Eric Alterman

Holding Trump's enablers accountable

I've been forced to write about Donald Trump an awful lot during the past five years and the problem I always face when writing in a limited space, like this one, is which of his countless horrific qualities to focus on. The same thing happens when I need to address the consequences of the policies of his administration. There are so many terrible ones, so many victims and so many enablers. I always found myself asking, "Who deserves a thousand words today?"

Not today. I don't dispute the genuine horror, outrage and sadness genuinely patriotic people feel at seeing the desecration of one of the most potent symbols of American democracy. I share those feelings. But another part of me is glad about it. Finally, Trumpism has clarified itself. It's not about "economic insecurity." It's not about globalization. It's not about being "forgotten," "disdained by elites," or fear of the future. It's just about hatred: hatred of anyone and anything who is not a white, Christian, right-wing, American-born American. Any other attempt to defend or explain Trump's appeal is a lie and a dangerous one at that because it's a lie that perpetuates all the other lies that have allowed him and his minions to conduct a rampage against America and all that it stands for; the same rampage that finally found its physical manifestation in the insurrectional riot we saw on Wednesday.

What made all this possible? Obviously, there is Trump himself. His entire life, beginning with his real estate career, his TV celebrity, his presidential campaign and then of course, his presidency, had been built on a foundation of easily disprovable falsehood. And somehow, it worked. Trump apparently told the right kind of lies; the kinds of lies that were in the interests of the powerful people allied with him to pretend to believe. As for his victims, who cared? If they had any power in the first place, they would not have been victims. As far as Trump was concerned, lying worked. It pumped up his ego and got him what he wanted. After all, he got elected president of the United States without having any appreciable qualifications. It's not merely a mystery as to why he kept it up.

The more compelling question for our future is who were the people who bought into his lies, pretended to believe (or at least excuse) them and benefitted as a result? These, after all, are the people who betrayed their country and will still be around when Trump is either serving time or living in exile. Second, of course, was the structure of enablement his lies enjoyed. The Trump administration was one big bribe. The rich got their massive tax cuts and extremely relaxed enforcement of financial crimes. Evangelicals got their Federalist Society–appointed judges and extreme Zionism put into practice. Racists, Nazis and nationalists got their attacks on everyone who did not look and "think" like them. (These people came cheap.) Cops got to beat up and sometimes murder people with impunity. Corporations were free to pollute their communities and disempower their workers. The right-wing press got to give their "middle finger" as National Review editor Rich Lowry named it, at the rest of us and the mainstream media got ratings, subscriptions and stock prices they could not have imagined five years earlier. Remember CBS CEO Les Moonves speaking about Trump's candidacy, before Moonves lost his job following numerous claims of sexual misconduct? He may have been speaking for the entire industry when he said: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,"

All this added up to an irresistible bargain for all of them to embrace Trump's lies and pass them along to the voters, viewers, stockholders, churchgoers, whomever. The net result was the creation of an entire world of unreality in which nearly half the country lived and most of the rest of it agreed to indulge. Trump-supporting Kentucky Republican, Thomas Massie, sounds like he's making complete sense when he says, "Trump has a 94 percent approval rating among my Republican electorate—I've actually polled it twice," Massie said. "Those are people that vote in the primaries in Kentucky's Fourth District … I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do." The poor fellow…

Almost all the mainstream media expressed profound shock at the sight of Trump's most devoted followers attacking Congress on Wednesday. It played out as a "Drunk History" parody version of the Bolsheviks' 1917 storming of the Tsar's winter palace. Didn't these people know a wink when they saw one? Didn't they understand, as Selena Zito lectured the rest of us back in September, 2016 (in the Atlantic, no less,) that while, "the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally?" Apparently, not. These people have been fed a diet of literally nothing but political lies for decades now in the fantasy "propaganda loop" that right-wing billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and Rebekah Mercer have created for them. Donald Trump was just the Frankenstein monster that (we now see) pushed things a little too far. But give credit where it's due. Trump's 30,000 or so presidential lies were built on a mountain of lies that came before him, thanks to Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, both George Bushes (but especially the second one) and all of the politicians and pundits who embraced and enabled them.

Viewed from a certain perspective, one is almost tempted to feel sorry for these clowns — or "very special" people as Trump called them — in the Viking hats and the "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirts. They had become, what Hannah Arendt called, "the ideal subject of a totalitarian state"; that is, the person "for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist." Too bad, however, that — just like with Covid deniers — their purposeful ignorance combined with their maniacal aggressiveness is endangering the rest of us to the point of that (My God!) even Mitch McConnell recognized as a potential "death spiral" for democracy and said enough was finally enough.

The obvious question for which there is just as obviously no clear answer yet is, "Are we too far gone to save ourselves?" As posed by the punditocracy, it takes some form of, "How much of the Republican Party will remain in thrall to this guy that we now all suddenly discovered is a dangerous lunatic?" This question is always followed by references to rhetorical flamethrowers, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and the total of 179 lawmakers who, even after what they saw on Wednesday, still refused to recognize the rightful president-elect of the United States. (This is coupled with a running count of which rats are jumping from their sinking ship. ) But the Congressional Republican Party is just the head of an extremely pugnacious and poisonous snake. The reptilian structure it grows out of has strangled so many of institutions that make democracy possible and infected so many of the people who shape and influence it, one has a hard time imagining where we will find the resources to nurse the body politic back even to a semblance of good health.

One thing is for certain, however: we have no choice but to try. There is no "moving on" or "looking to the future" without first facing the truth. And that means legally holding responsible everyone who helped to create the criminal syndicate that took over our government and morally, everyone who supported it. They were not just "playing politics," this time around. They were toying with treason. And that's just how they need to be treated if we are to restore a semblance of functional democracy to our system and personal honor to our politics.

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How to Make Hundreds of Thousands of Dead Iraqis Disappear

According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, George Bush's lies have killed not 30,000 innocent Iraqis, as the president not long ago estimated, but nearly 22 times that amount, or 655,000. Neither the Pentagon, nor much of the mainstream media have made much attempt to make their own counts -- it's just not that important to anyone. So how has the U.S. media reported on these shocking-albeit-necessarily-imprecise findings, based on door-to-door surveys in 18 provinces, by the experts trained in this kind of thing? The actual methods included obtaining data by eight Iraqi physicians during a survey of 1,849 Iraqi families -- 12,801 people -- in 47 neighborhoods of 18 regions across the country. The researchers based the selection of geographical areas on population size, not on the level of violence. How strict were their standards? They asked for death certificates to prove claims -- and got them in 92 percent of the cases. Even so, the authors say that the number could be anywhere from 426,000 to 800,000.

Well, Greg Mitchell has written two columns on the topic for Editor & Publisher and he finds, here and here, that:

  • The Associated Press casts a very skeptical eye on the study, emphasizing the views of one "expert" Anthony Cordesman, (as the AP describes him) who charges that it is nothing but "politics," with the November election approaching.

  • The Washington Post, meanwhile, interviewed Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years. He called the Johns Hopkins survey method "tried and true" and added that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have."

  • Sarah Leah Whitson, an official of Human Rights Watch in New York, told the Post, "We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy" of the survey.

  • Frank Harrell Jr., chairman of the biostatistics department at Vanderbilt University, told the Associated Press the study incorporated "rigorous, well-justified analysis" of the data.

  • Richard Garfield, a public health professor at Columbia University who works closely with a number of the authors of the report, told The Christian Science Monitor: "That's exactly wrong. There is no discrediting of this methodology. I don't think there's anyone who's been involved in mortality research who thinks there's a better way to do it in unsecured areas. I have never heard of any argument in this field that says there's a better way to do it."

  • The sampling "is solid. The methodology is as good as it gets," said John Zogby, whose polling agency, Zogby International, has done several surveys in Iraq since the war began. "It is what people in the statistics business do." Zogby said similar survey methods have been used to estimate casualty figures in other conflicts, such as Darfur and the Congo.

    • I recall seeing on The Daily Show that when Bush got done playing around with Suzanne Malveaux and her fashion statement that day, she asked him about the study. He replied that "their methodology has been pretty well discredited." This is a bald-faced lie, of course. But here's my question. Were there any follow-ups? Or was the purpose of the question merely to get the president on the record without holding him responsible for anything at all, even the unnecessary murder of hundreds of thousands of people? What the hell kind of society kills all these people and cannot be bothered to care? Cannot be bothered to count them and when someone does, risking their lives in the process, lies to discredit them -- and no one cares about that either?

      A Republican political consultant seeks to discredit the survey in The Wall Street Journal today, here, and the madman, Hitchens, writes in Slate: "The Lancet figures are almost certainly inflated, not least because they were taken from selective war-torn provinces. But there is no reason why they may not come to reflect reality more closely. It is a reminder of the nature of the enemy we face, and not only in Iraq, and a very clear picture of the sort of people who would have a free hand in Iraq if the coalition were to depart." In fact, the first claim is flat-out false.

      The study specifically did not pick particularly violent provinces, as Hitchens could have discovered if he looked at the study, not that he gives any impression of having any experience with this type of statistical sampling. But even so, the sanctions were a social, moral, and epidemiological catastrophe as well. I never supported them either. The sad fact is that Hussein could have been contained militarily without all of these people dying unnecessarily. Easily. But our leaders couldn't prove themselves sufficiently macho for chickenhawk neocons to take the necessary steps, and so we have all this blood on our collective hands, to say nothing of our own soldiers' deaths, an increased terrorist threat, a trillion dollars wasted, and the hatred of the world toward our citizens.

While You Were Out Reading

In a report released on Monday to widespread mainstream media silence, the American Library Association reported that domestic law enforcement authorities have instigated more than 200 requests for information from libraries since October 2001, the month the Patriot Act was hurriedly passed and signed into law.

While this should be a cause for concern for any citizen, it comes with a sad addendum: It would appear that the ALA doesn't trust the government enough to house its findings on a computer server anywhere in the United States. The ALA, in surveying U.S. libraries for a report on the impact of the USA Patriot Act, housed its data on a computer server in Canada, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. This comes on the heels of a vote in the House of Representatives last week - by a 238 to 187 margin - to roll back the FBI's power to seize library and bookstore records.

The New York Times, which picked up on the story on Tuesday, reported that the study fails to clarify just how authorities have used the Patriot Act in libraries, as its secrecy provisions "could make it a crime for a librarian to respond. Federal intelligence law bans those who receive certain types of demands for records from challenging the order or telling anyone they have received it."

But it's not only libraries that are feeling the heat of increased government snooping into the private habits of citizens. The government said Wednesday that after the Sept. 11 attacks it shared Social Security information with law enforcement officials looking for terrorism suspects and trying to identify victims. The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration plans to disclose in the Federal Register that the agency has collected personal data about airline travelers. This took place in spite of a congressional ban and the agency's promise not to do so. The administration, apparently, considers itself to be outside of laws passed by Congress and unbound by its own promises.

All this activity comes as 16 provisions of the Patriot Act are coming up for new votes in Congress. Members would do well to act in a more thoughtful, considered manner than last time, in the panicked aftermath of 9/11. A new report from The Century Foundation, Rethinking the Patriot Act: Keeping America Safe and Free, can provide just the context and evenhanded information required. The report's author maintains that the Act "remains gravely flawed. It gives almost no weight to the hidden costs of a powerfully expanded intelligence-gathering capability. It fails to draw reasonable boundaries; as a result, it permits unnecessary intrusions on privacy and dangerous incursions on First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, and religion."

Nowhere have I been able to locate any serious discussion of the issues raised by The Century Foundation report, despite the fact that it offers one of the most wide-ranging independent examinations of a law that offers the government unprecedented domestic police and intelligence powers. This is unfortunate because while no one would argue that reporters have ignored the effects of the act in the three-plus years since it was passed, neither could one honestly argue that the information passed along to the public has done justice to the complexity of the issues it raises and the trade-offs it demands.

