Friday, October 30, 2009

Troubling Signals On Free Speech

In his eagerness to please international opinion, President Obama has taken a small but significant step toward censoring free speech.

It was nice to hear Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton say on October 26, "I strongly disagree" with Islamic countries seeking to censor free speech worldwide by making defamation of religion a crime under international law.
But watch what the Obama administration does, not just what it says. I'm not talking about its attacks on Fox News. I'm talking about a little-publicized October 2 resolution in which Clinton's own State Department joined Islamic nations in adopting language all-too-friendly to censoring speech that some religions and races find offensive.
The ambiguously worded United Nations Human Rights Council resolution could plausibly be read as encouraging or even obliging the U.S. to make it a crime to engage in hate speech, or, perhaps, in mere "negative racial and religious stereotyping." This despite decades of First Amendment case law protecting such speech.
To be sure, the provisions to which I refer were a compromise, stopping short of the flat ban on defamation of religion sought by Islamic nations, and they could also be construed more narrowly and innocuously. It all depends on who does the construing.
Is it "negative stereotyping" to say that the world's most dangerous terrorists are Islamists, for example? Many would say yes.
I sketch below how the resolution could be construed to require prosecuting some offensive speech and how it could be used in the long run to change the meaning of our Constitution and laws, based on doctrines developed by legal academics including Obama appointee Harold Koh, the State Department's top lawyer.
Also troublesome on the free-speech front are various remarks by Mark Lloyd, the Federal Communications Commission's associate general counsel and chief diversity officer. Lloyd asserted in a 2006 book, "The purpose of free speech is warped to protect global corporations and block rules that would promote democratic governance." He co-authored a 2007 report calling for regulatory changes to close "the gap between conservative and progressive talk radio." In 2008, he praised the "incredible ... democratic revolution" of Hugo Chavez and implied approval of the thuggish Venezuelan strongman's pattern of shutting down news media opposed to him.
That's how I read Lloyd's videotaped statement, first aired by Glenn Beck of Fox News, in which he said: "The property owners and the folks who then were controlling the media rebelled [against Chavez], worked, frankly, with folks here in the U.S. government, worked to oust him. But he came back with another revolution, and then Chavez began to take very seriously the media in his country."
Then there was the June 5 high school commencement speech in which White House Communications Director Anita Dunn called Mao Zedong -- one of history's greatest mass murderers and an implacable enemy of free speech -- one of "my favorite political philosophers." Dunn has, coincidentally, been the point person in President Obama's attacks on Fox News.
The administration is seeded with left-liberal thinkers who have smiled on efforts to punish speech that is offensive to favored racial and religious groups.
This is not to suggest that Dunn approves of mass murder or that Obama wants to censor critics. But the ideologies of appointees such as Lloyd and Dunn can have consequences. And in his eagerness to please international opinion, Obama has now taken a small but significant step toward making bad law.
Law -- especially international law -- evolves below the radar, in small moves largely ignored by the mainstream media. Although international resolutions have traditionally not been seen as binding law, the Obama administration is seeded with left-liberal thinkers who have long sought to spin what some call "transnational" law out of such stuff, and who have smiled on efforts to punish speech that is offensive to favored racial, religious, and other groups.
Such attitudes may help explain the administration's decision to join the U.N. Human Rights Council in the first place. Obama reversed a Bush administration policy of shunning this deeply politicized body, which counts as members several flagrant human-rights abusers and which is preoccupied with attacking Israel.
The council's October 2 resolution is ostensibly an endorsement of "freedom of opinion and expression," which seems ironic, given the track records of such members as China, Cuba, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
But the real problem is a provision, which the U.S. championed jointly with Egypt, exuding hostility to free expression.
That provision "expresses its concern that incidents of racial and religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence, as well as of negative racial and religious stereotyping continue to rise around the world, and condemns, in this context, any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence, and urges States to take effective measures, consistent with their obligations under international human-rights law, to address and combat such incidents" (emphasis added).
What is this clot of verbiage supposed to mean?
It could be read narrowly as a commitment merely to denounce and eschew hate speech. But it could more logically be read broadly as requiring the United States and other nations to punish "hostile" speech about -- and perhaps also "negative stereotyping" of -- any race or religion. It's a safe bet, however, that the Islamic nations that are so concerned about criticisms of their religion will not be prosecuting anyone for the rampant "negative racial and ethnic stereotyping" and hate speech in their own countries directed at Jews and sometimes Christians.
Eugene Volokh of the University of California (Los Angeles) Law School pointed out on his Volokh Conspiracy blog that the reference to "obligations under international human-rights law" could be seen as binding the United States to a provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requiring that hate speech "shall be prohibited by law." The U.S. has previously rejected that provision.
Added Volokh: "Advocacy of mere hostility -- for instance... to radical strains of Islam [or any other religion] -- is clearly constitutionally protected here in the U.S.; but the resolution seems to call for its prohibition. [And] if we are constitutionally barred from adhering to it by our domestic Constitution, then [the administration's vote was] implicitly criticizing that Constitution, and committing ourselves to do what we can to change it." Such a stance could be seen as obliging the executive branch to urge the Supreme Court to overrule decades of First Amendment decisions.
Obama should not take even a small step down the road toward bartering away free speech for the sake of international consensus.
Far-fetched? Not according to the hopes and expectations of many international law scholars. "An international norm against hate speech would supply a basis for prohibiting it, the First Amendment notwithstanding.... In the long run, it may point to the Constitution's more complete subordination," Peter Spiro, a professor at Temple University Law School, asserted in a 2003 Stanford Law Review article.
Similarly, if more ambiguously, Koh wrote in another 2003 Stanford Law Review article, "Our exceptional free-speech tradition can cause problems abroad, as, for example, may occur when hate speech is disseminated over the Internet." The Supreme Court, suggested Koh -- then a professor at Yale Law School -- "can moderate these conflicts by applying more consistently the transnationalist approach to judicial interpretation" that he espouses.
Translation: Transnational law may sometimes trump the established interpretation of the First Amendment. This is the clear meaning of Koh's writings, although he implied otherwise during his Senate confirmation hearing.
In my view, Obama should not take even a small step down the road toward bartering away our free-speech rights for the sake of international consensus. "Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech," as Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote in an October 19 USA Today op-ed.
Even European nations with much weaker free-speech traditions than ours were reportedly dismayed by the American cave-in to Islamic nations on "racial and religious stereotyping" and the rest.
The pressure to censor harsh criticisms of Islam, as well as other religions and groups, began to intensify after bloody riots by Muslims around the world in 2006 over the publication in Denmark of cartoons ridiculing Muhammad.
People have reportedly been prosecuted in Austria, Finland, and India for asserting that Muhammad's marriage to a 9-year-old girl made him a "pedophile." Brigitte Bardot was convicted in 2008 of provoking racial hatred for saying in a letter to France's interior minister that Muslims were ruining France. A 15-year-old boy in Britain was charged under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act last year for holding up a sign outside a Scientology building calling the practice "a dangerous cult." And so on.
We have had no such overt federal government censorship in this country so far. But we have seen plenty of private censorship and self-censorship, especially at our universities, most of which have thinly disguised speech codes.
One example is the spineless decision in August by Yale President Richard Levin and the Yale University Press to remove the Danish cartoons (and all other pictures) of Muhammad from a book about the drawings.
The reaction of the academic world to such episodes has been apathy. The same is true of the response by the academic world, the news media, and civil-liberties groups to the October 2 resolution.
Take The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union. Both were once dependable guardians of uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate, regardless of whose ox was gored. But as best I can tell from their websites, neither has said a word about the Obama administration's collaboration with would-be censors sitting on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Dozens in Congress under ethics inquiry

