Gary Webb and the Shame of Journalism

Gary WebbOne of the best things we did when we all came over to Esquire in 1997 was give some of the last journalism work to a great reporter named Gary Webb. Webb, you may recall, reported the hell out of the story that some of our Moral Equivalents of the Founding Fathers in Central America during the glory days of Ronald Reagan’s advancing senility were running cocaine up into the United States with the blessings of their CIA handlers. This all helped jump-start the entrepreneurial triumph that was crack cocaine. The government came after Webb hard. Disinformation flew thickly and fast. His newspaper, the San Jose Mercury-News, chickened out on him. Other newspapers, most notably the Los Angeles Times, piled on. Of all the disgraceful episodes regarding the press and the Reagan administration, the discrediting of Gary Webb was probably the worst, given the fact that so much of the elite press was complicit in what was done to him. In 1998, a report by the CIA’s inspector general confirmed what Webb had reported, and several of the institutions that had smeared him were forced to apologize. But that turned out not to be enough. Gary Webb apparently took his own life in 2004.

Now, though, it seems there will be a movie about Gary Webb, and what happened to him. I hope to god every reporter in Washington DC, especially the famous ones, the ones that treasure their access so goddamn much that they’d never inconvenience the people they cover, will watch this movie and leave the theater with their raincoats over their heads in shame.

—Charlie Pierce
Out on the Weekend

Here’s the trailer. I’m sure, contrary to Pierce’s wish, the press will push it as a story of one of their own, even though the primary reason that Webb seems to have taken his life is that no one would hire him.

All That Remains of Benghazi Scandal: “Benghazi!”

Benghazi Fishing Trip


I heard that Fox News had a big scoop: an interview with the five commandos who have come together to write the soon to be released, 13 Hours: A Firsthand Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. You know how it is: when the right wing start talking about Benghazi, you have to find out what it is even though you know that for the umpteenth time it will be nothing.

So I went to Google News and entered the search term “Benghazi.” And what comes up is, of course, Fox News stories. Not just them, though; there are also articles in The Blaze and World Net Daily. What’s more, there are articles on liberal sites wondering just what the hell Fox is on about now. The best of this is Olivia Marshall’s article at Media Matters, Fox’s Newest Benghazi Conspiracy Immediately Debunked By Fox Guest.

Yesterday, supposed straight news guy Bret Baier announced that it was a “dramatic new turn in what the Obama administration and its allies would like to dismiss as an old story.” But as Marshall shows, this idea was dismissed by Charles Lane during that broadcast:

What we heard from your interview was they assumed he was waiting for more support from the local militia. Which, by the way, might not be a bad reason to wait. In other words, you want to go — you don’t want to rush in with just three guys into what was obviously a very, very dangerous situation. You’d want to wait to see if you could round up some more support. In other words, there’s a difference between “waiting” and “waiting for no good reason” and, even worse, “waiting because you were told ‘we don’t care what happens to the Ambassador.'”

What’s more, this is not news. We already knew this. The commandos are trying to make a bunch of money, which they can do both because Fox News and other conservative outlets have been pushing the supposed Benghazi scandal for the last two years, and because they are pushing it now. Normally, books promising to tell “what really happened” need to offer something more than publicly available information.

Igor Volsky at Think Progress wrote about what is really going on here, The Amazing Shrinking Benghazi Scandal. It really is quite amazing. It is as if after all the Watergate investigations, it had turned up the fact that the conspiracy stopped at G Gordon Liddy. Of course, in the case of Benghazi, it doesn’t seem as though they’ve even managed that. The whole conspiracy theory started with the likes of William Kristol writing, “It would have been a presidential decision.” And now it is, “The contractors say that the CIA station chief [acted] on his own authority and was not operating under orders from anyone in Washington DC.” So there is a difference of opinion about the response to the situation on the ground at the time. The worst you can say is that the station chief was wrong and even that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The right wing seems to have one thing and only one thing left in this scandal.


