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PUBLIC IN WONDERLAND! Our biggest newspapers won’t do their jobs. Our liberals are often in Wonderland: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 1, 2011

A drive continues/a short postponement: Our second non-annual fund-raising drive continues, but we’ll make a minor postponement. Today, we were going to post an excerpt from chapter 6, the upcoming chapter at How He Got There. We’re going to put that off till next week because of what Digby said.

Why have liberals failed to tell the history of the Clinton/Gore years? Why does our gruesome journalistic culture exist? We think some of the answers to such questions come clear in the item below. For that reason, we’ll postpone the excerpt from chapter 6 until another occasion.

Over at that companion site, we’re telling some basic American history. People who work at the Washington Post will never tell you this basic history because it involves the Post. Some day, a new generation of Americans may be ready to learn from this history—and to act on what they have learned. They may be ready to start fighting back, without asking if that would hurt their job prospects.

Career liberals aren’t ready to do that today, for reasons we outline below. But if you want to contribute to this history project, you know what to do: Just click here.

The high price of work at the Washington Post: Should Mark Halperin have called Barack Obama “kind of a dick?” No, he shouldn’t have done that. To watch the full segment on Morning Joe, click here. (The full conversation is fairly intelligent.) For the Times news report, just click this.

Halperin shouldn’t have done that. Nor do we know why he thought it would matter if he said his naughty word on tape delay, with the very bad word bleeped out. Duh. People would have wondered what word he said! Inquiring minds would have figured it out.

Halperin may have had a motive for this strange act. Or then again, maybe not.

For our money, it’s a bad sign that Halperin uncorked his slur, angered by Obama’s vile behavior at Wednesday’s press conference. That said, we don’t really agree with this post by Greg Sargent, which Digby applauded (click this). In our view, Sargent’s analysis tended to mix apples with an unnamed sour fruit—a sour fruit which is in part the result of decades of liberal inaction.

We think liberals need to grasp the history here. Here’s the part of Sargent’s piece which Digby quoted:

SARGENT (6/30/11): I’m sorry, but this is crazy. Halperin’s crack was crude and dumb, but it doesn’t deserve indefinite suspension. Halperin’s use of an expletive is trival when compared with the degradation of our political discourse we witness on a regular basis from Halperin and many others—degradation that is seen as perfectly acceptable because no curse words are employed. Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of “civility” in our discourse, in which it’s unacceptable to use foul language and be “uncivil,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.

I care less about Halperin’s use of the word “dick” than I do about the argument he and Joe Scarborough were making—that Obama somehow stepped over some kind of line in aggressively calling out the GOP for refusing to allow any revenues in a debt ceiling deal. This notion that Obama’s tone was somehow over the top—when politics is supposed to be a rough clash of visions—is rooted in a deeply ingrained set of unwritten rules about what does and doesn’t constitute acceptable political discourse that really deserve more scrutiny. This set of rules has it that it should be treated as a matter of polite, legitimate disagreement when Michele Bachmann says deeply insane things about us not needing to raise the debt limit, but it should be seen as an enormously newsworthy gaffe when she commits a relatively minor error about regional trivia.

We agree with what Sargent said about Bachmann—but it was liberal journals and liberal writers who laughed and clucked and partied this week about her latest trivial error. But we think Sargent is mixing apples with other fruit in his earlier passages.

Serious adults don’t go on TV and call other people “dicks.” Everyone has always agreed on this point; along with a hundred other points of agreement, this represents a matter of basic civility. You may think this sort of civility doesn’t matter—until you see what a culture is like when such agreements completely break down. We’re well on our way to that place, of course. But in fact, the agreement to share a general civility isn’t trivial at all.

Halperin’s “crack” doesn’t deserve indefinite suspension? We can’t imagine why not.

Sargent feels that other problems in the discourse are more important than this one. That may be true, but who has allowed those other problems to flourish?

