I practice every day to find some clever lines to say ...

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

When I read, thanks to my sponsors, stuff like this from O'Reilly:

OK, [viewer], but here's the no-spin truth, so listen up. Your so-called compassion helped kill those children. They should have never been in that circumstance. If the authorities had investigated as they should have, those kids might be alive right now, legal or not.

followed by stuff like this from Rush Limbaugh:

I would only have one small nitpick with former Senator Zeller [sic] over this: How many of these 45 million children who have been aborted would be Democrats, would be the offspring of Democrats? And as such, how many of them would have jobs? As such, how many of them would even think of joining the military? I know they're some Republican liberal babes in there that [have] gone out and had abortions, too, but the vast majority of them are liberals. This way if you look at the demographics of the future, you could say liberals are aborting themselves out of the majority if current trends hold. Everybody knows that's who's having the majority of these things.

and remember that these people actually sway votes -- I'm guessing that the voting percentage of dittoheads and O'Reilly-ites is higher than in the general public -- then I despair for democracy in America. I gave a lecture in L.A. last week called "Is Democracy in America Even Possible?" and believe it or not, I didn't focus on any of this stuff. Rather, I was all high-minded in discussing Lippmann and Dewey. Limbaugh, who once devoted a radio program to a discussion of Antonio Gramsci, makes me reach for my Lippmann. Here he is (drawn in part from Who Speaks for America? ):

At the heart of republican theory, in Lippmann's view, stood the "omnicompetent" citizen. "It was believed that if only he could be taught more facts, if only he would take more interest, if only he would listen to more lectures and read more reports, he would gradually be trained to direct public affairs." Unfortunately, Lippmann concluded, " The whole assumption is false."[1]

In republican thought, notes John Patrick Diggins, the legislative branch was assumed to be sovereign because it best represented the hearts and minds of the people. In Lippmann's analysis, however, sovereignty had shifted to the media; the modern institution that shaped citizens' opinions and hence "manufactured" consent for the governing class. But the press, he argues, "is very much more frail than the democratic theory has yet admitted. It is too frail to carry the whole burden of popular sovereignty."[2]

Lippmann argues that the social and political events which determine our collective destiny are well beyond the public's range of experience and expertise to understand. Only through incomplete, poorly-comprehended media reports are these events made accessible. "Public opinion," therefore, is shaped in response to people's "maps" or "images" of the world, and not to the world itself. "For the most part," Lippmann wrote, "we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see."[3] Mass political consciousness does not pertain to the factual "environment," but to an intermediary "pseudo-environment." To complicate matters, this pseudo-environment is further corrupted by the manner in which it is received. Citizens have only limited time and attention to devote to issues of public concern. News is designed for mass consumption, and hence, the media must employ a relatively simple vocabulary and linear story line to discuss highly complex and decidedly non-linear situations. The competition for readership (and advertising dollars) drives the press to present news reports in a ways that sensationalize and oversimplify, while more significant information goes unreported and unremarked upon.

Given both the economic and professional limitations of the practice of journalism, Lippmann argues, news "comes [to us] helter-skelter." This is fine for baseball box scores, a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch. But where the picture is more complex, "as for example, in the matter of a success of a policy or the social conditions among a foreign people -- where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle and a matter of balanced evidence," then journalism "causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding and even misinterpretation."[4]

Lippmann's pseudo-environment is not composed merely of the information we receive; it consists, in equal measure, of what Lippmann terms "the pictures in our heads." Voters react to the news in light of a personal history containing certain stereotypes, predispositions, and emotional associations that determine their interpretations of the news. We emphasize that which confirms our original beliefs and disregard or denigrate what might contradict it. What emerges is a kind of polydimensional censorship. Lippmann compared the average citizen to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row of a sporting event. "He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct."[5]

Democracy, in modern society, is surprisingly undemocratic. It operates with only "a very small percentage of those who are theoretically supposed to govern."[6] Lippmann also explained, (as did de Tocqueville) why Madison's hope that representatives would "refine and enlarge" the views of their districts proved false. Thomas Jefferson may have dreamed of a well-informed citizenry of civic-minded, virtuous Yeoman farmers, but in the modern era, such optimism was no longer sustainable. The problem was not merely that representatives found it easier to pander, but that they preferred the security of a false picture of the world to the difficult task of attempting to create a more complex and daunting whole. "Even if the theory were applied, and the districts always send the wisest men, the sum of a combination of local impression is not wide enough base for national policy, and no base at all in the control of foreign policy. Since the real effects of most laws are subtle and hidden, they cannot be understood by filtering local experiences through local states of mind." The representative "needs to know the local pictures, but unless he possess instruments for calibrating them, one picture is as good as the next." Significantly, notes John Diggins, the only leader in American history to profess awareness of this dilemma, Alexander Hamilton, was never elected to public office.[7]

Now throw in Limbaugh and O'Reilly and see what kind of democracy you have ... (Or even throw in Andrea Mitchell. Think MSNBC will issue a correction? Ha.)

