Saturday, June 26, 2010

More dispatches from your liberal media

So here's the back story. Dave Weigel "resigned" from the Washington Post yesterday due to a leak of some unflattering comments made by him on a private listserv the day before. For reasons I will lay out later, this pisses me off to no end.

Weigel's column over at WaPo, "Right Now" was an interesting case study into the minds of the current conservative movement going on in America, well, right now. He covered the Tea-Party extensively, and not just by musing on the actions that got play in the larger media, but instead by doing something unheard of these days - journalism - he visited their rallies, conducted interviews with their leaders, and reported on the issues they were currently addressing in their movement. It's been his beat for a while now, I first found him covering this for the Washington Independent, although he has worked for other media outlets such as Reason and USA Today prior to that.

Weigel was part of Ezra Klein's liberal and progressive media listserv - the now defunct Journolist - where it appears he would do the unthinkable act of blowing off steam by bitching about politics. This included bemoaning the fact that Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan could say whatever racist garbage tickled their fancy that day and still be guaranteed prime spots on cable networks like CNN and MSNBC, musing that media would be better off if blogger Matt Drudge lit himself on fire, laughing at the legal troubles of ACORN prankster James O'Keefe, denouncing Sarah Palin as a rat-fucker, or marveling at how large-establishment conservatism could be so successful at re-imaging themselves as a populist movement.

The comments were leaked to Tucker Carlson's conservative news site, The Daily Caller, under the headline "E-mails reveal Post reporter savaging conservatives, rooting for Democrats" and the predictable right-wing hissy-fit ensued. Some critics complained about Weigel's apparent disgust for the subject he was covering, others needed fainting salts over the alleged hostility of Weigel's comments. Others gloated that this just proved what they thought all along, that Weigel was some sort of liberal plant trying to discredit conservatives. And there was the usual hand-wringing over the existence of Journolist itself (the existence of Journolist has long been "proof" for the right wing blogosphere that liberal bias is rampant in the media and that liberals are evil). As a result, Weigel will no longer be working for the Washington Post.

There's the story in a nutshell. But here's what I don't get about the whole debacle.

First, the idea that in order to eradicate bias from reporting, someone should (a) never have an opinion on the subject they are covering and (b) if they do, that opinion must be favorable. I can't honestly believe that some are so naive to not understand that everyone has an opinion, and everyone includes journalists. There are no inner buttons one can push while on assignment that just automatically turns them into monotonous information gathering robots. Even the beat they accept is indicative of their opinions on the subject. I actually have less trust for a reporter that attempts to argue that they do not have an opinion on the subject in order to paint themselves as a more credible source, much like I distrust people that tell others that they are "moderates" or "independents" or adhere to "common sense". I assure you, if this truly is your nature, it will come out not only the opinions you hold, and also how you present (or not) those opinions. You are not merely bestowed with the honor of "objective" merely because you swear it is so. A truly valuable journalist is not one that holds no opinion, but one that can hold that opinion and still produce quality reporting.

Weigel was a good reporter in that sense. The main reason why this Journolist scandal is such a major deal is because for those that were unhappy that he was covering in detail the Tea party movement, it was the only positive "proof" that Weigel's sympathies did not lie with the majority of wingnuttia. You never got that impression from his reporting, because it just didn't exist there. If members of the Tea Party said rationale things, Weigel reported them. If members of the Tea Party said stupid things, Weigel reported them.

As for Weigel being unfavorable towards the Tea Party and as such, a bad hire for the Washington Post to cover that beat, I don't really see the problem. Are we really suggesting that no one can cover say, the Phelps clan, unless they have a favorable view of them? One of the major problems I see with journalism today is the often cozy relationship reporters have with the subjects they cover. It's a lot harder to call out your friends then your foes.

Furthermore, Weigel's comments seem to overwhelmingly be directed at media figures and political leaders rather then the Tea Partiers themselves. Last I checked in on conservative dogma, attacking media figures and political figures was a good thing. Apparently this only holds true if they have the audacity to not regurgitate the party line's talking points.

