Quick, somebody, anybody, give Charlie Rose some money:
"Walter Cronkite never had to ask for money from an underwriter. Neither he nor his colleagues at the commercial networks would even be allowed near sponsors. That separation between church and state doesn't apply in public television. Rose has to scramble to meet his [$3.5-million U.S.] budget. So do his PBS colleagues Jim Lehrer at the primetime 'NewsHour' and Tavis Smiley on his talk show that follows Rose's...With a roster of well-heeled underwriters that include News Corp. and investment banker Herb Allen's firm, you would think 'Charlie Rose' would get most of its donations effortlessly. But it doesn't work that way. 'People assume we're on automatic pilot. We're not,' Rose says. 'I've raised all the money myself.'"
From Fortune's Oct. 12 edition, not yet online:"Why Business Loves Charlie Rose," By David Kaplan.
"I had nothing to do with the CanWest problems, as you know. The acquisition from us was not financed properly." -Conrad Black, e-mail from his U.S. prison, where he is serving a 6 1/2-year sentence for fraud, to Bloomberg News after CanWest Global Communications Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection, no longer able to finance its $4-billion debt load. Nine years ago, CanWest paid $3.2 billion to acquire Black's chain of big-city Canadian newspapers.
"Anyone who buys anything from Conrad Black will be sucking gas." -merchant prince Galen Weston, at a 1980s food industry seminar, on his decision to go ahead anyway and buy a bakery from Black's dismantled Dominion Stores Ltd.
Let's drive a nail in this coffin.
Whenever an aggrieved public figure - from Pierre Trudeau to Conrad Black to Brian Mulroney - has complained that the Canadian people are so resentful of their accomplishments that they wish to drag these notables down to their own humble level, this phenomenon is described as a uniquely Canadian one.
And to be sure it does exist. The shorter poppies would like also to be closer to the sun, the lobster making a break for it does get dragged back into the pot by its jealous peers.
There's a story, possibly apocryphal, of high-ranking federal mandarins at an Ottawa dinner party when the news of Mike Pearson's winning the Nobel Peace Prize came through. And the silence finally is broken by a member of the permanent external-affairs bureaucracy saying, "Who gave him permission for that?"
It wasn't Pearson's idea, nor Barack Obama's, to be honoured in Oslo. But if Canada does have a low pain threshold for high achievers - which I've always believed is a crock - than so do many of our American friends. Here's the first paragraph of Star Washington bureau chief Mitch Potter's account today on U.S. reaction to one of their own being accorded one of the world's highest honours:
"Apologies if you can't hear this. It is a bit noisy down here, what with the gales of unpleasant laughter drowning out Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize."
The conventional wisdom on Obama and the Nobel, as you know, is that Obama doesn't deserve this honour. He hasn't accomplished anything other than some "pretty speeches." (As if oratory wasn't the statesperson's most powerful tool, from Caesar to Lincoln to FDR to Trudeau).
And as U.S. commander-in-chief, Obama is presiding over the continuing U.S. killing of both enemy combatants and innocent civilians in Afghanistan - not at all in keeping with Alfred Nobel's directives. (But then, Nobel himself was atoning for his career as a munitions supplier, so let's not get fancy about "Nobel spinning in his grave".)
As I said when this news broke, in an observation that was a statement of the blindingly obvious, I thought, the Nobel committee is once again sending a message, as is its wont in contrast to the Nobel panels on physics, economics and so on.
And the statement is that the values and goals of the recipient require the world's urgent attention. In the past, the Nobel peace panel's message has addressed genocide in Africa, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, climate change, and other larger-than-life challenges. This time it's nuclear non-proliferation, global unity and humanitarianism, which the committee believes are goals manifestly evident in Obama's past conduct.
They're embodied by Bill Clinton too, who arguably has tangible achievements to his credit. But those achievements have been largely in his post-presidency - helping broker the Good Friday Accords being a notable exception. In any case, Clinton is not president of the United States, the one country, early in the 21st century, still able to claim the attention and potentially influence any and all other nations. The Nobel panel is imploring Obama, early in his tenure, to keep faith with his values rather than shed them out of political expediency.
