Tag Archives: New York Times

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Trump, the Pussy Tape and a Bunch of Lazy Journalists

Image result for trump access hollywood            “The tape, without question, is real.”

I expected better from The New York Times.

The quote is the lede of a news story by Daniel Victor, a reporter at the Times. Victor’s piece is about a controversy, or more precisely, an echo of a controversy: the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Donald Trump is heard joking with show host Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals. The audio (you don’t see Trump’s face during the gutter talk) was released shortly before a major debate against Hillary Clinton; it nearly cost Trump the election.

Perhaps in an effort to distance himself from the big sexual harassment discussion, Trump has lately been telling people that the audio wasn’t real — that it wasn’t him saying all that sexist stuff. “We don’t think that was my voice,” he told a senator recently.

Trump’s denial-come-lately (he apologized at the time) is being ridiculed. “Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape are part of his lifelong habit of attempting to create and sell his own version of reality,” Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin of the Times wrote. Senator Jeff Flake said: “It’s dangerous to democracy; you’ve got to have shared facts…that was your voice on that tape, you admitted it before.”

Trump lies a lot. He may be lying here. I don’t know.

The point is, neither does The New York Times.

            What disturbs me more than the possibility/likelihood that the president is a liar is the fact that journalists who ought to know better, including six-figure reporters employed by prestigious media organizations like The New York Times that repeatedly brag about adhering to high standards, are too lazy and/or ignorant to conduct basic due diligence. This isn’t new: I have been the subject of news articles for which the news outlet didn’t call me for comment (calling for comment is journalism 101). But journalistic laziness is still shocking and wrong.

A news article that begins with an unambiguous declarative statement like “The tape, without question, is real” ought to contain proof — or at least strong evidence — that there really is no question.

Victor’s piece does not come close to meeting basic journalistic standards. Victor quotes a host from “Access Hollywood” who says that’s Trump on the tape. Mostly he relies on Trump’s 2016 apology: “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.” But so what? I can say I was on the grassy knoll but that doesn’t mean I really shot JFK.

I don’t like Trump either. But it’s reckless and irresponsible to report as news, as proven fact, something that you don’t know for certain.

The sloppy reporting about the authenticity of the Trump tape reminds me of the breathtaking absence of due diligence exercised by The Los Angeles Times when it fired me as its cartoonist. There too the story centered on an audio.

I wrote in a Times online blog that an LAPD cop had roughed me up and handcuffed me while arresting me for jaywalking in 2001. The police chief gave the Times’ publisher an audio the cop secretly made of the arrest. The audio was mostly inaudible noise, yet the Times said the fact that it didn’t support my account (or the officer’s) proved I had lied. I had the audio “enhanced” (cleaned up); the enhanced version did support my version of events. Embarrassed and/or scared of offending the LAPD (whose pension fund owned stock in the Times’ parent company, Tronc), the Times refused to retract their demonstrably false story about my firing. I’m suing them for defamation.

Where my former employer went wrong was that they didn’t investigate thoroughly. They were careless. They didn’t bother to have the audio authenticated or enhanced before firing me and smearing me in print.

Back to the Trump tape.

Editors and reporters at any newspaper, but especially one the size of the New York Times, which has considerable resources at its disposal, ought to know that proper reporting about audio or video requires both authentication and enhancement.

Proper forensic authentication of a recording like the “Access Hollywood” recording of Trump is a straightforward matter. First, you need both the original tape as well as the device with which it was made. A copy or duplicate of an audio or video cannot be authenticated. The tape and recording device are analyzed by an expert in a sound studio for signs of splicing or other tampering. The identity of a speaker can never be 100% ascertained, but comparisons with known recordings of voices (as well as background noise from the original recording location) can provide meaningful indications as to whether a recording really is what and who it is purported to be. (The LA Times didn’t do that in my case. Anyway, they couldn’t. All they had was a copy, a dub — and you can’t authenticate a copy.)

My situation with the LA Times highlights the importance of enhancement. Had the paper’s management paid for a proper enhancement, they would have heard what lay “beneath” a track of wind and passing traffic: a woman shouting “Take off his handcuffs!” at my arresting officer.

            Do I believe Trump’s denials? No.

Is the media right to say Trump is lying about the Billy Bush recording? Also no.

Because the media have offered no evidence as to the recording’s authenticity. For all we know, the original tape was never released. I’d be shocked if the recording device was released. And I’d be triple-shocked if those two items were sent to a professional audio expert for authentication.

A president who is an evil, dimwitted, underqualified megalomaniac is a danger to democracy.

