Jane Mayer and the Brothers Koch

If your taste in journalism and politics runs to artless screeds and hatchet jobs, you might want to read Jane Mayer’s “Covert Operations,” published in the Aug. 30 issue of the New Yorker.  Having earlier pilloried such as Dick Cheney and Clarence Thomas, Mayer now does the remarkable – she pillories some more conservatives.

Her latest targets are the wealthy Koch brothers, Charles and David, who together run Koch Industries, the country’s second largest privately held corporation.  Make no mistake, it’s not their wealth that Mayer dislikes, it’s their politics.  This becomes clear (early on and without surcease thereafter) by the sources she quotes and by her strained attempt to brand the Kochs’ philanthropy as something not merely conservative (and therefore wrong) but venal and surreptitious as well.

But never mind.  Other people (as shown here and here) have already undertaken the easy job of deconstructing Mayer’s fable, and in any case, with their kind of money and influence the brothers Koch can take care of themselves.  The objection here is with something Mayer writes virtually in passing, not about the Kochs but about another politically active philanthropist, albeit one with very different political views – George Soros.

Here’s the offending text:

Of course, Democrats give money, too.  Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America.  Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s.  But Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that “none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.”  (Emphasis added.)

How many things are wrong with this paragraph?  Let’s count the ways.  First, there’s the very brevity of it.  Here we have what purports to be an expose of extraordinary and dangerous influence on the political process, and George Soros is treated to precisely 74 words – in an article that totals nearly 10,000.

The second problem is the false claim, unchallenged by Mayer, that Soros’s contributions are “transparent.”  As the head of an organization that every day has to contend with the misrepresentations and outright lies of one of the Open Society Institute’s grantees – Free Press – let me report that nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the amount and kind of Soros’s (and OSI’s) funding of groups like Free Press is unknown (and of no apparent interest to reporters, “investigative” or otherwise.)

There’s yet another problem with the quote attributed to Soros’s spokesman, namely, the assertion that none of his giving benefits his economic interests.  Not to put too fine a point on it, how would anyone know?  After all, the gentleman made his bones in international finance as a currency speculator.  And as recently as March of last year, in the middle of the recession, he was quoted as boasting that he was “having a very good crisis.”

Point being, of course, that hedge funds and other investors often profit by going “short” on securities as diverse as bonds, equities, commodities, and currencies.  In other words, it’s entirely possible, if he’s been making bearish bets, that Soros’s investments have been enhanced by his philanthropy, such have been the disastrous economic consequences of the public policies and politicians he supports.

This said, the thing that’s most wrongheaded about the paragraph at issue is the notion that people’s political views are suspect only when they’re (arguably) motivated by some economic interest.

This canard has been so widely circulated for so long it’s rarely challenged, but it should be.  This, because as anyone who has ever worked in policy circles knows well, those people who are the least objective and truthful are political activists, of whatever cause or political stripe, whose satisfactions come not so much from financial rewards as from the psychological satisfaction they gain as warriors in political crusades.

Consider, again, the example of Free Press.  This noxious organization, whose founders’ political views are in fact incompatible with a free press, makes much of the fact that it doesn’t receive funding from for-profit corporations.  But it gets lots of money from ideologically motivated groups like the Open Society Institute.

That this financial circumstance is treated by so many journalists as thereby absolving Free Press, and kindred organizations, from the kind of skepticism and scrutiny they visit on those that derive some or all of their funding from for-profit entities, amounts to a double standard of some considerable moment.  Because the fact is that, however much the Kochs and other businessmen may contribute to non-profit organizations, it’s a pittance compared to the kind of money provided to left-leaning organizations by the country’s major grant-making foundations.

And what’s the upshot of that?  If you’re a left-of-center activist you have a good chance of scoring big bucks from foundations with a keen political interest in your activities, and as a bonus you can go about your business free of worry that Jane Mayer, or some other reporter, will ever accuse you of being a mouthpiece for “vested interests.”

As in the title of the movie, it’s a wonderful life!


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Free Press and the Huffington Post

As some have noticed, a few pieces on this blogsite were originally published on the Huffington Post.  I started writing at HuffPo, in November of last year, because I wanted to occasionally write things that I felt were inappropriate for the Media Institute’s blogsite, and because I knew there were a few regulars there who, like me, were unhappy with the illiberalism of today’s “progressives.”

