We're caught in a trap ...

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Maureen Dowd today: Yes, it's anti-McCain, OK, fine. But what is source for today's goose will undoubtedly be the seasoning on tomorrow's gander, so let's take an, um, gander at these two indefensible journalistic transgressions. First:

"John's eaten up with envy," said one. "His image of himself was always the handsome, celebrity flyboy."

"Now somebody else is the celebrity," the colleague continued, while John looks in the mirror and sees his face marred by skin cancer and looks at the TV and sees his dashing self-image replaced by visions of William Frawley, with Letterman jokes about his membership in the ham radio club and adventures with wagon trains.

Excuse me, that's a blind negative quote. Since when does Times policy allow blind negative quotes with no right of response? I know it's a column not a news story, but it's every bit as unfair and smarmy, and believe me, most people do not distinguish.

Second, she writes:

When the Illinois freshman took back a private promise to join McCain's campaign finance reform effort, McCain told his aide Mark Salter to "brush him back." Salter sent an over-the-top vituperative letter to Obama. "I guess I beaned him instead," Salter told Newsweek's Howard Fineman.

Excuse me, but how does Dowd know that Obama "took back a private promise to join McCain's campaign finance reform effort?" Obviously, that's McCain's story and obviously she's been talking to his campaign. But why are we expected to believe that version? Did Dowd call Obama and find out if he thinks he "took back a private promise?" A thousand bucks says he's got something else to say about it and Dowd simply let herself be played by McCain's people.

Oh, and this is funny. She writes next: "McCain could dismiss W. as a lightweight, but he knows Obama's smart. Obama wrote his own books, while McCain's were written by Salter."

I once sent Dowd an email when she referred to a book George W. Bush "wrote" when I knew she knew that Karen Hughes had written the book. Bush probably had never even read it. She wrote me back but complained that it was odd anyone would think she was not tough enough on George W. Bush. I didn't bother trying to explain that that wasn't the point.

The truth was.

I see The New Republic's admitted compulsive liar, James Kirchick, is still being published in the magazine, here, despite routinely making things up and being (finally) found out about it. I don't read Kirchick unless I'm the person he's slandering, but based on my own experience with the guy, I'd guess that this Joe Szlavik fellow probably has a more reliable version of the story, whatever-the-hell-it-is.

When I ask people to give me the name of a decent conservative columnist from whom I might learn and whom I might respect I often hear the name Ramesh Ponnuru. When Time picked him to replace Bill Kristol, I thought it a sensible choice. Perhaps, but look at this nonsense. He writes:

Why are the media so smitten with Obama? Journalists have an affinity for the Democratic nominee in part because he is a wordsmith and they make a living manipulating words and symbols, so they have a special appreciation for his gifts. But another part of the reason is, yes, plain old liberal bias.

[...]

At this point, denying that the press has a liberal tilt, particularly on social issues, is like denying that the universities have one. Surveys of reporters show that they have more liberal views than the public; surveys of the public show that readers and viewers pick up on it.

In fact, this is complete crap. Ponnuru is apparently unaware of the recent study by the conservative Robert Lichter at the arguably conservative George Mason University that demonstrates that the vast amount of coverage Obama has received has been negative. (Saddam Hussein got a lot of coverage as well.) As to the rest of it, well, I could take it apart point by point, study by study, example by example, but this is just a blog. Here is a section from Why We're Liberals:

The right-wing advantage has grown so enormous in opinion-oriented public discourse that it has become all but impossible to ignore, even by those who benefit most from it. In the past, it was the rare conservative who was willing to admit the depth of the stranglehold. While researching my 2003 book What Liberal Media? I discovered the following admissions.

Rich Bond, former chair of the Republican Party: "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media]. . . . If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one." James Baker, who ran George H. W. Bush's second presidential campaign, among many other Republican and Bush family projects: "There were days and times and events we might have had some complaints [but] on balance I don't think we had anything to complain about." Pat Buchanan, among the most conservative pundits and presidential candidates in the history of the republic, finding that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies: "I've gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage -- all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the 'liberal media,' but every Republican on earth does that." And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/ neoconservative publicist in America today, has come clean on this issue. "I admit it," he told a reporter. "The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."

Back then, one had to be an unusually honest, or perhaps perspicacious, conservative to acknowledge that whatever advantage liberals may once have had when issues were debated had evaporated long ago. The evidence is so strong that even the compulsively dishonest Ann Coulter admits, "We have the media now." Bill O'Reilly, who has proven himself capable of believing almost anything, including, according to one report he did in June 2007, the existence of a "national underground network" of pink-pistol-packing lesbians roaming "all across the country," raping girls, attacking guys, and forcing ten-year-olds to become gay, warns, "Don't believe the right-wing ideologues when they tell you the left still controls the media agenda. It does not any longer. It's a fact." The conservative analyst Bruce Bartlett admits in National Review Online that "the idea the media now tilt toward liberals is absurd." The Weekly Standard's Matt Labash, meanwhile, avers just how much fun it was to play the game while it lasted. "We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be unobjective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it, too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it."

