Critiquing Campaign 2008’s coverage

When Americans cast their votes for president in November, how well informed will they be about the candidates and the issues? Their level of knowledge will reflect, in some measure, the performance of news organizations and journalists covering the Long Campaign of 2008.

Here, from this observer’s vantage point, is a brief critique of Campaign 2008’s news coverage so far, with the positive, the negative, and yet to be addressed coverage questions.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE POSITIVES:

Coverage of the issues. Academics, media critics, and public interest groups have long attacked mainstream news organizations for sacrificing coverage of public policy issues (the broccoli of the political process) in favor of horse-race or personality coverage (the sugary, unhealthy dessert). That hasn’t been the case in this campaign. Along with the reporting of candidate gaffes and campaign tactics, the mainstream media has more than adequately covered the positions of the presidential candidates on key issues.

The nation’s elite newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) have explored the candidate’s policy positions in depth, and their websites offer even more detailed comparisons. While the broadcast and cable networks have served up less issues coverage, the websites of CNN and Fox News do carry pertinent information on the candidates’ positions.

And prospective voters who don’t know by now that Senators Obama and Clinton plan a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq and Senator McCain favors staying the course, or that the Democrats endorse greater government intervention in health care and Republicans counter with market-driven solutions, aren’t paying attention.

The reality, however, as Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix recently pointed out, is that most American presidential elections aren’t “big issue” driven, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Those surprisingly informative debates. While it’s true that a skilled debater may or may not make a proficient president (as Daniel Boorstin argued in The Image in 1961 after the Kennedy-Nixon Great Debate), debates can help voters looking for a better sense of a candidate. The numerous 2008 primary season debates, organized and moderated by major news organizations, contributed positively to the winnowing-out process.

Mike Huckabee’s folksy debate performances spurred his surprising rise early in the Republican campaign. The debates highlighted the kookiness of Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Alan Keyes (although Keyes’ inclusion by the Des Moines Register in its GOP Iowa debate was questionable.)

The two most interesting debates, both on the Democratic side, were held in Philadelphia. In the first, Hillary Clinton’s waffling on the question of then New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants raised questions about her inevitability. In the second, held just before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama looked ill-at-ease as he struggled with tough questions from Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over Bittergate and his connections with his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Weather Underground figure William Ayers. Obama’s faltering performance caused some wags to ask if the Illinois Senator struggles with the Gibson-Stephanopoulos duo, how he will respond to the Ahmadinejads and Hugo Chavezs of the world? Not surprisingly, Obama ducked any further one-on-one debates with Clinton.

Questions of character and vetting the candidate’s past. Yes, a presidential candidate’s past, including his or her associations, and character, should matter and to the extent their past touches on those questions, it’s journalistic fair game. That John McCain is surrounded by former and current lobbyists while declaring his independence from special interests matters; thanks largely to reporting from the New York Times, voters have learned about this contradiction. That Barack Obama spent 20 years in a church whose pastor espoused black liberation theology and spouted anti-American rhetoric matters; thanks largely to initial reporting from Brian Ross at ABC News, voters know about it.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE NEGATIVES:

Journalistic Obamania. Campaign 2008 has also featured the unprecedented spectacle of journalists openly favoring a candidate, Sen. Obama, a phenomenon aptly mocked by Saturday Night Live. There’s NBC reporter Lee Cowan who admitted “it’s almost hard to remain objective” and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews confessing to “a thrill up my leg” after an Obama speech. Clinton supporters Lanny Davis and Terry McAuliffe even lauded Fox News, the cable news network detested by the Democratic Left, as the most “fair and balanced” in its primary coverage; McAuliffe claimed the media was “in the tank for Obama”, adding that “every independent study has said that this is the most biased coverage they’ve ever seen in a presidential campaign.”

It actually hasn’t been that bad. A recent survey by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University suggests that “the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.” Of course this study covered the first months of 2008, where much of the most over-the-top Obama media-fawning took place in late 2007 and early 2008. The Pew researchers concede: “The year 2008 started off extremely well for Obama. Positive assertions commanded 77% of the narrative studied about him from January 1 -13.” That, of course, Clinton supporters would note, is when such cheerleading mattered most in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Misleading polls. Why news organizations place any credence in opinion polling remains a mystery. This campaign season has exposed the weakness of relying on polling, especially exit polls, as they were consistently wrong in projecting the winner’s margin in the Democratic primaries, most likely because of the Shy Tory Factor (voters refusing to participate in the exit polling). Further, the appeal of Obama for younger and African-American voters, and Clinton for older, working-class women—groups with spotty voter participation histories—has wreaked havoc with turnout models.

