Author Archives: George Salamon

Reality journalism: Keeping up with the candidates

Seven weeks after former President Nixon’s funeral on April 27, 1994, Hunter Thompson published his own obituary for Nixon, “He Was a Crook,” on June 16 in Rolling Stone magazine. In it he blamed the practice of Objective Journalism for enabling Nixon to climb to the Oval Office: “It was the blind spot of Objective Journalism’s rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so All-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly.”

Thompson gave readers a taste of what Subjective Journalism might have shown them about the man they voted twice into the highest office in America: “We could always be sure of finding (him) on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and omit a smell of death. Which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Nixon’s style – and if you forgot it, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why God made dachshunds.”

We shall never know if doses of subjective journalism like Thompson’s would have helped Hubert Humphrey (in 1968) or George McGovern (in 1972) in their efforts to defeat Nixon. Reporters covering those presidential campaigns, for newspapers and network news, stuck mostly to the precepts of objective journalism.

Objective journalism, with its goal of fair, accurate and thorough coverage of politics, remains available. However, two factors have done much to wipe out the distinction between such coverage and subjective journalism as practiced today and explored here. One is the reliance, particularly among younger readers and watchers of news, to get their news from digital sources. These audiences want and expect news that is quickly digested and includes a guide or hint to its “meaning.” Also, the battle between the so-called “liberal-left wing” media and “conservative right-wing” ones often requires journalists to aim for skewered coverage. In that kind of coverage fact and opinion are often smoothly merged so that readers and watchers do not have the time, information and ability to separate them in their minds.

The growth of subjective, opinion journalism online sometimes seems to drown out the fair and independent journalism that traditional news organizations still provide.  In fact, the political blogs produced by those traditional news organizations sometimes obscure some of the objective reporting from the campaign trail.

The coverage of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy illustrates the primacy of subjective, opinion journalism.  Do samples culled from publications and websites during the past three months reveal whether or not they propel readers to see the crop of candidates from both parties clearly, or at least more clearly than the veil of objective neutrality permits?

Commenting on Hillary’s first major news conference with CNN, Jonah Goldberg wrote for National Review Online (“Estrangement from the Truth is a Problem for Hillary”): “It was a classical Clintonian way of lying: Make a sweeping, definitive-sounding statement (“I’ve never had a subpoena,” for her emails on Benghazi) and then when called on it, release a fog of technicalities.” Goldberg called these “technicalities “a farrago of misleading statements, blame-shifting and deception,” and concluded that Hillary has “forgotten how to fake convincingly.”

Goldberg has been writing opinion columns for decades and National Review has always been a reliable source of conservative commentary.  But it is worth asking: Is Goldberg’s depiction of Hillary’s style of deception equal to Thompson’s of Nixon’s conduct of political battle? Did readers grasp the “real” Nixon through Thompson’s images? Does Hillary come alive in Goldberg’s prose or does she appear as just another lying politician?

Writing for Canada’s National Post John Robson took a similar approach to “seeing” Hillary (“Clinton’s presidential battle”): “Even if Americans are ‘ready’ for a woman, she’s obnoxious, pushy, out of touch with normal people and so sourly, deviously dishonest, we long for her husband’s charmingly open deceit.” Feminists and others may find “pushy” obnoxious and reject portraying her husband as a used car salesman from whom you don’t much mind buying a lemon because he did it with folksy charm while she tries to sell it with a sour disposition.

Journalists looking at Hillary more favorably take a subjective stance by offering helpful hints for personality improvement. Writing for the New Republic Elspeth Reeve (“What Hillary Can Learn from Michelle Kwan’s Figure Skating Career”) recounts how Kwan responded after she had to settle for a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics because of a tumble in the free skate competition: “After the competition, Kwan skated the exhibition she’d planned long before – in a gold dress, to the song ‘Fields of Gold.’ That, sports fans, is hubris. As she finished, tears ran down her cheeks. Take note, Hillary.” Readers may choose to wait for the movie.

Jamelle Bouie on Slate (“Why Hillary Clinton Should Go Full Nerd”) proposes that Hillary should “offer voters her authentic geeky self” because “Clinton is strongest when she sticks with the concrete – the nuts and bolts of government…Americans want solutions more than inspiration.” Bouie cites Carl Bernstein’s analysis of Hillary as “a woman who led a camouflaged life and continues to” and suggests that revealing her nerdiness to voters would be “the most authentic move she could make.” Forget the gold dress and tears.

Clinton is not the only candidate receiving this kind of “up close and personal” treatment from the media. Her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders got it in the New Republic from Chelsea Summers (“Bernie Sanders Was Just another Hippie Rummaging through My Mothers Fridge”): “One hot night in July 1972 I walked into my family’s kitchen to see my mother brandishing a broom at a skinny man who had his head stuck deep inside our refrigerator.