So is a lazy, cheap, cut-and-paste class of journalists who don’t bother to thoroughly investigate stories.

(Ted Rall’s (Twitter: @tedrall) next book is “Francis: The People’s Pope,” the latest in his series of graphic novel-format biographies. Publication date is March 13, 2018. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Call H.R.? Why Not the Cops? The Weird Politics of Sexual Harassment

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5e/Kevin_Spacey_%40_San_Diego_Comic-Con_2008_-_b.jpg/170px-Kevin_Spacey_%40_San_Diego_Comic-Con_2008_-_b.jpg            When the Kevin Spacey story first broke, he stood accused of one act of wrongdoing: aggressively hitting on a 14-year-old boy.

If true, this is wrong. Very wrong. Obviously. Adults shouldn’t proposition children. But this happened more than 30 years ago. The nature of the response — Netflix distanced itself from the star of its hit show “House of Cards” by announcing its previously secret decision to end the series next year — seems like the wrong response to the actor’s behavior…and one that has become all too typical.

Bear in mind, this was before other people stepped forward to say Spacey had sexually harassed them. Some of Spacey’s accusers worked on “House of Cards.” After that, Netflix would have been derelict not to put Spacey on hiatus as the accusations get sorted out, and to fire him for creating a toxic work environment for its current employees. Which is what it did.

Sexual harassers getting their just comeuppance is a good thing. It is decades, centuries, millennia overdue. What I can’t figure is, why is the knee-jerk response to these accusations, the standard-issue form of social shaming in the 21st century, to fire them from their jobs — including jobs where they didn’t do anything wrong?

The NYPD may file criminal charges against Harvey Weinstein, whose name will for the forseeable future be preceded by the phrase “disgraced Hollywood producer.” But Weinstein is an exception. For most men accused of sexual harassment and assault during this post-Weinstein outcry, the standard demand is: fire him!

Depriving a man (or woman, if that happens) of their livelihood in response to piggishness seems both too little and too much.

For victims, the knowledge that their attacker lost their job hardly rises to the level of even minimal justice. Nor does it protect other women from falling prey as well. Any sanction short of a prison term for a rapist or a big-time sexual harasser is bound to feel trivial, as though society doesn’t weigh victimhood, as if victims are disposable.

For the falsely accused (e.g., the University of Virginia, probably also the Columbia student accused by a famously mattress-toting classmate), being deprived of a livelihood for a crime they didn’t commit is egregious. We live in a capitalist society without a minimal safety net, so losing your job can — if you are unable to find a new one — quite literally kill you.

Unless the incident occurs on the job, the connection between employment and sexual harassment and rape is as arbitrary and odd as that between employment and healthcare. If a society determines that healthcare is important, it should be available to everyone, not just workers fortunate enough to land a 40-hour-a-week job working at a company big enough to offer a health plan. Similarly, what does sexually harassing 30-plus years ago at a private party — yes, even a boy — have to do with Spacey’s then-current gig with Netflix?

It didn’t turn out to be the case, but try to imagine that the entire brief against Spacey had never expanded beyond Anthony Rapp’s tweet, which describes an incident that Spacey claims he doesn’t recall. It’s safe to say Spacey’s character on “House of Cards” would have been killed off. Spacey probably would have lost other jobs. He would likely have had trouble finding work in the future. You might say good, who cares? But this outcome would have been fair neither to Rapp nor to Spacey.

If Rapp is telling the truth, it would be better for that truth to be determined by the courts, should he decide to file charges. Statues of limitation are challenging in these cases, but the solution is for state legislatures to fix that problem, and for prosecutors to be induced to go after cases tougher than a slamdunk. As it is, political leaders are abdicating justice to social media lynch mobs and employers. There are also civil courts, where the standard of proof is lower.

As far as Spacey goes, is it ethical to take money out of his pocket over an accusation that has never been tried, much less proven, by a judge or jury?

On the other side of the coin, Fox News waited way too long to fire Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes. I’m not typically sympathetic to corporations or their bottom lines, but if I’m the boss at a company, anyone who forces my organization to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement to a sexual harassment victim — because, let’s face it, corporations only pay when they’re guilty — is out the door before it happens again. Mark Halperin allegedly harassed women at ABC; ABC’s firing thus seems cut and dry.

Of the recent firings, NPR handled things better than most. Michael Oreskes hung on to his job as long as his accusers were out of his past, from his previous position at the New York Times. They let him go after a female NPR staffer said he’d harassed her.

