Commentary Magazine


Topic: Brian Williams

Forget O’Reilly, Fox Is Still the Real Target

When you host the most-watched cable news show and do it on the Fox News Channel, you’ve got to expect your share of brickbats from the left. So it was not terribly surprising that in the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, some on the left would seek to take down someone on the right, especially one of the stars of the dominant cable news channel that liberals love to hate. But as much as the commentary about this non-scandal that is being hyped as one has understandably revolved around Bill O’Reilly and his incendiary personality, it has little to do with him and everything to do with the antagonism that the left feels toward his network.

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When you host the most-watched cable news show and do it on the Fox News Channel, you’ve got to expect your share of brickbats from the left. So it was not terribly surprising that in the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, some on the left would seek to take down someone on the right, especially one of the stars of the dominant cable news channel that liberals love to hate. But as much as the commentary about this non-scandal that is being hyped as one has understandably revolved around Bill O’Reilly and his incendiary personality, it has little to do with him and everything to do with the antagonism that the left feels toward his network.

Despite the attention being lavished on this story by Fox rival CNN, there’s not all that much here to unwrap. The story published by Mother Jones magazine has an inflammatory headline comparing O’Reilly to Brian Williams, but even if you take the piece at face value—which is unjustified by its clear bias and use of innuendo—the comparison is pure hyperbole. There’s no dispute about O’Reilly being on the scene in Buenos Aires as riots convulsed Argentina as the Falklands War came to a disastrous end for that country. Nor is there are real dispute that those riots were violent and that people were shot there. The only possible point on which O’Reilly can be called out is whether reporting from Argentina can be termed “war reporting” or “combat” since he was not in the Falklands but rather on the Argentina home front.

It is, at best, a semantic point. Especially since there was no frontline war reporting going on as there were no journalists with the combatants. Perhaps it does count as an exaggeration of some sort. But surely O’Reilly is right when he says that he was sent to Buenos Aires to cover the war, not to do a travel feature. This was not frontline reportage but suffice it to say that when someone is shooting in your vicinity, it is entirely understandable if you think that feels like combat. Though reporting on the mayhem in that city as the country unraveled may not make him another Ernie Pyle or the moral equivalent of the late Michael Kelly or the other intrepid journalists who were embedded with U.S. troops during the invasion of Iraq, neither does it merit any comparisons with Williams or anyone else who embroidered stories out of whole cloth.

As for the claims that he exaggerated his experiences during the riots, there’s not much to this either. No one denies he was there in the thick of it during the riots. As O’Reilly said on Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources show yesterday on Fox, the prime witness against him there is former CBS colleague Eric Engberg, a longtime antagonist whom O’Reilly has already publicly accused of “bigfooting”—a practice by which big names parachute into a story that was reported by another journalist and take all the credit. As O’Reilly says, there’s no proof that Engberg was on the scene of the action which he now says was no big deal even though CBS ran O’Reilly’s footage. Taken in perspective, it’s obvious the sources of the attack on O’Reilly are more interested in settling scores with the abrasive host than in maintaining any sort of standard of journalism.

So as much as a lot of people would have been delighted to learn that O’Reilly’s claims about Argentina were faked, there’s not much smoke to this story, let alone fire. But what is interesting about the whole thing is the way CNN has latched on to it and reported it relentlessly as if it were another cop shooting a black youth in Ferguson, Missouri, even as the rest of the liberal mainstream media largely passed on it.

CNN’s motives here are as transparent as that of Engberg. It’s been a long time since CNN was the dominant cable news network. Currently Fox’s viewership in almost every hour of the day exceeds the combined audience of CNN and MSNBC. Their effort to take down the leading prime time host on FOX, even if his show is opinion rather than hard news like Williams’s NBC broadcast, shows how desperate the network is to destroy its rival.

As we have come to see, Fox isn’t just the most-watched cable news outlet. It is the scapegoat for all of the anger harbored by both liberal journalists and politicians toward those who question their policies. It is no accident that both President Obama and Attorney General Holder regularly use Fox as a punch line in their speeches to tame liberal audiences. It is not so much an antagonist as it often pursues negative story lines about the administration that mainstream liberals ignore as it is a metaphor for the Democrats’ inability to silence dissent against their beloved president or his policies.

Fox’s conservative bias is no secret, though it is far more balanced at times than the openly and almost uniformly left-wing voices heard on MSNBC and often fairer than the supposedly down-the-middle CNN. The channel’s popularity is a function of the fact that almost half the country feels disenfranchised by mainstream outlets that cover up their liberal tilt with a veneer of faux objectivity.

This motive wouldn’t protect O’Reilly if he was actually caught in a Williams-style lie. But he wasn’t, so the intense focus on him on CNN tells us more about liberal resentment than it does about his supposedly fast-and-loose style.

Perhaps O’Reilly would be better off just ignoring the attacks as pinpricks from a jealous rival. But it’s hard to blame him for defending his reputation, especially when characters like Engberg are concerned. But though his furious response may have given this story some extra life, all it really has done is give us another opportunity to ponder the left’s pointless Fox obsession.

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Why Liberals Want Brian Williams Fired

When the Brian Williams scandal first broke, and as it became clear the NBC host’s alleged fabrications constituted a pattern, there was some instinctive sentiment among conservatives that NBC ought to leave Williams in the anchor chair anyway. After all, what better way to demonstrate the media’s bias and unreliability? But now we’re seeing the other side of that coin: the proposal that credibility will be restored by making Williams’s suspension permanent.

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When the Brian Williams scandal first broke, and as it became clear the NBC host’s alleged fabrications constituted a pattern, there was some instinctive sentiment among conservatives that NBC ought to leave Williams in the anchor chair anyway. After all, what better way to demonstrate the media’s bias and unreliability? But now we’re seeing the other side of that coin: the proposal that credibility will be restored by making Williams’s suspension permanent.