Secondly, can we just drop the whole "OMG people are sometimes mean" shtick that is so prevalent with right wingers? For a group that seems so up in arms about the danger of "PC-Culture", the feelings of right-wingers sure do get hurt a lot. I grow so tired of the "civility" debate in political discourse, not because I don't see the value in discussing things civily, but because the accusation of being uncivil is often used as nothing more then a tool to attack people based on their character rather then for their actual opinions. John Cole at Balloon Juice has an excellent example of this ridiculousness, highlighting a pious lecture from Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic about "standards" in regards to Weigel. Goldberg is best known for not only peddling straight-up false pro-Iraq war propaganda back in the day, but also never correcting himself or apologizing for his own lack of journalistic "standards". Leaving aside the major fact that Weigel's transgressions were meant to be private while Goldberg's were major stories, I think as far as journalistic standards go, I'll take someone that makes a crude joke about Matt Drudge being on fire over someone that publishes propaganda against a nation in hopes that we can then go bomb the shit out of them.

Third, the issue with epistemic closure and conservative tribalism is on full display here. Weigel's a libertarian. That he sometimes doesn't hate liberals enough or says mean things about bat-shit insane movement conservatives doesn't change that. It was probably Weigel's libertarian leanings that led him to this beat in the first place (before being co-opted by the Republican Party, the idea of a Tea Party was a libertarian one). This idea that one can never, ever criticize anything conservative and be anything but a liberal is exactly what is hurting the Republican party right now. It's no surprise that the conservative bloggers that have come to Weigel's defense (instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, pretty much any libertarian blogger) are the same ones that have come under the same fire for failing to sufficiently kiss the feet of their Republican overlords.

Fourth, you know why you only hear about Journolist and not the various right-wing listservs? It's not because Journolist is unique or some sort of hidden left-wing conspiracy. It's because liberals overall don't really give a flying fuck if conservatives are saying mean things on a private listserv. We are well aware that many of them hate us and view us in an unfavorable manner, and that this will probably play out in their private conversations, because you know what? People are human. Yes, we talk a lot of shit when we are in private with our political allies. Kind of like how we talk a lot of shit about co-workers when we are with our work friends, or why we talk a lot of shit about the Yankees when we are in Boston. In these more insular communities we build for ourselves, we get the ability to blow off steam, so that it doesn't leak it's way into public discourse where it may not belong.

That we know this is common behavior is probably why we don't get the damn vapors when we discover that other groups might do this too. Perhaps this speaks to the idea that the actual difference between a liberal and a conservative is the ability to empathize. If you can't possibly fathom the idea that someone would joke around, even crudely, in private and insulated areas, I'd have to wonder if you have contact with people at all. If you honestly can't fathom that someone could present a more civilized case to the public then they can when among their buddies, I'd have to wonder if you were some sort of sociopath that doesn't understand the difference between acceptable and non-acceptable behavior in certain social situations.

At the end of the day, the double-standards, psychological projection, and intentional dishonesty of the whole ordeal whole thing just frustrates me, but it's a consistent pattern that I doubt we can win against in the foreseeable future. What matters is that the WaPo lost an actual reporter in order to appease a bunch of whiners again (and odds are, they will hire some wingnut to replace him, just to show how very not liberal they are). And in the end, all of us will be stupider for it.

Saturday afternoon "Too Humid to Play Outside" links

This is a neat little toy to play around with for a bit. Forbes put together an interactive migration map for the United States, click on a county, and you can see from where people are moving in, where they are moving to, and in what numbers.

Computer Engineer Barbie coming soon to a store near you! I know, it's Barbie. But it's still kind of awesome. It's inevitable that Barbie will continue being a top toy for little girls for some time to come. Might as well throw some positive role models in there. Sure as hell beats "Massive Credit-Card Debt" Barbie. Via Echidne of the Snakes, who touches on the mysterious disappearance of women in the computer science field after the 80s, and the theory that the onslaught of geek culture played a part in this. It's an interesting discussion.

Playing off of a post at World-O-Crap, Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a few design ideas for the "Father's Day" greeting cards targeted at men that are all butt hurt that they couldn't force their female partner to bear their child. Because who doesn't need a cheery "Sorry your bitch emasculated you" card once in a while?

The candidate challenging Harry Reid for his senate seat this year that seems to have a hard-on for using "second-amendment strategies" to enact change in Washington claims that the first thing needed is to "take Harry Reid out". But shut up liberals, she meant taking him out by voting for her. That she said this right after talking about armed revolt against congress is irrelevant to the discussion, because I say so, so just relax. Saying that "If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?" isn't a overt threat, she's just concerned, you see?

Al Franken grows more awesome with each passing day. Here he is discussing feminism over at Feministing. And here he is at the American Constitution Society’s national convention (rightfully) smacking around Republicans over their recent and current attempts to politicize the justice system (in their favor) and why it matters. It's refreshing when representatives actually have a clue what they are talking about, isn't it? More please. (via Balloon Juice)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

You're a jerk for saying I'm a jerk, jerk.

