Moral Relativism in the Middle East and its Consequences

October 16, 2015
Outrage has followed Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that “massive settlement building” in the West Bank has occasioned a deep sense of frustration among Palestinians and has lead (or contributed) to the outbreak of violence in Israel. Similarly, John Kirby, spokesman for the Department of State, remarked yesterday that the Israeli response to some of the instances of lone terror attacks has been “excessive”. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and even the Wall Street Journal have all run headlines in the past few days suggesting that it is Palestinian teens who have been the victims of attacks rather than its obvious perpetrators.
Contemptible John Kerry blames Israel for his own mess | New York Post
Maybe outrage is appropriate but no one should be surprised. This is par for the course for this Administration and it is common for the media – even the Wall Street Journal, (whose reportage seems to inhabit a different moral plane than its editorial page), to promote an idea of moral equivalence. We should register that this is the new moral universe we inhabit – where right is wrong, where premeditated murder transforms into evidence of mere frustration and gangsters are accorded the status of freedom fighters.
John Kerry and the State Department should be seen as modern day appeasers who, like their more famous forbears in the 1930s, saw good and evil in relative terms and became the apologists of those who would one day vow to destroy them.
He now has the Israelis scratching their heads about his confusion of the difference between the perpetration of terror  and its deterrence and defense. They see that this moral relativism is now nothing more than a diplomatic reflex of the Obama Administration when it comes to dealing with the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Of course there has been no “massive settlement building” in Judea and Samaria – a fact Kerry knows quite well.  In fact, as a result of the 10 month moratorium on building in the settlements  imposed upon Israel by the Obama Administration in 2010, building anything new in the settlements since that times has become increasingly difficult.  The Israeli population of the West Bank has remained largely static over the past 5 years at around 360,000.  The only growth in settlements has been the growth of illegal Arab settlements, financed by the European Union.
Kerry, of course, maintains the fiction that both sides are to blame since he still wishes to be seen as the honest broker who can bring the two sides together for a peace deal.  But he should recognize by now that Mahmoud Abbas is NEVER coming back to the table.  In his last years, Abbas much like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, wants to leave his mark on the history of his people, not as a peace maker but as a warrior. And why wouldn’t he?  He will earn much higher marks as an Arab leader if he leaves a trail of blood behind him, rather than a deal with the accursed Jews.
President after President and Secretary of State after Secretary of State, have repeatedly made exactly the same mistake.  The Arab world does not repay moral relativism with concessions and openness to peace.  It sees it rather as weakness and an opportunity for manipulation.
A strong statement from the Administration, threatening to block funding for the Palestinian Authority or impose sanctions in the U.N. would send a far more effective message and it is one that the Palestinian leaders would respect.  But failure to do so will only result in emboldening the resort to terror and suggesting to men like Mahmoud Abbas that he can actually achieve something from continuing incitement.
Avi Davis is  the President of  the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of the Intermediate Zone

Brian Williams’ Credibility Deficit

February 8, 2015

by Avi Davis

It has been some time since a famous news anchor actually became the subject of a sensational news story himself.  So it was with some interest that I read the revelations that Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC News Tonight and one of the leading news personalities in the country, may have concocted or significantly embellished his own status as the survivor of an RPG attack on a helicopter on which he was being transported  during the early stages of the Iraq War.  From the political left to political right the condemnatory commentaries are now pouring in and the media is roiling with indignation.   The soft spoken anchor whose calm demeanor and subtle balance once cast him as a deeply trusted voice, is now being targeted in a manner that most of us would have considered highly unlikely even a week ago.

Now that Williams has taken a leave of absence and has apologized, with a rather shaky explanation which itself is the subject of skeptical analysis, it is occasion for us to look at why this urbane and abundantly successful journalist, who had reached the pinnacle of his career would have needed to embellish or fabricate anything?  Was he not assured of an enticingly remunerative position as NBC’s  star journalist for the rest of his working life – much like Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite before him?  Perhaps if he just kept his emotional distance from stories and continued to present the news in his equivocal, relaxed manner, everything would have been fine, right ?

The answer has as much to do with the nature and development of journalism over the past 50 years as  it does with Williams’ personal foibles.   The change in reporting ushered in with the advent of the New Journalism movement, wherein such writers as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese and Joan Didion used fictional techniques to render highly stylized reportage changed the face and tenor of reporting.   Often these 60s wunderkinds would place themselves into the story so that readers could see developments through their focused perspective.

