Thursday, November 22, 2007

Blogosphere not as radical as pundits think

Blogosphere not as radical as pundits think

by Gene Lyons

It's no exaggeration to say that the establishment media's initial response to the blogosphere was panic. The idea of mere citizens talking back to the press was unsettling to Washington media celebrities. Pundits who'd exhibited no qualms about the sordid imaginings of, say, American Spectator or The Wall Street Journal editorial page recoiled in horror at online mockery. It was laugh-out-loud funny to see a Washington Post reporter infamous for treating Kenneth Starr's backstairs leaks like holy writ make a show of pretending that the now-defunct Web site mediawhoresonline. com had accused her of prostitution. How the system had always worked was this: They dished it out, everybody else had to take it. Now that many print and broadcast outlets feature Web logs - blogs - of their own, it's no longer common to hear the word "blogger" pronounced with utter disdain. Even so, competition from the groundlings still provokes unease. The latest high-minded worrier is a University of Chicago law professor and sometime politico, Cass R. Sunstein.

A Justice Department official during the Carter and Reagan administrations, Sunstein has written a book called "Republic. com 2. 0," essentially arguing that the Internet's "echo chamber effect" is responsible for increased political polarization and declining civility. In an interview with salon. com, he said that social scientists find that when people talk only to those who agree with them, their views become more extreme.

"I don't like that Rush Limbaugh listeners call themselves ‘ditto heads,'" Sunstein said. "It's funny, but it's kind of horrible. FOX News is a self-identified conservative outlet. The more extreme elements on the left treat their fellow citizens as if they're idiots, or as if they're rich people who don't care about anybody." A former colleague and friend of Barack Obama, he yearns for greater recognition of the truism that "that neither conservatives nor liberals have a monopoly on wisdom." No sentient person thinks they do. We're all a mix of conflicting opinions. I've had runins with what I call the anti-gravity left during my own inglorious career. (I'm pro-hunting, for example, which drives sentimentalists nuts. ) Today, however, I'd argue that Sunstein suggests a false dichotomy of little relevance to the current situation.

Among the blogs I read, there's no equivalent of the authoritarian impulses, intellectual dishonesty and rote chanting of the GOP party line that characterizes Limbaugh and his imitators on the right. Partly, that's because most are written by educated individuals who take pride in winning arguments without cheating, and to whom party orthodoxy is anathema. In a saner climate, many wouldn't be called left-wing at all.

How liberal do you have to be to defend habeas corpus, Fourth Amendment privacy rights and the rule of law, as Glenn Greenwald does on his "Unclaimed Territory" blog at salon. com ? A former constitutional litigator, Greenwald brings rare clarity and passion to political issues with legal overtones.

Here are the political blogs I read every day.

Duncan Black's "Eschaton" blog combines the analytical skills of a Ph. D. economist with the irreverent wit of a Philadelphia wiseacre. If you'd been reading Eschaton (or Paul Krugman ), you'd have seen the housing bubble and the sub-prime lending crisis coming.

Josh Marshall's Ph. D. is in history, but his talkingpointsmemo blog specializes in gritty, detailed reporting. Marshall was on top of the Jack Abramoff influencepeddling scandal from the get-go. Link through talkingpointsmemo to Greg Sergeant's saucy "Horse's Mouth" media criticism blog.

Bob Somerby's Daily Howler provides salty press criticism you'll read nowhere else. "Radicalized" by the Washington media's 2000 "War on Gore" (his Harvard roommate, Al Gore ), Bob can't abide liberal fecklessness about the way RNC-invented "narratives" dominate mainstream political coverage, and he doesn't mind offending "weak, worthless" liberal pundits who look the other way.

Eric Alterman's "Altercations" blog is another place to find impassioned disputation between the host and a wide variety of antagonists on everything from Israel's Likud party to the New York Mets. A Ph. D. in history, Alterman also is the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan on the Internet. "Slacker Fridays," when the inimitable Charles Pierce's scathing missives appear, is a must. Media Matters columnists Eric Boehlert and Jamison Foser's dissections of the vices and follies of the "mainstream" media advance a point of view similar to The Daily Howler's somewhat more politely. Kevin Drum (washingtonmonthly. com ) and the inimitable Digby (digbysblog. blogspot. com ), a writer of such analytical brilliance and prodigious output she shames the rest of us idlers, are two bloggers I never miss. Read around for a while, follow the links to related sites and you'll soon find your own favorites list. A celebrated editor once told me that reading the letters submitted for publication to his magazine had persuaded him that, contrary to media careerists in metropolitan enclaves, political intelligence and wisdom are scattered randomly across the American landscape. Thanks to the Internet, they no longer have to ask anybody's permission to speak out.

