Category Archives: Politics

Death of a newsman

Like everyone else, I too mourn the impending demise of America’s favorite faux-anchor, Stephen Colbert. (Here I refer to the character; the man will, presumably, live on.) Unlike so many others on late-night TV, Colbert is left oddly without a protégé. Even The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart — the closest thing Colbert has to a peer these days — returned from a hiatus last summer only to find his replacement, John Oliver, being popularly crowned as his successor. (Oliver now has a new show on HBO, but he’s still my odds-on favorite to return when Stewart eventually bows out.)

Colbert, meanwhile, occupies a rarified air all his own, a Bill O’Reilly facsimile for all of us who despise the real one. Which leads me to wonder, half-seriously, if that’s what all of the handwringing over his departure is about in the first place.

As I’ve written before, the idea of Stewart and Colbert as Heroic Liberals has always been more myth than reality. There is little evidence to suggest that either of them truly desires a progressive transformation of Stateside democracy: a little tax reform here, a little less voter discrimination there, sure. But one rarely gets the sense that the duo’s comedy informs their activism, rather than the other way around.

Indeed, Stewart’s passion has not aged well. He won early accolades for his righteously indignant takedown of CNN’s Crossfire, a program with a premise so stupid that the hapless network couldn’t resist reviving it late last summer. Then in 2010, The New York Times made the dramatic comparison to Edward Murrow after Stewart successfully advocated (with evident feeling) for healthcare funding on behalf of 9/11 first responders.

But where Stewart’s satire cut viciously in the Bush years, his Obama-era humor has begun to feel almost formulaic. In January 2010, Stewart’s timid interview with torture memo author John Yoo was so universally panned that he apologized for his performance the next night. His later conversation with Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t terribly better (“I feel like we’re on the porch drinking lemonade,” Stewart remarked).

Colbert, on the other hand, didn’t initially enjoy the same reputation for edgy confrontation (although his 2006 speech at the absurd spectacle that is the White House Correspondents Dinner remains a masterpiece of the genre). But where Stewart has occasionally been known to throw a knockout punch or two in person (Jim Cramer springs to mind), Colbert’s victims are largely crucified in absentia. In between, he had his head shaved by a U.S. Army general on a base in Iraq.

Two years ago, Steve Almond took a long look at these two comedians and threw up his hands:

Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.

His frustrations are certainly valid. But more to the point, it seems to me that Almond’s expectations scooted far away from reality. It’s one thing to excoriate the audiences of Stewart and Colbert for their complacency, and quite another to assume that they share Almond’s progressive ideals. For that matter, it seems even less justifiable to assume the two guys peering into our living rooms from behind their news desks four nights a week are all that different from most of the people staring right back at them — that is to say, mainstream urban America.

If Colbert’s upcoming exodus to late-night network TV feels like a betrayal, it’s a curiously one-sided one. It brings to mind my gradual realization, during my mid-teens, that the inveterate hatred I felt for the New York Yankees was not shared by my idols wearing Red Sox uniforms, who routinely exchanged jokes with Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter as they made their away around the infield diamond and, all too often, later donned the pinstripes themselves. Turns out the Sox and Yankees were not nearly the polar opposites I’d always supposed, and that they had more in common with each other as pro ballplayers than either of them had with me. It seems to be taking all of us a little longer to reach the same realization about our comedians.

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Justice Breyer’s Full Answer on Live Audio at SCOTUS Oral Arguments: Still Conservative with a Small “C”

During the question-and-answer portion of Justice Stephen Breyer’s international law lecture at the Brookings Institution yesterday, an audience member from the Coalition for Court Transparency asked the justice about the possibility of live streaming audio from Supreme Court oral arguments. Justice Breyer gave a nearly six-minute reply which reiterated some of the same arguments he has made against live video in the past, but the answer did contain an interesting new tidbit at the end in which he mentions recent audio “experiments” from the D.C. Circuit.

Michelle Olsen of Appellate Daily published a transcription of the last part of this answer yesterday evening. The following is my transcription of the full question and answer, which I have slightly edited for clarity.

Breyer at Brookings

The relevant question starts at the 2:12:00 mark of the Brookings Institution video.

Audience Member: Alright, this is not a hot political question; it’s a hot legal question. My name is Karl, I’m with the Coalition for Court Transparency.

You referenced five areas [where] American judges might do well to consult foreign sources or foreign legal thought. High courts in Canada and the U.K. and many, many other countries have cameras.

I don’t want to know if you support cameras, because I already know where you stand on cameras in the Supreme Court–but there’s a nice lounge at the Supreme Court where Supreme Court bar members are allowed to listen to live audio. Why don’t we allow the live audio to be transmitted outside the building, to everybody else who might not have the money or means to come to Washington, D.C. and wait in line outside in the cold, [so that they can] listen to such audio?

Justice Breyer’s answer to this question begins at the 2:14:08 mark.

Justice Breyer: Now, to give my unsatisfactory answer to [the question] about cameras in the courtroom under the guise of radio, you have to understand that it’s a pretty tough question, and we’re pretty conservative–with a small “c”–when you start talking about our institution. I mean, we don’t know what would happen if we let cameras in the courtroom. And the risks would be–two [risks], and we don’t know what the answer is. Three [risks], actually.

One risk is that people would begin to think that the oral argument–which is about 5% [of what the Supreme Court does], almost all of our material is submitted in writing–they would begin to think that that was what we’re about. The oral argument! That would be misleading, but not deadly.

