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“Who Gets To Be A ‘Neutral Observer’ On Race?”: It’s Hard To Be Neutral On A Moving Train

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, host Chuck Todd asked Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, about the inherent challenges President Obama faces when discussing issues of race. “I’ve talked to people close to him,” Todd noted. “The president is self-aware that when he talks about race he thinks it polarizes the conversation and therefore he can’t – it defeats the purpose that he wants to have.”

It’s a perfectly fair point. The way in which the president approaches these issues is complex, and it’s not unreasonable to think the White House addresses these debates differently, in part because of expectations surrounding public reactions.

But something Seib said in response stood out for me:

“Yeah, and this is the great irony I think of the first African-American president. In some ways, he finds it harder to talk about race because he carries, you know, his own background into it obviously. He’s not seen necessarily as a neutral observer.”

This got me thinking: who gets to be a “neutral observer” on matters of race? And why can’t President Obama be one?

If the point is that the president, as an African-American man, is shaped by his experiences and background, all of which contribute to his personal feelings about race, I’ll gladly concede the point. But therein lies the rub: aren’t we all shaped by our experiences and background? Is it not true that every American, regardless of race or ethnicity, draws conclusions about these issues based on what we’ve seen, felt, and lived?

I’m sure Seib didn’t intend for his comment to be controversial, but his remark raises some obvious questions that deserve serious answers: are any of us neutral observers when it comes to race in America? Does our lack of neutrality matter or make our perspectives less valuable? Or more?

It reminds me a bit of the criticisms center-left Supreme Court justices have received after officiating at same-sex weddings. For some on the right, this is an automatic disqualifier when it comes to ruling on the constitutionality of marriage equality – these jurists, the argument goes, can’t be “neutral observers” because they know gay people, apparently like and respect gay people, and have been a part of weddings involving gay people.

But pure “neutrality” is a tricky thing to find. If a justice refuses to officiate at a same-sex wedding, is he or she better able to consider the constitutionality of marriage equality? What about if he or she officiated at an opposite-sex wedding? If a justice is outwardly hostile towards the LGBT community, is he or she suddenly better suited to hear the case?

To borrow an overused cliche, it’s hard to be neutral on a moving train.

Debates about race, bigotry, and justice are always multifaceted, but we all bring our own baggage onto the train with us. To assume there are some among us who have the privilege of serving as a “neutral observer” is a mistake.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, June 22, 2015

June 24, 2015 Posted by | Meet The Press, Race and Ethnicity, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dick Cheney’s America Is An Ugly Place”: Foremost Champion Of Amoral Patriotism, Residing Well Beyond Good And Evil

I used to like Dick Cheney.

I can still remember watching him on NBC’s Meet the Press back in the early 1990s, when he was serving as defense secretary under President George H. W. Bush. Whether he was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union or making the case for expelling Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, Cheney was impressive. Unlike so many career politicians and Washington bureaucrats, he came off as charming, sober, smart, unflappable, and sincere.

Today? Well, I’ll give him this: He still seems sincere.

Some day I hope some psychologically gifted writer will turn his attention to Dick Cheney and explore just what the hell happened to him after the Sept. 11 attacks. Something about the trauma of that day — perhaps it was the act of being physically carried by the Secret Service into the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House — flipped a switch in his mind, turning him into America’s foremost champion of amoral patriotism.

The man interviewed on Meet the Press this past Sunday resides completely beyond good and evil. Despite the manifest failure of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” to generate actionable intelligence, he has no regrets whatsoever. (“I’d do it again in a minute.”) He expresses nothing but contempt for the Senate intelligence committee’s 6,000-page report, based on 6 million pages of documents, meticulously cataloging forms of treatment that virtually every legal authority in the world and every totalitarian government in history would recognize as torture. Waterboarding, “rectal feeding,” confining a prisoner in a box for a week and a half, dangling others by their arms from an overhead bar for 22 hours at a time, making prisoners stand on broken bones, freezing prisoners nearly to death — none of it, according to Cheney, amounts to torture.

What does constitute torture? For Cheney, it’s “what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” (Maybe our military response to the events of that day should have been christened “The Global War on Torture.”)

