Tilting at Windmills

November/ December 2013 Fair, balanced, and untrue … A Barry bad legacy … Glamorizing the glamour industry

By Charles Peters

Fair-weather Democrats

You probably read about the two Democratic state senators who lost recall elections in Colorado because they voted to strengthen gun laws in the state. What struck me in the New York Times account that I read is that 21,000 fewer voters turned out than had in 2010. That was the midterm election, when too many Democrats were too busy finding fault with President Barack Obama—why hadn’t he fought for more stimulus spending and for single-payer health care?—to bother going to the polls. Their failure cost us dearly. Not only do Republicans control the House of Representatives, but Republican victories in state legislative and gubernatorial races have made possible the redistricting that seems likely to result in Republican domination of the House through 2020.

If the Colorado election is an omen of 2014, the Democrats could also lose the Senate. So many liberals are busy beating up on Obama—why, they indignantly ask, didn’t he handle Syria better?—even though they can’t seem to agree on exactly what they would have had him do that would have been better. A headline on the cover of the October 7th issue of the New Republic went so far as to assert, “Obama Has No Foreign Policy.”

Let me be clear: Obama is far from perfect; the Democrats are far from perfect. But Obama is considerably better than any of the Republican presidential candidates on the horizon. And the Democrats in Congress are, on the whole, considerably better than the Republicans.

Fair, balanced, and untrue

I have often lamented the mainstream media’s failure to make the GOP’s culpability clearer. Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann managed to do just that in a Washington Post op-ed several months ago. “We have no choice,” they wrote, “but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.” Since then, Ornstein and Mann have not been invited to any of the three main Sunday-morning talk shows—NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, or CBS’s Face the Nation—to discuss their op-ed or their most recent book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, which reached the same conclusion about Republican obstructionism.

Dan Froomkin, reporting for the Huffington Post, was the first to point this out, followed by the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent and others in the liberal media. Still no morning show invitation, despite the fact that Ornstein and Mann have frequently been guests on these shows in the past, and have been considered objective sources for decades. This magazine once even crowned Ornstein as “The King of Quotes.”

Why are the broadcast networks so reluctant to blame the Republicans? One possibility is that the majority of their news audience is composed of older whites, who, of course, tend to be conservative. But I think the main reason is that journalists who want to be considered responsible are convinced that objectivity requires them to blame both parties equally. To me, real objectivity consists in being fair-minded in the pursuit of truth, but telling the truth when you find it.

The politics of cynicism

I have had a couple of months to think about Mark Leibovich’s book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital, and I remain in awe of his memorable description of the late Tim Russert’s memorial service. Leibovich also nails the extent to which selling out has become acceptable in Washington. He offers one telling example after another, including one of a congressional staffer discussing how best to “monetize his government service.”

But I do find that I have concerns about This Town. One is that the book, as Leibovich himself explained to C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb in a recent interview, can have the effect of making people cynical. Why do I worry about that? Because cynical is exactly what the bad guys want us to be. As the economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out in an interview with Bill Moyers, “What the powerful moneyed interests would like in this country is for us all to get so cynical about politics that we basically give up.”

A clue as to why Leibovich does not seem to see that giving up is the danger of his cynicism came when he told Lamb, “I am not in the solutions game.” If he had thought about it, one solution to the situation he describes in This Town is political action. When I wanted to see change in the 1950s, I worked on campaigns, ran for office, served in the West Virginia legislature, and later came to Washington with the Kennedy administration. You have to participate in the system if you are going to change it. I wish Leibovich had thought about how essential politics and politicians are to fixing Washington. Then, perhaps, he would have given a more balanced picture of Senator Chuck Schumer and Chris Matthews, to take two examples. Sure, their hustling can be embarrassing, but Schumer is not only very bright and hardworking but also performs a largely constructive role in the U.S. Senate. Chris Matthews stands alone among D.C. journalists in his appreciation for the art of politics and his affectionate regard for its practitioners.

And it is a shame that Leibovich fails to mention the good guys, people like Senator Carl Levin, who are not showboaters and who bring wisdom to their job every day and always ask thoughtful questions in hearings, or any of the many civil servants who don’t sell out but work hard to serve the public interest.

I am also disturbed that Leibovich seems to think that Washington stands alone as the cesspool of the country. What about Wall Street, with all its sharks and swindlers? What about the CEOs all over the country who underpay their workers so they can overpay themselves? And those doctors all over the country who have accepted bribes from pharmaceutical companies or medical device makers, and those who prescribe high-radiation CT scans not because patients need them but because they own a CT scanner—what about them? And what about all those voters who choose Republican candidates simply because they don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes yet mightily resist the reduction of any of their government benefits, however undeserved!

The truth is that Washington is no worse and no better than the rest of the country. Our national problem is that too many of our cultural winds are blowing us in the direction of self-absorption, self-promotion, and making a barrel of money.

Taking the right aim

Mark Leibovich is right that there is something wrong with the media’s constant emphasis on the political effect of any action by the president or Congress. But he doesn’t talk about what the media misses: namely, that it fails to find out what is happening in the bureaucracy—at the action points of government. The bureaucracy, after all, implements the programs advocated by the president and passed by Congress. On the Gulf oil spill for example, Leibovich brilliantly describes how This Town’s sellouts covered up BP’s negligence after the disaster. But he doesn’t discuss the failure by the media to find out whether the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was properly monitoring the risky oil drilling that was taking place in the Gulf.