These cases of sexual harassment and assault are more straightforward from a human-resources point of view: employers must not permit a hostile work environment. That requires them to fire harassers. But this does not go far enough. What of their victims? Is victims’ only recourse to sue in civil court, or try to get a book published? Here too, we need to adjust the criminal justice system to a post-“Mad Men” world that understands the toxic effects of workplace harassment. Bill O’Reilly probably misses his job, but he’s still rich and life goes on.

As I’ve written before, employers have way too much power over workers. While bosses have every right — and the duty — to fire those who abuse other employees at their current workplace, they shouldn’t be allowed to punish anyone for actions, no matter how heinous, that took place outside the workplace or at a previous job. Otherwise we wind up with insane politically-oriented censorship firings like the case of the neo-Nazi dude who never shared his views at his job at a pizzeria, yet got canned after he was photographed in Charlottesville, and the liberal woman whose marketing company employer let her go after she gave the finger to Trump’s motorcade — while biking, not at work.

Sexual harassers and assaulters should face prison time. So should false accusers. But bosses need to mind their own business — at their own business.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Hugh Hefner Said His Critics Were Prudes and Puritans. The Negative Obits Prove Him Right.

 

No one has ever accused Ross Douthat of excessive astuteness. “Donald Trump isn’t going to be the Republican nominee,” he wrote in January 2016. Dude is paid to prognosticate politics. Even so, Douthat probably pulls down six figures at The New York Times, which doesn’t grant me the courtesy of a rejection letter. So people pay attention to him.

Hugh Hefner’s death didn’t move me. Penthouse was my print media stimulus of choice. I only read Playboy after the magazine’s late delightful cartoons director Michelle Urry commissioned some samples during her campaign to update the magazine’s hoary cartoon section with edgier, more political work. (Alas, those weird Marxist sex cartoons are lost to history.)

The worst cartoon editors are former aspiring cartoonists. Hef was one of those; he killed my stuff for being too edgy and political.

But Hefner sure managed to rile up Douthat.

“Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with Quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself,” Douthat wrote upon the Playboy founder’s passing.

As if syphilis hadn’t existed pre-Hef.

Or abortion.

Or porn, for that matter.

Banging out an all-out assault so shrill it would come off as over-the-top if it concerned Charles Manson, Douthat even blames Hefner for the sins of the political class: “Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.”

Get real: I never met a liberal who considered Hefner a leader, much less the captain, of liberalism. And where exactly are these devout family-values crusading conservatives? Sending other people’s kids off to kill Middle Easterners for fun and profit, or pimping trickle-down economic BS to benefit their rich patrons?

I align myself neither with liberals nor conservatives nor Hefner. Honestly, though: the vituperative nature of so many Hefner postmortems have done more to validate Hefner’s claim that his critics were prudes and anti-sex identity feminists than everything he ever said or did.

There is more than a little ageism in these “The Loin in Winter” depictions of a porn entrepreneur who lived too long, couldn’t figure out the Internet and counted out his final years like a male Norma Desmond in the fading grandeur of a decaying Playboy Mansion, in denial that the culture had moved past him. Douthat opined: “Early Hef had a pipe and suit and a highbrow reference for every occasion; he even claimed to have a philosophy, that final refuge of the scoundrel. But late Hef was a lecherous, low-brow Peter Pan, playing at perpetual boyhood — ice cream for breakfast, pajamas all day — while bodyguards shooed male celebrities away from his paid harem and the skull grinned beneath his papery skin.”

A disgusting depiction — one that reflects upon its author more than its target.

Hef’s passing prompted a few genuinely positive assessments of the man and his product, like this from the refreshing Camille Paglia: “Pornography is not a distortion. It is not a sexist twisting of the facts of life but a kind of peephole into the roiling, primitive animal energies that are at the heart of sexual attraction and desire…It must be remembered that Hefner was a gifted editor who knew how to produce a magazine that had great visual style and that was a riveting combination of pictorial with print design. Everything about Playboy as a visual object, whether you liked the magazine or not, was lively and often ravishing.”

But most post-Hefs were like Peggy Drexler in CNN: “The terms of [Hefner’s] rebellion undeniably depended on putting women in a second-class role. It was the women, after all, whose sexuality was on display on the covers and in the centerfolds of his magazine, not to mention hanging on his shoulder, practically until the day he died.”

True enough. But not really fair.

Porn is weird.

Porn commodifies women, reducing them to flat 2-D imagery crafted to titillate. If you feel dirty after you use to it to masturbate, it’s because you feel at least a little guilty about the high probability that the women in those photos and videos almost certainly wouldn’t expose themselves if they didn’t really need the money. Yet Drexler misses that visuals are key to sexual attraction, and that includes the way hetero women assess men based on their physical appearance. We are all commodified by this culture of consumption and relationships based at least in part on mutual opportunism and exploitation.