What might be worse is that people do relate to people. That’s good. You relate more to your family than you relate to your friends, than you relate to people you don’t know, and people you see you relate to more than people you just hear about, and statistics you relate to not at all. OK. That’s the human condition, and I think it’s probably a good one. But the job of an appellate court–and particularly our court, which is about three levels of appellate courts, or two–is to think about how our decision is affecting the 300 million people who aren’t in the courtroom. They’re not there. But they will possibly be affected by our ruling. And people might, well, just look–to the good guy and the bad guy. And that might have an impact on the effectiveness of the Court.

Or, what is the most obvious thing, and you get privately–opposite advice from different members of the press on this one. [Voices perspective of a SCOTUS justice] “It won’t affect us! I mean, we’re grown up, we hope. And there’s the press there anyway, And why will it affect what questions I ask? I have to watch what I say anyway!” Well, apparently, I don’t. But nonetheless, you have to watch it, it’s public and the press is there, so why would this make a difference? To which some members of the press will say, you just wait ’til you see how you react when you ask a question in good faith on A, and then it’s reported on various shows on television and they show a picture of you. You’ll be pretty careful, and maybe you’ll be careful to stop asking. That might be a public benefit, but nonetheless, you see the point. And you say, go see what happens in the Senate or the House, which perhaps has to respond to public opinion.

But the reason you have a court–the reason we decide constitutional questions–if you go back to Alexander Hamilton, is–why? Because this document [takes out pocket copy of Constitution]… it treats exactly the same way the least popular and the most popular person in the United States. That’s what it’s supposed to be. And by the way, he said, we better give the Court the power to review laws–why? Because if we give the President the power to say whatever he does is constitutional or not, he’ll always say it’s constitutional, and he has enough power already.

Why not give the power to Congress?  After all, they’re elected, and many countries have done that. To which Alexander Hamilton says–he doesn’t say it in these words–he says, what happens when the decision is right but unpopular? He says, I’ll tell you about Congress–they are experts in popularity. He says, believe me, they know popularity. But what will they do when it’s unpopular? So let’s take these judges nobody’s ever heard of–they don’t have the power of the purse, they don’t have the power of the sword–fabulous. They’re weak. And give them the authority. And when it’s unpopular–unpopular and important, and by the way, possibly wrong–I mean, I’ve participated on both sides of 5-4 decisions. Not as many as you think–there may be 20% [of decisions that] are 5-4, 50% are unanimous–but somebody’s wrong in these cases. Alright, so–and that is the question I get from the President of the Supreme Court of Ghana, a woman who is trying to further democracy and civil, human rights in Ghana, and from Ouagadougou [in Burkina Faso], and from countries all over–why do people do what you say?

That’s a pretty good question. And it’s taken us–I say, there’s no answer in this document [the Constitution], and Hamilton didn’t answer it, either. He didn’t know. Nobody knew. It’s two hundred years of history. You want people in your country to follow courts and the rule of law–go out to the villages. Don’t just talk to the lawyers. Don’t just talk to the judges. By the way, there are in our country–contrary to popular belief–309 of the 310 million are not lawyers. Alright? And I say, they’re the ones that had to support sending the troops to Little Rock to enforce integration. They’re the ones that have to decide they will follow decisions that they think are really wrong and really unpopular. And that takes time. But that’s part of our job. And who knows? So I say we’re conservative with a small “c.”

And the radio? I mean, the radio–[unintelligible] they tried that in the D.C. Circuit [which has since September 2013 provided same-day audio for its oral arguments], didn’t hurt anything. Could we experiment with that? Maybe. But that’s not right in front of us. So therefore, that’s [my] not answering [the question].

—–

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, most of Justice Breyer’s answer, which focuses on insulating the Court from the misconceptions of the public, retreads his previous statements about cameras in the courtroom. In March 2013, in response to questioning from a House Appropriations subcommittee, Breyer mentioned the Court’s conservatism with a small “c” on the issue, the potential distortion by the press, and the self-censoring effects televised arguments could have on the justices’ questioning. He said then: “I’m not ready yet. I mean, I want to see a little bit more of how all this works in practice. I’d give people the power to experiment. I’d try to get studies–not paid for by the press–of how this is working in California, of how it affects public attitudes about the law. I’d like some real objective studies–I know that’s a bore, but that’s where I am at the moment.”

In January 2014, Justice Breyer told an audience at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars that he suspects it is a matter of when, not if, oral arguments are televised, but worried about the “demonizing and angelizing” of certain members of the Court.

What made yesterday’s answer different (and encouraging for advocates of live streaming) was his begrudging acknowledgment at the end that the D.C. Circuit has adapted its procedures to make oral arguments more accessible to the public, with no harm done to the integrity or the perception of the court. I would not go so far as to call it Breyer’s endorsement of live audio–as Michelle Olsen pointed out, the D.C. Circuit still doesn’t have live audio, only same-day audio, and it’s unclear which of these two practices Justice Breyer’s musings on “experiments” referred to. Given that the Supreme Court currently releases its argument recordings just once a week on Fridays, though, even moving toward same-day audio at One First Street would be a small step in the right direction.

What Do the Changes to the SAT Really Mean?

In college, I took an intro-level microeconomics course with a professor who had taught for a long time at the university. Every few years (even though it seemed like an annual ritual), he would put out a “new edition” of his microeconomics textbook, slap a new cover photo on it, and jack up the price – all while requiring students to buy the newest edition.

So, was this “new edition” really all that new?

Of course not. None of my classmates nor I ever found any major (or even minor) differences between the editions. It was still an overpriced textbook, and requiring the newest edition really only helped boost the professor’s textbook royalties.

Naturally, when the College Board announced “major changes” to the SAT, I thought back to my intro to econ course. How “major” are these changes to the SAT really? Is reverting back to the 1600 scale truly all that new?

