Old Iconic Journalists Never Die, They Just Exaggerate

On CNN yesterday, Bob Woodward, an icon of American journalism, clearly suggested that he was threatened by someone, someone quite high up, in the White House for a column he wrote accusing President Obama—falsely, it turns out—of “moving the goal posts” in his dealings with Republicans over sequestration.

Today, we know that Bob Woodward, an icon of American journalism, has lost a lot of his, well, iconishness.

Woodward has told anyone who will listen, or read, that the sequester nonsense was the White House’s idea, personally approved by President Obama. Republicans and their supporters in right-wing media have, for once, loved Woodward’s reporting.

But what Woodward the iconic reporter doesn’t tell folks, at least very clearly, is that the sequester nonsense was sort of a last ditch effort to stop Republicans from destroying the country’s credit worthiness and wrecking the economy in August of 2011.

Lest we forget, the idea behind the sequester was to avoid for a time the debt ceiling issue and to present something so stunningly stupid that both sides would bend their wills to avoid it and a compromise could be reached. If Obama made a mistake, it was in underestimating the Republican leadership’s fondness for stupidity.

In any case, Woodward’s column last week included this falsehood:

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts.

Woodward claims that when Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell reached that now infamous deal in 2011, it “included an agreement that there would be no tax increases…” We know this is false for at least three reasons:

1) President Obama has always, since the fight with Republicans began, talked about the need to raise revenues, as part of a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction.

2) The law resulting from the deal (the Budget Control Act) contradicts Woodward’s claim, for reasons you can clearly see here.

3) Woodward’s own book on the subject, The Price of Politics, contradicts the Woodward talking and writing today, as Dave Weigel (“How Bob Woodward’s Book Debunks His Big Washington Post Op-Ed”) and others have pointed out.

All of which brings us to Woodward’s suggestion to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that some high Obama administration official threatened him, which CNN reported this way:

Bob Woodward says he was threatened by White House

Veteran journalist Bob Woodward said Wednesday he was threatened by a senior Obama administration official following his reporting on the White House’s handling of the forced federal spending cuts set to take effect on Friday.

Woodward would not reveal to Blitzer who the offender in the White House was that sent him this supposed threat in an email, but he did reveal the email he received to Politico, which reported it this way:

Digging into one of his famous folders, Woodward said the tirade was followed by a page-long email from the aide, one of the four or five administration officials most closely involved in the fiscal negotiations with the Hill. “I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today,” the official typed. “You’re focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. … I think you will regret staking out that claim.”

Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. “ ‘You’ll regret.’ Come on,” he said. “I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter ‘you’re going to regret challenging us.’”

Today, of course, the alleged offender in the White House fought back. Again, from Politico this morning:

POLITICO’s “Behind the Curtain” column last night quoted Bob Woodward as saying that a senior White House official has told him in an email he would “regret” questioning White House statements on the origins of sequestration. The official in question is Gene Sperling, economic adviser to the president. The White House has since pushed back, saying the exchange was far more innocuous than Woodward claims.

Innocuous? Well, yes. Very innocuous as you will see when you read the email below (as well as Woodward’s response to it). But I want to first say that I have watched Bob Woodward’s appearances on MSNBC’s Morning Joe for a couple of years now, and the more I have heard him talk, the more I have noticed that he seems to enjoy being “the story” more than the storyteller, and this sad episode appears to confirm that.

Here is the email, via Politico, from Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, followed by Woodward’s response:

February 22, 2013

Bob:

I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.

But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios — but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)

I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is diffferent. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.

My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.

Gene

From Woodward to Sperling on February 23, 2013:

Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today. Best, Bob

 

The Republican Health Care Plan In Three Words

Monday night’s Republican debate on CNN featured another one of those moments—last week it was the audience cheering the execution of 234 people in Texas—that tends to surprise people who haven’t been paying attention to the devolution of the Republican Party. 

Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul about the welfare of a guy who gets sick, goes into a coma, but lacks health insurance: “Are you saying society should just let him die?” Blitzer asked.