One case in point can be found in a recent speech the president gave in support of the 16 provisions set to expire at the end of the year. Speaking at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy on June 9, and focusing exclusively on security issues, the president made the claim that the Act has allowed authorities to "charge more than 400 people in terrorism investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and convict more than half." Alas, in a first-rate piece of reporting published back on May 16, the Des Moines Register reported that the Justice Department has, since 2001, vastly expanded its definition of what constitutes a "terrorism-related" crime, and what's more, refuses to release figures as to how many people it has arrested, and how many it has convicted. As The Century Foundation points out, "One section [of the Act] expands the scope of the offense of providing 'material support' to a terrorist organization, in language that at least one federal court has held unconstitutionally vague."

The Register's investigation also discovered that the Act's definition has grown so elastic that when the authorities are hunting for a terrorist suspect and make an arrest for other reasons, the case is still logged as "anti-terrorism." In an almost comical aside, we learn this expansion of the definition has swept into its net "College entrance-exam cheaters, check forgers, sham husbands and those who overstay visas." What's more, records show that officials at the Justice Department have instructed federal prosecutors to catalog their work in ways that inflate the number of terrorism investigations.

The truth is, Americans have no way of determining just how many investigations are underway, how many people have been arrested, and how many have been convicted. Even so, most of the press corps simply repeated the president's claims verbatim.

One has to wonder just how often these reporters need to be given false information by this president before they realize that nothing--absolutely nothing--that comes out of this White House can be taken on faith, least of all the compromising of our constitutional liberties.

Pressing Bush?

On Tuesday, the president held a press conference at the Rose Garden - and it went as most recent press conferences have gone. The press dutifully lobbed softballs in the president's direction, and he proceeded to leisurely answer with whatever talking point came to his mind first.

One topic that has been receiving increasing attention in the media owing to a rare Republican congressional rebuke of the president - stem cell research - was covered with a single question, with no follow up. (This is also, unfortunately, hardly unprecedented.) When asked, "Last week you made clear that you don't think there's any such thing as a spare embryo ... what do you believe should be done with those embryos that never do become pregnancies or result in the birth of a child?" Bush's reply: ''There's an alternative to the destruction of life. But the stem cell issue is really one of ... whether or not we use taxpayers' money to destroy life. I don't believe we should.''

Despite the president's beliefs about how taxpayers' money should be spent, Congress and the American people appear to be of a different mind. And aside from the feeble question posed to him at the press conference, for the first time in a long while, the media are challenging the president in what - compared to recent practice - is a pretty forceful manner.

The whole debate, readers will recall, harkens back to 2001 when the president signed into law the first federally mandated stem cell research - while restricting research to then-current lines of stem cells. The stem cell lines were subsequently found to be tainted, which rendered most of them useless for most research purposes. Despite this, the president has refused to allow more lines to be used for research.

Now two new bills are looking to reverse the president's decision. The first one, sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), seeks to lift the restriction, which would allow federal money to go to research on new embryonic stem cells lines. The second one, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Rep. Arthur Davis (D-Ala.), wants to increase funding for umbilical cord blood cells by establishing a national network of blood banks that would make the cells available to patients and for research purposes.

Despite polls demonstrating that the majority of Americans agree with expanded stem cell research - 60 percent approve, according to a recent poll - the president has threatened to veto the legislation, and is fighting to prevent an override. Bush's primary objection, contained in a White House fact sheet, relies on his own personal religious convictions. He argues, "Taxpayer money should not promote research that destroys life." By "life" in this instance, the president means frozen embryos.

While the president says that stem cell research "would take us across a critical ethical line," many scientists say that the research could lead to finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer and paralysis. But this hasn't stopped the far right from spouting all manner of falsehoods in the press. Tom DeLay thundered recently that voting "yes" for the new legislation would be to "vote to fund with taxpayer dollars the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation."

But DeLay was hardly alone. As Chris Mooney points out in an excellent piece on the American Prospect Web Online, conservative Rep. Henry Hyde recently claimed that "I myself am a 992-month-old embryo." This stands in stark contrast with what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says of embryos, which it defines as "the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation, when it becomes known as a fetus."

Some of the media continue to allow to let the far right drive the debate. As the great Jon Stewart pointed out this week, "On Sunday's 'This Week with George Stephanopoulos,' Kansas Senator Sam Brownback took on Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, because these days, a debate between a conservative Republican and a moderate Republican is what passes for hearing from both sides." Still, that was an exception, Now the religious Right has lost a few recent media battles - first Terri Schiavo, then the nuclear option, and now, possibly, stem cell research. One is hard-pressed to decide whether the mainstream media have finally started to do their homework or if the far Right is no longer quite so adept at securing their compliance. Maybe next-time, someone in the White House press corps will go so far as to ask a follow-up question. At least there's hoping....

Time to Respond

Editor's note: Read the short interview referred to below, here.

John Cloud doesn’t like me.  Either that, or he doesn’t like being criticized for producing a morally and intellectually indefensible work of journalism and has chosen to respond with a fusillade of personal invective.  You be the judge.

In response to my comments on his admiring profile of Ann Coulter in which he announced that he "didn't find many outright Coulter errors"* based on a casual Google search, available here, Cloud says I:
  • am the left-wing equivalent of [...] Ann Coulter
  • am trying to out-Coulter Coulter
  • am simply insult[ing] him
  • am hid[ing] the fact that it also quotes James Wolcott, Andrew Sullivan, Salon, Ronald Radosh, and even Jerry Falwell criticizing Ann Coulter.  She is called everything from an "ideological huckster of hate" in [his] story to a "skank."  [He] say[s] she can be "callous and mouthy," that [he] wants to "shut her up occasionally," that her writing can be "highly amateurish."  She is called a "fascist," a "polemicist," and--by Radosh--a virtual McCarthyite.
  • want [...]  people to ignore Coulter, to pretend as though she doesn't exist and isn't one of the most loved--and hated--figures on the public scene
  • Made a mistake about a quote of hers in What Liberal Media
  • seem most annoyed that [Time] did not use more of [my] personal "sources" on Ann Coulter
  • [don't] seem to have done any reporting for his item on [him] whatsoever.

    In his interview with CJR Daily available here, he adds:

    "I think Eric Alterman and Ann Coulter engage in the same kind of debate. They don't often make actual arguments.  Instead, they throw names around. This is the point of my article.�

    And ...

    "I think maybe Eric and Ann are in the same bunch. They also, by the way, use the same language."

    To take these one by one may appear a bit tiresome and self-serving, but there are larger issues involved, including, admittedly, defending my reputation, but more importantly, having to do with defending the tenets of honest journalism and fair-minded media criticism.  So I will, as briefly as I can, engage Cloud on the facts:

    Cloud insists that Coulter and I are peas in a pod, guilty of the same sins, up to the same shenanigans.  OK, let’s compare me with Ann Coulter.  True, we both have B.A.s from Cornell, where we both attended many Dead concerts, (though I don’t pretend I refused to partake in the local customs).  More to the point, I went on to earn an M.A. in international relations from Yale and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.  I’ve written six books, two published by university presses, containing many thousands of footnotes.  None of these books have been substantially challenged on the basis of the evidence they employ, even by those who strongly disagree with my arguments.  This is not true of Coulter.

    I am also a professor of journalism at the City University of New York, a senior fellow of two think tanks, a professional blogger for the most trafficked internet news site in the world and the media columnist for oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States.  I am pretty sure none of the above is true of Coulter, either.

    What’s more, Coulter has twice either wished for, or joked about the mass murder of American journalists.  She has called for, or joked about, the assassination of a sitting American president.  She has called for, or joked about, the mass murder of entire populations of Moslem nations.  She has referred to the president of the United States and his wife as “pond scum,� among many other things.  She has called Christie Todd Whitman a "birdbrain" and a "dimwit"; Jim Jeffords a "half-wit"; and Gloria Steinem a "deeply ridiculous figure" who "had to sleep" with a rich liberal to fund Ms. magazine--all of which makes her "a termagant."  I have never called publicly for the death of any one, nor joked about anyone’s murder, nor called any president or any senator any names like those listed above, though I admit, not all of them�including the current president�are among my favorite people.

    While Cloud vouches for Coulter’s accuracy, an entire industry has sprung up demonstrating that accuracy plays no role whatever in her work.  You can find dozens, if not hundreds, of lies, mistakes, misattributions, and unsupported allegations in Coulter’s work catalogued here, here, here and here, to name just a few.  Cloud insists that his "job in this story was not to be a fact-checker."  Funny, that’s just exactly the excuse the White House offered in July 2003.  ("The president of the United States is not a fact-checker.�  See The Book on Bush, p.330.)  Well, I always thought Time magazine was pretty proud of its fact-checking capabilities, but OK, that’s quite an admission.  Still it misses the point.  If Cloud could not be bothered with checking the accuracy of Coulter’s work, he should not have vouched for it and his editors should not have  published him doing so.  Deploying the authority of America’s most influential magazine, Cloud declared the work of Ann Coulter to be without “many outright [...] errors."*

    Is it too much to ask, if he isn’t going to fact check Coulter’s work, that he at least check her comments in his own piece?  Cloud explains, "Coulter says profiling makes sense when Muslims have committed virtually all the terrorist attacks against Americans for the past 25 years."  By not pointing out that, for example, the number of terrorist acts against Americans by pro-life radical extremists makes Coulter’s claim false, Cloud is enabling a racist lie that is factually incorrect.

    This is the heart of the scandal of its publication in Time and the reason his name will now be forever synonymous with a kind of craven, dishonest journalism that seeks to apologize for those who hold the values for which Time professes to stand in contempt.  It is not about liberals attacking conservatives nor vice-versa.  For all of Cloud’s attacks on my political orientation, it had nothing to do with my criticisms of his piece.  Those dealt exclusively with Cloud’s journalism.  For some reason he does not seem to get this, so let me spell it out:

    Nobody really cares about Mr. Cloud personally, or the fact that he found Ms. Coulter so charming and "ironic" sipping her white Bordeaux and throwing her blonde locks back as she downed her Nicorette.  The issue that engages those of us who are invested in protecting and defending the honesty and integrity of American journalism is that Mr. Cloud has used the powerful and influential pages of Time magazine to declare Ms. Coulter’s work mostly accurate ("didn't find many outright Coulter errors"*) while admitting that neither he, nor Time’s minions, did the necessary work to defend that pronouncement.

    We can debate the meaning of the word “lie� and whether it can apply to a false description. As the author of a doctoral dissertation and a 450 or so page book containing over 1,400 footnotes spread over 91 pages on the topic of presidential lies, and a member of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, I like to think my vote should carry some weight when I say "yes."  But I admit the point is arguable.  What is not arguable is that Ann Coulter’s work cannot be fairly described as without "many outright [...] errors"* by anyone with a modicum of respect for rules of evidence or the simple meaning of words.  Again, I refer you to the countless examples listed above, not merely in What Liberal Media, but in Tapped, Media Matters, Spinsanity, Salon and many, many others.

    Cloud also complains that I did no independent reporting on Coulter for my item.  This is silly.  I’ve known Coulter since 1996, and worked with Coulter virtually every day for more than a year on MSNBC, before she was fired.  I first published a column about her in September of 2002.  I published half a chapter plus an entire appendix in a book that came out in 2003.  Demonstrating that Cloud’s ability to think and reason had been befogged by his apparent attraction to Coulter’s "irony" did not require any additional reporting on my part.  That is, dare I explain it again, exactly the point.  All of the evidence was available to Cloud when he wrote the piece, just as it was available to me.  He chose to ignore it.  I didn’t.  This is not about “my personal sources� about Coulter, as he implies�once again casting aspersions on my motives without any personal knowledge.  (To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what he means by my “personal sources.�)  Rather, it’s an argument about the accuracy of Coulter’s statements and of Cloud’s�but more importantly Time’s�willingness to vouch for them.  Why is that so hard for Cloud to understand?

    A few smaller points.  Cloud says I ignore the fact that he quoted some people who didn’t like Ann.  Well, true, but he wrote a 5,800 word piece and I wrote a short blog item. Naturally I could not deal with all of it.  (And quoting people calling her names like “skank� does not, in my idea, substitute for examining her accuracy.)  In any case, if Time (or Cloud) wants to take the time and do the necessary research to critique all 5,800 words,  I’d be happy to do so ... for $25,000.