The answer to these questions depends on your frame of reference:

Now, we know what most of the media thinks about these latest developments with the SAT:

  • CBS called the announcement “sweeping changes
  • The New York Times called them “major changes” (Note: An updated headline has now removed the phrase “major changes” from the title, but the URL still reflects the original title)
  • NBC News labeled them “big changes
  • The Wall Street Journal said that the College Board “shakes up” the SAT

You get the picture.

In large part due to this deluge of news coverage calling the changes such “big news,” I went on a bit of a Twitter rant to point out that the new developments were not, in fact, all that major. Here are a few highlights:

The truth is: the SAT is a charade. For all the College Board’s talk about “delivering opportunities” and making college more accessible for students, the SAT represents an unnecessary — and useless — barrier on the road to college.

Just last month, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a report that found virtually no difference in college completion rates for students, regardless of whether they submitted SAT scores or not. The study affirmed what previous research had already found: including or not including the SAT (or ACT, for that matter) in college admissions considerations really doesn’t make much of a difference.

So then, why do the SAT and ACT remain such a major part of the college admissions web? There are a couple of factors, but at the root of these is one common denominator — money.

Consider that the test prep industry generates over $1 billion each year (this doesn’t even include the profits from actual testing), and consider that the SAT is better at predicting a student’s socioeconomic background than his or her college success.

So, while the news of this week has focused on the College Board and what it has done to retool the SAT, the deeper issues that impede college access still remain. The true culprits in this equation are the colleges and universities that still feed into the testing frenzy, allowing concerns over institutional prestige and rankings to cloud their ability to enact truly impactful policies for expanding access.

When colleges and universities require the SAT or ACT, families with the means to put their children through test prep courses are at an even greater advantage over low-income and even many middle-income families who simply cannot afford such extraneous luxuries. Frankly, what does it say about the test itself when an entire industry is built around prepping students for it? And, truthfully, a nice PR move like partnering with the Khan Academy is nothing but a band-aid solution to a much deeper issue (and what does it say about the Khan Academy, too?).

It’s time to throw out an anachronistic component of college admissions that is doing nothing but driving an academic arms race among higher education institutions. Instead, let’s focus our efforts on real, substantive issues such as trimming the costs of administrative bloat, addressing the mountainous student debt bubble, and boosting declining state investment in higher education. The bigger news focus this week should have been on efforts such as the new Higher Ed, Not Debt initiative launched by a number of education champions, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

But, instead, we’ve been hearing all about this “new SAT.” As a higher education access and affordability advocate, I could certainly break down the ways in which the changes to the SAT might impact how we work with students as they prepare for and apply to college. But that’s for another day, since — as a higher education access and affordability advocate — I also feel the need to point out when the discussion is heading in the wrong directions.

And that’s the point — because, in the grand scheme of things, until we really shake our college admissions processes free of these measurement tools of privilege and focus on true systemic ways to increase access for low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students, changes to the SAT really aren’t that major after all.

Propaganda, or the other side of the story?

At around 5 PM on Wednesday afternoon, RT (formerly Russia Today) anchor Liz Wahl decided to call it quits on-air, accusing the channel of “[whitewashing] the actions of Putin.”

Wahl’s announcement created quite the buzz in media circles. The New York Daily News, temporarily losing track of the date by several decades, declared: “A ‘Russia Today’ anchor broke through the Iron Curtain.” The New York Times ran a piece headlined “Russian Channel’s War Coverage Continues to Cost It Journalists.” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell dubbed Wahl “today’s bravest person on TV.” And Business Insider helpfully proclaimed: “Anchor For Russian Propaganda Channel Dramatically Quits In Protest Live On The Air.”

Perhaps no one was more effusive in his praise for Wahl than James Kirchick, a contributor to The Daily Beast. In an “exclusive” post-resignation correspondence with Wahl, Kirchick reports that, as far back as last August, “Wahl felt morally compromised working for the network, she told me, but wasn’t yet prepared to quit.” (Wahl had first contacted Kirchick last year after he had taken a brief hiatus from agitating for whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s execution in order to stage a bizarre one-man TV protest against Russia’s undeniably pervasive homophobia — a stunt that lasted two minutes and was utterly unrelated to the panel on which he’d been asked to participate.)

“Wahl did a very brave thing,” Kirchick concluded. “Unlike [Abby Martin, another RT anchor who had expressed her displeasure at Russia’s Crimea intervention, two days prior to Wahl], who will continue to cash Putin’s paychecks, Wahl is now out of a job. But that’s the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth.”

Aside from the obvious absurdity of calling an American anchor working from Washington, D.C. “brave” for publicly denouncing the editorial decision-making process of her foreign employer, Kirchick’s article failed to define what exactly differentiates “real reporters” from “Russian-government funded propagandists.”

This is especially surprising given Kirchick’s own background as a reporter for a government-funded propaganda network. As a recent writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Kirchick and his employer were funded entirely by the United States Congress. RFE/RL got its start in 1949, when it was founded by the anti-Communist organization National Committee for a Free Europe. That organization was launched, in turn, by none other than Allen Dulles, who just four years later would take the helm of the CIA as the Director of Central Intelligence. (He still holds the record for the longest tenure as DCI.)

RFE/RL was itself funded by the CIA as late as 1971, a fact that brought the radio network no small amount of notoriety. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe headed up an American anti-Soviet propaganda operation that “sent 590,415 balloons that carried 301,636,883 leaflets, posters, books, and other printed matter from West Germany over the Iron Curtain to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland from August 1951 to November 1956.” (The historical legacy of this “extensive propaganda campaign” is recounted on RFE/RL’s web site.)