The time to send this message to a sitting U.S. president, as the committee has twice before done (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), is early in his mandate, before his popularity and influence inevitably wane. It's the nature of governments in genuine democracies that the zenith of their power is in their first two years. After that, governments focus on getting re-elected. And after that, in a U.S. that stupidly term-limits its presidents to eight years (not the Founding Fathers' idea, but that of postwar Republicans angry over FDR's long tenure), a president is a lame duck from the moment of his re-election. Second-term presidents since Ike have been prohibited by a Constitutional amendment from seeking re-election a second or third time. So everyone's focus shifts, from the time of the second inaugural, to the likely line-up of presidential candidates four years' hence, and the issues they are expected to campaign on. The best and brightest are no longer attracted to the low-pay, high-stress work of an administration in its second term.
For all intents and purposes, U.S. presidents serve one term. And that's being generous, since the second half of the president's first term is largely taken up with politicking in advance of getting re-elected. Should they win re-election, second-term presidents are glorified caretakers, lacking sufficient respect, and commanding insufficient fear, in Congress and elsewhere to get much of anything done. The bureaucracy tunes them out because a new president is on the horizon.
As I said, it's a stupid system, not least because the natural tenure of democratically elected governments is about 10 years maximum - the amount of time it takes for even a good government to succumb to complacency and ethical missteps and wear out its welcome with the electorate. Ask Margaret Thatcher, Jean Chretien and Ralph Klein, all forced out by their own caucuses and denied one last encounter with the electorate.
So if you're the Nobel peace prize committee and, typical of that panel, you want to send a global message, you pick an admittedly untested Obama with slender achievements on the world stage because you want to catch him early enough to influence the bulk of his first term, the only period in which he has real power. The record of second-term presidencies is appalling. Nixon and Watergate. Clinton and Lewinsky. Dubya and Katrina, and a popularity rating that seldom rose above 40%.
Bottom line: For whatever reason, Americans aren't universally celebrating the choice of one of their own to receive one of the world's highest honours. It's writ large in this episode that the "tall poppy syndrome" is not unique to Canada. I'm guessing in hunter-gatherer societies there was a tad of resentment for the fellow who brought the biggest wild boar back to camp.
Obama has been cursed all his public life for outshining peers, scoring improbable political victories, and doing so despite the handicaps of his tender age and his race. A minority, but a noisy one, is resentful about that. And that's who we've been hearing from since the announcement was made Friday. Folks who are OK with it, indeed pleased for their country and happy that the man they voted for is so well regarded globally, aren't the folks who write syndicated newspaper columns and spew venom in the commentary "tails" of online newspaper stories. They do not listen to Rush and his fellow Hate Radio commentators.
Still, it's a sad thing when the White House has go into "damage control" over ostensibly good news. There is something distinctly absurdist about U.S. society, for all its virtues, and it's playing itself out again now.
It's been a long time coming, but finally someone in the U.S. punditocracy - the esteemed Michael Kinsley, no less - let slip the truth about the beloved Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite was, like all news anchors, the frontman for a team of reporters and writers. He was a news reader, they were journalists. Same applies today, as we saw as recently as the events triggering Dan Rather's forced retirement, after he fronted a journalistically faulty mini-doc on George W. Bush's military record. As Rather has since said - in a wrongful dismissal suit, among other places - he had no idea of the veracity of the script he was reading. Well, of course not. He didn't report the story.
Anchorpeople from Brian Williams to Katie Couric are the "face" of American TV journalism. The face of American journalism, period, in fact, since TV is so much more powerfully intrusive a force in our living rooms than picking up a newspaper or magazine or reading a website. But while they often carry titles like "managing editor" - insist upon it, to maintain the journalism cred earned on lower rungs of their career ladders - anchors mostly do just read what's put in front of them. Some participate in story meetings and tinker with scripts - Peter Gzowski, a marvelous magazine writer in a previous life, wrote most of what he said on "Morningside." But even he wasn't out in the field reporting. Like almost all anchors and hosts, he was reliant on the unsung heroes who felt the winds of reality in their face. The anchors are driven by limo from their comfortable digs to the studio and back.