Document was found on file-sharing network

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

House ethics investigators have been scrutinizing the activities of more than 30 lawmakers and several aides in inquiries about issues including defense lobbying and corporate influence peddling, according to a confidential House ethics committee report prepared in July.

The report appears to have been inadvertently placed on a publicly accessible computer network, and it was provided to The Washington Post by a source not connected to the congressional investigations. The committee said Thursday night that the document was released by a low-level staffer.
The ethics committee is one of the most secretive panels in Congress, and its members and staff members sign oaths not to disclose any activities related to its past or present investigations. Watchdog groups have accused the committee of not actively pursuing inquiries; the newly disclosed document indicates the panel is conducting far more investigations than it had revealed.
Shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday, the committee chairman,  Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), interrupted a series of House votes to alert lawmakers about the breach. She cautioned that some of the panel's activities are preliminary and not a conclusive sign of inappropriate behavior.
"No inference should be made as to any member," she said.
 Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican, said the breach was an isolated incident.
The 22-page "Committee on Standards Weekly Summary Report" gives brief summaries of ethics panel investigations of the conduct of 19 lawmakers and a few staff members. It also outlines the work of the new Office of Congressional Ethics, a quasi-independent body that initiates investigations and provides recommendations to the ethics committee. The document indicated that the office was reviewing the activities of 14 other lawmakers. Some were under review by both ethics bodies.
A broader inquiry

Ethics committee investigations are not uncommon. Most result in private letters that either exonerate or reprimand a member. In some rare instances, the censure is more severe.