Journalism thus grew far more personal in the modern age and the journalist, far from being a mere cipher for facts reported, became a personality whose opinion mattered.  War reporting, a dangerous avocation at the best of times, became a special province of the adventurer/ reporter typified by such leading characters as the Australian Peter Arnett, the Vietnam era reporter Michael Herr and the 1990s Bosnian correspondent Peter Maas.  As the  concept of the embedded reporter gained currency so did the idea of the reporter as celebrity so that today such figures as Anderson Cooper, Geraldo Rivera and Richard Quest have become larger than life characters with huge followings and  whose personalities often overshadow the stories upon which they are reporting.

The problem with the shift in focus to the reporter himself was that reporters began to grow an overdeveloped sense of their own importance, seeing themselves not just as the necessary chroniclers of the story but as essential to its telling, as if the facts could not really have an independent existence outside of their involvement.

It is little wonder then that  Williams, not yet anointed the successor to Tom Brokaw, looked to the Iraq War for his own baptism of fire, something which might bring him within striking distance of his derring-do predecessors. Inventing a story which had him deeply involved in the ground action in Iraq was a way for him to pay his dues without having to undertake the risks of injury or possibly death in the field.

Brian Williams isn’t the first and won’t be the last of our reporters to lay claim to heroics he never performed .  Should he then resign or be forced from his job?  There answer is at best equivocal.  After all, he did commit the cardinal journalistic sin of fabricating  a story and refurbishing fact – although this perhaps pales when compared to the fictions his fellow journalistic transgressors have concocted without suffering any consequences whatsoever. So on this ground alone there might well be room for his contrition and rehabilitation.

Williams’ far graver sin is the liberal bias he allows to color his reporting and commentary which, given across in his appealing non-partisan manner, can be entirely deceiving.   It is this skewed perspective, more than any one thing, which has driven viewers from the older, more established networks and in to the arms of such conservative upstarts as Fox and One America. Sickened by their pomposity and sense of entitlement, viewers have also fled traditional news services altogether for the more instant news offerings which can be obtained on the Internet via Facebook or Twitter.

The media has generally proven itself to be unforgiving when one of its own reveals the inner chauvinism and machismo which undergirds their profession and it has already turned on Williams, much like the flock of blackbirds did to a bird painted by its human captor in Jerzy Kosinki’s 1964 novel The Painted Bird.  If he does fall his ruin may well be offered as a sacrifice by the media of one of its own as penance for its overall sins of hubris.  But this may ultimately be the wrong sacrifice at the wrong time and for the wrong reason.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of the The Intermediate Zone

Ben Bradlee and the Slow Death of American Journalism

November 20, 2014

When Ben Bradlee, the cosmopolitan former editor of the Washington Post died on  October 21st, the world of American journalism mourned the loss of  one of its greatest icons.  Bradlee, after all, was almost single handedly responsible for the abrupt shift in the role of the print media in the early 1970s from an institution which sought  to gather, present and analyze the news to one that became fixated on the pursuit of justice. For many the high water mark of his long and storied career came when Richard Nixon boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn on the morning of August 9, 1974 and slashed his arm through the air in a final wave of farewell to his staff.  Bradlee knew that his paper’s unrelenting commitment to  the investigation of the Watergate break in and cover up had been  the key factor in leading to the events of that day.   The abuse of power had been confronted and justice served.

But a review of that period might reveal much darker motives which impelled Watergate reportage and the subsequent Congressional investigation.  The overwhelming defeat of  Democrat George McGovern’s 1972 for the presidency had not sat well with the Beltway media. In McGovern, many had felt they had found the antidote to the United States’ rightward drift as the first Nixon Administration had not only maintained but escalated the war in Indo-China and had allowed many of the progressive Johnson reforms to be undermined.  The Nixon White House endured four years of stinging coverage from Washington reporters, commentators and news editors and was very much at war with them.  But the trouncing of McGovern, one of the greatest electoral landslides in American history, was a rebuke to the media who had lavished such untoward attention on a candidate whose far left views and policies had  proved decisively out of  touch with the American public.

But that was not the only impetus for the persistent desire to ” get” Nixon.  How many know, for instance, that Bradlee himself harbored a deep resentment of the Nixon White House for purportedly preventing the Post from receiving a range of broadcast licenses it had applied for in the late 1960s?   And  we can’t forget the closeness of Bradlee and his then wife Toni to John F.Kennedy and his wife Jackie, who were their Georgetown neighbors during Kennedy’s Senate years.  Bradlee shared Kennedy’s abiding contempt for Richard Nixon, an attitude made clear in his own  book Conversations With Kennedy.  Bradlee had come to see Kennedy’s immediate successors Johnson and Nixon as impostors who had stolen the mantle of American leadership and committed himself to restoring the crown to its rightful owners.