Yesterday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter brought in Deborah Norville to try to predict the future of NBC with–or without–Williams. Norville is a former co-host of NBC’s Today and even occasionally sat in for Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News years ago; she currently hosts Inside Edition. Brokaw reportedly sides against Williams’s return to the host chair (though he did offer a denial that should not bring Williams much comfort). Stelter asked Norville right off the bat if she thought Williams would return to NBC Nightly News. Here’s her response:

I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

First of all, I think Lester Holt is doing a very good job. And, secondly, I think if Brian were to be back on the set, there would be this thought bubble over his head that says, is it real, is it real? Did he make this one up? Is this an exaggeration?

And I just think that that’s too much for the network news division to have to work to overcome. They have a very important brand. There’s a lot of money attached to it. And to put that at risk would be a foolish business decision. At the end of the day, this is a business.

It’s a similar argument used by San Francisco Chronicle editor John Diaz a couple of weeks ago. Diaz dismissed some of the early speculation that tried to excuse Williams’s fabrications. He also criticized Williams’s “bizarre” first attempt at an apology. That apology later looked even worse once it became clear Williams was facing judgment for more than a one-time ethical lapse.

Then he made the credibility argument: “Williams’ credibility is shot, and his presence will taint NBC News as long as he remains in its anchor chair.” But Diaz followed that with an interesting, and highly defensive, aside. Punishing Williams, Diaz seemed to think, was about more than the credibility of NBC; it was about American journalism itself:

Regrettably, the damage does not end at NBC. All journalists suffer to a degree when a high-profile member of the profession transgresses, just as public perceptions of police officers are tarnished by the exposure of an ugly brutality case, or as views of politicians are shaped by the actions of a corrupt few. Those looking for a validation of their low regard for journalists see the Williams fiasco, but they never see the everyday diligence and determination of my colleagues to get a story right. Yes, we make mistakes, but each one is painful — even the smallest typo. When stories are off-base or incomplete, it’s almost always a matter of deadline pressure, limited sources or naivete — not intention, and never fabrication.

It’s easy to sympathize with Diaz. And in fact, I’m inclined to agree. But that’s the problem: fabrication should be viewed as worse than all those other sins, but it shouldn’t be seen as the only journalistic sin. Yet that’s the way the American media behaves.

“Limited sources or naïveté,” in Diaz’s example, are usually not a series of individual, unrelated errors but often the result of more structural biases in the press. As the Washington Post reported last year, self-identified Republican journalists constitute, according to the recent version of a recurring survey, about seven percent of all journalists. Self-identified Democrats made up 28 percent.

But that wasn’t the most important part of the survey. In 1971, a quarter considered themselves Republicans. The survey, then, didn’t show a field implicitly hostile to conservatives. Rather, the media’s partisan gap has been increasing, as has that hostility:

Over the last several decades, three things have happened: 1) The number of Democratic-identifying reporters increased steadily prior to a significant drop in the latest survey 2) The number of Republicans has steadily shrunk with that number dipping into single digits for the first time ever in the new survey c) more and more reporters are identifying as independents.  What seems to be happening — at least in the last decade – -is that journalists are leaving both parties, finding themselves more comfortable as unaffiliateds.

So what’s easier: reforming the liberal bubble that the national press has become, or firing Brian Williams? It’s true that bringing Williams back will probably lead many to question his stories. But what’s clear from the Brian Williams saga thus far is that the mainstream media has no idea how often its accuracy is called into question by the general public.

That “thought bubble” to which Norville referred, in which viewers will wonder if Williams is making up whatever story he’s reporting, already exists. Gallup’s poll last year found trust in media falling back to its historic low of 40 percent. That trust, Gallup explained, tends to fall during election years. In other words, when there is something tangible on the line, trusting the media is a leap of faith most Americans can’t quite make.

So the left can go on believing that firing Williams will go a long way toward restoring the credibility they believe he cost the media during this fiasco. The problem for them, however, is that you can’t lose something you never had to begin with.

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Brian Williams, His Fall from Grace, and the Need for Grace

I understand why NBC News suspended its anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay. His offense was serious, the news division’s credibility is hemorrhaging, and the story was growing rather than receding. It was dominating our conversation, to the point that even local and national sports radio programs were devoting time to it. Something clearly needed to be done. All things taken together, the penalty seems reasonable–tough, but reasonable–to me.

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I understand why NBC News suspended its anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay. His offense was serious, the news division’s credibility is hemorrhaging, and the story was growing rather than receding. It was dominating our conversation, to the point that even local and national sports radio programs were devoting time to it. Something clearly needed to be done. All things taken together, the penalty seems reasonable–tough, but reasonable–to me.

I’ve never met Mr. Williams and I don’t watch NBC Nightly News. But from what I can piece together, it appears as if his vanity and thirst for celebrity got the better of him. Stories that were at first embellished became, over time, fictionalized. He seems to have wanted his life to appear more interesting and more heroic than it was. Once the soldiers he flew with exposed his my-helicopter-was-shot-by-an-RPG-in-Iraq account as false, his career imploded. Within days the man who was seemingly on top of the journalist world has seen his life “shattered,” in the words of a close friend.

I can see why. Mr. Williams has become the object of unremitting ridicule, especially on social media. Like many others, I saw tweets mocking him–the pictures of Brian Williams at the Last Supper, next to Lincoln, on the moon, at the Battle of Thermopyle–and sent them to people I know. They seemed clever to me. But now, days later, I have a somewhat different view.