‘You get out!’ my mother yelled, hitting the man on his skinny ass…Years later, I’d find out that man was Bernie Sanders.” Readers do not find out if that encounter with the writer’s broom-wielding mom drove the young Sanders into the arms of socialism or shaped his character in any way. They can see, however, that age and years as a U.S. Senator have put some flesh on that skinny frame.

On the Daily Beast Donald Trump is derided for his “garish taste” and “awful hair.” In the New Republic readers can learn “how to piss off Donald Trump.”  All male Republican candidates are rated by their manliness on Slate (“The Macho Primary: Which Republican presidential candidate is the manliest?”).

Readers are likely to be bombarded with similar journalism during the fifteen months up to the November 2016 election. Letters and posts on websites may reveal whether such pieces accomplish what Thompson expected subjective journalism to do: provide readers with a clear view of candidates’ character.

Journalists may ask if such articles constitute “subjective journalism” as Thompson practiced it, or if they are journalism’s political news version of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

Good Clinton v. bad Clinton

Hillary's Southern AccentWriting about Marie Antoinette, Judith Thurman commented in a 2006 article in the New Yorker that the woman famous for a remark she never uttered (“Let them eat cake”) is “periodically reviled or celebrated.” The same could be said about the media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton since she stepped into the national limelight as Bill Clinton’s wife during his 1992 bid for the presidency.

Now that she is campaigning for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, many publications and websites devote much of their coverage to one or the other of these familiar approaches. Recent opinion pieces in the online publications of the liberal New Republic and the conservative Washington Free Beacon provide a sort of “comfort food,” the first for Clinton admirers and the second for Clinton detractors.

But neither provides much food for thought based on solid information, history and context.

“The Real Democratic Primary: Hillary Versus the Media” by Suzy Khimm was posted on the New Republic’s website on May 22. This headline suggests something new — that Hillary is running against the media more than the pack of potential Republican candidates. But in fact, Hillary’s relationship with the press is old news. Ken Auletta described her difficulties with the media in the New Yorker on June 2, 2014, observing that “the media can’t stop discussing her” and are “desperately casting about for something new.”

The “new” element in Khimm’s story includes interviews with 30-or-something-year-olds in Arlington Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb she labels “Hillaryland.” Her first interviewee is 29-year-old Beth Lilly, a policy lawyer who remembers the hullabaloo created by Clinton’s Marie Antoinette moment in 1992, when she said: “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.”

Lilly, who would have been about six years old in 1992, recalled that the coverage of the cookie escapade “was just so absurd.” In examining the questionable finances of the Clinton Foundation, Khimm also quotes Lilly as saying, “So her foundation took money. It’s kind of what foundations do.” Khimm could have suggested to Lilly that media coverage has focussed not on what foundations do, but on where some of the millions taken in by the Clinton Foundation came from and how they were doled out. (As in “Clinton Award Included Cash to Foundation,” the New York Times, May 30, or earlier, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal,” in the same paper on April 23.)

When Khimm points out that Clinton’s young Arlington supporters view the media as “trying to drag her (Hillary) down,” she does not ask them for examples. Khimm does not tell her readers which dust-ups in Clintonian history qualify as “scandals” and which as “pseudo-scandals,” and none of the people she interviewed made the distinction for her.

According to Khimm, Clinton’s young supporters no longer blame Republicans or right-wing conservatives for the coverage she is receiving. It’s the media’s fault. One supporter says: “The media are bringing these allegations and these scandals up to see if anyone else in the Democratic party will emerge as a strong candidate and they can go head to head…That sells if you put that out, it sells. It’s them trying to tailor the election to their own needs, rather than what the election is.”

And that’s what the article is meant to reveal, that Clinton’s well-earned path to the White House is not impeded by those Republican bumps in the road, but by roadblocks put up by the media.

Khimm’s article is of, by and for Washington insiders, deeply divided, seeing the world with us v. them blinders. Khimm accepts Clinton’s climb as “the ultimate Washington success story,” never asking citizens in West Virginia or Kansas if that translates into a national success story for them.

A Clinton as Marie Antoinette piece was found in the Washington Free Beacon on May 22: “Miss Uncongenality,” by Matthew Continetti.

The headline tells you that mud is about to be tossed. “Congeniality” is the award the loser in the beauty contests receives, and Continetti is unwilling to tell his readers that Republican winners and losers in presidential campaigns often lacked the quality: Coolidge was taciturn, Ike was aloof, Nixon was resentful, and Dole was dour. Good candidates or presidents? Yes and no, but what has congeniality to do with it?