Predicting, not reporting. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the “talking heads” need to predict? In the fall of 2007, we were told that Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani were the inevitable nominees, that Senators McCain and Obama were long-shots. Then, after pronouncing Clinton dead, conventional media wisdom was proved wrong when the New York Senator ran off a string of primary victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. NBC’s Tom Brokaw had it right on the night of the New Hampshire primary when he warned: “I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding….”

UNADDRESSED COVERAGE QUESTIONS:

How will coverage of Campaign 2008 change in the months ahead? The race between Senators Obama and McCain will be hailed as an historic one: the first time an African-American has been a major party’s nominee for the presidency. There is the danger that the mainstream media’s coverage will focus on race (“Will Americans vote for a black candidate? Is America ready for diversity in the White House?”) and that will represent a journalistic failure.

There are sharp distinctions between the candidates on the major issues (foreign policy, Iraq, the economy, health care, judicial philosophy, social issues); voters have plenty of reasons to vote for, or against, the candidates without any reference to race. The question should not be whether Americans are ready to vote for a black presidential candidate, but rather whether they are ready to vote for a charismatic presidential candidate whose philosophy and positions are further to the left than any Democratic standard-bearer since George McGovern. If it is true that the political center has shifted leftward, then they may very well elect the Senator from Illinois.

A wildcard for the remainder of Campaign 2008: the impact of quasi-news coverage from comedians, bloggers, YouTubers, Huffington Puffers, and other alternate media sources. Political historians will have their hands full trying to figure out whether, or how much, voters were swayed by the sudden blooming of a thousand alternative media flowers (and a few media weeds) in this 2008 election season.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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April 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

The Moyers-Wright interview, military justice on trial at Gitmo, and other observations

With a tip of the baseball brim to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULDN’T BILL MOYERS BROADCAST MORE OF HIS JEREMIAH WRIGHT JR. INTERVIEW aired last week on PBS? Based on comments made by Barack Obama’s former pastor in his National Press Club appearance in Washington on Monday, some of Wright’s more controversial comments may have been edited out of the program, Bill Moyers Journal. (Transcript of the Moyers-Wright interview .)

It’s rare that a public figure will complain so repeatedly about an inteview having been edited, but Wright returned to the subject three times when answering questions following his prepared remarks.

First, Wright complained that some of his praise of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, had been clipped from the PBS interview:

So what I think about him, as I’ve said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall? He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.

Then, Wright mentioned his criticism of the way “corporate media channels” handled his controversial sermons and suggested that Moyers had truncated his response:

As I said to Bill Moyers — and he also edited this one out — because of my mother’s advice to me. My mother’s advice was being seen all over the corporate media channels, and it’s a paraphrase of the Book of Proverbs, where it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Finally, Wright complained about the editing of his explanation of his “God damn America” sermon:

And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about — although it got edited out — you know, that’s biblical. God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, “demn,” is where we get the word “damn.” God damns some practices.

Moyers took criticism from some media critics for the “softball” nature of his Bill Moyers Journal interview with Wright. Wright’s complaints raise further questions about whether Moyers sought to soften the Chicago pastor’s often divisive rhetoric by editing out controversial answers. The best way for Moyers to address any criticism, and to clear up any doubts about his journalistic practices, is to show these edited segments on Bill Moyers Journal on Friday. Let’s see more.

THE TESTIMONY OF A FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT PROSECUTOR has surfaced disturbing and troubling questions about the way the military commissions system may prosecute terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Air Force Col. Morris Davis testified under oath that “he felt undue pressure to hurry cases along so that the Bush administration could claim before political elections that the system was working.” Further, Davis said called unethical “a decision by top military officials to allow the use of evidence obtained by coercive interrogation techniques.” The Defense Department has denied Davis’ charges in the past.