Let’s focus on one point of complaint. In Sargent’s view, name-calling is less important than the convention in which “it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted.” He may be perfectly right about that, but who has helped create the world in which “outright falsehoods pass unrebutted” as a normal part of press culture?

Next week, we’ll post a chunk from chapter 6 of our companion site, How He Got There. At that site, we are writing the history of the press corps’ coverage of Campaign 2000—the campaign which sent George Bush to the White House. Guess what? The press corps’ behavior during that two-year campaign established the culture in which “outright falsehoods pass unrebutted”—as long as such outright falsehoods were aimed at the Clintons or Gore.

In that sense, this campaign extended the broken journalistic culture described by Gene Lyons in Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater. The broken culture Greg describes was largely invented during the Clinton/Gore years.

From that day to this, the career liberal world has worked very hard to keep these matters under wraps. We’ve explained the apparent motives for this ridiculous liberal conduct many times in the past. For today, let’s consider something Digby said in praise of Sargent’s post.

Digby largely agreed with Sargent’s view; there’s nothing wrong with that. But note the amazing comment she offered about Greg’s courage:

DIGBY: Read the whole thing. Sargent discusses Halperin's personal part in creating this ridiculous system and admits that it's poetic justice that he would be caught up in it. But keep in mind that among Halperin's fellow Villagers, calling President Obama a "dick" will be considered an act of macho rebellion—and that being suspended in the middle of the summer is unlikely to be a hardship for a millionaire.

It's a brave piece for a Washington Post writer to write. Bravo.

Most likely, Halperin’s stock will rise because of his stupid conduct. But you ought to retch when you see Digby praising Sargent for his brave conduct.

“Bravo,” she wrote. What a tool!

We agree that Greg is slightly off the reservation in this post. (Though only slightly.) But here’s our question: Did someone take a gun to Greg’s head and make him work for the Post? In the spring of 2008, Sargent was one of the very best liberal writers out there. He was doing unusually good work at TPM, and he was working a very unusual beat. On a daily basis, he was critiquing the mainstream press corps—and doing it very well! This is something that very few career liberal writers do.

Mysteriously, this project stopped dead in April 2008, complete with weird explanations (see link above). Later, Greg signed with the Post.

It’s as we’ve told you again and again. Again and again, the liberal world has failed to create an aggressive liberal journalism because liberal journalistic careers run through the Washington Post! (And through the New York Times. And through MSNBC.) The children constantly shut their traps to earn themselves those coveted posts—the posts that may eventually make them well-off, even wealthy, and famous. We have no idea why Sargent changed his tune in the spring of 2008—why he suddenly stopped discussing the mainstream press corps. But he was a standout before he did. Now, in his work at the Washington Post, he’s just another near-liberal.

For whatever reason, another liberal voice got stilled. Incredibly, Digby praises him for the fact that he has managed to pipe up this once!

Good God, but that’s pathetic! But this is the way the career liberal world keeps creating and enabling the broken journalistic world against which Greg correctly rails. Let’s review:

Joan has tricked herself out for Chris. Digby tricks herself out for Joan. The smart ones angle for jobs at the Post. If they ever say anything mildly aggressive, we praise them for their courage!

Could this get any dumber? How about more corrupt?

Greg is right—a gruesome journalistic culture exists in which all kinds of madness are the norm. But why does that culture exist? Why does a culture exist in which it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted? Why was it OK, all through the Clinton/Gore years, to talk all kinds of smack about them? Why did so few career liberals speak up? Why do so few career liberals ever discuss that era even today? Why does the history of that era remained untold?

Why do so many voters still think that the mainstream press corps always luvvs the Democrat? Why does the debate get skewed by this widespread, absurd belief?

We’ve explained this again and again and again. Digby, who simply hates The Village, thinks it’s “brave” when a Post writer dares to spout off just once.