Really-existing feminists rarely frame their critiques of pornography where it belongs, within the construct of a slave-labor capitalism in which construction workers and yoga teachers and professional athletes and UPS workers and cartoonists wear down their bodies for cash — or starve.

Largely divided between anti-Hefner obits and anti-Hefner obits that give the marketing genius his editorial due, what shines through is a deep discomfort with sex in mainstream American media. What is wrong with a 91-year-old man, even if he looks 91 and resorts to Viagra, viewing himself as a sexual being? Or a 101-year-old woman?

May we all be so alive until we are just dead.

Why does Douthat assume we should share his revulsion when he describes Hef as “a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies”? The aesthetics may not be yours, but the choices were his — which is as it should be. (On the other hand, criticism of Hefner seems legitimate when it attacks the man as manipulative of women in his orbit.)

As Paglia says, “Second-wave feminism went off the rails when it was totally unable to deal with erotic imagery, which has been a central feature of the entire history of Western art ever since Greek nudes.”

Relax. It’s just sex.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: How the Media Manipulated the Democratic Primary

IMG_2255Though it might not always seem like it, the news media is composed of human beings. Humans aren’t, can’t be, and possibly shouldn’t be, objective. Still, there’s a reasonable expectation among consumers of political news that journalists of all political stripes strive to be as objective as possible.

At their minimum, media outlets ought to be straightforward about their biases.

They certainly shouldn’t have, or appear to have, their thumbs on the scales.

Unfortunately, all too often, it appears that the political system is rigged – and that the major media companies play an important role in gaming the system. That’s what has happened throughout this year’s Democratic primaries, in which the vast majority of corporate media outlets appear to have been in the bag for Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate, against self-described “democratic socialist” insurgent Bernie Sanders.

Examinations of coverage have confirmed the impressions of cable news junkies that Sanders has been the victim of a blackout, thus depriving him of a chance to make his case to voters. When the chairwoman of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, scheduled the first round of Democratic debates at times the party hoped nobody would be watching – again, a seemingly obvious ploy to deprive Sanders of exposure – corporate media outlets had little to say about it.

Then there has been the media’s complicity in spreading Clinton campaign talking points that bore little relation to the truth.

MSNBC and other DNC-aligned media outlets kept pointing out that Clinton won 3 million more votes than Sanders. True, technically. But that’s pretending that caucus states didn’t exist. Sanders did better than Clinton in caucuses.

Most recently, they conflated pledged delegates – those won by a candidate based on votes cast – with superdelegates, the Democratic politicians and party officials who will be able to vote however they want at the convention this coming July. Back in November, an Associated Press survey found that Hillary Clinton – unsurprisingly – enjoyed the support of the vast majority of the superdelegates. Assuming that the superdelegates will not change their minds, the AP called the Democratic race for Hillary Clinton on Monday, the night before a set of important primaries, including California. Does anyone doubt that calling a race over as the effect of depressing voter turnout?

It’s impossible to quantify that effect, to know how many people didn’t bother to show up at the polls because they were told it was all over. In California, however, Hillary Clinton won 56% of the vote in a state where polls showed the two candidates neck and neck. (California’s state election officials also did their best to keep voters away from the polls.)

As a journalist, I’m reluctant to categorically argue that the AP ought to have held its statistical analysis of the race until after Tuesday’s vote. News ought not to be suppressed. When you have it, you ought to report it. Similarly, I’m not sure that the New York Times was wrong to report the AP story. However, I do question the editorial wisdom of running it as a banner headline. The United States is a democracy. We elect our leaders based on votes actually cast by real people, not polls. Even after Tuesday’s vote, Hillary Clinton still didn’t have enough pledged delegates to claim the Democratic nomination. Since those superdelegates aren’t going to vote until July, she won’t be able to really claim the nomination until then.

Agreed, it’s a silly system. But it’s the system the Democrats have. They – and the media – ought to abide by it. Besides which, think how embarrassing it will be if the Justice Department indicts Hillary between now and July. There’s a lot to be said for leaving things hanging.

The thing that disgusts me most about this system – besides the perpetual state of war, the manufacturing of mass poverty, the prison industrial complex, the miserable state of the justice system, the fact that it’s impossible to make a decent living working 40 hours a week – is that it doesn’t even pretend to follow its own rules in a consistent way. Consider, for example, how the New York Times couldn’t wait to report its “Hillary Clinton becomes first woman nominee from a major political party” story until after the primaries in California et al. Would one or two days have made a big difference? (Well, yes. Sanders might have won California.) If the idea is to get the story out first, no matter what, even if it suppresses the vote, I can respect that. But then they ought to be consistent.