In Cronkite's case, I never could, growing up with him, understand the appeal. A comforting, avuncular presence he was, to be sure, but he never once said anything that shocked or outraged me. If anything, that calm assuring voice smothered whatever shock value the the most horrific acts of god and man held when one learned of them elsewhere. That Cronkite was an early "embed" who drank the Kool-Aid of faked body counts in Vietnam for so long made him a gullible figure, more than anything. In all the obits, and the fawning that came before, always there was reference to LBJ saying he'd lost Middle America the day Cronkite finally suggested on air that things were amiss in the Southeast Asia mission. What LBJ actually said might well be urban legend; and as for Cronkite, he was hardly repudiating the war in those comments. One of the pennies had dropped, finally, is all.
So here's Kinsley in his Washington Post column, ostensibly on the topic of how newspapers imagine themselves to be accountable by assiduously admitting their most inconsequential errors - getting names and dates wrong - while oblivious to their larger failings in not warning us that Iraq would be a quagmire and that a global financial tsunami was on the horizon:
Last month, in an already legendary correction, the [New York] Times apologized for seven factual errors in a single article. It was a eulogy of Walter Cronkite, and it had errors such as misspelling Telstar as Telestar and misstating the date of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The Times's "Public Editor" wrote a column piling on, in which he noted the irony that Cronkite was "famed for his meticulous reporting." He was? I don't think Cronkite did any reporting at all during the period of his fame. What he was famous for was reading a teleprompter. But that is one correction you'll never see.
EMPIRE CRUMBLES | Free-for-all soon on CanWest assets. Post-bankruptcy filing yesterday, Ontario dailies in Torstar's sights. Food Network and HGTV sought by Corus, Rogers, CTVglobemedia, Astral. Most logical buyers for Global TV restrained by anti-trust rules. Aspers relegated to observer status as bondholders drive two separate reorgs, of bankrupt Global and National Post, and of newspaper group - set to file for own creditor protection ahead of breakup and sales.
DREAMS DEFERRED | Canadian youth unemployment at 20-year high. Toronto 4% above national average.
WINTER HEATING COST WINDFALL | U.S. says expected mild winter means likely lower heating costs. Not to forget glut of natural gas, heating fuel for half of U.S. homes.
ONTARIO LAUDED FOR GREEN POWER PUSH | Global investors take interest in profit opportunities. Ontario's incentives that guarantee above-market prices to sellers of power produced from sun, wind, water and biomass are most generous in N.A. "Ontario is well ahead of the U.S. and even California that claims to be so green," Mehdi Hosseini, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets in San Francisco, tells Reuters.
WOMEN COOL TO IGGY | Globe says women find Grit leader "stuffy, inauthentic and untrustworthy." Also can't imagine him interrupting an interview taping to kill a housefly, as Obama does.
SPENDTHRIFT CANUCKS | Household credit up 7%, fastest recession rate in postwar era. Low interest rates the driver: interest payments as percentage of disposable income is just 7.7%, lowest level since 2006, lower than 10% rate of 1991 recession. Helps account for the strong Canadian housing market.
GOLDBUGS GO CRAZY | Yellow metal hits record $1,045 (U.S.). Reax to slumping greenback, record U.S. deficit, false news Arab oil producers want switch to euro-pricing.
NEST EGGS NICKED | Average U.S. worker took 26% hit to 401(k) in 2008. And that's pretty much all you need to know about the consumer spending slump of 2008-09.
SO STOP HITTING YOUR HEAD WITH THAT HAMMER | Even corporate directors say CEO pay too high. Then why do these boards keep shelling out? Mostly fear "underpaid" CEOs will ankle to competition. If only.