Perhaps most stunning of all was Cheney’s response to Chuck Todd’s question about 26 people who, according to the Senate report, were “wrongfully detained” by the CIA at its overseas black sites. The imprisonment and torture of innocent people? “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” The end justifies any means. Got it.

Cheney’s hardly the first person to defend such a position. Machiavelli advocated a version of it in The Prince. It’s been favored by some of the most ruthless nationalists and totalitarians in modern history. And it’s expressed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic by the character Polemarchus (the name means “leader in battle”), who defines justice as helping friends (fellow citizens) and harming enemies (anyone who poses a threat to the political community). This is what patriotism looks like when it’s cut off from any notion of a higher morality that could limit or rein it in. All that counts is whether an action benefits the political community. Other considerations, moral and otherwise, are irrelevant.

The problem with this view, which Socrates soon gets Polemarchus to see, is that amoral patriotism is indistinguishable from collective selfishness. It turns the political community into a gang of robbers, a crime syndicate like the Mafia, that seeks to advance its own interests while screwing over everyone else. If such behavior is wrong for an individual criminal, then it must also be wrong for a collective.

But this judgment presumes the existence of a standard of right and wrong that transcends the political community. Just as an individual act of criminality is wrong because it violates the community’s laws, so certain political acts appear worthy of being condemned because they seem to violate an idea of the good that overrides the politically based distinction between friends and enemies.

There are many such standards. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates nudges Polemarchus toward the view that true justice is helping friends who are good and harming no one. Then there are the Hebrew Bible’s commandments and other divine laws, Jesus Christ’s insistence on loving one’s enemies, categorical moral imperatives, and the modern appeal to human dignity and rights — all of these universal ideals serve to expand our moral horizons beyond the narrow confines of a particular political community and restrict what can be legitimately done to defend it against internal and external threats.

Against these efforts to place moral limits on politics stand those, like the former vice president, who claim that public safety depends upon decoupling political life from all such restrictions. Friends and enemies, us and them, with us or against us, my country right or wrong — it doesn’t matter which dichotomous terms are used. All of them emphasize an unbridgeable moral gulf separating the political community from those who would do it harm. And that gulf permits just about anything. Even torture. Even the torture of innocents. Even redefining torture out of existence in order to exonerate the perpetrators. Everything goes, as long as friends are helped and enemies are harmed.

That’s what Dick Cheney — along with a distressingly large number of Americans — understands by patriotism: a willingness to do just about anything to advance the interests of the United States and decimate its enemies.

Just like a lawless individual.

Just like a gang of robbers.

 

By: Damon Linker, The Week, December 16, 2014

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, Meet The Press, Torture | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Enhanced Interviewing”: Five Questions Chuck Todd Should Ask Dick Cheney On Sunday

This Sunday, Dick Cheney will be interviewed by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. If the former vice president’s previous appearances on that program and others are any indication, he will likely say things that are untrue, and say them with that quiet yet firm Cheneyesque confidence that makes it clear that anyone who disagrees with him is either a fool or a traitor, if not both.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to offer Todd some suggestions on questions he might ask Cheney, in order to elicit the most revealing answers as we have this vital debate on our recent past.

You have long insisted that techniques like waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation are not torture. In order to come to that conclusion, you must have a definition of torture that those techniques do not meet. So what is your definition of torture?

This may seem like a matter of semantics, but it is an absolutely central question to this entire debate, and one that neither Cheney nor any of the other Bush administration defenders of the torture program have ever answered. When asked, Cheney has always simply insisted that we didn’t torture, and that the “enhanced” techniques we used aren’t torture Why? Because they aren’t. Unlike most sane Americans, I’ve actually read Cheney’s turgid memoir, “In My Time,” and there too he simply states flatly that “The program was safe, legal, and effective,” but not torture.

There is a common definition of torture — the infliction of extreme physical or mental suffering in order to obtain information or a confession — that is reflected in U.S. law, the UN Convention Against Torture, and in the minds of pretty much everyone around the world. Under no reasonable interpretation of the term would something like stress positions, which are designed to produce excruciating pain and which have been used as a torture technique for centuries, not qualify. But Cheney doesn’t agree. So he really ought to tell us what he thinks does constitute torture.

