Candy Crowley’s No-No

Moderating last night’s slugfest of a “town meeting” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was no enviable assignment.  Did CNN’s Candy Crowley overstep her proper role when she intervened during the candidates’ disagreement about Libya?  I think she did.

The exchange came as the candidates were arguing about the Obama Administration’s statements that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was precipitated by a YouTube video, and specifically whether the President had labeled the attack an “act of terror” in remarks he made shortly after the attack.  When Romney tried to pin the President down on that point, the President responded that Romney should get the transcript.  Romney replied that it took the President 14 days to call the attack a terrorist act.  Crowley then interjected that the President “did in fact” call it an act of terror, the President said “”Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” and the Obama supporters in the audience applauded — and thereby broke the rule that the audience should not respond to any statements.  A transcript of the full debate can be viewed here.

Were Crowley and the President right in their interpretation of the Rose Garden statement?  The official White House transcript of the remarks is available here, and I think the interpretation of those remarks is highly debatable.  The President did mention “acts of terror” — in paragraph 10 of the 13-paragraph statement — by saying:  “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”   But is that lone reference, which refers to multiple “acts of terror” and restates a time-honored presidential theme so oft-repeated that has almost become a platitude, really labeling the Benghazi attack a terrorist act?  Moreover, the President earlier states, in the fourth paragraph:  “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”  The statement about “denigrat[ing] the religious views of others” seems to be a reference to the YouTube video, and typically you would not call a planned terrorist act “senseless violence.”

My point is not to argue who was right or wrong in their characterization of the statement, but rather to note only that it is a debatable issue and to observe that Crowley stepped outside of her proper role in her interjection.  By purporting to state what the President “in fact” did, Crowley presumed to act as a judge.  She tossed the President a lifeline of sorts — which the President eagerly grabbed by asking Crowley to repeat herself — and she caused partisans in the audience to violate the “no applause” edict.  I think Crowley herself realized that she had blundered, because she immediately tried to even the ledger by saying that Romney was right in some of his criticism.  The proper course, however, would have been to say nothing, and let the people decide for themselves.

Crowley’s interjection was unfortunate for a larger reason: it feeds into an increasingly prevalent view that the news media is biased and can’t be trusted.  People who have that view and watched last night’s debate will conclude that if a member of the media can’t refrain from stating their personal interpretation even while moderating a presidential debate, the media can’t be trusted, period.  That’s bad for our country, because we need the press, warts and all, to ferret out the news and report it — and for that process to work we need for people to believe that the press is doing so fairly and objectively.

Univision Digs Into The “Fast And Furious” Fiasco

I’ve written before about “Operation Fast and Furious,” a disastrously misguided gun tracing operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) during the Obama Administration.  The American news media hasn’t shown much interest in “Fast and Furious” — or the Justice Department’s stonewalling in response to questions about the project — but now Univision is picking up the slack and doing some fine reporting about the ill-conceived operation.

Univision has focused on the impact of the nearly 2,000 guns that the BATF allowed to be “walked” out of the United States into Mexico.  Amazingly, the BATF lost track of the weapons, many of which ended up in the hands of Mexicans gangsters.  Univision has identified  “Fast and Furious” weapons that were used in murders, kidnappings, and mass killings.  Some were used by hit men who opened fire on a birthday party of young people in Ciudad Juarez, killing 14 and leaving another 12 wounded.  Others were part of an armed attack on a rehabilitation center where 18 people died.  By any standard, the BATF’s operation has been a bloody disaster — and the human toll has fallen mostly on Mexico, which already had its hands full with drug lords and mounting violence even before the American government foolishly decided to allow hundreds of weapons to cross the border.

As the Univision report points out, the “Operation Fast and Furious” has become a political football in the United States, where the House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to produce documents.  As a result — and because the American media has failed to do its own investigative reporting on the matter — the massacres in Mexico with “Fast and Furious” firearms have been largely ignored north of the border.

Our government’s failure to fully acknowledge responsibility for the botched operation, and the bloodshed it has caused, is reprehensible.  We can only hope that Univision’s effort to put a human face on the cost of “Operation Fast and Furious” might shame the U.S. government into action, and embarrass American journalists into doing their own reporting on this scandal.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly (II)

While the Obama Administration and the State Department are trying to keep a lid on what really happened in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — because they are treating it as a “crime scene” — the news media is doing its job.

