Opinion

Jack Shafer

All in all, Eric Holder was just another brick in the wall

Jack Shafer
Sep 26, 2014 21:20 UTC

U.S.  Attorney General Holder stands with President Obama after the president announced Holder's resignation at the White House in Washington

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. first signaled his exit from office so long ago that every reporter and pundit who covers the Department of Justice has stockpiled enough copy assessing his tenure to fill a mattress. Like Derek Jeter, Holder announced his farewell tour this past February, telling the New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin that he would depart in 2014. The admission prompted journalists to update and fine tune their critiques of the attorney general with emerging details, the way obituary writers tweak their pre-written obituaries of famous, old people to keep them fresh and newsy.

To paraphrase Marcus Raskin, the law is just politics frozen in time. Every attorney general applies the heat gun to the solid mass of law in hopes of melting and refreezing it to serve his boss, be he a Republican president or a Democratic president. These efforts naturally earn them disparaging comments from the opposing party, giving reporters the opportunity to plug in modular language like this passage from today’s New York Times story about Holder’s resignation: “He … emerged as the primary political antagonist for a Republican opposition in Congress that viewed him as dismissive of existing laws and contemptuous of its oversight of his department.” Republicans, the Times continues, “once voted to hold Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress.” Deeper in the piece: “Conservatives spent years attacking Mr. Holder’s integrity, especially over the Justice Department’s botched gun-trafficking operation called Fast and Furious.”

Page back to August 2007 to the coverage of the resignations of the two very Republican attorneys general serving under President George W. Bush, and you find similar language in the Times. The paper reported that Alberto Gonzales’ “tenure has been marred by controversy and accusations of perjury before Congress,” adding furious foot-stomping by congressional Democrats about Gonzales’ oppressor ways. Upon the departure of Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004, the Times account called him “one of the most high-profile and polarizing members of the Bush Cabinet.” The paper quoted a law professor saying this of Ashcroft: “We had an attorney general who treated criticism and dissent as treason, ethnic identity as grounds for suspicion and congressional and judicial oversight as inconvenient obstacles.”

More perhaps than any other Cabinet officer, the attorney general attracts attention and criticism from politicians and the press. Hobbled with more laws than he has prosecutors to enforce, the AG must perform daily triage if he hopes to put a dent into crime. Republican attorneys general tend to tilt against civil liberties and in favor of Wall Street, while Democratic attorneys general tend to tilt against civil liberties and in favor of Wall Street. I kid here, but not that much.

Holder’s press notices Friday morning rough him up for continuing, some would say accelerating, the previous administration’s national security state. Holder, the Times reminds us, approved the National Security Agency’s phone-records sweep, supported the FBI’s right to electronically track cars without a warrant, subpoenaed journalists and their phone records, and defended the president’s right to kill American members of Al Qaeda. The Times captured Holder’s duplicitous approach to civil liberties when it noted that he supports proposals that would limit the NSA’s power to seize phone records while declining to say why he accepted those powers in the first place. If Ashcroft and Gonzales had had a child together, they would have named him Eric Holder and bragged about his accomplishments.

War without end: The U.S. may still be fighting in Syria in 2024, 2034, 2044 . . .

Jack Shafer
Sep 24, 2014 22:51 UTC

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This must be what perpetual war looks like.

In a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Army Lieutenant General Bill Mayville called the cruise missiles and bombs flung at targets in Syria “the beginning of a credible and sustainable persistent campaign.” How long will the campaign last? “I would think of it in terms of years,” Mayville responded.

Although the bombs exploded on Syrian soil, they didn’t target Bashar al-Assad’s battered, murderous regime. The bombs were addressed to Syria’s enemy, the Islamic State, a nascent nation that has pledged to topple both Iraq and Syria, as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, and parts of southern Turkey, and erect a caliphate on the parcel.

But in attacking Syria’s enemy, the United States wasn’t looking to make friends with Syria. President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down in 2011, and it was only last year that the United States was prepared to bomb Syria for having crossed the chemical-weapons “red line” to kill its own citizens. Not that the United States is remarkably choosey about which nations it counts among its allies. Among the Middle East nations joining with the United States to strike Syria is Qatar, which has allowed one of its sheikhs to raise funds for an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. As you know, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda in all of its flavors, including the Syria-based Khorasan Group, upon which U.S. bombs fell this week. The Khorasan Group is said to be plotting attacks on the United States and Europe.

What do Miley Cyrus, Ricky Gervais and William Shatner have in common? Quitting Twitter.