Using such brilliant scientific analysis tools like Facebook, I seem to be noticing an interesting trend in discussions about the BP oil spill.

See, there are jobs at stake here. People's way of life is being destroyed, jobs are at risk of disappearing never to return. Families are stricken with worry about what their future holds now that the BP's deep-water rig has spewed a whole mess of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. We are looking at a catastrophic loss of unemployment during a recession where jobs are already hard to find. And yet, these heartless, callous jerks don't seem to care about America's families. Instead, they only care about their own bottom line.

That's right, people that are pissed off at BP. You are complete assholes for attacking this poor, defenseless company.

Wait, you thought I was talking about effect this spill will have on the gulf coast fishermen? On Louisiana and Florida's tourism industry? Fucking birds? Don't be stupid; Birds don't work. And as for the rest, that's old news, and probably over-sensationalized by the media. I bet they just interview the same fisherman and give him different types of beards to wear. No, what I'm talking about are the vile, heartless environmental pansies cheering on the potential loss of employment of British Petroleum employees and distributors. Their refusal to accept the obligation to support BP at all costs will cause young children to live homeless and starving in the streets. And they don't care, because they hate young children. And puppies.

Yeah, I was a little taken back by this too. I mean, I get it. It's not a toothless argument. And it is cause for concern that some of these smaller, localized distributors are set on course for a pretty bleak road ahead.* What is interesting to me is that an argument against BP has apparently turned into some sort of perverse joy in watching a small business owner in Wisconsin lose everything, as if that were the whole point. That BP has done massive damage to this country, both environmentally and economically, is apparently an insignificant point, a mask to hide one's true goal of destroying the working man.

But this only works if you are of the opinion that jobs always outweigh concerns over a company's harmful behavior. If you are of the opinion that the public should never hold business to any sort of ethical standard, that's one thing. But that idea seems a bit ludicrous to me. I doubt you'd hear anyone defending GE on these grounds if they were found to use child labor ("Sure, it makes me uncomfortable that little Suzie may be blind now due to exploding glass ripping out her eyes, but if we don't buy their light bulbs anymore GE employees might become unemployed!"). If a company enjoyed discriminating against women or blacks, or frying up kittens for lunch breaks, or allowing business travelers to pick a free sexual slave to accompany them on business trips, would we still argue that it is unethical and callous to boycott them because doing so would put so many people out of work? Probably not. Yet with BP, this is not only an argument in support, it's meant to be an argument that shuts down all valid criticism of their practices, no matter how smarmy they may be.

But those that are upset with BP should continue to do so. It's not unreasonable to think it would be just if BP did not come out of this disaster alive (indeed, smaller companies have folded for less blatant offenses). It's a matter of values, and this is yet another example of environmentalism being cast off as trivial and unimportant, a newly minted liberal-academic non-issue in order to give meaning to an otherwise empty and lazy life. So sure, it may be that you don't see this spill as a large deal. But others apparently do, and they act accordingly with their own values. And that is the actual difference between your opinions, not that one wants to hurt families and the other does not. So to attempt to guilt those that disagree with that opinion as if they are callous or uncaring then yourself because they are holding BP to an ethical standard that matters to them can only be described as hypocritical.

It is clever though. People were pretty sad hearing all those stories about gulf fishermen who've had their way of life utterly destroyed, so it makes sense for BP supporters to play on that sentiment and try to flip it like the people upset about that destruction are the real jerks in this scenario, because what about the BP employees, huh?

It's like the adult version of "No Backsies".

* Of course, that sometimes the invisible hand of the free market tends to bitchslap folks sometimes is no reason to support failing companies. Anyone familiar with the oil industry knows that accidents like spills happen, as they have happened in the past, so will they happen in the future. The only mystery here really was when it would happen. So I can't really buy into the idea that they were unaware victims that were just gobsmacked that an oil spill happened (again), or that the public's perception of it would be negative and harm their own business (as it has to other companies in the past). They couldn't possibly be unaware that these sorts of risks existed. If they are not willing to deal with that risk, I'd question why they were in that sort of industry in the first place.

Our dependence on oil has been under fire for a while now. Alternative forms of energy poll favorably with the public, it is really only the lasting influence of the powerful oil lobby that keeps this dinosaur alive. And eventually, it will die. And will the jobs that come with it. But is that a reason to slow progress? It's like arguing that we never should have made innovations with the automobile because it was unfair to buggy makers. If BP falls, others will be there to take it's place, and the jobs will come back. Likewise, if big oil falls, others will be there to take it's place with new technologies, and the jobs will come back.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Helen Thomas

So this whole Helen Thomas ordeal is getting me pretty down.