Many of the broad outlines of the cases cited in the July document are known -- the committee announced over the summer that it was reviewing lawmakers with connections to the now-closed PMA Group, a lobbying firm. But the document indicates that the inquiry was broader than initially believed. It included a review of seven lawmakers on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee who have steered federal money to the firm's clients and have also received large campaign contributions.
The document also disclosed that:
-- Ethics committee staff members have interviewed House Ways and Means Chairman  Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) about one element of the complex investigation of his personal finances, as well as the lawmaker's top aide and his son. Rangel said he spoke with ethics committee staff members regarding a conference that he and four other members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended last November in St. Martin. The trip initially was said to be sponsored by a nonprofit foundation run by a newspaper. But the three-day event, at a luxury resort, was underwritten by major corporations such as Citigroup, Pfizer and AT&T. Rules passed in 2007, shortly after Democrats reclaimed the majority following a wave of corruption cases against Republicans, bar private companies from paying for congressional travel.
Rangel said he has not discussed other parts of the investigation of his finances with the committee. "I'm waiting for that, anxiously," he said.

-- The Justice Department has told the ethics panel to suspend a probe of Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), whose personal finances federal investigators began reviewing in early 2006 after complaints from a conservative group that he was not fully revealing his real estate holdings. There has been no public action on that inquiry for several years. But the department's request in early July to the committee suggests that the case continues to draw the attention of federal investigators, who often ask that the House and Senate ethics panels refrain from taking action against members whom the department is already investigating.

Mollohan said that he was not aware of any ongoing interest by the Justice Department in his case and that he and his attorneys have not heard from federal investigators. "The answer is no," he said.
-- The committee on June 9 authorized issuance of subpoenas to the Justice Department, the National Security Agency and the FBI for "certain intercepted communications" regarding Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). As was reported earlier this year, Harman was heard in a 2005 conversation agreeing to an Israeli operative's request to try to obtain leniency for two pro-Israel lobbyists in exchange for the agent's help in lobbying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to name her chairman of the intelligence committee. The department, a former U.S. official said, declined to respond to the subpoena.
Harman said that the ethics committee has not contacted her and that she has no knowledge that the subpoena was ever issued. "I don't believe that's true," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, this smear has been over for three years."
In June 2009, a Justice Department official wrote in a letter to an attorney for Harman that she was "neither a subject nor a target" of a criminal investigation.
Because of the secretive nature of the ethics committee, it was difficult to assess the current status of the investigations cited in the July document. The panel said Thursday, however, that it is ending a probe of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) after finding no ethical violations, and that it is investigating the financial connections of two California Democrats.
The committee did not detail the two newly disclosed investigations. However, according to the July document, Rep. Maxine Waters, a high-ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, came under scrutiny because of activities involving OneUnited Bank of Massachusetts, in which her husband owns at least $250,000 in stock.
Waters arranged a September 2008 meeting at the Treasury Department where OneUnited executives asked for government money. In December, Treasury selected OneUnited as an early participant in the bank bailout program, injecting $12.1 million.
The other, Rep. Laura Richardson, may have failed to mention property, income and liabilities on financial disclosure forms.

The committee's review of investigations became available on file-sharing networks because of a junior staff member's use of the software while working from home, Lofgren and Bonner said in a statement issued Thursday night. The staffer was fired, a congressional aide said.
The committee "is taking all appropriate steps to deal with this issue," they said, noting that neither the committee nor the House's information systems were breached in any way.
"Peer-to-peer" technology has previously caused inadvertent breaches of sensitive financial, defense-related and personal data from government and commercial networks, and it is prohibited on House networks.
House administration rules require that if a lawmaker or staff member takes work home, "all users of House sensitive information must protect the confidentiality of sensitive information" from unauthorized disclosure.
Leo Wise, chief counsel for the Office of Congressional Ethics, declined to comment, citing office policy against confirming or denying the existence of investigations. A Justice Department spokeswoman also declined to comment, citing a similar policy.
Staff writers Carol D. Leonnig and Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

White House War Boosts FOX

It's no surprise. Heck, it may even have been part of the White House's plan to galvanize its left wing base. Either way, the decision by Barack Obama and his administration to declare war on FOX News has had the inevitable effect of boosting the already dominant network's ratings even more.
According to numbers from Nielsen Media Research, in the two weeks prior to the launch of the White House's offensive against FOX by Communications Director Anita Dunn on October 11,  FOX was averaging 1.2 million viewers per day and 323,000 viewers in the coveted Adult 25-54 demographic.
In the two weeks since Dunn's remarks (and the subsequent comments by Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and President Obama himself) FOX's total average daily viewership surged 9% to over 1.3 million, while its viewership among Adults 25-54 shot up 14%.
Also not surprisingly, FOX continued its ratings dominance in October. The top 13 rated shows represent FOX's entire lineup except the 3am show Red Eye, which is still pulling in more viewers than MSNBC's premier morning show, Morning Joe. Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC recorded their lowest ratings of the year through the first three weeks of this month.
In particular, CNN is in the midst of what looks to be a total ratings collapse. CNN's average daily viewership among all households through the first twenty one days of October was just over half of what it was in January. The former cable heavyweight now ranks dead last among cable news networks - behind even its sister network Headline News.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To Find Right PR Guru, Beck Looked to His Left