STIRRINGS IN FAST FOOD NATION | Fast-food bellwether Yum Brands reports higher profits. Good news, finally, for away-from-home dining sector, major employer of suffering lower middle class. Obvious downside to revival at Yum's KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell is dietary health impact and long-term costs thereof.
MED DIET | Study says Mediterranean diet cure for depression and other ailments. plenty of olive oil, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and fish - may guard against depression, a new study suggests. Long lauded for lowering risk of heart and circulation problems, plenty of olive oil, fruits, nuts, vegetables and fish cheer you up, as well.
Not a picture of health, spoilsport dieticians say. Those fries are making me hungry - and I just ate.
TEACH DIET, NOT HISTORY | Dutch author makes case for mandatory classroom food education. "What good does it do to teach children that 1492 was the year Columbus discovered America? Better to teach them that it is the number of calories in two Big Mac's with medium-size fries and extra ketchup."
GILLER FINALISTS ANNOUNCED | And they are...Linden MacIntyre (The Bishop's Man), Anne Michaels (The Winter Vault), Annabel Lyon (The Golden Mean), Colin McAdam (Fall) and Kim Echlin (The Disappeared). You have until Nov. 10 to see if your fave wins.
QUOTE OF THE DAY | "As you know, President Obama flew to Denmark, made his pitch. The international committee voted. Chicago finished last, dead last. Well, I guess the committee thought Chicago already had enough amateur athletes with the White Sox and the Cubs." -Jay Leno.
A DYNASTY CRUMBLES | CanWest says today that major units to file for creditor protection. Nation's biggest newspaper chain and second-largest network TV operator finally succumbs to massive debt taken on in 2000 purchase of big-city newspapers from Conrad Black (Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald) - biggest media deal in Canadian history. Founding Asper family's dreams of Winnipeg-based (that is, non-Toronto) media empire are shattered. Newspapers, excluding loss-making National Post, likely to be sold to investor group headed by Post publisher Paul Godfrey or rumoured rival purchasers including Torstar, owner of Toronto Star. Assets of Global TV network and Alliance Atlantis, major film distributor, likely to be picked off, too. Corus and other vultures circling AA's lucrative cable channels (Food Network, HGTV, History Television, Showcase, BBC Canada).
THE DIE IS CAST: Leonard Asper, CanWest CEO, and late father Izzy Asper, CanWest founder, at THE July 2000 announcement of CanWest's fateful bet-the-company purchase of Conrad Black's big-city Canadian dailies. Over nine years, the debt amassed in the purchase would crush the lucrative TV empire Izzy founded in Manitoba in 1974.
DON'T SPEND IT ALL IN ONE PLACE | Rate on new CSBs is 0.4%. Rate on latest series of Canada Savings Bonds is lowest in at least 20 years. This is how you create a nation of savers rather than spendthrifts?
GRIT NOSEDIVE | Grits under Iggy slump to 28% in polls. Harper in near-majority territory at 41%. And note, poll was taken after PM's weekend star turn tinkling the ivories at National Arts Centre. Mystery is why NDP, with issues like near-9% unemployment, getting Harper to upgrade EI when Iggy all summer could not, and having long ago called the Afghan quagmire correctly, is stuck at 14%. I'll say it again: NDP is done. Its future is post-merger left wing of Liberal Party.
WE'RE #4! | Canada trails Norway, Australia and Iceland in quality of life. Last year we were #3 in the U.N. Human Development Index stakes. For several years running in the Chretien years we were #1. What gives? At least our banks are #1. Now there's something to get you feeling warm inside.
WE"RE #7! | Canada slips to 7th from 4th-most admired nation. U.S. soars to 1st from 7th. Official criteria for annual National Brand Index global survey include culture, people, scenery. Unofficially, head of government is deciding factor. "I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States for 2009," Simon Anholt, founder of NBI, tells Reuters. Referring to impact of Obama, Anholt says, "There is no other explanation."
EXCUSE ME, BUT | MSM stories about the new, permanently frugal American are hogwash. So runs convincing argument by New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki: "Even after the worst recession of the past 70 years, retail sales this year will be about where they were in 2005. Does anyone really think that four years ago Americans were misers?"
