Opinion

Jack Shafer

Newt Gingrich and the fine art of press-bashing

Jack Shafer
Jan 31, 2012 23:10 UTC

After being bruised by tough questions in the primary debates, Newt Gingrich pouted yesterday that if nominated, he would not participate in any reporter-moderated presidential debates with Barack Obama.

“We should be able to talk to the American people without reporters playing gotcha, being clever or having 60-second rules like, ‘What would you do about Nigeria in 60 seconds?,’” the Georgia doughboy said, complaining that reporters serve as a “second Obama person” in debates.

Gingrich went on to propose a fall schedule of seven three-hour, Lincoln-Douglas style debates with Obama, ignoring the fact that three presidential campaign debates and one “town hall” meeting have already been set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. At the rate Gingrich is going, he will soon demand the right to choose the color of the debate set’s curtains, limit the number of close-up shots used on TV and stipulate that the bowls of candy in the debate green rooms contain no brown M&Ms.

Perhaps Gingrich really regards presidential campaign debates as execution by journalists. If so, he’s well within his rights to petition for something different in the fall. After all, nobody ever elected the press to police presidential campaign debates in perpetuity. Perhaps a historian, a retired judge or even John Edwards could perform better interrogations of the candidates than did Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer in 2008.

But I doubt that Gingrich really blames journalists for the shortcomings of the debates, which anthropologist James R. McLeod calls elements of the lengthy “ritual sociodrama” that is a presidential campaign. More than any politician since Richard Nixon, Gingrich needs the press to demonize so he can change the subject whenever asked a tough question, as Juan Williams of Fox News and John King of CNN recently dared. If historians or retired judges were asking the questions, no matter how benign, I’m sure they’d earn a powerful Gingriching, too.

The spy who was undone by his email

Jack Shafer
Jan 27, 2012 23:43 UTC

Everybody has an email disaster story to share: Accidentally cc:ing to your colleagues X-rated correspondence with your lover; prematurely forwarding to your staff the bad news about impending layoffs; using the wrong list to send letters of acceptance to college applicants who have been rejected. But in the grand constellation of email goofs, who can beat the blunders of former CIA officer John Kiriakou? If the criminal complaint filed against him this week in U.S. District Court in Alexandria is accurate, he could spend 30 years in prison for his email transgressions.

Drawing on correspondence obtained via search warrants served on two email accounts associated with Kiriakou, the government has charged him with illegally giving up the identity of a covert officer, disclosing classified secrets and lying to the CIA.

The emails, from which the complaint quotes, are less a smoking gun pointing to wrongdoing than they are Kiriakou’s suicide note. How could a CIA officer who worked at the agency from 1990 to 2004 handling dicey, undercover overseas assignments, including the 2002 capture of Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, have been so cavalier as to discuss the name of a covert officer with a journalist in email? Furthermore, how could the journalists — who go unnamed in the complaint — have been so reckless as to use an insecure medium to converse with a spook about classified material?

Wasting away in Dementiaville

Jack Shafer
Jan 25, 2012 02:17 UTC

I’ve found a great spot for most of the Republican presidential candidates — active and vanquished — to retire to after Barack Obama wins his second term in November. Dubbed “Dementiaville” in press accounts, it’s a mock-1950s “village” of 23 residences that the Swiss are building in Wiedlisbach to house 150 cognitively impaired old folks.

Dementiaville follows a similar nursing home that was established in the Amsterdam suburbs in 2009, where the residents (or their guardians) “pay €5,000 a month to live in a world of carefully staged illusion,” as the U.K. Independent reports today. The visual and architectural cues at Dementiaville will all be from the comforting 1950s, when the residents still had full possession of their minds. The operation’s caretakers “will dress as gardeners, hairdressers and shop assistants,” the paper continues, to extend the illusion. Dementiaville founder Markus Vögtlin claims that the planned environment at the Amsterdam village makes its patients “feel comfortable. I call it travelling back in time.”

Although the geriatric-care profession is split on the value of stockpiling dementia patients in the equivalent of the old Ozzie and Harriet back lot, it’s easy to discern who is the target of Dementiaville’s marketing: The mentally complete offspring and the spouses of the patients, who naturally feel guilty for delegating care to an institution.