What makes Davis’ testimony so devastating is that he was former chief prosecutor for terrorism cases before he resigned last fall. Particularly troubling was Davis quoting Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II as saying that there shouldn’t be any acquittals of the terror suspects because “we’ve been holding these guys for years.”

The Defense Department legal establishment is presumably aware of the notion that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. If the Gitmo process isn’t founded on that legal bedrock, then the Bush Administration will prove its harshest critics correct in arguing that the military commissions—created to try terror suspects—offer nothing more than kangaroo justice.

WHAT WAS INDIANA SENATOR EVAN BAYH THINKING WHEN HE PRAISED HIS HOME STATE FOR RACIAL PROGRESS, BUT referred to it as part of the “Old Confederacy”? Bayh’s historical aside came in an interview with Tavis Smiley:

Number two, it does show that our state has made a lot of progress in this regard, and in my lifetime, matter of fact, when I was governor, we became the first state out of the old Confederacy to elect two African Americans to statewide office. Wonderful woman, Pam Carter, became our first female attorney general, and Dwayne Brown became the clerk of the courts.

Indiana remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Indiana’s governor Oliver Perry Morton battled a hostile Democratic majority in the State House to keep troops in the field. While it is claimed that Sugar Creek Township in Shelby County “seceded” from the United States, the Hoosier State played a major role in helping the Union to victory, contributing more than 200,000 troops.

SPEAKING OF HISTORICAL FANTASY, THE TELEVISION SOAP OPERA “DALLAS” DIDN’T WIN THE COLD WAR FOR THE WEST, despite a tongue-in-cheek argument for that theory by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch in the Washington Post. It was Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan— not the feuding Ewings of South Fork—who were pivotal in the fall of the Soviet Union.

FROM CRAIG FERGUSON, COMEDIAN AND NEW AMERICAN CITIZEN, COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom, from Ferguson’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner appearance: “Please, never, ever, ever agree with each other. Never stop arguing, never stop fighting. You cranky, magnificent bastards.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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March 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Mamet unchained, Shin Bet bloggers, the New York Times discovers vegan strippers, and other observations

With a tip of the fedora to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WAS THAT REALLY DAVID MAMET, PLAYWRIGHT OF THE PROFANE, ANNOUNCING IN THE Village Voice, of all places, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal“? Apparently so. Mamet’s political epiphany came, he has announced, as he wrote his recent play “November” and found himself contrasting the conservative tragic view of life with liberal perfectionism and deciding: “I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.”

Mamet unchained goes further, arguing “that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.”

Count on the author of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” for macho provocation: Mamet terms National Public Radio (NPR) “National Palestinian Radio,” sees similarities between George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, and pronounces: “I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.”

Yet this transformation isn’t completely a surprise as Mamet has never been a doctrinaire Man of the Left: he has displayed little patience with political correctness (vide “Oleanna”), and in some of his recent work (the movies Ronin and Spartan, the television series “The Unit,” and his book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews,) Mamet has moved right-of-center on national security issues.

Mamet has picked an awkward time, however, to sing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism (calling Thomas Sowell “our greatest contemporary philosopher”); anemic regulatory checks-and-balances on Wall Street greed have contributed to the recent subprime mortgage meltdown. That, of course, may be the point: Mamet likes nothing better than to shock, and what better way to shock than to embrace free markets in the middle of a financial crisis?

SHIN BET, ISRAEL’S SECURITY AGENCY, HAS EMPLOYEES BLOGGING about their office routines. The Associated Press reports: “The new project is part of an attempt by the organization to attract more high-tech workers to its ranks, and the bloggers work on the technological side of the Shin Bet’s operations rather than in the field. Identified only by the first letter of their names, they appear in black silhouette on the site’s home page.” The blogs, however, are “pretty boring,” according to the AP, proving that the mind-numbing curse of the cubicle extends even to Spyworld.

IT’S COMFORTING TO KNOW THAT THE NEW YORK TIMES TAKES ITS JOURNALISTIC RESPONSIBILITIES SERIOUSLY: otherwise we might never have learned about the vegan strip club trend.

