Friday, February 28, 2003

Did Iraq disarm after the Gulf War? The media-watch organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is focusing attention on a report in the current Newsweek suggesting that Iraq had destroyed all of its weapons of mass destruction as of 1995. The article, which has gotten little notice, "may be the biggest story of the Iraq crisis," according to FAIR.

Newsweek's John Barry reports that Saddam Hussein's son-in-law General Hussein Kamel, who defected to the West in 1996 and whose interviews with US intelligence officials are often cited as evidence of Saddam's weapons programs, had actually told his interrogators that Iraq had destroyed all of its chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles forbidden under the terms of the Gulf War surrender.

Was Kamel merely doing his father-in-law's bidding? Not likely. Kamel eventually decided to return to Iraq -- and Saddam had him executed.

Where does this information fit into the current debate over war and disarmament? It's hard to say. Even if Kamel's testimony is completely true, Saddam has had since 1998 -- when UN weapons inspectors were kicked out of the country -- to rebuild his stockpile.

Still, the possibility that Iraq was weapons-free as recently as eight years ago is significant information, and it should have received more attention than it has.

Those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it. And Governor Mitt Romney wants to get rid of the state inspector general's office (Globe story here; Herald story here), which is dedicated to rooting out the waste, fraud, and corruption around which Romney has constructed his permanent campaign. Yes, the IG's office been too low-profile and more political than perhaps originally envisioned. But this is madness.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

A "difficult public face for NBC in time of war." Phil Donahue's now-canceled MSNBC talk show will not be long lamented. Still, there remain questions as to whether he was done in solely by his show's pathetic ratings or for more sinister reasons. Rick Ellis, writing for the television website, says that MSNBC executives concluded that Donahue had to go because they didn't want an antiwar liberal in their prime-time line-up at a time when the White House is preparing to launch a war against Iraq.

Ellis cites an internal report that criticizes Donahue as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace," and that goes on to call Donahue a "difficult public face for NBC in time of war." What's interesting about this is that Donahue's ratings, though miserable, were rising at the time that his show was canceled (as the New York Times reported earlier this week), and that his audience share was also bigger than that of longtime MSNBC host Chris Matthews. To be fair, Matthews has also been a persistent war critic; but his over-the-top anti-Clinton, anti-Gore diatribes of a few years back presumably give him some immunity among conservative cable news viewers.

But aren't they all watching Fox anyway?

The Three R's: reorganization, reform, and Romney. So what to make of Governor Mitt Romney's budget/reorganization plan? Not to cop out, but it strikes me that an instant reaction would be foolhardy. I don't know if it's "bold" (the word of the day in the Globe and the Herald), but it certainly is sprawling, encompassing everything from a drastic repositioning of the state's higher-education system to new Medicaid fees.

At first glance, much of the Romney proposal appears to be a mixed bag. There is, of course, a certain amount of psychic satisfaction in seeing UMass president Bill Bulger squirm as Romney tries to eliminate his job. (Globe coverage here; Herald coverage here.) By most accounts, the former Senate president has done an excellent job in building up UMass. But his high salary ($309,000) and his refusal to testify before a congressional committee about his homicidal brother (understandable on a personal level but incompatible with holding high public office) make him an inviting target.

Still, forcing out Bulger is one thing; doing away with the UMass president's office and decentralizing the state's high-education system is quite another. Is it a good idea? It's too soon to say. The Globe's Joan Vennochi is already calling it "a fraud and an insult," and compares Romney's plan to "setting off pyrotechnics in a low-ceilinged nightclub." Wow. That's, uh, way more than a bit much.

In a considerably more measured column, the Globe's Adrian Walker criticizes Romney's "cynicism" and observes: "Part of the beauty of the assault on Bulger is that his fate -- not education -- becomes the story line." Indeed, the get-Bulger angle is more than enough for the Herald's Peter Gelzinis, who cackles, "The Napoleon of South Boston would appear to be fading away right before our very eyes." (Gelzinis also laments that Bulger's powerful friends may yet save his job.)

But let's be honest. Can anyone really say for certain right now that Romney's higher-ed plan will be good or bad for the state and the students who depend on it?

Or take local aid. Romney proposes both to reform it, so that communities that have not been pulling their fair share will have to cut spending or raise taxes (good), and to cut it by five percent (bad). When Romney promised during his campaign not to cut core essential services, or whatever his slippery phrase was, he apparently didn't count cops, firefighters, and teachers as being essential.

Finally, the Globe today reports a Romney initiative that is so bizarre that I'm wondering if it's really true. According to the article, by Cynthia Roy, the state Department of Public Health will start charging a $50 fee for tuberculosis tests -- and "a $400 fee for those who test positive." Can this be right? A quick perusal of Romney's budget proposal on the state website sheds no light: it merely shows a new line item for tuberculosis testing that would bring in $300,000 in fiscal 2004.

I'm trying to imagine how this would work. Would you have to pay $450 in advance, and then get a $400 rebate if you test negative? ("Congratulations! You've won!") Would you be billed an extra $400 if you test positive?

This is so screamingly insane that I'm going to assume that there's at least a chance that the Globe got it wrong or left something out. But if it's true, then Romney ought to find out who put this in his budget and add him or her to the long list of state employees who are getting laid off.

Okay, so call it a tie. Jonathan Last, the online editor of the Weekly Standard, takes issue with my item praising the New Republic's new digital-delivery system. Last writes:

While TNR has done a great job with both their print and web redesigns, I'm not sure if they really go us one better. They only part of the magazine we don't put into HTML is the letters page. TNR now puts their letters page on the web, which is great, but we make much more of our HTML magazine content available to non-subscribers.

A fair observation. For some reason, I had thought that the "Contents" column on the left-hand side of the Standard's website consisted only of highlights, not the entire magazine (minus letters). I've also learned that not all of TNR's print articles are available in HTML -- the other night, when I tried to read a Robert Kaplan piece, I was greeted with a message that I had to download the entire issue in PDF format if I wanted to read it.

So, my revised assessment: the Standard and TNR both have very good websites. Each could be improved. (Since TNR's print articles are now available to subscribers only, why can't they all be in HTML? And why can't the Standard put its letters up in HTML?) And the third political weekly, the left-liberal Nation, really needs to get with the program and start making all of its content available to the people who pay the bills. No, I don't mean Paul Newman! I mean the subscribers.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Giving up on Donahue. So there were Phil Donahue and Peter Jennings last night, having a civilized conversation about Iraq on MSNBC. Earlier in the day, Donahue's show had finally been put out of its misery, which was no surprise, since it hadn't attracted much in the way of ratings since its debut last year.