    Cloud says I misquoted Coulter’s attack on a legless Vietnam veteran in What Liberal Media? Well, I am willing to believe this might be the case, as I did not have Time’s army of researchers and fact-checkers at my disposal and everyone makes mistakes.  But I’m afraid he’s going to have to provide some evidence.  What Liberal Media? has nearly a thousand footnotes.  Cloud’s article has none.  What’s more, I was in the studio at MSNBC when the incident took place.  (There was cheering.)  True, I didn’t hear it, and never claimed to, and even if I had, I might have misremembered it.  Evidence is a much trickier matter than Cloud seems to understand.  My own source who claimed to have heard it might have been mistaken as well.  But I know Cloud wasn’t there and unless he’s watched a videotape�and I’m not sure I’d trust his word even there�I’ll wait until the point is proven.  (Though I must admit I don’t think it makes much moral difference.)  In any case, if Cloud can provide or point me to a tape, I’ll be happy to correct future editions of my book.  If not, well, I’ll have to judge his assertion based on the level of accuracy of the rest of his piece.  (Howie Kurtz however, appears to have a different story to tell here.)

    Cloud says I want people to ignore Coulter.  Well, yes, this is true.  There are any number of people, I suppose, who want to kill Arabs, joke about murdering New York Times journalists and American journalists serving in Iraq, who call people vicious names, even during their funerals, who mock legless veterans, and who lie with impunity about those with whom they disagree.  It would be a better world if we ignored all of them.  I wrote about Coulter for a while in the hopes of demonstrating that a person who employed such practices had no business being embraced as a respectable voice in the mainstream media, and then I stopped.  I did what I could and moved on.  Now, the least I can do is remain consistent to my own personal principles by refusing to debate or appear with Coulter.  I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what Cloud thinks is the problem here.

    Cloud notes to CJR, that Hitler and Stalin have also been on the cover of Time.  Excuse me, but why is he bringing up Hitler and Stalin?  Nobody else has.  Isn’t that the kind of thing the left is always being accused of doing?  Reels the mind ...

    Finally, Cloud throws in a great many personal insults toward me and toward David Brock in the hopes of deflecting the criticism he has received of his work.  My guess is that this is his first experience in receiving public criticism and he will grow to regret the intemperance of his remarks.  In the meantime, even if his wild charges were accurate, they would do nothing to exonerate his article.  I will let Brock speak for himself and he does so very well here.  But I should also like to point out that for all Cloud’s angry and unsupported accusations about me, the reader will note that I have not called him a single name.  Nor have I attributed a single unspoken motive to him.  In fact, I never even noticed him at all before the story was e-mailed to me by Time’s PR person on Sunday morning.  All of my comments have been directed toward Cloud’s indefensible work of journalism and the damage that Time’s publication of it has done to our profession and to the cause of honest and honorable political discourse in the United States.

    *CORRECTION:  An earlier draft incorrectly quoted Mr. Cloud as using the expression "mostly accurate." His actual phrase was he "didn't find many outright Coulter errors."  I regret this mistake but it changes nothing in either my larger argument or Cloud's. Also, an earlier version of Altercation appeared without Cloud's letter. That was the result of an editorial miscommunication. I had always intended to include it and said as much when it was received.

The WMDuh Report

Were it not for the tens of thousands of dead and wounded, the billions wasted, and the hatred and terrorism inspired, the report "The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction" would be almost funny. After all, did we really need a $10 million, 14-month, 600-plus-page investigation to tell us that the country was taken to war on the basis of a nonexistent threat? What might have been helpful would have been a genuine accounting of how the system was gamed in order to produce phony arguments and suppress the counterevidence. After all, for all his hurt feelings on display before the report was released, does anyone think Colin Powell would have given radically different testimony to the world at his famous February 2003 U.N. speech if the single drunken defector who was his main source had offered another perspective, one Powell and his bosses didn't want to hear? What if "Curveball" (or as Maureen Dowd aptly termed him, "Goofball") had echoed what Powell originally knew but conveniently forgot -- that, as the secretary explained in Cairo in February 2001, Saddam Hussein "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors." Would anyone in the administration have cared what this unreliable drunk said? What of the many, many intelligence experts who warned, pre-invasion, that the data were being manipulated by hawks in the Pentagon and the vice president's office? Did anyone listen to them?

Bush says today that he would have invaded Iraq even if he knew then what he knows today. This investigation is therefore a farce -- designed once again to shift responsibility from the people who demanded corrupt intelligence to serve their ideological obsessions to those who were forced to provide it.

Our political process has become so degraded that the commissioners themselves can admit that they were forbidden from examining the one issue that still matters. As commission co-chair Laurence Silberman explained, "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policy makers, and all of us were agreed that was not part of our inquiry." The New York Times's Todd Purdum noted a passage of the report in which its authors come close to admitting that the problem was not with the providers of intelligence but with the consumers: They complain that the President's Daily Brief was understood to require "attention-grabbing headlines" and that a "drumbeat of repetition," says Purdum, quoting the report, "left misleading impressions, and no room for shadings. 'In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the daily reports seemed to be "selling" intelligence,' the commission found, 'in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested.'"

This passage reinforces two important lessons about contemporary uses of U.S. intelligence. One: The First Customer requires his information to be provided to him with "no room for shadings" as they may exist in, say, the real world. And two: In order to get Bush to pay attention, the intelligence had to be cooked up to agree with his beliefs. Given this, we might as well ditch our entire intelligence system, because unless it simply regurgitates the president's pre-existing prejudices, the information it contains will be ignored, rewritten or both.

Much of the coverage of the report -- which was, perhaps via divine intervention, drowned out by the deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II -- gesticulated in the direction of this fundamental truth before returning to the agreed-upon story line that Bush was very, very angry about the fact that he received bad intelligence that led him to invade a country that presented no threat whatever and made him out to be a liar to the rest of the world. He was so mad, in fact, that the only person deemed to be responsible for this massive failure, former CIA director George Tenet, was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. (Everybody else involved was punished with a promotion and a raise.)

Yet even in the most critical reports of this phony whitewash, one aspect of this shameful episode went by largely forgotten: the media's willingness to publicize, vouch for and frequently hype the dishonest case the Administration put forth. I am not speaking just of Judith Miller's willingness to act as unpaid propagandist for the Pentagon, breaking the Times's own reporting rules on its front page in order to mislead its millions of readers. Rather, just about every bigfoot in the business signed on for this bad-acid trip across Bushland. I refer again to a devastating study by former Des Moines Register editorial page editor Gilbert Cranberg of the immediate reaction of the press to Powell's channeling of Goofball at the United Nations, which should serve as a cautionary example to any reporter who ever again takes this administration at its word. Despite the fact that Powell cited almost no verifiable sources and included more than 40 vague references to "human sources," "an eyewitness," "detainees," "an al Qaeda source," "a senior defector," "intelligence sources," his words were treated as if the reporters present had personally witnessed God handing him the evidence on tablets atop Mount Sinai. Powell offered up, we were told in our finest newspapers: "a massive array of evidence," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a smoking fusillade ... a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," "an ironclad case ... incontrovertible evidence," "succinct and damning evidence ... the case is closed."

And yes, this is the same press attacked by Bush supporters as too liberal, too cynical and too "elitist" to give a Republican conservative a fair shake. In a more just universe, the right-wingers would stop whining and give reporters the credit they so richly earned. I mean if the guy in charge of providing all this crappy intelligence deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom, don't the people who parroted it back deserve a little lovin' too?

Meet the New FCC Boss

When FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced his resignation this past January, the response was near-deafening silence. Powell, previously best known as the general/secretary of state's son, was marked by a scattershot, frequently irresponsible series of engagements with issues that somehow managed to upset players on every side of the ideological divide. Difficult as it may sound, Powell pushed through scheme after scheme that agonized, simultaneously, both media and opponents of media consolidation on all sides of the ideological divide.

Powell's reign can hardly be called successful, even by his supporters. His concerted effort to relax regulations in order to invite media conglomerates to expand their reach to monopolistic proportions inspired a populist reaction in the public and was summarily shot down in federal court. His arbitrary fining policies for incidents of alleged indecency on radio and broadcast television have also met with widespread derision, particularly when it was learned that just one organization, L. Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council, provided more than 99 percent of the complaints inspiring Powell's campaign; a campaign, incidentally, that netted more than $8 million in fines last year, up from a mere $48,000 in the year before Powell's chairmanship commenced.

But as the Quiet Beatle sang, all things must pass, and on so too, Powell's chairmanship. On March 18th, President Bush nominated 38-year-old Kevin J. Martin to replace Powell as head of the FCC. Martin, who has occupied a Republican seat on the commission since July 2001, brings a mixed bag of votes and public comments to the table, some of which are likely to be a marked improvement from his predecessor, while others remain a cause for considerable concern.

Mediaweek observed that Martin "arrives on the job with a reputation as a brilliant regulator, an attentive listener and an advocate of even tougher stands against broadcast indecency than his predecessor Michael Powell." A TV Week report added that Martin "has strong conservative credentials and can be expected to advance the Bush administration's objective to deregulate the market as much as is practicable."

While Martin is certainly close to the Bush administration and generally favors deregulation, the truth is actually quite a bit more complicated than these quotes might imply. While Martin did support Powell's 2003 attempt to allow media conglomerates to buy up larger chunks of the media landscape, he nevertheless evinced some appreciation for both sides of the issue. As he said at the time of Powell's failed deregulation push:

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An Indecent Proposal

What the recent Gannon/Guckert episode and the Williams/Gallagher/McManus payola scandals have in common are that both provide evidence of the Bush administration's willingness to subvert the traditional watchdog function of the media by just about any means available. Oddly, however, they found little resistance among those whom they sought to undermine.

Equally alarming is the fact that the over the past several months, attempts by the FCC and a number of Republican congressmen who have actively worked to limit media diversity have been left largely unreported and unopposed. As this column has repeatedly pointed out, outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell long ago declared war on all that he deems "indecent" and "offensive" in the national media. Thanks to his schizophrenic fining policies, the FCC has left network programmers with little idea as to what is a fineable offense and what isn't.

Just last month, several congressional Republicans joined Powell in his campaign. The House of Representatives passed the repressive "Broadcast Decency Act," which calls for an increase of the basic FCC fine for "indecent" content from $32,500 to $500,000 and requires the FCC to consider revoking a station's license after three violations. Coming close on the heels of this proposed bill was the call last week by Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, to expand the FCC's fining mandate to include the hundreds of cable and satellite television and radio channels dotting the media landscape.

Currently, of course, the FCC only has the authority to fine over-the-air radio and television broadcasters for violating its indecency regulations, but under the Stevens/Barton plan, pay channels such as HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, and subscription satellite radio companies Sirius and XM would fall under the FCC's mandate.

"In this country, there has to be some standards of decency," said Stevens, who also told the National Association of Broadcasters that "most viewers don't differentiate between over-the-air and cable." As Sean P. Means of the Salt Lake Tribune notes, however, some viewers can. Nine of those people sit on the United States Supreme Court, which has ruled previously that "cable-TV content is protected speech because viewers pay for it."

This speaks to a salient point that Stevens, Barton and their indecency allies appear to miss. Viewers have to pay extra for cable channels and satellite radio, and do so to overcome tightly regulated network TV and radio programs. And for those who subscribe to more adult-oriented programming, as many have pointed out, the technology has long since existed for parents to block their children from watching material they don't want them to see. The Washington Post quotes a letter from Brian Dietz, vice president of communications for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade association, as saying, "Cable technology already provides families the tools to block unwanted channels from entering the home, and leading cable companies will provide this technology at no additional charge to customers who don't have the means to block unwanted programming."

Increasing regulation looks like it may be coming down from the Federal Elections Commission as well. In a March 3 interview with CNET's Declan McCullagh, the FEC's Bradley Smith talked of plans to bring the blogospshere under the auspices of the 2002 campaign finance bill. In other words, "bloggers and news organizations could risk the wrath of the federal government if they improperly link to a campaign's web site. Even forwarding a political candidate's press release to a mailing list, depending on the details, could be punished by fines," according to McCullagh. Anyone who decides to "set up a blog, send out mass e-mails, any kind of activity that can be done on the internet" could be subject to Federal Election Commission regulation, Smith said. Despite the urge to regulate and this harsh-sounding language, the proposal is fraught with difficulties. As The New York Times recently framed it: "Commissioners said they could consider several questions, including whether political web sites are technically coordinating with official campaigns by posting links to a candidate's web site, and whether partisan bloggers are making in-kind contributions by donating their expertise and computer equipment to a campaign."