Jews are funny people too.

Quote of the Day: "I am myself not unsuave ..." Who else but Leon Wieseltier ($)?

From the Benton Foundation:

IF IT'S SUNDAY, IT'S STILL CONSERVATIVE [SOURCE: Media Matters for America]

Who are the guests on the Sunday morning public affairs shows where conventional wisdom is formed and the terms of debate are set? Media Matters for America followed up on an earlier study and classified each guest appearing on ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday during 2005 and 2006 (over 2,000 appearances) and found: 1) Republicans and conservatives dramatically outnumbered Democrats and progressives on the Sunday shows in 2005 and 2006, by a margin of 44 percent to 27 percent (the remainder were neutral or nonpartisan figures). 2) Counting only elected officials and administration representatives, Republicans had a stark advantage over Democrats, 62 percent to 37 percent. 3) Fox News Sunday's journalist panels are the most lopsided, with a typical lineup consisting of two or even three conservatives, one neutral reporter, and one progressive. But even on ABC, NBC, and CBS, conservative journalists were nearly twice as likely as their progressive counterparts to appear on the Sunday shows. 4) While a majority of guest panels on the ABC, NBC, and CBS shows were balanced or neutral in their composition, there were nearly three times as many right-leaning panels as left-leaning ones. Fox News Sunday was even worse.

»Hinchey Says Sunday Shows Still Unbalanced: Rep Maurice Hinchey (D-NY): "The American people are the owners of the public airwaves and the networks have an obligation and responsibility to use those airwaves to offer a balanced presentation of ideas and perspectives from Democrats and Republicans alike."

Alter-reviews:

Remember what Walker Percy's The Moviegoer said about Jews and single movie-going? I've been going almost every day recently, ever since I learned that Andy Sullivan hates people who go to the movies almost as much as he hates people who live in cities that were attacked on 9-11 and voted against Bush and who opposed this ruinous war in Iraq, and since I also learned that Andy's former patron and fellow Charles Murray fan, Marty Peretz, finds France to be a "closed-minded, prissy, rigidly class-bound, economically retarded, and nostalgic country" -- yes, he really did write those words, here. In honor of both Andy and Marty, I saw six French films at Lincoln Center recently. Five were part of their "Rendez-Vous with French Cinema" series that happens every year and one was part of their Film Comment series. They had some silly aspects to them, but each one of them was actually a "film" rather than a movie. I've got nothing against movies -- I'm a moviegoer, after all, and I really liked Zodiac, which I saw last night -- but Hollywood almost never makes them anymore. The audience is too small in this country to justify them and they don't do well overseas because not enough things get blown up. On the other hand, if you get a chance to see The Valet (La Doublure) or I Do! (Prête-moi ta main) or Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) or Ambitious (Les Ambitieux) or The Singer (Quand j'étais chanteur). I think'd you be making a mistake to pass it up -- particularly The Singer, which features one of Depardieu's -- and therefore anyone's -- most affecting performances. As for Exterminating Angels, well, it's not for everyone, but I don't see how I can pretend to be above it ...

On another movie-going note ...

We sat down recently with 8-year-old Eve Rose Alterman of P.S. 166 to watch the new DVD release of the 1953 Disney version of Peter Pan and then check out the video games that come with the DVD release. We liked the movie fine. What's not to like? The transfer is really good and the colors are pretty, and it's Peter Pan, after all. We share the view with the Amazon reviewer that the animated "version of this story neither supplants nor lessens the Broadway version with Mary Martin that was produced for television the same decade. Nor, for goodness sakes, does it supplant the book. But in any case, here is my interview with Ms. Alterman after she spent a little while with the computer game.

Altercation's interview with Eve Rose Alterman, 8:

Q. Tell me what you liked best about the Peter Pan games.

There's more than one game. "Smee's Sudoku" challenge was great. It was fun and it was very well explained by Peter Pan. "Targeting" was also fun, but at first you don't know what to press for the game, so they could make that better. But for "Tink's Fantasy Flight," you don't do anything for it. You just watch and it does it for you. So that wasn't fun at all.