I can't say I shed any tears. I almost never watched it, and am not much of a fan of Donahue's arm-waving, hectoring style. But was it really necessary to give up this quickly on the only liberal talk show on cable news? As Bill Carter points out in this morning's New York Times, Donahue's ratings were bad, but they were getting better, and he actually had the highest ratings of MSNBC's sorry prime-time line-up.

MSNBC, of course, is completely and utterly lost. Soon it will debut a Saturday talk show by right-wing hatemonger Mike Savage. Donahue's slot may eventually go to new celebrity hire Jesse Ventura, who proved to be a more compelling wrestler than political leader. The network is also talking about a prime-time newscast to be anchored by Sam Donaldson -- not a terrible idea by any means, but it was only last year that it allowed Brian Williams, a far more supple anchor than Donaldson, to flee to sister station CNBC.

Donahue's show wasn't particularly inspired, but it was better than much of the trash that's on cable news.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The return of the $43 million error. In an otherwise impressive essay for the New Republic's "Liberalism and American Power" issue, Samantha Power recycles a hoary old canard. As an example of the Bush administration's inconsistent foreign policy, Power writes, "We can go to war against the Taliban, never acknowledging our previous aid to the regime -- we offered a grant of $43 million as late as May 2001 -- for its help quashing opium production." (Power's piece is online here, but is available only to TNR subscribers.)

As I reported more than a year ago, and as others have reported as well, this was simply not the case, an inconvenience that has not prevented it from attaining the status of accepted truism. The fact is that the US distributed $43 million through the UN and non-governmental organizations to help feed starving Afghans. Even in announcing the aid package, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointedly criticized Afghanistan's Taliban government.

Unfortunately, this is one error that has been repeated so often, and has been so rarely challenged, that it has taken on the color of truth. Surely the Bush White House's foreign policy has been cynical enough without having to tar it with a grotesque misdeed that it did not actually commit.

This isn't good, either. Former Boston Globe columnist John Ellis is giving up his weblog, one of the more consistently entertaining and informative of such ventures. Ellis will be a scholar at the new Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Cosmo Macero, who got to this before I did, is so broken up that he's going to keep his Ellis link in tribute.

This isn't good. Salon editor/founder David Talbot is begging. His most desperate statement: "If every one of our 53,000 subscribers brings in just ONE additional subscription, Salon will finally break even this year." And if every magazine could double its paid circulation, then dogs would be performing neurosurgery.

Paging Steve Jobs!

From Pony Express to instant delivery. The New Republic has finally, and quite intelligently, solved its biggest problem: getting itself into the hands of paying subscribers in a timely manner.

Last year, I wrote an item urging TNR to emulate the Weekly Standard, which makes its entire issue available to subscribers as a PDF download as soon as it comes off the presses. TNR, which unveiled its upgraded website yesterday, has gone one better than that.

Not only will the PDF edition of TNR be available on Friday mornings, many days before the print edition arrives in your mailbox, but the entire issue is being made available to subscribers in regular HTML format as well. (The Standard makes much of its content available in HTML, but not the entire magazine.)

There are two advantages to the PDF format: it looks exactly like the printed magazine, and since you can save the whole thing to your hard drive, you can take it with you and read it on your laptop without an Internet connection. But the latter advantage is actually less important than it was even a year ago, which is why I think the HTML alternative is such a great idea.

Increasingly, Internet connections are becoming untethered from wires, thanks to high-speed wireless networks (Airport in Apple lingo, WiFi to everyone else). That means more and more people can take their Internet connection with them. And since PDF files can be fuzzy and difficult to read unless you print them out (quite an undertaking except for those who have high-speed laser printers), the HTML files are actually more usable.

The downside of TNR's new digital strategy is that very little of the print-edition content will be available to non-subscribers. As a reader, I don't care. But it does make it less enticing to write about TNR articles in Media Log, since I will not be able to link to them. (On the other hand, TNR is selling digital-only subscriptions for just $20, one-fourth of the usual subscription cost -- an interesting insight into how much money a magazine blows on printing, production, and postage.)

The print edition of TNR is unveiling a new design this week as well, which surely demonstrates that its last redesign -- just a few years old -- was seen as unsuccessful by editor-in-chief/owner Marty Peretz, as well as his new co-owners, Roger Hertog and Michael Steinhardt. Blessedly, those thick black vertical lines are gone from the "TRB" and "Diarist" columns.

There's also been a lot of chatter lately about TNR's supposed ideological revamping. Both the New York Observer's Sridhar Pappu and the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz report that the magazine's publicists have been touting the magazine's move to the right. The nominally liberal TNR strongly supports the Bush administration's Iraq policy, and has been lambasting the Democratic presidential candidates as well.

Please. TNR has been lurching back and forth between neolib and neocon for years. ("Here we go again," is how Pappu begins his piece.) With Peretz's friend Al Gore now off the presidential stage and a young, right-leaning editor, Peter Beinart, at the top of the masthead, it's hardly surprising that TNR is tilting more conservative than it did under Beinart's predecessor, Charles Lane, now of the Washington Post. But Lane's predecessor, Michael Kelly, was seen as so hostile to liberalism that even Peretz could not abide him. Conservative Andrew Sullivan is a former TNR editor as well.

If TNR can even be said to have a consistent ideology, it would be generally liberal on domestic policy, except affirmative action, which it staunchly opposes; and neoconservative on foreign policy. No wonder it's been seen as swinging back and forth over the years.

A pyro warning. The Boston Herald's Tom Mashberg has a terrific story today on Paul Vanner, the sound man at the Station, who says he warned co-owner Michael Derderian months ago about the pyrotechnics being set off at his club. But it's hard to know where this information fits into the investigation, since Mashberg also reports that Vanner says Derderian appeared to take his warning seriously, and stopped booking bands that use pyro. A fascinating tidbit, but we're still a long way from knowing the truth.

Can't get enough of those feuding sportswriters? The Herald's Jim Baker has an entertaining roundup today, beneath the laughably false headline "Bickering Writers a Turnoff." The Phoenix's Chris Young, in his online "Sporting Eye" column, weighs in on the Shaughnessy/Buckley/Edes contretemps as well.

Monday, February 24, 2003

The terrible aftermath. Blute & Ozone had me on for a few minutes this morning on WRKO Radio (AM 680) to talk about the media's treatment of one of their own: Jeff Derderian, co-owner (with his brother) of the Station nightclub in West Warwick, the scene of last week's horrific, deadly fire. The question: have the media gone too easy on Derderian because he's a reporter for WPRI-TV (Channel 12) in Providence and a former reporter for WHDH-TV (Channel 7) in Boston?