That’s right, clubs with vegan strippers serving authentic vegan food, according to Kara Jesella’s story “The Carrot Some Vegans Deplore” carried in the Gray Lady’s Fashion & Style section. Well, actually it’s only one strip club in Portland, Oregon—Casa Diablo Gentleman’s Club—one that is failing, but reporting “All the News That’s Fit to Print” demands comprehensive coverage, including a photo of a young tattooed Goth-looking lass in a black halter top gazing forlornly at a sign which proclaims: “Please Do Not Wear Fur, Feathers, Silk, Wool, or Leather on the Stage.” The strippers apparently must resort to donning and undonning pleather. (But wouldn’t silk produced in the wild be acceptable? Or feathers that naturally molted from a bird?)

Our intrepid Times reporter pursues the story further, discovering a Southern California girl group called the Vegan Vixens (“a kind of animal-loving Pussycat Dolls”) who perform at animal rights events. The nation’s newspaper of record happily provides a photo of the five Vegan Vixens in very short skirts so our First Amendment rights are fully observed.

SPEAKING OF JOURNALISM 101, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES HAS APOLOGIZED FOR ITS BOGUS STORY ON THE 1994 wounding of rapper Tupac Shakur. The newspaper was duped by a con man who had provided false FBI documents implicating associates of another rapper, Sean “Puffy” Combs, in the shooting. The author, Chuck Phillips, admitted that he never directly asked FBI officials about the authenticity of the documents, and the paper was apparently told by Combs’ lawyer that the story was false. Defamation lawsuits to follow?

THE CORNELL MATHEMATICIANS WHO CONCLUDED THAT JOE DIMAGGIO’S 56-GAME HITTING STREAK wasn’t all that remarkable (after computer-simulations of parallel baseball universes) couldn’t have ever experienced a 99-mile-per hour fastball from the vantage point of the batter’s box. If they did, they would know better.

FROM OGDEN NASH, 20TH CENTURY MASTER OF DOGGEREL, COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment (proving April wasn’t always IRS time): “Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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February 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

The incomparable Obama, Duke lacrosse scandal blowback, campaign songs and controversy, and other observations

With all due credit to legendary New York City columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WHO IS BARACK OBAMA? It seems that America’s mainstream news organizations have spent much of the first two months of 2008 trying to answer that question about the junior Senator from Illinois, now the Democratic presidential frontrunner. Obama’s intriguing life story has produced countless stories to date, and now reporters and commentators are trying to dig a little deeper and to place his sudden appeal (Obama-mania) in context. This latest journalistic examination has featured explanations of how Obama resembles (or doesn’t resemble) transformative cultural and political figures from the past. (Many of these compare-and-contrast stories have been downright silly.)

Obama has acknowledged that he is a bit of a blank screen, where “people of widely different views project what they want to hear.” The journalistic comparisons have followed that pattern. Many of them have been flattering; the Illinois Senator has been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Tiger Woods. He has also been compared, less positively, to less popular figures, including Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis, George W. Bush (a jab from Senator Hillary Clinton) and Jesse Jackson (a jab from former President Bill Clinton), and even to the sinister cult figure Jim Jones.

What is going on here? Some of it is the human need to pigeon-hole people, to place them in a given category, whether positive or negative. Journalists are prone to this sort of categorizing and developing a frame for the candidate (to use an academic term) and establishing a narrative for a given campaign.

Obama, the “blank screen”, has proven somewhat resistant to this framing process. Is he an undistinguished novice with no executive experience who shies away from taking strong political stances and relies on empty rhetoric? Or is he a transformative figure whose oratory has captured the hearts and minds of Americans and who represents a post-partisan, post-racial political future? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

I’d argue that journalists should refrain from making comparisons, and focus instead on more substantive questions. For example, how about challenging Obama (and Senators Clinton and McCain) to answer the questions raised on the op-ed page of the New York Times before the Ohio Democratic presidential debate? I’d rather know how Obama plans to respond to these (especially the national security questions posed by the Boston Globe‘s Charlie Savage) than be subjected to more hype about how he resembles the Kennedy brothers.

THE DUKE LACROSSE SCANDAL REFUSES TO DIE as 38 members of the 2006 team filed suit against Duke University “for injuring the players’ reputations and causing them emotional suffering” during the bungled false rape case against three of the players. .

History professor K.C. Johnson has a detailed Q&A on the lawsuits (on his “Durham in Wonderland” blog site) and he thinks that the University is on shaky legal ground for its handling of “federally protected student information” and its failure to enforce its anti-harassment policies.

