Bob Schwartz

Category: Journalism

If Hunter S. Thompson Was Here

How long, oh Lord, how long? And how much longer will we have to wait before some high-powered shark with a fistful of answers will finally bring us face-to-face with the ugly question that is already so close to the surface in this country, that sooner or later even politicians will have to cope with it?

Is the democracy worth all the risks and problems that necessarily go with it? Or, would we all be happier by admitting that the whole thing was a lark from the start and now that it hasn’t worked out, to hell with it.

Hunter S. Thompson, January 1974

Hunter S. Thompson was the great political journalist of his generation—maybe any modern generation. He brilliantly, sometimes sadly, expressed one underlying theme: politics is mostly a crazy, misguided and dishonest business, many who engage in it are crazy, misguided and dishonest people, and the only way to report on it was to be crazy yourself—but also crazily honest. Thompson knew demons when he saw them, because he had his own different demons to deal with.

Had he not committed suicide in 2005, and had he lived to see this, we don’t know what he would write. Or, as was apparent even while he has covering Nixon and Watergate, he may have already had enough. He covered political hell so many times that it was not an assignment he wanted to repeat.

The good news is that there are plenty of excellent edgy and transgressive journalists writing about politics now, which was hardly the case in the 1970s. But even these contemporary writers will tell you they are not him.

This is from the New York Times, January 1, 1974. Thompson is looking back on 1973 and the Nixon presidency (Nixon had not yet resigned):


Maybe that’s why the end of this incredible, frantic year feels so hollow. Looking back on the sixties, and even back to the fifties, the fact of President Nixon and everything that has happened to him—and to us—seem so queerly fated and inevitable that it is hard to reflect on those years and see them unfolding in any other way.

One of the strangest things about these five downhill years of the Nixon Presidency is that despite all the savage excesses committed by the people he chose to run the country, no real opposition or realistic alternative to Richard Nixon’s cheap and mean-hearted view of the American Dream has ever developed. It is almost as if that sour 1968 election rang down the curtain on career politicians.

This is the horror of American politics today—not that Richard Nixon and his fixers have been crippled, convicted, indicted, disgraced and even jailed—but that the only available alternatives are not much better; the same dim collection of burned-out hacks who have been fouling our air with their gibberish for the last twenty years.

How long, oh Lord, how long? And how much longer will we have to wait before some high-powered shark with a fistful of answers will finally bring us face-to-face with the ugly question that is already so close to the surface in this country, that sooner or later even politicians will have to cope with it?

Is the democracy worth all the risks and problems that necessarily go with it? Or, would we all be happier by admitting that the whole thing was a lark from the start and now that it hasn’t worked out, to hell with it….

George Orwell had a phrase for it. Neither he nor Aldous Huxley had much faith in the future of participatory democracy. Orwell even set a date: 1984—and the most disturbing revelation that emerged from last year’s Watergate hearings was not so much the arrogance and criminality of Nixon’s henchmen, but the aggressively totalitarian character of his whole Administration. It is ugly to know just how close we came to meeting Orwell’s deadline….

Six months ago I was getting a daily rush out of watching the nightmare unfold. There was a warm sense of poetic justice in seeing “fate” drive these money-changers out of the temple they had worked so hard to steal from its rightful owners. The word “paranoia” was no longer mentioned, except as a joke or by yahoos, in serious conversations about national politics. The truth was turning out to be even worse than my most “paranoid ravings” during that painful 1972 election.

But that high is beginning to fade, tailing down to a vague sense of angst. Whatever happens to Richard Nixon when the wolves finally rip down his door seems almost beside the point, now. He has been down in his bunker for so long, that even his friends will feel nervous if he tries to re-emerge. All we can really ask of him, at this point, is a semblance of self-restraint until some way can be found to get rid of him gracefully.

This is not a cheerful prospect, for Mr. Nixon or anyone else—but it would be a hell of a lot easier to cope with if we could pick up a glimmer of light at the end of this foul tunnel of a year that only mad dogs and milkmen can claim to have survived without serious brain damage. Or maybe it’s just me. It is ten below zero outside and the snow hasn’t stopped for two days. The sun has apparently been sucked into orbit behind the comet Kohoutek. Is this really a new year? Are we bottoming out? Or are we into The Age of The Fear?