The reason is that responsible criticism of Brian Williams is one thing; non-stop derision and ridicule is something else. We’ve seen plenty of both. But the overall effect of the commentary about him–when you combine it all together–isn’t to hold him accountable; it’s to crush him. To shatter him. To make him a national joke. That would be painful for anyone–and I suspect it’s particularly painful for a man like Williams, who obviously cares very much what people, particularly people in the political class, think of him.

I don’t have any brilliant insights into when one crosses the line from legitimate criticism to unbecoming snideness to casual cruelty. All I can tell you is that for most of us, our failures, including our character failures, are not on full public display. They’re not focused on, dissected, talked about on national television and made the punch line of endless jokes. If they were, it would be a rather searing experience.

I get that Brian Williams is a public figure and he has benefited enormously from his fame. But he’s also a human being. And his sin–pride, vanity, the insatiable desire to be thought of as cooler and better and more impressive than we actually are–is fairly widespread, especially in the world he inhabits. That doesn’t lead everyone to embellish and mislead like Williams did, of course; but most of us have, in recounting our achievements and experiences, made them appear in a better light than they deserve.

I believe in accountability, and I hope I’m not downplaying the seriousness of what Mr. Williams has done. And obviously if it turns out that he’s misled us on more occasions than we know, the consequences will increase. But there is such a thing as piling on; and schadenfreude, while in some circumstances an understandable response, is never an admirable one. Much of the delight people seem to be taking in the fall of Brian Williams doesn’t have anything to do with him (he seems to be a pleasant enough individual); it seems to have to do with his position in life and success.

So I for one hope that the Brian Williams story begins to ebb, that no other transgressions are found, and that he’s given a second chance and makes the most of it. Often the best stories have to do with repair and redemption.

The writer Philip Yancey once said that the church’s mission was to be a haven of grace in this world of ungrace. We’ve seen plenty of the latter in our political culture. We all might be better served if we saw just a bit more of the former. Because one day you and I may need grace extended to us, just as Brian Williams needs it extended to him.

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Williams and the Myth of the Evening News

In our 24/7 news environment it is sometimes hard to remember the central role that the national evening news broadcasts played in American life prior to the cable revolution. But though those programs still exist and have a considerable audience, their importance is greatly diminished. That’s why the controversy over NBC News’ Brian Williams’s lies about his experience during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is significant, though not quite as earthshaking as it once might have been. But while the toppling of yet another mainstream media giant is still a big deal, it also points out the fallacy inherent in the way most Americans once regarded the institution of the evening news. Far from being the source of objectivity and integrity, these shows were, and are, the product of news organizations that are not only flawed but also saturated with liberal bias. It is that lack of intellectual integrity and bias that led to the success of the alternatives to these programs in places like Fox News and talk radio. The diminished audience for programs like the one Williams hosts (at least for now) is rooted in the lack of faith in the integrity of the mainstream media that his prevarications have once more illustrated.

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In our 24/7 news environment it is sometimes hard to remember the central role that the national evening news broadcasts played in American life prior to the cable revolution. But though those programs still exist and have a considerable audience, their importance is greatly diminished. That’s why the controversy over NBC News’ Brian Williams’s lies about his experience during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is significant, though not quite as earthshaking as it once might have been. But while the toppling of yet another mainstream media giant is still a big deal, it also points out the fallacy inherent in the way most Americans once regarded the institution of the evening news. Far from being the source of objectivity and integrity, these shows were, and are, the product of news organizations that are not only flawed but also saturated with liberal bias. It is that lack of intellectual integrity and bias that led to the success of the alternatives to these programs in places like Fox News and talk radio. The diminished audience for programs like the one Williams hosts (at least for now) is rooted in the lack of faith in the integrity of the mainstream media that his prevarications have once more illustrated.

The clamor about Williams’s astonishing lies about what happened during his time in Iraq is amplified by the notion that he is not just another TV talking head but the face of NBC News. To be the leading personality of a broadcast network’s news division is not a small thing even in an era where there are hundreds of alternatives for viewers choose at 6:30 p.m. EST when the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams airs on weekdays. But though he has built a reputation and a following with a sonorous voice, sense of humor, and a low-key everyman style of reading the news, Williams is not quite the big deal that a person in his position would once have been considered.

For decades, the nation was largely dependent on the 30-minute programs shown by the three major networks for national and international news. Those who read the headlines on these programs—Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, and Howard K. Smith, just to mention those with the longest tenure—were not just TV stars. They were the gods of the news business and national icons rather than mere celebrities as some of today’s more prominent news readers might be considered.

But the point here is that Williams’ program and the competition on CBS and ABC ceased being the central focus of the nation’s attention or of the chattering classes a long time ago. And the reason for that is not entirely unrelated to the controversy about the NBC personality.

Williams was forced this week to make an on-air apology for repeatedly falsifying the story of his Iraq experience. Though at the time of the incident, he broadcast a report that said he was in a helicopter following an aircraft that was hit by enemy fire, in the years since then he has embellished the story to the extent that now the rocket-propelled grenade hit his copter. Shakespeare’s Henry V pointed out in his “St. Crispin’s Day” speech that old soldiers have sometimes been known to speak of their exploits “with advantages” as the years pass and when wine is flowing. But Williams is a journalist who is supposed to stick to the facts and avoid fiction. That Williams once publicly berated bloggers as being unreliable when compared to media veterans like him only makes him more vulnerable.

What’s more, as the New York Times pointed out today, he may have dug himself an even deeper hole by putting his false statements down to “the fog of war,” a very real concept that has nothing to do with what happened to Williams. Indeed that “fog” may be even greater than we might think since some are accusing him of making up the part about his helicopter following the one that was hit.