CNN has an article about warnings that purportedly were given to U.S. officials in Libya about the deteriorating security situation there.  The New York Times reports on the “problem of Libya’s militias,” which indicates that since the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi Libya has become a fractionalized, lawless place dominated by heavily armed, autonomous “miliitias” with little sense of central control.  A BBC story quotes the president of the Libya’s interim assembly as saying that the Benghazi incident was carefully planned by foreigners who came to Libya months ago and have been plotting the attack since then.  The latter story, of course, undercuts the notion that the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens was a spontaneous reaction to an inflammatory internet video.  And the photos of the burnt-out remains of the consulate, published in newspapers and on websites across the globe, demonstrate how devastating the attack was.

These reports raise obvious questions about the real cause of the Benghazi attack and whether the Obama Administration, the U.S. State Department, and the intelligence community ignored clear danger signs — or even explicit advance warnings — about the security situation in Libya.  These questions can’t be adequately answered by spin-oriented flacks like White House press secretary Jay Carney.  Instead, those questions need to be asked, in a public forum, and answered under oath by knowledgeable Administration officials whose jobs involve collecting intelligence, ensuring that our diplomatic outposts are adequately safeguarded, and communicating with host countries about embassy security.  We deserve to know how this fiasco happened.

. . . And Reporters Should Act Like Reporters

One other point about the salutary role of the press in exposing Representative Todd Akin’s ignorant views about rape and women: the press can only fill that role if reporters actually act like reporters.

Unfortunately, the situation that produced Akin’s Waterloo — where one public figure sits down with one reporter to answer questions — happens all too rarely these days.  How often do political figures even appear on shows like Meet The Press?  Rather than a Senator, foreign leader, or some other actual public servant, the guest often is a campaign manager or other unelected individual who is there to voice the talking points of a particular candidate, campaign, or party.  Moreover, much of such shows is devoted to “roundtable discussions” where celebrity journalists who never have done much real reporting express their opinions about the “issues of the day.”  No doubt the producers of those Sunday morning shows think the arguments that ensue make for “better television” than the Meet The Press format of the ’60s, where a panel of three serious, gray-suited reporters respectfully fired questions at that week’s guest.

To illustrate the point, consider the first Meet The Press that aired after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate.  The two “newsmaker” guests were Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Obama campaign guru David Axelrod, followed by a panel of journalists arguing about the impact of “Obamacare” and Ryan’s proposed budget on Medicare.  Does anyone really expect much in the way of “news” (or enlightenment, for that matter) from such a lineup?  Given the focus on Medicare, rather than featuring an ever-present hired gun like Axelrod or a tiresome panel of TV personalities, how about bringing in the chief actuary of the Medicare program, or one of the Medicare trustees, and have knowledgeable reporters who cover Medicare ask them some meaningful questions about the programs, its condition, and the expected impact of the competing proposals?

The important role of the press in our democracy means that the news media must actually be willing to play that role:  as the skeptical, neutral questioner interested in ferreting out the truth, rather than the point-of-view advocate for one position or another.  We can celebrate the role of the press in showing something important and disturbing about Congressman Akin, but we can also regret that the press — due to disinterest, or laziness, or a concern for ratings — doesn’t play that role as often as it should, or could.

Why No Pictures?

A Colorado judge has ruled that the media won’t be able to take pictures of James Holmes, the man accused of gunning down innocent moviegoers at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado last week, when Holmes appears for a hearing in his criminal case next week.

The judge denied the media’s request for expanded coverage and instead ruled that cameras will be barred from the hearing at which Holmes, who is accused of killing 12 people and wounding another 58 in a carefully premeditated, unprovoked attack, will be formally charged with his crimes.  His lawyers had objected to the media’s request.  Some of the families of the victims also objected to the media printing Holmes’ name and photo.

I respect the wishes of the victims and their families, but I disagree with them.  Holmes will be charged with horrific crimes — crimes that have shaken and touched the nation.  He will be tried in a public forum, in a proceeding that naturally is of intense interest to the people of Colorado specifically and the American people generally.  Why shouldn’t the media be able to discreetly take photos of the hearing, given the long-established right of public access to criminal proceedings?

No one is advocating that the news media be allowed to convert the proceedings into a circus, but the days of the Sam Sheppard case are long since over, and many criminal trials have been broadcast in recent years without disturbing the dignity and solemnity of criminal proceedings.  The judge in this case should follow those examples.  Americans have a right to see Holmes as he confronts his accusers and deals with the consequences of the terrible actions for which he stands accused.