Don't know who Helen Thomas is? You should. She's been a thorn in the sides of presidential administrations since the Eisenhower administration. And a complete asshole to every white house press secretary for over 50 years.

She's an amazing inspiration to women in the journalism field, being the first woman to cover the commander in chief and his policies during a time when female reporters were supposed to be content with covering the newest curtains the first lady put up in the White House. She crashed through that glass ceiling with a vengeance, and this is always what I thought her legacy should be.

But it's not just the steps she took for women, it's the type of reporter that she is. I'm fairly young when it comes to the politics game, pretty much coming of age during the Clinton administration. And in respect to the media, when you think Clinton, you think cigars, meanings of "is", and blue dresses. You think pant-suits, sham marriages, and Vince Foster. So I'm used to a certain type of journalism, one that must keep us entertained rather then keeping us informed. I'm used to stupid questions about what type of alcohol our politicians prefer, what is on their Ipod and whether or not they were sufficiently sad or angry at some event. I'm used to major news stories revolving around character and insider speculation rather then policy and investigation; all justified with the notion that sensationalism, and not facts, is what the public really wants (although that rationalization is not holding up as much as the media wishes it were).

Thomas really had no time for this sort of bullshit. She relished in making the press secretaries uncomfortable with her pointed questions (she managed to make president Gerald Ford run, literally run, away from a question regarding Vietnam. Of course, she gave chase). Yes, she had an agenda to her questioning. But it was never one of sucking up to whomever was in power at the time. And in an era of "Joe Biden's wacky water fun world" circle jerking events to sucker the media into providing favorable, fluffy coverage of our political leaders (which they fell hook, line and sinker for), it's important that the agitators have some sort of standing in our mainstream media spectacle, that there's at least one curmudgeon, one cynic, that refuses to put aside the daily briefings in favor of getting ol' Joe with a super-soaker.

Helen Thomas was often cited as having a rocky relationship with our political figures and a major nuisance; unheard of in a day where Sarah Palin is invited on Saturday Night Live despite shunning the news portion of that network, and John McCain is offered cupcakes during an interview about his presidential candidacy. No, the media cannot be hostile towards the politicians it is covering, as it can lead to decreased access to them, but what they seem to forget is that it's not in the best interest of the politicians be hostile to them either, in such a high-information society as ours a shunning by the media can be a death sentence for a candidacy. And somewhere down the line merely demanding accountability became hostile, when it should be the standard of which the media is held by. When the media refuses to do this, and finds that asking, say, the Bush Administration to back up their justifications for war is seen as impolite, even tawdry, well, we know where that gets us, don't we?

In the sea of villagers scrambling for a crumb of appreciation from their office-holding betters , Thomas didn't seem as desperately hungry. She isn't afraid of making enemies, if the cause was just enough to do so. She believes that respect is earned through the quality of the journalism put out, not in how many political figures make it to her birthday party or how many hits she got on her blog. She was always there, pounding away at the facades that the White House blankets themselves in, never offering them shelter from critique through humor or familiarity (those cupcakes never really paid off the way Obama expected them to). All this is why I appreciated Helen Thomas. To put it simply: She is a complete bad-ass. And I see her as the last of a rapidly dying breed in our modern media. In terms of what she brought to the table, she will be missed in that White House press room.

So, my thoughts on Thomas' legacy aside, let's get to the ugly stuff, what will be, in the end, her legacy. Helen Thomas said a bad thing. In a recorded casual interview, when inquired about Israel, she stated that the Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine", and opined that Jewish settlers of Israel should just "go home". To Germany, Poland, even America, they should "go home".

I can't really defend the line. It's crass in it's over-simplicity of the situation. I've always stayed out of discussions about Israel. The history is above my level of understanding, the emotion behind it intimidates me, plus I've never been fond of entering into a debate about a subject I have no solution for. With Israel and Palestine, I have no solution. I don't know what the hell they are supposed to do. But with that said, I get tired of the notion that Palestine lacks a legitimate grievance. To anyone looking at the situation rationally, it's obvious that they do have one.

