Thursday, November 22, 2007

Blogosphere not as radical as pundits think

Blogosphere not as radical as pundits think

by Gene Lyons

It's no exaggeration to say that the establishment media's initial response to the blogosphere was panic. The idea of mere citizens talking back to the press was unsettling to Washington media celebrities. Pundits who'd exhibited no qualms about the sordid imaginings of, say, American Spectator or The Wall Street Journal editorial page recoiled in horror at online mockery. It was laugh-out-loud funny to see a Washington Post reporter infamous for treating Kenneth Starr's backstairs leaks like holy writ make a show of pretending that the now-defunct Web site mediawhoresonline. com had accused her of prostitution. How the system had always worked was this: They dished it out, everybody else had to take it. Now that many print and broadcast outlets feature Web logs - blogs - of their own, it's no longer common to hear the word "blogger" pronounced with utter disdain. Even so, competition from the groundlings still provokes unease. The latest high-minded worrier is a University of Chicago law professor and sometime politico, Cass R. Sunstein.

A Justice Department official during the Carter and Reagan administrations, Sunstein has written a book called "Republic. com 2. 0," essentially arguing that the Internet's "echo chamber effect" is responsible for increased political polarization and declining civility. In an interview with salon. com, he said that social scientists find that when people talk only to those who agree with them, their views become more extreme.

"I don't like that Rush Limbaugh listeners call themselves ‘ditto heads,'" Sunstein said. "It's funny, but it's kind of horrible. FOX News is a self-identified conservative outlet. The more extreme elements on the left treat their fellow citizens as if they're idiots, or as if they're rich people who don't care about anybody." A former colleague and friend of Barack Obama, he yearns for greater recognition of the truism that "that neither conservatives nor liberals have a monopoly on wisdom." No sentient person thinks they do. We're all a mix of conflicting opinions. I've had runins with what I call the anti-gravity left during my own inglorious career. (I'm pro-hunting, for example, which drives sentimentalists nuts. ) Today, however, I'd argue that Sunstein suggests a false dichotomy of little relevance to the current situation.

Among the blogs I read, there's no equivalent of the authoritarian impulses, intellectual dishonesty and rote chanting of the GOP party line that characterizes Limbaugh and his imitators on the right. Partly, that's because most are written by educated individuals who take pride in winning arguments without cheating, and to whom party orthodoxy is anathema. In a saner climate, many wouldn't be called left-wing at all.

How liberal do you have to be to defend habeas corpus, Fourth Amendment privacy rights and the rule of law, as Glenn Greenwald does on his "Unclaimed Territory" blog at salon. com ? A former constitutional litigator, Greenwald brings rare clarity and passion to political issues with legal overtones.

Here are the political blogs I read every day.

Duncan Black's "Eschaton" blog combines the analytical skills of a Ph. D. economist with the irreverent wit of a Philadelphia wiseacre. If you'd been reading Eschaton (or Paul Krugman ), you'd have seen the housing bubble and the sub-prime lending crisis coming.

Josh Marshall's Ph. D. is in history, but his talkingpointsmemo blog specializes in gritty, detailed reporting. Marshall was on top of the Jack Abramoff influencepeddling scandal from the get-go. Link through talkingpointsmemo to Greg Sergeant's saucy "Horse's Mouth" media criticism blog.

Bob Somerby's Daily Howler provides salty press criticism you'll read nowhere else. "Radicalized" by the Washington media's 2000 "War on Gore" (his Harvard roommate, Al Gore ), Bob can't abide liberal fecklessness about the way RNC-invented "narratives" dominate mainstream political coverage, and he doesn't mind offending "weak, worthless" liberal pundits who look the other way.

Eric Alterman's "Altercations" blog is another place to find impassioned disputation between the host and a wide variety of antagonists on everything from Israel's Likud party to the New York Mets. A Ph. D. in history, Alterman also is the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan on the Internet. "Slacker Fridays," when the inimitable Charles Pierce's scathing missives appear, is a must. Media Matters columnists Eric Boehlert and Jamison Foser's dissections of the vices and follies of the "mainstream" media advance a point of view similar to The Daily Howler's somewhat more politely. Kevin Drum (washingtonmonthly. com ) and the inimitable Digby (digbysblog. blogspot. com ), a writer of such analytical brilliance and prodigious output she shames the rest of us idlers, are two bloggers I never miss. Read around for a while, follow the links to related sites and you'll soon find your own favorites list. A celebrated editor once told me that reading the letters submitted for publication to his magazine had persuaded him that, contrary to media careerists in metropolitan enclaves, political intelligence and wisdom are scattered randomly across the American landscape. Thanks to the Internet, they no longer have to ask anybody's permission to speak out.