Jack Shafer
Sep 18, 2014 22:13 UTC

Singer Miley Cyrus poses backstage after winning Video of the Year for "Wrecking Ball" during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood

Almost as much as celebrities love to tweet, they love to quit Twitter. And as much as they love to quit Twitter, they love to return to the social networking service.

If Nexis can be trusted, the first high-profile Twitter quitter was Miley Cyrus, who very publicly ditched the service in October 2009 at the behest of her boyfriend, actor Liam Hemsworth. Cyrus delineated her reasons for terminating her account in a rap video she uploaded, explaining to her to her 1.1 million followers that she wanted to keep her “private life private.”

Proving that returning to Twitter is as easy as quitting, Cyrus started tweeting again in April 2011 and remains a fervent user, even though she threatens to take a hiatus from the service now again. Other celebrities to quit and restart include Ricky Gervais, who left the first time after calling Twitter “pointless” in January 2010. He rejoined in September 2011. Other Twitter quitter yo-yos include John Mayer, serial quitter Alec BaldwinMinnie DriverChris BrownSylvester StalloneNick OffermanCharlie Sheen, baseball player Chris DavisJennifer Love HewittNicki Minaj, and William Shatner.

Roger Goodell, the NFL’s judge and jury, becomes his own executioner

Jack Shafer
Sep 11, 2014 21:41 UTC

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Oh, yes, let’s torch and pitchfork the NFL for its handling of the Ray Rice case and not rest until NFL Commission Roger Goodell pays for his incompetence or his bad judgment — whichever proves greater — with his resignation. Then, after a good night’s sleep, let’s ask ourselves why, after cementing his reputation across the league as a hanging judge, did Goodell pick the Rice case to appear insufficiently authoritarian?

Rice, who dealt his then-fiancée Janay Palmer a knockout punch in an Atlantic City casino elevator last February and dragged her out and dumped her like a tackling dummy, may be one of the least sympathetic players ever to appear for judgment in the court of Goodell. Rice hadn’t gotten caught violating the league’s drug policy, as did Cleveland Browns star receiver Josh Gordon, and for which he earned a one-year suspension this summer. Goodell banned Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from four games of the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Roethlisberger’s offense? A college student accused him of assaulting her in a nightclub. The quarterback was not convicted of anything. He wasn’t even charged. But Goodell punished him.

In June 2007, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson earned an eight-game suspension from Goodell for being arrested on gun-related charges. In 2008, New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress was suspended for four games after accidentally shooting himself. In 2009, quarterback Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely (and later reinstated) for dogfighting. In 2012, following accusations that the New Orleans Saints had paid “bounties” to players for delivering injury-inflicting hits on opponents, Goodell suspended three of its coaches, several players, yanked draft selections from the team, and fined it as well. The player suspensions were vacated, but Goodell’s reputation as a hard-ass was only enhanced.

Keep your frenemies list short and your enemies list shorter

Jack Shafer
Sep 5, 2014 21:04 UTC

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Compiling an enemies list was a cinch for the United States during the Cold War, what with most of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal targeted its way. Friends of the Soviets immediately became America’s enemies, and Soviet enemies became U.S. friends. That made China a U.S. enemy of the highest order, a ranking sharked by the Soviet client-states of Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam, against which the United States fought. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya rose to high-enemy status under President Ronald Reagan, a position it maintained until he surrendered its nuclear program.

The enemy-allies partition had a few anomalies, notably the non-aligned nations and double-dealers like the Indians and the Romanians, who exploited frenemy relations with the United States. But it drove U.S. foreign policy for more than two generations until the Soviets sloughed off both communism and empire, laid down their ICBMs, and exited the enemy business. 

China’s reversal was more dramatic: It became the United States’ business partner in the 1990s and almost a friend. For most of the 1990s, the United States had no real rivals, a period of coasting that ended with 9/11 and its aftermath. Ever since, enemies-list has been a brain-bruising task for the U.S. government as such violent non-state actors as al Qaeda, Islamic State, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and many others have emerged, breaking — at the knuckles — the rules of thumb that once governed enemy identification.

Why we’re so blase about global warming

Jack Shafer
Aug 29, 2014 15:26 UTC

Graffiti art is seen on a wall next to the Regent's Canal in Camden in London

If you don’t regard global warming as a serious problem, your company is growing. According to the survey jockeys at Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is “very serious” or “somewhat serious” has declined since 2006 (from 79 percent to 65 percent). While a firm majority still considers global warming to be very or somewhat serious, the numbers show that public alarm over the topic has receded over a period during which the scientific, journalistic, and political consensus on the topic has surged the other way.