By Jason Horowitz
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Glenn Beck, a young Tampa-based disc jockey eager to break into conservative talk radio, called his new Manhattan agent, George Hiltzik, to help arrange a visit to Ground Zero. Hiltzik directed Beck to his 29-year-old son, Matt, who had returned to his job with the TriBeCa-based studio head Harvey Weinstein after playing a key role in electing Hillary Rodham Clinton to the U.S. Senate.
"I wasn't aware of all his positions at the time," Hiltzik said of Beck's enthusiastic conservative views. "I knew he was not, like, a big Democrat."
To say the least.
In the years since their first encounter, Beck has become arguably the most influential and incendiary conservative critic in America. He has called President Obama a racist, compared him to Hitler and forced the firing of administration appointees. This month, the White House retaliated against Beck's outlet, Fox News Channel, but the resulting controversy has only boosted Beck's notoriety, which, is Hiltzik's professional concern.
"My job is to look out for his personal business interests and try to weave them in well with his partners'," said Hiltzik, whose boutique PR firm, Hiltzik Strategies, has represented Beck since 2007. "We give strategic counsel, which includes managing the profile of the business."
"When I'm picking politicians, employees or business partners, I focus on their character not their political parties," Beck said in a statement. "And I know and trust Matthew's character."
The close friendship and lucrative business relationship that has developed between the 45-year-old conservative firebrand and the 37-year-old former Democratic operative shows how partisan media personalities get discovered, promoted and catapulted into the political stratosphere, even when the talent and the talent broker have opposing ideologies. But for Hiltzik's former Democratic allies, the alliance is still mostly shocking.
"It's surprising," said Bill de Blasio, who ran Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign, for which Hiltzik served as the go-to liaison to New York's Jewish community. "He worked for the state Democratic Party, he worked for Hillary Clinton in 2000, he is as solid a Democrat as you can imagine."
Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who benefited from Hiltzik's help in his 1998 breakthrough win to become attorney general, was astonished that the guy he knew as his state party's lead spokesman was now representing the man some in the White House see as Public Enemy No. 1.
Spitzer called Hiltzik a friend and "a thoughtful, reasoned advocate -- certainly at the time -- for the Democratic principles that I was running on and that most of my colleagues believed in."
Other Hiltzik allies resort to strange-bedfellow teasing. "Everyone knows they're dating," joked Harvey Weinstein, who called his former right hand a deeply religious, brilliant guy. "It must be that kind of attraction. I can't see any other reason."
His voice turning more serious, Weinstein said there was perhaps a simple reason Hiltzik felt comfortable representing Beck. "I had a lot of actors Matt came in contact with," Weinstein said. "I just think Glenn is another one."
The ribbing and occasional opprobrium of his friends is something Hiltzik -- who also represents Katie Couric, Alec Baldwin, Annie Leibovitz and Don Imus -- said he has no problem weathering.
"As a general rule," Hiltzik explained, "I stand by people and don't make decisions based on what other people think."
An election maestro