It was a very different story back in 2004. A few weeks before the general election in November, the New York Times researched and came to the conclusion that George W. Bush, the incumbent, may have cheated in at least one of the presidential debates against Sen. John Kerry. Photographs of the debate clearly showed a suspicious bulge in Bush’s shoulder; the Times did report the story as a light he-says-she-says piece. But then experts concluded that the tongue twisted former governor of Texas had been using a receiver paired with an earphone in order to get advice and retorts to carry from an unknown co-conspirator.

Editors at the paper decided to hold a serious exposé until after the election so that its coverage would not affect the results. Then they killed it. Four more years of Bush followed.

Actually, the corporate media’s policy is brutally consistent. If holding a story benefits the forces of reactionary conservatism, it gets held. If releasing it does so, it gets released. Time after time, the system exposes itself for what it is.

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His next book, the graphic biography “Trump,” comes out July 19th and is now available for pre-order.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Everyone But the Media Saw Trumpism Coming

  If you suck at your job, you’ll get fired.

If you suck because you’re lazy, you’ll definitely get fired.

Unless you’re a member of the political and economic establishment of a disintegrating superstate. If you’re incompetent and indolent but reliably loyal and unquestioning, your sinecure in the system that props up the powers that be is safe.

The New York Times, an institution so beholden to the establishment that it subjects a major presidential candidate to a media blackout and Orwellian post-publication memory-holing, is this week’s case study in establishmentarian unaccountability.

After effectively donating nearly half a billion dollars of free media coverage to the campaign of Donald Trump (or is it $1.9 billion? who can count?), corporate media is finally beginning to wonder whether teeing the country up for its first potential bona fide fascist dictatorship was a good idea.

In the Times, reliably mistaken op-ed columnist David Brooks allowed that, just maybe, opinion mongers like him ought to have noticed the building voter outrage over “free trade” deals like NAFTA and TPP — agreements supported by him and his paper’s editorial board — that gutted America’s industrial heartland and are driving the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns. “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else,” Brooks wrote March 18th.

“Moreover,” continued the man who thought invading Iraq would be a cakewalk, “many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.”

This is a stunning admission.

Let’s set aside the question of how likely it is that Brooks really will make the effort to get out more. (My guess: not very.) Why should the Times ­— and, more to the point, the readers whose paid subscriptions pay Brooks’ salary — keep a man on staff who admits that he sucks at his job because he’s too lazy to interact with the American people?

Brooks deserves to have plenty of company as he walks the unemployment version of the Long Green Mile.

On March 28th fellow Timesman Nicholas Kristof, famous for taking young men and women to Third World nations devastated by U.S. foreign policy (though I doubt he tells them why those dumps look so dumpy), went even further, in a piece titled “My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump.”

“We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated,” Kristof wrote.

Most Americans are working-class. In other words, Kristof and his colleagues admit they don’t cover the problems that affect most Americans. Again: why does he still have a job?

Believe it or not, there are scores — maybe hundreds — of opinion writers who do know what’s going on in their own country. Who write well. Who get stories right. Pundits who saw the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders populist phenomena coming. But you won’t find any of them in the print pages of major newspapers like the Times, or even in the low-pay ghettos of their web-only content.

Because you can’t be a good journalist and a shill for a corporate media obsessed with access to the powers that be.

As usual in these moments of MSM navel-gazing, they almost get it right. Kristof continues: “Media elites rightly talk wabout our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.”

Class diversity is a real thing. Newsrooms at stodgy institutions like the Times have their token women and people of color, but most are women and POC from well-off families. They attend expensive journalism schools that don’t offer scholarships, and thus don’t produce graduates from poor families and towns. As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton prove, coming from a traditionally disadvantaged minority group is no guarantee that someone understands or cares about the troubles of the economically oppressed.

More to the point, we need a new class of intuitive journalists. Men and women with empathy. People who have a clue about what’s happening in their own country.

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Bernie” is now on sale online and at all good bookstores.)

 

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Politics Behind a Paywall: If CNBC Sponsors a Debate, Did It Really Happen?

There are two kinds of media censorship: direct and self-directed.

In an authoritarian regime, nothing gets published or broadcast without state approval. I watched the inner workings of direct government control of the press during a visit to Turkmenistan. Every magazine and newspaper was run out of the same office. Many were edited by the same people, all wearing the same lapel pins, an image of the country’s then-dictator, Sapamurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov.

