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May 20, 2005

Goodbye, Reggie, and thanks

Last night was Reggie Miller's last game as an Indiana Pacer. He's retiring after 18 years, almost 12 of which I've been a pretty major fan. I didn't choke up when he left the game, with the Pacers losing the game and the series to the Detroit Pistons, but I almost did. Pacers coach Rick Carlisle and then Pistons coach Larry Brown called time-outs so the fans and players and coaches could give him an ovation. I stood up in my TV room because I didn't know what else to do. Reggie Miller is one year older than me, and he's retiring.

It's rare these days for a professional athlete in any sport to play a whole career, of that length, for the same team. He played more games with the same team than all but two players in NBA history, John Stockton and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. It may sound corny, but it would be difficult to overstate how much Reggie has meant to the team and to this city. Since the mid-'90s the Pacers have been consistent winners and an anchor for the community. Even though I'll agree with anything anyone says about arena deals being a rip-off for the taxpayers, the Pacers have a fieldhouse downtown that is the class of the league, and the city is justifiably proud of it. Without Reggie, it almost certainly would not have been built.

Reggie Miller is going to the Hall of Fame, so anyone who's an NBA fan knows him, and nearly everyone who isn't a Pacer fan probably hates him. Reggie wasn't a thug or a brawler--he was too scrawny--but he was known for his trash-talk, especially his clashes with New York Knick fan Spike Lee, and he thrived on opposing fans' antagonism. He didn't rebound, and he was merely annoying on defense. Michael Jordan said playing him was "like chicken-fighting with a woman." Fans and opposing players detested his theatrical flops, drawing the lightest of contact and then falling away like he'd been punched--because then he'd go to the foul line and drain both shots: His career free-throw percentage was 89%; this season he was #1 in the NBA at 93%.

So, he was a gawky, scrappy punk, but if he was on your team, you'd have loved him, too, because Reggie Miller was the greatest three-point shooter in the history of the game. You could look it up. He holds the all-time career record of 2,464, and hit over 100 in 15 consecutive seasons, also a record. Last night, I saw him hit the last one of his career, a long one from the top of the key, his right hand still in the follow-through as he back-pedaled away.

Purists crab about 3-pointers like baseball purists crabbed about Babe Ruth, but when Reggie would get unconscious in the final minutes of a critical game and make the threes fall like rain, it was glorious and magical--like a baseball player who could hit grand slams whenever he wanted. Reggie on offense would run and run and run, knees and elbows and ankles flailing, looking for a teammate to screen his defender, then calling for the ball and shooting in one motion. The quintessential Pacers experience is listening to Mark Boyle and Bobby "Slick" Leonard calling games on AM radio, and this was their quintessential call:

Mark: "Reggie for three..."

Slick: "BOOM, baby!"

Before I got into baseball, being a Pacer fan was the first sport-related identity I ever (to my surprise) adopted, and I did it completely and whole-heartedly. I watched the Pacers mostly with my friends Gary, Randy, and Matt. The players I'll always remember were Reggie, Mark Jackson, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin, Derrick McKey, Heywoode Workman, and Vern Fleming. The playoff runs from '95 to 2000 were thrill-rides of joy and dejection, and the first three springs ('98-'00) that I lived in New York the Pacers and the Knicks had epic series.

It's great to be in New York when the whole city is caught up in something like that, and those were great years to be a Yankee fan, but in May and June it was cool to be an iconoclastic Pacer fan, and to watch games in my Brooklyn apartment in June with the windows open and hear people reacting up and down the block. If I saw someone else in Pacer gear, which was rare, they were family. In '98, they won, then Jordan beat them in the conference finals. In '99, the Knicks won, and I watched the last game surrounded by Knick fans, some of them my friends, in one of my favorite bars and felt angry and utterly alone. In 2000, the Pacers went to the Finals.

That was the highest Reggie got with the Pacers, when Larry Bird in his second season coached them to the NBA Finals against the L.A. Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Phil Jackson. (Fucking Shaq, who with the Orlando Magic had crushed Pacer playoff hopes in I think '94 and '95.) I watched Game 6, when the Lakers won the championship, in the crowded bar of a lodge in Montana. We were staying in Glacier National Park and drove out to the lodge because the park was too remote for television. At least half the room was rooting for the Pacers just because they hated the Lakers. It felt good to be among friends.