George Zornick writes: Rick Perlstein has reposted a prescient 2007 essay he wrote at TNR.com, in which he essentially predicted the course of the 2008 presidential campaign:

Faggot. Nigger. Bitch. Please excuse the blunt language. From here forward, to avoid the ugly words, I'll refer to it as "FNB politics." With little to show the electorate in 2008 -- after six years of uninterrupted control -- besides sub-standard care from a privatized workforce at Walter Reed Hospital, thrice-married "family values" presidential candidates, and a boom in home foreclosures, the conservative base's 2008 strategy has begun to emerge: Weaken the major Democratic opponents by making their image unpalatable to the public.

Indeed, throughout this prolonged campaign season, we have indeed seen FNB politics at play. The key is that the attacks cannot be made only by right-wing operatives -- they need the press to accept the Right's plausible deniability in leveling FNB attacks, and amplify the charges.

So there was the feminizing of John Edwards -- Ann Coulter was the only one to say it out loud, but the right-wing obsession with the hair-fixing video, ably abetted by excessive press accounts of his expensive salon choices, had an unmistakable undertone. The misogynistic attacks on Hillary Clinton by the right-wing and again amplified by the press, from this election season all the way back to '92, don't even need re-statement.

And then of course, the current racialized attacks on Barack Obama -- labeling him "presumptuous," mocking him as the "Messiah," or campaign ads intercutting phallic imagery, Obama, and two young, white sex symbols. (A little feminizing has been thrown in too, aided by the press - take Maureen Dowd's columns on Obama, or this headline from Mark Halperin's The Page yesterday - on a day when Obama unleashed some of his toughest attacks on McCain to date, Halperin's headline read: "Obama Slaps Back on Tire Gauges.")

The cunning of this strategy, of course, is that it's very difficult to publicly expose. What, headline writers are never to use the word "slap" when referring to Obama, or show him with any white female? That's crazy. As Perlstein writes, "NB politics [can] be tricky to write about, and to pin down, because it relies on surfacing deep-seated anxieties and archetypes that, when revealed to the light of day, appear ridiculous."

I would note, though, that the press has no problem fishing for and exposing dog whistles when the party allegedly issuing them doesn't have the immediate historical baggage of being racist or misogynistic. (Maybe that's why it's easier for them.) Take, for example, some of Obama's comments during the Democratic primary. When he said, "You challenge the status quo and suddenly the claws come out," Jake Tapper wrote a post titled "Is Obama Using Sexist Language?" and asking "The CLAWS come out? Really?" Tapper, along with several other mainstream outlets, also challenged this statement from Obama: "I understand that Senator Clinton, periodically when she's feeling down, launches attacks as a way of trying to boost her appeal." Tapper again flagged a comment from Obama saying that Clinton was throwing "the china" at me.

And, while admittedly age-ism certainly doesn't carry the same baggage as attacks on race or gender, few had a problem finding age-based attacks in some comments by Obama. On CNN's The Situation Room, shortly after Sen. McCain said that Hamas was rooting for an Obama win, Obama said he found it unfortunate that McCain was, in his opinion, backing away from a pledge not to run a dirty campaign, and said "So for him to toss out comments like that I think is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination. We don't need name-calling in this debate." Now, that seems very plain and benign to me -- Obama was accusing McCain of losing his moral bearings, which is notably much worse than being old -- but McCain's campaign put out an official statement accusing Obama of an attack on McCain's age, which was picked up credibly by many mainstream outlets:

First, let us be clear about the nature of Senator Obama's attack today: He used the words 'losing his bearings' intentionally, a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue. This is typical of the Obama style of campaigning.

We have all become familiar with Senator Obama's new brand of politics. First, you demand civility from your opponent, then you attack him, distort his record and send out surrogates to question his integrity. It is called hypocrisy, and it is the oldest kind of politics there is.

Hmm. Sounds familiar.

Seymour Hersh recently reported that Vice President Dick Cheney and his staffers once discussed having Navy SEALs dress up as Iranian sailors and then attack American ships. Behold the massive press coverage.

From the Society of American Law Teachers:

Domestic criminal investigations, and where appropriate, prosecutions of those responsible for violating federal and international law in authorizing the use of torture in the Post 9/11 "war on terror," are essential to redress the blatant departure from America's commitment to human rights and the rule of law.[1] The abuses in the "war on terror," as devised and implemented by the current administration, have corrupted our government, American civil society, and our reputation among nations. Preemptive pardons, investigations without accountability, and grants of immunity from prosecution will continue to undermine the credibility of the United States. The country and the world deserve a full investigation of the torture players, processes, underlying purported rationales, and full accountability for abuses.