We don’t mean this as a criticism of Sargent. But he was doing great work at one time—and he isn’t doing great work today. Digby told you why that is. Once you work for the Washington Post, there are things you aren’t going to say.

Liberal careers run through the Post. Look around yourselves. Measure the cost.

Special report: No need to know!

PART 4—PUBLIC IN WONDERLAND (permalink): You live inside a Potemkin press culture.

Even with the day’s most crucial issues, your biggest newspapers mainly pretend to explain what is happening. These papers exist to give the impression that public discussion exists.

Consider this worthwhile editorial in Wednesday morning’s New York Times. In it, the editors discussed the ongoing debt limit fight.

What made this editorial stand out? Omigod! It included some very basic facts about a critical issue! The logic was weak in the following paragraph. But it included key facts:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/29/11): Nor will a spending-cuts-only approach fix the deficit. If the Bush tax cuts are extended beyond their expiration at the end of 2012, lost revenue from the cuts—plus related interest costs—would account for 45 percent of the projected $11.2 trillion in deficits in this decade.

Really? Almost half of the coming decade’s projected deficits would be caused by the Bush tax rates? You still might be able to “fix the deficit” with “a spending-cuts-only approach.” But surely, a well-informed citizen should be aware of that fact.

The editors had offered a fact—a fact which tends to cut against the Republican stance. As they continued, they offered several more facts. Despite the way the editors framed it, these facts make both parties look bad:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): The Republicans’ fierce opposition is even more absurd when you consider the relatively modest tax increases proposed by Democrats.

Ending unnecessary subsides for oil companies would raise $40 billion over 10 years, while a tax accounting change that would also apply mainly to oil companies could raise $72 billion over five years. Getting rid of a tax break for corporate jets would raise about $3 billion. Closing a loophole that allows private-equity money managers to pay tax at about the lowest rate in the tax code would raise about $20 billion over 10 years.

The Democrats’ most ambitious proposal would limit the value of various write-offs for taxpayers making more than $500,000. That could possibly save upwards of $100 billion over a decade. Those are all workable ideas, but they do not add up to much in the context of a deal that is aiming for $2 trillion to $4 trillion in deficit reduction.

The editors understate the absurdity here. At his Wednesday press conference, Obama focused on a proposal concerning corporate jets. As the editors note, this proposal would raise $3 billion over ten years—but the federal deficit for this year alone is roughly five hundred times that large! Absent some wider explanation, we’re watching Obama in Wonderland when such proposals are hotly advanced. But then, the same can be said of that proposal concerning “unnecessary subsides for oil companies.” (Until now, it has routinely been said that the Democratic proposal in this area would being in $21 billion over the next ten years—roughly $2 billion per year.)

If you have any sense of numbers, Obama almost seems to be making Potemkin proposals. Is anything real any more?

Why do we cite that editorial? Only to ask a basic question: Why aren’t these basic facts being limned on the Times’ front page? We’ve commented on this phenomenon before. How weird is it when a reader must hunt through this newspapers’ editorials hoping to gain the rare random facts?

Why aren’t these basic, critical facts being widely explored on page one?

We don’t know how to answer that question, but those front-page explorations simply haven’t occurred. As a society, we drift along in a state of cluelessness even concerning these critical budget issues. Potential disaster looms in the next few weeks; even that can’t persuade our Potemkin newspapers to publish thoughtful front-page serials exploring these basic issues.

Do you read the New York Times? If so, just consider a few of the things you haven’t seen on its front page:

That widely-posted graphic: Do we have “a spending problem, not a revenue problem?” That’s what the GOP constantly says. In rebuttal, on-line liberals have often displayed an informative graphic—a graphic which show how much of our current and future deficits stem from several different factors, including the Bush tax cuts.

Let’s take a guess: Due to the disorganization of the liberal world, you probably don’t know just where to go to see this informative graphic. Helpfully, we’ll offer this link; it takes you to a recent post by Jared Bernstein. Looking at the graphic there, you will see that the economic downturn accounts for a pretty good chunk of the coming decade’s projected deficits. But you’ll see that the Bush tax rates account for a good deal more.