Today, RFE/RL is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an entity that also supervises other bastions of independent journalism such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. (This is the same Office of Cuba Broadcasting that, during the George W. Bush administration, paid ten reporters varying totals of up to $240,000 each to disseminate anti-Castro opinion — the revelation of which resulted in the termination of three of them by El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald‘s Spanish counterpart.) The BBG is itself under the watchful eye of foreign relations committees in both the House and the Senate, and its budget is set annually by Congressional appropriations committees as well. Last year a former board governor, commenting on an inspector general’s report portraying widespread dysfunction at the BBG, explicitly described the organization’s purpose as “telling [the American] story worldwide.”

Kirchick’s role at RFE/RL included filing American-friendly stories with headlines such as this one, from August 26, 2011: “As Libyan Rebels Assert Control, Calm Descends Over War-Torn Capital.” In that particular piece, published five months after the U.S. and its allies launched a military intervention in Libya that quickly obliterated the operation’s stated objectives (as described by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973), Kirchick bizarrely declared:

As fighting continues in the Libyan capital between rebels and fighters loyal to deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi, a sense of calm has finally settled over most of the city, putting something of an end to what has been the most intense conflict to emerge in the “Arab Spring.”

And everyone lived happily ever after. As The New York Times summed up last month:

Precious little has been achieved in Libya since the war that killed Colonel Qaddafi and ended his 42 years of autocratic rule. The country held its first free elections amid much euphoria in 2012, creating a General National Congress that then appointed a new government.

But both bodies have come under criticism for failing to manage the country effectively. Security is deteriorating amid growing corruption and perceived incompetence, and the Congress has been frequently gridlocked by a strong divide between Islamist parties and the more liberal groups that are nervous about the growing power of the Islamists.

Tensions have been rising in recent weeks as the militias that fought the war against Colonel Qaddafi have tried to influence the political process. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from his hotel and held for hours in October by militia members who wanted to force his resignation. On Tuesday, two militia groups demanded that the Congress dissolve itself or face the arrest of its members.

You know, “something of an end” to the conflict. It’s almost enough to make one wonder whether Kirchick’s coverage was influenced by the government that funded him.

Indeed, given the reality of his former employer’s history and present (an association which Kirchick happily touts on his own site), it seems particularly incongruous of him to call Liz Wahl brave for stating the below today:

Last night RT made international headlines when one of our anchors went on the record and said Russian intervention in Crimea is wrong. And indeed as a reporter on this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges — especially me personally, coming from a family whose grandparents, my grandparents, came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically to escape the Soviet forces.

I have family on the opposite side, on my mother’s side, that sees [sic] the daily grind of poverty, and I’m very lucky to have grown up here in the United States. I’m the daughter of a veteran. My partner is a physician at a military base where he sees every day the first-hand accounts of the ultimate prices that people pay for this country. And that is why personally I cannot be part of network [sic] funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.

Even leaving aside the above confusing litany of digressions — which reads more like a checklist of patriotic cliches than a plausible justification for quitting one’s job on a live television show — there is little courageous about Wahl’s pronouncement. And the timing, coming just two days after her colleague Abby Martin’s more measured criticism of Russian foreign policy — statements that did not, as it turned out, culminate in a melodramatic abdication of the anchor’s perch — is certainly interesting, to say the least. Perhaps strangest of all, however, is Wahl’s apparently sudden epiphany as to RT’s source of funding. One can only surmise, of course, that James Kirchick remained just as blissfully unaware of his own benefactors during his time at RFE/RL.

RT, in responding to Wahl’s accusations, stated:

When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt.

Even given the blatant pro-Kremlin slant of RT’s entire oeuvre, it is hard to disagree with the network’s assessment. Wahl leaves RT for an almost certainly brighter future in American journalism: by feuding with her employer — whose bankrollers in the Kremlin are particularly vilified in the popular American mindset at the moment — in such a public manner, she managed both to significantly raise her media profile and to solidify her mainstream American bona fides at the same time. (Hey, it worked for Juan Williams.) Fox News must already be on the phone.

But RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, speaking in the wake of Abby Martin’s on-air critique, scored the most on-point observation:

Media outlets do not exist in a vacuum. Can you really expect any American corporate-owned news network to report a story in a way that goes against the U.S. national interest? Or Euronews to not advocate [European Commission] positions?

Given our own recent history with unjustified violations of other nations’ sovereignties, Simonyan’s question seems fair — “Russian-government funded propagandist” or not. As for James Kirchick, well, it takes one to know one.

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House of Cards: Welcome to the spectacle

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By its very nature, House of Cards invites discussion. It entire first season was foisted upon us all at once last February as an early Valentine’s Day present: a tale of escalating palace intrigue that culminated, in Episode 11, with the shocking (and somewhat absurd) murder of Congressman Peter Russo. Season 2, which was released — en masse, once again — to much fanfare on Friday, provoked even larger ripples online, eliciting the ritual thinkpieces, interviews, and meta-analyses.

You’ll forgive me, then, for wading in myself. As a binge-watcher of Season 2 (I finished the finale sometime after midnight on Monday), I fell prey, like so many others, to the seductive guile of Frank Underwood as he marched his way straight into the Oval Office.

Let’s leave plot contrivances aside for a moment. House of Cards may fancy itself pop culture’s sharpest purveyor of political realism, but its broad narrative brushstrokes are nothing if not impressionistic. (Either that or I’m not nearly paranoid enough about my elected officials.)