After the headline, most charges against Clinton are unsupported by facts. At a recent press conference, Continetti suggests, Clinton wanted to ward off questions by “raising her hand empress-like.” And how does an empress raise her hand in a manner different from commoners? Readers don’t know, but it sure sounds bad.

As does every comment about Clinton, without explaining the badness:

“Voting for the Iraq war was a ‘mistake,’ like the one you make on a test.” How does he know her ‘mistake’ (supporting the war in Iraq) was made the same way you make a mistake on a grammar quiz or misidentify a figure in European history? Was her mistake possibly made based on false or incomplete information or on misreading the political and cultural forces in the Middle East?

She released a “blizzard of Clintonian misdirection, omission, dodging, bogus sentimentality, false confidence, and aw-shucks populism.” It’s hard to swallow Continetti’s mind-reading verbiage. Perhaps she was confident (say about her role in the Benghazi attack). What’s “aw-shucks” about her or anyone else’s populism in our current age of greed?

Readers will not be surprised to find the article riddled with “may” and “might” phrases, suggesting the author wants them to assume: “may not work,” or “may begin to change” or “may be the wrong choice.”

Tealeaves reading is no substitute for information and insight-filled journalism.

In the next 17 months before the 2016 election, readers can expect a blizzard of articles such as the ones in the New Republic and the Washington Free Beacon. Long and fact-filled pieces in the New York Times and in other media could provide an antidote.

Charlie Hebdo haunts the media

When Islamist gunmen killed 10 journalists and two policemen in January at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine firebombed in 2011 for its irreverent cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, media reaction to the massacre immediately after was best summed up by the headline of an article in Reason magazine: “I’m all for free speech and murder is wrong, but…”

In much of the media the “but” trumped admiration and respect for the slain journalists’ insistence that religions, along with other institutions and ideas, can and should be mocked and laughed at.

Now, five months and three Charlie Hebdo-related events later, the media remain as divided about the meaning of the slaughter in Paris as they were in January. Too, media are as uncomfortable in dealing with and justifying their coverage and stance expressed in their reports and analyses.

Typical of the hostility toward Hebdo and its band of satirists were the sentiments of National Public Radio’s former ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in an interview with the Washington Examiner. He labeled the magazine’s Muhammad cartoons “intentionally provocative form of hate speech that are undeserving of protection,” and slammed First Amendment “fundamentalists” who mistakenly suggest that the United States has “absolute freedom of the press.”

He added that he didn’t know “if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution,” unaware that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. As Eugene Volokh, professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law pointed out on his blog (the Volokh Conspiracy) in the Washington Post: “hateful ideas are as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.”

There are narrow exceptions, which primarily relate to speech leading to immediate incitement or creating a hostile workplace environment, but “hate speech” has no “fixed legal meaning under U.S. law,” Volokh notes.

None of that stopped a barrage of media attacks on Hebdo, calling the killing of its staff members not excusable or justifiable, but perhaps quite “understandable.” As blogger Kitty Striker wrote, Hebdo’s “racist, homophobic language is not satire. I think it’s abusive, and I think it punches down, harshly and often.”

Facts rarely interfered with the hits on Hebdo. A piece on the Daily Beast pointed out what French scholars discovered; namely that “in the last decade just seven of Charlie Hebdo’s 523 covers dealt with Islam.” And as one of the magazine’s supporters, Dominique Sopo, Togolese president of SOS-Racism (France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization) tried to explain: “Every week, half of Charlie Hebdo was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”

What the magazine was really about was lost in the hullaballoo and outrage over the Muhammad cartoons, or it was dismissed, as on the left-wing website Counterpunch as an “extended adolescent revolt.”

Not surprisingly, among U.S. media, the New York Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC and the Associated Press refused to publish any of the Muhammad cartoons. The Times said it does not publish materials that “offend the religious sensibilities” of its readers, but did not inform them which of their sensibilities, if any, it was OK to offend.

Media organizations publishing one or several of the cartoons included the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News, Bloomberg, HuffingtonPost, Daily Beast and the New York Post.

Our paper of record is unwilling or unable to understand what M.G. Oprea, writing in the Federalist magazine, understands so well: “Freedom of expression is worthless if it excludes speech that offends someone.”

Coverage of Charlie Hebdo, Michael Cavna observed in the Washington Post, “pulled and polarized media on opposite sides of a kinetic dividing line.” Five months after the slaughter in Paris, posthumous publication of a book by Charlie Hebdo’s editor, exposed that dividing line once again.

On April 16 the New York Times ran a story on its website about “Open Letter to the Fraudsters of Islamophobia Who Play Into Racists’ Hands,” Stephane Charbonnier’s book (only in French, so far) and headlined the story “Book by Slain Charlie Hebdo Editor Argues Islam Is not Exempt From Ridicule.”