Sid Vicious Selling Cars Just Like He Should

Acura TLXI got to watch a little television recently, and I saw a commercial for the Acura TLX. It is apparently a car. But what struck me was that the music for the commercial was “My Way” performed by Sid Vicious. About a year ago, I wrote, Commence Conformity Protocol, about the Infiniti Q50 commercial. I think it is pathetic the way that advertisers try to convince people that buying their products will make them “cool” and “dangerous” or (most laughably) “nonconformist.” But in this case, the song is entirely appropriate.

It makes me crazy that many, even most, people think that Sex Pistols somehow invented punk music. Far from inventing it, I don’t even consider them a punk band. Punk is not really a kind a music so much as it is an approach to it. And I’ve always found the band to be kind of a joke. It’s all too packaged and intended to offend. It’s no surprise that Sex Pistols are now considered the prototypical punk band: that’s what they were sold as. None of this is to say that some of their work wasn’t really good. (So was some of The Monkees!) And I think that John Lydon is one of the greatest rock singers ever.

The ultimate expression of everything that was bad about Sex Pistols is found in “My Way.” Vicious stumbles up to the mic with all the practiced disregard of a seasoned con man. He then does a childish parody of Sinatra, I guess — including rolling his eyes. And then the pop heavy metal music comes in and Vicious goes on to show that he can’t sing like John Lydon any more than he can Sinatra. But the main thing is that he’s there posing for the folks. He is Punk Rocker™. It’s just offensive.

I understand that there is a posing aspect to all forms of rock music. But to embrace that is exactly to abandon the philosophical core of punk music. It was always a do-it-yourself movement — a rejection of the polished, substanceless music of the time. (Actually: of all times.) The idea was never to be bad for the sake of being bad. And if you listen to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, you’ll find the band is fairly good. Of course, it helps that Vicious doesn’t play on the album.

So I think it makes perfect sense that Sid Vicious being used to sell cars to insecure middle aged corporate cogs who fantasize about being paradigm-breaking rebels. If Malcolm McLaren were alive today, he would be so proud. Because that was exactly what he had in mind all along.


Since you were good enough to read my rant, he’s some of the best punk music ever made — “I Felt Like a Gringo” off Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat:

Good News About Obamacare Doesn’t Get Out

We Heart ObamacareEzra Klein wrote an article this morning with some extremely positive news, The Obamacare Train Keeps Not Wrecking. It is primarily about some new information from the Kaiser Family Foundation that shows that where we have data, insurance premiums on average are going to go down next year. That in itself is a big deal because healthcare premiums pretty much never go down. But this is especially notable because the most recent claims from conservatives have been that there will be “rate shock” next year and that premiums will go up by double digits.

The worst case that Kaiser found was in Nashville where the premiums look to go up 8.7%. But this is more than offset by declines in places like Seattle (-9.8%), Providence (-11.4%), and Colorado (-15.6%). Of course, you aren’t likely to hear much about this in the news. Ten months ago, Intelligence² held a debate with the title, Is The Affordable Care Act Beyond Repair? In that debate, 16% started in favor of the motion; 32% ended in favor. That’s the nature of public coverage. Since then, there has been nothing but good news about Obamacare, yet that news has gotten shockingly little coverage.

Part of that is simply that “good news” is no news. The problems with the website were clear and potentially disastrous. But all the news since then has been of the nature, “Obamacare working as intended — but better.” Even if suddenly everyone in the United States had health insurance because of Obamacare, it would get at most a passing reference on the nightly news.

But there are some places that are determined not to report even the best of news:

Or imagine it played out the other way. Imagine that Obamacare’s 2014 premiums had come in higher than expected, and its 2015 premiums were growing even faster than projected. Imagine it had signed up 6 million people rather than 7 million people. Imagine Medicare costs were exploding. What would Fox News be saying about Obamacare right now? What would the Wall Street Journal editorial board be writing?

It would be getting blanket coverage, of course. But what coverage is the good news getting? Not a drop.

