas counties back in 1983 in support of her husband’s educational reforms.

No matter. Her efforts were pointless anyway, Henwood thinks, because real advances “would require a wholesale overhaul of the political economy…and the Clintons weren’t about to take that on.”

Ah, yes. Wholesale overhaul. If only Hillary had been willing to wave her magic wand, wiping away 200 years of history, abolishing the legislature and converting Arkansas into Connecticut.

But, you know, the witch is too selfish for that.

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, October 29, 2014

October 30, 2014 Posted by | Journalism, Journalists, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Elizabeth Warren Makes A Powerful Case”: Who Does The Government Work For?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says she isn’t running for president. At this rate, however, she may have to.

The Massachusetts Democrat has become the brightest ideological and rhetorical light in a party whose prospects are dimmed by — to use a word Jimmy Carter never uttered — malaise. Her weekend swing through Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa to rally the faithful displayed something no other potential contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, including Hillary Clinton, seems able to present: a message.

“We can go through the list over and over, but at the end of every line is this: Republicans believe this country should work for those who are rich, those who are powerful, those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” she said Friday in Englewood, Colo. “I will tell you we can whimper about it, we can whine about it or we can fight back. I’m here with [Sen.] Mark Udall so we can fight back.”

Warren was making her second visit to the state in two months because Udall’s reelection race against Republican Cory Gardner is what Dan Rather used to call “tight as a tick.” If Democrats are to keep their majority in the Senate, the party’s base must break with form and turn out in large numbers for a midterm election. Voters won’t do this unless somebody gives them a reason.

Warren may be that somebody. Her grand theme is economic inequality and her critique, both populist and progressive, includes a searing indictment of Wall Street. Liberals eat it up.

The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,” she said Saturday at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. The line drew a huge ovation — as did mention of legislation she has sponsored to allow students to refinance their student loans.

Later, Sen. Al Franken (Minn.) — a rare Democratic incumbent who is expected to cruise to reelection next month — gave a heartfelt, if less-than-original, assessment of Warren’s performance: “She’s a rock star.”

In these appearances, Warren talks about comprehensive immigration reform, support for same-sex marriage, the need to raise the minimum wage, abortion rights and contraception — a list of red-button issues at which she jabs and pokes with enthusiasm.

The centerpiece, though, is her progressive analysis of how bad decisions in Washington have allowed powerful interests to re-engineer the financial system so that it serves the wealthy and well-connected, not the middle class.

On Sunday, Warren was in Des Moines campaigning for Democrat Bruce Braley, who faces Republican Joni Ernst in another of those tick-tight Senate races. It may be sheer coincidence that Warren chose the first-in-the-nation nominating caucus state to deliver what the Des Moines Register called a “passion-filled liberal stemwinder.”

There once was consensus on the need for government investment in areas such as education and infrastructure that produced long-term dividends, she said. “Here’s the amazing thing: It worked. It absolutely, positively worked.”

But starting in the 1980s, she said, Republicans took the country in a different direction, beginning with the decision to “fire the cops on Wall Street.”

“They called it deregulation,” Warren said, “but what it really meant was: Have at ’em, boys. They were saying, in effect, to the biggest financial institutions, any way you can trick or trap or fool anybody into signing anything, man, you can just rake in the profits.”

She went on to say that “Republicans, man, they ought to be wearing a T-shirt. . . . The T-shirt should say, ‘I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.’ ”

The core issue in all the Senate races, she said, is this: “Who does the government work for? Does it work just for millionaires, just for the billionaires, just for those who have armies of lobbyists and lawyers, or does it work for the people?”

So far this year, Warren has published a memoir, “A Fighting Chance,” that tells of her working-class roots, her family’s economic struggles, her rise to become a Harvard Law School professor and a U.S. senator, and, yes, her distant Native American ancestry. She has emerged as her party’s go-to speaker for connecting with young voters. She has honed a stump speech with a clear and focused message, a host of applause lines and a stirring call to action.