The headline apparently did not sit well with some editors, fearful of giving offense, so the headline of the same story in next day’s print edition read: “With Posthumous Book, Charlie Hebdo Editor Proves Defiant in Death.”  Excerpts from the book, which ran in the weekly newsmagazine L ‘Obs, show him more thoughtful than defiant: “The problem is neither the Quran nor the Bible,” he wrote, “sleep-inducing, incoherent and badly written novels. The problem is the faithful, who read the holy books like instructions for assembling Ikea shelves.”

The media, in America and abroad, chose to ignore his broadside at all fundamentalist faith and blasted away at his attacks on those of his targets who misunderstood or deliberately misstated the magazine’s satire: “Charlie Hebdo editor attacks liberals from the grave,” shouted London’s Times. Britain’s Telegraph saw the book as a “posthumous attack on left-wing French intellectuals.” And our own NPR saw “Islamophobia” as the book’s main target of attack.

Much of the coverage ignored one target, the one exposed by Matt Welch on April 17 in Reason: “He (Charbonnier) pillories the unquestioning use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ by some journalists either out of laziness or commercial interest.”  The Washington Post stood out for also exploring the book’s condemnation of “journalists, politicians and others, whom he accused of using fear of Islam for their own purposes.”  The paper earned plaudits for quoting Chardonnier’s words: “The problem is not religions, but those who practice and distort them.”

Reading the excerpts available might have brought journalists closer to understanding what Hebdo’s satire, following is about. Charlie Hebdo was seen in France as  “the scourge of post-fascist (French) political party Front National, the enemy of Papists, cheerful anti-racist activist, fellow-traveler of the French Communist party, staunch agitator for Palestine…” as readers of the publication understand and informed those journalists (as those from the Daily Beast) willing to listen.

Most media did not bother to reach for and attain such an understanding. So when PEN, the international organization of writers, chose to grant its “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo (in New York on May 5) the media focused its attention on the dissenters within PEN.

“A Literary Honoree Splits Allies,” the New York Times proclaimed, unwilling to decide whether or not the magazine was “a misunderstood honoree, or perhaps just a bigoted outlet.” The “bigoted outlet” fans made most of the noise and so got most of the attention.

Publications printed their protests and outcries, which made much better copy than the calm defenses of the magazine and its contributions to social and political satire.

The letter signed initially by 145 PEN members claimed that Charlie Hebdo publishes “selectively offensive material that intensifies the anti-Islam…anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

Individual members were even nastier. Novelist Francine Prose called Hebdo’s cartoons “gleefully racist” and suggested that they “conveniently feed into a larger political narrative of white Europeans killed by Muslim extremists, which is not the case.” Only a few (the Daily Beast standing tall among them) dared to point out that the families of the 10 Hebdo staffers and two police officers as well as the four customers assassinated in a kosher market, might beg to differ.

Prose continued her assault on the victims by claiming that she saw no difference in Joseph Goebbels’ anti-Semitic propaganda “spewing eliminationist rhetoric” and Hebdo’s “mocking religious radicals.” Similarly, novelist Deborah Eisenberg asked PEN if it would “grant the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer?” (The Nazi magazine that featured cartoons- of Jews as blood-sucking and blond –maiden- chasing sub-humans.)

No traditional media outlet asked viewers or readers to compare cartoons from that publication with any from Charlie Hebdo, which The New Yorker described as “blatantly, roughly sexual and not designed to endear them to Jews or Christians,” but not as viscerally racist or dehumanizing. Hebdo’s cartoons, cited by the magazine, showed the Pope kissing a member of the Vatican guard and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.

Survivor of the Paris massacre, Hebdo’s film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who missed the January 7 editorial meeting because he overslept, was invited to the PEN ceremony. When confronted with the comments of some dissenting PEN members and their comparisons of his publication’s cartoons to Nazi propaganda, shrugged and said: “They don’t really know what they’re talking about.”

It surprised few, then, that the May 2 attempted attack on an exhibit of a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas,  received the usual and by now tired same-old coverage. The two gunmen, killed by a local traffic officer wanted to shout “The prophet is avenged,” as one killer did in Paris over the body of a policeman, but their path to the attack was by now an old story. The mother of one slain gunman said her son “was raised in a normal American fashion.”

A few media blamed the event’s organizer, blogger Pamela Geller, for exercising “bad judgment” and inviting a violent response. And that’s what had already been said back in 2011, when Islamists firebombed the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The botched shooting will, appropriately enough, be used by Abilene Christian University’s journalism department as a teaching tool, KTXS-TV in Abilene reported in a brief bulletin.