So it's rather amusing to listen to commentary coming out of the American right about this, being that they so heavily base their platform on nationalistic rhetoric. And it's not just a national pride, we are so fucking prideful that we identify ourselves by state (Minnesota kicks all your asses). So hey, Texas, you now this whole "illegal immigrant" thing we got going on? The whole "citizens by birthright" aspect guaranteed to us by the constitution? A lot of Americans have a problem with children of immigrants being citizens of the United States. How about we carve up Texas and create a settlement of sorts, where these people can go to have some sort of sovereignty and state? Yeah, let's try that, and see what happens. It wouldn't. Yet these are the same people that vilify those that argue against the existence of Israel, which is essentially the same thing - land was taken by the global community and given away without the consent of it's inhabitants. And we really want to claim they don't have a right to be a bit peeved at that idea?

And with that as an opening, I have to say I can't help but be bothered by those rising up in Israel's defense. Yes, it's an asshole thing for Thomas to say, but I've become accustomed to asshole sayings from media figures. And let's be realistic: if Thomas would have switched out her ire and replaced "Israel" with "Palestine", or attacked Islam in an even more explicit manner, she'd be awarded with a prime spot on Fox News (although she's not young and blonde, so maybe not). Or even one of the other networks, I don't recall the full on freak-out when old man Buchanan lamented the fact that Elena Kagan (Obama's recent Supreme Court nominee) nomination means yet another Jewish person on the Supreme Court. He's still a regular on MSNBC because hey, it's Pat Buchanan. He says some fucked up bigoted shit sometimes, but hey, he's just crazy old grandpa Pat, so it's almost endearing, right? (No, no it's not). But it sits funny with me because a lot of this "pro-Israel" argument coming from the American right has it's basis in two factors - one, you have the "end-timers", the ones that believe we need to protect the Holy Land because that is where Armageddon will strike first (is it any wonder they applaud over-excesses against Islamic countries?). Second, and as a majority, you have the "enemy of my enemy" crowd. I assure you that most of these people care fuck all about the rights of Israelis. But by god, they sure as hell hate Muslims. So you'll have to forgive me if I find their cries of anti-Semitism to ring a bit hollow. I just don't believe that tolerance is their underlying goal here.

Maybe I'm American-centric, but it's interesting; the first thing that struck me about Thomas' comment wasn't this over-hyped view that she wants to send Jewish people back to the oven, or anything like that (being that the recording was made for Jewish journalism students, I kind of throw doubt on the whole "Thomas is anti-Semitic" line of argument). It was how nationalist it sounded (Thomas proudly flaunts her Lebanese heritage, and as we know, Israel and Libya have clashed in the past), and it annoyed me much in the same manner that American nationalism annoyed me. I always cringe when the proposed solution to racial profiling of people of Arab decent, or requirements of people of Hispanic origins to carry papers on them at all times are met with this idea: Love it or leave it. If you don't like it, this is America, goddammit, and you can just get the hell out. With Thomas, it was the same feeling, sure Jewish people of Israel, you might have problems, but maybe if you want to be whiny about it you should just get the hell out of Israel. Statements of such, as dickish as they may be, might feel good to get off one's chest. But they yield no worth in the actual issue at hand. They just piss people off. So not only was Thomas' comment offensive and hurtful, it was useless.

That other people do it doesn't make Thomas in the right. I know this. And I realize that some will try to paint this as white-washing her comments, because obviously, I'm favorable to her. But as I admit my bias, understand that this isn't my full intention here, and this is not a mutually exclusive situation. I can, at the same time, condemn Thomas' offensive simplicity while condemning the hypocritical reaction to her. much like I can, at the same time, affirm the right for Israel to exist while condemning some of their policies, and the reaction of the United States to issues related to them. And maybe that's what it is with discussions of this sort, they tend to be so black and white that the response becomes absurd.

And lastly, I can't help but question the timing of this whole debacle. Funny how although this was older footage, captured almost a month ago, it only comes out now, during a major foreign relations snafu courtesy of Israel. It doesn't really matter how pro-Israel one is, it's hard to find the right PR to defend an all-out over-reaction and slaughter of pro-Palestinian activists, who had the audacity to smuggle food and health supplies, along with concrete (concrete!) past state-enforced sanctions. It put the US in a tough position. Everyone knows that this was a large-scale mistake by Israel. But the US has never been allowed to take a stance against acts of the sort, because it's Israel. To their credit, the White House wavered a bit until finally and grudgingly admitting that maybe international investigations are in order. An awkward situation all around. But happily for them, we aren't talking about the attack on the flotilla anymore, are we? And as cynical as I am, I can't shake the feeling that may have been the point.

Sadly, it would only be a reporter like Helen Thomas that would have the gumption to ask if that were so.