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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Why Anthony Weiner needs to resign

Probity has never been a prerequisite for Congressional service, though judging by the clamor for U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner's Tweet-happy head, you'd think he had violated some sort of private club code. But others have done worse, and survived politically (hello, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and David Vitter.

The problem isn't Weiner's betrayal of his wife, even if it was a virtual betrayal. That's a personal matter. And the problem apparently isn't that he violated any laws in sending his creepy Tweets (should we call them Creets?). The problem, which should be our biggest concern, is that the man lied about his behavior once he was caught. That's where we should be most outraged. And why he should resign.

Of course, there's little precedent for a politician resigning because he lied, either (hello, Bill Clinton). If Weiner doesn't resign, his constituents should do the next best thing, and fire him come 2012. Politicians, like little kids, lie because they think can get away with it. We expect honesty from our kids, we should demand it from our elected officials.

Weiner failed in a fundamental way. And that is why he needs to go.

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On anger, and the divisions that cripple us

Detroit, summer of 2010
A new poll this morning from Newsweek/The Daily Beast confirms what most of us have already known – the moribund economy has left many Americans angry at the world, and it's affecting everything from personal relationships to sleep patterns (I’ve seen 4 a.m. myself more times than I care to count). But it also reveals a deep crevasse between how Americans live, and how Washington responds.

Overall, 50 percent of the poll’s respondents thought President Obama has no significant plan to balance the budget, and 58 percent said the Republicans are equally stymied, and just trying to blame it all on Obama (presumably for crass political reasons). In other words, most Americans think our political leadership has no idea how to fix this. But more than two out of three believed raising taxes on the wealthiest is a step in the right direction. That isn’t going to happen here in this democracy of ours, mind you, but the will of the masses is there.

The poll also found that nearly one in three Americans said their financial straits left them feeling angry (I would have thought higher), and about half said they felt nervous. “Could the anger fueling the Arab Spring soon bring club-wielding protesters to America?” asked political strategist Douglas Schoen, who wrote the piece. Not likely, for a variety of reasons. And it’s an irresponsible line to toss out there, sounding more like a bogus Wolf Blitzer teaser before a CNN commercial break than a reasoned reading of the situation.

And that kind of breathless speculation erodes what otherwise were some pretty significant findings, because we are becoming more and more angry. And we are, as often happens in our history, turning our anger against each other while political figures use it to push agendas. For instance, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, in the GOP half of the Saturday morning political cartoons (the weekly addresses by the president and someone from the other half of the two-party tango), argued that unions were at fault for the lack of job growth.

Please. It’s a transparently false position, and the kind of red herring discourse that should fuel even more anger. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010 union membership nationwide was at 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent the previous year. And that is buoyed by unions representing public employees. The rate for private sector workers – the realm Alexander was addressing – was 6.9 percent, hardly the kind of power that would preclude an entrepreneur from opening or expanding a business.

Despite those anemic numbers, Alexander argued that union strength forces capitalists to create jobs overseas. Wrong. Federal policies that have enriched corporations by letting them fire U.S. workers and replace them with labor in lower-wage countries are what has driven jobs overseas, and killed the American middle class. If the unions had the kind of strength that people like Alexander say they fear it does, this would never have happened. It’s not unions that are sending jobs overseas, it is corporate executives and federal lawmakers who put corporate wealth ahead of community health.

So let’s make sure during these dark days that we direct our anger at the right folks, and not each other. The other day a friend on Facebook, whose daughter was rejected for much-needed financial aid for college, responded with a race-based post (she’s white) about people of color getting more government support than white people. In her moment of frustration she vented, in effect, sideways, rather than throwing her anger on the people who created the conditions: Elected leaders and the corporate powers that have excessive influence on how they vote.

Which brings me to this absurd theme coursing through parts of the electorate that because “my private sector job doesn’t give me the benefits that government workers get” that the government workers should be forced to give up theirs. No. The answer is that the private sector employers should restore those benefits. To bring government employees’ wages and benefits down to the level of the private sector continues this bizarre erosion of the caliber of American life. We won’t rebuild the middle class by pushing more workers further down the economic ladder. We rebuild the middle class by raising those from the lower economic levels up the ladder. And, dare I argue, drag some of the wealthy down a few rungs.

But it takes political will to do that. And, even with a former community organizer in the White House, there’s not much will in Washington to make life better for the poor, the working class, the middle class or average American neighborhoods, now ravaged by a housing crisis that was created by lack of oversight over the greed-mongers on Wall Street. And so we seethe. But do we act?