This is all very embarrassing for NBC and a star that it pays more than $10 million a year to look at the camera and sound credible. But if NBC News and CBS and ABC too have audiences that are a fraction of what they once were, it is in no small measure due to the fact that many Americans long ago gave up believing in the network’s integrity.

The point about Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley’s hold on the American imagination is not just that they looked and sounded the part of the nation’s town crier and conscience. It was that they were thought to be objective and fair in their reporting. This was always something of a myth, but the belief in the mainstream media’s conceit about its own objectivity is one that many liberals still cling to. But the huge audience that tunes in to Fox News every day is testament to the fact that many of us long since recognized that the three networks were feeding us news reported and told from a liberal frame of reference. The news icons weren’t just outdated. They were revealed to have feet of clay.

Fox isn’t perfect but it provides a look at the news from a different perspective than that of the leftist elites. That’s also why its left-wing competition at MSNBC is such a disaster. The fact that MSNBC’s ratings are now at a 10-year low is not surprising. Liberals like to watch news with a liberal bias. But MSNBC’s open bias (which is far greater than that of Fox’s tilt to the right) isn’t what they want. They prefer their liberal bias presented with a false veneer of objectivity rather than the overt leftism of the failing network.

Whether Williams can survive the furor over his lies is an open question. But his network and the rest of the mainstream media were exposed before we learned about his fibs. Like Dan Rather’s infamous false reports about George W. Bush’s National Guard service, Williams’s tall tale is just one more example of why the pretense of Olympian objectivity of the evening news readers was always bunk. The myth of the evening news was exploded a long time ago. Set beside that truth, the fate of one TV personality is very small change indeed.

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Responding to John Derbyshire (Again)

John Derbyshire has responded to my post in which I took him to task for his criticisms of President Bush’s initiative to fight AIDS in Africa. Here are a few reactions to what Derbyshire writes:

1. One way to judge a debate is by how much ground the other party concedes. With that in mind, Derbyshire began by saying this:

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

He is now saying this:

“22 countries in Africa have had a greater than 25 percent decline in infections in the past 10 years.” Possibly so; but does this have anything to do with PEPFAR, which is the subject under discussion?

So Derbyshire has shifted from saying that thanks to the generous efforts of America, Africans are “continu[ing] in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits,” to conceding that, as UNAIDS reports, HIV infections have significantly declined in the past decade. Derbyshire is now arguing whether PEPFAR deserves credit for the decline. That’s progress of a sort, I suppose. Read More

John Derbyshire has responded to my post in which I took him to task for his criticisms of President Bush’s initiative to fight AIDS in Africa. Here are a few reactions to what Derbyshire writes:

1. One way to judge a debate is by how much ground the other party concedes. With that in mind, Derbyshire began by saying this:

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

He is now saying this:

“22 countries in Africa have had a greater than 25 percent decline in infections in the past 10 years.” Possibly so; but does this have anything to do with PEPFAR, which is the subject under discussion?

So Derbyshire has shifted from saying that thanks to the generous efforts of America, Africans are “continu[ing] in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits,” to conceding that, as UNAIDS reports, HIV infections have significantly declined in the past decade. Derbyshire is now arguing whether PEPFAR deserves credit for the decline. That’s progress of a sort, I suppose.

(For those interested in the most relevant findings of the UNAIDS report, I would recommend page 11 [Figure 1.3], which shows drops in people aged 15–25 years who had sex before age 15 years and who had multiple partners in the past 12 months; page 22, which shows AIDS-related deaths by region, 1990-2009; page 27 [Figure 2.8], which shows the number of people newly infected with HIV as well as adult and child deaths due to AIDS; and page 28, which reports, “With an estimated 5.6 million … people living with HIV in 2009, South Africa’s epidemic remains the largest in the world. New indications show a slowing of HIV incidence amid some signs of a shift towards safer sex among young people. The annual HIV incidence among 18-year-olds declined sharply from 1.8% in 2005 to 0.8% in 2008, and among women 15–24 years old it dropped from 5.5% in 2003–2005 to 2.2% in 2005–2008.”)

So did PEPFAR have measurable effects? Drs. Eran Bendavid and Jayanta Bhattacharya evaluated the program’s outcomes in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year. They found that the program was responsible for a decrease of more than 10 percent in “deaths due to HIV or AIDS.” Millions of lives were saved thanks to “improved treatment and care of HIV-infected persons,” especially “the greater availability of highly active antiretroviral therapy,” which was an important focus of the program.

Admittedly, the prevalence of HIV infection in the population did not decline — precisely because people who would have died because of the virus were instead still living thanks to the drugs they received. But in the long run (as Drs. Julio Montaner, Viviane Lima, and Brian Williams note, also in the Annals), there is good reason to believe that “expanded antiretroviral therapy coverage may play a significant role in curbing the spread of HIV.”

More research will be necessary to fully determine the effects of PEPFAR, especially over the long term. But surveying the scientific literature to date, we can now reasonably conclude, I think, that while PEPFAR certainly isn’t solely responsible for the positive changes we’ve seen in Africa, it has contributed to them. And it has certainly not, as Derbyshire originally contended, made things worse.

2. Mr. Derbyshire writes:

There is then some argument that PEPFAR helps promote orderliness in poor nations. On this, I don’t have anything to add to what I said in my December 2 post. Mr. Wehner’s remarks are anyway just a chain of unjustified, unreferenced assertions. Some of them are contradicted by the much more knowledgeable Princeton N. Lyman and Stephen B. Wittels in the Foreign Affairs paper that was the hinge of my original post.

Mr. Wehner has nothing to say about that paper.