We’ll have a new president in two years. Would you advise him or her to restart the torture program?

Two days after taking office in 2009, Barack Obama signed an executive order banning the use of cruel and degrading techniques, and declaring that all U.S. personnel, whether in the CIA or any other agency, would have to abide by the interrogation guidelines set out in the Army Field Manual. It also revoked a 2007 order signed by President Bush, which had declared that “members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces” were outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

What I asked yesterday applies here: Since Cheney is an enthusiastic defender of the torture program in place during the Bush years, and since there are still terrorists in the world, one might presume that he believes not only that it was right to torture suspects in the past, but that we should continue to torture suspects in the future. He should have the chance to make clear whether that is in fact what he believes, and what his advice to the next president would be.

If things like waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation are “safe, legal, and effective,” but are not torture, would you recommend that other countries also use them on prisoners they hold?

Some liberals have noted that Cheney’s implicit position is that these techniques are not torture if we perform them, but would be torture if someone else did. Since this is obviously not something anyone would admit to believing, Cheney should be asked directly if he thinks other countries should also start using these techniques. That would apply to our allies, but it could also apply to less friendly countries like China or Russia. And of course, the natural follow-up is: If an American is captured in some conflict and is subjected to things like waterboarding and stress positions, would Cheney tell that person that not only hadn’t he been tortured, but he had been treated in a safe and legal manner?

During the run-up to the Iraq War and in its early days, you told the American people many things that were false. I know you still believe that all things considered, the war was the right thing to do. But do you think that if you and other members of the Bush administration had argued only from what you actually knew to be true, the public would have supported the war?

The Iraq War’s defenders furiously resist the idea that it was sold on false premises. Some of the things administration representatives said, like “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” were misleading bits of fear-mongering, but were technically hypothetical. However, many of the other things they said were provably false. That’s why, if and when Todd asks such a question, he should have some specifics at hand to keep Cheney from simply asserting that it was all a matter of interpretation and our judgment based on what we thought at the time. What distinguished Cheney’s remarks from those of some of his colleagues was that they were spoken without any qualification or hedging, but were stated as undeniable facts.

For instance, in an August 26, 2002, speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Cheney said: “We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” That was false. He also said: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Not only was this not true, the idea that there was “no doubt” about it was also not true — it was a matter of vigorous debate within the intelligence community, a fact of which Cheney was surely aware.

In an appearance a week later on Meet the Press, Cheney said, “we do know, with absolute certainty, that [Saddam Hussein] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.” Tim Russert then asked: “He does not have a nuclear weapon now?” And Cheney replied, “I can’t say that. I can say that I know for sure that he’s trying to acquire the capability.”

Or there’s his statement that “it’s been pretty well confirmed” that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta traveled to Prague to meet with Iraqi intelligence officials, an utterly bogus story that was nothing like “pretty well confirmed” when Cheney made the claim. I could go on, but it’s worth probing whether Cheney thinks that deceiving the public in the manner they did was necessary to achieve what he sees as a greater good.

Since the end of the recession, the economy has created over 10 million new jobs. Even if we count from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency when hundreds of thousands of jobs were being shedded every month, he has still overseen the creation of a net of six million jobs. In its eight years in office, the Bush administration created a net of 1.3 million jobs. Why has Barack Obama done better than your administration did on job creation?

This is a non-torture-related bonus question. Perhaps Cheney would respond, as many conservatives would, that Barack Obama deserves no credit for anything good that happens with the American economy. But the follow-up would then be, does that mean George W. Bush had no effect on the economy either? The Bush administration enacted huge tax cuts which, all the administration’s representatives assured the public, would result in an explosion of job growth. That never happened. How would Cheney explain it?