Prevention is the best medicine

Attention is ordinarily paid to prevention only after a disaster has occurred. For example, after the Navy Yard killings, Washington Post reporters Tom Hamburger and Zachary A. Goldfarb, along with Jia Lynn Yang, did a brilliant job of interviewing the employees of USIS, the private contractor that failed to identify the danger posed by shooter Aaron Alexis. As we mentioned in our last issue, USIS similarly failed in the case of Edward Snowden. “There was this intense pressure to do more and faster,” said one USIS employees to the Post. “When you’re giving me a week to interview 50 people, that’s impossible,” said another. Still another adds, “It’s very: ‘Here’s a sheet of questions, ask the questions, hurry and get the answers, submit them and move forward. There’s just not a lot of paying attention to potential red flags and that sort of thing.” Mark Riley, a former Army officer who worked as a private security clearance lawyer, told the Post, “They don’t ask the right follow-up questions.… The bottom line is the buck, rather than national security.”

Consider how the Navy Yard killings might have been avoided if this reporting had been done a year or two earlier and the public spotlight had been cast on the problem so there would have been a chance to correct it. After the shootings, the Post put this story on the front page, as did the Times a few days later. That is why we need reporting that aims to prevent disasters before they occur.

Was there anything to alert the media that they should have looked at how security investigations were being conducted?

The answer is yes. It was known that legislation passed in 2004 required the government to complete security investigations much faster than the up to a year some of them had been taking. The danger, of course, was that the new goal would cause the investigations to be carelessly conducted. It was also well known that drilling was being conducted at deeper depths in the Gulf than had been tried before, and by the time of the second Bush administration the MMS had become notorious for its ineptitude and corruption. It would have been prudent for the media to take a careful look at how the hazardous drilling was being done and how the MMS was monitoring it.

Private v. the public interest

By the way, here is a possible explanation of how profit became the principal focus at USIS. The company got its start when the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government people were concealing the unreality of some of their claimed downsizing of government by contracting out government functions. When USIS was created, it was wholly owned by former Office of Personnel Management (OPM) workers, but it has subsequently been acquired by a private equity firm. The former OPM employees might have been at least partially motivated to serve the public interest, but doesn’t it seem more likely that it isn’t the motivation of the new owner?

A Barry bad legacy

The people of the District of Columbia should hang their heads in shame over the city government they continue to elect. They not only chose the infamous Marion Barry to be their mayor for three terms, the voters of Ward 8 subsequently endowed him with a lifetime chair on the city council by reelecting him time and again—this despite repeated evidence of his ethical lapses, ranging from failing to pay his taxes to taking bribes, not to mention smoking crack. The city council had a chance to remove Barry recently because he had just been caught red-handed accepting a cash bribe. Though they deprived him of a committee chairmanship, they allowed him to remain on the council, perhaps because they are so ethically challenged themselves. In just the last year, three members of the city council have admitted to serious violations of the law. In the words of the Post’s Colbert I. King, upon whose outraged reporting of the city government I rely, Harry Thomas Jr. “pleaded guilty to lining his pockets with $350,000 of taxpayer money meant to benefit children; former council chairman Kwame Brown … pleaded guilty to a felony bank fraud charge; and former council member Michael A. Brown … admitted embarking on an illegal bribery scheme.” King puts “[t]he amount of money embezzled, accepted in bribes, defrauded or spent on illegal campaign contributions” by city employees or their confederates since June of this year at $19 million.

Selling but not selling out

Don Graham, the former Washington Post publisher, is more conservative than I am, but he is among the most conscientious men I have ever known. He is one of a handful of Ivy League graduates—Harvard Class of 1966, to be precise—to serve in Vietnam. When he came home, he joined the District of Columbia police force, and learned what it was like to be a cop on a regular beat in his hometown. Again, an experience rare among our educated elite. Perhaps these experiences have contributed to the personal concern he has demonstrated for the people working for him at every level of the organization from top to bottom. I remember in particular his kindness and practical help for my friend Marjorie Williams during her battle with cancer. That my feelings are shared by the Post staff was demonstrated by the outpouring of the laudatory comments from them when he was no longer their boss. I am certain that he would not have sold the Post had he not been convinced that it was in the best interest of the newspaper.

Another publisher I admire is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., for all he has done to keep the New York Times alive. I especially remember once when the paper was in a precarious fiscal situation and Arthur was compelled to borrow $250 million at a painful 14 percent from a Mexican billionaire to keep the Times afloat. It reminded me of similar frightening experiences of my own when I was responsible for keeping the Washington Monthly going. The Monthly is tiny compared to the Times, but it made me understand how hard the challenges were that Arthur faced. In his case, success led to the New York Times standing alone as the most outstanding paper in the country.

Glamorizing the glamor industry

I often discuss the faults of the Times, if only because its importance makes them loom larger than the shortcomings of other publications. What upsets me now—and this is a reflection of my concern about all the influences in American life that push us to accumulate wealth—is the tendency of the Times’ fashion sections to make designer clothes and accessories seem essential. Featured recently in a typical spread in T: The New York Times Style Magazine were a Dolce & Gabbana coat for $3,145 and dress for $1,345, Giuseppe Zanotti Design shoes for $1,197, and, on the facing page, a Chanel dress for $10,365. Looking at these alluring photographs, works of art in themselves, of beautiful models clad in the latest designer apparel inevitably makes the reader want to have those clothes, meaning that they or their spouse has to make enough money to buy them.

The Times is far from alone in its guilt; Vogue and Vanity Fair, among many others, are also culprits. But the Times speaks with unique authority, especially in New York. I know that the fashion industry is important to the economy of the city, but so is Wall Street. Indeed, the finance industry constitutes 40 percent of New York’s wages, according to James Surowiecki of the New Yorker. Yet, the business section of the Times reports on Wall Street without glamorizing it. You do not end up thinking that you just had to have that credit default swap.

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.

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