I don't know. Derderian may have initially gotten more benefit of the doubt than someone else might have, but it strikes me that it's not going to matter much. His claims that the club had never given permission to Great White to set off fireworks on stage are now in serious doubt, and Rhode Island officials are going to push this until they get some answers.

Maybe Derderian wasn't given the full media treatment -- camera crews haven't staked out his house, and he hasn't been chased down the street by rampaging TV reporters. But it's not going to matter in the end. This is a terrible story, and it's not going to come out well for Derderian, regardless of how questions involving criminal and civil liability are ultimately resolved.

The Providence Journal has done some interesting stuff online to expand its coverage of the tragedy, including a fire-related weblog, photo slide shows, and links to additional information. (Free registration required.)

I've seen several well-executed stories on the long road ahead for survivors who've been seriously burned. Stephen Smith's piece in yesterday's Globe on firefighter Raymond McNamara is worthwhile. Here are two other truly exceptional pieces:

  • The 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography was awarded to Matt Rainey of the Newark Star-Ledger for his photos of two college students who were badly burned in a dorm fire. The Pulitzer website has a portfolio of Rainey's work.
  • The Austin American-Statesman website has an in-depth report on Jacqui Saburido, a young woman whose face was virtually burned off in a terrible car accident several years ago. Written by David Hafetz and photographed by Rodolfo Gonzalez, this is very difficult to look at. But it's not sensationalistic in the least -- rather, it's simply the heartbreaking truth.

Finneran's wake. Scot Lehigh's profile of House Speaker Tom Finneran in yesterday's Boston Globe Magazine serves as a reminder of what a talented and brilliant person Finneran really is. Unfortunately, Lehigh offers no reason to hope that Finneran has learned what he should have learned from his power-crazed mistakes of the last several years, mistakes that have damaged his reputation and driven out many talented House members.

The most telling anecdote is offered by former Senate president Tom Birmingham, talking about the endless budget discussions that the two men held in 1999, when the state's spending plan was finally approved five months late:

"I tried to make the case that we were doing irreparable harm to our institutional and personal reputations by not concluding this," Birmingham says. "And I said, using more scatological words, 'Everybody thinks we are a couple of jerks.' And he said, 'No, I disagree. I think everybody is saying, "Those two guys really know what they are talking about." ' This is like five months into the stalemated budget. Nobody knew what we were talking about."

Birmingham laughs in disbelief at the memory, repeating the remark as though it's the punch line of a favorite joke: "No, I think everybody is saying, 'Those two guys really know what they are talking about.' "

The Blog Mattress. Barry Crimmins sends word that the sublime Charles Laquidara, the legendary disc jockey for the old WBCN Radio who's now living in Hawaii, has started his own weblog. Lots of antiwar stuff, as you would expect from Charles. He's also posted some great cartoons and pictures -- check out the prices at Tom's Shell.

Barry himself has posted a righteous rant about his recent unsuccessful effort to write and read a commentary for On Point, an NPR-distributed talk show emanating from WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) in Boston. They invited him, I should point out, but his observations about the burgeoning 2004 presidential field were obviously too caustic for a segment that the show likes to keep lite and cheery. Crimmins writes:

Two years into the court-appointed Bush administration's destruction of our way of life and the first call I received from NPR was a request to belittle Democrats. Ostensibly they wanted me to make fun of the fact that the field of candidates had grown very quickly in recent weeks. That's right; NPR was soliciting me to satirize democracy for showing signs of vibrancy. And so this young producer tried to steer me that way. She started by mentioning the size of the Democratic field and then asked, "Do you think any of them has the stature to take on George W. Bush?"

I said, "My dog Lloyd has the stature to take on Bush." But then I allowed, "Of course, I raised him myself."

Obviously Media Log will be happy to post a response from WBUR.

At CNN, quality counts -- until it doesn't. So now CNN's goal is to position itself as the quality alternative to Fox News, making up in demographics what it lacks in sheer numbers. The New York Times reports this morning that Connie Chung and her cheesy tabloid show may ultimately become the victim of this new strategy. I'd say "good," except that it seems CNN changes direction every six months. So let's just call this good news for the short term, with the understanding that there is no long term -- or even medium term.

Friday, February 21, 2003

Romney: reforms or rhetoric? A year from now, we'll know whether Governor Mitt Romney has genuinely reformed state government, or if he's just spitting into the wind. He's already proposed doing away with the MDC, a long-overdue step. Today, the papers report on his plan to streamline the court system, including doing away with the Boston Municipal Court. (Globe coverage here; Herald coverage here, here, and here.)

The problem, of course, is that there's absolutely no need for the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to do anything with Romney's proposals. The legislators can make paper airplanes out of them and toss them out the window: the Republicans are so outnumbered that they can't even force a roll-call vote.

It doesn't help matters that Romney has overpromised and underdelivered. His court plan was supposed to save $100 million a year; the preliminary reports are that it will save just $9 million. Legislators, of course, will look at any such cynicism as evidence of weakness, as a sign that Romney is really no different from them (read this stink bomb on the piles-o-cash former Senate president Tom Birmingham handed to his top aides on the way out the door), and thus may be safely ignored.

Will Romney take his case to the public? Please. The public doesn't care. The public is more concerned about being able to play Keno every four minutes than it is about the future of this state.

Hot stove peeve. Been meaning for a while to give a plug to Bruce Allen's Boston Sports Media weblog, and reader ML put a bug in my ear yesterday reminding me to do it. It's a good week for it, too. Allen has some astringent observations about the dust-up over Nomar Garciaparra involving Herald columnist Steve Buckley and Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy. Some examples of Allen's style: "Steve Buckley needs to get over himself." "I've never seen the words 'trusted' and 'Shaughnessy' in the same sentence before." Excellent!

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Iraq, America, and the Bomb. Amid the anguished muddle over Iraq, there does not exist the perfectly constructed argument either for intervention or against. With that flaccid endorsement, let me recommend Jonathan Schell's cover essay in this week's issue of the Nation, misleadingly titled "The Case Against the War."

Schell's piece is obviously flawed. He accuses the White House of oil greed, then does a double-reverse backflip designed to show that even if he's wrong, he'll be soaking his teeth at the nursing home before anyone can prove it. ("Even if it were true -- and we won't really know until some equivalent of the Pentagon Papers for our period is released -- that his Administration has been using the threat of mass destruction as a cover for an oil grab ...") Much of his argument is along the lines of, well, since the world is going to hell anyway, who are we to stop Iraq from contributing to that hell?

But Schell makes one overriding, and important, point. Since 1946, he notes, the world has been in increasing danger because of nuclear proliferation. Iraq today is -- at worst -- the fourth-most dangerous country in terms of developing and spreading nuclear-weapons technology. The worst, in Schell's well-informed view: our friends the Pakistanis.

