Paul Waldman

Could Jeff Bezos Save the Newspaper Business?

The artifact of pulped wood and ink that was dropped at my house this morning.

There was a time in America when industrial tycoons would buy newspapers to be their playthings, using the editorial pages to reward friends and punish enemies, all while watching healthy profits from subscriptions and advertising roll in. Then a couple of decades ago, the newspaper industry began an era of consolidation, with firms like Gannett and the Tribune company scooping up one small and mid-size paper after another. The results were usually awful for journalism; if your local paper got bought by one of those behemoths, there's a good chance the newsroom would be gutted and you'd end up with a paper with little enterprising reporting and lots of wire stories.

But now the billionaires are back. Last week the New York Times company sold the Boston Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has quietly bought a couple dozen small papers, making him one of the largest newspaper owners in the country. And yesterday the Washington Post announced that the Graham family, which had owned the paper for the last 80 years, is selling it to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. So is this a good thing?

I think it is, for a couple of reasons.

Burgers from the Future

This was definitely not grown in a lab. (Flickr/Simon Willison)

Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers.

Threat of Terrorism Still Making People Stupid

Save us from this man.

When you're a partisan, you have a certain obligation to be, well, partisan. That means that you have to put the things your side does in the best light and the things the other side does in the worst light. Their motives are always suspect while your are always pure, and if anything goes wrong it was obviously their fault, while if anything goes right they had nothing to do with it.

But just how far does this obligation extend? How far beyond the borders of logic and reason can you ride it? The unfortunate answer is, pretty darn far.

Exporting America's Campaigner-in-Chief

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Barack Obama's 2012 campaign was without question the most complex and technologically sophisticated in history. That's true simply because the tools available to campaigns grow more advanced each year; the president's most recent campaign was able to understand and appeal to voters in more granular ways than the 2008 campaign did, and the 2008 campaign in turn did things the 2004 campaigns barely dreamt of. But it's also because the people who ran the Obama effort were better at their extremely difficult jobs than their Republican counterparts, just as they had been four years before (having a more skilled candidate didn't hurt, either).

So it wasn't a surprise to hear that Jim Messina, who ran the 2012 Obama campaign, has been hired to consult on the next British election, which won't take place until 2015. What did surprise some was that he'll be working for the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron.

So does this make Messina a cynical mercenary devoid of any true beliefs? Does it subvert the image of Barack Obama and those who work for him as a group of idealists, bringing that hopey-changey to America? Or was that never true in the first place?

The Misguided Silliness of "Libertarian Populism"

Things are tough all over.

In case you missed it, the new Republican watchword is "Libertarian populism," which is quickly being embraced by people who are neither libertarians nor populists. But it's a shorthand for an impossibly inane attack that Republicans are trying out, seeing if they can make any hay by charging that President Obama is only interested in helping rich people at the expense the rest of us. Okay, the rest of you, I guess, because these are Republicans we're talking about, and they're not part of that "us," but you get the idea. All of sudden, people like Paul Ryan are out there saying, "The president claims his economic agenda is for the middle class. But it's actually for the well-connected. There's no doubt that it works well for them. But for the rest of us, it's not working at all."

You can actually make an argument that Obama hasn't done enough to reverse growing inequality in this country, but it's a little hard to make that argument and then claim the answer is to cut food stamps, prevent more people from getting Medicaid, and give tax cuts to the wealthy. You see, consistency in and of itself isn't the real problem here. The problem is that economic populism actually requires you to talk about policies and how they affect people at different levels of income, which is about the last thing Republicans ever want to do.

It isn't as though they haven't tried to be populists before, but in previous incarnations, it was almost always a cultural populism, not an economic one.

Charles Krauthammer Is Making Sense! Almost.

If you asked a hundred conservatives which opinion columnist they most admire, I'm pretty sure Charles Krauthammer would come out on top. Unlike, say, George Will, Krauthammer is free of even passing heresies against conservative dogma. Unlike, say, Cal Thomas, Krauthammer doesn't paint conservative culture warring in explicitly religious terms, allowing everyone to join in the smiting of sinners. And, they'll tell you over and over again, he's brilliant!

I can't say I've ever seen it that way—Krauthammer may not be a numbskull or anything, but I've never read anything he's written and said, "Wow, that's a really smart argument—I'm not sure how I'd counter it." And if you've seen him on television, you know that he's a particularly grim figure, usually looking like he's vaguely bored with whatever he's talking about and displeased with the fact that he has to be wherever he is. His columns, furthermore, are often driven by a particularly venomous attitude toward Democratic politicians and liberals in general that may be cheered by his ideological compatriots but is hard to get past for anyone else.