This article originally appeared in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hillary's record withstands 'character' attacks

by Gene Lyons

Maybe somebody ought to give Iowa waitress Anita Esterday a political TV talk show. She couldn't be any worse than, say, MSNBC's Tucker Carlson. Recently, the boyish pundit has been suggesting that there's something deeply weird about female voters who support Sen. Hillary Clinton because they'd like a woman president, although it's entirely reasonable for "married white men" to despise her "because she gives off the feeling that she despises them." Got that ? Women: dangerously irrational. Men: terrified of women. If you think that's an isolated example, tune in "Hardball." Now that hyperthyroidic host Chris Matthews has finally exhausted the topic of Clinton's troublesome laugh, he's recently focused several programs on her peculiarly "Chinese" manner of clapping her hands.

It's not just MSNBC's testosterone brigade that's gone all Gong Show. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd actually favorably cited somebody scolding "Hillary's callousness in dumping Socks, the beloved White House cat and bestselling author, on Bill's former secretary, Betty Currie."

Try to believe it: Clinton's daughter grows up and leaves home, so a friend adopts her cat. To Dowd, this epitomizes the candidate's "opportunism... her secrecy, her ruthlessness."

What's wrong with these people ? It's common to compare Washington's self-infatuated media celebrities to high school kids. But even high school was never like this. Adolescents normally try to conceal their neuroses. These jokers mistake them for insights.

But let's get back to Esterday of Oelwein, Iowa. She served Clinton a sandwich during her shift at the Maid-Rite restaurant. At a later campaign stop, Clinton talked about meeting a waitress, a single mother working two jobs, exactly the kind of person her candidacy's all about.

Yeah, they all say that. So anyway, National Public Radio reporters descended upon the Maid-Rite, where Esterday, although she didn't blame Clinton personally, complained that Clinton's entourage hadn't left anybody a tip. NPR broadcast the story, a classic "gotcha." The great champion of hard-working women was too cheap to leave a tip. Good for a halfdozen "Hardball" episodes or Dowd columns, minimum.

Except apparently it was false. A Clinton spokesman said that staffers had left a $ 100 tip on a $ 157 tab at the cash register. This will scarcely be credited by anybody who's worked in a restaurant, but it seems that the money never got to the waitresses. NPR's "gotcha" fell apart, as careful reporting would have established in the first place. Some stories are too good to check closely.

Contacted by The New York Times, Esterday was properly amazed.

"You people are really nuts," she said. "There's kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now - there's better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn't get a tip."

Amen to that. Indeed, it may be time to revise H. L. Mencken's immortal trope that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. True, scary numbers of people can't name their U. S. senators or locate Iran on a map. This leaves them vulnerable to shameless propaganda.

Today, it's the irresponsibility of Washington media celebrities that's most troubling. Consider Social Security, something that couldn't be more relevant to somebody like Anita Esterday. In 2005, Democrats defeated GOP schemes to privatize, i. e. hand over to the geniuses responsible for the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the most successful social insurance program in American history.

So here came NBC's Tim Russert, doing his act at the recent Democratic presidential debate. Along with co-moderator Brian Williams, Russert's performance made it official: Among Beltway All-Stars, it's open season on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards played along - and they did - they're fools.

There are many legitimate issues to debate - Clinton's vote for Joe Lieberman's saber-ratting Iran resolution, for example, or what many see as her excessively nuanced position on Iraq - without buying into these RNC-manufactured "character" issues. Grab the lead and it'll be your turn next, boys.

Regarding Social Security, the amiable Russert asked Clinton a question he said impinged on her "credibility." Supposedly, she'd told an AARP audience that she'd never raise taxes to augment the program and repeated herself to Russert in a New Hampshire debate, but was overheard telling an Iowa teacher that she'd consider it. "Why do you have one public position," Russert asked, "and one private position ?" Jamison Foser at mediamatters. org checked the transcripts. Guess what. Russert's accusatory query was factually false in every particular. Clinton's answers, public and private, have remained consistent: There is no Social Security "crisis." Any actuarial adjustments that may be needed should be considered only after "fiscal responsibility" has been restored. Then raising the tax limit of $ 97, 500 might be among them. She'd like a bipartisan commission. Several of the NBC stars' "character" attacks were similarly off target. Likely, they won't need Social Security. Likely you and Anita Esterday will. It's your democracy they're clowning with.

This article originally appeared in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Politics, Sitcom-style

by Gene Lyons

(For some reason, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette chose not to publish Gene's column this week, so he passed it on to Moose & Squirrel to post. I'm reproducing it here as a back-up.)

It's rare that this column defends Robert Novak, so listen up. After his disgrace-ful conduct in the Plame affair, how the self-styled "Prince of Darkness" appears on TV without a bag over his head I cannot imagine. But Novak's getting heat from people pretending outrage at something he said on "Meet the Press" they'd rather not think about.