Rather than dislodging one tyrant, Schell writes, what we should be doing is beginning a new effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Including our own.

A new low. A dangerous phrase to employ when writing about Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr (what will I label his next outrage? a "new new low"?). But yesterday, on his WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk show, I heard him refer to antiwar demonstrators as "peace queers." Mrs. Carr must be very proud.

Obviously he would want me to shut up, too. Still, I can't stop myself from linking to this piece in Seattle's Stranger by Neal Pollack, mocking all writing about the war, for and against. "Shut up, antiwar people. Shut up, pro-war people," Pollack writes. "Shut down your computers and shut your goddamn pieholes. No one gives a shit what you write, so stop writing about the war. Shut up, all of you." And shut up, specifically, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Ted Rall, Lewis Lapham, Anne Lamott, Bill Keller, Hendrik Hertzberg, and poets for peace.

Blood on his hands. Nice to see Ramsey Clark taking some time off from his very, very busy schedule of bringing peace to the world in order to defend two Rwandans convicted of genocide. Here's an excellent 1999 piece from Salon on the former US attorney general and his proclivity for defending the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

And this is even better. Just tried entering "" and got a website called "Islam: The True Religion of GOD Almighty."

Monkeywrenching Lieberman's cybercampaign. Someone doesn't like Joe Lieberman very much. This morning I received an e-mail "Joseph Lieberman for President" that reads as follows:

Dear Citizen,

What's the best cure for economic blues? Shopping! I've been buying some really neat toys for the US Military lately, and they didn't even ask for a lot of them!

To see my list of recent purchases and find out more about my campaign please visit Also, check out a special new report on how you can protect your family from the terrorists using simple household adhesives!

Wrapped in plastic,
The Joseph for President Campaign

The website (slogan: "Joseph Lieberman. A new kind of Democrat. The Republican kind.") is festooned with graphics making fun of Lieberman's support for the Bush administration's Iraq policy, for capital punishment, and the like.

Here is Lieberman's official site, the source of all this lame mirth.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

The ugly specter of "dual loyalties." You don't have to support the Bush administration's Iraq policy in order to be worried about the anti-Israel overtones of the burgeoning antiwar movement. Last week, Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about his being banned from speaking at a peace rally because he (gasp!) supports Israel's right to exist.

Today, a Media Log reader passes along a Washington Post op-ed piece by Lawrence Kaplan on the growing tendency of those who oppose the war to blame it all on the influence of conservative Jews in the US government. Those mouthing such dangerous inanities, Kaplan observes, range from the right (Pat Buchanan, reprising his anti-Semitic rhetoric from the first Gulf War), the left (Kaplan quotes the "respected liberal intellectual Ian Buruma" as blaming it all on "Jewish-American hysteria"), and the center (MSNBC talking head Chris Matthews points to "conservative people out there, some of them Jewish, who are very tough on foreign policy. They believe we should fight the Arabs and take them down. They believe that if we don't fight Iraq, Israel will be in danger.").

Kaplan doesn't mention it, but he could have pointed as well to Slate blogger Mickey Kaus's recent round-up of administration officials who are tied to Israel's Likud government. Asks Kaus: "As someone trying to make up his mind about the war, am I troubled by the unspoken, widely-acknowledged influence of the Likudniks? Yes! ... [I]t's very relevant to us ordinary citizens what conscious or subconscious motives might be skewing their decision in favor of war."

Funny, but I don't remember anyone getting hot and bothered over the assistance that James Carville gave to Israel's previous Labor government. Then again, since Carville's not Jewish, he wasn't open to the ugly smear of "dual loyalties," which Kaus invokes to knock down (going out of his way to note his own Jewish background), and which Kaplan identifies as the "toxic" bit of rhetoric that it is. Kaplan concludes:

Invoking the specter of dual loyalty to quiet criticism and debate amounts to more than the everyday pollution of public discourse. It is the nullification of public discourse, for how can one refute accusations grounded in ethnicity? The charges are, ipso facto, impossible to disprove. And so they are meant to be.

Jury purification. Civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, a Phoenix contributor and my occasional collaborator, has written a piece for the Wall Street Journal on an extraordinary legal precedent in London: a judge has decided to exclude Jews and Hindus from the jury in the trial of a radical Muslim cleric who has been charged with inciting religious hatred against -- yes -- Jews and Hindus.

Silverglate, always with a keen eye for the excesses of identity politics, warns that this "could be another step in the trend, emphatic already in the American legal system, of equating a citizen's race or ethnicity with his probable point of view or, more radically still, his ability to judge his fellow citizen fairly on the evidence."

Monday, February 17, 2003

Who needs liberal radio? Al Franken puts it best: "I think the audience isn't there for a liberal Rush. Because I think liberals don't want to hear that kind of demagoguery." So why is Franken thinking about joining up with a new liberal radio network aimed at countering the conservative Limbaugh/Hannity/O'Reilly stranglehold? Because, according to Jim Rutenberg in today's New York Times, some wealthy Democrats are willing to make it worth his while.

This isn't going to work. The reason that conservative talk radio succeeds is that its listeners feel alienated from the mainstream. Liberals have no reason to feel alienated, because they've got NPR. No, NPR doesn't engage in the sort of partisan advocacy for the left that the conservative media do for the right. It's certainly more willing to entertain diverse views than the Fox News Channel.

But tens of millions of people -- affluent, well-educated people, overwhelmingly liberal, who donate to NPR and who thus help shape its programming -- already have a spot on the dial that they're happy with.

Those who know Saddam best. The "No Blood for Oil" automatons ought to have a look at this piece in today's Boston Globe by Vanessa Jones. Jones interviews several local members of the Iraqi exile community. And though they are properly suspicious of American motives, they all agree on two things: Saddam Hussein has to go, and that can't happen without US help.

That doesn't mean we should invade this week. It does mean that this is a whole lot more morally complicated than this past weekend's smug antiwar protesters would have it.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

The prey debates the hunter. If you read nothing else all weekend, I hope you'll read "Unspeakable Conversations," the extraordinary cover story of today's New York Times Magazine. Written by a disability-rights activist named Harriet McBryde Johnson, it's an account of her decision to open up a dialogue and publicly debate Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer, who is well-known for his loathsome view that the parents of some severely disabled babies should be able to kill them up to a month after birth.

Johnson defends her position with intelligence and passion, but that's not why you should read this. Rather, what really reasonates is watching her come to a deeper understanding of Singer as a human being, even as she remains steadfast in her opposition to his views.

