Helen Thomas meeting students from Maxwell Sch...

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Last week, Israeli commandos boarded a relief ship attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip and, during a clash with pro-Palestinian activists, shot nine people to death. It was an old-fashioned, bona fide “international incident,” a fiasco that raised alarming questions about the current trajectory of Israel’s security, the wisdom of its government, as well as the fate of Obama’s Middle East policies and U.S. security in general.

But this week, somehow, the Washington media’s “Israel narrative” has abandoned those questions and focused instead on the ugly words and sudden retirement of cranky 89-year-old White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

I’m not going to defend Thomas – what she said was deeply offensive. But in the overall scheme of things, it was a trivial incident, and DC’s sudden obsession with it – to the exclusion of a lot of other, more important things – is especially ironic given the parlous state of the Israeli situation.

The Washington media universe may not have set a new speed record here for spinning itself, Tasmanian devil-style, from grave and difficult to trivial and ironic. (more…)

I have forced myself to read the late flood of profiles, stories and columns about Rahm Emanuel and I can confidently pronounce: they are all deadly dull. Do not read them! While they offer some insight into the workings of the Obama presidency, they’re simply not interesting. They reveal more about the media than our current political predicament.

It apparently started in February when Dana Milbank penned a Rahm-boosting column.  Then over the past week we got another pro-Rahm piece from the Washington Post, which self-consciously regurgitated the opinions of Emanuel defenders into an “emerging narrative” that we shouldn’t blame him for the White House’s political problems. And in recent days we got longer, more ambitious profiles from Noam Scheiber of The New Republic and Peter Baker of The New York Times. (If there are others, I don’t want to hear about them.)

Having read all of this, here’s the takeaway: Rahm Emanuel is loyal to Obama and a team player. He takes direction from the president and doesn’t freelance. He sometimes argues for more “pragmatic” positioning on issues, going for incremental wins at the expense of the dicier long ball. Sometimes Obama follows this advice, sometimes he doesn’t. (And on health care reform, Obama appears to have done both.) He swears a lot. He is all business. He is also 50 years old. And thin.

“At 50, Emanuel has the lean, taut look of a lifelong swimmer, with broad shoulders and distractingly prominent quadriceps.” – Scheiber

“At 50, he has the coiled energy of aides half his age, still as wiry thin as he was during his improbable days as a ballet dancer.” – Baker

Why is all of this so formulaic and un-illuminating? (more…)

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 14: White House Chief of ...

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I am struggling to understand the rationale behind this long Washington Post story about Rahm Emanuel. Its basic thrust is: various people are saying Obama should have listened to Emanuel more closely and scaled back health care reform and the closing of Guantanamo. Now the president is paying the price for his arrogance and overreaching. Oh, woe unto he who fails to listen to Rahm!

If the Washington Post tells us so, I guess some people are indeed saying these things. And maybe, as the piece says, “there is a contrarian narrative emerging” that lets Emanuel off the hook for the Obama administration’s difficulties. After all, one reliable sign of an emerging narrative is its appearance in the pages of the Washington Post.

But really, what is this narrative? It’s a few members of Congress and administration officials, many of them unnamed, carping about political problems and trying to fix blame on some Obama appointees while exonerating others. The pretext of the article is that Obama is in grave political difficulty. And yes, the Democrats are likely to suffer major losses in elections this year. But it’s hard to believe that the nation’s political trajectory is due to, for example, this:

“Axelrod has a strong view of the historic character Obama is supposed to be,” said an early Obama supporter who is close to the president and spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment of frustration with the White House. The source blamed Obama’s charmed political life for creating a self-confidence and trust in principle that led to an “indifference to doing the small, marginal things a White House could do to mitigate the problems on the Hill. Rahm knows the geography better.”

I’m sure Obama is indeed indifferent to “small, marginal things” that might help moving legislation. If he paid more attention to such things, though, he’d be attacked for doing that. But does anyone believe that more aggressively stroking and accommodating certain members of Congress would have made a significant difference in health care or anything else? It’s silly – all the more so because nothing has been decided. Health care reform might yet pass. Guantanamo may yet be closed. And the fate of the fall elections and Obama’s presidency depend far more on the unemployment rate than on any piece of legislation or decision made in the past year. Obama faces serious structural obstacles, yes, and perhaps his strategy and decision-making process are totally out-of-whack. But that’s not really what this article is about.

What went wrong here? Well, the idea for the piece seems to have come from a Dana Milbank column – which the piece cites as an example to buttress its case – but I don’t think that’s the root of the problem. The Washington Post cannot straightforwardly document what’s really happening, which is: a pro-Rahm constituency is using Post news pages to take shots at the White House, laying the groundwork either for a more Emanuel-centric strategy, Emanuel’s exoneration from Obama’s failures, or both. This piece grants political constituencies access to the Post’s news pages to grind their axes with minimal skepticism about their motives or agenda. What does the Post get in return? It strokes its sources, and gets an opportunity to create a news cycle “narrative” that might last longer than a few hours.