Hatred for Nixon and his Administration was so dominant that the Post, New York Times, Time and other major newspapers and magazines zeroed in on the indiscretions and sleight of hand of the new Administration, focusing intently on behavior they had entirely overlooked in previous administrations.   After all,  FDR had created his own ‘ Intelligence Unit’, responsible only to himself, with a staff of eleven financed by state department special emergency funds.  Prefiguring another Democratic president 80 years later, he was not above using the FBI and the IRS to harass his political enemies.  Lyndon Johnson had few qualms using executive power to target his adversaries  and the Kennedys’ use of dirty tricks was legion.  Robert Kennedy was in fact one of the most underhand and vicious Attorney Generals in U.S. history, employing his agents to carry out dawn raids on the homes of U.S steel executives and the IRS to question their financial integrity.  His own and his brother’s womanizing,  which included virtual orgies in the White House and allowing a bevy of women access to the President without the slightest background checks, was well known within the Washington Press Corp ( some of whom apparently participated in the romps) but nothing was said.  And Bobby Kennedy’s almost certain involvement in the death of Marilyn Monroe, a service carried out to protect both himself and his brother, went unmentioned by anyone in the Press at the time despite considerable circumstantial evidence that could have implicated him.

The Watergate break-in, the petty, almost laughable bungled burglaries in May and June, 1972, conducted by men associated with the White House, if not directly controlled by Nixon himself,  was dismissed by most at the time as a random urban crime.  But the Post, smelling a rat, took on the case with gusto, running the story on its front page 79 times in the next two years  and in the final month of the 1972 election season ramping  up its coverage with a series of investigative reports by the now famous team of Woodward and Bernstein. Once the Courts and Congress got involved and matters devolved to the point of a potential impeachment of the President in 1974, the media, led by the Washington Post, had a field day and became the cheerleader in the saga’s denouement.

That the same attitude and standards had never been applied to Nixon’s Democratic predecessors seemed to worry no one. By the time of his ouster Richard Nixon had been so demonized as a latter day Richard III that nothing could save him.  The media, more than the courts and more than Congress itself , had ground him up into pulp.  And on top of the ash heap which had once been his Administration stood a glowing Ben Bradlee, certain of the righteousness of his actions and sure that it would restore a Democratic president to power.

Many who have reviewed the events of that time have lauded it as an example of the strength of American democracy and the ability of the system to cauterize a tumor when it recognizes its malignant spread.  But that is not the way others abroad have viewed it.   The English author Paul Johnson, writing in his majesterial A History of the American People has called it an act of startling political immaturity, as close to a witch hunt as the 20th century would ever produce.   Others in Europe were dazzled by the spectacle of American self-flagellation, as if  the country had fallen into collective  penance for the wrongs committed in Vietnam.

Of course it went further than it should have ever gone and the entire process did incalcuable harm to the office of the Presidency and the trust in both an unbiased media and a responsible judiciary.  Nixon had to carry much of the blame himself  for the fiasco which ensued and the many poor decisions he made as his enemies closed in on him. But the punishment never matched the offense and  if presidents can be routinely dismissed for dissembling  and cover ups  then neither Woodrow Wilson,  FDR , Lyndon Johnson , Bill Clinton or Barack Obama should ever have completed their terms of office.

But more egregious than this was the course upon which the media, encouraged by its victories in the Watergate scandal,  now set its compass.  With its reporters lionized as the new Knights of the Realm, the Washington Post reached the zenith of its power as a journal of reportial integrity and became the flagship for media authenticity. Nothing was said about the sheer malice and hubris which had driven the campaign to unseat a sitting President.  No explanation was given about how  there had become established one set of standards for Democrats and another for Republicans.   From the mid-70s onward, the news sections of the print media – and soon to be followed by television and radio – would no longer see themselves as mere purveyors of the unbiased presentation of the news but  as vested with a responsibility, as if from High, to filter the news through their own particular prism of right and wrong.   The search for justice, at least as liberals understand it, swiftly became more important than the conveyance of actual truth.

Which perhaps explains where we are today.  What conservative, reading the news in our present day, cannot help feel the deepest loathing at  the media’s refusal to doggedly investigate the multitude of scandals swirling around the Obama Administration?  Where today, after all, are our contemporary Woodwards and Bernsteins, scraping through the garbage cans of our federal officials searching for leads on such notorious scandals as the Benghazi attack, Fast and Furious campaign and  the IRS scandal?   If such reporters exist, then they must necessarily  suffer ostracism like the award winning investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, hunted and spied upon by the government and sidelined, on spurious grounds, by the very news organization which employed her.  We should never forget that no American died as a result of Watergate and its subsequent cover up.  But when Americans do die because of Government action or inaction, when our own ambassador is abandoned and subsequently murdered and the government then seeks to cover up its willful negligence in allowing it happen, is it not right that we should expect howls of outrage from our media barons and their unfettered determination  to expose the truth?