So it was that the first piece I wrote was a kind of introduction to all such called "The Orphan of the American Political System," in which I argued that it was a strange and unfortunate thing that liberals and libertarians were not allies.  (Because this piece had nothing to do with the media, and was overtly political, it wasn’t cross-posted, until now, on this website.)

Published in HuffPo’s “Politics” section, "Orphan" attracted a fair number of supporters and detractors — in other words pretty much what I expected, and all was well.  It wasn’t until I wrote blog number six, in February of this year, that the trouble began.

"The Intrinsic Menace in ‘Media Reform,’" published on Feb. 22, was a criticism of the “media reform” movement generally, and of the Knight Foundation, the FCC, and the group that calls itself Free Press specifically.  Among the subsequent commenters were Charles Firestone of the Aspen Institute, who challenged my characterization of the Knight Commission (a collaboration of Aspen and the Knight Foundation) and Timothy Karr of Free Press.

Karr’s comment was a classic.  In the finest tradition of political activists everywhere, Karr dealt not at all with the substantive points in my piece, but instead resorted to ad hominem attacks on me and The Media Institute, and faulted the editors of the Huffington Post for publishing it.

This last bit turned out to be a thing of some moment, about which more later, but Karr had more to say.  Lot’s more.  Just one day after the publication of "Intrinsic Menace," Karr wrote a piece for his own blog (Media Citizen) titled "When Corporate Shills Attack."  And three days after that he published, on the Huffington Post, a piece titled "Announcing the (Unofficial)Post Shill Watch," and cross-posted it the same day at Daily Kos.

The burden of both pieces, if that’s the word, was two-fold: HuffPo was allowing “corporate shills” (like me) to enter its progressive sanctum sanctorum, and it was not requiring said bloggers to state their organizations’ sources of support.

Had this been all that Karr said it wouldn’t have been an issue. Criticism by Free Press, after all, is considered by many, myself included, to be a thing of no importance, such is that organization’s tedious and transparent “mission.”  But it wasn’t all that he said.  In his Media Citizen blog, Karr also said that I personally had blocked publication of comments he had submitted to HuffPo — that in fact I had blocked his comments no less than five times.

And that was a lie.  Not only had I not done so, I wouldn’t have done for the simple reason that, as the head of one of the country’s leading First Amendment organizations, censorship is not my thing.

So this was unacceptable, and the only question was what to do about it.  After considering other approaches, I decided to ask HuffPo for their help.  As I put it in an e-mail to an associate editor there:

(Tim Karr) is saying on other sites that I have blocked him from commenting on my post at HuffPo.  He claims that he has been blocked five times.  I don’t know if he has in fact been blocked — he has a comment up there now, to which I responded — but I know, as you know, that I certainly didn’t block him.  Since, however, you are the only people who can prove my innocence of Karr’s charge, I hope you’ll find the time and a way to do so.

Thus began a frustrating exchange of notes that went on for eight days.  To my point that Karr had accused me of blocking his comments, the editor initially suggested that Karr was referring to someone else.  To Karr’s claim that I had blocked him five times, the editor suggested I write a piece for HuffPo with a link showing that one comment had been published.  And because Karr had published his accusation on his own blog (Media Citizen), well, there wasn’t much that HuffPo could do about that.

Finally, on March 5, I got a reply to a note I had sent the day before, in which I bluntly questioned why HuffPo was reluctant to tell Karr that I had not blocked his comments.  Much as I had expected, the editor’s note revealed that it was HuffPo itself that had blocked his comments, that they had done so because his comments were critical of HuffPo’s editors, and that Karr had been informed of this in a phone conversation.

I was relieved to hear this, and I thanked the editor and told him it was all I needed, but this affair left a bad taste in my mouth.  It would, after all, have been an easy thing for HuffPo to reveal Karr’s lie by commenting on his "Shill Watch" post on HuffPo itself, though of course that would have required that they publicly own up to blocking his comments themselves.

The bad taste got worse less than a month later when, on March 31, HuffPo announced “new blogging guidelines.”  As described on their website:

In an effort to be as transparent with our readers as possible, we require HuffPost bloggers to disclose any financial conflicts of interest related to the issue they are writing about.  If a blogger receives payment or income from a company, organization, group, or individual with a financial stake in the issue he/she is weighing in on, that information must be disclosed at the bottom of the applicable blog post.