My Thoughts On “The Age Of Innocence”

David Brooks’ column The Age of Innocence is interesting, both for what it says and for what it means.  What it says is that the American political system is broken.  What it means is that even a columnist at one of the most powerful newspapers in the world lacks the gumption to make his point directly.

Rather than simply reaching conclusions about America, Brooks softens his views by addressing both the European and American democratic systems.  Does anyone actually believe there are similarities between these “systems”?  America has been a representative democracy for almost 250 years; Europe still had crowned heads leading it into a bloody war less than 100 years ago.  The balkanized, multi-party, coalition-dependent parliamentary systems in most European countries bear little relation to our two-party system, where nearly every election has a clear winner and loser and a ruling majority results.  Until recently, America had stoutly resisted the European socio-economic model, with its early retirement ages and short work weeks and months of paid vacation.  And no one in their right mind would equate the European Union with our Congress.  The ponderous bureaucrats of the EU will be there forever, impossible to root out; in America, in contrast, voters can easily — as the last three election cycles have shown — toss out incumbents and install new representatives who purportedly will better reflect their views.

Still, Brooks reaches the right conclusion.  America is on the wrong track because people have stopped viewing government as a necessary evil and have come to view it instead as a kind of personal gravy train.  John Kennedy’s stirring statement in his inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — has been turned completely on its head.  Many Americans now just want to get government benefits without paying taxes.  They want the government to provide them with jobs, and “loans” that will ultimately be forgiven, and “free” health care.  And our poll-driven “leaders” are perfectly happy to encourage this dependency on government and are too craven to act responsibly, whether it comes to the federal budget or eliminating programs that don’t work well — and in some cases don’t work at all.

Brooks recognizes this.  Why, then, does he create a false equivalence between America and Europe?  I think it’s because simply stating that America is on the wrong track, and our politicians have led us there, requires more guts than he possesses.  He doesn’t want to unnecessarily upset any of the powerful inside-the-beltway types that he hobnobs with, so he writes something that makes it seem as though democracies, generally, are doomed to fail through the sheer force of greedy human nature.  That conclusion makes the bitter pill a lot easier to swallow:  it’s no one’s fault, really.

I strongly disagree with that.  America has been, is, can be, and should be different from Europe.  Our failure is the failure of political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — who want to hold on to the reins of power and have pandered to the worst instincts of people and corporations and interest groups rather than saying “no” and even requiring sacrifice.

Europe is probably doomed; with America, though, there is still hope.  We just need some leaders who will fight to get us back on the right track, rather than throwing up their hands and concluding that we and Europe are on the road to hell together.  It would help, too, if we had journalists who were willing to state that conclusion, sharply and plainly, as journalists are supposed to do.  One of the reasons our politicians have gotten away with their behavior is that the news media has for the most part failed to call them out for their irresponsibility.

Newtered

Today South Carolina Republicans vote in their state’s presidential primary.  Polls indicate it is a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich apparently has been given a boost by the most recent Republican candidates debate.  Gingrich was asked about the recent comments of his ex-wife, who said he asked that she agree to an “open marriage” in which he could have both a wife and a mistress.  In response, Gingrich lashed out at the questioner and the media, generally, for focusing on irrelevancies and making the first question in a presidential debate one about his long-ago personal affairs.  The audience of Republicans, who apparently hate the media with every fiber of their beings, ate it up and gave Gingrich a standing ovation.

I don’t care about Gingrich’s past personal behavior — but I also don’t see why his set-piece smackdown of a question about it is such a great thing.  Some rock-ribbed conservatives seem to despise the media and love to see them publicly criticized for any reason; I don’t share that view.

To me, the little diatribe was an obvious, planned bit of political theater, and the fact that Gingrich palled around with the questioner after the debate just confirms it.  Gingrich has deep roots and connections in the Washington social milieu of politicians, lobbyists, reporters, and consultants.  When he gave his little angry performance, his inside-the-Beltway buddies no doubt leaned back, nodded to each other, and agreed that Gingrich was just doing the necessary political thing, knowing the rubes would eat it up — and they did.

Gingrich’s debate diatribe may well win South Carolina for him, but I think his performance really exposes him as just another calculated politician.

Cain And Italy

The news coverage for the last few days has been dominated by allegations of sexual harassment by Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.  The steady drip, drip, drip of new information and accusations has knocked all other news off the front page.

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of dealing properly with incidents of sexual harassment, nor do I mean to be insensitive to the issue of potential misconduct by a presidential candidate — but I think it is ludicrous that the Cain story has commanded more attention than, say, the ongoing debt problems in Italy that have toppled a government and threaten to send one of the largest economies in the world into a default that would be devastating for the global economy.