Congressional hearings with grants of immunity or a "truth and reconciliation" process will not adequately assure the people of the United States and the world that this country will recommit itself to respect for human rights and the rule of law, especially in times of uncertainty and danger, real or exaggerated. Criminal prosecutions of those who have violated the law must be pursued.

More here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Merrill R. Frank
Hometown: Jackson Heights, NYC

Dr.: While David Brooks makes valid points about boomers and post-boomers (Technically Sen. Obama is still a boomer since he was born in 1961, The post-war baby boom was from 1946-1964.) who go through a few career changes in their lifetime and are not into joining clubs i.e. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. He points out that Obama has been a sojourner throughout his life and basically rootless.

What came up in my mind when I read this was the term Rootless Cosmopolitan, which refers to the Stalin-era term used to accuse Jewish intellectuals of allegedly lacking patriotism as well as lacking allegiance to the state. Unless Brooks is subtlety trying to impute his patriotism or maybe he is really trying to tell us that Barack is a member of the tribe.

Name: Jordan
Hometown: Seattle

Eric,

No sarcasm in your comments on Brooks' column "brilliant ... no caveats necessary?" An entire column, every word, finely crafted to advance the main Republican campaign theme -- Obama as the "other." Paragraph after paragraph -- "Obama lives apart," "[h]e was in the law school, but not of it," he lived in many places as a child "but was not fully of them," "he was in the Legislature, not of it" (my personal favorite; who wants someone "of" the Legislature, anyway), "[h]e is in the United States Senate, but not of it," and as Brooks himself puts it "and so it goes."

Brooks finally, begrudgingly, states that Obama might, but perhaps not, actually belong somewhere, and that's "the club of smart post-boomer meritocrats." So there you have it -- Obama is "other"; not only doesn't he look like any of the presidents on the dollar bills, he belongs nowhere -- except maybe, just possibly, as a Harvard elitist who "climbed quickly through elite schools and now ascend[s] from job to job."

Quite a hatchet job; Brooks should be paid by the campaign as well as the Times. I think I know the answer to the question being asked by Brooks and the rest of the media: "Why isn't Barack Obama doing better?" It's because once again the media completely whitewash the Republican candidate (note the breathtakingly incredible Hardball exchange you quote) while speaking with one, very loud voice, to savage the Democrat. Gore the serial liar, Kerry the flip-flopper, Obama the other. I have a sinking feeling of deja vu about all this.

Name: Ben Miller
Hometown: Washington, DC

Mr. Alterman,

There is an article in today's Washington Post with the headline, "Obama Urges Opening Up Oil Rerserves." Clinton did this in 2000, and in 2 weeks, gas prices at the pump went down 19%. The McCain campaign, of course, is against such ideas that present solutions in the near future that will help people in this poor economy, and not just the oil companies.

But more importantly, buried at the bottom of the article, are several paragraphs showing McCain's out of touch ideas. The article should really be titled, "McCain has no realistic plan to help reduce gas prices."

First, McCain wants to drill because he thinks it will have "a psychological" benefit for consumers. Does he really believe that people won't mind paying four bucks a gallon because gas companies are drilling in Alaska?

Second, he proposed suspending the 18-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax. This proposal was ignored on Capitol Hill and criticized by economists, who do not believe such action would lead to any lowering of gas prices.

Third, McCain on the campaign trail speaks frequently about electric power. Only problem is energy experts say electric power is not a solution to high gas prices.

And lastly, McCain plans to build 45 nuclear power plants. In addition to the problem of finding 45 sites, even if he pulled it off, any possible benefit would not be gained for decades.

I would say, these ideas from McCain sure show him to be in touch with reality.

Name: Ed Tracey
Hometown: Lebanon, New Hampshire

Professor,

The key in speaking of a recent death of a controversial figure is neither "respect" nor "decency" -- but consistency.

When someone that we dislike dies, many commenters grumble about being "forced" to pay respect; the violins of martyrdom start to play with pizzazz.

Personally, I tend to be silent (or even throw a single flower) to people I disliked. It was measured: it was certainly more easy to be charitable to, say, Tony Snow than Jesse Helms, I'll certainly agree.

Many cannot do so, and that's fine. Upon the death of Michael Kelly, you aptly stated your disdain while saying (as best I can recall) "but I understand why others love the man."

Still others feel the time to vent is now, and that's also fine. No one (contrary to their imagination) arrests them for saying so. They simply must realize they may well be (horrors) challenged -- instead of only mildly disagreed with -- which they seem to feel is ... well, unacceptable.

Just be consistent.

Name: Max Maxwell
Hometown: Chicago

Enjoyed your appreciation of Philip Roth. I found that "American Pastoral" was intense, heartbreakingly sad and very, very American. So many of his books grab you by the throat and leave you shaken. In one's middle ages, the painful searching of Roth's characters touches more closely than in earlier readings. He is a man among boys, as they used to say. If his name is on it, read it. You could do worse ...

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