Given the diffuse nature of the internet and the latticework of connections between midnight bloggers and daytime activists and pundits, how this will pan out is anyone's guess. But the fact that the FEC seems to be taking the first steps toward trying to tame free expression on the internet ought to set alarm bells ringing. At a time when the Bush administration is paying pundits to toe the party line while an unchecked FCC has embarked on a program of fining content on an ad hoc basis, the last thing the American media needs is more regulation by a few self-appointed moral arbiters who don't even seem to understand the technology � or the content � they appear intent on banning.

Media for a Post-truth Society

The United States government is currently run by a group of people for whom verifiable truth holds no particular privilege over ideologically inspired nonsense. For members of the mainstream media, trying to maintain a sense of self-importance and solemnity and to keep the wing nuts from crowing for more scalps, this requires a series of stratagems to keep up the scripted charade, no matter how foolish it makes them look or feel while doing so.

The easiest of these stratagems is simply to stack the coverage with political partisans and give them free rein to spout GOP propaganda. That's what the cable news networks do, as Media Matters for America demonstrated. Consistent with cable inauguration coverage, for example, MSNBC offered viewers of its State of the Union commentary 11 right-wing pundits and just two Democrats or liberals in response.

A second technique is more often deployed on network television, where such naked partisanship is frowned upon, but executives are, if anything, even more worried about appearing unsympathetic to the red-state, red-meat offerings of George W. Bush. This is to ignore the substance and focus on the spectacle, the "feelings" and the atmosphere. CBS' Bob Schieffer, on his best post-Dan Rather behavior, for instance, marveled, "One of the best-delivered speeches that I have heard President Bush make. He was confident, he was direct, he drove his points home."

On ABC, Cokie Roberts found herself enthralled with a faux-dramatic – and most likely fully staged – embrace between an Iraqi woman seated next to Laura Bush and the mother of a soldier who died for Bush's folly in Fallujah, gushing, "To have that completely spontaneous hug was something that leaves you with goose bumps." Tim Russert – who, like so many Democratic pols who transition to media megabucks, is committed to proving his bona fides by kowtowing to Republicans at every opportunity – professed, "You can feel ... in this town" that Democratic "nerves are frayed." Russert was reacting to a rare display of Democratic spirit during the speech – booing when Bush sought to mislead the country into dismantling the most successful government program ever attempted in America: Social Security. To Russert and much of the permanent Washington establishment, the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat – or at least one who's willing to act that way.

The standard for this kind of contentless coverage is set, per usual, by the reporting of The New York Times. If the lead reporter of the newspaper of record can ditch the substance part, well then, so can everybody else. Reporter Todd Purdum marveled at Bush's "penchant for thinking big, or speaking grandly." He then referred to Bush's "first State of the Union address three years ago ... he stunned the world with his denunciation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an 'axis of evil,' and his warning that he would 'not wait on events while dangers gather.'" Purdum failed to note what was obvious to any "reality-based" observer: that the "axis" idea was logically incoherent, and the arguments vis-à-vis Iraq were based on evidence later deemed imaginary. Instead, Purdum explained that Bush "has long since proved both the extent, and the limits, of his ability to match his actions to his words," which is an awfully nice way of saying that the man is full of it.

Times editors might have taken a lesson from the Boston Globe, a paper with whom they share a common owner, which provided a presidential "fact check" demonstrating Bush's willingness to mislead the nation in the service of his ideological obsessions. In the Knight Ridder newspapers – a chain whose coverage of the leadup to war, by the way, puts to shame that of almost every other paper, particularly that of the Times's credulous correspondent Judith Miller – Kevin G. Hall had the honor and honesty to report that the president was seeking to destroy Social Security on the basis of calculations that were transparently phony. He wrote, "President Bush's warning that Social Security faces a looming financial crisis is based on the assumption that the U.S. economy will grow by only 1.8 percent each year, on average, for most of the next 75 years. Since 1950, the U.S. economy has grown, on average, by 3.5 percent per year." However, he noted, "If the economy continued to grow over the next 50 years at a rate anywhere near the past pace, Social Security wouldn't face a financial crisis, though it would require small adjustments to balance its income and costs." (Perhaps this is the kind of reporting of which the oh-so-smart folks at ABC's The Note complain, "Can we stop reading those repetitive, boring, and incomplete journalistic Q&A's on how private accounts would work, blah blah blah, how the system is currently funded, blah blah blah, what the [p]resident is proposing, blah blah blah?")

Of course, journalism is by definition a process of selection and omission, so it can be a little unfair to single out what reporters failed to report about Bush's speech. But the unhappy fact is that almost everything this administration tries to sell to Americans is snake oil, and the mere act of reporting it without comment implicates the media in the fundamental dishonesty that is this president's modus operandi. When he says "freedom," he means the freedom of the United States and its allies to jail and torture anyone they choose. When he says "liberty," he means the liberty of other governments to profess to share the alleged aims of U.S. foreign policy and then – like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Egypt – jail and silence all critics without inconvenient criticism from the United States. (If you play the game right, you can even provide weapons to anti-American terrorists and fund anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda on behalf of the terrorists, all the while remaining a close friend of Bush & Co.)

This is apparently what NBC's Andrea Mitchell had in mind when she spoke of the administration's "democracy agenda that Condi Rice is going to be bringing to Europe and the Middle East." Or perhaps she meant an American invasion of Iran; or the destruction of Social Security. It's hard to know in a post-truth society what anything means anymore, except more nonsense and lies, dutifully reported.

Pundits Race to the Bottom

While often annoying, punditry is an honorable and necessary corollary to media in search of the holy grail of objectivity. But the business has fallen into a pathetic state in recent times, as is clear from three scandals, the reactions to which are no less indicative of how low we now go.

The first and best-known of these transgressions is that involving Robert Novak, who, alone among professional journalists, proved willing to play patsy for the Bush administration and endanger U.S. national security by deliberately revealing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of administration critic Joseph Wilson. Shameful as they were, Novak's actions were nevertheless predictable in a career defined by his eagerness to serve right-wing politicians and causes. While he occasionally exploited his political connections for personal financial gain – in the form of high-priced, off-the-record briefings for wealthy executives featuring high-profile Republican officials – Novak mostly exploits his access for fame. Washington Post editors and CNN executives allow him his transgressions, and the Washington establishment continues to embrace him because he is so embedded in the city's corrupt journalistic/political culture that he can no longer be separated from it. Even the spectacle of two journalists, Time's Matthew Cooper and The New York Times's Judith Miller, facing prison in the Plame case when it is clearly Novak who is at fault seems to have done nothing to shake his employers' confidence.

Ironically, although CNN has parted company with Tucker Carlson and has announced that it will cancel Crossfire, with its new chief, Jonathan Klein, endorsing Jon Stewart's now-famous indictment that the show's "partisan hackery ... is hurting America," the far more offensive Novak remains in Klein's good graces. Carlson is a talented conservative journalist who, like almost every other television pundit, has allowed himself to become a sitcom-style caricature as fame and (Washington-level) riches beckoned. A moderate right-winger by contemporary standards, Carlson complained that he was often expected to take the administration's position even when he disagreed with it, demonstrating the fundamental dishonesty of the entire setup.

It is not an accident that the two sides on Crossfire were divided between political professionals on one side and hack journalists on the other. In the far-right-dominated culture of cable TV, no liberal journalist has been invited to rise to the level of a Carlson or a Novak, an O'Reilly, a Limbaugh, a Scarborough, etc. Even PBS has largely thrown in the towel on inviting liberals on the air, cutting back the post-Bill Moyers NOW to a half-hour and following it with a show for Carlson and another for the extremist, self-described "wild men" of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages. Carlson is about to get his own show on MSNBC, where, like Scarborough and CNBC's hapless Dennis Miller (rating, 0.1), he will chase the O'Reillys and the Hannitys of Fox for a part of the right-wing-audience pie. The mercy killing of Crossfire, while welcome on many levels, removes just about the only opportunity for cable viewers to hear the liberal perspective at all. On Fox and MSNBC, viewers are given only Alan Colmes-type faux liberals. On the Sunday shows like Meet the Press, the split is most often between the fire-breathers like Novak or William Safire and center-right conservatives like David Broder. Liberals need not apply.

If you were wondering where the line that cannot be crossed by conservative pundits doing the administration's bidding is, Armstrong Williams, a 45-year-old black conservative who is a favorite on all these shows, discovered it. As USA Today reported, Armstrong accepted payments totaling nearly a quarter-million dollars to pimp the administration's position on the No Child Left Behind law on both radio and TV. The arrangement, which came at taxpayer expense, throws into sharp relief just how closely entwined conservative pundits have become with this administration and with the conservative movement in particular. ("The conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part of the team," Grover Norquist explains. "The liberal press is ... conflicted. Sometimes it thinks it needs to be critical of both sides.")

Washing the $240,000 through a public relations firm in which he is a partner, Armstrong put his newspaper column and his TV and radio appearances at the service of the administration. The contract stipulated that a public relations firm hired by the Education Department would "arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on N.C.L.B. during the course of his broadcasts," that "Secretary Paige and other department officials shall have the option of appearing from time to time as studio guests" and that "Mr. Williams shall utilize his long-term working relationships with 'America's Black Forum'" – a black news program – "to encourage the producers to periodically address the No Child Left Behind Act." Williams explained that while he knew he was in rough waters journalistically, he took the cash because the law "is something I believe in." (Memo to Mr. Rove: For a cool mill, I'll believe you found Saddam's WMDs.)

Williams has been fired by Tribune Media Services, which distributed his column, but I'd be surprised if he's kept off the cable networks very long. MSNBC has invited a known plagiarist, Mike Barnicle, to host a show there. Pat Robertson agreed with Jerry Falwell that America got what it deserved on 9/11, but CNN still uses him as an expert commentator on Middle East affairs.

The Williams episode also raises the question of how many other conservative propagandists are on the receiving end of administration payola. We know that local TV stations have shown the administration's fake news reports, distributed by CNN and featuring Karen Ryan, to promote its lousy new Medicare law. The Office of National Drug Control Policy used the same tactic to help stations fool viewers with illegal "covert propaganda" programs, according to the GAO. The revelation of these tactics forced CNN to change its policies to disallow their use. Good for them. And good for them for canning Crossfire. But what, for goodness' sake, Mr. Klein, about Novak?

A Reply to the New Republic

In my last column, I focused on the Kerry campaign's inability to articulate an alternative national security strategy. This, I suggested, made it difficult to lay bare the colossal failures of the Bush Administration in the same area and to convince voters to trust the Democrats with the defense of the nation. I also noted that Democrats did not always have this problem; the "fighting faith" of 1950s cold war liberalism, for all its problems, presented Americans with a national security framework sufficient to earn their trust (and thereby, not incidentally, allow liberals to make considerable progress on social justice issues at home).

By coincidence, New Republic editor Peter Beinart simultaneously published an elegantly written, passionately argued 5,683-word essay addressing himself to exactly the same problem and deploying the same historical example as a guidepost to the future. The essay, "A Fighting Faith," was widely embraced as the fulcrum of debate about the future of a liberal foreign policy vision. In this regard, Beinart and TNR performed a salutary service, as such a debate is sorely needed. Unfortunately, Beinart's own contribution is fundamentally flawed, and must be discarded if this debate is to lead liberals in a fruitful direction.