For those who have opened the hyperlinks provided above, these words will sound familiar.  In fact, they sound exactly like what Karr was demanding. As he wrote in his Media Citizen blog:

I respect Huffington Post for building a home for many of us who seek an alternative to the mainstream mouthpieces that dominate news and commentary.  But they do not, unfortunately, require the kind of disclaimer I’d like to see regarding a new crop of contributors who are using the site to push corporate agendas.  I’m hoping that will change soon.  (Emphasis added.)  

Apart from the appearance of an inordinate amount of influence that Free Press has at the Huffington Post, there are many things wrong with this guideline, the most obvious being the way it lumps together people who work for organizations as diverse as law firms, corporations, PR firms, and nonprofit organizations, and implies moreover that bloggers’ opinions amount to “conflicts of interest” wherever they derive any income from entities that have a “financial interest” in the subject being blogged.  It also has the (deliberate?) effect of letting people whose contributors have an “ideological interest,” like Karr and the Free Press funders, off the disclaimer hook altogether.

If, as appears to be the case, HuffPo’s new disclaimer guidelines are a consequence, in whole or in part, of lobbying by Free Press, about whose funding we know next to nothing, the irony is almost too rich for human consumption.

But for the Huffington Post, this is not the worst of it.  Despite its left-leaning editorial slant, one can see in HuffPo the potential for dialogue.  It’s inherent in the openness of the site itself, and it’s implied by Arianna Huffington’s history and in her published views.  But at Free Press dialogue and debate are treated as bourgeois concepts, best abused or neglected, and if the Huffington Post allows them to influence their editorial policies they stand to lose not just a diverse readership but their credibility as well.

The Washington Post’s Health Care Coverage: The Whole Megillah

The Washington Post published last Sunday what is probably their best piece ever about the health care debate.  The irony is that the story was written not by a Post reporter but by the newspaper’s ombudsman, and the thrust of his article was reader unhappiness with the superficiality of the paper’s coverage of this issue

As one of them put it, "’Your paper’s coverage continues in the "horse race" mode.  Who’s up, who’s down … political spin, personal political attacks.’"

Lamentably, the same could be said about much of the mainstream media’s coverage of health care, and not just of health care but of a range of public policy issues, particularly those with an important economic component.

Consider, for instance, the remarkable announcement that issued from the White House on Aug. 25.  The federal deficit, they said, would rise by $9 trillion during the 10-year period from 2010 to 2019.  This amounted to an increase of $2 trillion more than the White House had estimated as recently as February.

Now if, at the very moment that announcement was made, the entire West Wing had collapsed into rubble, and the head of the OMB been struck deaf and dumb, the news might have taken on a kind of visual impact both for the media, and for the rest of us.

But there were no visuals, and so the news was reported in much the same way that TV news anchors announce a jump in the pump price of unleaded.  It was big.  It was a number.  It was Yet Another Example of Mankind’s Fatal Flaws.  (The news anchor’s burden, you know, stories like these.)

In other words, it was nothing at all.  Nothing anyone could be expected to relate to or get a handle on.  Five minutes after hearing the news so reported, the only concern on most people’s minds was what they were having for dinner.

And who could blame them?  For most people a billion dollars is hard to imagine; a trillion is incomprehensible.  And that’s the very point.  The missing ingredient in media coverage of the health care debate, and of the nation’s fiscal policy, is not what the polls or pundits are saying.  Nor is it insight into how politicians plan to spin or parlay these issues to their advantage.

The missing ingredient is the economic impact.  How, for instance, will the government finance such large deficits?  What will the impact be on the credit markets?  On the U.S. dollar?  With the government commanding so much of the investing pie, will there be enough left over to fund private sector needs?  And if so, at what interest rates?

Assuming a constant velocity in their capacity for error, what’s to stop a deficit that is said to have risen 28 percent in the past six months from rising another 28 percent in the next six?

Similar questions mark the health care debate.  What’s the plan?  Is it to provide insurance for people who currently have none?  Or is it to put a brake on rising costs?  Can a plan that attempts to do both really be “deficit neutral"?  And if it’s not, what’s the downside to that?