I thought my original piece was plenty long enough, but since Derbyshire insists on raising the topic: I have indeed read the essay by Lyman and Wittels that Derbyshire calls the “hinge” of his original post. The authors argue that, among other things, the U.S.’s commitment to helping treat HIV patients is limiting Washington’s leverage over recipient countries. But what I will tell you, which Derbyshire does not, is that Lyman and Wittels strongly support PEPFAR. But let them speak for themselves:

None of these issues [raised in the essay] should be allowed to undermine the commitment to treat all HIV/AIDS patients. This undertaking [PEPFAR and associated international programs] is one of the greatest humanitarian gestures in history and a statement by the developed countries that they refuse to deny life-saving treatments readily available in rich states to the millions elsewhere who need them. But the full implications of this commitment need to be addressed before they become a more serious problem.

Messrs. Lyman and Wittels are in fact offering steps that will “help sustain this major undertaking.” So the very essay on which Derbyshire rests his anti-PEPFAR case describes PEPFAR as “one of the greatest humanitarian gestures in history.” How inconvenient for Derbyshire.

3. Derbyshire writes, “If [Wehner] has read [the Lyman and Wittels essay] he will know how spurious is his comparison of PEPFAR — an ever-increasing permanent welfare commitment — to the 2004 tsunami relief effort, a one-off rescue mission.”

Actually, my comparison is not at all spurious. Remember, in his original post, Derbyshire wrote, “There is, however, no virtue in a government official spending your money and mine unless for some reason demonstrably connected to our national interest.”

My point is a simple one: even if you don’t believe that helping the victims of the tsunami was in the “national interest,” it still might be a good thing to do. Derbyshire’s argument, taken literally, denies such a thing. But when pressed on this, Derbyshire backs away from his original position. In fact, he now seems to favor “one-off disaster relief efforts in remote places.” Again, this is progress of a sort.

4. Derbyshire can’t seem to comprehend why I quoted Lincoln. Let me see if I can help him out. The quote articulates Lincoln’s view about the inherent dignity of all human beings, a belief that is relevant to this discussion since it touches on why we should care about people from other continents and other cultures — a sentiment that Derbyshire’s writings are arrestingly free of. Speaking of which: in reaction to my citing his 2006 comment that “I don’t care about Egyptians,” made after learning that around 1,000 Egyptians had perished in a tragic ferry accident at sea, Derbyshire writes this:

The rest is just more low ad hominem sneering. Goodness, how the man does sneer! He says that I am “eager to celebrate [my] callousness,” and quotes in support something I wrote in early 2006. Since I write roughly a hundred thousand words of fugitive journalism a year, that is around half a million words ago. I don’t see much “eagerness” there. If I were to mention, say, Brussels sprouts once every five years, would Mr. Wehner accuse me of being obsessed with that vegetable?

Let’s set aside the obvious irony — obvious to everyone but Derbyshire, that is — of having Derbyshire lecture anyone about sneering. I never said Derbyshire was “obsessed” with this matter — but clearly he was eager to express his views about his utter indifference to the death of many innocent people. Derbyshire now implies that his lack of compassion for Egyptians was because citizens like him were “so busy working for a living, caring for their families and friends, and worrying about the condition of their country that they have nothing to spare for the misfortunes of people in remote, unimportant places.”

Of course he was. Derbyshire’s empathy and mercy tank is empty; there is nothing to spare. Compassion fatigue takes a toll on us all.

5. Then there’s the matter of the Derbyshire put-downs like (but not limited to) this one:

Then there are some impertinent speculations concerning what I do and do not care about. I shall surrender here to the temptation that always comes over me when I am the target of sanctimonious bullying by self-congratulating prigs: Bite me, pal.

Perhaps at some point, Derbyshire will learn to distinguish crude, adolescent insults from witty ones. I would simply point out that Kathryn Lopez, Derbyshire’s colleague at National Review Online, rendered this carefully understated verdict on Derbyshire’s pieces: “I think the thread on President Bush, AIDS, and Africa took another unfortunate and unnecessary tonal turn this morning.”

John Derbyshire seems to have settled on a pattern. He makes bad arguments in callous ways and calls it conservatism. There are many things that might explain why Derbyshire says what he says; conservatism is not one of them.

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Not Obama’s Katrina

In his interview from New Orleans yesterday with NBC’s Brian Williams, commemorating the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Obama assured the world that his handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not his administration’s Hurricane Katrina.

The president is right, if the people of Louisiana are to be believed. Mr. Obama’s handling of the BP oil spill is judged by them to be considerably worse than how Bush reacted to Katrina.

A Public Policy Polling survey reports this:

The oil spill in the Gulf may be mostly out of the headlines now but Louisiana voters aren’t getting any less mad at Barack Obama about his handling of it. Only 32% give Obama good marks for his actions in the aftermath of the spill, while 61% disapprove.

Louisianans are feeling more and more that George W. Bush’s leadership on Katrina was better than Obama’s on the spill. 54% think Bush did the superior job of helping the state through a crisis to 33% who pick Obama. That 21 point margin represents a widening since PPP asked the same question in June and found Bush ahead by a 15 point margin. Bush beats Obama 87-2 on that score with Republicans and 42-30 with independents, while Obama has just a 65-24 advantage with Democrats.

Louisianans are generally softening with time in their feelings about how Bush handled Katrina. Almost as many, 44%, now approve of his actions on it as the 47% who disapprove.

President Obama casts his response to the oil spill, like his response to everything, as textbook perfect. Yet the silly people of Louisiana, like so much of the nation, just don’t appreciate how extraordinarily able and competent Obama is. How difficult it must be for The One We’ve Been Waiting For to go through his presidency without the public appreciating the magnitude of his greatness. For the president, it seems, no good deed goes unpunished, no great achievement gets its proper due, not enough villains (Bush, Republicans, members of the Tea Party, conservative bloggers, Fox News, etc.) get nearly enough blame.