This didn’t exactly make for a bunch of scintillating reads: the “our harvest rocks” stories were direct heirs of propaganda in the Soviet Union, of which the Turkmen SSR was a remote outpost. But it did offer clarity. The Turkmen people have never suffered from any illusions about the nature of their political system. They knew they weren’t free.

Censorship exists everywhere. In the so-called “free world,” however, political and cultural gatekeepers work to try to fool citizens into thinking that it does not. This morning, on NPR, I took note of an in-house ad in which an employee of the network claimed that it reports “unbiased news.”

There is, of course, no such thing as unbiased reporting or analysis. I’ve been listening to NPR for decades. In stories about foreign policy crises, never once have I heard an interview with a pacifist, someone who is against all military action. Whether it’s about Iran or ISIS, the “debate” is always between two varieties of interventionism: harsh (sanctions, i.e. “containment”) and harsher (bombs). If NPR’s “Marketplace” has ever interviewed a communist about why capitalism sucks and should be replaced, I missed it. Biased? You betcha. Always. Inevitably.

Here in the United States, censorship is usually self-directed. No one from the State Ministry of Propaganda calls The New York Times to tell them what’s fit to print. They make those decisions on their own. But those calls are informed by who those editors are — the elite schools from which they graduated (Columbia Journalism School), their class background (parents rich enough to send them to Columbia J-School), input from their friends and colleagues (other people whose parents are rich enough to send them to Columbia J-School). Who they are determines what makes it into print.

Which is often motivated by a desire not to offend those in power.

Major American media outlets are run by people who believe that they need access to those in power, which is to say government officials and corporate executives, in order to do their jobs. The Los Angeles Times, where I worked until July, fired me, apparently as a favor to the police. You see, I drew cartoons critical of police brutality and incompetence. The cops, understandably, didn’t like that. So they ginned up an excuse — since disproven — for the paper to get rid of me. Now they’re in a pickle. They know they messed up, but if they admit it they’ll hurt their relationship with the LAPD by revoking their favor to them. That might mean, the next time there’s a big O.J.-type crime story, that the LAPD refuses to feed them information.

A cartoonist colleague working in the Midwest tells me that, after he drew an anti-police cartoon, the cops stopped talking to his paper’s reporters. If the paper wants tips from the police, they’ve let his editors know, all they have to do is fire their cartoonist.

America, land of innovation, has now conceived of yet a third kind of media censorship: economic.

Last night, like millions of Americans, I turned on my TV to watch the third Republican presidential debate. Since I only subscribe to the basic cable package, however, I couldn’t get it. It only aired on CNBC, which where I live is on premium cable. (It didn’t livestream online either.)

I pay north of $120 a month for cable TV and broadband Internet access. This makes me a relatively privileged member of the mediarati. But not privileged enough. To watch a political debate — a civic ritual that used to be, and still ought to be, on every TV channel and radio station, free, by law — I would have to bump that up to something closer to $200. This is really, really wrong.

As a result, I — and other political commentators — are reduced to commenting on a debate as seen through the lens of media elites who have those $200 a month to spend.

Many millions of Americans, particularly young people, have “cut the cord” and watch only streamed television and movies. You can’t accuse them of apathy if you won’t let them participate in a presidential campaign.

Here’s how niche CNBC is. Debates sponsored by FoxNews and CNN averaged 24 and 23 million viewers, respectively. (After CNN offered livestreaming, Fox followed suit.) CNBC’s all-time viewing record is 3.9 million, during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Economic censorship is gross. But, much like the brazenness of censorship under a dictatorship, putting politics behind a paywall serves as an unintentional signifier. The system is not of, by or for you, the people.

It’s the ultimate triumph of pay-to-play electoral politics: democracy without voters.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net, is the author of the new book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Where Are the Passionate Editors?

          Stipulated: David Brooks isn’t that smart.

As editor of The Weekly Standard — the neo-con rag that served as the warmongering Der Sturmer of the Bushies — he endorsed the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.

He wrote a book, “Bobos in Paradise” (the “bobos” are “bourgeous bohemians”) that, aside from having the lamest title in the history of movable type attempted to coin a phrase to alongside “yuppies” and “hipsters” but never stood a chance.

Every now and then, however, the New York Times op-ed writer whose take on things uncannily mimics whatever happens to be the 50.000-yard line of mainstream corporatist politics writes something worth reading. (This distinguishes him from fellow militant centrist Tom Friedman.)

Brooks’ October 23rd column “Lady Gaga and the Life of Passion” is one of his more thought-provoking pieces, though probably not for a reason he might have hoped.

