Monthly Archives: December 2010

How is Julian Assange Different from Bob Woodward?

Seems like journalists don’t like it when someone—other than themselves—reveals what really goes on in government.

Or consider the theme that framed last night’s segment:  Assange is profiting off classified information by writing a book!  Beyond the examples I gave, Bob Woodward has become a very rich man by writing book after book filled with classified information about America’s wars which his sources were not authorized to give him.  Would Yellin ever in a million years dare lash out at Bob Woodward the way she did Assange?  To ask the question is to answer it (see here as CNN’s legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin is completely befuddled in the middle of his anti-WikiLeaks rant when asked by a guest, Clay Shirky, to differentiate what Woodward continuously does from what Assange is doing).

They’re all petrified to speak ill of Bob Woodward because he’s a revered spokesman of the royal court to which they devote their full loyalty.  Julian Assange, by contrast, is an actual adversary — not a pretend one — of that royal court.  And that — and only that — is what is driving virtually this entire discourse:

Social Security Is Not a Problem; The Press Is

Journalist and author William Greider eviscerates the journalism profession over its failure to describe issues surrounding Social Security.  It’s a worthy interview by Trudy Lieberman at the Columbia Journalism Review.

This is a staggering scandal for the media. I have yet to see a straightforward, non-ideological, non-argumentative piece in any major paper that describes the actual condition of Social Security. The core fact is that Social Security has not contributed a dime to the deficit, but has piled up trillions in surpluses, which the government has borrowed and spent. Social Security’s surpluses have actually offset the impact of the deficit, beginning with Reagan.

But what’s as damaging and insightful is his criticism of how the press works and especially why certain viewpoints are regularly ignored.  Read it.  Here are some highlights with emphasis my own:

[Reporters] identify with the wisdom of the elites.

..There are layers of influence that tell reporters this is the safe side of the story. They don’t go to people who might be unsafe sources, like labor leaders who know how changes will affect workers, or to old liberals who are out of favor but who know the origins of Social Security and why it was set up in the first place, or to neutral experts like actuaries who actually understand how it works and what the trust funds are all about. If they write about what the AFL-CIO thinks, they are out of the orthodoxy.

…Most reporters who cover difficult areas typically develop sources, and they write for those sources. They don’t want to offend them for fear they will lose access. Reporters, we know, are sensitive, nervous animals; they act like scared little rabbits. They also know what the owners of their publications think. And those owners think pretty much what the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce think.

…Reporters are so embedded in the established way of understanding things. They are distanced from people at large and don’t spend much time trying to see why ordinary people see things differently from the people in power.

…In the last twenty years, as media ownership became highly concentrated, the gulf between the governing elites, both in and out of government, and the broad range of ordinary citizens has gotten much worse. The press chose to side with the governing elites and look down on the citizenry as ignorant or irrational, greedy, or even nutty.

The press is dangerously over-educated itself, in that reporters have developed different kinds of expertise themselves. And that brings them closer to their sources, more motivated to write for their approval.

…The new technological knowledge becomes a tool that blocks old-fashioned street reporting. The polling and focus groups work against old style reporting. Political reporters rely on the pseudo-science to tell them what people think instead of doing what reporters are supposed to do—talking to real people where they live, listening to their perspectives and respecting their views.

Guv, We Love You. Signed, Roz & Anita

This is almost comical. It’s clear that Anita Kumar and Roz Helderman are in love with Gov. Bob McDonnell. Most of their coverage of him has been almost fawning over the last couple of months. Perhaps most egregious was the story the weekend before the elections. It was on the front page with a headline that blared:  “Virginians share lesson learned: GOP in power not so bad.” Really?  Not so bad, Roz? Well, she maybe didn’t write the headline, but she wrote this:

Voters, including some who didn’t back him, credited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell with working hard and engineering deep budget cuts from a generally fractious General Assembly with relatively little heartache. The result of those efforts was a narrow surplus by the end of the fiscal year, achieved through bipartisan action and without the tax increase that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine proposed before leaving office.

No tax increase, but he borrowed from the retirement fund—and he’s now claiming the budget has a surplus. Which is ludicrous. We only have a surplus because he transferred money from the retirement fund.

The federal government had a balanced budget this year, too. Because it borrowed a bazillion dollars from China.

Saturday’s Metro front page article was but the latest in this line of fluff, though not without its own WTF-edness. Almost the entire article before the jump could have been written by the Guv’s press office.

In his annual speech to the General Assembly’s money committees Friday, McDonnell (R) told legislators that the state’s economy is growing at a pace slightly better than expected, allowing him to raise Virginia’s financial forecast by $283 million over the next two years.

As a result, he announced more new spending than cuts for the first time in years while releasing amendments to a still-lean two-year budget over the last week.