No. We watch “American Idol.” And maybe think think about Steve Earle's "America v. 6.0":
Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago
Our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay
Yeah, well maybe that wasn't exactly what they was thinkin'
Version six-point-oh of the American way
But hey we can just build a great wall around the country club
To keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through
Yeah, I realize that ain't exactly democratic, but it's either them or us and
And it's the best we can do.

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Truth wins out at White House photo ops

A few weeks ago, when President Obama announced that U.S. special forces had found and killed Osama Bin Laden, he did it from behind a podium in the White House on life TV. After the television camera was turned off, and under a long-established practice, the media handlers ushered in news photographers and Obama returned to the podium and pretended to give the statement again, so the still photographers could make the image. They were barred from the live speech over fears that the clicking from the cameras would be picked up by the president's microphone

In other words, the photos that ran in most newspapers around the country were a fraud, and few noted that fact in the cutline.

Journalism has enough problems with credibility without adding to it with such absurdities as pretending a staged photo op is a live picture. Oddly, it was the White House that decided to suspend the practice, not the photographers assigned to the beat.

But the Washington Post's Paul Farhi reports this morning that the photographers have worked out a new protocol. They'll be "pooling" such events in the future, which means one photographer will be allowed to shoot it, and will share the pictures with his or her colleagues, with no restrictions on their use.

A reasonable solution, and one that should have been obvious back when they all agreed to play this little charade. Now if they can only do something about the White House Correspondents Association dinner.


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Op-ed: We're asking the wrong question

The Sacramento Bee today carries an op-ed I wrote about the policy implications of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe, and looking at the assurances we are given that nuclear energy is safe - a response to the natural question embedded in the plume of dispersed radiation predicted to waft over Southern California today.

But we're asking the wrong question. We shouldn't be wondering whether it is safe; we should be wondering whether the risk is worth the benefit. I say, no. From the article:
Most of California is blessed with an enviable climate that promises intense, harnessable, sunshine nearly every day of the year. There is no environmental risk to capturing solar energy, and it is indefensible that the state does not require all new buildings include solar panels on the roofs. (The state already is making strides toward tapping wind power, though more could be done). ... sometimes the solution to problems moves beyond dollars and has to be weighed against risk. Requiring solar panels to all new construction, including building additions, would add relative pennies to the cost of buildings that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is something state energy policy officials should be pursuing with vigor, while the rest of us begin to shake loose of our assumptions of what is safe, and what is sustainable.

We need to start asking ourselves the right questions.
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On David Broder, and the passing of a class act

I've been in a bit of a funk since reading the news this morning that David Broder had died of complications from diabetes. He had, for decades, been one of the best and most influential political journalists in the country, a standing surpassed only by his gentlemanly and generous manner.

David's longtime colleague at the Washington Post, Dan Balz, wrote this very nice tribute summarizing neatly what made David so influential. I've been a fan of his work since the early 1970s, when I was first thinking about going into journalism, and was drawn by his political coverage. It was, as I mentioned to Balz in an email exchange earlier today, one of the reasons I gravitated to campaign coverage.

Two anecdotes. I crossed paths with David several times over the years, which was a bit of a rush for me. During one trip David asked me to join him for dinner in some remote spot where he, of course, had eaten many times before. His cell phone rang while we were at the table, and it was his wife. He chatted for a moment and then said he was having dinner with a friend and would have to call her back. He overstated the relationship (we barely knew each other) but it was a moment of personal pride, and one that I cherish, that he would use the word. His inclusiveness should be contagious.

Another time during the 2004 primaries David and I were on the same bus in some significant primary state (2004 Kerry campaign in South Carolina? Edwards' bus? I don't recall specifically, and the specifics don't really matter). I had complained about having to write two stories to be ready depending on what the primary day results would be. The LAT hadn't sprung for the full exit poll data, or at least wasn't forwarding it to me. Late in the afternoon David wandered back and asked if he could sit down next to me, then flipped open his notebook to where he had written down the exit polls through the second cycle and said something to the effect that it might help me decide which version of the story to spend the most time on. It's one thing to share with a colleague; something else to so generously help out someone who in theory is your competition. It was a small moment but obviously memorable moment, and indicative of what a class act David was, beyond being a tremendous journalist.

None of us is irreplaceable. But David was pretty damn close. Read More 
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HuffPo and FB: Two different sorts of plantations

There's an interesting column in the New York Times this morning by media writer David Carr looking at the absurd valuations for companies like Facebook and Twitter on the heels of Huffington Post's agreement to be swallowed up by AOL.

Carr is usually a pretty astute critic, but I think he missed a crucial differentiation here. He argues, correctly, that Huffington Post ratcheted itself to the value of $315 million on the unpaid work of thousands of bloggers, and perhaps to a bigger extent by doing little more than aggregating the paid-for output of professional media organizations.