She’s not running for president apparently because everyone assumes the nomination is Clinton’s. But everyone was making that same assumption eight years ago, and we know what happened. If the choice is between inspiration and inevitability, Warren may be forced to change her plans.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, October 20, 2014

October 23, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Elizabeth Warren, Financial Reform | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It’s Just West Virginia!”: The State Where The Right Won The Culture War

This is not, I readily confess, the development that will dominate the headlines on November 5, but I couldn’t help but notice recently that there is a sporting chance that, after this election, my old home state might no longer be represented by a single Democrat in the United States House of Representatives. So what, you say—it’s just West Virginia. Okay, maybe. But trust me: This idea would have been beyond inconceivable only a decade or so ago, and there’s an interesting and much broader story behind the change that has to do with deep cultural and economic anxieties, and I can’t help but wonder whether the Democrats can tap into them and attempt to ameliorate their effects.

First the facts. West Virginia has three congressional districts. The first, which contains the northern panhandle and my home town of Morgantown, is represented by Republican David McKinley, who first won in 2010 (by less than 1 percent) and was the first Republican to represent most of those areas since I was playing Little League. He is strongly favored to be reelected. The second district is an open seat, vacated by Republican Shelley Moore Capito to run for Senate. Tea Party Republican Alex Mooney is facing Democrat Nick Casey. They are basically tied (Casey’s in the hunt in part because Mooney is actually from Maryland; it’s complicated), but Mooney is getting lots of national money. In the third district, longtime Democratic incumbent Nick Joe Rahall, one of the few Lebanese-Americans roaming the halls of Congress, is facing a stiff challenge from a state senator named Evan Jenkins, who switched from D to R last year and can boast two important endorsements, from the Coal Association and the state’s right-to-life group, that don’t usually land in a non-incumbent’s lap.

Now, two of those races are close, and if the Democrats win them, the party would actually pick up a seat, so there goes my alarmism. But still, it could well be a GOP sweep, which is especially jarring when you throw in Capito, the Republican who’ll be taking over Jay Rockefeller’s seat (the state hasn’t had a Republican senator since 1958). That would leave Joe Manchin as the state’s only Democrat in Washington, and of course, on the coasts, lots of Democrats don’t think he’s much of a Democrat.

It’s really a stunning transformation. People don’t pay much attention to the state, but if they did, they’d know that West Virginia is the only—yes, only—state in the union that has gone in this century from deep blue to rock-ribbed red.

So what’s happened? No, it’s not as simple as the president is b-l-a-c-k. It’s the decline in union membership (a handful of men can now mine as much coal as hundreds used to). It’s the organizing strength of the NRA. It’s the less-discussed-but-pivotal inroads the Southern Baptist Convention has made into the state since the 1980s. It’s the fact that there are no real cities to speak of, not many people of color, only one large university, no hipsters (well, a few; I know some of them). I watched the transformation only as an occasional interloper on trips back home to see my folks, but even from that vantage point, things were pretty clear—the increasing proliferation of NASCAR paraphernalia in the stores next to the Mountaineer swag, the appearance in Morgantown of a Christian high school, and of course presidential vote totals (although Obama did carry my home county in 2008). We smart people in the big cities all agree that the right has lost the culture war. That may be so nationally. But West Virginia is the one place where the right won the culture war.

And so it’s a place of profound anxieties, cultural and economic. Being from Morgantown doesn’t give me much of a window on them. Morgantown is one of the nicest small cities in America (no, really) and has a diverse economy and diverse (by West Virginia standards) population.

The southern part of the state, which is really what outlanders think of when they bother to think of West Virginia, is where the anxieties run deeper. It’s a place in real trouble, and the people know it. Culturally, America has changed on them. The state is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Let’s just say that in some of those counties down there, I wouldn’t want to be the first guy to apply for one. And fossil fuels probably aren’t long for this world—there is still plenty of coal in them thar hills, as they say, but in 20 or 30 years, the way energy technologies are transforming, the world may not want it anymore.

I, you’ll be un-shocked to hear, do not think the Republican Party has any real answers for these people. The GOP will fight for coal, but at the same time its broader policies are all harmful to the state (aren’t many 2 percenters in West Virginia). What the state really needs is to figure out how to elbow its way into the tech economy. That requires investments, in schools and in infrastructure of both the physical and telecom varieties. And it means, yep, taxes.