That the parents and players involved would sue Duke (and the city of Durham, N.C.) under the circumstances is understandable; it is a shame, however, that every dispute in contemporary American life must end up in the courts. If Duke president Richard H. Brodhead had openly accepted responsibility for the University’s bungling of the situation, had expressed regret, and had apologized publicly to the players, I’d like to think the lawsuit wouldn’t have been filed.

YOU WOULD THINK REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES WOULD HAVE LEARNED not to play rock songs at their campaign rallies, because it inevitably leads to the (registered Democrat) singer/songwriter demanding they stop. Latest cases in point: Boston’s Tom Scholz telling Mike Huckabee to cease and desist playing “More Than a Feeling,” and John Cougar Mellencamp’s camp asking John McCain to stop playing “Our Country.”

It’s not the first time McCain has been dissed by a rocker: Tom Petty made it clear he didn’t want the Arizona Republican using his song “I Won’t Back Down.” (Petty had also asked George W. Bush not to use that same tune on the campaign trail).

AMERICAN WOMEN IN COMBAT? U.S. female aviators in Afghanistan and Iraq are directly involved in counter-insurgency missions, based on these Parade magazine and New York Times Magazine pieces, despite the supposed ban on women in combat roles. According to Parade, some 105 American women have died in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Isn’t it time to make policy match reality?

FROM WALTER WINCHELL, NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment: “Too many people expect wonders from democracy, when the most wonderful thing of all is just having it.”


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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Those troublesome Danes

The headline of the letter to the editor in the Boston Globe—Danish papers stir up trouble“— neatly reflected a certain “progressive” world view about the conflict between Western secular values and Islamic extremism.

The letter-writer, Boston University associate professor of religion Michael Zank, objected to 17 Danish newspapers reprinting a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad “wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse.” The newspapers, including the country’s three national newspapers, republished Kurt Westergaard’s satirical caricature as a gesture of solidarity after Danish police arrested several Islamic extremists on charges of plotting to murder Westergaard.

Professor Zank found “disingenuous” the newspapers’ claim that they acted in support of freedom of speech. Zank questioned whether “this include[s] the freedom to stir up fear by publishing a drawing that has already proved incendiary?” (The original publication of a series of Danish cartoons of Muhammad including the Westergaard drawing, led to riots in the Muslim world in early 2006. One interpretation of Islamic law holds that any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous).

Zank suggested adhering to a different value, “that of treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated oneself,” and then closed his letter by writing:

Inciting hatred against Muslims plays into the hand of radicals on both sides, and it embarrasses the moderates. We don’t need any more of this, especially not in the guise of supporting free speech.

Zank’s views reflect those of many in academic and religious circles, in Europe and in the United States, who have embraced a credo of multicultural tolerance. What is wrong with those Danes, they ask; why do they go out of their way to insult the faith of others? Why embolden the forces of intolerance “on both sides” by reprinting Westergaard’s cartoon? Why must they “stir up trouble”?

But the troublesome Danes have it right: a violent attack on one individual’s freedom of expression (however distasteful to some or “incendiary” that expression may be) represents a threat to all expression. The Danish newspaper publishers and editors who reprinted Westergaard’s caricature are publicly saying that they will not be intimidated or, fearing retaliation, be cowed into self-censorship. They also understand that, as Flemming Rose of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper observed in 2006,if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.” Such an arrangement, Rose added, is “incompatible with a secular democracy.”

Suggesting that the Danish papers were “stirring up trouble” or “inciting hatred against Muslims” is a classic case of blaming the victim. Danish journalists were not seeking to offend or provoke, but responding to a clear assault on the principle of freedom of speech in their own country. Some of the Danish newspapers had not published the first series of Muhammad cartoons in 2005, regarding them as offensive. Yet they reprinted Westergaard’s cartoon, recognizing that the attempt to silence him—permanently—was also aimed at suppressing any future “anti-Muslim” speech.

The Danish newspaper publishers and editors consciously chose the harder path—it would have been far easier, and safer, to denounce the plot against Westergaard in editorials and columns and not republish his controversial drawing. Printing the Muhammad cartoon makes all of the participating newspapers potential targets for retaliation. (It should be noted that only two large city American newspapers, the New York Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2006.)