I don't know to this day how the Pacers lost that game, and Cindy drove us back to the park through the moonlit mountain darkness. I think I said something drunk and bitter and we almost had a fight.

That was the end. The Pacers rebuilt the team after that, and only Reggie and a few reserves remained. They are and will probably remain consistent playoff contenders, but I've gotten busy with parenting and fallen out of familiarity with the players. I hope some day to get back to a fan-level involvement with basketball. Baseball is the greater game, but basketball is the fastest and most athletic and improvisational of sports, and nothing was more beautiful than the parabolic arc of a last-second shot from downtown, from the right hand of Reggie Miller.

"BOOM, baby!"

Posted by pk at 6:57 PM

May 18, 2005

Love freedom, hate the free press

The tempest in a teapot over Newsweek's reportorial miscue is giving lots of folks on the right license to clamp down on quaint notions like truth, credibility, and the free press. (Not to mention misrepresent, hypocrisize, and shamelessly posture.)

To wit (and I know fisking is for jackasses but I'm doing it anyway):

Unfit to Print, by John Podhoretz

LET'S do a thought experiment about the worst example of journalistic malfeasance in recent years — and considering the competition from Jayson Blair and Dan Rather, that's saying a lot.

Never, NEVER forget the other crimes of the media: The True Enemy of the Republican American Way.

Let's say that the item that Newsweek magazine disavowed on Sunday and retracted yesterday — the item by Michael Isikoff and John Barry that said an American interrogator of terrorists housed at Guantanamo Bay had flushed the Koran down the toilet — was actually true. It wasn't. But let's say it was.

Since it probably was, or certainly its believability was bolstered by more heinous abuses we've actually been forced to acknowledge. Which don't matter anyway, because anyone being interrogated at Guantanamo Bay is definitely a terrorist.

Would factual accuracy have justified publishing the item in Newsweek or anywhere else?

Not if you don't believe in a free press, it wouldn't!

That publication led to the furtherance of the notion, extraordinarily dangerous to Americans abroad, that our government is in the habit of desecrating the Muslim Holy Book — and to scores of people getting killed and hundreds getting injured in riots that extended from Afghanistan to Gaza.

Yeah! Say, how'd that notion get started, anyway?

The answer seems obvious now, doesn't it?

Actually, it seems to be getting cloudier....

Newsweek ran an incendiary item about an American official desecrating the Koran, and this incendiary item did what incendiary items are supposed to do. It blew up.

Shock'n'awe! Shock'n'awe!

Only it didn't blow up the target it was intended to blow up. The intended target was in Washington. We'd have to know the identity of Newsweek's supposedly "good and credible" source to know precisely whom the source was trying to injure (and you can bet that, no matter what evil nonsense this supposedly "good" source was peddling, Newsweek will protect his name forever).

They are just as evil as he must be, this traitor who hates America and freedom.

But it doesn't really matter, does it? What matters is that people in Afghanistan are dead for no reason other than some "good and credible" source had an axe to grind with one of his bosses 15,000 miles away in the United States.

Actually, the chairman of the joint chiefs said they're actually dead for a whole other reason, actually. And anyway, who says that "good and credible" source was an "evil" traitor snitch with an "axe to grind"? Maybe--just maybe--he was a solid professional and a true American with a profoundly troubled conscience (I've heard there are people like that) who unfortunately had to retreat from allegations for which he simply didn't have all 800 ducks in a row, being as he was unable to skirt accountability with the impunity of his political masters in the White House and the Pentagon.

There's no question that, for journalists in trouble, truth is always the best defense in a courtroom. But the world is not a courtroom. The world is a messy, complicated place. There are consequences even for reporting the unvarnished truth.

There certainly are. DIRE consequences. Oh, won't someone protect us from the truth and all its messy complications?!

In this case, the potential consequences should have outweighed — by a factor of about 1 billion — the very mild benefit to Newsweek to running something titillating about the War on Terror in its Periscope section.

More like a factor of a billion-TRILLION! Or a dodeca-ZILLION! Golly, talk about morally bankrupt! Why, when I want to be lectured about "potential consequences that should have been weighed," the first people I think of are George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Podhoretz!

And so what if the item had been true? Journalists routinely withhold the truth from their readers for all sorts of reasons.

We expect nothing less!