There is much to find out about the media’s unease with the meaning of free speech — specifically which restrictions or constraints on the First Amendment the media accept or reject.

The media might want to reflect on what it means that nine years ago six in 10 Americans felt it was irresponsible for newspapers to run cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, but  that today six in 10 respondents say they are OK with papers doing just that.

The media might want to ask themselves if they are willing to “accept a gag order by a religion that can’t stand criticism or mockery.”

And they might want to ask themselves if the “negative liberty” granted by the First Amendment allows exceptions for legally irrelevant categories such as “bad taste” or “bad judgment.”

And finally, they might want to think about how their answers, and their conduct based on those answers, touch on the survival of an open and free society and laws designed to keep it open and free.

Clinton courts the heartland




Soon after Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy on April 12 for the 2016 presidential race, she and an entourage of advisers and Secret Service agents took off in a van named Scooby, after the 1970s animated Scooby Doo show, to meet the folks of the heartland.

Stopping off at a Chipotle restaurant in the Toledo suburb of Maumee, Ohio, USA TODAY reported that the former senator and secretary of state, after ordering a chicken burrito bowl, “left without anyone in the place giving her a second glance.”

The journalists in Washington, D.C., and New York City accorded her candidacy a more animated and vivid response. Writing for The New Republic (“There’s Nothing Inevitable about Hillary,” April 12) Rebecca Traister reported: “So what could possibly go wrong? Everything.  Anything.  Anything and everything. Hillary Clinton has loomed so powerfully in the American consciousness for so long that it’s hard to remember how delicate, how combustible, how ultimately improbable the project of electing her president is likely to be.”

Traister paid too little attention to Clinton’s individual flaws that could propel “anything” and “everything” to go wrong.

She devoted one sentence to list them: “She’s hawkish, she’s inauthentic, she’s a centrist, her ties with Wall Street are far too tight, she didn’t condemn her husband’s infidelities as sexual harassment.”

Writing from the heartland Susan Douglas, professor of communications at the University of Michigan, caught that spirit better in “Ready for a Woman, but not Hillary Clinton,” (In These Times, April 13): “…aren’t we overdue for a woman president?” Douglas asks. “Yes, but not just any woman (think Sarah Palin): one with genuine feminist and progressive sensibilities. For many of us in Clinton’s generation, feminism did not mean trying to be more like a man.”

Douglas observed that “We are reminded of seeming coldness there, opportunism, a lack of empathy with the 99% and a failure to channel female compassion.”

The trip in Scooby the van was intended to cast Clinton, the Toronto Star observed, “as a champion of ordinary Americans.”

Obama has disappointed—some say deceived—ordinary Americans on the economic help he promised. “During the post-recession period of 2009 and 2010, the rich snagged a greater share of total income growth than they did during the boom years of 2002 to 2007,” Matt Stoller blogged on Naked Capitalism, citing the work of Professor Emmanuel Saez at Berkeley.

And what about Hillary’s new and improved identity, that of a warm grandma who wants to help “children born in Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or the Rio Grande Valley” have the same shot at success as her granddaughter Charlotte?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested that Clinton donate some of that “obscene $2.5 billion that she’s planning to spend to persuade us to make her grandmother of the country” on those children.

Some ordinary Americans have figured out, by now, that there’s a nickel’s worth of difference between the two parties. They do not believe, with those who have made careers of political reporting and analysis, that—as Traister insists—“it matters very much to the future of this country who the next president is.” Under presidents from both parties since Ronald Reagan, the poor have gotten poorer and remained poorer and the rich have gotten richer.

Some Americans have learned that the world, including America, “is ruled by power and power is obtained with money.”  Much of what the media do now is report on how politicians play the game.



A divided media reports: Did Obama lay an Easter egg?

The conservative and right-wing media were offended. The liberal and left-wing ones were amused. At the center of the tempest in the Easter basket were remarks made by President Obama at the April 6 prayer breakfast in the East Room of the White House.

Four days after the jihadist terror group Al-Shabaab killed 147 students at Kenya’s Garissa University, many or most selected for execution because they were Christian, the president told his audience that:

“On Easter I do reflect on the fact that as a Christian I am supposed to love. And, I have to say that sometimes when I listen to less-than-loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned. But that’s a topic for another day.” (Laughter)

No surprise that, as Media Matters put it, “Right-wing media freak out, claim Obama’s Easter speech maligned Christians.” (April 8)

The Washington Times fumed and declared that “President Obama casts a stone, condemns ‘less-than-loving’ Christians.” At the Daily Caller “Obama uses White House Easter prayer breakfast to malign Christians.”