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Salon and Apple -- the perfect match! The cash-starved webzine Salon has pulled out of these crises before, but you've got to figure that -- one of these times -- it won't. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, David Talbot and company may run out of money by the end of the month after running up $81 million in losses during their nearly seven years of publication.

If Salon actually, finally fails, it would leave rival Slate as the only big general-interest webzine that's not tied to a larger media empire. Incredible. A half-dozen years ago, many people (okay, me too), were predicting that by now there would be dozens if not hundreds of such ventures.

Slate prospers the old-fashioned way: as a part of the Microsoft empire, it doesn't have to worry about making money. Indeed, such magazines as the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and the like all lose money every year or at least most years.

So let me drag out an idea I first floated a couple of years ago, when it first became clear that Salon was not going to make everyone rich: talk Apple Computer into acquiring its assets, and let the Salon-Slate competition continue, this time as a proxy for the longstanding Apple-Microsoft war.

Publishing Salon may be too expensive for Talbot, but it would be pocket change for Steve Jobs. And each webzine, culturally, is the perfect match: Salon is hip, sexy, and alternative, much like Apple; Slate is a little geeky, has a penchant for telling you what you ought to think, and reaches a lot more people, just like Microsoft.

Is this a match made in heaven or what?

Goodbye, Dolly. What killed Dolly? Premature aging related to her unusual origin as a clone? Or just one of those things? If you read this morning's Boston Globe and New York Times, you're still wondering.

According to the Globe piece -- which carries Anne Barnard's byline, but which included reporting by staff writer Gareth Cook as well as wire-service material -- cloning almost certainly had something to do with the famous sheep's death at the age of six, "well short of the normal 11- to 16-year sheep lifespan." The report notes that Dolly "grew obese, developed arthritis, and showed signs of premature aging" during her brief but celebrated life.

Yet the Times' Gina Kolata reports almost exactly the opposite, writing that sheep that are kept indoors, as Dolly was, may have about half the 11- to 12-year life expectancy of those allowed to roam in pastures; that her arthritis was not unusual for a sheep allowed to live past the typical nine-month slaughtering age; and that her obesity was well under control. Kolata writes:

Her illness and death, Dr. [Ian] Wilmut [one of the scientists who helped create Dolly] said, probably had nothing to do with the fact that she was a clone. "It could equally well have happened if she was not a clone," he said.

So which is it? This piece, by James Meek in the Guardian, strongly suggests that cloning did, indeed, cause Dolly to age prematurely, and that her true biological age might even have been 11 -- the six years since she had been born plus the six-year age of the cell from which she was cloned.

Needless to say, the full truth won't be known for some time to come.

Friday, February 14, 2003

And guess what? They're against us. A few days ago I was listening to a radio talk show -- I don't remember which one, but it was probably Bill O'Reilly's or Jay Severin's -- when a caller began to talk about the Bush Doctrine, which he defined as, "You're either with us or against us." The caller was being neither ironic nor sarcastic; indeed, it was clear that he was an admirer of the president's, and he spoke of the Bush Doctrine in the same reverential tones that earlier generations may have reserved for, say, the Monroe Doctrine.

The front page of today's New York Times shows where the Bush Doctrine has gotten us so far in regard to the war with Iraq. Our rift with Europe is deep and growing deeper. And, at home, a new Times/CBS poll shows that a broad expanse of the American public will support war only with a favorable vote of the UN Security Council, an uncertain prospect, needless to say. No doubt many will point to today's Times as just another example of Rainesian liberal bias. But I think it's evidence of far deeper problems.

Like many mainstream liberals, I've been on the fence about this war, more against it than for it, but nagged by the sense that something has to be done about Saddam Hussein's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and of his obvious lust to develop nuclear weapons as well. Besides, Saddam presides over one of the cruelest regimes in the world. Would't his overthrow advance liberal goals? Even without embracing the more pie-in-the-sky scenarios of some of Bush's advisers?

Well, yes. But George W. Bush's very approach -- you're either with us or against us -- makes it impossible for me to say, "Okay, Mr. President, go ahead." He makes it sound so simple, and it's never that simple. And what about "Shock and Awe," the Pentagon war plan that may or may not call for the Hiroshima-style flattening of Baghdad during the war's opening days? Not going to win too many hearts and minds that way.

Earlier this week a friend of mine asked whether I was starting to lean toward war. I replied that I was still hoping it could be avoided. And we wondered: what would Bill Clinton have done? We both agreed that, with his masterful touch with the Europeans, the rift that Bush has helped create would be nonexistent.

Of course, there's a chance that Clinton would have smoothed over the differences by not being tough enough. Indeed, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer today blames all the troubles in the world on Clinton's eight years of inaction. But there was no national consensus during the Clinton years for the kind of effort that would have been needed to combat international terrorism in a comprehensive way. As they say, 9/11 changed everything.

We can't be sure that Clinton would have been any more successful than Bush. But given the results that the bullying Bush Doctrine have brought so far, it would be interesting to see how different things might be with some Clinton-style alliance-building instead.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Two more Kerry pieces. Harold Meyerson has a good piece in the American Prospect on why John Kerry is well-positioned to win the Democratic nomination for president. A bit early, isn't, Harold? But his process-of-elimination logic is hard to argue with: Gephardt's got too much baggage, Lieberman is too conservative, Dean is too obscure (and perhaps too dovish even for Democratic activists), and Edwards is too young. The New Republic's Ryan Lizza offers a more negative take on Kerry, on the hazards of being the early frontrunner.

The visions that hawks dream of. Nicholas Lemann has an important piece in the New Yorker this week on the cock-eyed optimists who occupy the high-middle layers of the Bush administration. Their hope: that war with Iraq will result in a new, semi-democratic state that will lead to significant, pro-Western change throughout the Middle East.

Lemann talks with Douglas Feith and Stephen Cambone, both of whom are leading hawks in the Department of Defense. Feith is more expansive than Cambone, and this exchange with Lemann is particularly instructive regarding the hawks' thinking:

I asked Feith whether the United States, if it goes to war, would be doing so partly because it wants to change the Middle East as a whole. "Perhaps I should put it this way," he said. "Would anybody be thinking about using military power in Iraq in order to do a political experiment in Iraq in the hope that it would have positive political spillover effects throughout the region? The answer is no. That's not the kind of thing that leads a country like the United States to commit the kind of military forces that we're committing to this effort -- right now, to try to make our diplomacy work, but ultimately, perhaps, if the diplomacy doesn't work, to take military action. There's no way. What we would be using military power for, if we have to, would be the goals the President has talked about, particularly the elimination of the chemical and biological weapons, and preventing Iraq from getting nuclear weapons." He paused for a moment. "Now. Once you contemplate using military force for that purpose, and you're thinking about what do you do afterward, that's when you can think that if we do things right, and if we help the Iraqis, and if the Iraqis show an ability to create a humane representative government for themselves -- will that have beneficial spillover effects on the politics of the whole region? The answer, I think, is yes."