"Republicans are very pessimistic about 2008," Novak said. "When you talk to them off the record, they don't see how they can win this thing. And then they think for a minute, and only the Democratic Party...would say that, 'OK, this is the year either to have a woman or an African-American to break precedent, to do things the country has never done before.' And it gives the Republicans hope."

The normally excellent website jumped all over host Tim Russert for not taking issue. But Novak merely stated the obvious. Any Democrat who doesn't realize that nominating Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama (or both) will start a political free-for-all of epic, near-psychotic proportions, must live in an imaginary United States not connected to the North American continent.

Winning that battle could be crucial to bringing the nation back to its democratic (with a small "d") senses. Deluding oneself that it'll be easy, however, is the surest way to fail. Pollsters know that many more people will claim to support minority candidates than actually do. Something Novak only implies is also true: the GOP holds losing cards on every major issue from Iraq to health care. Demonizing the Democratic nominee as unfit for office may provide their only chance of winning.

On cue, GOP sleaze merchant Floyd Brown and "Citizens United" have emerged from the shadows. He and embittered political consultant Dick Morris are collaborating on "Hillary: The Movie." ("Hillary: the DVD" is probably more like it.) David Bossie's involved too. A recent newspaper profile stressed that contrary to Democrats, Brown doesn't actually have horns, "is relaxed and quick to laugh, the deep, rich laugh of a full-grown kid."

Yeah, well, in 1992 Brown playfully transformed the 1977 suicide of a fine young woman into a lurid accusation against Bill Clinton because she'd once taken a law school class he taught. (Also a literature course I taught.) In the process, CBS News documented, Brown and Bossie harassed her family, peered into people's windows, invaded hospital rooms, and misrepresented their own motives and identity. Years later, Bossie got fired as a congressional aide for distributing doctored audiotapes smearing Hillary Clinton to reporters. They're a couple of real cutups.

Peddling lurid videos to yokels, however, isn't the worst of it. Citizen United's real triumph in 1992 was hand-feeding the bogus "Whitewater" scandal to the establish-ment press. The fool thing has a half-life like radioactive waste, even in the most exalted precincts. Elizabeth Kolbert's review of two new Hillary biographies in the New Yorker, for example, makes a big deal of her lost-and-found billing records. Kolbert is a fine reporter; I admire her book "Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change" enormously.

Yet she manages to re-tell the billing records story without mentioning how it ended: when found, Clinton's records vindicated everything she'd said about her legal work for the ill-starred Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. Kenneth Starr's wet dreams about indicting her went for naught. Elsewhere, Kolbert praises her one-time New York Times colleague Jeff Gerth's Whitewater "diligence," then suggests that Hillary's unnaturally secretive because trying to interview her about personal topics "was like talking to someone through several layers of Plexiglas."

Gee, I can't imagine why. Here she was representing the same newspaper that kept an imaginary scandal on the front page for years using precisely the same methods - hiding the Treasury Department's 1995 Pillsbury Report clearing both Clintons of Whitewater misdeeds, for example - and Kolbert wanted to play girlfriends?

It's much the same with Jennifer Senior's "Sex in the City"-style review of the same books in the New York Times. Along with ludicrous asides about genteel Arkansas women and their "quaint ladies luncheons," Senior turns a dubious tale about Hillary's political ambitions completely inside out. (Yo, Jennifer, heard of Lucinda Williams? Now there's an Arkansas woman.)

So did Hillary contemplate running for Arkansas governor in 1990 out of "pent-up frustration...and injured pride" over her husband's alleged affair? No. Carl Bernstein's book makes clear the scheme was Bill Clinton's. They abandoned it after pollsters learned Arkansas voters would compare them unfavorably to George and Lurleen Wallace. (As they surely would have.)

Feigned incomprehension at the post-Lewinsky survival of the Clinton marriage will clearly be a major media theme in 2008. For Hillary to talk about it to anybody holding a notebook would be like Barrack Obama confiding his feelings about the word "nigger" to Citizens United.

Better be thought a cold fish than proven a fool.

July 18, 2007

Friday, June 15, 2007

Republicans have locked up the pundit vote
by Gene Lyons

Nobody knows who next year's presidential candidates will be.

This column has no particular favorite and will make no predictions. Even so, it's not necessary to be a prophet to know how Beltway pundits will handle the so-called character issue. The Republican nominee will be a virile, decisive straight-shooter who's 100 percent "authentic" and "comfortable in his own skin." The Democrat will be an indecisive phony, uncertain of his/her identity, but willing to strike any pose or pander to any constituency in a self-serving bid for power. That was the basic script for the media's astonishing "War on Gore" in 2000, the campaign of falsehood and vilification that helped elevate George W. Bush, an ex-preppie cheerleader and bicycling enthusiast dressed up in rugged "Texas Rancher" costumes, to the presidency over then-Vice President Al Gore.