Over the same 8-year period, fewer respondents agree that the earth is warming and fewer agree that human activity causes warming. These figures must give cognitive whiplash to those who dismiss the public as a herd of easily driven sheep. The scientific establishment, the press, and politicians have a flimsy grasp of mass opinion.

Americans’ blasé and wishy-washy attitudes toward global warming may be related to the positive short-term effects of environmental policies that they observe daily. Our air and water is cleaner than it was a generation ago, as the federal government likes to crow, we’re recycling more and we’ve cleaned up more of the designated Superfund sites. Even U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined, though not by the margin that will undo the harm predicted by global warming theorists. Most Americans have witnessed social and technological progress in their lifetimes and they see evidence of future progress, so they’re optimistic. It’s only human nature that they might reject the apocalyptic impulse.

This month’s ultimate enemy — the Islamic State

Jack Shafer
Aug 26, 2014 00:42 UTC

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At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn’t reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.

“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.

The Islamic State buys itself a day of horror, little else, by killing James Foley

Jack Shafer
Aug 20, 2014 22:35 UTC

By uploading a video of its execution of journalist James Foley to the Web on Tuesday, the Islamic State achieves the impossible: It re-executes him every time somebody presses play.

The horror of perpetual re-execution was obviously the Islamic State’s goal. Nobody with a soul—knowing what’s coming—can listen to Foley’s speech without their hearts going full-throttle and shuddering at the murderous climax. For its troubles, the Islamic State has gotten a sliver of what it wants today. The story dominates the news. The video has become available on every desktop, laptop, and smartphone in the world. People are beseeching one another not to link to the video. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has announced the suspension of accounts that tweet the graphic images, and the New York Post and Daily News are suffering a boatload of criticism for printing screen-grabs of the murder on their morning covers.

And yet, video-beheading seems to be a strategy to nowhere. Al Qaeda attempted similar contamination of our dream pools more than a decade ago with its 2002 video killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, which was also disseminated on the Web. Like the Islamic State video, which proclaimed it was a “message to America,” Al Qaeda’s video was designed to deter the U.S. government from continuing to intervene in Iraq and to shift American public opinion. But had the Al Qaeda strategy been successful, the United States wouldn’t be bombing in northern Iraq today. More likely, the videos, which our Western eyes tell us are staged for our benefit, are really aimed at the video-makers’ constituents to attract maximum attention, showcase the groups’ power, attract recruits, and build cadres – all things that the video may actually do.

If you must quote anonymous sources, make sure they say something!

Jack Shafer
Aug 14, 2014 21:11 UTC

A decade ago, both the Washington Post and the New York Times conceded that they had lost control of the use of anonymous sources in their pages and each set up new guidelines to police the practice.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. promised in a 2004 piece that his paper would “explain to readers why a source was not being named” inside stories, and the Times similarly resolved to tame the anonymous monster.

Both efforts ran out of steam before they even reached pressure, as I and Erik Wemple (then at Washington City Paper) gloated. Ever since, Post ombudsmen (Deborah Howell and Andrew Alexander) and Times public editors (Daniel Okrent, Clark Hoyt and Byron Calame) have rebuked their respective papers for the unchecked use of anonymous sources, but to little avail. The Post no longer employs an ombudsman to wrangle the anonymice scurrying through coverage. The Times‘ current press cop, Margaret Sullivan, still walks the beat with her AnonyWatch feature, which highlights “the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in the Times.” She swings a mean stick, but nobody packs sufficient wood to regulate anonymous sources, as a review of the past week’s coverage in the Times and Post indicates.

All the myths that are fit to print: Why your news feels familiar

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2014 22:46 UTC

Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?

Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.

At home, Hillary Clinton has commenced another presidential campaign as her party’s presumptive nominee. A new iteration of the iPhone has the press jabbering, and police everywhere seem to be overreacting to imagined threats by killing citizens. Even ancient stories, such as the Rwandan genocide and the start of World War I, have yo-yoed their way back into the news, but only because they are marking anniversaries that end in zero (Rwanda’s twentieth and the hundredth of the start of WWI).

Sometimes the news actually repeats itself, as in the case of Clinton. Such man-made cycles as elections, the Olympics, and wars lend themselves to retreaded coverage, as do the natural cycles of hurricane and tornado seasons, droughts and floods, and summer forest fires. Reporters and editors pack new events into old, familiar templates.

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