So it was with some surprise when this morning I read him offer Republicans some advice that I found not only practically wise but on target analytically as well.

The Rise and Fall of a "Scandal"

He never quite got what he wanted. (Flickr/stanfordcis)

Remember the IRS scandal? Haven't heard much about it lately, have you? Yet for a while, it was big, big news, and so often happens, the initial blockbuster allegations were everywhere, penetrating down to even the least attentive citizen, while the full story, which turned out to be rather less dramatic, got kind of buried. News organizations aren't in the habit of shouting, "BREAKING: That Thing We Said Was Huge Last Week? Eh, Not So Much."

Brendan Nyhan has looked at how this "scandal attention cycle" played out with the IRS and turned it into some charts:

It's Hard Out There for a Minority Leader

To many people, a poll released today by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling probably came as a surprise. Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader in the Senate, is shown trailing his challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, by a point. But he's a Republican in a conservative state, and one of the leaders of the Republican party. How could he be in danger of losing?

Not Much, But Better than Nothing

President Obama yesterday in Chattanooga with Amazon workers. (White House photo/Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama offered a "grand bargain" yesterday, and although it wasn't particularly grand, it was a bargain: Republicans would get a lowering of the corporate income tax rate, something they've wanted for a long time, and Democrats would get some new investments in infrastructure, job training, and education. Inevitably, Republicans rejected it out of hand. "It's just a further-left version of a widely panned plan he already proposed two years ago, this time with extra goodies for tax-and-spend liberals," said Mitch McConnell. At this point, Obama could offer to close the E.P.A., eliminate all inheritance taxes, and rename our nation's capital "Reagan, D.C." if Republicans would also agree to give one poor child a sandwich, and they'd say no, because that would be too much big government.

Just as inevitably, in-the-know politicos are wondering, why does he bother with this stuff if he knows what the result will be? Didn't we get enough of this I'm-the-reasonable-one-here-even-if-it-doesn't-produce-anything posturing in his first term? What's the point?

That's not an unreasonable question to ask. But the better question is: As opposed to what?

On Abortion, a Tale of Two Countries

Texas state senator Wendy Davis, whose unsuccessful attempt to stop a restrictive abortion law drew national attention. (Flickr/Texas Tribune/Todd Wiseman)

Conservatives may be in retreat on many different fronts these days, but in one area, they're having smashing success: restricting the ability of women, particularly non-wealthy women, from accessing abortion services. And they're doing it with a new tool: the 20-week abortion ban, offered as cover for a raft of restrictions that aren't about stopping later-term abortions but about stopping all abortions. They're succeeding not because of some change in Americans' views on the subject, but because of the exercise of raw political power. As you may have heard, opinions on abortion, unlike those on many other subjects, have been remarkably stable for decades.

But that stability masks some stark differences on abortion, differences that create just enough space for Republicans in parts of the country to make abortion all but illegal. Yesterday the Pew Research Center came out with a new poll, showing some rather dramatic gaps by region on what people think about abortion. Check out this graph:

Pot vs. Booze: The Battle Begins

Young drug users, fresh from rampaging through their neighborhood.

Here in Washington, our NPR station airs a program on Sunday nights featuring old-time radio dramas like Gunsmoke and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ("The transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account, America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator!"). A week or two ago they featured an episode of Dragnet in which Los Angeles is beset with a wave of juvenile delinquency. Formerly well-behaved teens start running wild, beating people up, smashing store windows, and creating general violent mayhem. Not only that, these kids commit their crimes in front of local merchants and citizens who know their names and their families—the teens are so crazed, they don't even care if they get caught. Sergeant Friday's suspicions are quickly confirmed, and the culprit is identified. The teens are caught in the grip of…marijuana!

Back here in 2013, the Brickyard 400, a NASCAR race, was this weekend in Indianapolis, and the Marijuana Policy Project, a legalization advocacy group, thought it would be interesting to buy space on an electronic billboard outside the entrance to the event to show this ad:

Christian Identity Politics on Fox

Reza Aslan is surprised to find himself stranded in Stupidtown.