In the same piece cited at the beginning of this note, the Post’s ombudsman links to an earlier story written by a former reporter.  Called “Myths About Health Care Around the World,” this article provides some useful, if not completely convincing, perspective on the health care debate.  The author points out that Medicare, after all, is a government-run program, but he also points to countries like Japan and Germany that have private insurance with private doctors and hospitals and very efficient systems.

Reading it, one gets the inkling of an idea that perhaps there is a route to meaningful and beneficial health care reform, but it’s unlikely to happen if the media, through their pursuit of "horse race" and politicized coverage of this issue (the Pew Foundation says 72 percent of the Post’s stories were of this sort), keep people in the dark about the important details.

That way lies nothing but anger, frustration, and contempt — first for the politicians but, just a short step behind, for the media as well.

The Washington Post’s ombudsman appears to understand that now.  When will the paper’s editors and reporters?

Aggregating Newspapers Into Extinction

Hardly a day goes by without another reminder that the demise of newspapers is in full swing.
In the Outlook section of yesterday’s Washington Post (Sun., Aug. 2) came the latest, an anecdotal example by Post reporter Ian Shapira titled “How Gawker Ripped Off My Story & Why It’s Destroying Journalism.”  The title pretty much sums things up.
Gawker is, in Shapira’s words, “the snarky New York culture and media Web site.”  More importantly, it is a news aggregator, and it had written about and heavily excerpted an earlier story Shapira had written for the Post.
At first Shapira was glad for the recognition, until his editor reminded him that he, and the Post, had been ripped off.  Shapira had spent several days researching and writing his original story (and getting paid by the Post to do so).  Gawker repackaged his story in no more than an hour and posted it on its site – for free (or close to it, if you count the time of the poorly paid 29-year-old “independent contractor” who did it).
And therein lies the worst-case scenario for the destruction of journalism – which is to say, original reporting.  Newspapers are already being decimated financially by online media sites and blogs.  To the extent that any of these sites offers serious journalism, that journalism frequently consists of stories that have been ripped off, er, “aggregated,” from established newspapers.
But here’s the rub: As online aggregators continue to strangle the newspaper industry, they are killing the geese that have been laying their golden eggs – original reporting.  Once the newspapers are dead (or knocked senseless), from where will high-quality journalism originate?  How many online outlets will be able to pay real reporters the way newspapers did?  What will pass for journalism?
It’s already happening.  Buyouts have emptied newsrooms of many of their most experienced and knowledgeable reporters, leaving things in the hands of novices.  (A small example: An inexperienced reporter at the Post refers to the Obama inauguration train’s observation car as a “caboose,” and the editor doesn’t know the difference.)
Sadly, even the august New York Times is not immune.  A piece by the Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt on Aug 1. described how the paper of record’s appraisal of Walter Cronkite contained seven factual errors – something of a record, no doubt, and a feat unimaginable in an earlier era.
Yesterday I was sitting with a group of friends and one of them was reading the Sunday New York Times.  He asked me if I wanted to see it, and proffered a selection of unmistakably slim sections.  He added apologetically: “The Times isn’t what it used to be.”  No, my friend, it isn’t.  But neither are the rest of them.
I don’t know where all of this is going to end, but I do know that we’re well on the way.   

Dan Rather Has an Idea

According to stories in the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times, newspapers of record for the nation’s elite snowboarders, Dan Rather gave a speech at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday, asking that President Obama create a national commission to “save journalism.”

As one of the papers put it, without a skosh of irony, “Rather told an Aspen audience that journalism has declined to such a point that it is time for the government to intervene.”

Attributing the decline of "great American journalism" to “corporatization, politicization, and trivialization of the news,” Rather suggested that the commission “ought to make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to keep news organizations alive.”

"If we do nothing more than stand back and hope that innovation alone will solve this crisis," he said, "then our best-trained journalists will lose their jobs."

It’s not every day that one encounters such a rich vein of stuff.  Puts one in mind of the children’s illustrations that ask the question, what’s wrong with this picture?  So many upside-down daffodils and trees growing carrots.

First, you know, there’s the problem that some consider the author of this scheme himself to be a disgraced figure in the world of journalism, having lost his job at CBS for the role he played in the airing of a bogus report about President Bush.