This gets to an important point about Fox News and other outlets that I try to explain to people who consume “news” in this form: the greatest propaganda aspect of this kind of reporting is not in the reporting itself; it is in what is and is not reported. Look at Solyndra — the solar panel company that went out of business. It was a small story. But the right wing media beat on it for years. The story was that it had gotten a large government loan. This was seen as some kind of scandal, even though the vast majority of money in that loan program was paid back. But the full context was never reported by them. After other mainstream outlets pushed the full context of the loan program, the right wing simply dropped it. And this is why you will still find conservatives ranting about it: after blanket coverage, the right wing media just dropped it and their consumers were never the wiser.

The problem with this is not just that conservative voters get their news from biased sources that simply ignore any ideologically inconvenient information; the conservative elites do the same thing. And this is how the entire Republican Party has managed to go on tilt. Notice that despite the internet allowing people to get far better and more thorough news about the world, conservatives have allowed themselves to be cocooned in a hermetically seal media system that is even more limited than the news people got from the television in the 1950s.

What is most problematic about this is that the right wing echo chamber is only sealed regarding information getting in. The people who watch Fox News all day and every day think they are well informed. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics, so they are not able to go to family gatherings and rant about global warming being a conspiracy and Benghazi being a conspiracy and Fast and Furious being a conspiracy and so on. But the dedicated Fox News viewer can — and will. So all the looniness of the right wing gets spewed out. And it has an impact. One of those is the continued ignorance about Obamacare that is turning out to be a far greater success than I ever dreamed possible.

Update (6 September 2014 5:03 pm)

Paul Krugman posted something about the mechanism I discussed here, A Note on the Dynamics of Misinformation:

It goes like this: a lot of the untrue beliefs people have about Obamacare come not so much from outright false reporting as from selective reporting. Every suggestion of bad news gets highlighted — especially, of course, but not only by Fox, the WSJ, etc… But when it turns out that the news wasn’t really that bad, these sources just move on. There are claims that millions of people are losing coverage — headlines! When it turns out not to be true — crickets! Some experts claim that premiums will rise by double digits — big news! Actual premium numbers come in and they’re surprisingly low — not mentioned.

The result is that most news consumers — who form impressions rather than trying to work out details — have the sense that it’s been all bad news. This is true even for people who don’t rely on Fox — I get asked about the scary premium hikes by people on the Upper West Side! And of course for those who do get their news from Fox, well, they know, just know, that Obamacare has reduced the number of Americans with insurance and caused premiums to double or something, even though even their favorite news source isn’t saying such things.

John (Not Jon) Stewart

John StewartOn this day in 1939, the great singer-songwriter John Stewart was born. He is probably best known for writing The Monkees’ number one hit “Daydream Believer.” But he was also in the Kingston Trio through most of the 1960s. After that, he had a successful solo career, which culminated in 1979’s Bombs Away Dream Babies and the top ten hit “Gold.”

Many years ago, while I was in the process of flunking out of college, John Stewart came to my campus. He gave a lecture about nothing in particular and everything in general: his life, songwriting, cars, women, performing. This was only a few years after “Gold,” so it was surprising that not many more than a hundred people were in attendance. I had something else that I had to get to, so I knew that I was going to have to slip out of the lecture half-way through. Stewart did not allow me to do this unnoticed, however. He cheerfully chided me for missing his pearls of wisdom.

After I was done with my thing and he was done with his thing, we happened to run into each other. He remembered me: it had only been two hours and I was, after all, the guy who walked out on him. We walked to his car, which, if I remember correctly was some piece of junk. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember two things he told me. First, he said, never listen to what your friends and family tell you about your work. He said, everyone told him that he sucked — until he sold his first hit and made $50,000 on it (in the late 1950s, I think); people who don’t know you are the only ones who can really see your talent. The second thing he told me was that art was whatever the hell you make it. He had an example: “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” It is just four song fragments pasted together. By traditional standards, it’s a piece of garbage; but as we all know, it is a masterpiece.

Here is Stewart from that time, doing “You Can’t Go Back to Kansas”:

Happy birthday John Stewart!

Part of this article taken from John Stewart and Jules Shear.