They don't reveal the names of "good and credible" sources, for example, which is a withholding of a truth. They don't publish the identities of rape accusers. Many papers no longer reveal the race of a crime suspect, even though the purpose of describing a crime suspect is to help ordinary citizens avoid him or report him to the authorities.

Why do they withhold these facts? They do so because they have decided that something else is more important than the revelation of all known facts — something like the right of a crime victim to privacy, or the fear of making all black and Latino males seem stereotypically frightening.

That is so right. Good journalists only avoid damning the powerful with truth out of concern for victims and minorities. Just like the White House is carefully protecting the racial identity of those guys who helped Dick Cheney craft our nation's energy policy. They wouldn't want to promote prejudicial notions about the crooks and powermongers who are bankrupting the Treasury and raping the environment: that might make all rich white males seem stereotypically frightening.

We've already learned that the mainstream media do not believe the reputation of the United States at a time of ideological war against Muslim extremism is worthy of the same care. In fact, in many quarters there is a moral and spiritual incentive to tell horrid tales about the United States and its conduct of the War on Terror.

Because they're traitors who hate America and freedom, every one of them, and even if they tell the truth--which they never do, or when they do they tell too much of it--it doesn't matter. Only YOU, John Podhoretz, and whoever else you tell me to listen to, can be trusted to not tell me the truth I shouldn't hear.

So Newsweek went and told one such horrid tale. And the world has reaped the whirlwind. The fact that the tale in question is a cock-and-bull story is almost beside the point.

Yes. In fact, we can almost say it's totally beside the point, so let's go ahead and say that. It's so far beside the point that it wouldn't matter if it WASN'T a cock-and-bull story! Isn't that right, John? So, if this turns out NOT to be a cock-and-bull story, it won't change a thing. We're on the hunt. The MSM is on the run.

No matter what degree of certainty the editors and reporters had about the item's veracity, moral responsibility for the fallout from it falls squarely on their shoulders.

Wait. Even though all they did was have the wrong official cite the wrong document and then decide he couldn't cite the document they said he cited, even though other documents and reports and eyewitness accounts point to the likely occurrence of the abuse cited, and even if it didn't happen, although it probably did, the government is certainly and admittedly guilty of other grotesque abuses of its prisoners' humanity and religious beliefs? And even though the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff said all that mayhem probably wasn't caused by a 10-sentence item in a weekly magazine's front matter?

"Moral responsibility for the fallout" from a range of "it"s perpetrated by the Pentagon and the White House and, in one instance, incompletely resourced by a magazine now falls squarely on the MAGAZINE's shoulders?!

The magazine has blood on its pages regardless. The magazine caused a geopolitical storm injurious to the countrymen of its own editors and reporters regardless.

Actually, John, my copy doesn't have any blood on it. Maybe you got yours bloody swatting the fat flies that hover around your sweaty, corpulent flesh as your gnawed fingers pull another 500 words of partisan horseshit from the stinking sinkhole of your corrupt brain.

They forgot there was a war on. Or they didn't forget, but just didn't care. Now they remember. Now they care.

Now it's too late.

Hold on there, buddy! I think YOU forgot there's TWO wars on--or really three, if you count the big war that's sort of like an umbrella over the other two wars. And while we're talking about "saying stuff that wasn't actually true," "withholding the truth," "forgetting," "not caring," "geopolitical storms," "reaping the whirlwind," and "too late," let's talk about that second (or is it third?) war, because, boy, talk about the motherfucking pot calling the kettle black....

E-mail: Podhoretz@nypost.com

Yeah. Do!

Posted by pk at 1:34 PM

May 17, 2005

"A democracy can die of too many lies"

By Bill Moyers, excerpted from an address given at the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis, MO, on Sunday and broadcast on the national radio and TV program Democracy Now! (pk is taking his chances with copyright infringement, but didn’t think it ought to be behind Salon’s subscription wall.)

The story I’ve come to share with you goes to the core of our belief that the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined. I can tell this story because I’ve been living it.

As you know, [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] was established almost 40 years ago to set broad policy for public broadcasting and to be a firewall between political influence and program content. What some on its board are doing today, led by its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, is too important, too disturbing and, yes, even dangerous for a gathering like this not to address it. We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch, to punish, the journalist who tells the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable.


Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with control using the government to intimidate; I mean the people who are hollowing out middle-class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class to make sure Ahmad Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq’s oil; I mean the people who turn faith-based initiatives into Karl Rove’s slush fund, who encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking their pockets; I mean the people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy. That’s who I mean. And if that’s editorializing, so be it. A free press is one where it’s OK to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.

One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at “Now” didn’t play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.

Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent essay in World Policy Journal. You’ll also want to read his book “Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era.” Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly served by Beltway journalism. “The rules of the game,” says Ignatius, “make it hard for us to tee up on an issue without a news peg.” He offers a case in point: the debacle of America’s occupation of Iraq. “If Senator So-and-so hasn’t criticized postwar planning for Iraq,” Ignatius says, “it’s hard for a reporter to write a story about that.”

Take the example, also cited by Mermin, of Charles Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Associated Press whose 2003 story of the torture of Iraqis in American prisons, before a U.S. Army report and photographs documenting the abuse surfaced, was ignored by major American newspapers. Hanley attributes this lack of interest to the fact that “Iraqis recounting their own personal experience of Abu Ghraib simply did not have the credibility with Beltway journalists of American officials denying that such things happened.”

Judith Miller of the New York Times, among others, relied on that credibility of official but unnamed sources when she served essentially as the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. So the rules of the game permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin — invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.

I decided long ago that this wasn’t healthy for democracy. I came to see that news is what people want to keep hidden, and everything else is publicity. In my documentaries, whether on the Watergate scandal 30 years ago, or the Iran-contra conspiracy 20 years ago, or Bill Clinton’s fundraising scandals 19 years ago, or five years ago the chemical industry’s long and despicable coverup of its cynical and unspeakable withholding of critical data about its toxic products, I realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity was not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference. I came to believe that objective journalism means describing the object being reported on, including the little fibs and fantasies, as well as the big lie of people in power.

In no way does this permit journalists to make accusations and allegations. It means, instead, making sure that your reporting and your conclusions can be nailed to the post with confirming evidence.

This is always hard to do, but it’s never been harder. Without a trace of irony, the powers that be have appropriated the newspeak vernacular of George Orwell’s “1984.” They give us a program vowing no child will be left behind while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged children; they give us legislation cheerily calling for clear skies and healthy forests that give us neither, while turning over our public lands to the energy industry. In Orwell’s “1984” the character Syme, one of the writers of that totalitarian society’s dictionary, explains to the protagonist, Winston, “Don’t you see? Don’t you see that the whole aim of newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050 at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we’re having right now. The whole climate of thought,” he said, “will be different. In fact, there will be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

Hear me: An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions, and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, so that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.

I grew up in the South, where the truth about slavery, race and segregation had been driven from the pulpits, driven from the classrooms, and driven from the newsrooms. It took a bloody Civil War to bring the truth home, and then it took another hundred years for the truth to make us free. Then I served in the Johnson administration. Imbued with Cold War orthodoxy and confident that might makes right, we circled the wagons, listened only to each other, and pursued policies the evidence couldn’t carry. The results were devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.

I brought all of this to the task when PBS asked me after 9/11 to start a new weekly broadcast. They wanted us to make it different from anything else on the air, commercial or public broadcasting. They asked us to tell stories no one else was reporting and to offer a venue to people who might not otherwise be heard. That wasn’t a hard sell. I had been deeply impressed by studies published in two leading peer-reviewed scholarly journals by a team of researchers led by Vassar College’s William Hoynes. Their extensive research on the content of public television over a decade found that political discussions on our public affairs programs generally included a limited set of voices that offer a narrow range of perspectives on current issues and events. Instead of far-ranging discussions, the kind that might engage viewers as citizens and not simply as audiences, this research found that public affairs programs on PBS stations were populated by the standard set of elite news sources, with government officials and Washington journalists talking about political strategy, or corporate sources talking about stock prices or the economy from the investors’ viewpoint. Voices outside the corporate Wall Street universe, nonprofessional workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and the general public were rarely heard.

In sum, these two studies concluded that the economic coverage was so narrow that the views and the activities of most citizens became irrelevant. All of this went against the Broadcasting Act of 1967 that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I know. I was there. As a young policy assistant to President Johnson, I attended in 1964 my first meeting to discuss the future of public broadcasting in the office of the commissioner of education. I know firsthand that the Public Broadcasting Act was meant to provide an alternative to commercial television and to reflect the diversity of the American people.