Just as the magazine did when its editors argued in favor of Bush's foolhardy war – and Reagan's Central American fantasies before that – Beinart's essay employs McCarthyite tactics in conjunction with wishful thinking in the service of a chimerical political agenda. His solution for the political problem that ails the Democratic Party fits in perfectly with TNR's own intellectual DNA structure, calling as it does for the expulsion from the Democratic coalition of, perhaps the left's most energetic and committed popular organizations, in support of a combination of policies (liberal on the domestic front, neoconservative internationally) with no clear constituency in America or anywhere else. In doing so, it reproduces the failures of the Bush Administration that have destroyed the sympathy and solidarity the United States enjoyed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

First the McCarthyism: Beinart's attacks on MoveOn – which understate the organization's 2.9 million membership by nearly 100 percent – rest largely on statements made by organizations he claims are related to it, often by nothing more than a click on its website. Many of his charges turn on the weasel word "seems," as in "in recent years, [MoveOn] seems to have largely lost interest in any agenda for fighting terrorism at all. Instead, MoveOn's discussion of the subject seems dominated by two, entirely negative, ideas...." As a certain Prince of Denmark once remarked: "Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not 'seems.'"

Beinart falsely accuses MoveOn of opposing military retaliation against Al Qaeda because its organizers argued on behalf of a strategy that spared population centers from bombing attacks. He apparently cannot conceive of an effective military response that does not include the killing of thousands of innocents. In fact, just as the liberal realists of the 1950s whom Beinart so admires opposed the excesses of conservative US foreign policy – including CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala – so too did liberal realists argue in 2001 that the US government was not availing itself of the best approaches to fighting Al Qaeda. New Yorker reporter Nicholas Lemann surveyed a group of them and came away with a remarkably consistent – and painfully prescient – set of analyses. "Military power is not necessary to wiping out Al Qaeda," Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School at Harvard told Lemann. "It's a crude instrument, and it almost always has effects you can't anticipate.... This is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of people around the world. When your village just got leveled by an American mistake, the conclusions you draw will be rather different from what we'd want them to be." Stephen Van Evera of MIT concurred: "A broad war on terror was a tremendous mistake.... you make enemies of the people you need against Al Qaeda."

Indeed, the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, while supported elsewhere, did feed anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. In a February 2002 Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries, 77 percent of respondents judged US actions in Afghanistan to be unjustifiable; only 9 percent expressed support. Even in moderate Turkey, opinion ran 3 to 1 against, and in Pakistan the ratio was 20 to 1. Needless to say, neither did the military campaign succeed in capturing its avowed target, Osama bin Laden. (I point all this out as someone who supported the attack on Afghanistan, although I would have preferred a more thoughtful response.)

Beinart argues that by expelling MoveOn for being insufficiently supportive of the Bush Administration's terror policies and embracing a platform of social liberalism and military adventurism, Democrats could enlarge their portion of the electoral pie to a degree that would enable them to wrest power from the Republicans and embark on a successful mission to democratize the Middle East. As many critics have pointed out in response, the size of the potential pro-gay marriage/pro-war constituency would probably fit comfortably around a TNR conference table. Even more fantastic, however, and to this writer, depressing, is Beinart's belief that such a force could successfully liberate the Islamic world from the morass of religious fundamentalism, corruption and political paranoia from which it currently suffers.

Can Beinart point to any evidence that the US government possesses the knowledge, authority or cultural sensitivity necessary to perform this historically unprecedented operation? Does Beinart really believe that the Arab masses are yearning to be freed in order to catch the last episode of Desperate Housewives? Such naïve hubris about America's ability to remake other cultures to our liking at the point of a gun is what underlay the decisions that cost us 58,000 lives in Vietnam and wrought death and destruction across Southeast Asia for more than a decade. In the persons of Paul Wolfowitz and other alleged "idealists" in the Bush Administration, it has reared its ugly head again, and produced tragic results. Now Beinart wants to run the same damned movie with liberal credits at the end. Are American liberals really cursed to make this same mistake over and over like one of Pavlov's poodles?

Finally, in his zeal to attack liberals who dared to point out the dangers of supporting the Bush Administration's misuse of the "war on terror" to invade irrelevant countries and destroy civil liberties at home, Beinart whitewashes its extremism and in doing so, empowers it. Citing MoveOn's contention that the Patriot Act had "nullified large portions of the Bill of Rights," Beinart claims the group "grossly inflated the Act's effect...[and] then contrasted it with the – implicitly far smaller – danger from Al Qaeda," embodying "civil-libertarian alarmism at its worst – vastly exaggerating the threat from John Ashcroft in order to downplay the threat from Al Qaeda." Yet Beinart neither examines the Patriot Act nor explains how concern with its impact on civil liberties is incompatible with concern for protecting America from terrorism.

In fact, the Bush Administration's willingness to exploit the tools that Americans' legitimate fear of terrorism has placed at its disposal poses a threat to US civil liberties that requires no exaggeration from anyone. As the case of José Padilla has demonstrated, George W. Bush and his advisers claim the right to arrest any American citizen they choose and incarcerate that citizen indefinitely, denying him the right to outside counsel. In the case of foreigners, it claims the same rights, but adds the techniques of torture and the refusal even to reveal the identities of those it has arrested. Just what good is a Bill of Rights if it cannot protect you from police-state tactics like these?

(Keep in mind that I have only scratched the surface of the problems with Beinart's piece. I've left untouched, for instance, his hopelessly inappropriate analogy between Soviet totalitarianism and violent Islamic fundamentalism. Unlike, say, Al Qaeda, the Soviet Union was fundamentally a conservative power, uninterested in inciting revolutions it could not control. We were not dealing then, as we are now, with the potential to inspire thousands of freelance terrorists armed with dirty bombs or worse. Nor have I dissected Beinart's mistaken attribution of Kerry's nomination to his willingness to vote against the $87 billion appropriation for the war in Iraq; something he asserts sans evidence.)

However dramatic its presentation, Beinart's argument amounts to little more than a fact-challenged, intellectually garbled, ideologically motivated attempt to read his opponents out of a debate that he has already lost. The vast majority of liberals are not willing to buy into this more sophisticated version of the Bush/Cheney/Rove/Rumsfeld vision of endless war unimpeded by any form of dissent or even tough questioning of its efficacy as a means of achieving its domestic goals. Beinart is correct that we need a rethinking of how to present liberalism as a "fighting faith" that appeals to a majority of Americans. Unfortunately, he has used the occasion merely to engage in more of the same sectarian sniping his magazine has employed in the past – most often in the service of undermining the possibility of a genuine liberal alternative to the neoconservatives' ideological fantasies. Beinart's solution fails miserably as a starting point for debate about how to save America, and the world, from future decades of Republican misrule, no less than the liberal war hawks did in their attempts to steer George W. Bush in a more "progressive" direction in his pursuit of an American-led imperium in the Middle East.

Now let the real debate begin...

PBS Adds Insult to Injury

The far right's decades-long campaign to falsely brand PBS a leftist conspiracy – one that apparently included giving shows to such commies as William F. Buckley, Louis Rukeyser, Ben Wattenberg and Fortune magazine – has really hit pay dirt this year, first in creating a show around CNN's conservative talking head Tucker Carlson, and now, far more egregiously, in creating a program for the extremist editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.

Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson is a nice guy and among the least offensive of contemporary conservative pundits. Unfortunately, that is damn faint praise indeed. In recent weeks, the purposely inflammatory demagogy of PBS's newest host has included a description of John Edwards as "specializing in Jacuzzi cases," owing to the lawyer's successful representation of a small child who saw her intestines sucked out inside a wading pool. Carlson has compared the Democratic Party's efforts to keep track of its own racial data to those of Gestapo head and SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and he accused John Kerry of demanding that "dark skinned foreigners from the Middle East fight our war for us." No less odiously, he defended GOP smear tactics against the legless Democratic Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, who was linked with Osama bin Laden in one of the most scurrilous campaigns of the past century.

Still, the insult of throwing up Carlson to quiet the whining of crybaby conservatives pales in comparison to the injury of offering up millions of dollars in taxpayer and viewer-donated resources of our public broadcasting service to the far-right ideologues behind the Journal Editorial Report. Short of turning the broadcast day over to Rush Limbaugh or Richard Mellon Scaife, it's difficult to imagine a more calculated effort to undermine PBS's intended mission of providing alternative programming than this subsidy to a wealthy, conservative corporation to produce yet another right-wing cable chat show.

But ideology is only the half of it. I lack the space here to do justice to the many instances in which the Journal editors – who are responsible for producing what is, according to Alex Jones, head of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, "perhaps the most influential, most articulate, most ferocious opinion page in the country" – have trampled on the rules of basic journalistic fairness. In What Liberal Media? I describe numerous examples of the editors' deliberately misleading their readers – even in some cases ignoring or contradicting the first-rate reporting of the paper's news pages. The quality of the editorial page's sourcing is of no apparent concern when an enemy is declared. Lyndon LaRouche's minions were used as backup to spread false rumors about Michael Dukakis's mental health. Known liars and thieves provided the grist for an endlessly spun web of fictional intrigue involving Bill Clinton's alleged murder plots and drug-running in Arkansas.

In a lengthy examination in the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman found six dozen examples of disputed Journal editorials and op-eds. She discovered that "on subjects ranging from lawyers, judges, and product liability suits to campus and social issues, a strong America, and of course, economics, we found a consistent pattern of incorrect facts, ignored or incomplete facts, missing facts, uncorroborated facts." In many of these cases, the editors refused to print a correction, preferring to allow the aggrieved party to write a letter to the editor, which would be printed much later, and then let the reader decide whose version appeared more credible. Almost never does the paper correct the record or admit its errors.

Recently Peggy Noonan, who writes for the page, decided to return to her original job as a flack for the GOP. This is, in a way, unfortunate, as PBS viewers will be denied the entertainment value of her analysis, which has on occasion included anti-Communist magic dolphins sent by God to save Elián González and posthumously delivered sermons by the late Senator Paul Wellstone excoriating the mourners at his own funeral.

As I wrote in this space when CNBC ran its version of the same show – on a for-profit, conservative cable network, I might add – "To find the same combination of conviction, partisanship and ideological extremism on the far left, a network would need to convene a 'roundtable' featuring Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Fidel Castro." But perhaps what is most offensive about PBS's decision to fund and broadcast Carlson (who already has a show on CNN five evenings a week) and the Journal editors (whose preaching is subsidized and distributed by the Dow Jones Corporation, whose profit last year topped $1.5 billion) is that it is being portrayed by its sponsor, New York's WETA, as "balance" for the program Now With Bill Moyers.

In fact, these conservative opinion programs are in no way comparable to Moyers's show. Though Moyers is unarguably a liberal, his show is not a program of ideological advocacy but of public journalistic investigation. Its primary function is to air reports of corporate and governmental abuses that appear nowhere else in the media, and to explore all sides of contentious issues. When Moyers does an interview, you are just as likely to get a Robert Bartley, a Grover Norquist or a Paul Gigot as anyone on the liberal side of the aisle. When Moyers retires at the end of the year (at which time PBS will reduce the show to a half-hour), his chosen replacement will be David Brancaccio, a reporter who comes from that hotbed of anticapitalist agitation, NPR's Marketplace. (Disclosure: Moyers and I are friends, and his patronage has helped me with my books on the media and democracy.)

Given the right's domination of television talk shows and its already strong representation on public broadcasting, the only imaginable explanation for the decision to put PBS resources in the hands of well-financed, well-distributed, unabashedly partisan and journalistically challenged ideologues can be naked political pressure. As we have seen over the past three decades, the relentless conservative campaign to "work the refs" works. If liberals are to retain their voice in the public discourse, they had better find a way to let the pooh-bahs of PBS know exactly what they think of decisions like this one.

Hawks Eating Crow

The Bush administration has not made it easy on its supporters. David Brooks now admits that he was gripped with a "childish fantasy" about Iraq. Tucker Carlson is "ashamed" and "enraged" at himself. Tom Friedman, admitting to being "a little slow," is finally off the reservation. Die-hard Republican publicist William Kristol admits of Bush, "He did drive us into a ditch." The neocon fantasist and sometime Republican speechwriter Mark Helprin complains on the Wall Street Journal editorial page -- the movement's Pravda -- of "the inescapable fact that the war has been run incompetently, with an apparently deliberate contempt for history, strategy, and thought, and with too little regard for the American soldier, whose mounting casualties seem to have no effect on the boastfulness of the civilian leadership."