One thing we should be able to agree on is that Todd shouldn’t waste his time with Cheney doing things like handicapping the 2016 presidential race. Cheney doesn’t answer questions very often, so when he does, the interviewer ought to make the most of the opportunity.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, December 11, 2014

December 12, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, Meet The Press, Torture | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Only Interesting Thing About Meet The Press”: So Many Journalists Think It’s Interesting To Anyone Other Than Journalists

Kevin Drum’s piece altered me to the fact that Jon Stewart was considered to be the next host of Meet the Press. I googled on “Meet the Press Jon Stewart” and found that Kevin’s was one of a tidal wave of pieces weighing in on this earthshattering revelation. The New York Times, Washington Post and US News and World Report were just a small set of the outlets that analyzed this Cuban Missile Crisis-Level near miss that might have destroyed our country forever. The Stewartgate coverage of course followed a good twelve months of virtually every political journalist in the country writing about how then-MTP host David Gregory was in trouble, and who would replace him, and would this person plunge the nation into peril or redeem its lost greatness (Lest you think that the recent spate of Meet the Press-related coverage was just because of Jon Stewart’s media profile, check out the non-Stewart-related MTP coverage at, to name only a few, New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post and FoxNews). God, the suspense of having our species’ future hinging on who — Dear Lord tell us, who? — would take the throne as Meet the Press host and thereby do something apparently quite important.

Or not. Seeing all these articles actually made me throw up a little in my mouth because I cannot take another round of journalists treating anything and everything that happens on MTP as more than remotely newsworthy. There are contests to name the most undercovered stories of the year in journalism. The goings-on at Meet the Press deserve the prize for the most overcovered story for several years running.

In the days when Lawrence Spivak walked the earth, Meet the Press developed an innovative concept in television: Have political journalists talk to each other and to politicians about the political events of the day. Since that time, this format has been copied to the point that one could literally watch such shows 24 hours a day every day if one were that masochistic. By Sunday everything momentous and everything trivial in the week’s politics has been chewed over 100 times already, and seeing the soggy orts remasticated on MTP et al. is the television version of experiencing “harsh interrogation methods”.

And alert to journalists: Almost no one other than you watches Meet the Press anymore. The many stories making a big deal about which of the Sunday morning shows is ranked first are analogous to making a big deal over who has the best batting average in Professional Baseball’s Double AA minor league system. Hit shows in the United States draw 10-20 million viewers per broadcast; you can be first among the not-so-vaunted Sunday morning talk show competition with less than 3 million viewers tuning in, counting all the people who are dozing off in the nursing home’s common room.

The only thing interesting about Meet the Press is that so many smart journalists think it’s interesting to anyone other than journalists. Please folks, find something more important to write about, like the war, the economy or what you did on your summer vacation.

 

By: Kevin Humphreys, Ten Miles Square, Washington Monthly Political Animal, Octoer 10, 2014

October 12, 2014 Posted by | Journalists, Media, Meet The Press | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Who Needs ‘Meet The Press’?”: It’s Not Sunday Shows Audiences Hate, It’s Sunday Show Hosts

If you want to put your finger on the problem confronting Chuck Todd, who made his much-ballyhooed debut as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, you don’t have to look much farther than the two “fun new features” introduced on the first show.

Todd said the recurring segment called “Who Needs Washington?” will explore politics beyond the Beltway, which this week meant interviews with mayors of cities that are “going it on their own with little of Washington’s help or dysfunction.” The second new feature is “What everyone in Washington knows but is afraid to say.” This week the thought that dare not speak its insight was “what Hillary Clinton’s really up to.”

But maybe what everyone on Meet the Press is really afraid to say is that Todd’s mission is at best inherently self-contradictory: although his new show desperately wants some outsider cred to boost the ratings, it’s not willing to risk its insider status to do so.

Talking to America’s big-city mayors is hardly new—Sunday shows have always been bringing on local pols who claim to be better at governing than the national leaders. And while the very existence of a Sunday Beltway talk show would seem to hinge on telling you what “everyone in Washington knows” and you don’t, as it turned out, neither Chuck nor his panelists had anything new to say about “what Hillary’s up to.” (And since when was anyone in the media afraid to speculate about that? The only fear you smell is their fear of admitting, “I don’t know.”)