WHINER OF THE DAY | Holy smokes, global leaders' financial-reform ideas must be tough. Otherwise Scotiabank's Rick Waugh wouldn't be whinging about them. If Canada's prudent Big Five, alone in coming out of crisis looking like choir boys, think proposed new safeguards are constraining, they must be strict indeed. But not to worry, Rick. It'll be two years before anything comes of global reforms, which will be diluted in compromises among G20 nations. And by which time, as Geithner rightly warns, those who now zealous about tying bankers in knots will have forgotten what all the fuss was about.
LAST COURSE | Venerable foodie mag Gourmet is closed after 68-year run. Upscale publisher Conde Nast (New Yorker, Vogue) kills four mags in total. Loyalists of Gourmet and CN stablemate Bon Appetit battle it out over whether CN dispatched the right recipe bible. (Check the comments "tail" on any news report of Gourmet's demise.)
IKEA ICON | Billy bookcase turns 30. Everything you wanted to know about the ubiquitous bookcase. Long since outsourced by the Swedes, but if we got precious about it we'd have to go back to brick-and-plank shelving or stackable milk crates, which do not a literary ambience make.
WEB STILL NO PANACEA FOR PAPERS | U.S. online ad revenue actually drops in 2Q. Uh oh. Online spend has to zoom to compensate for accelerating decline in print-ad revenue. Remember those cheapo watches Time gave new subscribers? How about a Billy bookcase?
WHO KNEW DAVE HAD A SECRET LIFE? | Gagster apologizes to wife last night. Thus proving my initial suspicion he cheated on her. A second Letterman employee/bedmate comes forward, a "Late Night" intern (of course) who wanted to marry him. Apart from me and Globe's John Doyle, everyone seems to find humour in this. Dave's big break was the timing of the Polanski arrest.
ECO-FASHION | Stella McCartney says "people in fashion are pretty heartless." Gucci designer, emerging genius of wearable chic, making few converts in campaign to excise fur and leather from our wardrobes. But at least women now asserting themselves, no longer "dictated to by gay male designers."
QUOTE OF THE DAY | "I want to be sitting on the stage with News Corp. and Viacom and those ones." -Leonard Asper, recent successor to his father, company founder Izzy Asper, as CEO of CanWest Global Communications, describing CanWest's ill-fated 2000 purchase of Conrad Black's major Canadian newspapers.
Courtesy: Cheney, The New Yorker, Oct. 5 edition.
Nicholas Carr, the media blogger (Rough Type), was taken aback by the astounding stock-market $1-billion (U.S.) valuation recently placed on Twitter, which for all its buzz value has no profits and scant revenue. It is, in all likelihood, mere takeover bait for the likes of Google (it's Google's world; we just live in it). Then again, Google's YouTube has yet to show signs of even distant profitability. MySpace has become an albatross for Rupert Murdoch. Facebook, new king of social networking, is similarly profit-challenged.
But ya gotta have faith. The investors who took a minority stake in Twitter didn't blink in thereby putting a staggering valuation on the entire firm.
Thus inspired, Carr swung into action:
"I gave a guy down the street a 5% ownership stake in Rough Type in exchange for a 30 pack of Natty Light. The beer's worth $17.59, according to the sign in the window of the liquor store downtown, which gives Rough Type a current valuation of $351.80, or 0.0000003518 Twitters."
JUST FOUR YEARS AWAY! | Afghan general vows by 2013 Afghan army will be in control of nation. That being the case, Canadian general says, Canadian forces may be quitting the troubled country two years too early.
TRUTH TO POWER DOESN'T PAY | Globe speculates parliamentary spending watchdog will be canned.
TAR SANDS PROTESTS | 16 demonstrators arrested at Shell Athabasca facility over weekend. Third oil-sands demo in recent weeks.