Danish courage in the face of threats and terror shouldn’t come as a surprise; the Danes, after all, rescued most of the country’s Jews during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Denmark. They are quietly stubborn. So it is unlikely that they will be swayed by any angry response from Islamist radicals. For that, advocates of freedom of expression should be thankful.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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Journalists and history: Milton Wolff’s “Good Fight”?

Milton Wolff, the last commander of what is popularly (and inaccurately) known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—those American volunteers who fought against the forces of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War—died Jan. 14th at the age of 92. Three major American newspapers—the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle—reported Wolff’s death with lengthy, and admiring, by-lined obituaries. Unfortunately these obits were flawed: they offered scant historical context, ignored the scholarship of the past few decades illuminating Communist control over the Lincolns (as the volunteers were known), and, most curiously, chose to remain silent about Wolff’s Stalinist past.

Instead, all three obituaries presented Wolff in a romantic, if not heroic, light. Peter Fimrite of the Chronicle quoted extensively from Peter N. Carroll, author of The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, Wolff’s friend and hagiographer:

“He was famous for his personal courage. He was famous for his leadership and morality,” said Carroll. “Women fell in love with him and men really respected him.”

In Fimrite’s story Wolff was “a legendary figure,” whose friends described him as “a worldly, chivalrous man” with “a gritty charm.” Wolff, it is suggested, had a “special charisma, a spark in the eye, that comes with dodging mortar rounds and machine gun bullets.”

In her summation of Wolff’s life and times, Jocelyn Y. Stewart of the Los Angeles Times noted Ernest Hemingway’s 1938 comparison of Wolff with Abraham Lincoln, quoted Carroll as describing Wolff as “a man of action,” and informed readers that Wolff “spent much of his life engaged in the struggles of the world.” Stewart also quoted Wolff on his motives for joining the International Brigades: “I went to Spain sincerely believing that in fighting for Spanish democracy I was helping preserve American democracy.”

While Douglas Martin of the New York Times offered the most restrained of the obituaries, he did characterize Wolff as an “Anti-Franco leader” who “never stopped defying authority,” “battl[ing] fiercely for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.” Martin closed his piece with this flattering anecdote about Wolff:

One of his battles after the civil war was leading his veterans to urge the Brooklyn Dodgers to integrate. “The guys were all Dodgers fans,” he said. “It was a way to carry on the struggle.”

All three journalists more or less adopted the narrative publicly advanced by Carroll, the academic “keeper of the flame” for the Lincolns. That’s troubling, because Carroll’s sanitized version of history perpetuates Old Left myths about American involvement in Spain.

Interviewing other historians of the period, such as Ron Radosh (the lead editor of Spain Betrayed) or NYU’s Tony Judt, or consulting, for example, Cecil D. Eby’s recently published Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, would have given readers a more informed and balanced historical perspective. The Times‘ Martin could have turned to his own newspaper and Edward Rothstein’s discerning March 2007 piece on the exhibition “Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War”, a review which captured some of the historical ambiguities surrounding the Lincolns and the war in Spain.

Consulting a broader range of historians would have improved accuracy, as well. Stewart of the Los Angeles Times wouldn’t have referred to the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” —for no such military unit ever existed (as Eby explains in the first few pages of his 2007 book); Communist Party propagandists in the U.S. created the name to refer to the Lincoln and Washington Battalions in the XVth International Brigade, in an effort to inflate the extent of American involvement in Spain. She might also have learned that Wolff’s story of being labeled a “premature anti-fascist” by the U.S. military during World War II had been sharply questioned by scholars Harvey Klehr and John E. Haynes. Further digging might have made Fimrite more wary of Carroll’s description of the Civil Rights Congress (for which Wolff worked) as simply “a left-wing organization that defended African Americans dubiously accused of capital crimes,” when in fact it had been declared a Communist front and was often in conflict with civil rights and civil liberties groups like the NAACP and ACLU.

This incomplete picture of Wolff (and consequently of American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War), is typical of recent mainstream media coverage of Cold War historical controversies. Case in the point: the inadequate reporting of attempts to rewrite the history of Alger Hiss’ involvement with Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 1940s. This shallow coverage may very well be the result of historical ignorance on the part of time-pressed reporters and editors; the result is that slanted and inadequate stories become part of the public record and end up residing on the Internet and in library databases. While the Weekly Standard published Stephen Schwartz’ critical view of Wolff (“Wolff in Wolf’s Clothing“), a Google news search for “Milton Wolff” doesn’t turn up this article.