Questions: Have you ever seen that graphic on page one of the New York Times? Have you ever seen that graphic given any display in that paper? Have you ever seen the facts which lie behind that graphic discussed in detail on this paper’s front page? Or do you have to lurk on the editorial page, hoping the editors will drop some factual crumbs into one of their editorials?

Can we even pretend to have real political discourse when our biggest newspapers refuse to explore such matters?

The Clinton tax rates: If you read certain liberal sites, you may have read about what would happen if we returned to the Clinton tax rates—the tax rates under which this country labored just ten years ago. Due to the haplessness of the liberal world, you may not know just where to go to read these informative discussions; we’ll suggest that you flounder around in the archives of Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein. For ourselves, we’re not saying that it would be a good idea to return to the Clinton rates; in part, we’re not sure what our views might be because we’ve seen so little discussion of this proposal. But let’s just say this: Given standard projections, our debt crisis instantly disappears if we return to those tax rates. (This doesn’t mean that future budgets balance. It means that, judged by traditional standards, future deficits and debt become manageable.)

Questions: Have you ever seen this matter discussed in the New York Times? Is a citizen even halfway well-informed if he hasn’t seen this topic discussed? How many Times subscribers even know that a discussion this topic has been denied them?

The history of American tax rates: In the first two parts of this series, we cited a few recent statements about the current state of income and taxation. For example, conservative economist Bruce Bartlett noted that average federal tax rates are “lower for most taxpayers than they have been since the 1960s.”

What are the facts about current tax rates at different points on the income scale? What sorts of taxes are people paying as compared to historical norms? Facts like these can’t settle the question of what our tax rates should be in the future; if people paid higher tax rates in the past, that doesn’t mean they should pay them now. But have you ever seen Times explore these topics on its front page? Have you seen the Times do a front-page series about the changes in income at various points on the income scale? About the taxes being paid at such points?

Granted, you will occasionally see the random fact float through an editorial—or even appear in a news report. But have you ever seen the Times lay out these topics in a full-blown serial discussion out where people will see it?

In fact, our big newspapers don’t do such things; such conduct is strictly verboten. In 2009, our country pretended to spend the year conducting a major health care debate. As we noted again and again, our biggest news orgs refused to report on a basic topic: the massively higher per-person costs of health care in this country. Why do we spend two to three times as much per person as comparable developed nations? Go ahead! Spend your weekend googling around, trying to find the reports in which the New York Times or the Washington Post or NPR or PBS discussed this obvious topic.

Sorry, it didn’t happen—not then and not now.

Every liberal can construct her own take about why our newspapers function like this—about why you haven’t seen anyone discuss the sheer lunacy of the Pawlenty budget plan. About why you haven’t seen these news orgs discuss the ideas in the House progressives’ budget proposal. For ourselves, we’re advancing a simpler set of facts: We live inside a Potemkin press world. Our newspapers exist to give the illusion that public discourse still occurs. In fact, these newspapers rarely discuss our most basic issues. Nothing can make them engage in such conduct in a systematic, full-blown way.

Our mainstream press organs don’t cover the news. Subscribers to our biggest newspaper have almost no chance to be well-informed. Then too, consider the work of the corporate world’s “liberal” press. Specifically, consider a report by Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night—a report by Rachel in Wonderland.

Maddow opened her show with a long, stupendously clueless report in praise of Obama’s press conference. At the presser, Obama had returned, again and again, to that proposal about corporate jets—a proposal so small in dollar terms that it’s less than a drop in the bucket, as the New York Times editors noted. Who knows? There may be some brilliant hidden strategy here, as Obama struggles and strains for something less than a drop in the bucket. But Rachel in Wonderland didn’t bother to wonder or ask.