The New York Times and Washington Post, stalwarts of the liberal journalism establishment, saw the whole thing more as a political operetta. The Times observed Obama as throwing “a mild poke at critics” at the breakfast while to the Post he “teases his critics.” The whole thing was just a bit of Washington political theater and good for a laugh or two.

The two sides couldn’t even agree on how his remarks were received. At The conservative American Thinker some in the audience “murmured—some with apparent disapproval, as others laughed.” The Post heard “applause and some jeering and laughter.”  The Associated Press story that ran in the New York Times caught only “loud laughter from the audience.”

Maybe it mattered where in the East Room the reporter sat or if she or he was chomping on a bran muffin while others laughed or jeered or murmured.

But what are we to make of how the media ran with this story? We don’t even know whom Obama was referring to as those “less-than-loving Christians.” When asked, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “I don’t know.”

Many publications assumed it was the Christian couple from the Walkerton, Indiana, pizzeria, who said they would not cater a gay or lesbian wedding, although they would serve such couples if they walked into their Memories Pizza parlor.

If so, the once-president of the Harvard Law Review has turned downright silly. That, or he’s not yet ready for prime-time, late night television.

On February 5 he had presided over another prayer breakfast at the White House, and here is what he said then:

“We…see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge…or worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism…terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.”

The president knows that the O’Connors of Indiana, and other Christians in America like them, don’t belong in the picture he painted in February. If he was indeed referring to them as the “less-than-loving Christians,” why do it? To get a rise out of the opponents who have thwarted much of his political agenda? To get laughs and a smattering of boos? If so, he accomplished the mission.

What is there to learn from this episode? Primarily, that politics, as journalism, has joined the American entertainment nation, in which there is hardly room for thoughtfulness and gravitas.

Where have the adults in America gone? Certainly not to Washington.

In Fox News We Trust — Should Walter Cronkite be rolling over in his grave?

The bad news for liberals and progressives arrived via a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University: Fox News was the news source among broadcast and cable networks Americans trusted most.

Fox beat all networks handily, garnering 29 percent as “most trustworthy” among the 1,286 registered voters called between February 26 and March 2. CNN took second place with 22 percent, CBS and NBC tied at distant third with 10 percent each, ABC followed with 8 percent and forward-leaning MSNBC was at the back of the pack with 7 percent.

The Washington Post was aghast that “for millions of Americans Fox News is the mainstream media.” Liberal blogs found the poll results “terrifying” and bemoaned the fact that the conservative network, a “Murdoch-owned scream machine” to one blogspot, had become a “ratings juggernaut.”

Should Walter Cronkite, icon of liberal or mainstream broadcast news during the 1960 and ’70s, be turning over in his grave?

Not too often. A Gallup poll conducted in late 2014 revealed that 60 percent of Americans don’t trust all news media; other recent polls have told us that “America’s confidence in news media remains low.”

But follow-up questions are rarely asked in these polls. We don’t discover if confidence was ever high, when that was, and why confidence diminished or disappeared.

The Quinnipiac poll takes a perfunctory shot at asking and gives the following results: 48 percent of voters interviewed say that the information presented on television news is “less newsworthy” than in the heyday of broadcast news, only 7 percent consider it “more trustworthy” and 35 percent consider it “about the same.”

Almost the same percentage (42 percent) is saying that the news presented on Cronkite at CBS or Huntley-Brinkley on NBC was more than or as “newsworthy” as the 48 percent who consider the news on television today “less newsworthy.”

That could be because the half hour Cronkite and others had available then rarely featured celebrity scandals or tales of crime the full hour allotted to Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow permits to titillate viewers. Cronkite did not compete with the National Enquirer or PEOPLE Magazine.

But we do not learn whether or not the respondents in the poll speak from experience, from having watched nightly news on the three networks when they dominated television news, and compare what they remember to the fare on the cable channels today.

Moreover, how much do they know about stories, from political to economic or foreign news, to judge them more or less accurate, as worthy or unworthy of their trust? And, where do they get the information to shape such judgments?

Newspapers and magazines, alas, are not mentioned in these polls, nor are the young people who tend to, as they often inform pollsters, “seek out personal venues for getting information.” A Facebook message from a friend, citing a passage from a blog or comment by another friend, is such a venue, as are late night TV jokes or news as seen by stars of Comedy Central. Entertaining while sneaking in facts works.

Fox News gloated when, on March 9, the Quinnipiac poll crowned it King of Newscasts. Soon after, reports of a major shake-up and realignment at MSNBC were published. Liberals and progressives, after all, still have NPR and three biggies of daily print journalism—the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times—to carry the banner for the Democrats’ agenda and for social reforms.