Most of the regretful hawks blame the administration for its failure to execute what they consider a noble endeavor. But it is a noble endeavor only in the way it would be noble to give all your money to one of those deposed Ethiopian princesses who fill your inbox with pleas to send them all your money for a guarantee of future riches. In other words, yes, while it might have been nice to liberate Iraq from Saddam's clutches, it was a lot more likely that under Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co., we would end up arresting innocent people, holding them without trial and systematically torturing and sexually humiliating them; all the while saying, as the Daily Show's Rob Corddry so brilliantly put it, "Remember, it's not important that we did torture these people. What's important is that we are not the kind of people who would torture these people."

Take a look at the sequence of events leading to the revelations of the Abu Ghraib scandal in The New Yorker: It began, as Seymour Hersh notes, with Rumsfeld's desire to extract information from informants about the location of certain "high-value" targets in Afghanistan along with his unwillingness to apply the terms of the Geneva Conventions to prisoners captured in the War on Terrorism. Next came the bait-and-switch application in Iraq of tactics drawn from the War on Terrorism, upon which Bush and his administration had based their entire case for offensive war. Add to this the refusal to provide the military with sufficient manpower resources to carry out the necessary tasks of the occupation, and throw in a willingness to use what one former official quoted by Hersh terms "recycled hillbillies" -- untrained, inexperienced and overworked in a military prison located inside a hostile fire zone with rogue interrogators and virtually no nighttime supervision.

All of this made something like what eventually took place at Abu Ghraib all but inevitable -- just as the administration's aversion to accountability dictated the attempted cover-up that followed. The abuse was called to the attention of the occupation authorities as early as May 2003, and in November a scathing report of the International Committee of the Red Cross was reviewed by senior US military officials in Iraq, a full two months before the Army launched its investigation. Amnesty International had complained last summer of Iraqi detainees being subjected to "crude, inhuman or degrading treatment." Aides to Colin Powell and Paul Bremer insist that they, too, raised concerns within administration circles but were ignored as well. Nothing was done to put an end to the officially sanctioned sadism -- which also turned out to be a propaganda gift to anti-American terrorists the world over -- until mid-January of this year, when the whistleblower Specialist Joseph Darby turned over photos to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division.

The existence of an internal Army report on the Abu Ghraib abuses, according to Time, was flatly denied to Intelligence Committee Democrats when they asked the Pentagon about it in January. In February, when Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's report confirmed the earlier charges and provided the pornographic evidence, the story was still kept secret from Congress and the American people. Finally it was apparently leaked by one of the defendants' lawyers to Hersh and 60 Minutes II, but even then, Secretary Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers professed to be almost perfectly clueless. Briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee hours before the photos were to be broadcast on CBS (already delayed two weeks at Myers's request), Rumsfeld mentioned nothing about the approaching firestorm. Neither got around to reading the report until days later.

What was Bush's public response to the man responsible for what Senator Ted Kennedy aptly terms "America's steepest and deepest fall from grace in the history of our country"? It was to congratulate Rumsfeld for doing "a superb job." In Congress the word came from Dick Cheney's office to "get off [Rumsfeld's] case."

These are the men not just the neocons but self-described progressives and human-rights advocates believed capable of carrying out the delicate and difficult mission of bringing democracy and modernism to the Arab world, while safeguarding the security and good name of the United States. Excuse me, but just what was so hard to understand about this bunch? We knew they were dishonest. We knew they were fanatical. We knew they were purposely ignorant and bragged about not reading newspapers. We knew they were vindictive. We knew they were lawless. We knew they were obsessively secretive. We knew they had no time or patience for those who raised difficult questions. We knew they were driven by fantasies of religious warfare, personal vengeance and ideological triumph. We knew they had no respect for civil liberties. And we knew they took no responsibility for the consequences of their incompetence. Just what is surprising about the manner in which they've conducted the war?

And how pathetic is it that the only cable network really grappling with the media's failure is Comedy Central? Let's give the last word to the Daily Show's incomparable Stephen Colbert: "The journalists I know love America, but now all anybody wants to talk about is the bad journalists -- the journalists that hurt America.... Who didn't uncover the flaws in our prewar intelligence? Who gave a free pass on the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection? Who dropped Afghanistan from the headlines at the first whiff of this Iraqi snipe hunt? The United States press corps, that's who."

Eric Alterman is a columnist with The Nation.

The New Scopes Trials

What if the research agenda of the University of Texas College of Natural Sciences were drafted not by the professors who actually conduct the studies but by, say, the alumni who funded the department? We might end up with research on the stickiness of Mr. Big's brand of glue instead of the development of an AIDS vaccine. Luckily, most research universities don't work that way. The federal government, however, occasionally does. In the Bush Administration, when the religious right or big business weighs in on a matter of science, politics usually prevails. So while this President may lack the powerful eloquence of William Jennings Bryan, in the world of science he's the modern equivalent of the Great Orator defeating the infidels of evolution in the Scopes Trial of 1925.

Scientific panels and committees have proven especially susceptible to political manipulation by the White House. In one revealing case, Bush & Co. intervened at the precise moment that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention was set to consider once again lowering acceptable blood-lead levels in response to new scientific evidence. The Administration rejected nominee Bruce Lanphear and dumped panel member Michael Weitzman, both of whom previously advocated lowering the legal limit. Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appointed William Banner -- who had testified on behalf of lead companies in poison-related litigation -- and Joyce Tsuji, who had worked for a consulting firm whose clients include a lead smelter. (She later withdrew.) Banner and another appointee, Sergio Piomelli, were first contacted about serving on the committee not by a member of the Administration but by lead-industry representatives who appeared to be recruiting favorable committee members with the blessing of HHS officials.

The supposedly nonpartisan President's Council on Bioethics -- a panel whose creation Bush announced during his much publicized stem-cell speech of August 2001 -- proved susceptible to a different arm of his political base, the far right. The council is the organization charged with leading America through the murky waters of cloning and other genetic research. But instead of appointing a calm voice to lead those difficult discussions, President Bush chose Leon Kass, a University of Chicago bioethicist who opposed in vitro fertilization in the 1970s on the basis of Brave New World-esque fears of reproduction run amok and likes to refer to abortion as "feticide." In a recent issue of The Public Interest, Kass lamented that today's young women live "the entire decade of their twenties -- their most fertile years -- neither in the homes of their fathers nor in the homes of their husbands; unprotected, lonely...." He is hostile to everything from "women on the pill" to sex education and believes children of divorce are "maimed for love and intimacy."

A similar case of politically inspired panel-stacking involved the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, which reviews research and makes suggestions on a range of public health policy issues. When advisory committee members came up for renewal, committee chair Dr. Thomas Burke was surprised to learn that fifteen of the panel's eighteen members were going to be replaced. In the past, HHS had asked Burke for a list of recommendations; this time, it had its own list, and Burke was not on it. The new panel included chemical company favorite Lois Swirsky Gold, who denies many of the links between pollutants and cancer, and Dennis Paustenbach, who testified for Pacific Gas & Electric in the real-life Erin Brockovich court case.

None of this should be surprising from an administration that sees nothing wrong with conducting an ideological litmus test for potential scientific appointees. For example, William Miller, a nominee to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, was contacted by Secretary Thompson's office after he'd been asked to consider the appointment. The caller, according to Miller, asked whether he'd voted for President Bush. When he confessed that he had not, he was asked to explain himself, and did not receive a callback.

The scientific community has balked at these decisions and appointment practices. The American Public Health Association released an official policy statement in November 2002 that objected to "recent steps by government officials at the federal level to restructure key federal scientific and public health advisory committees by retiring the committees before their work is completed, removing or failing to reappoint qualified members, and replacing them with less scientifically qualified candidates and candidates with a clear conflict of interest. Such steps suggest an effort to inappropriately influence these committees."

Science magazine published an editorial signed by ten prominent US scientists railing against Bush's appropriation of the nation's scientific advisory committees and panels for political purposes. One of those scientists, Dr. Lynn Goldman at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, sees an eroding relationship between federal science agencies and the scientific community and fears that eventually scientific professionals will no longer trust crucial information gleaned from government research. Unlike previous administrations, the Bush White House, Goldman believes, has a "to the victor goes the spoils" approach to scientific research. She adds that "what they don't understand is that everybody hasn't done it that way. Science isn't 'the spoils.' Science isn't something to be politicized based on who's elected."

But if there's one thing that's been obvious over the past three years of the Bush Administration, it's that nothing is out of bounds when Bush's electoral bases are involved. The federal government funds a quarter of the scientific research in this country. When a President starts appointing scientists as he does campaign staffers, we risk an era of Lysenkoism in America -- when Soviet citizens were told (among other things) that acquired traits can be inherited. While Bush's supporters may giddily profit from such changes, it's the rest of us who lose out when science becomes another avenue for propaganda.

What Liberal Media?

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from Eric Alterman's newly released book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic), published in February.

Social scientists talk about "useful myths," stories we all know aren't necessarily true, but that we choose to believe anyway because they seem to offer confirmation of what we already know (which raises the question, If we already know it, why the story?). Think of the wholly fictitious but illustrative story about little George Washington and his inability to lie about that cherry tree. For conservatives, and even many journalists, the "liberal media" is just that -- a myth, to be sure, but a useful one.

Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the past five decades fulminating about the liberal cabal/progressive thought police who spin, supplant and sometimes suppress the news we all consume. (Indeed, it's not only conservatives who find this whipping boy to be an irresistible target. In late 1993 Bill Clinton whined to Rolling Stone that he did not get "one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press.") But while some conservatives actually believe their own grumbles, the smart ones don't. They know mau-mauing the other side is just a good way to get their own ideas across -- or perhaps prevent the other side from getting a fair hearing for theirs. On occasion, honest conservatives admit this. Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, "I think we know who the media want to win this election--and I don't think it's George Bush." The very same Rich Bond, however, also noted during the very same election, "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media].... If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."

Bond is hardly alone. That the media were biased against the Reagan Administration is an article of faith among Republicans. Yet James Baker, perhaps the most media-savvy of them, owned up to the fact that any such complaint was decidedly misplaced. "There were days and times and events we might have had some complaints [but] on balance I don't think we had anything to complain about," he explained to one writer. Patrick Buchanan, among the most conservative pundits and presidential candidates in Republican history, found that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies. "I've gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage--all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the 'liberal media,' but every Republican on earth does that," the aspiring American ayatollah cheerfully confessed during the 1996 campaign. And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/neoconservative publicist in America today, has come clean on this issue. "I admit it," he told a reporter. "The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures." Nevertheless, Kristol apparently feels no compunction about exploiting and reinforcing the ignorant prejudices of his own constituency. In a 2001 pitch to conservative potential subscribers to his Rupert Murdoch-funded magazine, Kristol complained, "The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there's too much liberal bias.... There's too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes." (It's a wonder he left out "Too much hypocrisy.")

In recent times, the right has ginned up its "liberal media" propaganda machine. Books by both Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg have topped the bestseller lists, stringing together a series of charges so extreme that, well, it's amazing neither one thought to accuse "liberals" of using the blood of conservatives' children for extra flavor in their soy-milk decaf lattes.

Given the success of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Washington Times, the New York Post, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, the New York Sun, National Review, Commentary, Limbaugh, Drudge, etc., no sensible person can dispute the existence of a "conservative media." The reader might be surprised to learn that neither do I quarrel with the notion of a "liberal media." It is tiny and profoundly underfunded compared with its conservative counterpart, but it does exist. As a columnist for The Nation and an independent weblogger for, I work in the middle of it, and so do many of my friends. And guess what? It's filled with right-wingers.