I try, with only partial success, to avoid spending too much time on the "A conservative said something offensive!" patrol. First, there are plenty of other people doing it, so it isn't as though if I don't draw people's attention to the latest outrage then no one will find out about it. But second and more important, most of the time there isn't much interesting to say about Rush Limbaugh's latest bit of race-baiting or Bill O'Reilly's latest spittle-flecked rant or Louie Gohmert's latest expectoration of numbskullery.

But let's make an exception for this interview Reza Aslan did on Friday with Fox News to promote his new book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. You've no doubt seen Aslan on television multiple times in the last decade, and maybe even read something he's written. In the post-9/11 period, he became a go-to guest on shows from Meet the Press to The Daily Show as someone who could explain Islam to American audiences. Young, good-looking, smart and articulate, Aslan could be counted on to put events like the sectarian civil war in Iraq into historical and religious context in ways viewers could understand.

This interview is really something to behold, because the Fox anchor, one Lauren Green, obviously not only didn't read Aslan's book (not a great sin, given that she probably has to interview a few people a day), but instead of asking him about it, decided to spend nearly ten minutes challenging whether Aslan has any right to write a book about Jesus, since he's a Muslim. Seriously:

GOP Circular Firing Squad Locked and Loaded

Karl Rove is not concerned. (Flickr/JD_WMWM)

Apparently, it's Republican circular firing squad week here in Washington. Item 1: David Corn of Mother Jones got hold of the proceedings of a secret group of conservatives scheming to take hold of American politics and shove it where it needs to go:

Dubbed Groundswell, this coalition convenes weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group. During these hush-hush sessions and through a Google group, the members of Groundswell—including aides to congressional Republicans—cook up battle plans for their ongoing fights against the Obama administration, congressional Democrats, progressive outfits, and the Republican establishment and "clueless" GOP congressional leaders. They devise strategies for killing immigration reform, hyping the Benghazi controversy, and countering the impression that the GOP exploits racism. And the Groundswell gang is mounting a behind-the-scenes organized effort to eradicate the outsize influence of GOP über-strategist/pundit Karl Rove within Republican and conservative ranks.

I have to commend Corn for getting these documents, but unfortunately, Groundswell isn't exactly the right-wing A-Team. It's more like the C-Team. Members include Ginny Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas; anti-Muslim zealot Frank Gaffney; religious nutball and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell; and some reporters from "news" outlets like the Washington Examiner and Breitbart.com. Nevertheless, despite their lack of actual influence, it's interesting just to see what these kinds of folks do when they get together and try to conspire.

How Safe Is Train Travel?

Flickr/Dennis Bacsa

There was an awful high-speed rail crash in Spain yesterday, and according to the latest reports at least 80 people are confirmed dead. It appears that for some reason, the train took a turn much too fast and then derailed. What's notable about the accident, though, is how rare this kind of accident is. Though we haven't built much high-speed rail in the United States, it's been installed all over Europe and Asia, and overall the safety record is remarkably good. Japan's Shinkansen system, which has been in place since the 1960s, hasn't had a single fatality from a collision or a derailment. The same is true of France's TGV, which has operated since the 1980s.

So how safe is train travel, compared to the other ways we get around? The answer is going to vary depending on what country you're talking about, but the answer is, very safe. For instance, in the U.S. in 2011, there were 32,367 road fatalities, 485 air fatalities, and 570 railroad fatalities. The raw number isn't the proper measure though, because your risk is a function of how far you might go on each mode of transportation. The better measure, then, is fatalities per a given distance traveled. And there too, we see that train travel and air travel are both substantially safer than road travel.

Congress Tells NSA to Keep Up the Good Work

National Security Agency headquarters.

What with the important news of a baby being born in England and the further adventures of Anthony Weiner's penis dominating our attention, you probably didn't notice the failure yesterday of an amendment in the House to end the NSA's program collecting phone records on you, your neighbors, and every other American. Keep in mind that, as Sen. Ron Wyden has intimated, there are almost certainly other NSA surveillance programs that we would also be shocked to hear about, but remain secret.

That this amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash, got a vote at all is somewhat surprising, but from all appearances, Speaker John Boehner saw it as a way to allow the more libertarian members of his caucus to let off some steam and take a stand against government surveillance. It may not have ever had much of a chance of passing both the House and Senate, but the Obama administration pushed for a no vote and General Keith Alexander himself went to Capitol Hill to lobby against it, and in the end it went down by a vote of 217-205

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