I suppose there’s a chance that Hillary Clinton could win West Virginia, if Bill spends a lot of time there. But why would they bother? She won’t need its five measly electoral votes. I think it would be a grand thing if President Clinton, among her first acts, proposed something big and meaningful for precisely the people who didn’t vote for her (a Republican president should do the same). But that just isn’t likely, the way things are today. Politics is too expensive, and a new president has people to pay back.

No, we’re not sure it’s going to be President Clinton, but we are sure that the GOP is up against both the electoral college and demographic walls in a big way, and it may not win a presidential election for some time. Poor West Virginia: It stayed true to Democratic losers like Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis but is completing its insistent makeover to red just as the Republicans are in danger of being a quasi-permanent out party.

There’s a great scene in the lovely film October Sky where the residents of Coalwood gather to watch Sputnik race by in the sky. One person speculates about the Russians dropping a bomb on the town. Another retorts: “I own’t know why anybody’d drop a bomb on ’is place. Be a waste of a perfectly good bomb.” It captured a worldview and fate that I hope the people from the poorer parts of the state can one day escape.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 10, 2014

October 12, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Politics, West Virginia | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Unpredictable Slow-Motion Riot”: Republicans Who Want To Be President Just Can’t Behave

Despite the supposed lessons of 2012, and the palpable desire of the donor class, and “reforms” initiated from on high to make the nominating process shorter and less messy, it’s increasingly obvious the 2016 Republican presidential contest could be an unpredictable slow-motion riot. As Politico‘s Haberman and Sherman report today, GOP elites are watching the field form with a sense of horror, but don’t know what to do about it:

The message from Republican officials has been crystal clear for two years: The 2016 Republican primary cannot be another prolonged pummeling of the eventual nominee. Only one person ultimately benefited from that last time — Barack Obama — and Republicans know they can’t afford to send a hobbled nominee up against Hillary Clinton.

Yet interviews with more than a dozen party strategists, elected officials and potential candidates a month out from the unofficial start of the 2016 election lay bare a stark reality: Despite the national party’s best efforts, the likelihood of a bloody primary process remains as strong as ever.

The absence of any front-runner increases the incentives for others to at least give it a try. “Reforms” like the (probable) elimination of the Ames Straw Poll mean less opportunity for winnowing the field before the real contests begin, and the shorter track of the contests themselves makes the sort of serial disposal of unelectable rivals Mitt Romney conducted in 2012 will be harder. Meanwhile, even if the elites used to a disproportionate role in the process can reach agreement on a champion (Jebbie or Mitt), it’s unclear he’ll run, or that the rank-and-file will go along.

There’s a lot of pious talk in the Politico piece about the 2016 candidates agreeing not to attack each other, and to save their fire for the dreaded Hillary, but nobody is likely to forget from 2012 how easy it was for the candidates to remain relatively sunny while their Super-PACs ran ads attacking rivals as instruments of Satan.

If Republicans have as good a midterm election as they expect, the temptation to think of 2016 as the year the conservative-movement-dominated GOP finally consolidates power will be very strong. Which potential candidates will want to pass up the opportunity to get in on that, particularly if a failed run sets ‘em up for the future? I don’t know, but I do know this could be the cycle when the cliches about the Republican Party being “disciplined” and “hierarchical” finally get retired once and for all.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Editor, Washington Monthly Political Animal, October 7, 2014

October 8, 2014 Posted by | Election 2016, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Keeping Its Viewers In The Dark”: Fox News Causes America To Fixate On The Wrong Things

A grisly beheading at a food plant in Moore, Oklahoma last week reinforced some Americans’ greatest current fear: that the Islamic State terrorist group has infiltrated the U.S. Murder suspect Alton Nolen severed the head of his victim, just as an ISIS killer severed the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker, among many other victims of the Islamist group. Coupled with Nolen’s reported ties to Islam, that was enough to warrant FBI involvement. Although the agency hasn’t yet determined Nolen’s motive, it doesn’t believe that he represents a further threat to us by ISIS or Islamists. But Fox News sees things differently.