It is a lovely vision, which is precisely why I'm so wary of it. As Lemann says of this and other post-Iraq scenarios put forth by the hawks, "It is breathtakingly ambitious and optimistic." And more to the point, it says nothing about the other possible outcomes of a US invasion: thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, and resultant cries for terrorist revenge; Saddam Hussein's using his chemical and biological weapons against US troops, as well as targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia; and a generation's worth of chaos.

During the past week, Colin Powell has done much to show that current efforts to contain Saddam are failing. And it is clear that, like it or not, this war is going to take place. It's going to take realism and humility (the latter formerly one of George W. Bush's favorite words) to get through this with as little damage to the Iraqi people and to the US as possible -- not the beautiful visions of Pentagon dreamers.

MSNBC hits new low (until the next time). I've only heard talk-radio host Mike Savage for maybe a total of 20 minutes. But this summation, by the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, strikes me as pretty much on the money (thanks to reader AS for the link). So does his own website, where you can get a taste of his hate-filled rants and enjoy a photo of him feeling up a wax figure of Barbra Streisand. So, naturally, MSNBC, currently engaged in the longest and most expensive suicide in media history, has added him to its line-up of talk-show hosts.

A Mitt too far. Earlier this week I praised Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman for whacking Governor Mitt Romney in his Lowell Sun column. Well, yesterday, in the Salem News, Goldman went too far -- actually blasting Romney for his vow to shut down the filthy, dangerous PG&E power plant in Salem. I hereby sentence Goldman to a dozen consecutive viewings of Erin Brockovich.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Kerry's got cancer? Kick him again! If you're Kerry-hating Slate blogger Mickey Kaus, John Kerry's prostate-cancer operation isn't a signal that it's time to lay off. No, it's a signal to step it up. Kaus sneers at how slickly Kerry stage-managed his news conference yesterday at which he announced that he has cancer, then adds:

Kerry's prostate cancer operation "helps" him, in the unsentimental political sense, in a way it might not "help" another candidate -- namely by emphasizing to voters that he's in fact a liviing, breathing human being and not a continually trimmed and positioned semi-holographic self-creation.

Now, Kaus isn't the first pundit to make this point. In fact, Kerry joked about it himself yesterday, telling reporters that he was going to have his "aloof gland" removed. But Kaus is just so over-the-top mean that he dehumanizes the guy, and he does it on a day when Kerry's recovering from what must have been some mighty unpleasant surgery -- with, let's not forget, some might uncertain prospects as well.

NYT v. WJS. Sorry to be feeding off Romenesko, since I assume most Media Log readers are already Romenesko junkies. But this is worth calling your attention to if you haven't seen it: a piece by former Boston Globe business columnist David Warsh on the looming national and international rivalry between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Thought-provoking.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

A post in the Post. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz includes a long quote from my "celebrities for peace" item in his online Media Notes column today (scroll down about three-quarters of the way).

Bechtel strikes back. Romenesko has posted a link to this San Francisco Chronicle story in which the hometown heroes at Bechtel whine about the Globe's three-part series on its alleged mismanagement of the Big Dig. Says Bechtel flak Howard Menaker: "We are extremely disappointed in the article. We think it's an extreme misrepresentation of the facts and the history of the project." Whoa! Two extremes in the same quote! Must be serious.

Meanwhile, as the Globe series underscores, we just keep paying.

"Working the refs." Seriously under the weather today, but I did want to call your attention to a longish excerpt from Eric Alterman's new book, What Liberal Media?, which appears in this week's issue of the Nation. It's been online for a few days, but I waited to read it until my copy arrived in the mailbox.

This is very smart, very good stuff. According to Alterman, the right bellows about "liberal media bias" as a tactic, as a way to get the mainstream media to bend over backwards in the interest of fairness -- thus his "working the refs" analogy.

Essentially Alterman argues (as I and others have) that though the establishment mainstream media may very well have some liberal leanings, they are suffused with strong conservative voices -- stronger, in many ways, than those of the liberals. At the same time, the conservative press -- the Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and the like -- is influential far beyond its small numbers because it is openly, nakedly partisan on behalf of Republican and conservative causes. And there is nothing similar on the left.

I could quibble with some of Alterman's labels. Joe Klein is a neolib, not a neocon, and Michael Kelly is more of a neocon than a right-winger, although he is surely "belligerent," as Alterman notes. But Alterman also gives Kelly a well-deserved poke for tarting up the Atlantic Monthly -- "a mainstay of Boston liberalism" -- with conservative commentators (the talented but overexposed Christopher Caldwell and David Brooks leap instantly to mind). And Alterman is right on the money in labeling the loathsome Pat Robertson as "anti-American."

What Liberal Media? is an important book coming out at an ideal moment: when liberals finally, slowly, are starting to fight back against the phony charge that the media are marred by liberal bias. You can learn more by visiting Alterman's website.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Janis Ian, lost and found. Reader DH has found Ian's column on Internet music. The Globe's website didn't list it with the editorials and op-ed columns -- but it's there, somewhere. Go figure.

Celebs for peace II. Patrick Keaney, in his "Daily Grasshopper" blog, doesn't like my "celebrities for peace" item one little bit.

The troubling spectacle of celebrities for peace. Last night I tuned in the Fox News Channel to watch a mini-debate on Iraq with actress and peace activist Janeane Garofalo and the hawkish Ruth Wedgewood, who's with an organization called the Committee to Liberate Iraq. The phenomenon of entertainers' passing themselves off as policy experts is enough to make one wince, and I admit I watched mainly to see if a train wreck would occur.

I was pleasantly surprised. Garofalo parried Wedgewood calmly, intelligently, and with a moderate point of view, arguing not that the United States is evil, but that war will bring unintended consequences, mainly in the form of renewed terrorist attacks. (Isn't that what last week's Orange Alert was all about?) Garofalo didn't claim to have any special knowledge beyond being an intelligent, well-informed ordinary citizen. And she managed to get her points across even though the buffoonish host, Rita Cosby, kept trying to shout her down.

The low point came when Cosby asked Garofalo if she would be willing to go to Iraq as a human shield -- a question Cosby was so proud of that she actually promo'd it earlier in the show. Garofalo, to her credit, simply sneered and said no, of course not (you idiot!).