Someone asked me why, in my previous post, I wrote that we’d never see a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in America to sort through the transgressions of the Bush years. Good question!

The country would benefit from such an approach on our response to 9/11. In the weeks and months after those terror attacks, the White House, Defense Department, CIA and other agencies pursued moral and legally questionable actions and policies that are geopolitically and historically significant. They go to the heart of our national identity and place in the 21st century world. I’d include the Iraq war, but for the purposes of this post will focus on U.S. treatment of prisoners. James Fallows says that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility report on the “torture memos” used to justify those questionable policies is analogous to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and what it did for the atom bomb attacks on Japan. It exposes the terrible tradeoffs we made as a society in the name of security.

We certainly need some truth and reconciliation. The problem is, while everyone would nominally agree that reconciliation is a good idea (see, for example, the rote calls for “bipartisanship”), America remains fundamentally at odds over the “truth” part. Google “torture” and “poll” and you’ll find a bunch of ambiguous results. Americans narrowly approve of torture in some situations. Americans are split over torture investigations. Americans want a torture investigation. A majority of Americans think waterboarding is torture.

Obviously the problem isn’t just this set of issues but the deep political divisions that have nearly paralyzed the government during the Obama administration. There is a not-insignificant minority of Americans and a significant number of politicians and pundits that think “harsh interrogations” of terror suspects are necessary and effective. There’s also a credulous political press who will amplify their objections to any kind of investigation or process that suggests they are in the wrong. Every time Dick Cheney makes an assertion about the effectiveness of “harsh interrogations” – no matter how repetitive or unfounded – it’s news because of the extraordinariness of an ex-vice president criticizing another administration. (Though it grows less extraordinary each time he does it.)

Until there is some kind of political consensus that torture is wrong – some broad agreement on that something went wrong post-9/11 – it’s going to be very hard to get to the bottom of what happened, assign responsibility, and move on. Some leadership would be helpful here, but the Obama administration is determined to do as little as possible on this front – and, more generally, eschews decisive action that might generate significant political pushback from the other side.

On some level, though, this isn’t political at all – it’s just how we roll. America the land of “moving on,” of “closure.” Not real closure but “closure.” The notion that you shouldn’t dwell too long on unpleasant, ambiguous things but turn your face to the sun and keep moving forward. This forward inertia is often a good thing. Not here, though. Ideally, torture should be exposed to the full light of public inquiry and acknowledged, by consensus, as wrong. On a practical level, torture ought to be made politically and bureaucratically radioactive: take away any incentives from future politicians and their appointees to employ these techniques. Instead, though, we’re once again leaving ourselves to the mercy of events and expediency.

We all know the Washington media swims in an ever-shifting stream of “narratives” that drive coverage in one direction or another on an hourly basis – or, if one really has juice, can dominate coverage for months and months. Unfortunately, these narratives usually have only a tenuous connection to reality, and even to political reality. Unless they become the political reality, which happens sometimes, but less often than you think. This situation is, needless to say, bad. The focus on narratives is not journalism – at its worst, it’s a kind of anti-journalism that obscures the truth rather than illuminates it.

Politico is Washington’s premier narrative factory, and yesterday it was cranking them out: editor John Harris posted a piece called 7 stories Barack Obama doesn’t want told. Here they are: “He thinks he’s playing with monopoly money,” “Too much Leonard Nimoy,” “That’s the Chicago way,” “He’s a pushover,” “He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe,” “President Pelosi,” “He’s in love with the man in the mirror.”

The headline gives the reader the tantalizing sense that Harris is dipping into something forbidden, the “real” story the White House wants to keep from you. But of course these stories are not “stories” at all in the traditional Who-What-Where-When-How sense. They are narratives. Some of them (“Chicago way” and “Pushover”) are mutually contradictory.

Harris will say he’s just reporting what’s out there. But just scanning the titles it’s obvious that all of them are manufactured BS.

I’m not defending Obama here – he certainly deserves criticism on the deficit, health care, Afghanistan – everything. But Harris’s “7 stories” are not substantive criticism. Quite the opposite – they are flatly misleading. And putting them in this format isn’t a way to inform readers, the basic function of journalism. In essence, it’s market testing to see which political attack is stickiest – what drives traffic, what’s the most promising way to trip up the president. A floundering president ideologically out-of-step with the nation is a much better story than a centrist, boring, bureaucratically competent one, which is basically what Obama is.

Harris could have made an attempt to evaluate these lines of attack on the merits. Is Obama’s deficit spending out of line with that of past presidents in similar situations? Is he cavalier on budget matters? Does he really love himself too much? But that’s not what this is about.

A White House aide’s unofficial response, leaked to Marc Armbinder, isn’t especially clever. (Washington is generally not a good place for zingers.) But it contains more truth than the Politico piece.


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