To her, Obama’s work had been brilliant that day—and The Other Tribe was a big bunch of hypocrites! Of course, liberal viewers always get that warm-milk bedtime tale on Maddow’s program. But what follows is just embarrassing, especially if you watch the tape to see the shrieking, chuckling way this ludicrous darling delivered it:

MADDOW (6/29/11): The most presidential thing a president can do, absent major news, is to exercise his prerogative to make his own news just by virtue of the fact that he is president. The formal presidential news conference, President Obama did one of those today—the first one in a long time.

But as he did that today, underscoring his biggest advantage over all the candidates who are looking to replace now, the president also himself started to look a little bit again like a candidate today, defining territory that he sees as the divide between Democrats and Republicans.


This press conference today, saying essentially, “OK, Republicans defend this. I dare you. Defend corporate tax loopholes. Go ahead. Tell the American people you are for giant corporations dodging their taxes. That’s going to go over great.”

Response from the Republicans so far? Well, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office issued this statement today. Quote, "Despite the lecture from the president today, the House will not agree to a debt limit increase that raises taxes. This argument is not about this loophole or that loophole. It’s about raising taxes in a lagging economy when we should be focused on growth and getting people back to work."

“Also, I’d point out for your guidance,” the statement says, “that the corporate jet loophole that he was talking about only amounts to about $2 billion.”

I should note that there is no evidence to suggest that Eric Cantor’s office was actively swirling its mustache at the time they issued the statement. But seriously, that loophole only saves us $2 billion. It’s only $2 billion!

Actually, it turns out it could be as much as $3 billion! The Wall Street Journal reporting that amendment, a walk-back of sorts to Mr. Cantor’s statements today, from what they described as an industry source and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office.

So what’s $2 billion or $3 billion here or there if you’re the party of fiscal conservatism anyway? Leave taxpayer subsidies for rich guys’ corporate jets alone!

Maddow did the near-impossible here. She actually found a way to quote Cantor making a sensible statement! Cantor’s implication was right on the mark; given the size of the federal deficits, that jet plane proposal is comically small. But Maddow turned the tables on Cantor! Cantor had said the proposal amounts to just two billion dollars. But it may be three billion, she said!

To see real lunacy, click that link and watch her deliver that bombshell.

It’s possible that there is some method to Obama’s current madness—to the fury he has displayed about tiny, Potemkin proposals. It may be that he is paving the way to a no-deal-at-all endgame—that he will simply reject the concept of a debt limit under terms of the Fourteenth Amendment, or that he will demand a short-term fix to the debt limit problem as the larger debate roils on. But Maddow’s presentation this night was sheer madness, except as a form of tribal pimping. She went on to “prove” what she always proves—that people like Cantor are big giant hypocrites. She never told her viewers that Cantor was right—that three billion dollars doesn’t amount to a hill of beans given the size of the problem.

It was embarrassing to see Senator Sherrod Brown come on to discuss this situation with Maddow. She might have asked him sensible questions: Why is Obama proposing so little on the revenue side? Is there some larger strategy here? Is there any chance he will reject the whole “debt limit” concept? Had she asked him questions like that, Brown might have given her decent answers. But instead, Our Own Rhodes Scholar served us warm milk then put us down for the night. She pretended that Obama’s proposal had made perfect sense—that it brilliantly exposed the Cantors for the phonies they are.

Cantor may well be a phony, but Maddow seemed to be living in Wonderland. We don’t know if she and her staff are really that clueless, or if she’s just a big fake too. But the big mainstream papers are wholly Potemkin—and when you turn to Our Own Rhodes Scholar on political topics, you often get nonsense like this.

The New York Times has told its readers next to nothing about this critical topic. But then, neither did Our Own Rhodes Scholar as she soothed the liberal beast and stuffed those big bucks in her pants.

Sherrod Brown seemed embarrassed to be there. Maybe we just dreamed it.