Born of staring-down-a-deadline laziness, “Gaga” came out of that most bobo of activities, sitting on one’s ass at a benefit dinner in a hotel banquet room. The shindig was thrown by Americans for the Arts, but that’s not important.

Brooks was enthralled by the musician Lady Gaga, who received an award. He quoted her: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.”

Brooks mused: “That passage stuck in the head and got me thinking. When we talk about living with passion, which is sort of a cliché, what exactly do we mean?”

I won’t rehash Brooks’ discourse about living with passion. Click the link if you’re so moved; he’s competent enough at expressing himself.

What struck me was Brooks’ hypocrisy.

Here is a man who, whatever else one can say about him, decidedly does not live his life with passion. He does not take risks. He does not say what he really thinks or really means, because doing so would greatly reduce his income stream. I mean, invading Iraq — seriously? No one with a brain thought that would go well. Even Brooks’ vocal delivery, as seen on NPR and PBS, defines the term “flat affect.”

More damning, he does not endorse the struggles of those who do live with the passion he praises in people like Lady Gaga.

To read him, you’d almost believe Brooks really, truly admires artists and others who take a chance. “[A] trait that marks them is that they have high levels of both vulnerability and courage. As Martha Nussbaum wrote in her great book ‘Upheavals of Thought,’ to be emotional is to attach yourself to something you value supremely but don’t fully control. To be passionate is to put yourself in danger,” Brooks writes.

In this Brooks is absolutely right.

My chosen profession, political satire and commentary, is a high-wire act. To be really funny, to be really incisive, you have to be willing to express opinions that are unpopular — not provocation for its own sake, but in the service of ideas that are necessary to express.

If you’re any good as a political cartoonist, or artist, or singer, you’ll spend your career accumulating enemies. I draw 200 or 300 cartoons and write at least 100 essays a year. That comes to roughly 3500 pieces a decade, each expressing a political opinion. Not too many fans will stick with you through the one or 10 or 100 things you draw or write that really, really piss them off — even if they absolutely adored the other 90% of your work.

If the world needs artists with passion, as Brooks argues and I agree, how do we support them, emotionally as well as economically?

“People with passion have the courage to be themselves with abandon,” Brooks points out. “We all care what others think about us. People with passion are just less willing to be ruled by the tyranny of public opinion.”

Right. For passionate artists to survive or even thrive, then, cultural gatekeepers must themselves be willing to defy public opinion. There is no Lady Gaga without record company executives and concert promoters willing to distribute her music and put on her appearances.

There is no Ted Rall without editors willing to publish my work.

Editors are wimps. Journalists say that all the time. That was probably always true — but there were fewer wimps and more heroes in the past.

One of my first editors, at the Vandalia Chronicle in Ohio, got fired over one of my cartoons, about Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. I was in high school. When she called to tell me the news, I felt awful. She was cheery. Courage came naturally to her.

I can’t imagine an editor being willing to lose his job over something I drew today. I was fired by The Los Angeles Times last summer over a charge that was quickly proven to have been trumped up — yet no one at the Times spoke out, much less resigned, over an obvious injustice in the service of censorship. Years of budget cuts and downsizing have made editors who still have their jobs terrified of rocking the boat. All they want to do is coast to retirement before getting fired.

Brooks on the passionate: “There’s even sometimes a certain recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react.”

True — but this will stop happening when there’s no one left to catch the passionate when they fall.

At the Times, where Brooks works, there has never been a columnist who truly took chances — much less one whose ideology was truly challenging to the status quo. There has never been a review of a truly revolutionary book, or CD, or play. “Experts,” though frequently wrong, are always drawn from among the usual middlebrow elites.

Brooks could dig deep into avant garde culture and politics if he wanted to. Which he clearly doesn’t. Every year around the December holidays, for example, he releases a list of magazine articles he recommends. Never, ever will you find him praising something that didn’t appear in the mainstream media.

There’s something really, truly weird about reading a paean to passion in a paper so dedicated to crushing it.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net, is the author of the new book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.CO

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United Rhapsody: Gag Me with A Pop Culture One Percenter

Culture has always been class-based. Rich people went to the opera; the poor listened to heavy metal. But what we read and watch and listen to is becoming segmented into more striations with wider gaps between them, reflecting income distribution.

I was thinking about this while reading that ultimate periodical for, by and about the richest one percent: The Sunday New York Times.

The Times is historically elitist: You get lots of reviews of classical music and fine arts, hardly anything about rock, hip-hop or comics. In Timesworld, a $150 dinner qualifies as a moderately expensive meal. A $650 hotel room is something you might actually consider.