Yet, they ought to take a look at what Fox News did well to perform so well on the latest poll, and how MSNBC screwed up. Personalities on the screen matter, in a way they of course never did in print or in the old broadcast news business. Edward R. Murrow was not a laugh every three minutes and reported without chatting or shouting. Hectoring, the boys and girls at MSNBC might discover, does not make a conversation.

But there is solace in the really big picture. Another poll revealed that “Americans don’t trust each other.” Only one third of respondents in an Associated Press poll believed that “most people can be trusted.”  As 27-year-old Bart Murawski of Albany, NY, put it: “I’m leery of everybody.”

Including the hosts and talking heads on the news.


Wannabe heroics of O’Reilly and Williams

Bill O'Reilly Under FireOn April 19, 1945 the New York Times published an obituary for nationally known war correspondent Ernie Pyle who “died today on Iejema Island, just west of Okinawa, like so many of the doughboys he had written about…killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire.” Pyle, the Times added, had become World War II’s beloved “chronicler of the average American soldier’s daily round, in and out of foxholes in many war theatres.”

He had also become the role model for journalists covering a war. After 1945, American reporters pursued that ambition in Korea in the 1950s and in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. But when Great Britain and Argentina squared off in their 1982 squabble over the Falkland Islands and during America’s first war in Iraq in 2003, government restrictions and censorship made it impossible. Thus reporters’ dreams of heroism on the field of battle or in the field of journalism came to an end.

“The age of the war correspondent as hero appears to be over,” Phillip Knightly, reporter for the London Sunday Times, wrote in his book “The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq.” (2004 edition)

This is not an excuse for the embellishments of the experiences Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly made to his reporting on the Falkland Islands war or NBC’s Brian Williams to his stint in Iraq, but as context around their original claims, lost in much parsing of the phrases or terms with which they initially described their encounters with the dangers of covering frontline carnage.

The Vietnam War, Knightly wrote, was “better reported than any of the other wars examined here” (in his book). Drew Middleton, who covered the military for the New York Times, attributed that to the absence of censorship. As a result, there was a great deal of original reporting. Moreover, access to the population of Vietnam allowed reporters to capture the human aspects of the war’s “complete tragedy” for both sides. Seymour Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for his stories about the My Lai massacre, Sydney Schanberg for his dispatches from Cambodia carpet-bombed by United States Air Force B-52s.

Reporters were free to write the first draft of history in Vietnam, and David Halberstam of the NYT expressed this in a letter to Knightly. He suggested that each story from the war there should have included a third paragraph that read: “All of this is shit and none of this means anything because we are in the same footsteps as the French and we are prisoners of their experience.”

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence, a decade later, wanted to make sure reporters would not come to a similar conclusion about the Falklands conflict. Only a group of selected British correspondents were allowed to accompany UK forces to the battlefield on the islands, leaving “no room for impartial reporting.” O’Reilly and all other reporters covered the conflict from Buenos Aires, 1,180 miles from combat, based on press releases prepared in London.

The British government, Knightly observed, followed three rules: control access to the fighting; exclude neutral correspondents; censor your own. The American government found another way to prevent war correspondents from undermining its Iraq operation by the ways they might report it: it embedded reporters within units of American forces. They thereby saw to it that a bond was established between the members of the unit and the correspondent assigned to it; they controlled just what embedded reporters got to see and what they would not see.

Questions about the “big picture,” about the government-proclaimed progress made in the war were often brushed off during press briefings: “This is a f___ing war, asshole. No more questions for you. Why don’t you just go home.”

Reporters were embedded, caged in the experiences of their units, unable or unwilling to report on the plight of the Iraqi victims of the fighting. The media at home decided that the public was not interested, in 2003, in people just like those responsible for 9-11. The government had won the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people, even if lies about Iraq were necessary.

And for correspondents such as Brian Williams, the dangers a freely roaming reporter like Ernie Pyle faced in war zones, were unavailable, so he added them to his reporting repertoire.

What O’Reilly and Williams did was not necessary. The former is a leading talk show host, the latter a successful nightly national news anchor. Their climbs to those positions were, we assumed, supported by solid news reporting in the past, and if possible by the “heroism” of facing great danger to capture what the wars on the Falkland Islands and in Iraq were like for all touched by them, and what they were all about.

There has been little of that kind of reporting since it was squashed in the Falklands and in Iraq.
War reporting had become collateral damage of war.

Washington déjà vu: ‘Hearts and Minds’ rears its head again

“The casual use and misuse of the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ should be guarded against.” – Sergio Miller, Small Wars Journal, 2012

President Obama was unaware of or undeterred by that warning when in a February 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece he wrote: “Our campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.”

To many American journalists and their audiences the campaign’s more immediate strategy was not voiced in his remarks: stopping ISIS and other jihadist organizations and individuals from killing people around the world. Many had hoped to discover it.