Little in Hiltzik's background suggests he would end up at Beck's side. He grew up in the affluent New Jersey suburb of Teaneck, and commuted to the exclusive Manhattan Jewish day school Ramaz, where other future Clinton operatives Phil Singer and Philippe Reines also matriculated. He graduated from the industrial labor relations school at Cornell University, where in 1993 he eagerly attended the first of many speeches by Hillary Clinton.
As a law student at Fordham, Hiltzik became politically active: He volunteered for Carolyn McCarthy's successful 1996 bid for Congress, inspired by her commitment to gun control. He got to know people in politics and scored a gig as spokesman for the New York State Democratic Committee, helping Chuck Schumer unseat Sen. Al D'Amato and laying the groundwork for Clinton's listening tour in Upstate New York.
His success in getting Democrats elected caught the attention of Weinstein, the co-founder of Miramax Films, who wanted to widen his footprint in Democratic politics. He invented a hybrid job for Hiltzik that would put the movie honcho in the middle of the action. "Matt's job was half P.R., and mostly politics," Weinstein said. With Hiltzik's contacts, Weinstein threw a star-studded fundraiser for the first lady at his home on Martha's Vineyard, with Jimmy Buffett on the bill. A few days later, Hiltzik took a leave of absence from Miramax and went to work for Clinton.
Right around that time in October 1999, Hiltzik's father, George, took a call during an business trip in Zurich. On the other end was Beck, an obscure disc jockey toiling in New Haven, Conn. Beck had done his research and informed the former NBC executive and high-powered agent of his conclusion: It should be Hiltzik, who has brokered the radio gigs of blogger Matt Drudge and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, to lift Beck's career to a new level.
"He's in New Haven probably spinning Britney Spears records," George Hiltzik recalled thinking at the time. But he admired Beck's tenacity and sized him up. His scouting report: Beck, a recovering alcoholic, was talented but not without issues. But the elder Hiltzik recalled that something about the way Beck spoke about his new wife convinced the agent, a devoted family man himself, that Beck would turn things around. He gave Beck a shot.
Beck moved to a radio station in Tampa in 2000, and after some iffy first weeks, started drawing in listeners with his nakedly personal style and stunts like broadcasting from treehouses.
As the elder Hiltzik brokered a lucrative syndication deal that gave Beck a much wider audience, his son was neck-deep in New York Democratic politics.
The younger Hiltzik was tasked with positioning Weinstein, his brash, polarizing boss, as the uniter of a Democratic Party torn apart by a nasty mayoral primary. And Hiltzik had to manage some outsize, infighting personalities.
On the eve of the mayoral election between Democrat Mark Green and Republican Michael Bloomberg, Hiltzik and Weinstein attempted an eleventh-hour unity news conference with Green, the vanquished Democratic primary opponent, plus local machers Bill Clinton and Al Sharpton. In a Four Seasons hotel suite, Hiltzik and his crew worked the phones furiously while Sharpton ate shrimp cocktail and Weinstein gobbled entire pizzas. The whole room nervously awaited Clinton, who was circling the hotel in his motorcade waiting for the final details of the news conference to be worked out. Negotiations collapsed and local television cameras captured Clinton's car speeding off. Hiltzik and Weinstein decided to ring up Bloomberg with Weinstein's endorsement.
"At 11:45, Matt said, 'Call Mike and tell him you're supporting him,' " Weinstein recalled.

SPHERE OF INFLUENCE: PR wunderkind and former Democratic operative Matt Hiltzik has a lot of celestial bodies in his orbit, including Katie Couric, Glenn Beck, Annie Lebovitz, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Eliot Spitzer, Harvey Weinstein and Don Imus.
SPHERE OF INFLUENCE: PR wunderkind and former Democratic operative Matt Hiltzik has a lot of celestial bodies in his orbit, including Katie Couric, Glenn Beck, Annie Lebovitz, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Eliot Spitzer, Harvey Weinstein and Don Imus. (Paul Hawthorne)
Photographer Annie Leibovitz
Photographer Annie Leibovitz (Toby Canham - Getty Images)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (Win Mcnamee - Getty Images)
Producer Harvey Weinstein
Producer Harvey Weinstein (Jason Merritt - Getty Images)
Fox News's Glenn Beck
Fox News's Glenn Beck (Evan Agostini - AP)
CBS News anchor Katie Couric
CBS News anchor Katie Couric (Andrew H. Walker - Getty Images)
Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer
Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (Jonathan Ernst - Reuters)
Radio personality Don Imus
Radio personality Don Imus (Richard Drew - AP)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

In his 2003 book, "The Real America," Beck includes "Miramax Matthew" among his acknowledgments. In 2004, Beck, then based in Philadelphia, devoted airtime on his national radio show to plug "Paper Clips," a little-known documentary Hiltzik produced about Holocaust education, which was screening in Tampa. Hiltzik expected a handful of people to attend -- instead, there was a packed house of 250.
"I'm telling you," Hiltzik said, as he sat in on an interview with Beck for GQ Magazine earlier this year. "You don't understand the influence [Beck] has, you don't understand the audience he has, the books he sells, the loyalty to him, you are looking at somebody who has an audience that actually does things."
Beck, sitting proudly to Hiltzik's right in the corner office of his Midtown Manhattan headquarters, emphasized how remarkable it was that a large crowd attended Hiltzik's film.
"A documentary. On the Holocaust. And paper clips," Beck said.
In May 2005, Hiltzik left Weinstein to build the U.S. wing of the London-based Freud Communications. He brought on Couric, Imus, Baldwin and other gold-plated clients. He and Beck briefly discussed working together, but concluded the time was not yet ripe.
But in the summer of 2007, as Beck was on the verge of signing a five-year, $50 million deal with Premiere Radio Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications -- he saw an opportunity.
"Glenn calls me up, tells me he's looking for a public relations person and [asked] how would I feel if he called Matthew," George Hiltzik said. "I'm not 100 percent against it, I'm 1,000 percent against. I don't believe in mixing family and business. But I said, 'You are both businessmen, you can make your own judgments.' " The younger Hiltzik, who would soon be striking out on his own, took the job -- and the risk. (Neither Beck nor Hiltzik would discuss the fees involved.)
"He wasn't someone who was getting a lot of attention back then," he said.
Line in the sand