They include down payments on some of McDonnell’s top priorities, which focus heavily on economic development, substantial funding to shore up the state’s pension system, as well as goodies for pet projects, including $500,000 for the state’s food banks and Operation Smile. Proposed cuts include a hit to social services for children, reduced advertising for the lottery and the elimination of state funding for public broadcasting.

"Government must set priorities, encourage cost savings and frugality, fund core functions of government well, set the right climate for job creation and economic development, and then, basically, get out of the way," McDonnell said to a standing-room-only crowd on Capitol Square.

So far, so fawning. Then we have a couple of paragraphs that defy rationalization or really, lucidity.

He took lawmakers and college presidents by surprise by stripping nearly $17 million in funding for Virginia Commonwealth University after it raised tuition 24 percent this year. Other schools increased tuition by nearly 10 percent.

The father of five, including three at Virginia public universities, said he hopes his decision sends a message to the rest of the state’s schools that they can no longer dramatically increase tuition and fees. "It’s leaving our kids with a decade of debt when they get out," he said. "This will certainly be a good message to our higher-education institutions that need to govern their tuition rates accordingly."

Help me out here. He cuts funding to colleges after they raise tuition because the state has been cutting state funding for years and then says that further cuts should teach colleges not to raise tuition. What am I missing here?

Ladies, your love is blind. It also must paralyze your ability to put together a coherent story.

Then, apparently just regurgitating what the Guv’s flaks told them, Kumar & Helderman write:

Against that political backdrop, McDonnell has proposed several major structural changes to government, which would come with substantial price tags.

He said state agencies have not been paying for all of the information technology services they have been using, requiring Virginia to spend $58.3 million more over the next two years. The state is already paying billions for such services as part of a troubled technology overhaul contract with Northrop Grumman.

Agencies “have not been paying for all of the information technology services they have been using.” What, are they past due on the bills Verizon sent them? Who are they not paying? And when they are not paying whomever it is they’re supposed to be paying, why does that require Virginia to pay $58.3 million more over the next two years?  Is that the late fee Verizon is charging them for their internet connection?

Ladies, I understand that love can make you silly sometimes. But have an editor take a look at your missives before publishing them.

And take a cold shower before you write them.

NPR Stations: Who’s Juan Williams?

It should surprise no one that NPR donations have not been impacted by the Juan Williams firing. The network and its affiliates got some angry emails, but likely from people who don’t listen to the station.

Several station managers say the angriest responses have been from people who appeared not to be regular contributors, based on their cross-referencing caller and e-mailers’ names with databases of donors.

In fact, I gave that day to my local station with a note that if NPR backed down, I’d demand a refund.

“Just Kids”

They say if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there. Just Kids will jog your memory.

This is touching memoir by the “godmother of punk rock,” Patti Smith, and her relationship with the then equally unknown Robert Mapplethorpe who was to become the iconic photographer.

Smith met Mapplethorpe in New York City, after she had left her loving but insular home in South Jersey, abandoned college, and gave up for adoption the child had by a boy she described as even more callow than herself. Arriving in the city with literally a couple of dollars in her pocket, she embarked on a journey that many of us who in fact remember those times will appreciate: the desire to be an artist, to make a mark on the world under terms our parents could not appreciate.

But this memoir tells of her journey and the loving friendship the two of them enjoyed without self righteousness or sense of entitlement. Mapplethorpe would soon come to grips with his homosexuality but that did not alter the main trajectory of their relationship, which began sexually but evolved into one of where each was the other’s greatest champion.

From the telling of the small vignettes that remind us of how little material possessions meant to many people of this age in the 60s to the larger narrative how each eventually found their way to fame, this book, which won this year’s National Book Award for non-fiction, is a delightful read. Her seminal album “Horses,” which has been recognized as one of the top 100 albums of all time, included a memorable cover photograph by Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. While this album launched her career, which has been as much about her poetry and visual art as music, preceded his fame. He eventually became known as the photographer of images that were as disturbing as they were groundbreaking. Yet in this book, which is obviously sympathetic to him, reveals a sensitive and thoughtful—and yes, somewhat self-absorbed—young man.

They both had a strong religious upbringing, and we see in Just Kids how it shaped their art. We also see how others in New York at that time, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard, Bob Dylan among them, impacted their art. It is a book about a time that some of us remember, however we try to deny it. Or perhaps of a time as we would like to remember it.

Obama’s Press Conference

I’m not happy with him or his tax compromise, and I worry about his political skills.

But this was a strong press conference.

Obama Tax Hikes?

Here’s a pretty good example, even if it doesn’t seem to be working as yet, of how the right tries to drive the framing of issues. The Dingbat of the the North tweets:

Pls refer to Jan.1 tax changes appropriately: they’re OBAMA TAX HIKES & they’ll slam every American’s savings, investments & job opportunity

Politifact debunks this, of course.