What’s bad for publishers is great for readers

Jack Shafer
Jan 20, 2012 00:29 UTC

As tech giants Apple and Amazon apply the squeeze, there has never been a worse time to be in the publishing business. Apple has turned its disruptive death ray on the publishers with an update of its free “iBooks” app, which allows anybody with a Mac to build an ebook and publish for sale in the company’s iBookstore. The rapacious bastards at Amazon are attacking on the same front with their KF8 Kindle software, plus they’re signing book authors (Deepak Chopra, Timothy Ferriss, James Franco, Penny Marshall and more to come) to their publishing imprint. An email, purportedly written by an anonymous book industry “insider” and published at PandoDaily today, got a lot of attention on the Web with its claim that Amazon’s ultimate goal is to destroy conventional publishing.

If it’s murder for publishers and booksellers, though, it’s heaven for book readers. I’ve been buying, reading and collecting books since the late 1960s, and with the exception of the times I’ve found rare first editions for sale for a buck at thrift stores or made similar discoveries at library-discard sales, books have never been more available or more affordable in my lifetime.

Until the late 1990s, I always kept in my wallet a neatly folded short list of books I was looking for. Theoretically, any of these books could have been mine by paying list price at a bookstore or by paying a  book finder to run them down for me. But because I was so poor in my early years and so cheap in my later ones, I always resisted paying full ticket for a book. Any book I purchased would remain on my bookshelves — even after I had read it — because I might need it again for work or pleasure. The only time I got rid of books was when I visited used shops, where I would exchange books in a trade.

WikiLeaks’ 16th minute

Jack Shafer
Jan 18, 2012 22:29 UTC

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine, a special edition publication ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In late October, a deflated Julian Assange called a press conference in London to announce he may have to mothball WikiLeaks. The reason, he said, was money. Visa, MasterCard, Western Union and Paypal were preventing supporters from donating to the organization, Assange explained. He warned that unless the bankers’ blockade was lifted at once, the cash-strapped organization would soon die.

By then, however, the biggest problem WikiLeaks faced wasn’t financial. After all, the group had always operated on a shoestring, its leader famously sleeping somewhere other than at home or in a hotel most nights. The main concern was productivity: WikiLeaks and Assange, its 40-year-old provocateur, were out of scoops.

Another president is reorganizing government. Again.

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2012 01:18 UTC

Newly elected presidents call for the reorganization of the federal government with such regularity that a federal Department of Reorganization should be established to assist them in their attempts to downsize the bureaucracy, eliminate redundant agencies, reduce red tape, cut costs, and tame the out-of-control agencies created and fed by the presidents elected before them. If you’re earnest enough to think that those moves will actually reduce the size or cost of federal government, I’ve got a monument I’d like to sell you.

President Barack Obama originally promised to streamline federal bureaucracy in his 2011 State of the Union speech but only got around to specifics last Friday, as he requested new powers to merge agencies subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress. Obama’s first target: the Commerce Department. He wants to meld the Small Business Administration and five additional trade and business agencies into one body that would replace the Department of Commerce. Obama promised savings of $3 billion over the next decade and to cut 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition over the same period.

The presidential urge to reorganize goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, who established the Keep Commission in 1905 to bring efficiency and accountability to bureaucracy. Scholar Oscar Kraines admiringly called Roosevelt’s attempt to remake Washington in his image “a bold step … to break down the long-existing aim and the tendency of Congress to retain full legislative authority in the management of the public business.” According to political scientist Peri E. Arnold, 11 of 14 presidents elected in the 20th century attempted some sort of governmental reorganization. Congress rightly viewed the Keep Commission as a presidential power grab and has continued to contest similar presidential reorg plans by Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, the Bushes and Bill Clinton — who called his reorganization plan “reinventing government.”

Times public editor smashes himself with boomerang

Jack Shafer
Jan 12, 2012 23:50 UTC

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane made a huge mistake in his morning blog item titled “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” for which the Web has been punishing him all day. Brisbane’s mistake wasn’t to bring up the topic of how much time, space and effort reporters should commit to truth-squadding the iffy stuff that oozes out of the mouths of politicians, other notables and their spokesmen.