In America, we always seem to fixate on tawdry tales of misconduct by political figures.  Our recent history is littered with characters like Elizabeth Ray, Fannie Fox, and Donna Rice.  Once they were featured in headlines; now they are forgotten.

The Cain story deals with incidents that allegedly happened more than a decade ago. Cain himself is merely one of eight candidates for the Republican nomination who hasn’t received even one vote yet, because no primary will occur for weeks.  The Italian problem, in contrast, could cause crippling losses on the part of banks that hold Italian debt and thereby plunge the world into another recession.  Which story is more important?

Winners And Losers And General George Patton

As President Obama and congressional leaders work feverishly to negotiate an end to the debt ceiling impasse, I am sure most Americans are keeping our fingers crossed that the parties reach a meaningful agreement that allows the country to avoid a ruinous default and credit rating downgrade.

If a deal is struck, news media pundits will promptly declare who came out a “winner” and who came out a “loser” in this torturous process.  They may contend that President Obama was a loser because his call for increased taxes as part of a “balanced” approach was unsuccessful.  They may argue that the Republicans were losers because they were maneuvered into a last-second backroom deal that doesn’t make enough spending cuts.  Or perhaps the mantra will be that Harry Reid and Senate Democrats were marginalized during the final hours, or that “Tea Party” Republicans looked too uncompromising and unrealistic, or that progressives in Congress have lost their clout as the debate focuses totally on spending cuts.

The insistence on declaring triumphal winners and abject losers, with no middle ground, may be one reason why it has become so difficult for Washington to reach agreements.  No one wants to be a “loser” because they know that General George Patton was right:  Americans celebrate winners and despise losers.  In this case, however, it’s hard to see how anyone comes out of this ridiculous process covered with glory.  Our political leaders have failed to govern responsibly for so long, irrespective of which party has been in power, that there should be plenty of “loser” status to go around.

Update:  As predicted (except this writer finds a lot of “winners” in the process).

Casey Anthony And Anthony Sowell

I didn’t pay any attention to the Casey Anthony trial, although I was dimly aware that cable news shows were paying huge amounts of attention to the trial of a young woman accused of killing her two-year-old daughter.

In the wake of the jury verdict declaring Anthony not guilty of the crime, the media focus has become even more intense, and stories about the case seem to be unavoidable.  Jurors are talking about how they reached their verdict.  One of Anthony’s lawyers makes a vulgar gesture at members of the news media, whom Anthony’s counsel believe have engaged in character assassination.  Other observers criticize the jury for what they consider to be a bad decision.

Murder trials happen every day in this country.  Why do some trials — like the Casey Anthony trial, or the Menendez brothers trial, or any of the other criminal trials that people have obsessed about in this era of cable-TV sensationalism — command so much attention, whereas others don’t?

Right now, in Cleveland, a man accused in the deaths of 11 women is on trial.  How many people in America have even heard of Anthony Sowell, the accused killer, or the poor women he is alleged to have killed, many of whom apparently had substance abuse problems and vanished without much attention being paid to their disappearance?  Has Sowell’s trial received even a tiny fraction of the national attention that was paid to the Casey Anthony trial?

How can the death of one little girl, however tragic, command so much more attention than the horrific stories of the dead women that are being told at the Sowell trial?  Which of the two trials is likely to have more to teach us about our society?  And how much of the enormous disparity in attention paid to these two cases is due to race, class, and the perceived photogenic qualities of the victims and the defendants?

Weiner’s World, Finally Resigned To The Inevitable

Anthony Weiner finally recognized the unavoidable result of his ill-advised behavior and resigned today.  His announcement of his resignation turned into something of a circus, complete with hecklers, catcalls, booing, and cheering.  It brought to an embarrassing end the latest mystifying political scandal.

What lessons can be learned from this sordid story?  Two points seem obvious.  First, the lie and the cover-up are almost always more damning than the original misdeed.  Weiner’s behavior in sending intimate photos and messages to unknown internet acquaintances was extremely weird, but he probably could have survived it if he had not aggressively lied about his Twitter account being hacked in an attempt to avoid disclosure of his conduct.  For most people, his knowing, repeated, straight-faced lies were far more disturbing that his strange activities on the web.