If that's not outright thievery, it's pretty close. And, to me, highly unethical. HuffPo breaks very little news, and does very little reporting. It's a parasitical relationship with the mainstream media, and Arianna Huffington has been richly rewarded by it.

Facebook and other social media venues are different beasts, though Carr lumps them together with HuffPo. The difference is intent. HuffPo intends to draw readers to its aggregated links and bloggers. Facebook's intent is to give users a forum with which oi interact with each other. Both sell ads on the side, and thus generate significant cash. But Facebook isn't drawing people with content in the way HuffPo is. It's drawing users - and eyeballs for advertisers - by giving them a forum through which to interact with friends, not by publishing their content. It's the difference, I think, between publishing a newspaper with purloined or unpaid content, and operating a coffee shop, where your customers hang around in your space and socialize.

That's a much more legitimate business model. It's not objectionable on ethical grounds. Huffington Post, on the other hand, is. And all the more so because of the political outlook of the site. There's something deeply suspicious about an ostensibly politically liberal organization so devaluing the works of individuals, and of journalism as a profession.

Maybe what HuffPo needs is a strong union. Read More 
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The difficult case of Wikileaks, and Julian Assange

"The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
--Thomas Jefferson, 1823

The noise and grandstanding surrounding Wikileaks and its puckish promoter, Julian Assange, hit full voice over the past few days and it’s a chilling thing to watch. You all know the circumstances: Assange and his colleagues have posted hundreds of thousands of leaked documents detailing the U.S. prosecution of wars, and the U.S. diplomatic corps’ perceptions of foreign government figures, both allies and enemies.
Thomas Jefferson
None of the material, from what’s been bandied about, has directly imperiled U.S. military actions, though the now-public documents have detailed questionable past practices and policies, and helped us better understand how events have transpired. And the diplomats seem to have been tripped up by a basic reality of the modern communications world: Never put in writing something you wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of the New York Times.

More chilling, though, is the U.S. government’s response, from hindering access by federal workers and contractors to coverage of Wikileaks to warning would-be diplomats (college students) that to discuss the leaked documents in a public venue could kill a future career. The Pentagon earlier filed charges against Bruce Manning, a soldier who provided Wikileaks with documents. Ever since the Pentagon Papers, U.S. courts have held that it is the government’s responsibility to keep its secrets, not the media’s. Though, given the details contained in the leaked documents, one hopes the soldier gets some coverage from whistleblower-protection laws.

And no, this is not espionage, no matter how the braying right wing may seek to define it. This is an established, award-winning new media journalism site. Look at it as the globalization of the media – a rootless collection of people fighting to shed more light, not less, on the workings of government and big business, from the United States to Kenya. That is the basic role of journalism in America, and it’s indefensible that our government treats Wikileaks any differently than it would the New York Times or Washington Post.

Then there’s the shunning of Wikileaks by Amazon, which bounced the site from its servers. That is entirely within Amazon’s rights, but still the kind of act that will send more of my online buys to Powells. Paypal's decision to stop processing donations to Wikileaks is even worse, claiming that Wikileaks violated its polices against handling money to be used for illegal purposes. Paypal (I’ll be closing my account) seems to have appointed itself responsibilities we tend to reserve for the courts. At their heart, Amazon and Paypal’s reasons seem contrived, at best, and one can sense the backroom phone call from Homeland Security warning of the consequences of aiding an “enemy” of the U.S. Government.

Over the past four years, Wikileaks has published a wide range of government and business secrets that, in total, have made the world a better place. Or at least a better-informed one. And over the past few months the Obama administration has shown itself to be as thin-skinned as the Nixon Administration, from its petty response to Wikileaks to the FBI raids on homes of antiwar activists in Minnesota and Illinois under the guise of an anti-terror investigation.

Given the broad usurpation of civil rights under the USA Patriot Act – which allows the government to conduct warrantless searches without judicial overview – you have to figure that the recent public, warrant-backed raids are just the tip of the iceberg. And perhaps a warning against those who would defy government policies. Against that backdrop, pending sex-abuse charges from Sweden against Assange are suspicious in their timing. Still, the work Wikileaks is doing is more than Assange’s public pronouncements and private problems, and to focus attention on his legal bind diverts attention from the real issues – a U.S. government that is increasingly acting against the interests, and rights, of its citizens.

So where will this end? Badly, I fear. Over the past nine years, the U.S. public has shown a frightening lack of interest in the reality of how its government works, and the acts that have been taken in our names. As long as I’m invoking old adages here, let me finish by pointing out that in a democracy, we tend to get the government we deserve. In this case, we’re being represented by arrogance, and ignorance, ever a dangerous combination. Read More 

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