Unlike most of the publications named above, liberals, for some reason, feel compelled to include the views of the other guy on a regular basis in just the fashion that conservatives abhor. Take a tour from a native: New York magazine, in the heart of liberal country, chose as its sole national correspondent the right-wing talk-show host Tucker Carlson. During the 1990s, The New Yorker -- the bible of sophisticated urban liberalism -- chose as its Washington correspondents the belligerent right-winger Michael Kelly and the soft, DLC neoconservative Joe Klein. At least half of the "liberal New Republic" is actually a rabidly neoconservative magazine and has been edited in recent years by the very same Michael Kelly, as well as by the conservative liberal-hater Andrew Sullivan. The Nation has often opened its pages to liberal-haters, even among its columnists. The Atlantic Monthly -- a mainstay of Boston liberalism --even chose the apoplectic Kelly as its editor, who then proceeded to add a bunch of Weekly Standard writers to its antiliberal stable. What is "liberal" Vanity Fair doing publishing a special hagiographic Annie Leibovitz portfolio of Bush Administration officials that appears, at first glance, to be designed (with the help of a Republican political consultant) to invoke notions of Greek and Roman gods? Why does the liberal New York Observer alternate National Review's Richard Brookhiser with the Joe McCarthy-admiring columnist Nicholas von Hoffman--both of whom appear alongside editorials that occasionally mimic the same positions taken downtown by the editors of the Wall Street Journal? On the web, the tabloid-style liberal website Salon gives free rein to the McCarthyite impulses of both Sullivan and David Horowitz. The neoliberal Slate also regularly publishes both Sullivan and Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard, and has even opened its "pages" to such conservative evildoers as Charles Murray and Elliott Abrams.

Move over to the mainstream publications and broadcasts often labeled "liberal," and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal dominance becomes. The liberal New York Times Op-Ed page features the work of the unreconstructed Nixonite William Safire, and for years accompanied him with the firebreathing-if-difficult-to-understand neocon A.M. Rosenthal. Current denizen Bill Keller also writes regularly from a DLC neocon perspective. The Washington Post is just swarming with conservatives, from Michael Kelly to George Will to Robert Novak to Charles Krauthammer. If you wish to include CNN on your list of liberal media--I don't, but many conservatives do--then you had better find a way to explain the near-ubiquitous presence of the attack dog Robert Novak, along with that of neocon virtuecrat William Bennett, National Review's Kate O'Beirne, National Review's Jonah Goldberg, The Weekly Standard's David Brooks and Tucker Carlson. This is to say nothing of the fact that among its most frequent guests are Coulter and the anti-American telepreacher Pat Robertson. Care to include ABC News? Again, I don't, but if you wish, how to deal with the fact that the only ideological commentator on its Sunday show is the hard-line conservative George Will? Or how about the fact that its only explicitly ideological reporter is the journalistically challenged conservative crusader John Stossel? How to explain the entire career there and on NPR of Cokie Roberts, who never met a liberal to whom she could not condescend? What about Time and Newsweek? In the former, we have Krauthammer holding forth, and in the latter, Will.

I could go on, but the point is clear: Conservatives are extremely well represented in every facet of the media. The correlative point is that even the genuine liberal media are not so liberal. And they are no match -- either in size, ferocity or commitment -- for the massive conservative media structure that, more than ever, determines the shape and scope of our political agenda.

In a careful 1999 study published in the academic journal Communications Research, four scholars examined the use of the "liberal media" argument and discovered a fourfold increase in the number of Americans telling pollsters that they discerned a liberal bias in their news. But a review of the media's actual ideological content, collected and coded over a twelve-year period, offered no corroboration whatever for this view. The obvious conclusion: News consumers were responding to "increasing news coverage of liberal bias media claims, which have been increasingly emanating from Republican Party candidates and officials."

The right is working the refs. And it's working. Much of the public believes a useful but unsupportable myth about the so-called liberal media, and the media themselves have been cowed by conservatives into repeating their nonsensical nostrums virtually nonstop. As the economist/pundit Paul Krugman observes of Republican efforts to bully the media into accepting the party's Orwellian arguments about Social Security privatization: "The next time the administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media--fearing accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of 'balance'--won't report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they'll report that some Democrats claim that it's brown."

In the real world of the right-wing media, the pundits are the conservatives' shock troops. Even the ones who constantly complain about alleged liberal control of the media cannot ignore the vast advantage their side enjoys when it comes to airing their views on television, in the opinion pages, on the radio and the Internet.

Take a look at the Sunday talk shows, the cable chat fests, the op-ed pages and opinion magazines, and the radio talk shows. It can be painful, I know, but try it. Across virtually the entire television punditocracy, unabashed conservatives dominate, leaving lone liberals to be beaten up by gangs of marauding right-wingers, most of whom voice views much further toward their end of the spectrum than any regularly televised liberals do toward the left. Grover Norquist, the right's brilliant political organizer, explains his team's advantage by virtue of the mindset of modern conservatism. "The conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part of the team," he notes. "The liberal press is much larger, but at the same time it sees itself as the establishment press. So it's conflicted. Sometimes it thinks it needs to be critical of both sides." Think about it. Who among the liberals can be counted upon to be as ideological, as relentless and as nakedly partisan as George Will, Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, Bay Buchanan, William Bennett, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, John McLaughlin, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Gigot, Oliver North, Kate O'Beirne, Tony Blankley, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Laura Ingraham, Jonah Goldberg, William F. Buckley Jr., Bill O'Reilly, Alan Keyes, Tucker Carlson, Brit Hume, the self-described "wild men" of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, etc., etc.? In fact, it's hard to come up with a single journalist/pundit appearing on television who is even remotely as far to the left of the mainstream spectrum as most of these conservatives are to the right.

Liberals are not as rare in the print punditocracy as in television, but their modest numbers nevertheless give the lie to any accusations of liberal domination. Of the most prominent liberals writing in the nation's newspapers and opinion magazines-- Garry Wills, E.J. Dionne, Richard Cohen, Robert Kuttner, Robert Scheer, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Mary McGrory, Hendrik Hertzberg, Nicholas Kristof, Molly Ivins--not one enjoys or has ever enjoyed a prominent perch on television. Michael Kinsley did for a while, but only as the liberal half of Crossfire's tag team, and Kinsley, by his own admission, is not all that liberal. The Weekly Standard and National Review editors enjoy myriad regular television gigs of their own, and are particularly popular as guests on the allegedly liberal CNN. Columnists Mark Shields and Al Hunt also play liberals on television, but always in opposition to conservatives and almost always on the other team's ideological field, given the conservatives' ability to dominate television's "he said, she said" style of argument virtually across the board.

As a result of their domination of the terms of political discourse, conservative assumptions have come to rule the roost of insider debate. And they do so not only because of conservative domination of the punditocracy but also because of conservative colonization of the so-called center -- where all action in American politics is deemed to take place.

Consider the case of Howard Kurtz. By virtue of his responsibilities at CNN as host of Reliable Sources and at the Washington Post as its media reporter and columnist, Kurtz is widely recognized as the most influential media reporter in America, akin to the top cop on the beat. There is no question that Kurtz is a terrifically energetic reporter. But all media writers, including myself, walk a difficult line with regard to conflicts of interest. As a reporter and a wide-ranging talk-show host, Kurtz, unlike a columnist, cannot choose simply to ignore news. What's more, the newspaper for which he writes cannot help but cover CNN, the network on which he appears, and vice versa, as they both constitute 800-pound gorillas in the media jungle. Post executive editor Len Downie Jr. says he thinks "the problem is endemic to all media reporters. Everyone in the media universe is a competitor of the Washington Post, and so it's impossible to avoid conflicts of interest. Either we tell him the only people he can cover is The Nation or we set up this unique rule for him that he has to identify his relationship with whomever he writes about." Downie may be right. But the system didn't work perfectly when Kurtz covered Walter Isaacson's resignation from CNN recently. He wrote a tougher piece on Isaacson than most, which is fine, and noted that he worked for CNN at the end, but did not note that the network brass -- meaning, presumably, Isaacson -- had just cut his airtime in half. (Kurtz later explained this in an online chat.)

Regarding the political coloration of his work, it is no secret to anyone in the industry that CNN has sought to ingratiate itself with conservatives in recent years as it has lost viewers to Fox. Shortly after taking the reins, in the summer of 2001, Isaacson initiated a number of moves designed to enhance the station's appeal to conservatives, including a high-profile meeting with the Congressional Republican leadership to listen to their concerns. The bias reflected in Kurtz's work at the Post and CNN would be consistent with that of a media critic who had read the proverbial writing on the wall.

Whatever his personal ideology may be, it is hard to avoid the conclusion, based on an examination of his work, that Kurtz loves conservatives but has little time for liberals. His overt sympathy for conservatives and their critique of the media is, given the power and influence of his position, not unlike having the police chief in the hands of a single faction of the mob. To take just one tiny example of many in my book What Liberal Media?, Kurtz seemed to be working as a summer replacement for Ari Fleischer when Bush's Harken oil shenanigans briefly captured the imagination of the Washington press corps, owing to the perception of a nationwide corporate meltdown during the summer of 2002. Over and over Kurtz demanded of his guests:

"Why is the press resurrecting, like that 7-million-year-old human skull, this thirteen-year-old incident, in which Bush sold some stock in his company Harken Energy?"

"Laura Ingraham, is this the liberal press, in your view, trying to prove that Bush is soft on corporate crime because he once cut corners himself?"

"Regulators concluded he did nothing improper. Now, there may be some new details, granted, but this is--is this important enough to suggest, imply or otherwise infer, as the press might be doing, Molly Ivins, that this is somehow in a league with Tyco or WorldCom or Enron?"

"Is there a media stereotype Bush and Cheney, ex-oilmen, ex-CEOs in bed with big business that they can't shake?"

"Are the media unfairly blaming President Bush for sinking stock prices? Are journalists obsessed with Bush and Cheney's business dealings in the oil industry, and is the press turning CEOs into black-hatted villains?"

"If you look at all the negative media coverage, Rich Lowry, you'd think that Bush's stock has crashed along with the market. Is he hurting, or is this some kind of nefarious media creation?"

"And why is that the President's fault? Is it his job to keep stock prices up?"

Kurtz even went so far as to give credence to the ludicrous, Limbaugh-like insistence that somehow Bill Clinton caused the corporate meltdown of the summer of 2002. Kurtz quoted these arguments, noting, "They say, well, he set a bad example for the country. He showed he could lie and get away with it, so is that a reverse kind of 'Let's drag in the political figure we don't like and pin the tail on him?'" It was, as his guest Martha Brant had to inform him, "a ridiculous argument," surprising Kurtz, who asked again, "You're saying there's no parallel?" Recall that this is the premier program of media criticism hosted by the most influential media reporter in America. It did not occur to Kurtz to note, for instance, as Peter Beinart did, that Clinton vetoed the 1995 bill that shielded corporate executives from shareholder lawsuits (when every single Republican voted to override him), or that Clinton's Securities and Exchange Commission chief wanted to ban accounting firms from having consulting contracts with the firms they were also auditing. Thirty-three of thirty-seven members of Congress who signed their names to protests against the Clinton SEC were also Republican. The man who led the effort was then-lobbyist Harvey Pitt, whom George W. Bush chose to head the SEC and who was later forced to resign. But to Kurtz it is somehow a legitimate, intelligent question whether Clinton's lying about getting blowjobs in the Oval Office was somehow responsible for the multibillion-dollar corporate accounting scandal his Administration sought to prevent.

The current historical moment in journalism is hardly a happy one. Journalists trying to do honest work find themselves under siege from several sides simultaneously. Corporate conglomerates increasingly view journalism as "software," valuable only insofar as it contributes to the bottom line. In the mad pursuit for audience and advertisers, the quality of the news itself becomes degraded, leading journalists to alternating fits of self-loathing and self-pity. Meanwhile, they face an Administration with a commitment to secrecy unmatched in modern US history. And to top it all off, conservative organizations and media outlets lie in wait, eager to pounce on any journalist who tries to give voice to almost any uncomfortable truth about influential American institutions -- in other words, to behave as an honest reporter--throwing up the discredited but nevertheless effective accusation of "liberal bias" in order to protect the powerful from scrutiny.

If September 11 taught the nation anything at all, it should have taught us to value the work that honest journalists do for the sake of a better-informed society. But for all the alleged public-spiritedness evoked by September 11, the mass public proved no more interested in serious news -- much less international news -- on Sept. 10, 2002, than it had been a year earlier. This came as a grievous shock and disappointment to many journalists, who interpreted the events of September 11 as an endorsement of the importance of their work to their compatriots. And indeed, from September 11 through October, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 78 percent of Americans followed news of the attacks closely. But according to a wide-ranging study by Peyton Craighill and Michael Dimock, interest in terrorism and fear of future terrorist attacks have "not necessarily translated into broader public interest in news about local, national, or international events.... Reported levels of reading, watching and listening to the news are not markedly different than in the spring of 2000," the report found. "At best, a slightly larger percentage of the public is expressing general interest in international and national news, but there is no evidence its appetite for international news extends much beyond terrorism and the Middle East." In fact, 61 percent of Americans admitted to tuning out foreign news unless a "major development" occurs.