We knew that the success of “Now’s” journalism was creating a backlash in Washington. The more compelling our journalism, the angrier became the radical right of the Republican Party. That’s because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth.

This is the point of my story. Ideologues don’t want you to go beyond the typical labels of left and right because people may start believing you. They embrace a worldview that cannot be proven wrong because they will admit no evidence to the contrary. They want your reporting to validate their belief system and when it doesn’t, God forbid. Never mind that their own stars were getting a fair shake on “Now”: [Paul] Gigot, [Richard] Viguerie, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, Steven Moore of the Club for Growth. Our reporting was giving the radical right fits because it wasn’t the party line. It wasn’t that we were getting it wrong, either. Only three times in three years did we err factually, and in each case we corrected those errors as soon as we confirmed their inaccuracy. I believe our broadcast was the best-researched on public broadcasting.

And the problem was that we were telling stories that partisans in power didn’t want told, and we were getting it right, not right-wing. I’ve always thought the American eagle needed a left wing and a right wing. The right wing would see to it that economic interests had their legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing would see to it that ordinary people were included in the bargain. And both would keep the great bird on course. But with two right wings or two left wings, it’s no longer an eagle, and it’s going to crash.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that my occasional commentaries got to them, as well. Although apparently he never watched the broadcast, Senator Trent Lott came out squealing like a stuck pig when, after the midterm elections in 2002, I described what was likely to happen now that all three branches of government were about to be controlled by one party dominated by the religious, corporate and political right. Instead of congratulating the winners for their election victory as some network broadcasters did or celebrating their victory as Fox, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, talk radio and other partisan Republican journalists did, I provided a little independent analysis of what the victory meant. And I did it the old-fashioned way. I looked at the record, took the winners at their word, and drew the logical conclusion that they would use power as they had said for 25 years they would. And then, of course, I set it forth in my usual modest Texas way.

Events since then have confirmed the accuracy of what I said. I had our research team put together mainstream news clippings to support every sentence in that particular post-election analysis. But then strange things began to happen. Friends in Washington called to say that they had heard of muttered threats that the PBS reauthorization would be held up unless Moyers is dealt with. The chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, was said to be quite agitated. I didn’t know it at the time, but within two or three months after taking over, he wrote a letter to PBS complaining about the “unbalanced” “Now.”

Apparently there was apoplexy in the right-wing area, particularly when I closed the broadcast one Friday night by putting a flag in my lapel and I said: “I wore my flag tonight, first time. Until now I haven’t thought it necessary to display a little metallic icon of patriotism for everyone to see. It was enough to vote, pay my taxes, perform my civic duties, speak my mind, and do my best to raise our kids to be good Americans. Sometimes I would offer a small prayer of gratitude that I had been born in a country whose institutions sustained me, whose armed forces protected me, and whose ideals inspired me. I offered my heart’s affection in return. It no more occurred to me to flaunt the flag on my chest than it did to pin my mother’s picture on my lapel to prove her son’s love. Mother knew where I stood. So does my country. I even tuck a valentine in my tax returns on April 15th.

“So what’s this doing here? I put it on to take it back. The flag’s been hijacked and turned into a logo, the trademark — the trademark of a monopoly on patriotism. On most Sunday-morning talk shows, official chests appear adorned with the flag as if it’s the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. During the State of the Union, did you notice Bush and Cheney wearing the flag? How come? No administration’s patriotism is ever in doubt, only its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity from error. When I see flags sprouting on official labels, I think of the time in China when I saw Mao’s Little Red Book of orthodoxy on every official’s desk, omnipresent and unread.

“But more galling than anything are all those moralistic ideologues in Washington sporting the flag in their lapel while writing books and running Web sites and publishing magazines attacking dissenters as un-American. They are people whose ardor for war grows disproportionately to their distance from the fighting. They’re in the same league as those swarms of corporate lobbyists wearing flags and prowling Capitol Hill for tax breaks, even as they call for spending more on war.

“So I put this on as a modest response to men with flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety of Washington think tanks. or argue that sacrifice is good as long as they don’t have to make it, or approve of bribing governments to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’ I put it on to remind myself that not every patriot thinks we should do to the people of Baghdad what bin Laden did to us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the government, and it reminds me that it’s not un-American to think that war, except in self-defense, is a failure of moral imagination, political nerve and diplomacy. Come to think of it, standing up to your government can mean standing up for your country.”