Unfortunately those who expect such an outcome are living in a different century.  For in the 21st century, truth is hardly relevant to any story.  What matters today is how the story conforms to or supports a particular narrative and how much attention it can attract from advertisers.  To understand this tragic development we need to follow a disreputable trail that leads back to Ben Bradlee and 1970s Washington.  But to understand how the media operates today, we probably need  to borrow the observations of White House counsel John Dean – “we have a cancer within the media, that’s growing daily….. it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself.”

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles and the coordinator of the March AFA  international conference Shocking Truths: The Repression of Free Speech in the Western Media. 



The NPR Meltdown

March 11, 2011

The astonishing revelations that an important NPR fundraiser regards part of his network’s own listening audience with contempt shouldn’t come as a surprise to any conservative.   For decades the suspicion that the most popular public broadcasting network in the country is illiberally partisan and insensitive to conservative viewpoints has been a source of great frustration and resentment among those who believe that a tax payer funded radio network should be open to views from all quarters of the political spectrum.

But the sting that netted former NPR fundraiser Nicholas Schiller revealed far more than bias.  It  lifted a rock on a curdling hatred and seething paranoia which added together amounts to open bigotry.  And all from the mouth of an institution which regularly decries it.

Here are some of his verbatim comments:

The Tea Party is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian — I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move.”

Tea Party people” aren’t “just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it’s scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

I think what we all believe is if we don’t have Muslim voices in our schools, on the air … it’s the same thing we faced as a nation when we didn’t have female voices.”

In the heavily edited tape, that last comment followed Schiller being told by one of the men that their organization “was originally founded by a few members of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.”  There’s no sign in the edited tape that Schiller reacted in any way after being told of the group’s alleged connection to an Islamic group that appeared to be connected with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Schiller is also caught laughing at a joke made by one of the men who suggests that NPR should be renamed ‘National Palestinian Radio.’

Rarely are the inner workings and thinking of an institution given such flagrant and obvious exposure.

There is little way the officers and staff of NPR can avoid being tarred with the same brush as Schiller by ascribing his comments to their errant fundraiser alone.   After all, Schiller was the leading NPR fundraiser in the country for nearly a decade.    And while it is true that fundraisers will say and do anything to close a pledge,  no one should forget that Schiller was representing a public facility with a huge national audience  and therefore bore a responsibility to be both cautious and circumspect in the expression of his own views.

Even more troubling is the revelation that radio networks like NPR, just like our universities, can be bought for the right amount of money and that the representatives of these organizations are as craven and money driven as the institutions they regularly pillory.

Of course no one  in the liberal sphere calls this bigotry since in these circles it is the prevailing belief  that only conservatives can be bigots.   But lets forget even bigotry.   Schiller’s comments reveal not just hatred and intolerance  – but a corruption that is as pervasive as it is soul deep.

NPR may now well dump its CEO and its officers.  It may dispense with its entire Board.  But nothing will save its reputation if  the partisanship for which it has become notorious is not immediately repudiated and its internal rules for fair and balanced reporting rewritten and then rigorously enforced.

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Goodbye Arnold

January 3, 2011

Today Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office as governor of perhaps the worst performing state economy in this country.  It is indeed a deep irony that the movie star who came to take control of California’s fortunes after a recall of  his (by comparison) surprisingly competent predecessor Gray Davis, has left this state in a far worse condition than in which he found it:  A ballooning state debt , now slated to reach $25 billion by 2014; a gridlocked legislature;  an unrepentant and emboldened union culture;  environmental policies totally out of control and a bureaucracy that has swelled beyond reasonable imagination over the past seven years.

Schwarzenegger was the first governor since the Great Depression to issue IOUs to state employees and vendors after he was confronted with a $90 billion shortfall in 2009.  He raised taxes ( violating a campaign promise) and curtailed spending on education.  In my own neighborhood,  public libraries were forced to substantially reduce  hours of operation;  the District Court would not stay open longer than 4: 30 pm because the supervisors feared having to pay overtime and the Department of Motor Vehicles slashed an entire work day from their branches’ operating schedules.

But you would barely know that Schwarzenegger retires as a failed governor. In most accounts of his stewardship, he is still the action hero who strode into office with great promise but was unfortunately dealt a bad deck of cards.   The press seems loathe to truly take him to task for his maladroit performance and his abject failure of leadership.   Pat Morrison’s fawning interview in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times is a good example.  Rarely does Morrison,one of the paper’s leading columnists, go much beyond the giddy fan worship you would expect to find the paper’s Calendar section.  No question about the Golden State’s embarrassing economic slide;  no discussion about the State’s likely bankruptcy and nothing about the way in which government unions increasingly gained influence and  control over state policy.