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Media and trump: The Reverse Cry Wolf Effect

The media are suffering from the Reverse Cry Wolf Effect. That is, not shouting out a warning when a real danger approaches.

Instead of pointing out what might actually be a serious danger, when trump raised the preposterous and unsupported issue of Obama’s birth, the media treated it as interesting, reportable and sort of funny. And then kept it alive, forever.

Since then, trump has continued to make preposterous allegations and statements. To put it less politely, to chronically lie about matters big and small. The media, having already decided that everything he said and did was interesting, reportable and sort of funny, kept right on treating it as normal, if a bit quirky.

The latest interesting, reportable, quirky, sort of funny thing that trump claimed without any evidence is that Obama (“Bad (or sick) guy!”) wiretapped trump tower. You can tell that the media is on the verge of saying what plenty of respectable commentators are saying: objectively, trump is trying to distract us from his incompetence and real problems, he has always had an irrational hatred of Obama, and he may also be a little bit unstable.

But the media isn’t sure whether anybody will believe them. Why should we?

With This Magazine Cover Germany Has Made Full Retribution

Der Spiegel

This is the cover from this week’s issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel. It is accompanied by the story The Pain of the Donald Trump Presidency.

The cover has been controversial. The magazine explains it this way:

The image for this week’s cover was created by the artist Edel Rodriguez. Edel was nine years old when, in 1980, he came to the U.S. with his mother — two refugees, like so many others. “I remember it well, and I remember the feelings and how little kids feel when they are leaving their country,” he told the Washington Post on Friday night. The newspaper wrote: “This DER SPIEGEL Trump cover is stunning.” It wasn’t the first time Edel has drawn Trump. He usually portrays him without eyes — you just see his angry, gaping mouth and, of course, the hair. “I don’t want to live in a dictatorship,” he says. “If I wanted to live in a dictatorship, I’d live in Cuba, where it’s much warmer.”

I am Jewish, descended from Eastern European Jews, with extended family who likely perished there during World War II (they were never heard from after). I was a stamp collector as a kid, and a friend of my parents gave me his entire collection of German stamps from that era, with a note that explained why he could not keep them. For myself, I’ve treated Germany as just another nation, no more or less, depending on what it does and doesn’t do.

No nation in modern history has had to live down what Germany has. People of faith and good will have been visited with the sins of the Fatherland, and have tried hard for generations to establish that they are not those Germans. They have proven themselves, and with this cover, they are doing what some have the courage to do, some not, or at least not yet: Bear witness—graphically, unflinchingly—to what may not quite be an atrocity, but is a devastating and deadly affront to what Americans, Germans, and free people around the world hold dear.

Germany, you have proven your good faith time and time again over the decades. Germany, if there is even anything left to forgive, all is forgiven.

Respected Political Journalist John Heilemann Calls Trump a Lunatic

Eclipse

You lock the door
And throw away the key
There’s someone in my head but it’s not me

John Heilemann is one of the most respected, talented and fair-minded political journalists in America.

He and his partner Mark Halperin  have written two of the most insightful and entertaining presidential campaign books of all time: Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime  and Double Down: Game Change 2012. They are the Managing Editors of Bloomberg Politics. They have a weekly show about the campaign on Showtime called The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. They have a daily show for Bloomberg Politics that airs on MSNBC called With All Due Respect.

It was on that show that something extraordinary happened yesterday. It was a tiny moment, one that could go unnoticed and unremarked. Talking about Donald Trump and the week he has had, Heilemann called Trump a lunatic.

One possibility is that despite the overwhelming evidence of a career marked by even-handed reporting, Heilemann has all along been a substandard journalist with a secret partisan agenda. The other possibility is that Heilemann is a great professional journalist who just finally had enough and could not avoid speaking the obvious.

In the event, hearing the word brought to mind the song I think about any time the word lunatic pops up, Pink Floyd’s Brain Damage from Dark Side of the Moon. It is the penultimate track on the album, leading into the closing Eclipse. The song is inspired in part by the tragic story of original Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett, whose genius was paired with and compromised by mental illness.