Contingent anti-Fascism

None of the mainstream obituaries challenged the notion that Wolff’s “Good Fight” in Spain was to defend democracy against fascism, that (in Fimrite’s words) Wolff was a leftist “who despised fascism.” The truth was quite different: Wolff was an “anti-Fascist” fighter only when that stance matched established Soviet policy. Wolff’s zeal for battling Fascists disappeared when Stalin allied with Hitler’s Nazi Germany in August 1939; Wolff gave a shameful speech attacking “Franklin Demagogue Roosevelt” and vowing to “stubbornly oppose every move of Roosevelt and the war-mongers” and “the involvement of our country in an imperialist war.” Only after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union did Wolff once again began “despising Fascism.”

Any notion that Wolff was truly interested in preserving liberal democracy in Spain, or elsewhere, is laughable. He spent much of his adult life as an unapologetic Stalinist, leading the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) in support of the Party-approved cause du jour, backing North Korea, Cuba, and North Vietnam against the “American warmongers.” More troubling, Wolff remained silent about the crimes committed in the pursuit of a Marxist utopia—the show trials, purges, executions, slave labor camps, and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe through “people’s democracies.”

This silence calls into question Carroll’s depiction of Wolff as being “famous for his morality”: it is a strange morality that excuses Stalin’s crimes in the name of anti-Fascism. And then, more personally, there is the “Orwell question”: did Wolff and other leaders of the Lincolns have any complicity in the deadly purge of the non-Stalinist Left in Spain carried out by elements of the International Brigade? Did they turn a blind eye to the torture and killing by the dreaded Servicio de Investigation Militar (SIM) and Soviet assassins? While we may never know the truth, the question remains. In his research on the Lincoln battalion, Cecil D. Eby found that the VALB leadership stuck to “a rigidly canonical version of Lincoln history.” Eby noted that “[c]ertain subjects were taboo—rumors of wholesale desertions, prison terms for political deviants, jagged relationships with other Internationals, executions of volunteers.” This, of course, conforms to the Stalinist belief that historical “truth” should be shaped to serve political ends.

In contrast to Wolff’s reticence, some Lincolns—like Louis Fischer, William Herrick, and John Gates—confronted the past without evasion. A novelist and self-described radical, Herrick once wrote: “The truth was that the International Brigades were organized, dominated, controlled and massacred by the Comintern, a tool of Stalin.” He added, “over the years there have been Americans who have boasted about their work as apparatchiks in Spain, work which included executions.” Former Lincoln commissar Gates broke with the Communist Party in the late 1950s, denouncing the hijacking of the Republican cause by the Russians, and voiced the heretical notion that “there was more liberty under Franco’s fascism than there is in any communist country.”

A complicated history

Making sense out of the Spanish Civil War isn’t the easiest task: as Tony Judt has pointed out, it is possible to see the Republican cause in the most idealistic terms—and to acknowledge there was a vibrant anti-Stalinist Left in Spain defending the Republic— and yet also recognize that Soviet deception, duplicity and manipulation contributed to Franco’s victory.

It is, in short, a complicated history and it is easy to get lost in the competing claims and the internecine conflicts of the Left in Spain. Yet journalists who write about this past shouldn’t settle for simplistic or comfortable narratives. The best obituary writers confront both the ambiguities of history and the flaws and contradictions of their subjects in a way that informs the reader.

Journalists can report, in a balanced way, the past inconsistencies and contradictions in the lives of those engaged in political controversies. For example, Paul Goldberger’s 2005 New York Times obituary of Philip Johnson unflinchingly explored the American architect’s Fascist past. Michael Taylor’s San Francisco Chronicle obit of former Black Panther and 1960s radical Eldridge Cleaver offered context to the life of a deeply troubled man. And Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times properly noted French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s defense of Paul de Man’s Fascist connections in Derrida’s obituary.