Since Hiltzik has started working for Beck, the commentator has graced the cover of Time and the front page of the New York Times (a copy of which is framed in Beck's Manhattan office). He made the Forbes Celebrity 100 list and was profiled by "20/20." He has millions of radio listeners. His books are bestsellers. His Web site is a cash cow. His comedy tour sells out theaters around the country.
And his name is cursed in the White House.
Beck's fame is, of course, directly related to the heightened platform given to him by Fox News, and his willingness to use it to say outrageous things. Hiltzik said that he deferred to Fox News on all things related to Beck's television show. He repeatedly said that he had nothing to do with the content of Beck's commentary.
Some of Hiltzik's critics failed to find that a convincing distinction.
"Lawyers sometimes have to represent mobsters," said Green, the onetime mayoral candidate in New York and president of Air America Media. "But it's not the same excuse when you are a public relations guy. There's a due process that requires everyone to have a lawyer in a criminal case. There is no due process that requires a talk show host to have a flak."
"I love Matt," said Ken Sunshine, a Democratic activist and public relations powerbroker whom Hiltzik regards as a mentor. "I value our friendship, but I wouldn't be caught dead representing Glenn Beck."
Hiltzik is ever ready for counterattack. "Apparently Mark failed to mention that he sought my assistance in resolving an Air America issue," Hiltzik said. "And that he called me repeatedly this summer soliciting contributions for his most recent campaign."
It's a strange world where close friends can manage clients who are avid enemies. Sunshine, for example, also advises Color of Change and Green for All, two groups founded by Van Jones, who resigned from his position as the Obama administration's special adviser on green jobs after withering, unrelenting criticism from Beck.
And it's not just Sunshine's clients who are subject to Beck's drubbings, it's also his onetime mentor. The current secretary of state, for example, did not respond to calls about Hiltzik and his top client's tirades against the Obama administration. Asked if he thought Hillary Clinton approved of his current promotion of Beck, who has called her, among other things, "the antichrist," Hiltzik said, "She has a lot more important things to worry about."
"Matt Hiltzik is a top professional who can't save Glenn Beck from his vulgar, hateful ignorance," said Robert Zimmerman, a public relations executive in New York, Democratic National Committee member and close friend of Hiltzik's. "But he can get him extensive publicity while he goes down in flames."

News Gets Worse for the Mainstream Media

The buildings of the New York Times, CNN and Boston Globe.
Big city papers had lost as much as a quarter of their circulation in the last six months, and CNN finished dead last in prime-time against more partisan rivals like Fox and MSNBC. Photo: AP photo composite by POLITICO

There have been a lot of bad days recently for what’s come to be known as the mainstream media — or MSM — but Monday was one of the worst.

New circulation figures showed that big city papers had lost as much as a quarter of their circulation in the past six months. And new TV ratings showed that CNN, the cable network that prides itself on news coverage down the middle, finished dead last in prime time against more partisan rivals like Fox News and MSNBC.

Are the two connected?
Eric Alterman, a media columnist for The Nation, and a frequent critic of the MSM, thinks they are. "Nonpartisan news, and news aimed at a broad audience, doesn't have the cachet, and therefore the consumer base, it once had,” Alterman said. “The whole notion of citizenship has been declining for decades now.”

With the proliferation of media across platforms these days, there’s less shared knowledge among people, who are increasingly heading to niche outlets for information. At the same time, there’s a large appetite for the new media world where the MSM gatekeepers no longer hold as much clout, and “he said, she said” journalism gives way to strong point of view. Just last night, NYU hosted a debate among prominent journalists on the subject: “Good Riddance to Mainstream Media.”.

And in today’s cable news universe, Alterman said, “politics without a slant, without a point of view, is interesting to very few people.”

That’s probably one thing that the Nation writer and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly agree on.

O’Reilly, host of the top-rated cable news show, told an audience last week that networks need to give viewers “a product that is entertaining and informative.” As for his 8 p.m. rival on CNN, O’Reilly said: “Nobody watches Campbell Brown. You have to evolve if you want to survive in the commercial world. If you are going to do a straight newscast in prime time, you are going to lose.”

Brown is losing not only to O’Reilly and a partisan on the left, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, but also to Nancy Grace, who hosts a more tabloidy show at the same time on sister network HLN.