Much of the conversation sandwiching the release of the second season centered on House of Cards‘ innate cynicism. Ian Crouch, writing for The New Yorker, for example, explained the show’s ethos thusly:

“House of Cards,” back now with its entire second season streaming on Netflix, is a show about contempt. There is contempt in the general, interpersonal sense: the politicians, operatives, journalists, and various other D.C. types all hold one another in especially expressive disregard. (Last season, Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, explained his relationship to his colleagues like this: “They talk while I sit quietly and imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”) And there is contempt in the legal sense—the plots turn on the subversion and manipulation of rules and regulations, and the breaking of laws (murder, etc.) for personal gain and professional advancement. Ethics, like feelings, are obstacles, and beneath consideration.

Crouch goes on to claim, rather convincingly, that the series saves its most ferocious contempt for its own audience: “We are the ones, after all, who tolerate and thus perpetuate the real-life theatre of venality and aggression from which ‘House of Cards’ derives its plausibility.”

As a description of the political status quo, this is certainly true. Crouch, however, clouds his thesis by emphasizing the cockiness of Beau Willimon, the showrunner whose elimination of yet another principal character in the Season 2 premiere showcased, Crouch reports, “a power trip in which the show and its main character assume parallel roles as bullies.”

While this is a perfectly defensible interpretation of the relationship between House of Cards and its enraptured fan base, it is not, I think, the most accurate one. Contempt implies strength of feeling: it is, after all, one of the telltale signs of a marriage in dissolution. Admittedly, it is often a sign of power inequality as well: the strong feel contemptuous of the weak, not vice versa. Nevertheless, contempt connotes a vigorous degree of hostility.

But it is this precise feature — red-faced rage and its emotionally-charged cousins — that is almost entirely absent from House of Cards‘ dalliance with its viewership. On this, Todd VanDerWerff of A.V. Club hits the right note:

Midway through the season-two finale of House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood confronts one of the many people incredibly pissed off at him backstage at the opera. (It has to be the opera, for House Of Cards does not do subtlety.) The conversation is interrupted by a patron who exits the auditorium, presumably looking for a bathroom. They look over at her as she walks through—both seemingly miffed that she even exists. It’s a scene that summarizes House Of Cards’ relationship to the average American citizen: Everybody in this country is grist for the mill for politicians like Frank, who serve only themselves and carry out their real deal-making far behind the scenes of what’s available to the press and C-SPAN. And don’t you think you have the right to know about it. At best, you’re an irritating inconvenience. At worst, you’re dead.

Contempt is for threats; rivals, even. Contempt is what drove Frank Underwood to send Peter Russo to his makeshift gas chamber in Season 1 and Zoe Barnes to her early demise in Season 2. It is, as a general rule, the principal sentiment vaulting Underwood’s entire career past those of his peers in the House of Representatives and beyond.

But a clear line separates the contempt pervading nearly all of House of Cards‘ interpersonal relationships from its most crucial one by far: that of Frank Underwood’s with the audience. When, in the new season’s premiere, Kevin Spacey at last addresses the viewer, he gazes not directly into the camera, as is his wont, but through a bathroom mirror. As he speaks, the camera pulls in slowly until the frame edging the glass is almost completely obscured: Frank Underwood has met his reflection, and it is us.

Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes. Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first—small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood. Sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted. Welcome back.

Ian Crouch views this parting scene as evidence of Willimon’s arrogance:

And then there is one last shot, in case there was any confusion as to the message: a pair of silver cufflinks bearing Frank’s initials. They’d been mentioned before—a birthday gift from his body man—and, called back, they make for a funny visual gag: “F.U.” … We’ve been told, as the Times likes to say, to “commit a physically impossible act.” Frank despises most everybody—why should we be an exception?

But here Crouch misunderstands Underwood and, by extension, Willimon. “F.U.” is the precise opposite of a “power trip:” it is, rather, the ultimate invitation to an insiders’ club. It is a joke so obvious it begs to be understood, a wink that demands a knowing nod. As a sophomoric sight gag, “F.U.” is a souvenir to its audience. But as an epithet, “F.U.” is decidedly not a message to those of us who watch House of Cards: it’s a contemptuous insult for everyone who doesn’t.

From this perspective, the message of House of Cards is remarkably consistent. It is no accident that an unsubtle version of Politico — an online-only publication dubbed Slugline — serves as the most formidable opponent of Underwood as he rapidly scales the Washington political ladder. Indeed, it is only the murder of its most intrepid reporter that reestablishes Underwood’s control over his own destiny, an objective that could only be derailed by a consummate insider such as Zoe Barnes. In a two-season narrative arc dedicated to highlighting Frank Underwood’s utter mastery of his domain, the single common thread uniting him to all of his peers in House of Cards is their overwhelming collective insulation from life outside the Mall.

Indeed, the fiercest contempt in the series is reserved for all of The Others: those who believe in a democratic politics, the power of representative elections, education reform, foreign policy initiatives, the national interest. People who didn’t catch “F.U.” Simpletons, one and all.

Is anyone really supposed to care about any of the particular policy battles waged throughout the first two seasons? Do we even remember what they were? Of course not: we’re here for the spectacle. We’re here, in short, to become insiders too. It is in this arena that House of Cards excels: it masterfully inhabits the universe populated by our politicians and the hordes of journalists who mob their every prepackaged press conference and giggle over their every wayward tweet. Contempt for the real world goes without saying. We are all complicit in trading away accountability journalism for tabloid-style coverage of the daily political grind, and House of Cards is our soma.

Todd VanDerWerff neatly captures this addiction to irrelevance towards the end of his review:

Yet House Of Cards is also weirdly perfect when it comes to what it’s meant to do, which is keep viewers plowing through episodes, regardless of time spent doing so. There are just enough flourishes around the edges…that it’s possible to feel like House Of Cards has something deeper on its mind, even when it’s all but clear it doesn’t. This is sleight of hand that works much better in the middle of the binge, rather than a few hours later, when contemplating whether the plot made any sense.