Second, recognize when you are going down, then pick the time and structure the message.  Weiner’s admission that he had engaged in the unseemly conduct and lied to the public made it inevitable that he would have to leave office — particularly when Weiner must have known that other pathetic photos and internet dalliances would come to light.  By vowing to fight, Weiner only exposed himself, his family, and his party to ongoing ridicule, shame, and distraction.  If he had resigned at the outset, he would have spared everyone a humiliating spectacle.  And why publicly read a statement in a forum where you could be jeered and spoofed by shock jocks and other bottom-feeders at the media trough?  Weiner would have been well-advised to follow Jim Tressel’s lead, issue a high-minded written statement, and leave his position out of the media spotlight.

So, Anthony Weiner exits stage left.  When will the next Washington, D.C. media frenzy begin?

Olbermann Is Out

Last night MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann had his last broadcast as host of the show Countdown.  The end of his show and his career at MSNBC was unexpected — so unexpected that the network continued to run a promo for his show 30 minutes after he announced his departure on air.

We’ll hear a lot about Olbermann’s departure from the pundits, the broadcasters, and the blogosphere in the next few days, with many people calling him a fearless advocate for progressive views and many others saying good riddance to a shrill voice.  I don’t really care much either way, because Kish and I stopped watching Olbermann’s show years ago.  If you wanted to view events from a consistently liberal perspective, you could watch Countdown — but no one who wanted to actually get the news, in any semblance of unbiased form, would tune in that show.  And, for us at least, Olbermann’s tiresome interactions with the pundits who always appeared on his show and shared his viewpoint, and Olbermann’s smug, absurdly self-important and self-referential commentaries, just became unwatchable.  His show not only was not objective, it also was bad TV.  Countdown wasn’t watched by many Americans, and I think that was why.

TV news needs to return to basics and get away from the kind of advocacy programming that has come to dominate the “news channels.”  The end of Olbermann’s show may be a step in the right direction.

A Stunning Assault On The Citadel Of Media Objectivity

Today MSNBC indefinitely suspended Keith Olbermann, the host of the cable network’s Countdown program, after it learned that Olbermann had made contributions to three political campaigns — all for Democratic candidates.

I applaud MSNBC management for acting promptly to safeguard the network’s hard-earned reputation for objectivity and balance in its coverage of American politics.  It is hard to believe that Olbermann, who is one of the paragons of temperate commentary and unbiased reporting in the new media, would not have understood that contributing money to political candidates was grossly inconsistent with MSNBC’s high standards of journalistic integrity.  After all, it is not as if the network would allow news show hosts to routinely describe political figures of particular viewpoints as “the worst person in the world,” or to regularly launch harshly worded, mean-spirited attacks in an effort to drum up better ratings.

I’m sure that MSNBC’s other prime time news show hosts, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, have never provided any support, financial or otherwise, to any political party or movement.  Both Matthews and Maddow are universally recognized for their even-handed treatment of political news and have contributed tremendously to high esteem which every rational person must feel for MSNBC and its fair and credible treatment of opposing viewpoints.

Pundits Galore

We’ve been channel-surfing tonight on this Election Night, flipping between CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.

All of the stations feature pundits, of course, but CNN seems to have an unworkably large number of them. Good Lord!  It’s unbearable!  How many are there, anyway?  They seem to be rotating them in and out, like they are players on a hockey team running two-minute shifts.

I suppose pundits are unavoidable on election nights, but can’t the media outlets pick just one or two whom they think actually have something meaningful to say and just stick with them?

An NPR Disappointment

I am a National Public Radio listener.  I almost always listen to Morning Edition on the way to work, All Things Considered on the way home from work, and the NPR lineup on Saturday morning.  I’ve heard Juan Williams express his opinions on NPR countless times.

When I heard that NPR had fired Williams for comments he made on Fox News, I was surprised.  When I read his full comments, I was even more surprised, and when I heard that NPR had concluded that his comments were inconsistent with their internal policies, I was shocked.  Are we really to the point where making an honest comment about feeling concern, in a much broader context, is sufficient to give rise to a dismissal?  And what exactly are the NPR policies that were violated?  As a listener, don’t I have a right to know what kind of speech codes NPR is applying to its commentators?  (And, incidentally, why didn’t those codes prevent me from hearing countless droning Daniel Schorr commentaries that inevitably circled back to the Nixon era?)

I know that many people consider NPR to be a bastion of liberal bias, but I’ve always appreciated its presentation of the news.  It profoundly disappoints me that NPR would give a long-time, respected commentator the boot for expressing honest views that cannot even remotely be construed as hate speech.  I am appalled to hear about this kind of censorship, and it causes me to lose enormous respect for NPR as a member of the news media.