Since I wrote a couple of pieces about the story of Mitt Romney possibly being a high-school bully, I've gotten some unsurprising responses. The first, perhaps predictable one, is from conservatives complaining that Barack Obama was never "vetted," and the fact that we've learned about Romney's youthful "hijinks" just shows the media's double-standard. Needless to say, this is just absurd; there were hundreds of articles written in 2008 (and since) about Obama's family and his youth, not to mention the fact that he wrote a pretty frank book about it himself before he ever ran for office. The second complaint–less silly, but related–is that this is all a distraction, and we ought to be talking about real issues.
I've already said most of what I have to say about what kind of meaning we should ascribe to the bullying story, assuming it's true. But even if I disagree with the conservatives who are saying that the Washington Post should never even have pursued the story or that it shows the media's liberal bias, it's perfectly fine to have a meta-discussion about whether we should be talking about the issue...
The questioning of motives is one of the most common and most pernicious of rhetorical habits in political debate. It's pernicious because it encourages people to conclude not that your opponents are wrong about whatever matter it is we're discussing, but that they're bad people. When you question someone's motives you're automatically calling them a liar (since they will have offered an entirely different justification for why they are advocating what they're advocating), and you're also saying they're untrustworthy, cynical, and driven by some nefarious goal.
We see this all the time, and I'm not saying I've never questioned anyone's motives, because from time to time I have. But we have to acknowledge that someone can take a different position from the one we do without the disagreement coming from some place of evil. To see what I'm talking about, here's today's column by Charles Krauthammer, probably the most admired columnist on the right. Appalled that President Obama is now running for re-election and disagreeing with his opponents on matters of policy after saying he would try to unite the country, Krauthammer says this:
Me, some years ago, sneering at a pompous ass who is sneering right back.
Whenever Paul Krugman goes on television, you can see his discomfort coming off him. Or at least that's what I see; since I've never met him in person, I don't know how much his television manner differs from his ordinary manner. But he always looks as though inside he's shaking his head, saying to himself, "This is such bullshit. I can't wait to get out of here." And it's hard to blame him. The other day, Krugman did a debate on Bloomberg TV with noted economic crank Congressman Ron Paul, and came away utterly disgusted...
The most talked-about op-ed over the weekend was "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem,", a piece in the Washington Postby DC eminence grises Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. They're both not only deeply respected by known as non-partisan Congress-watchers (Ornstein even works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), which is why the piece will get more attention. But should that matter? Either they're right or they're wrong, and the fact that they are who they are ought not make any difference. And if you look at their argument, it's nothing that you couldn't have found in magazines like the Prospect and a hundred other places many times over the past two years. I feel like I've written versions of Mann and Ornstein's piece a dozen times myself (see here, or here, or here). Mann and Ornstein's reputations do make it harder for Republicans to dismiss them as just liberal partisans, but that doesn't mean they're going to have some kind of seriously difficult time spinning their way out of questions raised in response to the op-ed. In any case, here's the core of their argument:
For a while there, Glenn Beck seemed to be the very embodiment of American conservatism circa 2009. He had his nationally syndicated radio show, his best-selling books, and his Fox News show. He was featured on magazine covers, discussed on other cable shows, and his rise was on everyone's mind. Then his fevered conspiracy theories grew kind of old, and Fox dropped him, whereupon he announced that he was going to make his own subscription-based internet television network. Chances are you haven't heard about Beck in a while, despite the fact that GBTV is making more money for Beck than he ever made at Fox. That's because the people who do things like edit magazines don't listen to Beck's radio show, and they haven't subscribed to his internet TV channel. Which means that he has lost almost all his ability to influence the broader discourse or political events. If he went on a holy war against a White House staffer the way he did against Van Jones (very successfully; Jones ended up resigning), no one would notice or care.
But he's still out there preaching to his fans, and Conor Friedersdorf does us a favor and plunks down $9.95 to see how Beck is doing. The answer? It's complicated...
Like thousands of you, I was absolutely gobsmacked by my editor Gabriel Arana's piece, "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life." If it hadn't run into here first, I would have linked to it. Of course, there was the heartbreaking and finally uplifting personal story that took us through the social history of antigay "therapy." But what astonished me was the courage he had to actually report out the story, calling and talking to the key players who made "reparative therapy" intellectually respectable enough that caring parents like the Arana's would search it out and sign up their son, truly believing that they were doing the right thing.
Frame of Romney coverage during the primaries, from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with their latest report on news coverage of the primary campaign, and the big headline is that, surprise surprise, the tone of coverage varied pretty much exactly with whether candidates were winning or losing. Does that mean reporters had a pro-Romney bias when he was winning primaries, and a pro-Santorum bias when he was winning primaries? Of course not. It shows, instead, just how ridiculous most discussion of ideological bias is.
