The warring personalities of the Washington Post.
Newspapers suffer from a terrible case of multiple personality disorder if they’re any good. From page to page you never know whose voice you’ll hear, but you won’t mistake it when you do. In the magnificent New York Post, there’s no confusing Andrea Peyser with Cindy Adams, or even husband Joey when Joey was alive. Indeed, the decline of great papers like the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times is most evident in the joyless, self-satisfied monotone that emanates from page to page and section to section, from Dining to Living to Preaching (the editorial pages). Place your hand over the byline and after several droning paragraphs you won’t remember whether you’re reading Gail Collins or Frank Bruni or Alessandra Stanley or Andrew Ross Sorkin or…I don’t know, one of those other writers. They all come with the standard-issue Times point of view, as though their attitudes arrived in the same packet with their guild card. But it’s nothing a good jolt of schizophrenia couldn’t fix. Less Gray Lady, more Sybil!
The pages of the Washington Post, I’m happy to report, still disclose multiple personalities, though they are often wan and understated. The owners have shifted their resources to a wobbly Web presence and cut the newsroom staff by half, losing their most distinctive writers along the way. Still, even as it croaks out its death rattle, it retains echoes of the pleasing cacophony that a good newspaper offers its readers.
If it were a person and not a paper, the many personalities of the Post could land it happily in the psych ward. A splendid example of its hydra-headed nature came this summer when it launched an attack on Mitt Romney, right there on page one.
“Bain’s Firms Sent Jobs Overseas” read the headline. The tone reflected the Post personality I think of as “Johnny Deadline, Boy Reporter.” The company founded by Mitt Romney, the first sentence announced breathlessly, “owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to call centers and factories” abroad. The next two paragraphs oddly shift focus, quoting Romney on the campaign trail, talking tough against cheap labor in China and pledging to “bring employers back to the United States.”
Neither quotation is relevant to whether Romney and Bain “shipped jobs overseas,” so it takes a while to figure out why Johnny Deadline plopped them in the story. I can save you time: Readers are meant to understand that Romney is not only a callous businessman but a hypocritical candidate.
Mere hours went by before David Axelrod, Obama’s majordomo, got the message. He released a statement expressing his shock and revulsion at Romney’s “breathtaking hypocrisy.” The Obama campaign peppered reporters with the Post’s story, which already had the smell of a campaign press release. The next day, the president showed that he was particularly impressed with Johnny Deadline’s use of the word pioneers.
“Pioneers!” the president hollered in Florida. “Let me tell you, Tampa, we do not need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval Office.” A few days later: “Just last week, it was reported that Governor Romney’s old firm owned companies that were ‘pioneers’—this is not my phrase, but how it was described in the report—‘pioneers’ in the business of outsourcing American jobs to places like China and India!” Over the next 10 days, Obama’s radio and TV ads repeated the word so often, it’s surprising they didn’t show Romney and his Bain colleagues wearing coonskin caps.
The reaction of Romney’s campaign was scattered and dilatory—showing multiple personalities of its own. First, Johnny Deadline wrote, “Campaign officials declined requests to comment on Bain’s record.” Then officials said the story was “unfair.” Even Romney himself gave rare TV interviews to pronounce the president’s Post-inspired attacks “disgusting.” And then the campaign went silent again, hunkered in its bunker at Boston HQ.
Some Romney sympathizers and armchair quarterbacks—here I blush shyly—wondered whether the candidate and his campaign might use the Post article to underscore the philosophical difference between the two candidates: one a businessman who can articulate the benefits of globalized trade and the free movement of capital, the other a politician whose ignorance of how an economy works has been on display since January 2009.
Instead the campaign produced a PowerPoint.
Six days after the original article appeared, Romney’s communications director demanded a meeting with Post editors to present the slide show rebutting the story. The PowerPoint would have been quite effective if it had been released six days earlier, for it demonstrated that Johnny Deadline’s story was at best an exercise in sly insinuation. A reader with a law degree might have read the original story carefully enough to see that Romney himself wasn’t being accused of “shipping jobs” overseas, only companies in which Bain Capital had invested—and only after 1999, when Romney gave up operational control of the firm’s investments. The facts were technically correct. Only their presentation was a lie. Why front-page the story in the middle of a heated campaign if the candidate did nothing controversial?
The PowerPoint was unavailing, of course, and the Post officially announced it stood by its story.
But then “Official Post” gave way to its other, more charming personalities. A diffident story appeared about the Obama “pioneer” ads. The article was almost a disavowal of Official Post: “The language in the commercials went beyond the Post article by calling Romney himself an ‘outsourcing pioneer.’” Next came the newspaper’s ombudsman, a world-weary flak catcher whose job is to police the news columns for malefactions. “The [Romney] campaign makes a pretty good argument,” he shrugged. At last the Post’s “Fact Checker” columnist weighed in—but not on the Post story: “The Fact Checker does not check the facts in the reporting of Washington Post writers,” he said sternly. So he checked the facts in the Obama ads about the facts in the Post story and found them “misleading.”
By this time, of course, the damage had been done. The Post’s outsourcing story, unrebutted by Romney for nearly a week, led to further stories. Instead of explaining the virtues of a globalized economy, Romney’s rebuttal relied on his having effectively relinquished control at Bain in 1999. This put a new fact in play, opening up another ancillary storyline. What if he didn’t leave Bain in 1999? What if he was still running the show when Bain was investing in outsourcing companies?
Predictably, left-wing outlets such as Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo produced evidence pretending to prove that Romney was in fact running Bain until 2002. And the campaign found itself bickering again. The office laptop must have billowed smoke as it churned out the PowerPoints. By the time this new question was resolved—1999 is indeed the year Romney left Bain—the debate had moved on to another pressing issue: Why won’t Romney release his tax returns?
Multiple personality disorder is great for newspapers and for readers: It essentially allowed the Post to retract its story without retracting it. But it’s unnerving in a campaign organization, as Romney’s supporters learned. Romney might have avoided this grueling metastasis at the outset by rejecting the premise of the attack, which he has yet to challenge.
“If economists are agreed on anything,” he might have said, “it is the net benefits to society, both in the U.S. and abroad, of the free movement of investment capital, and the jobs it creates.” He could have cited recent studies from the London School of Economics and the Congressional Research Service in support of the view that cheap labor abroad means better jobs at home. And he could have turned the argument back to Obama. “The president knows that the globalization of markets, including the market for labor, is irreversible,” he would have said, “which is why he hasn’t proposed policies even remotely commensurate with his campaign’s alarmism.”
He could have quoted an editorial that effectively rejected the premise of the Post’s outsourcing story. Which is what I just did. It appeared in the Washington Post.
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Press Man: Johnny Deadline vs. the Dreaded PowerPoint
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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 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.