CURRENCY ROLLERCOASTER | Carney warns Canadian exporters looney will be volatile. Bernanke, whose weak greenback accounts for loonie's gains, warns U.S. dollar may lose reserve-currency status.
OVER-SIZED BANKS | U.S. regulator says "too big to fail" must end. Big global banks already balking at proposed reforms. G7 finance ministers tell banks not to resist reforms. UK official wants banks to pre-pay for their risky bets.
SOOT TO SOAR | Demand for 19th-century fuel coal to soar, says Barron's.
WTF? | Bankrupt Tribune Co. (L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune) to pay managers $66 million (U.S.) in bonuses. Needs to "incentivize" top talent to stay, firm argues - as if lucrative jobs are waiting for Trib execs elsewhere in crisis-stricken industry if they defect. James Warren, a former managing editor of The Chicago Tribune, tells the NYT: “The basic arguments underlying this request [of the bankruptcy court's permission to make the bonus payments] are laughable and beg at least one simple question: How many of those that are being enriched by the bonuses have been contacted by headhunting firms seeking their talents? After what has happened there and what is going on in the broader economy, where are they going to go?”
CHATTERBOX | Greenspan, widely discredited yesterday's man, says U.S. unemployment will top 10%. Strangely, this observation - conventional wisdom all year - is widely published as "news." Reuters blogger Felix Salmon: Greenspan has learned nothing from crisis.
BLAME OBAMA? | The many non-Obama reasons Chicago didn't win the 2016 Olympics. Opinion roundup on the Obamas in Copenhagen.
STUPID HUMAN TRICK | Top 10 list on how Letterman finessed apparent promiscuity.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON | Reluctant John Cleese returns to stage to finance $20-million divorce settlement.
Courtesy: Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It's worth recalling that H.L. Mencken, the most popular U.S. political journalist of his time, shunned Washington. For 73 years, until he died in 1956, the "Sage of Baltimore" made his home at 1524 Hollis Street in the Union Square district of that city, and his professional roost for 42 years was the Baltimore Sun. He was a grossly imperfect man, anti-Semetic with an almost psychotic hatred of FDR and his New Deal. But with his unsparing observations about endemic political venality, Mencken taught a generation of Americans that Republic's officialdom, too often "refugees from the sewers," were more often than not prisoners of monied interests in conflict with the public interest, or, in the case of William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial, of that legendary populist's own pig-headed ignorance.
The counterpoints to Mencken include Bob Woodward, long a fixture of the Washington Post, the club newsletter of a company town. The Post often is mistaken for a great newspaper, having bravely published the Pentagon Papers and broken the Watergate scandal. Only in the third of volume of his trilogy on the Bush administration, when it was clear for all the world to see, including natives of the Seychelles, that George W. Bush was in competition with James Buchanan for the distinction of worst U.S. president in history, did Woodward finally come round to the possibility that the values of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, were at sharp variance with the founding principles of the Republic.
Then there's David Broder, "dean" of Washington pundits, who has never met a conventional wisdom he has not zealously embraced, imparted to him by the company town's permanent establishment of groupthink bureaucrats, centre-right think tanks, lobbyists and socialites (the doyenne of which, for decades, was Kay Graham, publisher of the Post). Broder never could understand how Bill Clinton, who "came in and trashed this town, and it's not his town," could leave office more popular with Americans than Reagan had been on retirement. George Will, another D.C. fixture, was so thoroughly captured by the Pentagon and State Department orthodoxy on the permenance of the Soviet Union that on the very day the Berlin Wall fell his Post column pronounced on lastKing durability of East Bloc communism.
Thomas Ricks, the Post reporter whose Fiasco expertly documents the failures of strategy and execution in Iraq, and an apparent exception to the C.W. rule, now shills for "coin," the counter-insurgency strategy of David Petraeus in Afghanistan that has so far yielded only thousands of deaths of innocent Afghans without advancing the strategy's advertised goal of political and social stability in that misbegotten precinct. The problems for Ricks derive, as a recent Columbia Journalism Review profile revealed, when Ricks began spending entirely too much time with Petraeus, and the line between reporter and reported-upon became blurred and then erased altogether.