Palin and other Republicans often suggest that Obama and the Democrats want to see tax rates go up for all incomes. But that’s not what they’ve been advocating for more than two years. President Barack Obama campaigned on maintaining the tax cuts for couples earning less than $250,000 while allowing the expiration of the tax cuts for families above that line. In fact, in a Dec. 2, 2010, vote, the vast majority of House Democrats supported a bill to do precisely that, with almost all Republicans voting against the bill. (House Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, went so far as to call the bill "chicken crap.")

But Politifact misses the point. Blame should have been assessed relentlessly by Democrats over the last year on Republicans. The argument goes something like this:

Republicans had a chance to make the tax cuts permanent when they made them.  But they couldn’t get it passed because Democrats were filibustering the cuts. So they used budget reconciliation and made them just 10 years to avoid the “Byrd rule” forbidding using reconciliation if it impacts the budget beyond 10 years. In other words, the GOP used the same tactic they accused Democrats of using to pass the health care bill. So not only are they hypocrites, they were financially reckless and pushed the budget reckoning down the road. But then, following the elephant to clean up the mess is well-known and thankless job.

7 Issues, 1 Point of View?

UPDATE:  I spoke this morning with the lead reporter on this story, David Fahrenthold. His response was that he didn’t realize he had given rationales for only Republican points of view. He said he was new on the beat and is till trying to figure out how to handle the issues he’s covering. I take him at his word. Which reinforces my suspicion that if Democrats want fair coverage, they’ll need to ask for it. My impression from our conversation is that I was the only one who had made this point to him. He should have had many calls from Democratic leaders asking that their reasons for the policies they are pursuing be included.


This is one of those stories that make you wonder: Do reporters show preference for delivering one side of an argument (in this case, the GOP’s) or does the other side (in this case, the Dems) do a poor job of articulating and pushing its argument with the media?

In this Washington Post article about the seven big issues facing the lame duck Congress, it appears that in all but one case, only the GOP’s side of arguments is articulated.  The first is tax cuts.

Most Democrats want to extend tax cuts covering up to the first $250,000 that a family earns in a year. Republican leaders want to keep all the tax cuts, including those on income above $250,000. In a recession, they say, it doesn’t make sense to cut anyone’s taxes.[emphasis added]

Note that both positions are stated, but only the GOP’s rationale for its position is stated.  Did Dems decline to state that 1)the rich have received most of the benefits from the major tax cuts over the past 30 years and it’s time to re-balance our tax system or 2)we can’t afford to add $700 billion to the deficit or 3)The middle class tends to spend their tax cuts, thereby spurring the economy, whereas the well-off tend to save their tax cuts. Or did the reporter ignore the Dems’ reasoning?

Next was the START treaty.

[Arizona Sen. John] Kyl has said he wants more guarantees that the government will properly maintain the nuclear weapons that remain. He also thinks that the lame-duck session is too short a time to consider the issue.

So why do the Dems want to pass it now? The reporter hints that in the next Congress “there will be more Republicans — and perhaps more support for denying Obama a foreign policy win — in January.” But with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin making noises about the delay, did the Dems give reasons other than it will be easier now to pass it? Did they argue that delaying it could damage relations with Russia and perhaps spark a new cold war?

Next we have DADT.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) could bring it up for a vote on the floor this month. But the ascendant GOP is in no mood to cooperate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he’s still worried about the effect on morale, and other Republican leaders say the whole issue is a distraction from their top priority — job creation.

So we know that Republicans think it’s not important enough to deal with now and, despite the Defense Dept. report that found it won’t adversely impact its operations, where is the Democratic argument for passing it?  The morally right thing to do? It would expand the pool of candidates for the military?

No. 4: the budget continuing resolution.

The sticking point is Republican demands to shrink federal spending back to 2008 levels.

No word if the Dems have a point, sticky or not.

Next, unemployment benefits

Some Republicans have voiced concerns about the high cost of these benefits.

Are the Dems unconcerned…about everything?

On childhood nutrition, the Dems seem to have a position, albeit one articulated in jargon, while the GOPers are concerned about costs.

“Kids that have food insecurity learn at a slower rate than their peers,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday. “Food insecurity” is Washington-speak for “hunger.”*

The bill passed the Senate unanimously. But it will face some Republican opposition in the House from members who say it will impose more costs on struggling school systems.

And lastly, the DREAM Act. Only the opponents seem to have a view on this.

To them, it looks like a kind of amnesty for lawbreakers.

Do the supporters have a view?

Is this kind of coverage—where only one side, for the most part, has reasons for its views—the result of biased reporting, poor or nonexistent messaging from the Dems or fecklessness in pressing their points, or something else?

At the very least, I would like to know if this reporter asked Democrats why they hold the position they do?  If he did and they didn’t respond, shame on them. If he didn’t, shame on him. If he did and they did and he didn’t include their reasons in the report, maybe we need an explanation. And Democrats should demand it. I’d like to know.

*This is an example of why Pelosi should not be minority leader.