CNN President Jon Klein says he knows why those approaches work, and he’s not going to go there. “It’s the oldest trick in the book to trot out over-the-top hosts and put them on a cable-news show,” Klein told POLITICO in May.

There’s no doubt that the over-the-top, and politically partisan, hosts are having more success attracting viewers on nights when there’s no major news event. Acknowledging the low ratings, Klein told staffers on Tuesday, according to TVNewser, that CNN “refuse[s] to do the things that might get us a quick number or cater to the extremes that would alienate our core viewers.”

But if CNN’s president accepts that political agendas — or the lack thereof — play a role in the prime-time ratings, does that hold true for newspaper circulation as well?

“I don’t think newspaper circulation has dropped because of any ideological thing,” said Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy. “Mostly, it’s a matter of the economics of the situation — free versus expensive.”

While Jones said he’s impressed by how many people still buy newspapers that are available online, it’s hard for top newspaper executives to hide their concern these days. During a benefit event on Monday night, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offered up an ominous, yet telling, analogy for the newspaper business: the Titanic.

Sulzberger told New York magazine that the “industry is in the midst of massive transition,” a fact clearly on display that morning when newly released circulation numbers showed a 10.6 percent drop across over 300 newspapers. The Times, which announced last week that 100 newsroom jobs needed to be cut by the end of the year, lost 7.3 percent of its print circulation in the past six months.
And the Times was hardly alone. Besides The Wall Street Journal — which caters more to a niche business readership — all of the top U.S. daily newspapers witnessed drops in circulation ranging from the single digits to upward of 25 percent.
The Washington Post, whose website has fewer unique monthly visitors than the Huffington Post — a site that offers news and aggregation with a liberal slant — fell 6.4 percent in print circulation. The long-running tabloid war between the New York Daily News and the New York Post is a thing of the past, as both papers continue falling — 14 percent and 18.7 percent, respectively. USA Today, previously the highest-circulation national newspaper, saw its readership plummet 17 percent.

Attempts by newspaper executives to cast the numbers in a positive light had a slightly desperate feel to them. A headline in The San Francisco Chronicle, which dropped more than 25 percent, read: “Chronicle’s strategy shift starts to pay off.”

Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega was quoted as saying that a new business model for the paper, in which it moves away from relying on advertising revenue, was beginning to emerge and that the Chronicle’s online audience continued to grow.

Similarly, CNN reacted to Monday’s numbers by emphasizing that the recently relaunched leads other cable news websites. It also said in a statement that the network “measure[s] our audience across all CNN worldwide platforms and throughout the day, not just prime time.”

While it’s clear that CNN is trying to downplay the significance of winning in prime-time — after talking up the importance of the three-hour block last year — it’s true that nightly viewers are just one part of the day’s audience. And it’s also a relatively small audience by comparison with the numbers reached by broadcast network programming.

Although “The O’Reilly Factor” averaged nearly 3.4 million viewers in October — the highest among cable news shows — it’s roughly 4.8 million viewers fewer than the average Brian Williams pulled in last week on the “NBC Nightly News.” Indeed, the evening newscasts still bring in about 20 million viewers each night, while the 8 p.m. offerings from the four cable news networks typically have less than 6 million.

A few million viewers, Alterman pointed out, are “a complete failure in terms of what historically has been a successful television show.” However, cable new shows “only need very small numbers to make these shows work.”

But while some of CNN’s prime-time shows may only be pulling in six-figure audiences, the network’s success online shows that there’s still an appetite for general-interest news, perhaps at the expense of readers actually buying newspapers for sports, weather and the latest word out of the White House. Last month, CNN’s digital network brought in over 38 million unique visitors, second only to Yahoo! News.

Similarly, newspaper executives point out that their product, still generated in the newsroom, has more readers than ever. The problem is that millions of those readers aren’t paying. It’s why issue No. 1 on the minds of publishers and top editors is how and when to charge for the news.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, agreed that newspaper executives have a point about the general news product being strong, despite declines in advertising and circulation.

“I don’t think the newspaper circulation numbers are reflective of people not wanting objective news,” Jurkowitz said, pointing out that papers like the Boston Globe still have plenty of readers online.

While the Globe’s circulation dropped 18.5 percent over the past six months to 264,000 — half what it was two decades ago — brought in over 5.2 million unique visitors last month. A similar argument can be made for the Times — which had 21.5 million unique monthly visitors in September — and CNN, both established news brands that continue to grow in online readership.

“The problem isn’t an audience problem,” Jurkowitz said. “It’s fundamentally that nobody’s been able to make money on the online side.”