Paul’s answer, which essentially was that such an unfortunate fellow should rely on volunteers and churches for his care, was drowned out by shouts of “Let him die!” from the Republican debate-watching crowd.

Let—Him—Die.

I’m reminded of former congressman Alan Grayson’s presentation on the House floor in 2009:

If you get sick in America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.

Here’s a short discussion between Republican Joe Scarborough and Pulitzer-winning columnist and Democrat-leaning Eugene Washington from Morning Joe this morning:

JOE SCARBOROUGH: …the crowd last night at one point cheering the possibility of the death of a young man in a coma—I guess in 2008 we had “drill, baby, drill”; last night it seemed to be “die, baby, die.”

I think CNN may have magnified a political segment of this society beyond the representation of the general population.

EUGENE WASHINGTON:  That’s probably true.  There was an air of unreality to the debate last night. It was as if we were in some sort of parallel universe…

The truth is that what was on display last night at that Republican debate reflects the reality of Republican politics these days.  Those shouts of “Let him die!” were not made by some extremists who snuck into the debate against the wishes of the candidates or the planners or CNN.  Those folks are mainstream Republicans these days.  And their disturbing shouts—which no candidate on the platform bothered to contradict—represent how far right the GOP has moved philosophically, and they came as no shock to those of us who have been following that movement.

Whether it is shouting out heartless things about uninsured, comatose people, cheering executions, raucously applauding the labeling of Ben Bernanke as treasonous, loudly supporting Michelle Bachmann for her stand against raising the debt ceiling—all things that have happened in just the last two GOP presidential primary debates—we cannot take any comfort from pretending that the people who did these things are somehow on the fringe of the Republican Party.

They are, sadly and regrettably, its heart and soul.

Remarks And Asides

Apparently, George W. Bush told Brian Lamb of C-SPAN that he is finished with politics.  Damn.  He’s just 10 years too late.

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It seems Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia is in trouble again.  On Arabic television, of all places, he explained that the 2010 election shellacking was the result of “a lot of people” who,

don’t want to be governed by an African American, particularly one who is inclusive, who is liberal, who wants to spend money on everyone and who wants to reach out to include everyone in our society. That’s a basic philosophical clash.

Of course, Moran has it all wrong.  The reason for the shellacking was that a lot of people resent being governed by an African.

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission finally confirmed what most of us already knew: the financial meltdown was not the fault of poor, often minority, homebuyers who supposedly twisted the arms of helpless bankers in order to get mortgages they couldn’t afford. 

Of course, since the Republican members of the commission issued their own report, that leaves Republicans free to continue to falsely claim that efforts to help the poor own their own homes is the root of all financial evil.

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It was sad to see a once-respectable Wolf Blitzer of CNN waiting with great anticipation for Michele Bachmann to speak the other night, following Obama’s State of the Union Address.  No other network—not even the Republican “News” Channel—carried the speech, but CNN not only thought Bachmann’s speech was news, it promoted it heavily with a countdown clock and everything. And everyone knows that on cable TV, a countdown clock before an event means something really, really, really big is going to happen.

Bachmann was technically speaking only for Tea Party Express, but Blitzer billed her as an “official” spokesman for the entire Tea Party.  It turns out, as Rachel Maddow noted brilliantly, that CNN had a rea$on for promoting Bachmann and Tea Party Express: They’re in bed together. CNN has partnered with the phony—”sleazy,” is how Maddow characterized it—grass roots Tea Party group and will jointly host a Tea Party presidential primary debate in September.

And CNN is not shy about its motives. Its political director claims that,

undecided voters turn to CNN to educate themselves during election cycles, so it is a natural fit for CNN to provide a platform for the diverse perspectives within the Republican Party, including those of the Tea Party.

Yes. More and more, as CNN attempts to outfox Fox, it is perfectly natural for the network to “provide a platform” for extremists in the Republican Party. 