But recently I’ve noticed that the gaps between what the Times prints to try to attract the audience targeted by its advertisers and the interests and tastes of most of its upper-middle-class striver readers are getting more pronounced. Just this weekend, I was tearing through the Sunday edition. (Despite lower page counts, it is still a whale of a paper.) I did it in under an hour.

united rhapsodyThe Times doesn’t have many pieces I want to read anymore.

The paper was always a pretentious publication. Now it’s pretentious and blah. The Times delivers too many puff pieces on corporate executives, too many political horserace articles minus actual politics and way too many dreary profiles of boring authors, musicians, etc.

But the really big change in The Times? It’s the tone of the stuff they print.

Good writing draws you in no matter what the topic. A decade or two ago, you could count on The Times, more so than The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, to print words strung together in a way that would make you care about anything from asparagus cultivation to arbitrage. Now, not so much. Everything in there reads like it was written by a pod person on a triple dose of Prozac.

The Times is all flat-line affect.

Which, in a way, is interesting — interesting in a dull way but still interesting: You see, to make it as a successful journalist in 2015, you have to be able to make videotaped mass beheadings dull.

This is, in a way, a skill. But who has time to read it?

united rhapsody review ted rallSo, today I read The Times in a slow-down-to-check-out-the-car-wreck way. And I came across an item that brought home the widening cultural class divide. Here it is:

Breaking News!  United Airlines has a new in-flight magazine, but it’s only for those who pay top dollar for flights. And it only features the type of literary fiction Timesians like long-time book critic Michiko Kakutani classify as “high-end.”

Good God.

Reports Alexandra Alter:

“As airlines try to distinguish their high-end service with luxuries like private sleeping chambers, showers, butler service and meals from five-star chefs, United Airlines is offering a loftier , more cerebral amenity to its first-class and business-class passengers: elegant prose “

united rhapsody review ted rallAlter continues, “There are no airport maps or disheartening lists of in-flight meals and entertainment options in Rhapsody.”

But wait. Rich people don’t need airport maps? How do they navigate airports — teleportation?

“Instead,” she writes, “the magazine has published ruminative first-person travel accounts, cultural dispatches and probing essays about flight by more than 30 literary fiction writers.”

She reports a list of authors that includes “literary stars like Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Amy Bloom, Emma Straub and Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two years ago.”

I’m glad I’m in Coach. Every one of those writers bores the shit out of me.

To paraphrase the fictional Nazi in Hanns Johst’s play via Mission of Burma, whenever I hear the phrase “literary fiction” I reach for my revolver. Then I run away screaming.

Fiction is good or bad. There is no such thing as non-literary fiction.

united rhapsody review ted rallPurveyors of literary fiction sometimes wonder aloud why their non-genre genre doesn’t get more attention (from the marketplace). Though I infrequently observe a relationship between quality and sales, I can answer this question: literary fiction is written for an upper crust, very white, well-educated but not-as-smart-as-they-think sliver of the word-consuming public — whose number is too small to create a Stephanie Meyer-scale bestseller.

Ninety years ago, these would be the same people who hate Hemingway.

They hate anyone just for writing non-MFA approved sentences that anyone could read, understand, enjoy — and not notice.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, who argued that any library would be improved simply by the absence of any books by Jane Austen, I will endure United’s cramped coach class more stoically thanks to my awareness that there isn’t a copy of Rhapsody in the seat pocket in front of me.

The Times, again:

A United marketing flack ‘said the quality of the writing in Rhapsody brings a patina of sophistication to its first-class service, along with other opulent touches like mood lighting, soft music and a branded scent.’ “

Gag me with a plastic TSA-approved spoon.

But wait, there’s more …

‘We’re not going to have someone write about joining the mile-high club,’ said Jordan Heller, the editor in chief of Rhapsody. ‘Despite those restrictions, we’ve managed to come up with a lot of high-minded literary content.’”

Listen. There was a time, not long ago, during my own young adulthood, back when upper middle class and upper class people read the same books and magazines. The former aspired to the latter; the latter imagined themselves in touch with the former.

Now there’s literary fiction, a category designed as an exclusion.

In music, this is jazz. In movies, it’s documentaries and art films. It’s NPR and The Times and the Democratic Party.

Today, the rich live in gated communities of the mind. Every house and every person inside them look and talk exactly the same. No weeds on the perfectly manicured lawns.

Just boring, bland, flat bullshit.

As much as they work to keep us out, I know what keeps the cultural one percenters awake at night: Their very real fear that we don’t want to get it.

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