It’s a worthy topic. Brisbane’s mistake was to pose the topic as question — as if a journalist with his sort of experience didn’t know what the correct answer is — and then to stupidly ask and re-ask the question in the final paragraphs of his item, as if he were Phil Donahue with microphone in hand, rushing up and down the carpeted stairway eager to collect comments from the studio audience.

The awesome stupidity of Brisbane’s blog inspired prominent citizens of Twitterville, as well as Salon’s Alex Pareene, HuffPo’s Jason Linkins, Poynter’s Craig Silverman, New York University’s Jay Rosen, and Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza, to take up their keyboards. “Should the New York Times — America’s ‘newspaper of record’ — print the truth?” is how Pareene restated Brisbane’s question in his lede. “Brisbane’s job is to embarrass the NY Times for its shortcomings, not to become one of them,” tweeted Village Voice Editor Tony Ortega.

Now that we have dirt on everyone

Jack Shafer
Jan 11, 2012 02:08 UTC

Has opposition research finally reached a big fat dead end?

Not that there is no fresh dirt to dig up on candidates. Each day, the morning editions bring us additional sleaze, flip-flops, and embarrassments from the candidates’ pasts, some of which comes ladled from oppo-researcher notebooks. We learn about our candidates’ legislative histories, their leveraged buyout histories (that would be you, Mitt and Newt), their adventures on K Street (take a bow, Newt and Rick #2), the filth and fury discovered in their back pages (hello, Ron!), the casual racism of a parent (Rick #1), and their military resumes (if they have one). And if they’ve generated any sort of paper trail from tax liens, divorce proceedings, campaign-finance filings, or civil actions—or if there is reusable disgrace from past campaigns—we read and re-read all about it, too.

But how much of this stuff actually sticks anymore? Beyond the undoing of Herman Cain’s candidacy by an avalanche of romancing-while-married stories, it’s hard to imagine any campaign revelation that, by itself, could burn any of the current candidates out of the current race or remain sufficiently hot to scald them in November’s general election. Dirt just doesn’t stain like it once did. (Even if some of this dirt sticks, it won’t alter the outcome for candidates like Rick Perry. The worst that could happen for him is to go from 1 percent to 0 percent support.)

That’s not how the political operatives feel. Today, Talking Points Memo reports how bummed the Democrats are that Newt Gingrich has already attacked Romney with the Bain story. Democrats had been holding Bain in reserve to use against Romney in the general election—as they did in 1994 in his race against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.)—to portray Romney as a vulture capitalist of the most craven sort.

What good are endorsements?

Jack Shafer
Jan 5, 2012 23:13 UTC


Except for providing political journalists with millable grist, what good are endorsements? Obviously, a presidential candidate can’t win his party’s nomination on the power of endorsements alone. If that were the case, as Vanity Fair‘s Todd S. Purdum pointed out last month, Al Gore’s anointment of Howard Dean in 2004 would have worked magic.

Yet candidates continue to whore for endorsements, and other politicians continue to give them for mysterious reasons. Take, for example, John McCain’s endorsement of Mitt Romney yesterday at a New Hampshire campaign stop. McCain doesn’t bother to mask his low regard for Romney, as the New York Times reports today in a piece about the event:

[T]he two men made little eye contact, even when Mr. Romney was introducing Mr. McCain. They shared a stiff, half-hug on stage, patting each other on the back in a perfunctory manner.

Presidential campaigns, sports writing, and the fine art of pretending

Jack Shafer
Jan 3, 2012 22:54 UTC

The jobs of political reporters and sports writers are almost identical: Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm. Then, maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl (or World Series).

So elemental is this eternal connection between sports and politics that even underdog presidential candidate Rick Perry gets it.

“The only scoreboard that matters is tomorrow, and it’s the scoreboard when the caucuses meet and we win the big Iowa caucus tomorrow,” Perry told the cheering crowd at his final campaign rally yesterday, sounding like the coach of a broken-down wildcard NFL team.

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