VanDerWerff appears, at first glance, to be damning House of Cards with faint praise. But it is really quite the opposite: in portraying Washington as a city full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, House of Cards has in fact perfectly captured the reality of modern politics in the era of horse-race journalism.

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Market failure

Proof that supply and demand are not always in perfect equilibrium, at least in the realm of quality journalism:

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

Tom Friedman is the most embarrassing of a truly amateur-hour op-ed operation at the Times.

On “Planet Hillary,” no one has a name

In tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, Amy Chozick delves into the political intrigue surrounding Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. The online hubbub over the article, titled “Planet Hillary,” actually began on Thursday, when the magazine cover art was released, to widespread bewilderment:

Anyway, I got around to reading the piece today and couldn’t escape an uneasy feeling about it. It took me a few minutes to realize that “Planet Hillary” was a vintage Politico-esque creation. It deals almost entirely in political maneuvering and the “who’s-in-who’s-out” hysteria endemic to public figures and their extensive entourages. More damningly, it is almost completely devoid of policy discussion.

Granted, there is a place in political journalism for fluffy, narrative-driven, gossip-heavy recaps of the Washington social ladder. But generally speaking, The New York Times has not been that place. (The reliability of that axiom is one major reason I’m a subscriber.) In fact, it is perhaps because of the Times’ historical reticence to portray the constant power shuffling within American politics as equivalent to its counterpart in a typical high-school cafeteria that “Planet Hillary” seemed to meander so aimlessly and conclude in such a random way: the Times simply isn’t good at this kind of thing. Which is itself a good thing.

But after several further minutes of reflection, I noticed a much more specific problem with the piece: it is utterly stacked with anonymous statements and characterizations. To quantitatively confirm my suspicions, I re-read the article, this time marking every statement by any source (including quotes, paraphrases, and descriptions) that met the following criteria:

  • It was made to Amy Chozick in the course of her reporting for the article (so “James Carville has compared the Clinton world, perhaps not so originally, to an onion” doesn’t count, because that statement happened outside of Chozick’s reporting)
  • It was attributable to one person only (so “Several people close to Clinton have already discussed installing someone to play the role of ‘chief listener'” doesn’t count either, since it represents an aggregate of multiple conversations)
  • It was explicitly attributed, whether anonymously or otherwise, to a person (so “When Ready for Hillary held a seminar for donors at Le Parker Meridien hotel last fall to discuss what it would take to win in 2016, Bill Clinton personally checked in with an attendee to ask what was being discussed and who was there” doesn’t count because the anecdote wasn’t directly attributed to any particular source)

Keep in mind that these are extremely conservative criteria. There are, for example, multiple statements attributed to “several people close to Clinton,” “several people close to the Clintons,” “several others,” and “others,” to name a few examples. These I did not count, as it is conceivable that the sources’ collective anonymity was more a function of Chozick’s concision than her sources’ desire for discretion.

I was also, of course, careful to include all instances of named (that is, not anonymous) sources. Consider the following passage from the article:

A few months later, over lunch near the White House, Reines laughed as a couple of meddlesome emails popped up on his BlackBerry from two older Clinton loyalists who had re-emerged since she left State. In between bites of a shrimp cocktail, he called these noodges “space cowboys,” referring to the 2000 film in which Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland play aging pilots who reunite to disarm a Soviet-era satellite on one last mission.

I counted this as a named statement, despite the fact that it’s only two words long (“space cowboys”). I’m also counting it as a separate named statement from another quote earlier in the same paragraph by the same source, solely because the statements occurred at different times chronologically. (Elsewhere, I counted him again in an innocuous comment about the names of his kittens.)

Despite all of these precautions, 18 of the 36 statements — exactly 50% — that were made to Chozick in the course of “Planet Hillary” were anonymous (19 of 37 if I’d counted “a foundation spokesman,” which didn’t seem designed to provide discretion, but rather to avoid introducing too many irrelevant names). Here were a few representative examples:

  • “Legally she could not participate in fund-raising or political activity, and so the period, noted one staff member, seemed like a quiet four-year pause.”
  • “Until recently, her seven personal aides worked out of a tiny Washington office (‘smaller than my first N.Y.C. apartment,’ one aide said in an email) on Connecticut Avenue.”
  • “She ‘inspires loyalty, and she’s loyal back,’ another person close to the inner circle says.”

(Emphases mine. You can check my count by viewing my spreadsheet here. Yellow-highlighted rows represent anonymous statements.)

The “Guidelines on Integrity” document available from The New York Times Company’s web site has this to say about anonymous sources:

Anonymity and Its Devices. The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having “insisted on anonymity,” we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage states:

[A]nonymity is a last resort, for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. Reporters should not offer a news source anonymity without first pressing to use a name or other helpful identification…

If concealment proves necessary, writers should avoid automatic references to sources who “insisted on anonymity” or “demanded anonymity”; rote phrases offer the reader no help. When possible, though, articles should tersely explain what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, and should shed light on the reasons. Anonymity should not shield a press officer whose job is to be publicly accountable. And, given the requirements of newsworthiness and substance, it should not be invoked for a trivial comment: “The party ended after midnight,” said a doorman who demanded anonymity. (If the doorman simply refused to give his name, that is a less grandiose matter, and the article should just say so.)

Anonymity must not become a cloak for attacks on people, institutions or policies. If pejorative remarks are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.

It is quite clear that the three nameless quotes I excerpted above, as well as others like them, fail to meet the Times‘ threshold for granting anonymity. In some cases, Chozick’s usage is directly contradictory to policy. If anonymity “should not be invoked for a trivial comment,” then the statement by the “one aide” (quoted above) on the size of Hillary Clinton’s Washington office, for example, is certainly a violation of the rule.