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As Democrats salivate in anticipation, Republicans are half-seriously considering privatizing Medicare.  But don’t worry.  The leadership isn’t quite that dumb.  Here’s what John Boehner said,

We’ll outline our budget in the months ahead, after we see the president’s budget.

This type of “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours” cowardice may disappoint Democrats who want to bash Republicans with the issue, but in the end it will preserve a pillar of our socialistic society.  Unless, of course, the Tea Party pathology spreads and Michele Bachmann engineers a putsch and gets her hands on Boehner’s man-sized gavel.

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Finally, just prior to a Knicks-Heat contest, Tracy Morgan said on TNT:

Now let me tell you something about Sarah Palin, man, she’s good masturbation material. The glasses and all that? Great masturbation material.

Naturally, the network apologized for Morgan’s overly-descriptive (and inaccurate) commentary.  But it does explain why some tea party-ish Republican senators missed the inaugural meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.

It conflicted with a rerun of Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Television And The Iraq “Victory Myth”

What American could forget the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad on that triumphant day— in what seems now like ancient history—April 9, 2003? 

No matter our opinion of the war, the television images made us feel good, proud.  After all, Saddam was a bad man and we were the liberators and the liberated seemed to appreciate their liberation.

In an 8,800-word article for The New Yorker, here is how Peter Maass described the television coverage:

Live television loves suspense, especially if it is paired with great visuals. The networks almost never broke away from Firdos Square. The event lived on in replays, too. A 2005 study of CNN’s and Fox’s coverage, conducted by a research team from George Washington University and titled “As Goes the Statue, So Goes the War,” found that between 11 A.M. and 8 P.M. that day Fox replayed the toppling every 4.4 minutes, and CNN every 7.5 minutes. The networks also showed the toppling in house ads; it became a branding device. They continually used the word “historic” to describe the statue’s demise.

Obviously, bringing down a statue of a much-despised dictator is pregnant with symbolism, and coupled with non-stop television coverage, it would help to solidify public opinion on the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq.  In fact, as Maass points out, the statue idea wasn’t new: 

A few days into the war, British tanks mounted a raid into the heart of Basra, in the south of the country, where they destroyed a statue of Saddam. The Brits hoped the locals, seeing a strike against a symbol of regime power, would rise up against Saddam. As the British military spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon, told reporters, “The purpose of that is psychological.” The statue was destroyed, but the event wasn’t filmed and drew little attention. Similarly, on April 7th, after Army soldiers seized the Republican Palace in Baghdad, their commander, Colonel David Perkins, asked his men to find a statue that could be destroyed. Once one was found—Saddam on horseback—a nearby tank was ordered to wait until an embedded team from Fox News got there. On cue, the tank fired a shell at the statue, blowing it up, but the event had little drama and did not get a lot of TV coverage. No Iraqis were present, and just a few Americans, and the surrounding landscape was featureless.

By now, you may know where this is going. 

Although it wasn’t exactly a staged event, the Firdos Square moment—which seemed like such a spontaneous and joyous occasion for viewers of television news—was not what it appeared.  As Maass reports: 

The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush Administration’s claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The W.M.D. myth, and the media’s embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth.

Maass writes about the “powerful words” that went with the “powerful pictures” that constituted that victory myth: 

On CNN, the anchor Bill Hemmer said, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself.” On Fox, the anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.” One of his colleagues said, “The important story of the day is this historic shot you are looking at, a noose around the neck of Saddam, put there by the people of Baghdad.”

Even NPR got caught up in the television-created exuberance: 

Anne Garrels, NPR’s reporter in Baghdad at the time, has said that her editors requested, after her first dispatch about marines rolling into Firdos, that she emphasize the celebratory angle, because the television coverage was more upbeat. In an oral history that was published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Garrels recalled telling her editors that they were getting the story wrong: “There are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can’t do it themselves. . . . Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren’t joyous.”