Then there’s the (unintentionally) droll picture he conjures up of a presidential commission as a kind of jobs program for the rescue of threadbare journalists, and the linking of the employment status of some of them with the very survival of journalism itself.  

But the most grievous error — that aspect of the Jabberwocky that fairly leaps off the page — is the very suggestion that government is the solution to what ails the media today.  Make no mistake, there are governmental policies that could, and should, be changed (like, for instance, an end to the newspaper/broadcast cross ownership rules), but there is no need for a presidential commission or “media czar” for the purpose.

One would think that a former network anchorman would understand the peril inherent in any intervention by the government into the affairs of the press.  It is this, after all, that is the primary concern of the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  What are the chances, for instance, that any such commission would use its mandate, and the media’s genuine agony, as cover to advance content regulations that parallel the commissioners’ political beliefs?

Speaking of his idea, Rather said that he was “throwing it out there for what it’s worth.”  Since the Aspen Institute charged $15 per ticket to this event, we know what they think it was worth, but I think admission should have been free.  It wouldn’t have improved the speech but the price would have been right.

Ship of Fools

Imagine that every person in the United States were aboard a large life raft, in the open ocean, amidst a hurricane.  In that circumstance how many of the nation’s factions would be pressing their special interests?  Would the environmentalists yammer on about “global warming"?  Or the political class about the likely composition of the presidential tickets in 2012?

Surely the answer to those questions is no.  In that situation the only issue that would be of interest to everyone aboard would be how to survive their predicament.

As it happens, everyone in the United States is aboard that life raft.  It’s called the USS Economy.  But because of their own tunnel vision and fundamental lack of knowledge, aided and abetted by the distracting, sententious, and superficial reportage of the media, the people still don’t fully realize it.

This country’s current and prospective fiscal and economic problems are of such a magnitude that if they are not satisfactorily addressed, and soon, the United States is at serious risk of evolving, at tremendous speed, from a prosperous and democratic country into a banana republic.

The evidence of this calamitous portent is not only easy to find, it’s coming in the windows!  It’s shown in the decline in GDP, employment, tax revenue at all levels of government, and in the growth of the national debt.  And these depressing data are reflected in the decline of virtually all asset classes as investors here and abroad reset their portfolios to the new and emerging realities. 

Nor is the threat of declining living standards and loss of opportunity the only thing we have to fear.  Though it’s noted almost never, the principal reason the United States won the Cold War is because our economy was bigger than that of the Soviet Union.  Because of this we were able to steer the course of commerce and technology around the world.  And because of this our military was bigger and better than the USSR’s.

But today it’s the Chinese who have the momentum in their economy — the same Chinese who, though they’ve adopted capitalistic economic reforms, much to their advantage, are still led by a corrupt and undemocratic political regime.  How long after the Chinese economy surpasses our own will it take before the Chinese military surpasses our own?

Despite these hard truths, too much of the media continue to misreport and under report the nation’s economic affairs.  Like a bakery offering everything from crullers to éclairs to donuts, they persist in delivering news that puts the trivial and fatuous on the same footing as the crucial.

Which is why I offer this modest proposal.  How about creating a national observance (call it Get Serious Week) during which all of the media, print and electronic, refrain from reporting on anything but the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges?  For one full week no stories, for instance, about professional sports (the true opiate of the masses); pop culture celebrities, quick or dead; or the campaigns of single-issue zealots who enjoy such a disproportionate claim on the media’s attention.

It would undoubtedly cost some eyeballs and ad revenue, but at a time when the concept of the “public interest” has been reduced to a cliché, it would be a refreshing demonstration of the virtue in the real thing.


“Whale Wars”: Just Another Fish Tale

If you believe, as I do, that Greenpeace is to conservation what televangelism is to religion, all that  would need to be said about Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” is that the “captain” of the Sea Shepherds’ vessel, Paul Watson, is a co-founder of that organization.  Because, however, Greenpeace disputes Watson’s claim, amidst what appears to be a long-running feud between them, perhaps more may be required.