The failure of many media commentators and editorialists to savage Schwarzenegger for his limp performance is perhaps a symptom of a society that lives  in thrall to celebrity. There is no doubt  Schwarzenegger is a consummately charming man, possessed of  a wicked sense of humor and a certain measure of self deprecation, which have all served him well in dealing with a combative public.  But the convincing explanation of the press’ hero worship is that Schwarzenegger actually swapped parties while still in office.   His volte face in  October, 2005 after he was defeated on all eight special  election initiatives he had proposed for dealing with some of California’s endemic economic problems, transformed  him from a moderate Republican into a progressive Democrat who was prepared to embrace a host of  hot button liberal agenda issues such as  gay marriage,  fixed emission controls for California industry and increased taxation.

This transformation left us with the odor of a man of few fixed convictions or principles and who was open to changing them as the political winds dictated.  In the end Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seven year term of office differed little from his movie career.  In both cases he regularly adopted differing personas to suit the script.  The difference is that playing The Terminator never had dire implications for the future of California.  Sadly, we are now reminded of how fantasy figures bear little resemblance to real life characters, who may turn out to  have no good ideas about  how to deal with the harsh realities of  governing a fractious state.

Why TIME Magazine Doesn’t Care About Objectivity

September 12, 2010

Could there be a more provocative cover story for a major U.S. magazine?

Time Magazine Cover

The cover of this week’s TIME, set in a blue background and emblazoned  with the image of a Star of David constructed of daisies, blares the vitriolic question ” Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.”

The cover story, by Karl Vick on page 36, is titled The Good Life and Its Dangers and proceeds to report on the seeming indifference of Israelis to the prospect of peace.  By interviewing a handful of  Israeli real estate developers, entrepreneurs and academics, Vick comes to the conclusion that Israelis have become so obsessed with material progress and economic success that they have little time left over to focus on the prospects of peace.

“In the week that three Presidents, a King and their own Prime Minister gather at the White House to begin a fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the truth is, Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter. They’re otherwise engaged; they’re making money; they’re enjoying the rays of late summer.  A watching world may still define their country by the blood feud with the Arabs whose families used to live on this land and whether that conflict can be negotiated away, but Israelis say they have moved on.”

The four page article/argument  is such a hatchet job in gathering evidence to buttress a foregone conclusion ( otherwise known in logic as petitio principii or begging the question)  that any high school student could see through it.

First, is the cover story tagline, which actually has little do with the content of the article.   Why don’t Israelis care about peace?  According to Vick’s piece itself, Israelis certainly do care about peace, but don’t have much faith in the peace process.   That is a very  important distinction.  Peace as a goal, is surely never beyond anyone’s mind in Israel.  How could it be, when every family knows a friend or a relative who was maimed or killed in one of the country’s eight wars.  Which mother  – religious, secular, Jewish, Druze or Bedouin wishes to see their son placed in harm’s way in an unending conflict?  But after 17 years of  failed promises and an adversary who refuses to take even minimal steps toward peace in recognizing their country’s right to exist, why would any citizen of Israel not be cynical about Palestinian intentions?

To present any idea that Israelis don’t care about peace, is simply fatuous.

Second, the author himself  fails to give his story much historical context, neglecting to measure the true shock and anger Israelis experienced time and time again over the past 17 years as territorial concessions were met with Palestinian violence. He quickly glosses over  Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in July, 2000 to Yasser Arafat of 97% of the West Bank and Gaza – and even the division of Jerusalem – an offer met two months later by a fusillade of bullets in the second Intifada.   One thousand Israelis dead and 4,000 maimed ( many disabled for life)  later, it provided convincing grounds for most Israelis to believe that the Palestinian leadership was preternaturally disposed to a violent resolution of the conflict and not a viable peace.  The IDF  retreat from the Israeli security zone in Lebanon in May, 2000 and an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August, 2005 – huge concessions by Israeli standards, left vacuums which were soon filled by violent Islamic thugs who proceeded to rain down rockets on Israeli southern and northern towns.

Who would blame any Israeli for  believing that peace negotiations and concessions are just the precursors to a new round of violence?

Third, Vick just get some things just plain wrong.  He quotes leftist political scientist Tamar Hermann who claims that Israelis are watching  less and less news :

” They read the political sections of newspapers less.  They say, it spoils my day, so I don’t want to see it.”