This may have absolutely nothing to do with the presidential campaign and election. Then again…

The lunatic is on the grass
The lunatic is on the grass
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs
Got to keep the loonies on the path

The lunatic is in the hall
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon

The lunatic is in my head
The lunatic is in my head
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me ’til I’m sane
You lock the door
And throw away the key
There’s someone in my head but it’s not me

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon

Hunter S. Thompson and Political Journalism

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

Hunter S. Thompson developed one of the most original and irresistible voices in American journalism. He killed himself in 2005, and nowhere is his work more missed than in politics.

To sample that voice, you can and should try The Great Shark Hunt, the best single volume collection of excerpts from his many years and areas of coverage. If you just want to see what he did for and to political journalism, read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

We can only wonder what he would make of this political season and of the major party candidates for President. Wish he was here. That would be something. From his first exposure to Richard Nixon, for example, Thompson saw right through to Nixon’s dark soul. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who saw it, but he was the only journalist who would talk about it at all. Talk about it in ways that seemed borderline deranged, because faced with twisted truth, sometimes only the twisted can tell it like it is. Or as Thompson liked to say, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Thanks to him, it’s a little more common now to hear a bit more seemingly immoderate but completely justified criticism of questionable candidates. But not as much as we need and not as much as is deserved. Not as much as Thompson would have handed out.

Here is an excerpt from Thompson’s 1994 obituary for Nixon (“He Was a Crook”).   Note his criticism of the failures of “Objective Journalism” when journalists are faced with the extraordinary.

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Bruce Wayne Is Batman, Donald Trump Is John Miller/John Barron

Bruce Wayne - Batman

Millionaire Bruce Wayne never wanted it to be known that he was the crime fighter Batman because he didn’t want those close to him to be in danger.

Millionaire Donald Trump never wanted it to be known that he was publicist/executive John Miller/John Barron because…

This analysis leads to one conclusion. That Donald Trump actually wanted to be, or at least considered being, Batman. But Trump is no fool. He realized that calling up journalists and saying he was Batman, or John Batman, might not sound authentic—even if he knew intimate details of Trump’s life and loves. Which is how he ended up telling them he was John Miller or John Barron. So prosaic, so low energy, so small-handed.

But life is long. We may yet hear tapes of “John Batman” calling up reporters with the latest scoop on what Donald Trump is up to. Let’s pray for the day.

Daily Mail

Daily Mail

Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper isn’t quite what it appears.

From the outside, it looks like a sensationalist buffet, focusing on things like showbiz and celebrity culture. Which it is. Some of its stories, such as those highlighting controversial medical cures, have been criticized by British scientists and doctors.

But it also contains excellent reporting on a range of stories in the U.S., U.K., and around the world. In a number of cases, you will find better and more insightful reporting of the current campaign than in many of the more respectable American papers.

Plus, if you need a break from the bleakness of the news, a small dose of the more frivolous stories can be welcome relief.

Visit the website or get the app. Enjoy.

New Hampshire Primary Aftermath: Battle of the Billionaire Front Pages

The New York Daily News and the New York Post have been tabloid newspaper rivals forever. And that battle is most deliciously seen on their front pages.

These papers are currently owned by very different billionaires: The Daily News by Mort Zuckerman (leans liberal), the Post by Rubert Murdoch (Fox News, enough said).

In the U.S., the Daily News and Post are the champions of creative, clever, crass or crude. Here is what they came up with the morning after a very momentous night in politics.

New York Daily News

NY_NYP

The NFL and Ferguson

Roger Goodell NFL

NFL player Ray Rice beat his then-fiancée/now-wife unconscious inside an elevator in Atlantic City. Police officer Darren Wilson shot dead an unarmed teenager in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Missouri.

(To Rice’s credit, he had the courtesy to drag her body out of the elevator, while the Ferguson police left Michael Brown’s body on that street for hours.)

These two incidents are so much the same and so different. They tell us things we don’t want to hear, know, or think about. They also tell us one surprisingly good thing. The establishment interests can be just as committed to privileging a black American as killing him ruthlessly, under the right circumstances. Especially if there’s big money at stake. So we learn that ignominy is race neutral at last.

