Tilting at Windmills

January/February 2011 Cool Hand Barack … Don’t let sleeping lies dog … Capitalism could break your heart …

By Charles Peters

The challenge: Finding out what Clinton actually said

For a recent example of how reporting favors color and “take” over essential facts, consider the accounts of former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Obama’s tax cut compromise. Neither the New York Times, which ran the story on page twelve, nor the Wall Street Journal, which put it on page four, gave Clinton’s reasons for praising the deal. How was the reader supposed to judge the merits of Clinton’s position if they weren’t told his reasons? Instead, the Times and the Journal described the theatrics of the occasion. The only thing the public is likely to retain from most of the reports I saw is that Obama left the conference early to join Michelle at a White House Christmas party. That, or they might just remember the “surreal flashback” to the Clinton presidency that reporters were so anxious to capture. Even the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, who had enough roots in the old journalism to explain Clinton’s reasoning, still slathered on seven paragraphs of scene-setting detail before he got to the meat of the story.

Objective doesn’t mean dull

A good case can be made for New Journalism. I know, I’ve made it often enough. But I came to the conclusion over the years that it’s much better suited to magazines. I think the newspapers and the networks should make a much greater effort to report the news thoroughly and dispassionately. Certainly, reporting what a president says should be more important than displaying the writer’s bells and whistles.

I understand that a reporter’s point of view influences his selection of relevant fact, but I also know that self-awareness can minimize the adverse effects of that influence. And I also understand the enormous competitive pressure on the print media today—though some of it is self-imposed by the yen for stardom of some reporters. Fortunately there is still room in objective journalism for prose that is both lively and graceful. And there is also a place for the writer to add a sidebar to the news that gives his opinion or analysis, so long as—and this is important—he labels them “opinion” or “analysis.”

Capitalism could break your heart

If you wonder why I always couple my statement of faith in capitalism as the best economic system with the caveat that you have to watch capitalists like a hawk, ponder the case of Abbott Laboratories. The Associated Press’s Alicia Caldwell reports that Abbott just had to pay a fine of $126.5 million because the Department of Justice had caught it inflating wholesale prices “for dozens of products, including powerful antibiotics used by Medicare and Medicaid patients.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Alicia Mundy and Thomas M. Burton report that Abbott “hired a Baltimore-area cardiologist as a sales consultant after he had been barred from practicing at a local hospital for allegedly putting heart stents in hundreds of patients who didn’t need them.” The stents had been manufactured by Abbott, which rewarded the barred physician because, as an internal company e-mail put it, “he helped us so many times over the years.”

The Journal concludes that “stent use has flattened out in recent years in the U.S. in the wake of studies suggesting that many patients would be better off either with major heart surgery or with drugs alone.”

This round goes to the teachers’ unions …

The cause of education reform has suffered some tough blows recently. First came the forced resignation of Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. It was quickly followed by Baltimore teachers’ rejection of a contract that would have changed a pay system based entirely on seniority to one that took account of teacher effectiveness. Then the D.C. teachers’ union voted out its president, who had signed a reform agreement with Rhee, and replaced him with an opponent of reform. Finally, Joel Klein appears to have been eased out as chancellor of New York City schools by Mayor Bloomberg and replaced by a woman whose entire record reveals not a smidgen of concern for public schools. (If, by the way, Cathie Black was selected to mollify the teachers’ union, it is a sign to me that Bloomberg is seriously considering a run for the presidency.) And the New York teachers have, for the time being at least, succeeded in holding up the release of ratings for the city’s teachers that would have given the people of New York the chance to find out how just how good—or bad—the teachers of their children are.

The Baltimore vote is especially disheartening because it is so obviously stupid to base pay solely on seniority. No successful business does that. Effectiveness in the classroom should always be the main factor in pay decisions.

… But reform scores a point

This explains why I’m delighted to note, from an article in the Wall Street Journal, that California is now requiring an appraisal of prospective teachers’ classroom performance as a factor in the initial hiring decision. This may seem like the most basic of common sense to you, but I have to tell you, it is rarely done.

Disarmed regulators

The most conspicuous examples of inadequate budgeting for enforcement come from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The ATF had 2,500 agents in 1972 and, reports the Washington Post, it has only 2,500 today, even though this country’s population has grown by 50 percent since then. In addition, in response to incredibly effective lobbying by the National Rifle Association, Congress has hamstrung the ATF with restrictions limiting it to antiquated methods of tracing gun ownership, while also preventing it from putting gun sales and ownership records in a database accessible to the public.

Early warnings? Heaven forfend!

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.


  • amarige on May 07, 2011 11:13 PM:

    the mirror of the political démocratie of Obama...
    the republicans are on the corner,like a fox,to take his place .
    it,s imperatif to play safe,in transparency ,to rebuild the power of America.

  • Mike on June 12, 2011 7:32 PM:

    So the tax cuts to the rich will act as a stimulus? It feels like I've heard that theory before. Oh, that's right, from every GOP candidate and talking head in the history of the world ever.

    Basically this post makes a good case that Obama is a sensible, pragmatic, reasonable, moderate Republican.