Q. What kinds of kids would like the Peter Pan games?

Kids who like a lot of action in their games. Probably kids ages 6-10.

Q. How long do you think a kid could play the Peter Pan games?

Half an hour or an hour at the most. Probably not that long.

Q. Do you think parents would think they are good games for kids?

It depends on what kinds of parents. Some parents just want you to do your homework all the time, and practice your piano and stuff. But in general, yes.

Read all about it here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Richard Gallagher
Hometown: Fishkill, N.Y.

Dear Eric,

The Fred Barnes "cheerleader" piece is audacious, and I don't mean that in a good sense. First he tells us, "Bolten's view -- and presumably Bush's -- is that if you're going to do something, do it swiftly. And that, by the way, is exactly what the White House did in response to the Walter Reed scandal, instantly denouncing the poor treatment of wounded soldiers and hastily naming a commission to recommend improvements."

Instantly denouncing the poor treatment? I went scurrying to read the transcript of Tony Snow's press briefing on February 20, the day the first Washington Post story appeared. Here are some excerpts:

Q Tony, can I follow on that? As Bob Dole might ask, where's the outrage?

MR. SNOW: There's plenty of outrage.

Q Is there?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q So the President responded how when he learned about this? What, specifically -- did he order something to be done?

MR. SNOW: What I'm suggesting -- there's a reason I'm suggesting -- DoD is the proper place in which we'll be taking care of these issues. And I would refer you to them for comment. But this is something that's going to have to be an action item.

Q But is there any evidence that it was even looked at before the
paper printed its two stories?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q Then tell us about that evidence.

MR. SNOW: That's why -- again, I would refer you, Bill, to the Department of the Army, which runs the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This is the place where if you want to get --

Q That's just an easy way for you not to have to talk about it.

MR. SNOW: Well, it's also a way of pointing to the proper authorities, which is what you would want.

Q The White House doesn't want to be on record with a more emphatic expression of amazement and upset about this?

MR. SNOW: No. David asked where the outrage -- of course there's outrage that men and women who have been fighting have not received the outpatient care -- if you read the stories, there are many who are happy with it, some who are unhappy, and it's important that we show our commitment to the people who have served. I don't know what more you want me to do.

Q In December NPR ran a series looking at the quality of mental health care for Iraq veterans who have returned, showing that it's shocking how little care is provided to them. And several congresspeople -- Obama, Boxer and Bond -- sent a letter to the Pentagon, which you're referring us to, asking for an investigation, which they have not agreed to conduct. So you're referring us to the DoD, but they're not acting quickly on this. So does the President want them to act quickly?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, you've asked me about two separate stories.

Q It seems there's a problem that's endemic to the system.

MR. SNOW: Well, rather than leaping to a conclusion, as I said, I would suggest you call them, and then we can talk about it later.

[...]

Q Do you think the President is going to say something about this later?

MR. SNOW: No.

Q You responded to me a moment ago that the administration was aware of this before the articles appeared in the paper.

MR. SNOW: That is my understanding. But, again, this is something that's an action item over at the Department of Defense and, in particular, the Department of the Army. I am not fully briefed on the activities or who knew what, when. And I suggest --

Q Was the President aware of it? Was the White House aware of it?

MR. SNOW: I am not certain --

Q May I follow on --

Q What is the President's --

MR. SNOW: -- when we first became aware of it.* Now the President certainly has been aware of the conditions in the wards where he has visited, and visited regularly, and we also have people from Walter Reed regularly over to the White House as guests, sometimes in fairly large numbers. So as I said, the President is committed - committed to these people, committed to men and women who have served. We need to make sure that whatever problems there are get fixed. I couldn't be any stronger or plainer about it.

Q Has he given any new orders?

MR. SNOW: No. At this point, Helen, I think the most important thing -- the way this would work is the Department of Army has its own investigation about what's going on at Walter Reed. They will be taking action. The President certainly wants to make sure that, as I said before, whatever problems there are get fixed.

[...]

Q This is a commitment the President has made, you said, to the families, right?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q So why isn't the President, why isn't his staff saying, let's get to the bottom of it now?

MR. SNOW: We are trying to get to the bottom of it, and the people who are responsible for getting to the bottom of it work on the other side of the river.

Q But, again, you put it back on the Pentagon, you're not keeping --

MR. SNOW: Yes. The members of the Pentagon, of course, Cabinet agencies and people in the administration, do answer to the President. And I've said, what's wrong needs to be fixed. Now the people that are going to do the fixing are over there. So you might want to talk to them.