Really?   Anyone who has been to Israel and traveled on public transportation or even  in any taxi, knows that Israelis are news obsessed.  It is built into the culture and fundamental to the security of a nation ever on the alert for a terrorist strike ( or “pigua” as it is more colloquially known).  The realities of life are simply glossed over in a fanciful acceptance of one academic’s point of view.

The greatest problem with the entire piece however, is the way it supports an antisemitic stereotype without daring to acknowledge it.  The ultimate images of profligacy and dissipation that remain-  ‘oh those rich Jews, sunning themselves on their beaches  and counting their shekels while the Palestinians waste away in abject poverty’  could have been taken directly from the pages of Der Sturmer and drives home the notion that this country of Jews may be no more than an actualized collection of Fagins drawn from English literature.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that this is the same magazine , who when introducing the newly elected prime minister Menachem Begin in 1977, transliterated his name as ” Bay -gin  – rhymes with Fagin.”

One has to wonder whether the magazine would ever commission a parallel cover story about internal Palestinian life?  Would it  have the nerve to expose the seething Jew hatred in the Palestinian media and in its education system or the manifest hypocrisy of leaders such as Saeeb Erekat who bray about peace but do all they can to prevent actual negotiations?

Probably not.  To portray the Palestinians as anything other than victims and underdogs would be to upset a fundamental value of liberal magazines such as TIME – strong equals wrong; weak equals right.  Far easier, it would seem, to render a portrait in keeping with accepted dogmas and age- old stereotypes.

Maybe this is, after all, what  sells papers.

The Passing of Paul Conrad

September 6, 2010

Encomiums have poured in from around the world today for the celebrated former Los Angeles Times  cartoonist Paul Conrad.  The three time Pulitzer Prize winner, who died on Saturday at the age of 86, won renown as a political satirist, whose liberalism was worn as a badge of honor and who never shied away from confronting men and women in power.

But I can’t count myself as one of his admirers. While  Conrad, more than almost any other political cartoonist of modern times, gave the concept of the ” editorial cartoon” a certain elan, freeing it from its image as a misplaced comic, he also did considerable damage to the image of the journalist as  the objective reporter of truth.

The editorial cartoonist possesses great power.   Among us few remaining newspaper readers, with our  increasingly strained attention spans, there is a respect for the editorial cartoonist that stretches beyond his real powers of persuasion.  We readers might  scan images  such as photographs and photo-sketches to obtain our opinions on any given subject.   With one glance we believe we  can absorb the full import of an editorial position, which may well have some bearing in forming our own ideas.

But in this way, complex issues are often reduced to fairly simplistic statements, stripping the issue of a certain gravitas and balance that is achieved in good editorial writing.

The political cartoonist, who does not have many words with which to convey an opinion and is often consigned to a single panel of images,  must therefore be careful that his or her positions do not cross the line from commentary  into propaganda – a tempting option in such a  format.

Conrad rarely exercised this kind of restraint.   Inflamed by his liberal sense of injustice he railed at the big and mighty often simply because they were big and mighty.

No more was that the case when it came to the Arab- Israeli conflict.   He was unable to appreciate or understand Israel’s need for self defense and repeatedly made provocative comparisons between the IDF and Nazis.  After a particularly meaningful use of the Star of David in a cartoon depicting Soviet prisoners of conscience as the equivalent of Jewish prisoners of concentration camps ( September 24, 1972) , he rarely ever employed it again except as a symbol of hate, repression and violence.    His cartoon in the Los Angeles Times following the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982 ( where he arranged the Palestinian corpses in the shape of Star of David) was beyond the bounds of decency, considering that it was not the Israelis who had perpetrated the killings but the Christian Phalange.  As his comment on the Palestinian intifada of the late 80s , he drew a Star of David made of barbed wire and billy clubs.  He was a particularly vitriolic enemy of West Bank settlers, whom he often depicted as deranged gun-toting Messianists, bent on killing Palestinians and uprooting olive groves – an accusation which has absolutely no basis in reality.    He gave very little time to exploring the violence inherent in Arab society and the emergence of the suicide bomber as the Palestinian weapon of choice.

Years ago I heard a prominent journalist bemoan the fact the journalists no longer seem as concerned with reporting objective truth as with seeing their own idiosyncratic form of justice achieved.  This agenda  Conrad embraced with gusto. “Don’t ever accuse me,” he once said, “of being objective.”

Given this position it is hard for me to agree that Paul Conrad was one of the giants of Western journalism in the last half of the 2oth Century.  His brand of “personal journalism” actually did far more damage to the practice of his craft than good.   His greatest legacy is not a fearless approach to confronting men and women in power, as much as it is a profound cynicism which now pervades his profession and has brought  it increasingly into disrepute.