When will the scales finally fall from our eyes?

In his interview from New Orleans yesterday with NBC’s Brian Williams, commemorating the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Obama assured the world that his handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not his administration’s Hurricane Katrina.

The president is right, if the people of Louisiana are to be believed. Mr. Obama’s handling of the BP oil spill is judged by them to be considerably worse than how Bush reacted to Katrina.

A Public Policy Polling survey reports this:

The oil spill in the Gulf may be mostly out of the headlines now but Louisiana voters aren’t getting any less mad at Barack Obama about his handling of it. Only 32% give Obama good marks for his actions in the aftermath of the spill, while 61% disapprove.

Louisianans are feeling more and more that George W. Bush’s leadership on Katrina was better than Obama’s on the spill. 54% think Bush did the superior job of helping the state through a crisis to 33% who pick Obama. That 21 point margin represents a widening since PPP asked the same question in June and found Bush ahead by a 15 point margin. Bush beats Obama 87-2 on that score with Republicans and 42-30 with independents, while Obama has just a 65-24 advantage with Democrats.

Louisianans are generally softening with time in their feelings about how Bush handled Katrina. Almost as many, 44%, now approve of his actions on it as the 47% who disapprove.

President Obama casts his response to the oil spill, like his response to everything, as textbook perfect. Yet the silly people of Louisiana, like so much of the nation, just don’t appreciate how extraordinarily able and competent Obama is. How difficult it must be for The One We’ve Been Waiting For to go through his presidency without the public appreciating the magnitude of his greatness. For the president, it seems, no good deed goes unpunished, no great achievement gets its proper due, not enough villains (Bush, Republicans, members of the Tea Party, conservative bloggers, Fox News, etc.) get nearly enough blame.

When will the scales finally fall from our eyes?

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Like LBJ Losing Cronkite?

It wasn’t too long ago that Obama wasn’t funny. That is, none of the late-night comics thought he was funny. The New Yorker couldn’t run a funny cartoon on its cover. Obama was above jokes. You don’t laugh at “sort of God,” you see. But as the mask of competence slips and the blunders mount, he becomes once again a comic target. Howard Kurtz tells us Obama is now really in trouble because he’s lost Jon Stewart:

It was inevitable that Obama would become a late-night target, at least when Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Dave Letterman have taken time out from sliming each other. But Stewart, who makes no secret of leaning left, is a pop-culture bellwether. And while the White House notes that Obama used the prompter to address journalists, not the students, the details matter little in comedy.

Stewart’s barbs are generating partisan buzz. …

“He’s clearly become an important cultural arbiter,” says Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “He’s pulled off the trick of being taken seriously when he wants to be and taken frivolously when he wants to be.”

What is even more remarkable is that “real” news people seem to take their cues from a comic. He’s an “icon” to real journalists, Kurtz tells us. He quotes Brian Williams: “A lot of the work that Jon and his staff do is serious. They hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness.” Well, everything is relative, I suppose. The “real” media’s disinclination to treat Obama as roughly as they have treated previous presidents has left the field wide open for a cable network comic to play the role that independent journalists used to — holding the White House accountable, skewering the president for errors, and refusing to take seriously the spin coming from administration flacks.

It may be that Stewart’s newfound boldness in ribbing Obama is indicative of a change in Obama’s fortunes. But it also speaks volumes about the reluctance of the entire media — serious and otherwise — for the better part of a year to critically assess Obama’s policies and political instincts.

Now that the spell is broken and Obama is “funny,” maybe the media will discover he is also fodder for serious reporting. Perhaps they will ask some serious questions — when and if he ever gives another press conference. How was it that he claimed that the Christmas Day bomber was an isolated extremist? Did he really let Eric Holder come up with the idea all on his own for a New York trial for KSM? Did Obama not know that his own health-care plan would chase Americans out of their own health-care plans? Why did he sign an omnibus spending bill with 9,000 earmarks if earmarks are nothing more than petty corruption? How can he say the stimulus is a success if he promised it would keep unemployment at 8 percent?  There is nothing funny about any of those issues, but the media might want to press the president for answers to these and other queries. At least if they want to stay ahead of Jon Stewart.

It wasn’t too long ago that Obama wasn’t funny. That is, none of the late-night comics thought he was funny. The New Yorker couldn’t run a funny cartoon on its cover. Obama was above jokes. You don’t laugh at “sort of God,” you see. But as the mask of competence slips and the blunders mount, he becomes once again a comic target. Howard Kurtz tells us Obama is now really in trouble because he’s lost Jon Stewart:

It was inevitable that Obama would become a late-night target, at least when Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Dave Letterman have taken time out from sliming each other. But Stewart, who makes no secret of leaning left, is a pop-culture bellwether. And while the White House notes that Obama used the prompter to address journalists, not the students, the details matter little in comedy.

Stewart’s barbs are generating partisan buzz. …

“He’s clearly become an important cultural arbiter,” says Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “He’s pulled off the trick of being taken seriously when he wants to be and taken frivolously when he wants to be.”

What is even more remarkable is that “real” news people seem to take their cues from a comic. He’s an “icon” to real journalists, Kurtz tells us. He quotes Brian Williams: “A lot of the work that Jon and his staff do is serious. They hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness.” Well, everything is relative, I suppose. The “real” media’s disinclination to treat Obama as roughly as they have treated previous presidents has left the field wide open for a cable network comic to play the role that independent journalists used to — holding the White House accountable, skewering the president for errors, and refusing to take seriously the spin coming from administration flacks.

It may be that Stewart’s newfound boldness in ribbing Obama is indicative of a change in Obama’s fortunes. But it also speaks volumes about the reluctance of the entire media — serious and otherwise — for the better part of a year to critically assess Obama’s policies and political instincts.