Over at the New York Times, Nicole Hemmer has a nice piece explaining some of the history of the right's "liberal media bias" charge and how it has left them incapable of seeing anything that happens in the media—even their own media—clearly. It turns out that supporters of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (not to mention Gingrich and Santorum themselves) were shocked to find that their favorite news sources didn't validate everything they believed, including who should win the Republican primary: "this role reversal is the end product of a process that was set in motion by the conservative media. Having spent decades promoting the charge of bias, they have helped strip it of meaning. These days, bias translates roughly to 'reporting something I don't like,' a reflexive defense against stories that cut against conservative interests." Conservatives got so used to seeing bias everywhere that it reached the point where some of them began accusing Fox News of being "liberal" because it wasn't boosting their preferred primary candidate.
Before he had to give up the job to run for president, Newt Gingrich was (among other things) a paid Fox News commentator. Well, it looks like he won't be getting that job back:
DOVER, Del. -- During a meeting with 18 Delaware Tea Party leaders here on Wednesday, Newt Gingrich lambasted FOX News Channel, accusing the cable network of having been in the tank for Mitt Romney from the beginning of the Republican presidential fight. An employee himself of the news outlet as recently as last year, he also cited former colleagues for attacking him out of what he characterized as personal jealousy.
A couple of months ago, Washington Free Beacon (and yes, that's "beacon," not "bacon") launched with some reasonably experienced conservative journalists and a mandate to hold their political opponents accountable with rock-solid journalism. The site describes itself this way: "Dedicated to uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day, the Free Beacon produces in-depth and investigative reporting on a wide range of issues, including public policy, government affairs, international security, and media criticism." That sounds fair enough. I'm all for rigorous journalism that nevertheless has an ideological perspective—after all, that's what we do here at the Prospect. But let's just say conservatives have a particular perspective on how to go about this. These were the top three stories on the Beacon's site when I read it on Wednesday:
You may have heard that there is a certain kind of breed of journalist who becomes a war correspondent. Maybe they're thrill-seekers to begin with, or maybe the rush of reporting from war zones changes them, but many of them keep returning over and over again to one hotspot after another, putting their lives at risk for the sake of their job. Some of them are wounded, some are even killed. Some, I'm sure, suffer from the same kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that soldiers endure. What we don't often hear, though, is those reporters talking candidly about it as something that is perhaps not too healthy.
That's why this segment on the Public Radio Exchange program Howsound is so striking. Kelly McEvers, a terrific NPR reporter based in Baghdad, opened up in a surprising way about her feelings about what she does and the effect it has on those around her:
I'm sorry, but I refuse to let this one go, even if I have to repeat myself. Time's Alex Altman writes, "A very conservative party is on the verge of nominating a relative moderate whom nobody is very excited about, largely because none of his rivals managed to cobble together a professional operation." I beg you, Alex, and every other reporter covering the campaign: If you're going to assert that Mitt Romney is a "relative moderate," you have to give us some evidence for that assertion. Because without mind-reading, we have to way to know whether it's true.
What we do know is that when he ran in two races in the extremely liberal state of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was a moderate. Then when he ran in two races to be the Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney was and is extremely conservative. There is simply no reason—none—to believe, let alone to assert as though it were an undisputed fact, that the first incarnation of Romney was the "real" one and the current incarnation of Romney is the fake one.
Ira Glass: Nerd King, Journalism Hero (photo by Tom Murphy VII)
If you're like most Prospect readers, you're an over-educated, latte-sipping, NPR-listening elitist, which means that this weekend you probably heard This American Life's extraordinary hour-long retraction of a story they aired a few weeks ago featuring Mike Daisey, whose well-reviewed stage monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" discusses Daisey's ambivalence about his love affair with Apple products, and includes accounts of Daisey's visit to the Foxconn factory in China where many Apple products are manufactured. Briefly, TAL did an episode featuring Daisey's stories, but it turned out that many of them were embellished. He used his own experiences, then added to them things he had heard or read about, saying he had actually seen things like underage workers and workers poisoned by the hexane used in the manufacturing process (there was an incident involving hexane poisoning, but it didn't happen at the plants Daisey visited). Essentially, Daisey wrote his stage monologue to be as compelling a story as possible, but then TAL called and he presented parts of it on their show without telling them what was real and what was made up.
When they discovered this, Ira Glass and his team decided to create an object lesson in journalistic responsibility...
Not long ago, I stopped watching the network Sunday shows. After all, who needs to spend an hour or two of valuable weekend time listening to elected officials and party hacks regurgitating the same tired talking points you've been hearing all week? But there's no denying that Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, and to a lesser extent Fox News Sunday are enormously influential. They confer status on the people who appear, they define the limits of official debate, and they help set the agenda for the rest of the media. So while they are often tiresome to sit through, they can't be completely ignored. That's why I couldn't stay silent after seeing this celebratory tweet from Betsy Fischer, the longtime executive producer of Meet the Press:
If you watch the Sunday shows, the only thing you'll be surprised about is that McCain hadn't passed Dole (or anyone else) already.
Lately, I’ve been very Eeyore-ish about women’s lives. There’s plenty of reason for that. Ruth Rosen nicely lays out the backlash against women’s reproductive lives in her article about the current counter-reformation, as she puts it, against women’s bodily autonomy. Of course, any attempt to roll back women’s reproductive rights is an attack on women’s economic independence, since women can only control their educational and financial lives if they can control their fertility.