As MTP fell from first to third place during David Gregory’s misbegotten reign, NBC brass realized that something was wrong beyond Gregory, but they weren’t sure what. “The show needs more edge,” NBC News President Deborah Turness recently declared. Format changes, she suggested, will include a panel of journalists questioning guests, as the show did in its earlier, better days. “The one-on-one conversation belongs to a decade ago,” she said. “We need more of a coffeehouse conversation.”

So just how edgy or coffeehouse was yesterday’s show? It stuck to a one-on-one interview, of President Obama, but it usefully tweaked the format so that the panel discussion was interspersed with the interview.

But only one panelist conceivably had “edge,” or his visibly tattooed armed did, anyway: Buzzfeed reporter John Stanton, who’s been a guest on Chris Hayes’s and then Steve Karnaki’s Up—a show that’s edgy enough to not broadcast its need for that quality.

But the other panelists included the usual inside-DC suspects and MSNBC stalwarts: Andrea Mitchell, who has her own MSNBC show and is married to former Fed chair Alan Greenspan; The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson, who pops up on MSNBC to convey the most conventional wisdom in the most conventional way; and Joe Scarborough, now promoted to an “NBC News senior political analyst.” It’s possible that Joe could bring the edge of his sarcastic annoyance as well as coffeehouse demeanor from Morning Joe. But on Todd’s show, Joe wasn’t allowed to play the alpha male, and he was on his best network TV behavior; he even had only nice things to say about Obama.

Try as he might—and he only might—Todd may not be able to escape the safe blandness endemic to network Sunday shows.

The shadow all the NBC anchors are trying to outgrow is Tim Russert’s, who was MTP host until he unexpectedly died in 2008. Russert had a reputation for “gotcha” journalism, in a good way. He’d use the technology of his era—tapes from the archives—to confront a guest: back then you said that, but now you say this. Some guests were rattled, but the show soon acquired a chummy atmosphere—seasoned pols would lean in and say, “You sure are good with those clips, Tim,” and then chuckle through an analysis of spin. “Meet the talking points,” critic Jay Rosen calls the show.

After all, the hosts and producers didn’t want to alienate the guests they’d need to book down the road. Even more, of course, they didn’t want to alienate the corporate sponsors. Corporations advertised on the Sunday shows to influence policy legislated by the target audience of “thought leaders.” The shows were dominated by companies like GE, Northrup Grumman and Archer Daniels Midland, who helped determine what policies and scandal were not talked about on Sunday shows. Yesterday on MTP, Koch Industries ran its big national ad that says, in so many words, they’re so powerful you’re better off working for them than boycotting them.

The idea is that these corporations are above right/left politics, a delusion the news media helps perpetuate by repeating the false equivalency canard that both political sides are equally guilty of any wrong. This Sunday, Todd kept suggesting that it won’t make any difference if the midterm elections result in a Republican or a Democratic senate majority, because gridlock will rule the day. (Obama gave a decent explanation for why that’s crazy.)

In trying to brand the show and himself, Todd has been repeating his own slogan of sorts: “It’s not politics that people hate, it’s that they hate the politicians that don’t know how to practice the art of it.” That sounds plausible, but it also sounds like a reluctance to examine underlying structural issues to focus instead on the personalities of the moment.

In fact, you might say, it’s not Sunday shows audiences hate, it’s Sunday show hosts.

But as Jason Linkins wrote, “A New Host On ‘Meet The Press’ Isn’t Going To Solve Its Problems.” He made a great case for why John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight “beats ‘Meet The Press’ coming and going. The show literally wandered right onto ‘Meet The Press’ Beltway turf and delivered a report [on the nutritional supplement industry] with a sophistication that no Sunday show has pulled off in years.” It wasn’t just the jokes that made it work, but “the show wanted to have a point” and demonstrated a “real respect and genuine concern for their audience, instead of trying to get over by posing as an ‘insider’ operating under a veil of savviness.”

Todd is smart enough to recognize the problem, but to really shake off that toxic insider status, he might consider Jay Rosen’s advice:

I think it would be wise for Chuck Todd to see himself and his colleagues, Washington journalists, as part of the class that has screwed up politics.

And maybe, in taking over “Meet the Press,” he can begin to address some of how that happened.

 

By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, September 8, 2014

September 9, 2014 Posted by | Media, Meet The Press | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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