Now that the spell is broken and Obama is “funny,” maybe the media will discover he is also fodder for serious reporting. Perhaps they will ask some serious questions — when and if he ever gives another press conference. How was it that he claimed that the Christmas Day bomber was an isolated extremist? Did he really let Eric Holder come up with the idea all on his own for a New York trial for KSM? Did Obama not know that his own health-care plan would chase Americans out of their own health-care plans? Why did he sign an omnibus spending bill with 9,000 earmarks if earmarks are nothing more than petty corruption? How can he say the stimulus is a success if he promised it would keep unemployment at 8 percent?  There is nothing funny about any of those issues, but the media might want to press the president for answers to these and other queries. At least if they want to stay ahead of Jon Stewart.

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More on Barstow

Apparently John Podhoretz and I weren’t the only ones underwhelmed by David Barstow’s 7,600-word magnum opus in Sunday’s New York Times. (The piece detailed how the Pentagon tries to woo retired military officers to get out its side of the story in the Iraq War.) According to this Los Angeles Times online article, the article “made minimal ripples”:

The Sunday-morning talk shows ignored the piece. . . . the Pentagon caper likewise seemed a nonstarter in the blogosphere. . . . NBC’s Brian Williams, who’s been known to take a rooting interest in media-industry shopkeeping, didn’t even mention it on his “Daily Nightly” blog.

The LA Times blogger explains this lack of interest by claiming that Americans are used to having their government manipulate the media: “You don’t have to tell John Q. Public that the fix is in; he takes it for granted.” That may be true. But I think it’s also true that most Americans are aware that the MSM have their own spin on the news, and they don’t think it’s wrong for those with a different viewpoint–even if they work at the Department of Defense–to try to get out another side of the story.

For all the angst over “media manipulation,” the reality is that the public isn’t so easily manipulated. Public opinion of the war effort eroded when we were losing the war on the ground. Now that we’re making progress, public support has rebounded. There’s nothing wrong with the Pentagon trying to highlight what it sees as positive news–just as there is nothing wrong with the MSM reporting largely negative news. The body politic will gradually sort it all out.

Apparently John Podhoretz and I weren’t the only ones underwhelmed by David Barstow’s 7,600-word magnum opus in Sunday’s New York Times. (The piece detailed how the Pentagon tries to woo retired military officers to get out its side of the story in the Iraq War.) According to this Los Angeles Times online article, the article “made minimal ripples”:

The Sunday-morning talk shows ignored the piece. . . . the Pentagon caper likewise seemed a nonstarter in the blogosphere. . . . NBC’s Brian Williams, who’s been known to take a rooting interest in media-industry shopkeeping, didn’t even mention it on his “Daily Nightly” blog.

The LA Times blogger explains this lack of interest by claiming that Americans are used to having their government manipulate the media: “You don’t have to tell John Q. Public that the fix is in; he takes it for granted.” That may be true. But I think it’s also true that most Americans are aware that the MSM have their own spin on the news, and they don’t think it’s wrong for those with a different viewpoint–even if they work at the Department of Defense–to try to get out another side of the story.

For all the angst over “media manipulation,” the reality is that the public isn’t so easily manipulated. Public opinion of the war effort eroded when we were losing the war on the ground. Now that we’re making progress, public support has rebounded. There’s nothing wrong with the Pentagon trying to highlight what it sees as positive news–just as there is nothing wrong with the MSM reporting largely negative news. The body politic will gradually sort it all out.

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Brian Williams: Hillary Will You Stand Up For Yourself?

She reiterates her own experience (which is rather thin beer, by the way) and then makes a lame effort to say his opposition to the Iraq war before he came to the Senate doesn’t really count. (Like all those little Red states don’t count in the delegate race, I suppose.) She never comes out and says: he’s an unrealistic and unprepared novice. But McCain will.

She reiterates her own experience (which is rather thin beer, by the way) and then makes a lame effort to say his opposition to the Iraq war before he came to the Senate doesn’t really count. (Like all those little Red states don’t count in the delegate race, I suppose.) She never comes out and says: he’s an unrealistic and unprepared novice. But McCain will.

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McCain the Mensch

Tonight’s dreary but polite debate made it impossible to declare a winner. No mistakes, no huge moments, no great, punchy lines. Softballs were served up to nearly all the candidates, and no one seemed to want to take a big swing.

As a result, I think McCain might have done best precisely because no one really engaged him. The test tonight was “credible leadership.” There are lots of reasons to question McCain’s fitness as a GOP leader (his age, his anti-party reflexes, his wrong-headedness on the Bush tax cuts, etc), but no one challenged him. He arrived tonight as the leader and no one pushed him off the throne. His sudden statement near the end of the debate praising Rudy – apparently an effort to criticize the nasty quote about Giuliani from the New York Times editorial endorsing him that was read by Brian Williams – remind people that, even in the heat of battle, McCain is a mensch. Not a bad thing to be in the Florida primary.

Tonight’s dreary but polite debate made it impossible to declare a winner. No mistakes, no huge moments, no great, punchy lines. Softballs were served up to nearly all the candidates, and no one seemed to want to take a big swing.

As a result, I think McCain might have done best precisely because no one really engaged him. The test tonight was “credible leadership.” There are lots of reasons to question McCain’s fitness as a GOP leader (his age, his anti-party reflexes, his wrong-headedness on the Bush tax cuts, etc), but no one challenged him. He arrived tonight as the leader and no one pushed him off the throne. His sudden statement near the end of the debate praising Rudy – apparently an effort to criticize the nasty quote about Giuliani from the New York Times editorial endorsing him that was read by Brian Williams – remind people that, even in the heat of battle, McCain is a mensch. Not a bad thing to be in the Florida primary.