So here’s some.  As reported on Wikipedia, Watson has, at one time or another, been involved in campaigns on behalf of wolves, sharks, seals, dolphins, American Indians, and now whales.  Along the way he has relieved himself of opinions like his belief “that ‘no human community should be larger than 20,000 people,’ human populations should be reduced to ‘fewer than one billion,’ and that only those who are ‘completely dedicated to the responsibility’ of caring for the biosphere should have children.”

Though the fact of it may not have reached Animal Planet, Watson has also developed quite a revealing take on the media.  As he says in his book, heroically titled Ocean Warrior: “Survival in a media culture meant developing the skills to understand and manipulate media to achieve strategic objectives.”

But enough about Watson.  It’s the show that’s the thing, and a good critique of “Whale Wars” was published earlier this month on the Huffington Post.  The author, Richard Spilman, harpooned the series for its approving portrayal of vigilantism and feckless grandstanding.

“So what’s the problem with Whale Wars?” he asks.  “The problem is that it is cheap exploitation in praise of what is nothing less than eco-terrorism.  It is the glorification of vigilantism on the high seas.  And oh, by the way, the Sea Shepherds do almost nothing to protect the whales where they really do need protection.”

Mostly what they do is speed around offending ships in inflatables and attempt to loft stink bombs onto their decks, all the while flying and wearing the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger, an amusing choice of insignia considering that they don’t actually fight, or even scare, anybody.

In any contest between whales and whalers I would root for the whales.  But if the choice is between whalers and the Sea Shepherds, I’m with the whalers.

‘Breaking Bad’: An Appreciation

Every once in awhile something happens in medialand that elevates and refreshes, and at least partially reclaims the enormous potential of the industry.  Media coverage of the events of 9/11 is one example, and the minor miracle that is AMC’s series "Breaking Bad" is another.

For the uninitiated, who unfortunately are legion, "Breaking Bad" is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, discovering that he has late-stage lung cancer, embarks on a career as a methamphetamine producer.

As measured by the awards, which already include a Peabody and two Emmys, and by the reviews, "BB" has already established itself as perhaps the best show on television.  The writing, acting, directing, and camera work are achingly good.  Unlike the X-rated products that are consumed by people with the emotional maturity of children, whatever their age, "Breaking Bad" really is adult entertainment.

In this brilliant series human beings are complex, neither all good nor all bad, itself a kind of challenge to a world immersed in the poses and pieties of political correctness.  And then there’s the subtlety of it; the communication, with no more than a look or a word, of a world of meaning. 

But the best is the essential humanity of the production — the notion that, no matter how unequal our circumstances, we are essentially the same, and capable of great understanding and empathy.  How else to explain the poignant and touching relationship between Walter and Jesse, Walt’s wayward former student and now partner in crime?

Because of the way the series ended its second season — and because the producer (Vince Gilligan) has told us so — we know that "BB" will be back for a third year, a fact that virtually guarantees more awards and critical acclaim.  And that’s all to the good.  But there are aspects of this phenomenon that invite some further comment that go not to art but to the lesser realms of politics and commerce.

One such observation is the folly of trying to enforce content standards on TV fare where no account is given to the context in which certain words or pictures are used.  "Breaking Bad" features a number of words, and acts of violence, which by themselves might offend some people.  But where, as here, such things are employed not to titillate but to deepen and extend the reality of the experience, one would think many people might see what a mistake it is to allow any kind of governmental censoring scheme that is blind to such distinctions.

The commercial aspect of this show that rankles a bit is the fact of its distribution by American Movie Classics (AMC), owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, itself a subsidiary of the cable operator, Cablevision Systems.  Which is not to say anything derogatory about AMC.  Far from it, the network, and all involved, should be enormously proud of what they’re delivering.  (Which, by the way, also includes the terrific original series, "Mad Men.")

But why, one wonders, isn’t "Breaking Bad" being shown on one of the bigger cable networks, or indeed on one of the broadcast networks?  Kind of hard to imagine that AMC was the producer’s first choice when, were the show being aired on USA or TNT — not to mention, say, ABC — the audience would likely be orders of magnitude larger.  One assumes it may have something to do with the very qualities that make the show so rewarding —that  it’s seen as too smart or sophisticated for a mass audience. 

If so, that’s a shame, both for the country and for the industry, and something that’s being noted.  As Tim Goodman, TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and enthusiastic fan of the series, put it: “It’s like I’ve been freed from the tyranny of network programming.” 