That did it. You should have heard Ann Coulter at the next conservative convention. I think that’s where she got the title for her book about Democrats and treason. That did it. And our continued reporting on overpricing at Halliburton, chicanery on K Street, and the heavy, if divinely guided hand, of Tom DeLay.

When Senator Lott protested that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has not seemed willing to deal with Bill Moyers, a new member of the board, a Republican fundraiser named Cheryl Halpern, who had been appointed by President Bush, agreed that CPB needed more power to do just that sort of thing. She left no doubt about the kind of penalty she would like to see imposed on the malefactors.

Now, as rumors circulated about all this, I asked to meet with the entire CPB board. I wanted to hear for myself what they were saying. I thought it would be helpful for someone like me, who had been present at the creation and part of the system for almost 40 years, to talk about how CPB had been intended to be a heat shield to protect public broadcasters from exactly this kind of intimidation. I thought the current CPB board would like to hear and talk about the importance of standing up to political interference. I was wrong. They wouldn’t meet with me. I tried three times and failed three times, and it was all downhill after that.

I was naive, I guess. I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying out for the White House. But that’s what Kenneth Tomlinson has been doing. On Fox News this week he denied he’s carrying out a White House mandate or that he’s ever had any conversation with any Bush administration official about PBS. But the New York Times reports that he enlisted Karl Rove to help kill a proposal that would have put on the CPB board people with experience in local radio and television.

It was also reported that on the recommendation of administration officials, he hired a White House flack — I know the genre — named Mary Catherine Andrews as a senior staff member at CPB. While she was still reporting to Karl Rove at the White House, she set up CPB’s new ombudsman office and had a hand in hiring the two people who will fill it, one of them who once worked for Tomlinson, the other a very respected journalist. But this is an anomaly. A political organization can’t have an ombudsman. CPB is not a journalistic or newsgathering organization. PBS can have one. WGBH can have one. WNET can have one. But for a political organization to have two ombudsmen or one ombudsman or a dozen? I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t.

As everyone knows, Mr. Tomlinson has put up a considerable sum of money, allegedly over $5 million, your money, for the new weekly broadcast featuring Paul Gigot and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Now, Gigot is a smart journalist, a sharp editor and a fine fellow. I had him on “Now” several times, and I even proposed to PBS that he become a regular contributor on our show — the conversation of democracy, remember? All stripes. But I confess to some puzzlement that the Wall Street Journal, which in the past editorialized to cut PBS off the public tap, is now being subsidized by American taxpayers when its parent company, Dow Jones, had revenues in the first quarter of this year, $400 million. I thought public television was supposed to be an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it.

But in this weird deal, you get a glimpse of the kind of programming Mr. Tomlinson apparently seems to prefer. Alone of the big major newspapers, the Wall Street Journal has no Op-Ed page where different opinions can compete with its right-wing editorials. The Journal’s PBS broadcast is just as homogenous: right-wingers talking to each other. I think, Bob McChesney, you ought to demand equal time for Katrina vanden Heuvel and the editors of the Nation, or for Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” Now there’s an idea for you. You want public broadcasting to be balanced against all these elite establishment voices that get heard? Get Amy on public television.

We didn’t know this a year ago. We just learned from the New York Times two weeks ago that last year Mr. Tomlinson had spent $10,000 to hire a contractor who would watch my show and report on political bias. That’s right. He spent $10,000 of your money to hire a guy to watch “Now” to find out who my guests were and what my stories were. Ten thousand dollars. Gee, Ken, for two dollars and fifty cents a week, you could pick up a copy of TV Guide on the newsstand. A subscription is even cheaper, and I would have sent you a coupon that can save you up to 62 percent. Or, for that matter, Ken, all you had to do was watch the show. You could have made it easier with a double Jim Beam, your favorite. Or you could go online, where the listings are posted. Hell, Ken, you could have called me collect, and I would have told you who we were having on the show.

The public paid for that study, but Ken Tomlinson acts as if he owns it. In a May 10th Op-Ed piece in Reverend Moon’s conservative Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson maintained he had not released the findings because public broadcasting is such a delicate institution he did not want to “damage public broadcasting’s image with controversy.” Where I come from in Texas, we shovel that kind of stuff every day.