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Bad Questions = Bad Debate

This debate is dull, in large part, because the questions are so lame. Tim Russert and Brian Williams don’t have any deep observations on policy or the state of the country. So instead, they pose synthetic questions asking the candidates to respond to polls or primary election results. They think they are asking substantive questions because they ask for “specific” answers. This is journalistic vanity at its worst. Even Russert’s phony grilling of how much Mitt Romney has contributed to his own campaign is a question about an issue that only the media cares about.

This debate is dull, in large part, because the questions are so lame. Tim Russert and Brian Williams don’t have any deep observations on policy or the state of the country. So instead, they pose synthetic questions asking the candidates to respond to polls or primary election results. They think they are asking substantive questions because they ask for “specific” answers. This is journalistic vanity at its worst. Even Russert’s phony grilling of how much Mitt Romney has contributed to his own campaign is a question about an issue that only the media cares about.

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Ned Colt’s Inspiration

Yesterday on the Today Show, NBC broadcaster Ned Colt offered a disturbing and inaccurate portrait of Osama bin Laden.

Colt begins: “Murderous fanatic or hero of radical Islam?” Strange use of the word or, indeed. But that’s not the real kicker by a longshot.

COLT: In the West the Saudi born al Qaeda leader is blamed for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombings at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and two years later the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. And while he’s never directly claimed responsibility for 9/11, at the very least he inspired the attacks that left 3000 dead.

Bin Laden’s guilt isn’t a stone-cold fact, but a Western construction. And how does Colt know this? Because bin Laden has “never directly claimed responsibility for 9/11.” Actually, he has. But since when does a criminal’s culpability rest on his taking credit for a crime, anyway?

The only person Colt speaks with during this piece is Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Quds, who gushes: “History will remember Osama Bin Laden as the man who challenged the American superpower. The little David who actually stand up against the mighty Goliath.” Lest we miss the point, Colt closes with “American officials believe Bin Laden’s power [“inspirational”, Ned?] has only increased in recent years with his followers now active in at least 40 countries worldwide,” before throwing it over to Brian Williams.

I can’t imagine I’m alone in wanting to know if a prominent NBC news reporter considers Osama bin Laden a mass-murderer or a guiltless inspiration.

Yesterday on the Today Show, NBC broadcaster Ned Colt offered a disturbing and inaccurate portrait of Osama bin Laden.

Colt begins: “Murderous fanatic or hero of radical Islam?” Strange use of the word or, indeed. But that’s not the real kicker by a longshot.

COLT: In the West the Saudi born al Qaeda leader is blamed for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombings at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and two years later the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. And while he’s never directly claimed responsibility for 9/11, at the very least he inspired the attacks that left 3000 dead.

Bin Laden’s guilt isn’t a stone-cold fact, but a Western construction. And how does Colt know this? Because bin Laden has “never directly claimed responsibility for 9/11.” Actually, he has. But since when does a criminal’s culpability rest on his taking credit for a crime, anyway?

The only person Colt speaks with during this piece is Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Quds, who gushes: “History will remember Osama Bin Laden as the man who challenged the American superpower. The little David who actually stand up against the mighty Goliath.” Lest we miss the point, Colt closes with “American officials believe Bin Laden’s power [“inspirational”, Ned?] has only increased in recent years with his followers now active in at least 40 countries worldwide,” before throwing it over to Brian Williams.

I can’t imagine I’m alone in wanting to know if a prominent NBC news reporter considers Osama bin Laden a mass-murderer or a guiltless inspiration.

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Sovereign Wealth Funds

Brian Williams of NBC asked the Democrats a substantive and a provocative question about sovereign wealth funds — giant pools of money controlled and managed by foreign governments like China, Singapore, and Gulf oil states — investing in American companies like Merrill Lynch and Citigroup. This issue will be a rallying point for the protectionist left and right this campaign season. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton gave a lot of boiler point about more transparency and the need to do something. Barack Obama, clearly knowing nothing about the topic, talked about alternative energy.

But the U.S. attitude toward sovereign wealth funds is going to be the most important test of American acceptance of globalization. By this fall, there will be many more companies that get their funding from government investment funds from the Gulf State, Singapore, and China. Irwin Stelzer has made the best case for being wary about having a foreign government holding the purse strings of American businesses. But the fact is, these funds are going to be the most important engine of finance and growth capital in a global economy whether we like it or not. As a political matter, this is probably a losing issue for free traders. Yet all those politicians who want to deter foreign financial investment in American companies have to tell us what Citi, and Merrill, and all the other cash-strapped companies should do when they need to find new sources of capital if they can’t get access to these pools of wealth.

Brian Williams of NBC asked the Democrats a substantive and a provocative question about sovereign wealth funds — giant pools of money controlled and managed by foreign governments like China, Singapore, and Gulf oil states — investing in American companies like Merrill Lynch and Citigroup. This issue will be a rallying point for the protectionist left and right this campaign season. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton gave a lot of boiler point about more transparency and the need to do something. Barack Obama, clearly knowing nothing about the topic, talked about alternative energy.

But the U.S. attitude toward sovereign wealth funds is going to be the most important test of American acceptance of globalization. By this fall, there will be many more companies that get their funding from government investment funds from the Gulf State, Singapore, and China. Irwin Stelzer has made the best case for being wary about having a foreign government holding the purse strings of American businesses. But the fact is, these funds are going to be the most important engine of finance and growth capital in a global economy whether we like it or not. As a political matter, this is probably a losing issue for free traders. Yet all those politicians who want to deter foreign financial investment in American companies have to tell us what Citi, and Merrill, and all the other cash-strapped companies should do when they need to find new sources of capital if they can’t get access to these pools of wealth.

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