For generations, the best writing about U.S. national affairs has been done by outsiders to Washington.
The Knight Ridder newspaper chain, based in Miami and later San Jose, Calif., and sadly a break-up victim of the financial crisis in newspapers, was earlier than the Post in exposing the futility of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a war the Post continues to endorse as a just cause. And the New York Times, which truth be told did most of the later heavy lifting on Watergate, is home to no fewer than three of the most clear-sighted observers of the unseemly dealings that predominate in the national capital, to which the likes of Broder are wilfully blind.
Paul Krugman, lately a Nobel laureate in economics, for eight years was relentless in exposing the fiscal debauchery and geopolitical daftness of the Bush crowd. Gail Collins, once the Times reversed its mistake in consigning her to an editing post, has re-emerged as one of the most illuminating and gently acerbic chroniclers of the complacency and folly to which the national political and media establishment is given. And Frank Rich, the former theatre critic so loathed by impresarios for his brutally honest reviews he was known as the "Sodom and Gomorrah of Broadway," has, like Krugman, consistently detailed the absurdities and moral bankruptcy of national political practitioners, elected and otherwise, who are, to be charitable, not gifted with irony. Thus Rich reminds us last Sunday that Tom Daschle, the erstwhile Democratic majority leader in the U.S. senate more recently disqualified as Obama's pick for health secretary after kickback disclosures, is both a champion of the "public option" of a new government health insurer as part of the debated healthcare reforms, and also is a paid consultant to UnitedHealth, one of the trio of America's largest private health insurers lobbying with all their might to kill the public option. So, for that matter, is former U.S. House speaker Dick Gephardt, one of the most populist presidential candidates in recent memory. Again, the irony of such matters is lost on Washington insiders.
This phenomenon in journalism is as old as reporting itself. It has to do with human nature. Just as "regulatory capture" finds the Federal Aviation Administration doing the airline industry's bidding with more vigour than enforcing safety and maintenance regulations, "beat reporters" of longstanding at City Hall or Bay Street after years of acquaintanceship with those whose activities they cover grow sympathetic and even protective of the actors on whom they "report." That George Will was an intimate of Nancy Reagan, whose control over high-ranking administration appointments put Hillary Clinton in the shadows, tells much of why Will found so little to fault in that administration's conduct.
It is commonly said that to witness Labour politicians and left-wing scribes in Britain shed their republican instincts after an invitation to a Palace gala is both predictable and yet still a marvel to behold. Is that all it takes to dispense with a long-held contempt for undemocratic monarchial rule, to shake hands with a prince and be complimented by him on your service to the realm and your scribblings in the press? The answer is yes. It's why Orwell, for one, kept his distance from politicians and royals.
I mention this only if you're still wondering why farm reporters have so little criticism to offer of egregious and enormously expensive farm-support payments to farmers to plow their crops under and sustain artificially high consumer prices for dairy products. Why those covering the Supreme Court or the Fed (including Woodward, whose fawning Greenspan biography dubbed him "Maestro" - indeed, that was the title of the book about the most over-rated central banker in history), don't reveal the scant wardrobe of the emperors. Why banking reporters seldom make the connection between staggering write-offs resulting from corner-office credulity and a leap in credit-card interest rates to for Main Street to cover the CEO's fecklessness. (Or to "socialize" the losses, in the case of government bailouts of the insolvent banks and a bailed out General Motors that had been mismanaged for decades.)
Apart from losing access to sources in writing something that offends them, there is the additional disease of self-censure by reporters and editors who spend so much of their social life in the company of those upon whom they report. In towns like Toronto and New York, this quandary is somewhat mitigated by an abundance of distractions. In company towns like Ottawa and Washington, however, there is very little to do by way of off-hours activity than to make the social rounds of the mandarins, think-tankers, politicians and their staffers, and fellow beat reporters. Indeed, one wants to be see and be seen in these precincts. It's a cloistered environment in which, should you dare to give offense to someone in your writing, you're likely to find yourself breaking bread with that individual at a soiree in a few days' or weeks' time - or, worse yet, become disinvited from a social whirl whose gossip is indispensible feedstock for your reporting.