Anonymous statements have long been a source of contention with readers, a point Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has raised multiple times. (A 2009 article by a previous public editor for the Times, Clark Hoyt, cited a study finding that almost 80 percent of anonymous statements in the newspaper failed to meet the official New York Times standard.)

“Planet Hillary” seemed to me to be an especially egregious case, as the underlying substance of the article was already paper-thin. The anonymous statements simply added to the puffy feel of the piece itself and contributed to an overall sense of (mostly banal) palace intrigue. Here’s hoping to see less of this in the future.

Is AIPAC’s power ebbing?

Probably not, unfortunately. But it helps to have a counterweight, even one as fecklessly centrist as J Street. The relatively new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization (whatever that means) is urging Congress not to pass a new Iran sanctions bill. National Journal takes stock of the situation:

The rise of J Street, a younger pro-Israel lobby pushing hard against the new sanctions, is serving as a counterweight to AIPAC on this issue. Revived hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani helps J Street’s cause. So does political pressure from Obama. By decoupling support for Israel with support for new sanctions against Iran, the group is making it easier for lawmakers inclined to support the White House.

“We’ve been working diligently on Capitol Hill and in the Jewish-American community to raise support for the president’s diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Iran, and oppose any legislation which would threaten it,” said Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street. “We feel very strongly that the current bill in the Senate would threaten diplomacy.”

J Street’s influence is also clear in the money it spends. Among pro-Israel groups, JStreetPAC was the largest single political donor during the 2008 and 2012 cycles, contributing nearly $2.7 million to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups.

Not so fast, says Foreign Policy:

A recent letter attacking Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is causing an internal brouhaha at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The Cable has learned. The powerful lobbying outfit, known for its disciplined non-partisan advocacy for Israel, recently issued an action alert about the Florida congresswoman’s waffling on Iran sanctions legislation. The letter urged members to contact Wasserman Schultz and cited a disparaging article about her in a conservative website founded by a prominent Republican political operative.

That AIPAC was driving hard for new Iran sanctions legislation surprised no one. But its use of a right-wing blog to target a well-connected Jewish Democrat with a long history of support for Israel raised eyebrows among some current and former AIPAC officials. It also raised concerns that AIPAC’s open revolt against the White House’s Iran diplomacy could fray its relations with liberal Democrats on the Hill.

“In the 40 years I’ve been involved with AIPAC, this is the first time I’ve seen such a blatant departure from bipartisanship,” said Doug Bloomfield, AIPAC’s former chief lobbyist.

My inner optimist wants to believe this is the last, dying gasp of an organization desperately short on ideas. But then I remember that I live in the United States, and I laugh at my inner optimist.

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Justice Scalia Will Have a Field Day Tomorrow with Massachusetts “Buffer Zone” Case

Justice Antonin Scalia, ready to pounce.
Justice Antonin Scalia, ready to pounce. Picture via Wikimedia Commons.

McCullen v. Coakley has received a good deal of attention in the press already because of its contentious subject matter: anti-abortion activists are challenging a 2007 Massachusetts statute that created 35-feet “buffer zones” around the entrances, exits and driveways of all reproductive health care facilities in the state, arguing that the law infringes upon their First Amendment rights to share their views in a public forum. Due to personnel changes, there is a very good chance that the Supreme Court will end up overturning its own thirteen-year-old precedent in order to invalidate the Massachusetts law. But just in case you needed another reason to follow the oral arguments for McCullen v. Coakley tomorrow, here’s one more: even though the case has zero bearing on the constitutionality of abortion, Justice Scalia is going to give us some choice quotes railing against Roe v. Wade and the Court’s abortion jurisprudence.

Why do I think this? Just look at Justice Scalia’s dissent in Hill v. Colorado, the 2000 case that the anti-abortion activists in Massachusetts are asking the Supreme Court to overrule. In Hill, six justices (Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Stevens, O’Connor, Breyer, Souter and Ginsburg) voted to uphold a Colorado law that was similar but arguably posed even less of a First Amendment problem than the Massachusetts law now in question: Colorado’s statute created a buffer zone of only eight feet, and it applied to all health care facilities. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens balanced anti-abortion protestors’ right to free speech against the “recognizable” privacy interests of the “unwilling listener” and came out in favor of the latter. Stevens reached back into a 1928 Court opinion by Justice Brandeis for “the right to be let alone” from unwelcome speech and ran with it, concluding that Colorado’s interests in protecting patients and staff members from impeded access to the facilities and the content-neutral way in which the law was written satisfied the First Amendment.

Justice Scalia was livid. His dissent, which Justice Thomas joined (but not Justice Kennedy, who wrote his own separate dissent, for reasons that are obvious once you read the two), is vintage Scalia in its mix of anger, indignation and sarcasm. In my view, he quite effectively calls out Justice Stevens’ shaky reasoning regarding the unwilling audience, pointing out that what Justice Brandeis actually meant was the “right to be let alone” by the government, not the right to be free from hearing other private speakers communicating their message in a public setting. Being Scalia, however, he doesn’t stop there. The First Amendment is not the only thing at stake. Justice Scalia wants you to know that the Hill decision is just one in a long line of animus-driven, unconstitutional attacks on the rights of the unborn and those who would save them, so he takes the opportunity to excoriate the Court’s “relentlessly pro-abortion jurisprudence:”

What is before us, after all, is a speech regulation directed against the opponents of abortion, and it therefore enjoys the benefit of the ‘ad hoc nullification machine’ that the Court has set in motion to push aside whatever doctrines of constitutional law stand in the way of that highly favored practice [citation omitted]. Having deprived abortion opponents of the political right to persuade the electorate that abortion should be restricted by law, the Court today continues and expands its assault upon their individual right to persuade women contemplating abortion that what they are doing is wrong.

