Paul Waldman

Beware Of "Ties"

Flickr/Fernando de Souza

Something to think about as we learn more in the coming days about both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother Tamerlan. Everything investigators have released so far suggests that they acted alone, and you can easily find instructions to make the kind of bomb they used on the Internet. But as details get fleshed out about where they went, what they did, and whom they met in the last few years, there's a phrase we'll be hearing a lot: "ties to al-Qaeda." So before people start saying the brothers had "ties to al-Qaeda," we should make sure we know exactly what we're saying when we use that term.

Pete Williams Is a Good Journalist, But He's Not a Hero

At one point during its coverage of the events in Boston on Friday, NBC News brought in a feed from a local station, and it seemed to be recording not the station's broadcast but someone talking on the phone, perhaps a reporter or someone in the control room. "Oh, you're not listening?" the person being recorded said to whomever he was talking to. "We don't know shit." After a pregnant pause, Brian Williams returned to say smoothly, "Well, that was a fortuitous time to dip into the coverage of New England cable news." But it was a pretty fair summary of television news' overall performance through the course of this whole drama.

There was one part of NBC's coverage, however, that came in for a great deal of praise. At a time when the New York Post was publishing one piece of false information after another (including splashing a photo of two completely innocent men on its front page and accusing them of being suspects) and CNN was coming in for much-deserved ridicule for its hours of pointless, ill-informed blathering, everyone seemed to agree that NBC's national security reporter Pete Williams was a hero. As Politico reported, "Inside the studios of NBC, Williams is being widely referred to as a hero." "Pete Williams Becomes the Reporting Hero of the Boston Bombings," said the Huffington Post. "NBC's Pete Wililams: Media Hero of the Boston Bombing Coverage," said the Atlantic Wire. Other outlets didn't use the "hero" word but still rushed out laudatory stories about Williams.

So what exactly did he do to deserve the title of "hero"?

Boston Changed Nothing

Flickr/Pete Tschudy

We've all seen how the bombing in Boston, as so often happens with events like this, brought out the best in the people who were there. But it also—not surprisingly either—brought out the worst in some other people who were back in Washington. It gave them the opportunity to let loose their most vulgar impulses, the satisfaction they get from stoking fear, and their absolute disdain for so many of the things that make America what it is, has been, and continues to be.

You'll recall that after September 11, the phrase "this changes everything" was repeated thousands of times. In too many cases, what that meant was, "This gives me the opportunity to advocate changes pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, the things I never would have dared suggest before. This is our chance." We can toss aside those pesky constitutional amendments that protect against unreasonable search and seizure or provide for due process, because we never liked them anyway. Hell, we can even torture people. This is our chance.

Not many people are saying that the Boston bombing "changes everything," but we need to be clear on this: It changes nothing. There is no new reality to which we must adapt.

Substituting Identity for Motivation

A religious right leader offering his insights.

Let's be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be…well, we don't really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they're literally Caucasian, but they're also Muslim. Most importantly, as yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind.

But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity.

Obamacare's Delicious Ironies

We don't have health insurance, suckers! (Flickr/Elvert Barnes)

As the various "gangs" in the House and Senate were writing their immigration proposals, it became clear that to win the support of Republicans, the provisional legal status undocumented immigrants were going to get had to be punitive. No coddling those law-breakers; if they're going to get on a path to citizenship, it had better be an unpleasant path. It had to last for a long time—10 years, in the end. And there had to be a requirement that during that time, you couldn't get any federal benefits like food stamps or welfare.

But this has produced a rather amusing irony.

Marco Rubio's Life Is about to Get Complicated

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Marco Rubio has had a pretty charmed political life. He rose quickly through the ranks in the Florida legislature, won a Senate seat without too much trouble at the tender age of 39, then suddenly found himself the "Republican savior" a mere two years after arriving in Washington. At a time when the GOP is desperate to appear to Latinos, he's a young, smart, dynamic Latino who could be their presidential nominee in 2016. What could go wrong?

Immigration reform, that's what. Many elite Republicans feel, and not without reason, that while supporting comprehensive reform might not win them the votes of Latinos, opposing it will pretty much guarantee that those votes will be lost to them. And Rubio almost has no choice but to be one of the leaders, if not the leader, of the party in that effort. He can't be the Great Latino Hope if he isn't. Trouble is, lots and lots of rank-and-file Republicans, particularly the kind who vote in presidential primaries, don't much like reform the way it's shaping up. Sure, under the "Gang of 8" plan in the Senate it'll take 13 years for a current undocumented immigrant to become an American citizen. But for many in the party's base, that's about 113 years too quick. Enter the MarcoPhone. Wait, what? Get a load of this:

It Isn't Just Boston

Sunset at Fenway. (Flickr/slack12)

We've heard many inspiring and heartwarming stories from Boston about how people acted in the aftermath of Tuesday's bombing—rushing to aid the injured, opening up their homes to strangers, being kinder and more considerate than they would have been a week ago, in ways small and large. Many people elsewhere have expressed solidarity with the city of Boston, and I think that's great. But amidst it all there are some strange expressions about how all that admirable response is somehow uniquely Bostonian. I'm not trying to condemn anyone, but it's something we always seem to fall into when there's a shocking and tragic event like this one. It certainly happened after September 11, when stories of heroism and generosity were so often followed with the sentiment that "Nowhere else in the world" would people have acted in such praiseworthy ways, as though had a similar tragedy happened in Tokyo or Copenhagen or Johannesburg, people would have just left each other to die on the sidewalk. I'm not the only one who thinks this way; at Slate, Luke O'Neill is a little discomfited by the way people are talking about his city:

Is the Single-Issue Gun Voter Another Myth?

Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin Toomey background check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem the proliferation of guns will fail.

Sounds like a true story, but is it?

Call It What You Will

President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.

Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching.

From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not calling the bombing in Boston "terrorism" (see here, for instance). Needless to say, this is a kabuki of feigned outrage we've been through before, and not that long ago. You'll recall that there was a big to-do over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack "terrorism," with Republicans insisting that if he had used the word earlier and more often...well, something would have been different. They're not sure what, but it would have involved us standing tall and not taking any guff.

The Trouble with Scoops

Flickr/Aaron Tang

It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, the Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?

I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they really don't care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what actually happened. I don't think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.

The Gosnell Case and the Two Kinds of Media Criticism

Fox is on it.

As you might have heard, conservatives are up in arms that the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with multiple murder counts, hasn't gotten more coverage. They claim that the media have ignored the story because of their pro-choice bias. You should read Scott Lemieux's five lessons of the case, but a lot of liberals have been shaking their heads over conservatives' complaints, because the right's argument about the case is wrong in almost every one of its particulars. The truth is that though there hasn't been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media until now, many feminist writers have written about the case at length. And what allowed this horror to happen is exactly what conservatives want more of: a system where there are few (or no) legitimate abortion providers, sending poor women with few options to the back alleys, where they can be preyed upon by people like Gosnell.

But I want to talk about the media angle to all this. As Kevin Drum points out, there have essentially been two phases in the conservative media's attention to this story. In phase 1, they ignored it. In phase 2, they write stories complaining that because of liberal bias, the media are ignoring it. What's missing, of course, actual coverage of the story itself, despite the fact that conservatives have all these media outlets that could be doing what they claim the mainstream media aren't. The Washington Times, for instance, ran one AP story about the start of the trial, followed by 7 separate pieces on how the media are ignoring the story. Did it send its own reporters there to cover it? Nah, why bother? They do, however, have an online poll in which you can answer this vital question: "Online outrage is forcing some media outlets to cover the Kermit Gosnell abortion trial. Will MSNBC be able to continue its blackout?"

There are essentially two kinds of media criticism you'll see if you pay attention to these things. The first is an analysis that has some specificity to it, and aims to address some genuine ongoing weakness of press coverage. The second is just about browbeating and getting people you don't like on the defensive. It's the difference between "Let's see if we can get a discussion started about this problem and make some progress toward fixing it," and "Here's our chance to get those bastards on their heels." The left does both. The right only does the latter.

I Want Your Tax

Flickr/soukup

Today is tax day, the yearly opportunity for millions of Americans to shake their fists at the government and declare their contempt for the ideas of mutual concern and collective responsibility. So on this most practical of days, it's good to remind ourselves of some realities. First, the taxes we pay are, by international standards, fairly modest. Second, despite what some would have you believe, the wealthy are not crushed by the burden of taxation. And third, though nobody particularly enjoys giving part of their income to the government, taxes are the price we pay for having an advanced, democratic society.

Rand Paul Is a Genius

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

When your party is in power, the lines of authority are very clear. The White House is in charge, and though a certain amount of freelancing is always possible, the media's attention tends to be focused on those at the top. They'll always seek out the White House first as the party's voice, and after that the congressional leadership. But when you're out of power, there's more room for political entrepreneurs to get attention for themselves. Lots of them try—every day in Washington there are a zillion poorly-attended press conferences—but you have to be clever to break through that clutter and get yourself on the evening news.

When he first got elected two years ago, Rand Paul wasn't exactly known as the sharpest tool in the shed. An opthamologist with no prior political experience, he seemed to get elected to the Senate almost entirely through a combination of blind luck and because his father is a famous crank. A kind of selective libertarian (he's opposed to most government regulation of the economy, for instance, but doesn't want drug legalization like many actual libertarians), he distinguished himself mostly by displaying a remarkably superficial knowledge of policy and saying that restaurant owners ought to be able to refuse to serve black people if they want, a practice outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and yes, now he says he always supported it, but he didn't — you can read an explanation here).

But in the last couple of months, Rand Paul may have gotten more news coverage than any other Republican in America, always including mention of the fact that he's thinking of running for president in 2016. How did he do it?

Left Behind

Phyllis Schlafly (Flickr/Gage Skidmore). If you want to reach out to young people, she's obviously the person to talk to.

Social conservatives are getting awfully worried about this new push in the Republican party to modernize, sideline the knuckle-draggers who can't help but offer their opinions on the functioning of ladyparts, show minorities that they don't hate them, and find a way to appeal to young people. So how can they respond? The most obvious way is to do what they do after every Republican loss, which is to tell the party's leadership that a) we lost the last election because you didn't listen to us; and b) if you don't start paying us sufficient deference, we'll abandon the GOP. As everybody knows, it's a threat they never follow through on and never will, but the obviously feel like they have no choice but to make it. So all the usual religious right suspects—Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, Lou Sheldon—who have been playing this game at least since the 1980s, sent a letter to RNC chairman Reince Priebus warning him not to abandon them. As tired as this ritual may be, this time the threat to the religious right is much more serious than in the past, and you can sense their fear.

Closing the Gun Show Loophole: Better Than Nothing?

Flickr/Brittany Randolph

Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey (R-PA) and NRA favorite Joe Manchin (D-WV) got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh.

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