Still, I find it hard to understand why celebrities keep doing this. Not long ago Sean Penn visited Bagdhad in the name of peace. The New York Times did a long piece on him (no longer online at the Times, but I found it here), and I was struck -- and surprised -- by how carefully he spoke, and how insistent he was on refusing to say anything that could be interpreted as helpful to Saddam Hussein. "You come here on a Friday, you leave on a Sunday, and you start throwing out flamboyant and inflammatory messages -- that doesn't seem to be of advantage to anyone," Penn said.

But that didn't stop conservatives from ripping Penn as naive or even unpatriotic. This piece on National Review Online was typical, if more well-reasoned than some I've seen.

The whole notion of celebrity peace activists is an interesting one. In the case of Garofalo and Penn, the flak they've taken from the right has been largely unfair and unjustified. But what good are they doing? Well-intentioned though they may be, they help cement the image of the antiwar movement as an idle indulgence for unserious people.

Following Colin Powell's devastating report last week, it may no longer be possible to avoid war. It doesn't help that the main antiwar voices that the public is hearing from belong to Hollywood celebrities.

Technology's unintended consequences. The second-most-painful financial debacle of my life involved a septic system at a rental property we owned from the mid- to the late 1990s. The town of Topsfield ordered us to replace the system after it failed in the midst of a massive flood in late 1996. Rather than fight, we decided to sell the property. It cost us about $50,000 -- $10,000 in engineering fees and $40,000 for the actual system.

(Our most-painful debacle began the day that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair talked down genomics stocks, a debacle that continues.)

So I was riveted this morning by Scott Kirsner's piece in the Globe on nascent sewage-cleaning technology that could greatly reduce the size of leaching fields, replacing much of a septic system with a unit that is about half the size of a water-heater. Even more important, it could bring the cost down to somewhere in the $2000-to-$10,000 range. It's about time.

Unfortunately, though Kirsner doesn't mention it, if this technology -- being developed by a Nashua company called Ovation Products -- works, there will be an enormous unintended consequence: vast pieces of property that are currently considered unbuildable will get a second look. And efforts to control sprawl will be dealt a huge blow.

Society's forgotten child. When I saw a column in the Globe today by Janis Ian about the music industry's overwrought crackdown on Internet music, my first instinct was to snicker. Who knew Ian was still alive? But then I read it, and realized that her current obscurity is exactly her point. Her piece is not online (guess she wouldn't sign the freelancer's agreement!), but I found a long version of the same argument here, on her website.

When bad things happen to bad people. Tom Mashberg has a mind-boggling piece in this morning's Herald about homicidal hockey dad Thomas Junta, who's filed an appeal of his conviction for involuntary manslaughter.

According to Junta's lawyer and Mashberg's own reporting, the physician who testified at Junta's trial, Stanton Kessler, had said at a medical conference some time before the trial that the sort of injuries Junta inflicted on coach Michael Costin could have been the accidental result of "minor blows to the head," and have even been associated with a vigorous session at the chiropractor's office. Yet, at trial, Kessler testified that Costin's injuries could only have been inflicted by a vicious, savage assault.

Naturally, this information was not made available to the defense in a timely manner. If this pans out, it should serve as yet another caution that even in cases that seem open and shut, the potential for prosecutorial abuse should never be underestimated.

The Goldman report. Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman is writing a column for the Lowell Sun these days. Yesterday, he documented the obvious: that change-agent Mitt Romney isn't changing much of anything other than the names and faces. You know where Goldman, a Robert Reich strategist last year, is coming from, but his take strikes me as pretty much on target.

Friday, February 07, 2003

More on corporate tax breaks. Kristen Lombardi has a detailed analysis of corporate tax breaks in this week's Phoenix, which hit the stands yesterday. Like the Globe's Steve Bailey, Lombardi relied on the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, formerly the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts. Evidently Jim St. George got tired of boneheaded reporters using "of" instead of "for."

What does this mean? An account in today's Globe on Governor Mitt Romney's appearance at the filthy PG&E power plant in Salem includes this odd sentence:

''If the choice is between dirty power plants or protecting the health of the people of Massachusetts, there is no choice in my mind. I will always come down on the side of public health,'' Romney said to an audience that, according to several accounts, tried to overpower him with jeers.

"According to several accounts"? That suggests the reporter, David Arnold, was not actually there. Elsewhere, though, Arnold forthrightly asserts that "several dozen plant workers tried to shout him down" and that plant opponent Lori Ehrlich "was halfway through her remarks when opponents drowned her out."

So which was it? Not a major matter, but I'd say a clarification is in order.

The Herald left no doubt that at least one of its reporters was on the scene, although the Salem confrontation is awkwardly folded in to an account of the previous day's near-wrestling match between Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom and North Adams mayor John Barrett.

At the time of this posting, the Salem News has not yet posted its account online, but it should be there by this afternoon.

Here's where all the money went. Excellent Steve Bailey column in today's Globe in which he argues that it's time to take back some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate-tax giveaways that were waved through the State House during the 1990s. A sickening excerpt:

The Massachusetts corporate income tax has fallen from more than 16 percent of total state tax revenue in 1968 to just 4 percent in 2002. The sales and the corporate taxes generated roughly the same revenue in 1968; today the sales tax amounts to six times the corporate income tax. The personal income tax, which generated about twice the corporate tax three decades ago, today yields 13 times the corporate tax. The Revenue Department estimated last February that eight changes in the corporate tax law to the Raytheons, Fidelitys, and others will reduce state revenue by $382 million next fiscal year.

Bailey reports that Governor Mitt Romney is off to a better start in closing some of these loopholes than one might have suspected, having submitted proposals that would bring in $130 million to $180 million a year if they're passed by the legislature.

Click here (PDF file) for the executive summary of the report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center on which Bailey based some of his findings.

Correction. Several readers have e-mailed me to let me know that the Mississippi document warning voters that mean old Harry Truman wanted to outlaw lynchin' was not the official 1948 Democratic ballot, but, rather, a sample ballot sent out that year by the Mississippi Democratic Party (which amounts to almost but not quite the same thing). A second look confirms that, yes, they're right and I was wrong.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

A sobering and depressing moment of truth. Cheer up. At least now there will be new material for Get Your War On.

It wasn't a surprise that Secretary of State Colin Powell showed the UN devastating evidence that Iraq has biological and chemical weapons, and is working on getting nukes as well. Nor was it a surprise that he showed the Iraqis are not cooperating with UN weapons inspections. So what was the surprise? This: that even in the midst of inspections, Saddam Hussein is moving his weapons around, and continues to enhance his capability to build and possibly use them.

