A Newsletter With An Eye On Political Media from The American Prospect
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Before ‘Fixing’ Election Results, There Was ‘Fixing’ Census Results
But only now is a fuller picture emerging
That Donald Trump sat atop a criminal organization before becoming president was always obvious to anyone who cared to look. This fact was not missed by the people he appointed to top jobs in his administration who took Trump’s contempt for law, decency, and accountability as a license to behave similarly. The Trump administration, like the Trump Organization, was a fish that rotted from the head down.

Take, for instance, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. We now learn, rather late to do anything about it, of “‘unprecedented’ meddling by the Trump administration in the 2020 census” as its members sought “to manipulate the count for Republican political gain.” This was par for the course and easily predictable from the earliest moments of the Trump presidency. In Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse, I noted just some of the Trump Cabinet members who submitted false filings for their confirmation hearings. Among them: “Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross also lied to Congress, promising to divest from almost all his holdings as a condition of taking his job. He held onto his interest in myriad companies, including one co-owned by the Chinese government, and another closely tied to members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. In an extremely unusual move, the Office of Government Ethics refused to certify Ross’s financial disclosure because, the office said, it could not be trusted.”

Tom Edsall quotes the Brookings political scientist Thomas Mann, explaining, “Trump has transformed the Republican Party so that membership now precludes having ‘a moral sense: honesty, empathy, respect for one’s colleagues, wisdom, institutional loyalty, a willingness to put country ahead of party on existential matters, an openness to changing conditions.’” Alas, given the lack of outrage that Trump and the Republicans’ march to fascism has inspired, one can easily say that that same lack of outrage characterizes a significant percentage of journalists as well.

For a fine, big-picture look at the failures of the mainstream media to hold our political system remotely accountable, here is (for me, a self-interested) but thoughtful and thorough analysis of what has and continues to go wrong.

Washington Post pundits have done a good job recently of prodding the mainstream media to stop treating “both sides” as somehow equivalent and wake up to the danger the contemporary Republican Party poses to the future of American democracy. Here, for instance are Margaret Sullivan, Perry Bacon, Dana Milbank, Jennifer Rubin, Greg Sargent, and Paul Waldman. But, yo, Posties, your newspaper has a big problem and, sad to say, it’s coming from inside the house!

In this Post profile of Fox host Greg Gutfeld, for instance, we learn that: “He considers himself the scamp in a still buttoned-up bastion of scolding conservatism—the disruptive court jester, the fool” of America’s “dominant news network’s success,” as well as “a scorching critic of America’s racial reckoning.” Gutfeld’s “fidgety, high-energy combination of comic jabs, spliced with just enough analysis to be taken seriously by the faithful, makes him a uniquely potent foe for the left,” especially as he “spins out each weeknight like a whirligig of agreement and affirmation.” Gutfeld says he has “‘a lot more in common with liberals in terms of creativity, music and all that stuff’” and is “a punk-rock and metal fan who was delighted that he got splashed with blood not long ago at a performance by the heavy-metal monster band GWAR.”

This is all obvious nonsense, of course—an attempt by the Post to suck up to the Murdoch/Trump universe by ignoring the obvious truths about a Fox host and his network, which is trying to undermine our democracy even as it helps to kill untold numbers of people with its lies about the coronavirus. In these matters and other such lies, Gutfeld is all in.

Relatedly, Eric Boehlert asks a good, albeit ultimately unanswerable, question: “How many people has Murdoch killed during the pandemic?” A good follow-up might ask how it is that we continue to treat both Murdoch and his minions as part of the “news” media. Fox is not a “news network.” News networks do not behave like this.

In this Axios article about conservative cancel culture entitled “Book Bans Are Back in Style,” the author writes, “Some progressive activists have sought to pull literary staples from school syllabi under the argument that in today’s context they perpetuate racist or sexist constructs.” Yet no such examples are provided and no links, either. Literally every example is an example of right-wing censorship. The subhed above the part of the article that deals with alleged left-wing book banning is “Between the Lines.” A more honest one would have been “Made-Up Accusation for the Purpose of Mindless Bothsidesism.”
This Times movie review begins, Jean-Louis (Lafitte) is on a mission to find the source of his existence—or ‘the origin of the world,’ to borrow from the film’s French title, ‘L’Origine du Monde,’ an explicit reference to the painting by the 19th-century artist Gustave Courbet of the, uh, female anatomy.” But the Times link takes you to an article in The Guardian, which gives you the painting’s fascinating backstory, not the painting itself. We have no such fears here at Altercation. Here’s the painting, which hangs at the Musée d’Orsay. And here is a link to a biography of Courbet written by the late feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, my mom’s cousin.
Odds and Ends: Continuing Themes Edition

I strongly recommend the beautiful, recently published novel Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, and you probably don’t need to hear this from me, but also the just-finished HBO series Station Eleven. There’s a great deal to be said about both, but what I want to point out is that the plots of both turn on the intense influence on individuals of a single book passed from reader to reader over the centuries. It’s a lovely idea, and I suppose it’s been true in the past. Both works take place in an imagined future, and given the diminished role that books play in our culture today compared to when, say, I decided to start writing them 33 years and 12 Alterman books ago, a profoundly moving one.

Continuing with my theme of continuations unbounded by time, here is some advice: If you want to get a humor piece published in The New Yorker, I suggest you try deploying the language of Hammett/Chandler-style detective fiction where it’s otherwise unlikely to be found:

A warning: If you are lucky enough to do this sufficiently well to impress David Remnick, prepare to be to be edited thusly.

Again, relatedly, I am really enjoying Ed Sorel’s handsomely produced memoir, Profusely Illustrated. Here is Ed drawing “When Raymond Chandler Went to Work for Billy Wilder.”

I interviewed Joan Didion before a live audience back in 2001. It was a nightmare. Every answer she gave me was barely a sentence long. I ran out of questions after like ten minutes, and struggled to get through the rest of the hour. Terry Gross is apparently a lot better at this interview game than I have ever been or will be, because this recently rebroadcast set of interviews with Didion, especially the second one, are among the most extraordinary discussions I’ve ever heard.

I was (deservedly) mean about Mel Brooks’s recent memoir, but if you want to remember one of many reasons why Mel mattered in the first place, here are some deleted scenes from a work of genius, Young Frankenstein, followed by a decent documentary on same.

Here is a full set of a 1987 Dylan/Dead show that only recently showed up on the interwebs. (And in the “really odd” department, here is the concert rider for a 1976 Jerry Garcia Band show.)

Also, if you’ve never heard it, Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash singing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

And if you need a pick-me-up after all that, here’s the wonderful David Johansen Group with their Animals medley: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place/Don’t Bring Me Down/It’s My Life.”

Also breaking, must credit, etc.: Jazz Fest is on! (We hope …)

Finally, may the memory of Israel “Sy” Dresner, the “world’s most arrested rabbi,” be a blessing to all who knew him and an inspiration to the rest of us.

See you next week.
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse (Basic, 2020). Previously, he wrote The Nation’s “Liberal Media” column for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman
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