Thus, a more complete accounting of Milton Wolff’s life and “Good Fight” would have included his support of the ugly excesses of Stalinism, and would have touched upon the Communist manipulation of the Lincolns. That would have represented better journalism, and better history.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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September 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Campus free speech, Clinton and Shakespeare, and other observations…

With a tip of the ballcap to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SEPTEMBER WAS A STRANGE MONTH FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ON AMERICA’S COLLEGE CAMPUSES. Columbia University invited the president of Iran—a Holocaust denier, Israel hater, and all-purpose enemy of the West—to share a stage with its president, Lee C. Bollinger, who proceeded to hector and insult Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the Iranian spoke.

Bollinger apparently forgot both his manners and the old saw that trying to teach a pig to whistle is a waste of time—it only annoys the pig. True to form, Ahmadinejad “debated” the issues by evading all direct questions and informing the audience that, among other things, Iran had no homosexuals.

As Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield points out in the Weekly Standard, Bollinger focused his criticism on Ahmadinejad’s noxious actions, not on his noxious ideology—undercutting Columbia’s stated public purpose in inviting the Iranian president, which was supposedly for an exchange of ideas.

Meanwhile the University of Florida campus police tasered a student (one Andrew Meyer) who had the temerity to ask the hapless Senator John Kerry if he was a member, like President Bush, of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale. (The much-played “Don’t tase me, bro” YouTube video of the incident is quite bizarre). The answer to Meyer’s question, by the way, is that yes, Kerry and Bush are believed to be members but, according to the rules of the club, are not supposed to say so.

KATIE COURIC PROVIDED SOME COMIC RELIEF DURING THE Ahmadinejad circus, letting it be known that her mnemonic for pronouncing his name is “I’m a dinner jacket.

IN THE LATEST HARVARD MAGAZINE, STEPHEN GREENBLATT relates an intriguing story about former President Bill Clinton. Greenblatt had attended a White House poetry evening at which Clinton mentioned that his first encounter with poetry had been memorizing passages from Macbeth in junior high school. Greenblatt then writes:

After the speeches, I joined the line waiting to shake the president’s hand. When my turn came, a strange impulse came over me that I cannot adequately explain and certainly cannot justify. This was a moment when rumors of the Lewinsky affair were circulating, but before the whole thing had blown up into the grotesque national circus that it soon became. “Mr. President,” I said, sticking out my hand, “Don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton looked at me for a moment, still holding my hand, and said, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”

I was astonished by the aptness, as well as the quickness, of this comment, so perceptively in touch with Macbeth’s anguished brooding about the impulses that are driving him to seize power by murdering Scotland’s legitimate ruler…

Clinton then recited one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, leaving Greenblatt to conclude that he had”missed his true vocation, which was, of course, to be an English professor.”

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A SCORNED ANCHORMAN, or so it seems as Dan Rather has launched a legal assault on CBS over his departure from the network after the Memogate debacle. The key question: if the courts accept the civil suit (no sure thing), is Rather determined to get a public airing, or will he accept a monetary settlement to go away quietly? Stay tuned.

JOURNALIST JUAN WILLIAMS HAS AN AMAZING GUEST COLUMN in Time magazine sure to ignite further debate over the health of African-American culture. Williams, who is black, wrote the piece in defense of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who had been criticized for his comments on the topic. What is startling about Williams’ essay is his blunt assessment of the problems facing the black community.

The most pernicious damage being done by the twisted presentation of black life in pop culture is the self-destructive message being beamed into young, vulnerable black brains. Young black people, searching for affirmation of their racial identity, are minute by minute being sold on the cheap idea that they are authentically black only if they imitate the violent, threatening attitude of the rappers and use the gutter language coming from the minstrels on TV.

The lesson from the rappers and comedians is that any young brother or sister who is proud to be black has to treat education with indifference, dismiss love and marriage as the business of white people and dress like the rappers who dress like prisoners — no comb in the jail so they wear doo-rags all day, and no belts so their pants hang down around their butts.

Williams closes his column by excoriating all those who “sell out the history and pride of black people to make a buck.” Tough stuff.

NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM: so now we can look forward to a conservative MoveOn.org, an organization called Freedom’s Watch.

ON THE DAY THE NEW YORK METS eliminated themselves from baseball’s playoffs in a collapse of epic proportion, it’s fitting to close with the words of one-time Mets manager Casey Stengel: “Been in this game one-hundred years, but I see new ways to lose ’em I never knew existed before.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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