The most basic problem faced by American journalists, both in war and peace, is that much of our society remains ignorant, and therefore unappreciative of the value of the profession's contribution to the quality and practice of our democracy. Powerful people and institutions have strong, self-interested reasons to resist the media's inspection and the public accountability it can inspire. The net effect of their efforts to deflect scrutiny is to weaken the democratic bond between the powerful and the powerless that can, alone, prevent the emergence of unchecked corruption. The phony "liberal media" accusation is just one of many tools in the conservative and corporate arsenal to reorder American society and the US economy to their liking. But as they've proven over and over, "working the refs" works. It results in a cowed media willing to give right-wing partisans a pass on many of their most egregious actions and ideologically inspired assertions. As such it needs to be resisted by liberals and centrists every bit as much as Bush's latest tax cut for the wealthy or his efforts to despoil the environment on behalf of the oil and gas industries.

The decades-long conservative ideological offensive constitutes a significant threat to journalism's ability to help us protect our families and insure our freedoms. Tough-minded reporting, as the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee explains, "is not for everybody." It is not "for those who feel that all's right with the world, not for those whose cows are sacred, and surely not for those who fear the violent contradictions of our time." But it is surely necessary for those of us who wish to answer to the historically honorable title of "democrat," "republican" or even that wonderfully old-fashioned title, "citizen."

Eric Alterman is a columnist at the Nation.

Devil In A Blue Dress

"My only regret with Osama bin Laden is that he did not manage to kill every member of the Wall Street Journal editorial staff."

"In this recurring nightmare of a presidency, we have a national debate about [George W. Bush's stolen presidency].... Otherwise there would be debates only about whether to impeach or assassinate."

"We need to execute people like Ann Coulter in order to physically intimidate conservatives, by making them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors."

First things first: Mr. Ashcroft, if you're there, I do not mean any of the statements above to be taken literally. I do not mean them at all. None of them. OK? What I do mean is to point out the incredible hypocrisy of those on the right, the center and the "liberal media" who defend the lunatic ravings of Ann Coulter, whether because she is "kidding" or because "the left does the same thing." (For those who have been lucky enough to have missed the Coultergeist of the past few months, the author of the summer's number-one bestselling nonfiction book in America has -- in language identical to that above -- expressed her regret that Timothy McVeigh did not blow up the New York Times building, mused aloud whether Bill Clinton should have been impeached or murdered, and called for the execution of John Walker Lindh in order to intimidate liberals.)

It's degrading to have to write about Coulter again. As a pundit, she is about on a par with Charles Manson, better suited to a lifelong stay in the Connecticut Home for the Criminally Insane than for the host's seat on Crossfire. Her books are filled with lies, slander and phony footnotes that are themselves lies and slanders. Her very existence as a public figure is an insult to our collective intelligence. I should really be writing about the campaign by neocon chickenhawks to intimidate Howell Raines and the New York Times on Iraq. But fortunately, John Judis and Nick Confessore have taken responsibility for that, leaving me to the less ominous but more baffling phenomenon of the bestselling Barbie-doll terrorist-apologist, who continues to be celebrated by the very media she terms "retarded" and guilty of "mass murder" while calling for their mass extinction by the likes of her ideological comrade Timothy McVeigh.

Make no mistake. Coulter may routinely call for the murder of liberals, of Arabs, of journalists, of the President, among many others. She may compare adorable Katie Couric to Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and joke about blowing up the Times building. But instead of ignoring, laughing at, or perhaps most usefully, sedating her, we find Coulter's blond locks and bony ass celebrated by talk-show bookers and gossip columnists -- even a genuine book reviewer -- from coast to proverbial coast.

Do I exaggerate? While promoting her hysterical screed against "liberals" -- a category so large she occasionally includes, I kid you not, Andrew Sullivan -- this malevolent Twiggy with Tourette's was booked on Today, Crossfire (as guest and guest host), Hardball, The Big Story With John Gibson and countless other cable and radio programs. She was lovingly profiled in Newsday, the New York Observer and the New York Times Sunday Style section. She was the Boston Globe's honored guest at the White House correspondents dinner. Her incitements to murder and terrorism have been cheered and defended in the Wall Street Journal and National Review Online. (The latter did so, moreover, despite her having termed its editors "girly boys" and behaving, in the words of the website's editor, Jonah Goldberg, "with a total lack of professionalism, friendship, and loyalty.") And her publisher, Crown, says it has no plans to correct her lies in future editions. Why should they care? Is anyone holding them accountable?

The slanderous nonsense she puts between hard covers, moreover, is selling not only to the caveman crowd, it's also receiving praise in such respectable outlets as the liberal LA Times Book Review and being quoted as constitutional gospel by alleged intellectual George Will on ABC's This Week. This despite the fact that Coulter's accusations have been as effectively discredited as Hitler's diaries. (The last time I checked, the folks at Tapped, the American Prospect's weblog, had compiled so many of these falsities it took them nearly 3,000 words to enumerate them. Coulter has also been ripped to shreds by,,, Scoobie Davis Online and by Joe Conason in Salon. The most comprehensive compilation can supposedly be found at I cannot bring myself to actually wade into it.)

So what's the deal? Is looking like an anorexic Farrah Fawcett and wearing skirts so short they lack the dignity and reserve of Monica Lewinsky's thong enough to insure the embrace of the national entertainment state no matter what you say, just so long as your murderous bile is directed at "liberals"? Would it have worked for Saddam if he wore a size 6? I really don't know. Naïve optimist that I am, when I first picked up Coulter's book in galleys in the late spring, I felt pretty certain we were done with her. I mean, how even to engage someone who terms Christie Todd Whitman a "birdbrain" (page 51) and a "dimwit" (page 53); Jim Jeffords a "half-wit" (page 50); and Gloria Steinem a "deeply ridiculous figure" (page 37) who "had to sleep" with a rich liberal to fund Ms. magazine (page 38) -- all of which makes her "a termagant" (page 39)? Coulter's done far worse since, of course, and yet, like one of those Mothralike creatures that feed on bullets and squashed Japanese villagers, the monster continues to grow, debasing everyone and everything in its wake. Coulter jokes about McVeigh blowing up the Times, and the Wall Street Journal -- which was blown up by terrorists on September 11 -- rushes to her defense. Their man, Daniel Pearl, was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan. Have they no shame? At long last, have they no sense of decency left?

Stop the Presses

Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic).

The lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists, by contrast, were near despondency.

They had entered the profession "armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the significance of stories and the manner in which they should be presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits" focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned" profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.

Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on TV?

As much as the media like to report on themselves -- I'd use the obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation -- few observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.) Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news; swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless task.

Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its almost-certain end."

Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS, under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard. If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?

With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman, which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.

Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds, It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US corporations.)

Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter, Ted, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?

Eric Alterman is currently the media columnist for The Nation and

Twenty Years of McLaughlin Woe

The McLaughlin Group is about to "celebrate" its twentieth anniversary. We might as well "celebrate" the discovery of anthrax.

The show flatters itself -- and its corporate sponsor, GE -- that it is providing some kind of public service. It's even offered on PBS in many cities, and its website features such faux educational trappings as classroom guides and discussion-group questions, along with $50 golf shirts. And while ratings have dropped steadily and precipitously for the past seven years, that is due largely to the fact that it has very nearly taken over our media world. Entire cable networks are devoted to its ethos, and even the old reliables of respectable political discourse -- like NBC's Meet the Press and CBS's Face the Nation -- are dancing to its dissonant tune. Before McLaughlin, public affairs television programs were often dry and pompous, but with the exception of the painfully pompous Agronsky and Company, they were devoted to the proposition that reporters -- like everyone else -- should appear on news programs only when they've learned something of value of which most people are unaware (hence the word reporter). The McLaughlin Group transformed this essential qualification from specialized knowledge to salable shtick. Not only television but journalism itself has never recovered.

As evidence of how little education, expertise or good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting matters in this universe, consider McLaughlin himself. Before building his television empire, he earned his fame as a Jesuit sex lecturer. He ran a hapless Senate race in 1970 in Rhode Island as a McGovernite Republican -- yes, you read that right -- but still managed, with Patrick Buchanan's assistance, to land a job in the Nixon White House. There, in priestly garb, he defended the Unindicted Co-Conspirator as "a moral man, thirsting for truth." Nine days before Nixon's resignation, McLaughlin predicted that Watergate would soon be viewed as a "mere footnote to a glorious administration."

Aside from talk-radio and religious writings, McLaughlin's most significant brush with journalism was a brief stint as Washington editor of National Review, where he would sign his own name to the work of the NR's interns and research assistants. But the show turned him into a superstar in Reagan's Washington. He bullied and humiliated fellow panelists and terrorized his young staff members, at least three of whom felt themselves to be victims of his sexual harassment. According to the court documents of the lawsuit Linda Dean filed against him, McLaughlin told her that he "needed a lot of sex" and "would take care of every material desire" she had, as he fondled her "intimately and against her will." Dean was fired, but her lawsuit resulted in a private settlement. (I guess this would be as good a place as any to plug the second edition of my book Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy from Cornell University Press.)

The genuine journalists whom McLaughlin casts as foils on his show tended to hate his guts but could not walk away from the unmatched buck-raking opportunities it spawned. While McLaughlin appearances paid a pittance, they came with invitations from corporate sponsors to recreate the show at conventions for five figures a pop. Mediocrities like Morton ("Ronald Reagan is a kind of magic totem against the cold future") Kondracke and Fred ("I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority") Barnes quickly developed celebrity cults. The more ambitious among them -- like Kondracke, Barnes, Robert Novak and Chris Matthews -- eventually used their newfound status to jump-start their own carnival-barking careers on rival networks. The warhorse Jack Germond stuck it out for fifteen years, at considerable cost to his self-respect as an honest reporter but considerable benefit to his income. (When Germond learned that the program would be distributed internationally, he replied that the panelists could now rejoice in "dumbing down the world." McLaughlin promptly benched him.)

In addition to debasing the culture of journalism, the McLaughlin monster also aided its corporate sponsors and conservative friends in shifting the foundation of political debate into the heartland of Reagan country -- where it remains to this day. The group set up a center of gravity in which two right-wing ideologues, Buchanan and Novak, were "balanced" by the wishy-washy neoconservatism of Kondracke and the bourbon-laced, no-nonsense nonpartisanship of Germond -- a down-the-line reporter with no political axes (or axises) to grind. McLaughlin acted -- and I do mean "acted" -- as referee. The net result was to bestow respectability on views that had only recently been the exclusive property of the caveman right and to marginalize liberalism beyond "responsible" debate.

The group's ideological legacy is hardly less significant than its deleterious impact on the civility of our discourse. I wonder how valuable it was, on a scale of one to ten, to George W. Bush in the late fall of 2000 to have a conservative punditocracy parroting James Baker's arguments before his case reached the Reagan/Bush-packed Supreme Court. And I wish I could predict whether Bush would have been able to shift the budget debate away from his showering trillions in tax breaks on the wealthy toward the alleged trade-offs between money for the war on terrorism versus that for health, education and the environment, without the spawn of the McLaughlinites marching in lockstep -- like a parade of Stepford Wives -- to the drumbeat of the Republican right wing. The ultimate public service of The McLaughlin Group has been to make it nearly impossible for anyone to speak to public issues on television except to repeat the most banal, and frequently conservative, clichés -- albeit accompanied by snappy and self-serving wisecracks. Why not genuinely honor this signal achievement on its anniversary and start making calls to PBS and its local affiliates demanding that they stop wasting our precious contributions and tax dollars to broadcast it? Will it work? No predictions, there, I'm afraid, given the size of GE's sponsorship. But I promise you'll feel better about yourself.

Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation, Worth Magazine, and, and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at New School University.

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