The emphasis is mine.

The public forum involved here–the public spaces outside of health care facilities–has become, by necessity and by virtue of this Court’s decisions, a forum of last resort for those who oppose abortion. The possibility of limiting abortion by legislative means–even abortion of a live-and-kicking child that is almost entirely out of the womb–has been rendered impossible by our decisions from Roe v. Wade… For those who share an abiding moral or religious conviction (or, for that matter, simply a biological appreciation) that abortion is the taking of a human life, there is no option but to persuade women, one by one, not to make that choice. And as a general matter, the most effective place, if not the only place, where that persuasion can occur, is outside the entrances to abortion facilities.

And in the final paragraph:

Does the deck seem stacked? You bet. As I have suggested throughout this opinion, today’s decision is not an isolated distortion of our traditional constitutional principles, but is one of many aggressively proabortion novelties announced by the Court in recent years.

Look for more of these quotable “suggestions” from Justice Scalia tomorrow, the incidence of which is only made more likely by the fact that this time around, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito on the bench, he will likely have enough votes to jettison Hill once and for all. Justice Kennedy may well end up writing a final opinion in McCullen that is based on his own Hill dissent–a much more temperate disagreement that skipped the “proabortion” talk and stayed focused on the First Amendment–but Scalia will doubtless take this opportunity to run a victory lap.

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What Now for Same-Sex Marriage in Utah?

The Supreme Court pushed the “pause” button on gay marriage in Utah yesterday, preventing any new marriages between same-sex couples from taking place until the case has been decided on appeal by the Tenth Circuit. Let’s take a second to unpack the justices’ order:

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.29.58 PM

OK, so there’s not a whole lot to unpack here. The grant indicates that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Circuit Justice in charge of handling stay applications arising from the Tenth Circuit, referred Utah’s request to the full court instead of deciding it herself. This was an expected outcome–as mentioned in my previous post explaining the stay application process, full-court consideration is the most efficient way to dispose of the request and prevent any “appeals” or resubmissions that could happen when an individual Circuit Justice rules on a stay. That the Supreme Court granted the stay was also not surprising. As Rick Hasen notes here, it was very likely that the Court (including even the justices who would support expanding same-sex marriage rights1 ) would want to slow things down on such an important, far-reaching constitutional question.

So what does the grant yesterday tell us about how the Court may rule on the merits in Herbert v. Kitchen, when it is inevitably appealed from the Tenth Circuit? The answer is: very little. We do know that the Court will likely choose to hear the case–based on the requirements for successfully obtaining a stay (also detailed in the flowchart from my previous post), the Court would not have granted Utah its stay unless it thought there was a “reasonable probability” that four justices would grant certiorari when the case eventually winds its way up. We also know from the grant requirements that the full court thought there was a “fair prospect” that five justices might eventually overturn federal district Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling on the Utah same-sex marriage ban, probably because of his game-changing conclusion that same-sex marriage is a fundamental constitutional right–an issue that the Supreme Court itself assiduously avoided addressing in last year’s DOMA and Proposition 8 litigation.

Beyond these questions of probability, however, the grant itself contained no reasoning for the Justices’ decision and addressed none of the substantive arguments brought up by Utah and the same-sex couple plaintiffs, so it is hard to divine how they will rule on the merits. The criteria for granting a stay are different from the standards used for ruling on the substantive questions. The fact that it chose to hit the brakes on same-sex marriage in Utah now does not necessarily mean that the Court will strike down Judge Shelby’s ruling.

A more pressing question created by yesterday’s grant is what happens now to the 1,360 same-sex couples who received marriage licenses from the state–a majority of whom have already used the licenses to get legally married in the seventeen days before the Supreme Court halted the process. Interim Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a press conference yesterday afternoon that he “doesn’t know.” These couples are in “legal limbo,” “uncharted territory.”

My personal feeling is that yesterday’s stay should not erase or invalidate the hundreds of same-sex marriages that were legally carried out in Utah in the period between Judge Shelby’s initial December 20 ruling and the Supreme Court order. Up until yesterday, while Utah’s stay request was slowly moving its way up the federal courts, Judge Shelby’s decision striking down Amendment 3 was still controlling in the state, so these marriages did not take place in violation of any court order or state ban. A trickier question is what happens to the couples who obtained marriage licenses legally during those seventeen days but had not actually gotten married by the time that the Supreme Court issued the stay. We should fully expect further “offshoot” litigation on this matter.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Utah is still weighing proposals to bring in outside counsel to help with Kitchen, which will be scheduled for argument before the Tenth Circuit this spring. Outside help would probably be a wise idea, given the state’s well-documented bungling in the last few weeks. That Utah dropped the ball repeatedly on moving its stay application along–first by neglecting to ask Judge Shelby at the litigation stage for a stay of any possible ruling in favor of the same-sex couples, then by running to the Tenth Circuit for an emergency stay before Judge Shelby had even ruled on its request, then by waiting a full week to appeal the Tenth Circuit stay denial to Justice Sotomayor–is the reason why the state is now dealing with such a large number of marriages that may or may not be legal.

  1. For an example of a Supreme Court justice advocating for an incremental approach to the recognition of a constitutional right, look no further than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments on Roe v. Wade. She has repeatedly said that abortion rights should have been settled state-by-state rather than in one fell swoop, which in her opinion had the effect of polarizing the national discussion. A similar argument regarding strategy has played out amongst same-sex marriage proponents. []