The full press briefing is here.

On the day that the story broke, Snow made it clear that (a) Bush had nothing to say about it and (b) the White House fully intended to pass the buck to DOD. He also left the distinct impression that Bush had at least some knowledge of the problems before the Post story appeared. It wasn't until the ensuing uproar over Bush's apparent disinterest that he changed his tune. The White House even found it necessary to tack on this addendum to the press briefing transcript:

The President first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in the Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed.

Yeah, right. As Barnes notes, the conditions at Walter Reed haven't disturbed Bush's sleep.

Barnes closes with this gem: "Now the president believes 'progress' is being made in Iraq."

Say what? NOW Bush believes that progress is being made? Incredible.

Name: gmoke
Hometown: Cambridge, MA

John Hockenberry, former NBC correspondent, is now a fellow at MIT's Media Lab. I saw him speak there last week.

He pointed out that GE, a military contractor, owns the network, including MSNBC, and that GE had the contract to rebuild the Iraqi electrical infrastructure from the Coalition Provisional Authority. That contract, according to Hockenberry, was worth more than the total operating budget of NBC News.

Conflict of interest much?

More here.

Name: drinkof
Hometown:

Note on the Halliburton Dubai split, and the rest. Sure, it may be a subpoena dodge, more particularly a way to get all the really damaging documents out of the country where ... well, you know the rest.

But consider this; they're also "spinning off" KBR. KBR will, over the next few years, be the subject of tons o' lawsuits, both by the feds (when anybody else gets in) and other civil suits. The plan, I imagine, is to basically suck out most of the value of KBR during the corporate transfers; there's a million accounting and valuation tricks to be used in service of that goal.

What will be left is a relatively bereft shell, which the plaintiffs can have at.

What do you think?

Name: Mark D
Hometown: Chicago

Doc, the Ailes comment should have been all the more reason for the Democratic candidates to do the FOX debate, if only to lob a few pointed jabs at their hosts. I'm so tired of the Dems picking up their hackey sack and going home, instead of taking out a slingshot and firing back.

Name: Davis
Hometown: Columbia

Fred Barnes says that the firing of U.S. Attorneys is overblown; of course it is; after all, U.S. Attorneys are not nearly as important as Travel Office staff. Someone remind me, WTF was that "scandal" all about?

Oh, and Fred assures us that W continues to sleep well, which makes me angrier than ever.

Name: Tyrone Mason
Hometown: Mililani

Dr. A.

Supporters and journalists cite their concerns about the convictions of Mr. Libby. For the most part, many cite that there was no underlying crime committed since no one was charged with leaking the name of an employee associated with an agency. They are correct in this assertion, no one has been charged.

But what about the contacts and families Ms. Plame came in contact with over the years? Have they been compromised and are now in hiding? What about the company she was associated with, is that asset's abilities in the Middle East region just as fluid today as it was before Ms. Plame's name was discussed on a national level?

The nation's other security branches must be sighing with relief since they will not have to spend time and effort to investigate and review Ms. Plame's activities and contacts she may have made when she visited their countries. After all, there was no underlying crime committed.

I wonder how these same people would feel if their families were the contacts living in the Middle East.

Name: Samuel Knight
Hometown:

Democrats will look like weenies if they don't answer conservatives. For years, "knowledgeable" observers have tried ignoring the right-wing antics. And the right has worked the refs.

Pointing out that calling homosexuals "fags" is reprehensible isn't silly. Pointing out that Fox is a right-wing propaganda outfit isn't silly. Being silent is silly.

Thus, I disagree with this parting thought:

For the record: I don't think what Roger Ailes said was a problem. Together with the Coulter thing, I worry about Democrats looking like a bunch of weenies if they keep making such a big deal out of such silly incidents. There are plenty of real-life outrages out there in the cases of both Fox News and Coulter without having to seize on silliness ...

No, this was a perfect example that people could readily understand. When Fox News shrieks, you know you've hit them. So don't think about being nice. Hit them again.

Footnotes

[1] Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1929) p.278-279.

[2] Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1922) p.228

[3] Ibid., p.55

[4] Lippmann, Liberty and the News, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920) pp.38-41.

[5] Lippmann, The Phantom Public (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1924) pp.13-14.

[6] Lippmann, Public Opinion, p.164.

[7] John Patrick Diggins, "Republicanism And Progressivism," American Quarterly, 37:4 (1985).

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