Until yesterday there was no publicly available video of the beating, though it was apparently available and seen by various authorities. The only public video until then was from the outside of the elevator, merely showing Rice dragging the body, not beating it. As one journalist now explains his defense of Rice’s mere two-game NFL suspension and not being charged with a felony:

The inside-the-elevator video shows Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, provoking, brutally assaulting and then casually and callously standing over his knocked-out fiancée (who is now his wife). His actions are sickening in their depravity and confirm a worst-case-scenario narrative I was reluctant to believe after seeing only the previously released, outside-the-elevator video.

I thought the full video would explain why: Why police originally charged Ray and Janay with simple assault. Why the prosecutor allowed Ray to enter a diversion program. Why Janay apologized for her role. Why Janay chose to marry Ray. Why the Ravens enthusiastically supported Rice and used their facilities in helping him rehabilitate his image. Why Goodell suspended Rice for only two games.

I wrongly and naively thought that she was the aggressor in the attack, that Rice reflexively shoved her to fend her off and she slipped, fell and hit her head [emphasis added]. I did not think a man could sucker-punch a woman on tape and have the police, a prosecutor, the victim and the image-conscious NFL all work to treat the assaulter in a sympathetic fashion.

Fell and hit her head. That reminds us of nothing so much as the stories reported by battered children (and wives and girlfriends) who “run into doors.” Except this is a journalist using his best investigative and inferential skills to draw an “obvious” circumstantial conclusion. He could be forgiven for drawing the same ridiculous conclusion as law enforcement, the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens. Except that some or all of them had the inside the elevator video or at least more detail, and still came to the same conclusion, at least publicly.

There is no video of exactly what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, though there are witnesses to pieces of it, an audio recording, and more than one autopsy. There the instinct on the part of vested interests and the establishment was to wait and see, but really to stonewall, cover up, and put the best light on the situation. That turned out to be a disastrous approach, but at least it got people talking about former unmentionables. Small consolation.

How is this any different than what is going on with Ray Rice? The vested interests tried to put the best light on his situation, and despite outrage, almost got away with it. How are the people who up until yesterday circled the wagons around Ray Rice, giving him the benefit of the doubt and a slap on the wrist, any different than those who have been circling the wagons around Darren Wilson, giving him the benefit of the doubt?

One difference is that Ferguson is a small predominantly black town with a small almost entirely white police force that appears to have some race issues, while the NFL is a huge enterprise predominantly owned and run by white people with a pro game substantially played by black men that appears to have some race issues. It’s those issues, along with other social, legal and moral ones, that have us all talking. About policing. About the NFL. About race.

The victims were both black, one a kid possibly involved in petty crime (there’s a video of that), the other a woman engaged to a professional warrior who could have easily killed her, rather than just beating her senseless after she “provoked” him (there’s now video of that).

Maybe from the first, Ray Rice should have taken the approach that will certainly be at the center of Darren Wilson’s defense, assuming he is charged: I was in fear for my life. Up until yesterday, lots of people would apparently have been willing to accept a story like that, if it served their interests. Thankfully, they now all have to stop pretending, and we can start asking what it all means.

The Economist on Israel: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Economist - Israel and Gaza

If you read the biblical chronicles instead of the newspapers, you know that the Jewish homelands have lived forever from crisis to crisis. In the history of modern Israel, none of that has changed.

When you live in constant crisis, the historical topography can be indistinct—it can be hard to tell which one is bigger than another. But in Israel’s history, Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967 are epochal. The current Israel-Gaza conflict is still ongoing, but the current crisis of 2014 may join that cohort.

Among the thousands of pieces and millions of words generated over the past few weeks, the new cover story from The Economist, Winning the battle, losing the war is one of best and most even-handed evaluations published about the aftermath of all this.

“Even-handed” and “fair-minded” are hard to find in such a brutal and polarized controversy, and some would say they don’t exist at all. The Economist, for those who don’t know, is one of the most astute and level-headed journals of public affairs in the world. This piece, like others about contested matters, is not without embedded value judgments or opinions. It is just a sharp, worthwhile, and informed point of view that should be heard—even if it is shouted down as somehow biased and mistaken:

For all the blood and misery in Gaza, Mr Netanyahu will soon have a chance to show he has heard the critics. Having won his battle, he could return to the negotiating table, this time with a genuine offer of peace. Every true friend of Israel should press him to do so.