News as Entertainment

April 27, 2010

If you want an idea of how network news has completely transformed over the past ten years from the sober conveyance  of information to a place for larks and comedy, look no further than the ad that came wrapped around the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, April 22.

The ad displays all eight members of the KTLA 5 Morning News team ( four women and four men) posing with their arms outstretched and apparently singing  words  ‘Find Me A Comic.’ appear.   Here are the lines that then follow:

The KTLA 5 Morning  News, in association with the John Lovitz Comedy Club at Universal City Walk, is searching for the next great Stand- Up Comedian.  Go To KTLA .com/Comic for details.  Upload your best  two minute routine and you could be on your way to a booking in Los Angeles or Las Vegas.”

It concludes with the words  “KTLA5 Morning News –   News, Weather and OUTRAGEOUS FUN!”  (my emphasis added) .

If you think that sinks to a new level of imbecility, then you might want to flip over the news sheet.  For there you can read what looks like a page ripped from a ninth grade  year book with all eight members of the team individually profiled.  One by one they have jotted down their biographical details, in order  to give you important insight  into their sparkling personalities:

Here’s Michaela Periera:

Greatest Achievement: Not losing my mind in this town or in this business. Biggest Dislike:  Judgment and negativity; Favorite Journey: Home

Jessica Holmes goes one better:

Greatest Love: Hmmm… still waiting…on that answer; Greatest extravagance: food…I would spend a paycheck on a good meal; Greatest Fear: Being stuck in an elevator. Swarm of bees.”

And we surely are better off for gleaning this information from Sam Rubin:

“Favorite Journey:  Amalfi Coast, Italy; My Most Treasured Possession: My Kindle;  Most Marked Characteristic: Its my own hair.”

Well, its a certainly a relief Sam, to know that you have your own hair.

This sophomoric posturing wouldn’t be so offensive if KTLA5  didn’t command a sizable morning audience that relies upon its newscasters for reliable information.  According to Nielsen, the station  has the second largest market share for morning news  in Southern California and  ranks  as 12th in the nation.

There is no great revelation in declaring that the division between news and entertainment has disappeared.   Turn on almost any news program from MSNBC to Fox News and it becomes clear:  newscasters are presented as celebrities in their own right whose images are carefully groomed;  the news is tailored to capture sensation, often at the expense of veracity and proportion;  and aimless banter between newscasters is given almost as much emphasis as the news itself.

So on any given day, we  can view newscasters deliver, in mordant tones, news of the death of hundreds in an earthquake or flood, only to follow it a few minutes later with some lighthearted banter about home cooking or the hosts’ latest travel plans.

The repugnant narcissism of the whole enterprise, should make almost anyone with a sense of propriety and reverence for traditional news service to turn off their televisions and never return.   That, of course, will not  happen.  Most of us will still tune into televised news in order to be brought up to date as quickly as possible on events unfolding in our local environment.   No one can say they  regret having a television on September 11, 2001 and learning, instantly, of the events unfolding in New York City on that day.  The television is a vital source of information and communication and at one time, was regarded as a great blessing to our society and civilization.

There is almost no question that that perspective on the medium has changed and for many of us  it is difficult to turn on a news broadcast without a sense of being used or manipulated.

Perhaps then, in the light of KTLA’s  search for new comedic talent, it  might pay us then to be aware that those providing us with the information we often need to make daily choices or decisions in our lives, are nothing more than paid actors, enjoying their celebrity at our expense and all in the name of outrageous fun.


October 29, 2009

By Avi Davis and Christian Whiton

Taken at face value, the decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to honor the American president with its Peace Prize would be a cause for celebration in the U.S.  But the circumstances surrounding this decision call into question not only the choice to honor President Obama, but whether the Nobel Committee is able to discern real achievements of peace from illusory ones.

In announcing its decision, the Committee noted the President’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”  Furthermore, it said the Committee “has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

What exactly are these “extraordinary efforts”?  While the announcement does not go into detail, one presumes the Nobel Committee is cheering the Obama Administration’s offer to conduct direct negotiations with Iran, its ‘reset’ of relations with Russia, and the President’s tendency to note the purported flaws of the country he represents.  Has any of this led to actual accomplishments and  has it really contributed to a material expansion of peace?

Even the President’s political supporters would probably concede it is too early to judge the outcome of these policies.  This is true today and it certainly was true when Mr. Obama was nominated, which likely had to take place by the Committee’s deadline of February 1, 2009.  On that day, the President had been in office for all of twelve days.  That is a rather amazing fortnight’s work, considering some earlier recipients of the prize, such as Lech Walesa, toiled for years and risked everything they possessed—including their lives and freedom—before being recognized.