In his article, Maass gives similar examples, but none more egregious than this one:

Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that “a jubilant crowd roared its approval” as onlookers shouted, “We are free! Thank you, President Bush!”

In many ways, first-class journalism is a lot like science.  It is self-correcting.  A reporter may get something wrong and along comes another one to set the record straight.  Maass reports what really happened at Firdos Square:

Very few Iraqis were there. If you were at the square, or if you watch the footage, you can see, on the rare occasions long shots were used, that the square was mostly empty. You can also see, from photographs as well as video, that much of the crowd was made up of journalists and marines… Closeups filled the screen with the frenzied core of the small crowd and created an illusion of wall-to-wall enthusiasm throughout Baghdad. It was an illusion that reflected only the media’s yearning for exciting visuals… The journalists themselves, meanwhile, were barely photographed at all. The dramatic shots posted on Web sites that day and featured in newspapers the next morning contained almost no hint of the army of journalists at the square and their likely influence on events. One of the most photographed moments occurred when the statue fell and several dozen Iraqis rushed forward to bash the toppled head; there were nearly as many journalists in the melee, and perhaps more, but the framing of photographs all but eliminated them from view.

Maass also discusses the effects of the cameras themselves on the behavior of Iraqis:

At key moments throughout the toppling, the level of Iraqi enthusiasm appeared to ebb and flow according to the number and interest of photographers who had gathered.

Any veteran television viewer understands the dynamics of camera-plus-people.  We’ve all seen how otherwise normal folks act when the television cameras are turned on.  But we expect professional journalists to report not the artificial distortions but the reality of what is going on.  And apparently many journalists tried to do just that regarding the events in Firdos Square in 2003, but were frustrated by the bosses back home, who wanted to be part of the exhilarating historic moment, no matter what the facts on the ground were.

And as it often does, television was framing the story and driving the broader coverage, as its cameras were capturing “history.”

Maass writes:

At the square, I found the reality, whatever it was, hard to grasp. Some Iraqis were cheering, I later learned, not for America but for a slain cleric, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whose son Moqtada would soon lead a Shia revolt against American occupation… The subsequent years of civil war, which have killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, have revealed the events at Firdos to be an illusional intermission between invasion and insurgency.

And today it appears we are in an illusional intermission between the so-called success of the counter-insurgency and the long-term stability of an independent, democratic Iraq.  Who knows what the future entails, but one thing we do know: The pictures we see on our televisions—a profit-motivated medium—never tell the whole story and often tell us the wrong story.

Here is a short video summarizing the story:

Even Muslims Are Presumed Innocent

One of the most difficult aspects of our legal system for people to understand is unfolding vis-à-vis the case of Nidal Hassan, alleged killer of 13 at Fort Hood.  Despite popular sentiment, someone has to represent Major Hassan, and for now it is Colonel John Galligan.

To most people, that word, “alleged” seems so inappropriate, so unnecessary, in this case.  Everyone it seems has not only tried and Pat Robertsonconvicted Major Hasan, but many on the right wing are now putting the U.S. Army on trial for the sin of “political correctness,” as Pat Robertson did recently, while also condemning Islam as a “violent political system.” (I’m sure the conservative religious broadcaster simply forgot his own religion’s bloody past.)

But while most of us cringe at the thought of placing Hasan’s actions in the subjunctive mood, the fact is that our system imputes innocence to those accused of crimes until they have been convicted via an impartial tribunal or accepted a plea agreement.  And in order to receive a fair shot at justice, Hasan needs a lawyer to represent him, and people must understand that defense attorneys provide an essential service in our legal system, which is why we can call it a “justice” system.

Having said that, it is wrong for people to blame lawyers like Colonel Gallligan for simply doing their jobs and making the justice system work, whether military or civilian. Wolf Blitzer, made a slight attempt yesterday to pander to popular opinion by saying to Galligan:

[People ask me] how could a retired U.S. military officer, a full colonel, go ahead and represent someone accused of mass murder?

Colonel Galligan did a nice job defending not just himself, but justice:  

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