‘Fixing’ CNBC

From a viral video to an online petition campaign, the Jon Stewart smackdown of the hapless Jim Cramer has spawned quite the kerfuffle.  As an Associated Press story describes it: “Some liberal political activists and economists are seizing on comedian Jon Stewart’s attacks of CNBC to push an online petition drive urging the network to be tougher on Wall Street leaders.”

According to the website put up by the organizers, FixCNBC.com, the petition has attracted more than 15,000 signatures as this is being written.  So what are we to say of all this?  A wholesome exercise in media criticism?  An earnest effort in promotion of journalistic excellence?

Well … no.  Actually, the whole affair is little more than a kind of “would you believe” gambit by people whose reason for being is the promotion of their ideological beliefs.  Truly, if there were a Madame Tussauds of the American Left, virtually all the organizations and individuals involved in Fix CNBC would be found there: Free Press, Robert McChesney, Media Matters for America, Eric Alterman, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.  The list goes on and on.

Like the conservative Brent Bozell’s minions at the Media Research Center, the only interest these people have in the media is as vehicles through which they may spread their political ideas.  That, and nothing else.  Not the public interest in quality journalism, nor in any kind of objective coverage of news and public affairs.  And most certainly not in any sophisticated and even-handed coverage of the financial and economic crisis.

So far the network has not responded directly either to the Fix CNBC organizers, or to Jon Stewart.  It will be interesting to see if they can maintain that posture, or if, given the temper of the times, they are obliged to treat the subject of their alleged malfeasance as though it had merit, and issued from people of independent character.

Interesting too will be the response to this flap of others in the media.  On those occasions in the past when conservatives have organized similar protests, their activities have been condemned as heavy-handed if not positively threatening to freedom of the press.  But of course those were conservatives while these are "progressives," so who knows?


Conservatives and the Media

For maybe 50 years, self-described conservatives have been alienated from the dominant U.S. media — the Big Three TV networks, big-city newspapers, the national newsweeklies.  This alienation of a group that comprises as much as a third of the electorate has provided opportunities for such as talk radio companies, and the FOX News Channel, to pick up the pieces.

And even on the Internet conservatives are having success.  They may not have the political influence on the Republicans that the “netroots” have on the Democrats, but websites like the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics are highly influential and display a clearly discernible right-of-center profile.

With this kind of success — owing entirely to the marketplace and deregulation — one would think that conservatives would be very chary about doing anything that might invite government control over media content.  And perhaps some are, but the loudest voices belong to those whose actions and agenda invite precisely this.

Take, for instance, the empire created by L. Brent Bozell.  From entertainment programming to journalism, the House that Brent Built gives voice to a brand of conservative criticism that spans issues from “broadcast indecency” to “liberal media bias.”

And if this were all that they did, there would be no qualms here about the Bozell-founded Parents Television Council (PTC) or his Media Research Center.  Media criticism, after all, is itself free speech.  But it isn’t all that they do.  Through organized letter writing campaigns, position papers, and filings at the FCC, the PTC actively encourages both legislative and regulatory action against “broadcast indecency.”

That this position contradicts one of the central tenets of modern conservatism — the imperative of limited government — is something that Bozell himself has acknowledged to be a conservative critique of his organization.  Alas, inconsistency (some would call it hypocrisy) of this sort does not weigh so heavily on the gentleman as to cause him to reconsider.

Like the late Reed Irvine, another conservative media critic who came before him, Bozell apparently believes that government regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  In Irvine’s case, the classic example of this was his support of the Fairness Doctrine.  Irvine believed that, without the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives would be bereft of any influence over the liberal sensibilities of broadcast journalists.  Of course we now know that repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led directly to the dominance in talk radio not of liberals but of conservatives!

In demonstration of the tenacity of history, this same Fairness Doctrine may yet prove to be Brent Bozell’s undoing too.  This, because these days all the talk, endorsed by such as the Speaker of the House, is of the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine.  Through the Media Research Center, Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against any such plan, but because of the pro-regulation stance of his PTC there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.

Oh, he will, one assumes, be able to organize a letter writing campaign, but such campaigns don’t equate  with credibility in the same way, and for the same reason, that power doesn’t equate with integrity.