The reality is that the President’s policies have made long-term peace in the world less likely.  Prolonged international negotiations with Iran, which started not with Mr. Obama but in fact have gone on throughout the decade, have actually given the Tehran regime time to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities while wars are fought through proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Similarly, the rhetorical and real concessions the Obama Administration has made to Moscow have yet to yield anything tangible in return other than modest verbal praise.  The price paid for this volte face recently rose with the betrayal of two friendly governments—those of Poland and the Czech Republic – countries that had made the unpopular decision to host missile defense facilities at America’s earlier request.  They must now be content with an expanded future missile threat from Iran, and also an emboldened Russian neighbor.  It can’t be too far from the thoughts of  the Polish and Czech leadership that just last year Russia  invaded a country it borders.  Skeptics are right to wonder how any of this contributes to long-term peace and security.

Perhaps the Nobel Committee’s most unjustified claim is that because of President Obama, “[d]emocracy and human rights are to be strengthened.”  This is not even a claim typically made by the President’s most ardent supporters.  Indeed, the unapologetic promotion of human rights and democracy that has had a place in a long succession of U.S. administrations has been disavowed by the Obama Administration. Secretary of State Clinton spelled out the rationale for this in her inaugural trip to China in February: “Our pressing on [human rights] issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”  Just this week the President refused to see the Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington, the first time in eighteen years the renowned human rights advocate has not been received by a president.  The President also refused to support pro-democracy protesters in Iran after the June elections there.  Whether one advocates or opposes these policies, it is hard to believe that one can strengthen human rights and democracy while ignoring those actually fighting for them.

What then was the Nobel Committee’s criteria, if not quantifiable achievements for peace?  Unfortunately, a look at more recent Nobel Prize recipients shows a bias toward trendy political causes and icons. 

In 2001, the award was split between the United Nations and its then-kingpin, Kofi Annan.  This was at a time when the UN was facilitating the largest instance of corruption in human history in the form of the Oil-for-Food Program, which also funneled billions of dollars to the Middle East’s most brutal and corrupt regime.  Meanwhile, the UN was continuing its traditional role of providing a prominent platform for corrupt dictators from around the world.  Did that help peace?

In 2002 it was awarded to Jimmy Carter, for  “persevering in conflict resolution on several continents, and  “ outstanding commitment to human rights.” They forgot to mention his apparently tireless coddling of dictators, tyrants and terrorists, his record of mocking the foreign policy of his own government and his avowed animus to the State of Israel.

In 2007, the awardees were Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  As a private organization, it is the Nobel Institute’s prerogative to expand its view of threats to peace to a definition broader than traditional war.  But in the year Gore won the prize, more than 800,000 people died of malaria.  How many people died of climate change?  But you can guess which issue was the zeitgeist that year.

Any true gauge of the reasons for this Award must necessarily produce some very disturbing truths:  The Norwegian parliamentarians awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama because they feel he is one of them.  His unwillingness to prosecute a vigorous American foreign policy; his apparent absence of belief in American exceptionalism and his penchant for apologizing for American actions abroad, all seem very much in keeping with a Euro-centric view of the world.  For this crowd he is the ultimate un-George Bush, less jingoistic, more calm in temperament and much more likely to act in the pacific, multicultural and appeasement vein they so appreciate.

So just as the prize went to Carter seven years ago as a “kick in the leg” to the Bush Administration and the award went to Gore in 2007 as a spur to reject the supposedly anti-environment policies of  that same gang, the Obama Award is designed as an attempt to enshrine the politics of “internationalization.”  It is aimed at isolating Obama and his Administration from the main thrust of American foreign and domestic policies since the Second World War – which has been to provide the world with vigorous leadership in the promotion of democracy, liberty and free enterprise.

Many have argued that the Award’s prestige will burnish America’s international standing and build support for American intervention in other areas of conflict in the world.  But the reverse is actually the case. Constrained by his new image as a peace maker, Barack Obama will inevitably  struggle to meet the demands of upholding America’s international standards and leadership in regions of intense conflict such as Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq and in confronting the rising menace of a nuclear Iran.  It will necessarily befuddle any attempts of his Administration to reform the United Nations and will diminish respect for America’s military clout.

It is welcome that the Nobel Committee has honored the U.S. by giving an award to its president.  Unfortunately, every indication is that it did so for the wrong reasons.  As with other once-respected institutions of Western Europe, the Nobel Committee has moved from rewarding merit and advancing classical liberalism to celebrating fashionable trends and rewarding whichever icon of the left is most active in promoting them.

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