If truth-telling matters, Bush must rank among the least "authentic" presidents in U. S. history. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell recently rebutted one of the president's pet fictions: that he's a "commander guy" who heeds professional soldiers in Iraq, unlike wishywashy Democrats who expect them to "take fighting directions from politicians 6,000 miles away in Washington, D. C."

In reality, Powell said on Meet the Press, "The president received advice from his military advisers last fall that said, 'Do not send more troops.' Gen. [John ] Abizaid went before the Congress, the commander of Central Command, and said he had consulted with all his division commanders in Iraq and... none of them wanted to send additional troops."

Instead, Bush ordered a surge called for by the same neo-conservative thinktank strategists and op-ed warriors who predicted an Iraqi cakewalk.

But I digress, and pointlessly. By now only cultists impervious to facts expect anything but clueless, arrogant bluster from this president.

In short, there's no evidence that the "Sabbath Gasbags," in Calvin Trillin's immortal phrase, have any more insight into the candidates' character than a trailerpark palm reader and somewhat less than my basset hound Fred, who could at least sniff their hands and figure out whose ears they'd been scratching.

Washington TV political chat appears increasingly disconnected from reality. Here's how the sages on Hardball, MSNBC's answer to junior high school, sum up the GOP hopefuls:

"What's appealing about Rudy Giuliani," thinks Newsweek's Howard Fineman, "is not the generous side. What's appealing about him is the tough cop side."

"Right," adds excitable host Chris Matthews. "You just wait until Daddy gets home."

Another time, Fineman opined that Rudy, a lifelong New Yorker, would have been a heck of a hunter - um, if he'd grown up in Alabama, I suppose.

Of course, Fineman's the same guy who once praised Bush's kinglike bearing: "He's a boomer product of the '60s," the pundit gushed, "but doesn't mind ermine robes."

Fineman actually wrote that under his Newsweek byline.

That's how it goes on Hardball night after night. Mention a prominent Republican and the courtier-pundits swoon like 12-year-old girls at a boy band show. Matthews goes into virtual meltdown over former Sen. Fred Thompson, another "daddy" figure. Frequent guest Mark Halperin, Time's version of Fineman, praises his "magnetism." On TV, he wrote, Thompson plays "a straight-talking, tough-minded, wise Southerner - basically a version of what his supporters say is his true political self."

Now here's a guy who's been a Washington lobbyist and Hollywood actor most of his adult life; campaigned across Tennessee in what turned out to be a rented red pickup driven by an aide; and sports a very un-first ladylike trophy wife younger than his kids. (There's a funny picture on-line of neo-con guru Paul Wolfowitz peering at lovely Jeri's low-cut cocktail dress.) So what's Thompson to the Hardball gang ? Fineman: "A tough guy" with "a strong record on cultural issues as a cultural conservative from the South."

Look, an American presidential election is essentially a long-running reality TV show. So there's definitely something in what they're saying. Hardball has very low ratings outside of D. C., but it and programs like it are where the Beltway group narrative gets worked out, the basic story line that pundits use to sell themselves as experts without studying tedious issues like health care or foreign policy. The brilliant blogger "Digby" asks a penetrating question: "Why do so many male Washington courtiers have giggling mancrushes on... Republican politicians?" Personally, I blame "heterosexual panic." Half the insulting e-mails and all the anonymous phone calls this column generates deal in sexual insult. Whether it's fear of terrorism, uneasiness at the prospect of a woman president or cultural change generally, the GOP base responds like trained seals to tough-guy poses. It follows that Democrats must play the foil: John Edwards a foppish girlyman, Hillary Clinton an unnatural woman, Barack Obama a racially confused Oreo - well, you get the picture. Yes, it's pathetic. And no, it has nothing to do with reality or the nation's problems, but it's nevertheless something Democrats can't afford to ignore.

Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Stupid NYT tricks
Public Remains Split on Response to Warming

Ninety percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 60 percent of Republicans said immediate action was required to curb the warming of the atmosphere and deal with its effects on the global climate. Nineteen percent said it was not necessary to act now, and 1 percent said no steps were needed.
Right, so even when a large majority of Republicans join with the overwhelming majority of Democrats and Independents on an issue, the public is "split".

How come the public is never "split" when it's, say, support for the death penalty, or anything else that sounds good in a right-wing frame?

Yeah, yeah, I do know why.
Jack Velenti Dies
And though your music lingers on
All of us are glad you're gone.

If I could live my life half as worthlessly as you,
I'm convinced that I'd wind up burning, too.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Someday I will figure out why I can never get my laptop to communicate with my brother's network. Oh, sure, I can get into web-based stuff like e-mail, and Blogger and all that, but I really need to use my laptop to update The SIdeshow. Grrr....