Moreover, the administration is faring badly in the media battle against the terrorist organization ISIS, particularly in the social media. The task of leading our battle was handed to CSCC, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. This bureaucratic entity has not found ways to compete with the gruesomely bloody materials released by ISIS that immediately go viral. The suggestion that CSCC should expose the nihilistic destructiveness through competitively vivid releases has not yet been acted upon. Our Department of State wallows in goody-two-shoe mini-lectures as responses as well.

A day before his op-ed appeared, Department of State spokesperson Marie Harf insisted that a short-term strategy would not prevent the radicalization to violence the president hopes to thwart. Instead, she proposed that “we have to combat the conditions that can lead people to turn to extremism.

“We can’t kill every terrorist around the world, nor should we try. How do you get at the root causes of this?…It’s really the smart way to combat it.”

The president expanded on her view in his op-ed: “Groups like al-Qaida and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better.”

The president’s take offers only one reason young people turn to the “violent extremism” he deplores. One day after his LA Times piece, the New York Times introduced readers to another in a font-page story by Mona El-Naggar: “From a private school in Cairo to ISIS killing fields in Syria.”

It tells the story of Islam Yakem who, “As a young man wanted to be a fitness instructor. He trained relentlessly, hoping that his effort would bring him success, girlfriends and wealth. But his goals never materialized. He left that life (in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood) and found religion, extremism and, ultimately, his way into a photograph where he knelt beside a decapitated corpse on the killing fields of Syria, smiling.”

The materialistic element of the American Dream and capitalism—“success, girlfriends and wealth”—had failed him, so he turned to the religious and spiritual dream offered by a segment of Islam, the holy jihad against Islam’s enemies. This is a “root cause” of “violent extremism” neither Obama nor Harf confront.

Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor of the Guardian and author of “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East,” did. In a 2014 article for the Guardian he wrote: “Compulsion in religion is the ideological foundation stone of ISIS and Islamist movements in general. Believing they have superior knowledge of God’s wishes for mankind such groups feel entitled – even required –to act on his behalf and punish those who fail to comply with the divine will. In doing so, of course, they do not claim to be seeking power for themselves but merely trying to make the world more holy.”

The terms Whitaker uses to describe the “mission” and actions of groups like ISIS remind us of similar terms which National Socialists used to sanctify the mission of their movement. At the core was the belief, first expressed by an obscure 19th century poet: “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen.” It requires several translations to get the gist of it: “The German spirit shall heal the world”—“The German way of life shall cure the world”—“German values shall cure the world.”

And young Muslims, recruited to jihadist movements, are sold the absurd notion that they will, by killing and self-sacrifice, bring the “superior” way of life, spirit and values of Islam to the world, and if not accepted, impose or force them upon the world.

Economic hardship and denial of opportunity contribute to their escape from the often grim reality of life in a Paris or Cairo suburb. But when Harf offered as a cure what her critics described mockingly as a “Jobs for Jihad Delinquents Program ,” they made a solid point, based on the most documented example in history. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933, there were six million unemployed, or one third of the country’s workforce. Six years later, the number was down to 300,000.

And just then, in 1939, young Germans marched off to the holy war to bring German values to the East and slaughter the millions of Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies not fit or willing to embrace them. A job in a Hamburg factory or Munich brewery was just a job, but this lifted them into something bigger than themselves and their jobs, something good and sacred. They believed that absurdity and committed atrocities, as the ISIS murderers believe another absurdity and inflict their atrocities.

Obama might gain credibility in leading a world-wide campaign “to offer today’s youth something better” (his words in the op-ed) if he started with offering America’s underprivileged youths, say those in West Virginia’s poorest county, some better things: better schooling, better housing, better opportunities for jobs. Today, in McDowell County*, young people escape from despair into drugs and petty crime. They are not killing others; they are destroying their own lives as they watch their communities crumble. And their values? As Brecht put it: “First the stomach, then morality.”

Why do the young jihadists, from Islamic and non-Islamic countries, Muslims and non-Muslims, accept that the evil they commit is really for a greater good? Harf and Obama have not looked at answers that do not please them, answers they cannot accept, answers that run against what others have learned from history, from the history of Islam itself and from the history of destructive movements in other cultures and societies.

The president and Harf may not agree with Henry Ford’s infamous “history is bunk,” but they sound as if they want to act on it. They might want to remember, however, that Fascism had to be defeated before a Marshall Plan could help change the society that embraced it. A T-shirt for sale on the internet claims that “revolution starts in the mind.” That is true of change as well.

*See the excellent “50 Years into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back,” by Trip Gabriel, The New York Times. April 20, 2014.