This article originally appeared in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hillary's record withstands 'character' attacks

by Gene Lyons

Maybe somebody ought to give Iowa waitress Anita Esterday a political TV talk show. She couldn't be any worse than, say, MSNBC's Tucker Carlson. Recently, the boyish pundit has been suggesting that there's something deeply weird about female voters who support Sen. Hillary Clinton because they'd like a woman president, although it's entirely reasonable for "married white men" to despise her "because she gives off the feeling that she despises them." Got that ? Women: dangerously irrational. Men: terrified of women. If you think that's an isolated example, tune in "Hardball." Now that hyperthyroidic host Chris Matthews has finally exhausted the topic of Clinton's troublesome laugh, he's recently focused several programs on her peculiarly "Chinese" manner of clapping her hands.

It's not just MSNBC's testosterone brigade that's gone all Gong Show. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd actually favorably cited somebody scolding "Hillary's callousness in dumping Socks, the beloved White House cat and bestselling author, on Bill's former secretary, Betty Currie."

Try to believe it: Clinton's daughter grows up and leaves home, so a friend adopts her cat. To Dowd, this epitomizes the candidate's "opportunism... her secrecy, her ruthlessness."

What's wrong with these people ? It's common to compare Washington's self-infatuated media celebrities to high school kids. But even high school was never like this. Adolescents normally try to conceal their neuroses. These jokers mistake them for insights.

But let's get back to Esterday of Oelwein, Iowa. She served Clinton a sandwich during her shift at the Maid-Rite restaurant. At a later campaign stop, Clinton talked about meeting a waitress, a single mother working two jobs, exactly the kind of person her candidacy's all about.

Yeah, they all say that. So anyway, National Public Radio reporters descended upon the Maid-Rite, where Esterday, although she didn't blame Clinton personally, complained that Clinton's entourage hadn't left anybody a tip. NPR broadcast the story, a classic "gotcha." The great champion of hard-working women was too cheap to leave a tip. Good for a halfdozen "Hardball" episodes or Dowd columns, minimum.

Except apparently it was false. A Clinton spokesman said that staffers had left a $ 100 tip on a $ 157 tab at the cash register. This will scarcely be credited by anybody who's worked in a restaurant, but it seems that the money never got to the waitresses. NPR's "gotcha" fell apart, as careful reporting would have established in the first place. Some stories are too good to check closely.

Contacted by The New York Times, Esterday was properly amazed.

"You people are really nuts," she said. "There's kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now - there's better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn't get a tip."

Amen to that. Indeed, it may be time to revise H. L. Mencken's immortal trope that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. True, scary numbers of people can't name their U. S. senators or locate Iran on a map. This leaves them vulnerable to shameless propaganda.

Today, it's the irresponsibility of Washington media celebrities that's most troubling. Consider Social Security, something that couldn't be more relevant to somebody like Anita Esterday. In 2005, Democrats defeated GOP schemes to privatize, i. e. hand over to the geniuses responsible for the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the most successful social insurance program in American history.

So here came NBC's Tim Russert, doing his act at the recent Democratic presidential debate. Along with co-moderator Brian Williams, Russert's performance made it official: Among Beltway All-Stars, it's open season on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards played along - and they did - they're fools.

There are many legitimate issues to debate - Clinton's vote for Joe Lieberman's saber-ratting Iran resolution, for example, or what many see as her excessively nuanced position on Iraq - without buying into these RNC-manufactured "character" issues. Grab the lead and it'll be your turn next, boys.

Regarding Social Security, the amiable Russert asked Clinton a question he said impinged on her "credibility." Supposedly, she'd told an AARP audience that she'd never raise taxes to augment the program and repeated herself to Russert in a New Hampshire debate, but was overheard telling an Iowa teacher that she'd consider it. "Why do you have one public position," Russert asked, "and one private position ?" Jamison Foser at mediamatters. org checked the transcripts. Guess what. Russert's accusatory query was factually false in every particular. Clinton's answers, public and private, have remained consistent: There is no Social Security "crisis." Any actuarial adjustments that may be needed should be considered only after "fiscal responsibility" has been restored. Then raising the tax limit of $ 97, 500 might be among them. She'd like a bipartisan commission. Several of the NBC stars' "character" attacks were similarly off target. Likely, they won't need Social Security. Likely you and Anita Esterday will. It's your democracy they're clowning with.

This article originally appeared in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.