Count me among those who had believed the inspections themselves -- combined with the two no-fly zones and continued or even tougher sanctions -- could keep Saddam contained, an option that is far preferable than war. But after yesterday, how can anyone reasonably hold to that position? Especially when the evidence is coming from Powell, the most respected of President Bush's foreign-policy team, a sophisticated internationalist who has done much to keep the White House hotheads from going to war.

Let's be grown-up about this, shall we? Powell isn't lying. If he wanted to, he could resign on principle right now and either lead a comfortable retirement -- or win the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination by acclamation. The audiotape wasn't doctored, the photos weren't "cartoons," as one of Saddam's thugs charged yesterday. This is real, and Powell obviously believes the time has come to do something about it.

The lead editorials in today's New York Times and Boston Globe -- two leading antiwar voices -- took me by surprise today, mainly because it was the Times that was flaccid and vague, and the Globe that articulated just the right tough-minded liberal response. While acknowledging the power of Powell's presentation, the Times argued, "President Bush should continue to let diplomacy work," and "Iraq still has a chance to change course." Its only nod to the possibility that military confrontation might be necessary was the last sentence: "Because the consequences of war are so terrible, and the cost of rebuilding Iraq so great, the United States cannot afford to confront Iraq without broad international support."

The Globe didn't so much take an opposite position from the Times as argue it in a sharper, more realistic context -- and note how much more effective Powell was than the White House's "fitful diplomacy, its arrogance, and its blunderbuss rhetoric." Although the Globe stressed that the administration still needs to use the remaining days and weeks to build as broad a coalition as it can, the editorial only sees three options for Iraq: a coup, exile for Saddam, or war.

Pardon the long excerpt, but here the Globe gets it exactly right:

So it can be stipulated that the Iraqi people, the region, and the world would be a better, safer, more humane place with Saddam disarmed or out of power. The question is how to effect such an outcome without unleashing the furies of troubles that could quickly follow military action.

Chief among these risks: an eruption of destabilizing violence in the rest of the Middle East; the recruitment of fresh terrorists enraged by what they may choose to see as a war on Islam; high military and civilian casualties among Iraqis and Americans and their allies; and a murky future for a post-Saddam Iraq involving indefinite occupation by the United States, a descent into tribal factionalism, or even anarchy.

Here is where President Bush still owes the American people a fuller, more credible presentation -- to prove to our allies and ourselves that these risks can be minimized to the point where they are lower than the risks of allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power.

This is what I, as an American citizen, worry about the most. Who wouldn't want to see Saddam out of power, the Iraqi people liberated, and their country governed by a more democratic regime that respects human rights? Unfortunately, with reports that the Pentagon may open the war by flattening Bagdhad and killing everyone in it, my fear is that we'll be doing little more than causing intense human suffering and inspiring a new generation of terrorism. Tom Friedman's column in yesterday's Times is worth reading on the difference between quick victory, which is virtually assured, and long-term success, which is anything but.

I trust Colin Powell. I worry about the rest of the administration. Now we are reaching the point where ordinary citizens can do little more than cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Joan Vennochi responds. The Boston Globe columnist sends along this e-mail to defend her February 4 column on John Kerry, which I criticized earlier today. Here it is, unedited. Try getting this kind of action from the Globe's letters-to-the-editor section!

Dan: Why hide behind to criticize my column?

However you want to do it, here is my response to you,, or anyone else:

There was nothing silly or frivolous about my column of Feb. 4.

From where I sit, the vehemence behind the effort to undercut it shows real nervousness from Kerry's campaign staff about what tough journalistic scrutiny will ultimately reveal about their candidate. As far as the Boston Globe's recent excellent reporting on Kerry's heritage, the campaign knows ethnicity isn't the real issue here: honesty is.

My column repeated what many others have observed. John Kerry is mysterious, aloof, hard to pin down, both politically and personally.

It spoke primarily from the local perspective: Sure, he may have mumbled something to John McLaughlin in 1993 about a grandmother who converted from Judaism to Catholicism, but that certainly has not been part of his local political persona.

In Massachusetts, we know him best, don't we? As it turns out, we really don't know him at all.

When you think of all the profiles that have been written about the man over the last 15 years, by local and national political reporters, it is quite obvious that he did not routinely present the full picture of who he is. Before you or anyone else starts accusing me of anti-Semitism, let me stress that I am not making any value judgment about the "full picture." I am simply saying that in the past, he made no real effort to set the record straight. Only now, as a presidential candidate, is he visiting synagogues in Florida.

Some may consider that political expediency; others might call it personal disingenuousness. Either way, it's fair game for commentary about a man who wants so badly to be president.

And by the way, if I were Joe Klein, I'd be feeling a little burned right now. Kerry unburdened himself about a lot - but obviously, not about everything.

Joan Vennochi

Just two clarifications for the record: (1) I'm not hiding behind Salon's Joe Conason. I think he makes some good points, but I am genuinely not as exercised by Vennochi's column as he was; (2) Kerry's campaign staff may indeed be nervous, but I've had no contact with the campaign.

John Kerry -- the Gore of 2004? I took a pass on criticizing Joan Vennochi's column in yesterday's Globe, in which she suggested that recent revelations about John Kerry's Jewish roots -- which, by her own accounting, he discussed publicly as far back as 1993 -- as well as longstanding confusion over whether or not he's part-Irish (he isn't) -- show that, in "a most literal sense, John Kerry doesn't know who he is."

Well, Joe Conason didn't let it go. He lets her have it in his Salon weblog, calling her piece "an unusually silly column" that may be "a harbinger of shallow journalism ahead."

Now, one half-baked column from a generally reliable pundit isn't going to sink Kerry, but there have been signs that some elements of the media will attempt to turn him into the Al Gore of 2004 -- that is, a craven opportunist who shifts with the breeze and will do anything to get elected. Bob Somerby, whose Daily Howler website has documented in exhaustive detail how the media helped sink Gore with false stories such as his nonexistent claim that he'd "invented" the Internet, first wrote about the Kerry-Gore parallels last December 4.

There's an additional danger, too, that when Kerry really does act cravenly -- such as by attempting to have it both ways on Iraq (free registration to the New Republic's website required) -- it will fit into the pre-existing template of his supposed character flaws and be amplified beyond all reason. I mean, I wish he hadn't voted for the Iraq war resolution, but his subsequent critique of President Bush's Middle East policy has been typical Kerry: smart, sophisticated, and nuanced.

Many years ago, the great political impersonator David Frye made an album in which Hubert Humphrey is heard pandering, "I was Jewish once myself!" That's not Kerry. Kerry is a solid senator whose reserved, formal manner is an awkward fit with today's dumbed-down, user-friendly brand of politics. Character is important, but there is no evidence that lack of it is one of Kerry's problems.