All to say you won't see emerge from the D.C. press such observations as these, starting with Collins' column yesterday. As we know from the experience of almost every industrial nation on Earth, public health insurance is not an impossibility. But that is not Washington's understanding of the issue. The creation of a government health insurer apparently is challenge tantamount to filling in the Grand Canyon or redirecting the Mississippi so that it empties into the Atlantic rather than the Gulf of Mexico:
"One of my personal dreams is that we should have a public health insurance option. To tell you the truth, this was not on my list at the beginning of 2009. But so many really irritating people have been announcing that a public option is impossible/wrong/possibly treasonous that now I year for it night and day."
Rich was in fine form yesterday as well. Rich since early last year has not disguised his admiration of Obama. But in power, Obama, of whose fan club I too am a charter member, seems more and more ordinary as time goes on:
"You have to wonder what some of the Obama era's most moneyed and White House-connected lobbyists were thinking as they preened before a Washington Post reporter recently for two lengthy articles. We're not even nine months into the new administration, yet these swaggering, utterly unself-aware influence peddlers seem determined to prove that nothing except party affiliations has changed in the Beltway's pay-for-play culture since Tom DeLay...
"Barack Obama promised a change from this revolving-door, behind-closed-doors collaboration between special interests and government. He vowed to 'do our business in the light of day' - with health care negotiations broadcast on C-Span - and to 'restore the vital trust between people and their government.' He said, 'I intend to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.' That those lobbyists would so extravagantly flaunt their undiminished role shows just how little they believe that a new sheriff has arrived in Dodge."
Of course, there have been no gavel-to-gavel C-Span broadcasts. Instead, much earlier this year, Obama cut a dubious deal behind doors with Big Pharma by which it would "forfeit" $80 billion (U.S.) in profits over the next decade in the form of lower drug prices and not fight reform as it did in 1993-94 with its notorious "Harry and Louise ads" (indeed, the couple has returned to airwaves promoting healthcare reform), in return for an Obama promise that the healthcare reforms will not see discount volume buying of drugs (reducing healthcare costs is an Obama mantra, but never mind) and he would forbid the further importation of cheaper Canadian drugs into the U.S.
On financial regulatory reform, it is similarly evident that nothing substantial is to come of deliberations underway, given the proliferation of Wall Street lobbyists and their success to date in eviscerating proposed legislation of any consequence. On the evidence, the Obama government takeover of citizens' lives is a chimera, but the Beltway's takeover of the Obama administration is well underway.
This, too, is the nature of things, of course. Obama is one man, dealing with 535 members of Congress, turf wars among his own agencies, and the fear of change, no matter how beneficial, overdue, urgently needed, among millions of everyday Americans. Actually, the lobbyists are not yet setting the agenda - if they were, heathcare and financial-markets reform would not even be on the table. But they're doing their best to gut "reform." And a company town media that has supped with Daschle, Gephardt and their former staffers now toiling for special interests are doing their best to help sow confusion about reforms of such obvious necessity that they likely won't come about.
I heard on NPR's "On Point" Friday morning a woman who reports for a hollowed-out Knight Ridder news service assert as a matter of irrefutable fact that Americans don't want a new government health insurer. They see it as a Big Government intrusion in their lives, she said - an almost verbatim recitation of the insurance lobby's main talking point. Veteran journalist and author Jack Beatty, a regular of that weekly political round-up show, interrupted to say a poll that very week showed 70% of Americans want a new government health insurer. He could have added that this latest poll was no different than public-opinion surveys all year consistently showing majority popular desire for a government insurer "to keep the private insurers honest," as Obama has put it.
The KR reporter is based in Washington. Beatty, who has only the same tourist's familiarity with D.C. that I do, was calling into the NPR show, as usual, from his home in Hanover, N.H.