“Sounding the jihadist alarms, Fox News and the right-wing media are eager to label the ghastly crime an act of Islamic terror,” writes Eric Boehlert on the liberal watchdog website Media Matters. “Law enforcement officials, however, aren’t in the same rush, noting that the attack came immediately after Nolen was fired and stating that they’ve yet to find a link to terrorism.”

Boehlert goes on to contrast Fox News’s coverage of the Oklahoma beheading with its coverage of an actual terrorist attack. On Sept. 16, marksman and anti-government extremist Eric Frein allegedly murdered one cop and attempted to kill another two. Hiding out in the Pocono Mountains, officials say Frein is “extremely dangerous” and perhaps in possession of an AK-47.

“We have a well-trained sniper who hates authority, hates society, hates government, and hates cops enough to plug them from ambush. He’s so lethal, so locked and loaded, that communities in the Pocono Mountains feel terrorized,” said Philadelphia columnist Dick Polman. According to the criminal complaint, Frein also collected “various information concerning foreign embassies.”

According to Boehlert’s research, Fox News only mentioned Frein and his killing spree six times in the two weeks since the shooting, and in none of those reports were the assassin’s anti-government sentiments even noted.

Ever since 2008, when Barack Obama began his first term in the White House, Fox News has been building a narrative to destroy him and his legacy. The president is routinely portrayed as having an alarmingly lax stance toward terrorism. Some conservative pundits even stoop so low as to emphasize his middle name, Hussein, to rile up Islamophobic viewers. If details of a story — or the story itself — don’t align with Fox’s ulterior purpose, they’re omitted.

Just as the most important news of the day receives front-page coverage in newspapers, it tends to be allotted the most time in newscasts, signaling its relative importance. Fox News has dedicated hours upon hours to covering the Oklahoma beheading. With such headlines as “Terror in the Heartland,” Boehlert argues, Fox politicized a tragic killing, which investigators reckon was nothing more than a disgruntled ex-employee gone berserk.

“In other words,” notes Boehlert, “on Fox News a Muslim who killed a co-worker in Oklahoma and who remains in police custody represents a much bigger story than a suspected anti-government assassin who killed a cop and remains on the run, eluding hundreds of law enforcement officials while terrorizing a Pennsylvania community.”

The Fox coverage of Nolen’s crime was only the latest in a long history of journalistic misconduct (if the word “journalistic” even applies). To tarnish Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state as well as her reputation before the next presidential election, the network aired almost 1,100 segments on Benghazi across five programs between the date the attack occurred and the formation of a select committee last May to investigate it, according to another Media Matters report. Even though no evidence of a cover-up was found over the course of 13 hearings and 50 briefings, 41 percent of Republicans continue to call Benghazi the biggest scandal in U.S. history, according to the results of a PPP poll.

Fox News had been equally powerful in convincing its viewers of the voter fraud “problem” in America, a problem “more rare than death by lightning,” a study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice finds. Nevertheless, Fox spearheaded the crusade for the enactment of voter ID laws – motivated, one can reasonably assume, to suppress Democratic votes.

The results of a 2013 Gallup poll showed Fox News to be the nation’s leading news source, while a 2012 survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind revealed viewers of Fox News to be worse informed than even those who watch no news at all.

In April, CNN’s Peter Bergen observed that since 9/11, “extremists affiliated with a variety of far-right wing ideologies … have killed more people in the United States than have extremists motivated by al Qaeda’s ideology.” But because the top dogs at America’s No. 1 right-wing news channel are better served touting the improbable threat that ISIS poses to the homeland, the network elects to keep its viewers in the dark, distracting them from actual threats: the millions of unlicensed guns, unabated climate change, armed anti-government fanatics, and, of course, all the irrational fixations of Fox News.

 

By: Aimee Kuvadia, an editor and freelance journalist; The National Memo, October 2, 2014

October 4, 2014 Posted by | Fox News, Terrorism, Voter Fraud | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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