As we learned this week, that’s not the only news Mr. Tomlinson tried to keep to himself. As reported by Jeff Chester’s Center for Digital Democracy, which the Human Center for Media and Democracy also supports, there were two public opinion surveys commissioned by CPB but not released to the media, not even to PBS and NPR. According to a source who talked to Salon.com, the first results were too good and Tomlinson didn’t believe them. After the Iraq war, the board commissioned another round of polling, and they thought they’d get worse results, but they didn’t.

This is the man, by the way, who was running the Voice of America back in 1984 when a fanatic named Charlie Wick was politicizing the U.S. Information Agency, of which Voice of America was a part. It turned out there was a blacklist of people who had been removed from the list of prominent Americans sent abroad to lecture on behalf of America and the USIA. What’s more, it was discovered that evidence as to how those people were chosen to be on the blacklist, more than 700 documents, had been shredded. Among those on the blacklist of journalists, writers, scholars and politicians were dangerous left-wing subversives like Walter Cronkite, James Baldwin, Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Ben Bradley, Coretta Scott King and David Brinkley.

The person who took the fall for the blacklist was another right-winger. He resigned. Shortly thereafter, so did Kenneth Tomlinson, who was one of six people in the agency with the authority to see the list of potential speakers and allowed to strike people’s names. Let me be clear: I don’t know, and there’s no record of what position Kenneth Tomlinson took, whether he supported the blacklist or opposed it or what he thinks of it now. I actually hoped Bill O’Reilly would have asked him about it when he appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” this week. He didn’t. Instead, Tomlinson went on attacking me, with O’Reilly egging him on, and went on denying he was carrying out a partisan mandate. The only time you could be sure he was telling the truth was at the end of the broadcast, when he said to O’Reilly, “We love your show.” We? We love your show? He’s entitled to his opinion. He’s entitled to his politics. He’s entitled to contribute exclusively, as he does to conservative candidates for public office. That’s all fine. Our political system encourages it and tolerates it. But he is not entitled to stand in judgment on other people’s bias.

Posted by pk at 10:20 AM

May 2, 2005

Semantic antics

The Daily Howler illuminates the worth of pointing out the political strategy behind silly word games.

Honest debate begins with honest language. Republicans market-test terms before they roll out initiatives. Everyone starts using the terms they have selected. If the initiative falters, they come up with new terms, disavow their old ones, and deny ever having used them. Indeed, they declare the old terms to be unfair and pejorative, insisting at every opportunity that they were developed and used by their opponents. Furthermore, and conveniently, the broad use of the old terms is said to prove the sacred conservative myth of a united media, biased against them. Once again, the "they said/they said" canard of media objectivity serves the disingenuous best.

It's niggling politics, and pointing out the trick can look like nitpicking of the lowest sort. Except sometimes--at the most important times--it matters. Language is the currency of politics, and Republicans often do their shopping without legal tender.

According to [Chris] Wallace, everyone's benefits "continue to grow" under Bush's proposal. According to [Tim] Russert, everyone "would have their benefits cut!" But Wallace and Russert are using the same set of facts, which makes this a classic semantic dispute. And this is a semantic dispute which actually makes a major difference. This conflict will make a major difference in how this debate will turn out.

Around the web in recent weeks, some writers have fought semantic wars about matters that likely make little difference. As we have noted, polling suggests that it makes little difference whether Bush's plan is described as involving "private accounts" or "personal accounts" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/05). In the filibuster fight, it's unlikely that outcomes will actually turn on "nuclear option" v. "constitutional option." But does Bush's plan prescribe benefit cuts? Or will everyone's benefits grow? This is the semantic war that drove the brainless Medicare fight from 1994 through 1996--and yes, this word choice made a huge difference in the way voters came to judge the GOP's Medicare plan.

Our suggestion? The liberal world’s limited intellectual resources should be focused hard on this matter. If logic and history are any guide, this distinction will make a major difference in the forthcoming SS debate. The logic of this word-choice must be fully explored and it must be clearly explained--and no, this doesn't happen by chance.

Excitables all around the liberal world should bring their powers to bear on this topic. Has Bush proposed "cuts" or "growth" in SS benefits? It's a major, important distinction--a distinction that will affect outcomes.

Posted by pk at 3:37 PM