How the press played Telephone with a political profile
If I were a professor of journalism—anyone? anyone?—and I wanted my eager young scholars to ponder a case study in the rhythms of modern newsmaking, I’d have them pick over the rough patch Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi went through in mid-December. It lasted 72 hours or so, during which he went from plausible and respected presidential prospect to the subject of an Economist story with the death-rattle headline “Is Haley Barbour Racist?” I had a good vantage on Barbour’s descent because I wrote the article that got him into so much trouble. No, that’s not quite right: better to say, I wrote the article that was read by the people who used it to get him into so much trouble. That’s the way trouble gets made in our wired-up, blogged-over, twittering world of never-ending media. It doesn’t take much.
Indeed, in Barbour’s case, all it took was saying this: “I don’t remember it being that bad.” I had asked him about growing up in the segregated South, just as the civil rights movement and the spirit of racial equality had been seeping into places like his hometown of Yazoo City. He told me integration came to the town without violence—and without the interference of the Ku Klux Klan—because civic and business leaders had organized a Citizens Council to keep the Klan at bay. In the end, as I noticed wandering around Yazoo City, the era of integration didn’t last long. Today the public schools are nearly all black and the private schools all white. The residential neighborhoods are divided, too, with a faded downtown slowly collapsing in between. Barbour enrolled his own boys in one of the private schools, an “academy” built explicitly as a refuge for whites fleeing integrated public schools.
The Weekly Standard published the Barbour profile online on a Saturday. The story was first noticed by an obviously overworked writer for Politico, a gossip ’n’ policy publication and an engine of the news cycle that endlessly spins in Washington. The Politico writer zoomed in on Barbour’s comments on race, and the inaccuracies and conjecture so indispensable to Internet news and commentary began at once. He wrote that the Standard’s writer—me—was “sympathetic” to Barbour, which I wasn’t, particularly; and he said the article offered a “preemptive defense” of Barbour’s complacency, which it didn’t. I did note the irony of white political reporters waxing moralistic about race and schools when they send their own children to private schools with a tiny and carefully calibrated minority quota. But that wasn’t meant as a defense of Barbour. It was meant as an insult to moralizing white political reporters.
By Monday morning, the political class was furiously obsessed with Barbour. Left-wing blogs roared in outrage: “Barbour Says Segregation ‘Not that Bad’?” was a typical headline, carefully disguising misinterpretation as breaking news. Right-wing blogs linked to the left-wing blogs, which linked back to the right-wingers, who tweeted their dismay. Through the evening and into the next morning, Barbour’s “comments on race” were the top story on Yahoo News, the most visited news site on the Web. The Democratic National Committee issued a statement—via Twitter, of course—declaring that Barbour had “disqualified” himself as a presidential candidate. On Tuesday, most newspapers carried a story about “Governor Barbour’s Dream World,” as a New York Times editorial put it. Everywhere, the theme was the same. Googling “Haley Barbour” and “Weekly Standard,” I came up with 41,000 hits. Googling “Haley Barbour” and “Weekly Standard” and “racist,” I got more than 37,000.
Shell-shocked, Barbour’s office released a “clarification,” calling the Citizens Council “indefensible.” No one was appeased. Pat Buchanan denounced him for “throwing the town fathers . . . under the bus.” Some weeks you just can’t win.
I admit I didn’t see it coming. The article is 7,500 words long. Roughly a third of those deal with Barbour’s childhood and black-white relations in Yazoo City. I used the other two-thirds to acquaint readers with matters that might make Barbour a problematic candidate for Republicans and a problematic president for the rest of us. His career as a Washington lobbyist is a civics-textbook example of the insular, self-dealing political culture that roused the slumbering masses to revolt in last November’s election. Only a handful of outlets followed the lead on Barbour’s lobbying, however—a painful and unnecessary reminder that the influence a writer has over his readers is vastly overrated. It turns out that I have the same luck with bloggers that I have with my dog. I point at a cat prowling the yard and he stares at my finger.
It was the issue of race, of course, that offered columnists and bloggers an irresistible opportunity to demonstrate their own virtue in contrast with Barbour’s lack of it. Some strutting carried added benefits. The English newspaperman Harold Evans—who, being married to Tina Brown, the editor of the Daily Beast website, is a columnist for the Daily Beast website—produced a long column under the headline “Don’t Buy Haley Barbour’s Myth.” Evans has a book to sell, a memoir that more closely resembles what journalists call a “notebook dump,” a collection of his old clippings unearthed and strung together to simulate retrospective contemplation. When Sir Harold heard about the Barbour comments, he instantly recalled his own experience in the 1950s covering white Citizens Councils in the Deep South. He leapt to the manuscript of his own book, carved out several thousand already recycled words, and offered them up as a fresh column. It was a wonder of our age, a notebook dump from a notebook dump.
Evans wasn’t alone in showing no sign of having read the article that inspired his indignation. As a TV host, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC shouldn’t be expected to read anything, but her sly misrepresentation of Barbour proved that even her staff has sworn off the printed stuff. The Standard’s “glowing article,” Maddow told her audience, was “clearly designed to elevate Barbour as the future of the GOP.” There’s no reason why anybody should care about my private opinion of Haley Barbour, but I will disclose that it doesn’t entail elevating him as the Republican future. As the story traveled further from its original source, the inaccuracies ramified, like a game of Telephone. Paraphrase begat paraphrase, ending in sheer fantasy. When one blog reported, erroneously, that Barbour had praised segregation itself, liberal opinion split in two: one school said that Barbour merely had been caught making racist comments, the other that Barbour had intentionally made the racist comments in a bid to win Republican, which is to say racist, votes. Al Sharpton counted himself a member of the latter school. Barbour, he said, was executing “a strategy of throw it out there, then pull it back and wink after you’ve sent a signal.” He would know.
The earliest consensus—at mid-Monday, roughly—was that Barbour had ruined his chance to run for president. By Tuesday afternoon, blogging revisionists were debunking this “conventional wisdom”: the controversy was in fact merely a “kerfuffle.” I was eagerly awaiting the next wave refuting the “new conventional wisdom” when . . . all of a sudden . . . it was over.
I felt as if I’d been in the path of a tornado. And so, when I convene my fictional class of budding journalists in my nonexistent J-school, I will teach them about the new media’s principle of immediate obsolescence: the Internet furor provoked by a news item rises in inverse relation to the news item’s triviality, even as its very triviality guarantees that the furor will quickly die. So it was with Haley Barbour and his unforgivably happy childhood. As I write, the blogosphere is still on fire, but Barbour is spent fuel. The former New York Times reporter Judith Miller has called Julian Assange a “bad journalist.” The journalist Tucker Carlson has said that Michael Vick should be executed. Sarah Palin retweeted another tweet critical of the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. What was she trying to say? What does it mean? And quickly, quickly: What comes next?
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Haley Barbour’s Close Shave
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.