White House War Boosts FOX

It's no surprise. Heck, it may even have been part of the White House's plan to galvanize its left wing base. Either way, the decision by Barack Obama and his administration to declare war on FOX News has had the inevitable effect of boosting the already dominant network's ratings even more.
According to numbers from Nielsen Media Research, in the two weeks prior to the launch of the White House's offensive against FOX by Communications Director Anita Dunn on October 11,  FOX was averaging 1.2 million viewers per day and 323,000 viewers in the coveted Adult 25-54 demographic.
In the two weeks since Dunn's remarks (and the subsequent comments by Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and President Obama himself) FOX's total average daily viewership surged 9% to over 1.3 million, while its viewership among Adults 25-54 shot up 14%.
Also not surprisingly, FOX continued its ratings dominance in October. The top 13 rated shows represent FOX's entire lineup except the 3am show Red Eye, which is still pulling in more viewers than MSNBC's premier morning show, Morning Joe. Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC recorded their lowest ratings of the year through the first three weeks of this month.
In particular, CNN is in the midst of what looks to be a total ratings collapse. CNN's average daily viewership among all households through the first twenty one days of October was just over half of what it was in January. The former cable heavyweight now ranks dead last among cable news networks - behind even its sister network Headline News.

Monday, October 26, 2009

CNN Drops to Last Place Among Cable News Networks

Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images CNN’s Anderson Cooper
CNN, which invented the cable news network more than two decades ago, will hit a new competitive low with its prime-time programs in October, finishing fourth – and last – among the cable news networks with the audience that all the networks rely on for their advertising.
The official monthly numbers will be finalized at 4 p.m. Monday and will include results from Friday. CNN executives conceded that will not change the competitive standing for the month. CNN will still be last in prime time.
That means CNN’s programs were behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but even its own sister network HLN (formerly Headline News.) Three of its four shows between 7 and 11 p.m. finished fourth and last among the cable news networks. That was the first time CNN had finished that poorly with its prime-time shows.

Adam Rountree/Associated Press Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly
The results demonstrate once more the apparent preference of viewers for opinion-oriented shows from the news networks in prime time.
CNN has steered opinion hosts like Nancy Grace to HLN, while maintaining more news-oriented shows on CNN itself. When news events are not being intensely followed, CNN executives acknowledge, viewers seem to be looking for partisan views more than objective coverage.
Individually, the CNN shows were beaten resoundingly by all the Fox News programs, but also lost to all of the MSNBC programs, including a repeat of Keith Olbermann’s 8 p.m. edition of “Countdown,” which beat the 10 p.m. hour of CNN’s signature prime-time program, “Anderson Cooper 360.”
Again that was a first.
Mr. Cooper had 211,000 viewers to 223,000 for Mr. Olbermann’s repeat. That meant Mr. Cooper finished fourth and last in the 10 p.m. hour because, besides being well behind the leader, Greta Van Susteren, who had 538,000 viewers, he was also beaten by a repeat of Nancy Grace’s 8 p.m. show on HLN, which averaged 222,000.
Virginia Sherwood/NBC MSNBC’s Keith Olberman
For the month, CNN averaged 202,000 viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 – the group that television news organizations use as their basis of success because of their advertising sales. That was far behind the dominant leader, Fox News, which averaged 689,000. But it also trailed MSNBC, which had 250,000 viewers in that group and HLN, which had 221,000.
The only CNN show from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. that did not finish last was Larry King, which was third, ahead of the new Joy Behar show on HLN. But Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News had a huge lead with 659,000 viewers in that age group. Second was Rachel Maddow on MSNBC with 242,000.
Mr. King averaged 224,000 and Ms. Behar 181,000.
At 7 p.m. CNN’s host, Lou Dobbs was fourth, barely beaten by Jane Velez Mitchell on HLN, 166,000 to 162,000. The big winner was Shepard Smith on Fox with 465,000 viewers. Second was Chris Matthews and “Hardball” on MSNBC, with 179,000 viewers.
Keith Bedford for The New York Times HLN’s Nancy Grace
CNN’s performance was worst in the 8 p.m. hour. Bill O’Reilly on Fox News continued his long dominance with the biggest numbers of any host, 881,000 viewers. Mr. Olbermann, with his first-run program, was second with 295,000. Close behind was the first edition of Ms. Grace’s show with 269,000. Campbell Brown on CNN trailed with only 162,000.
CNN executives emphasized that the network continues to draw more viewers than all its competitors except Fox News when all hours of the day are counted.
CNN released a statement Monday saying, “CNN’s ratings are always going to be more dependent on the news environment, much more so than opinion-based programming especially in prime time.”

Top 25 Daily Newspapers in New FAS-FAX

NEW YORK Here are the top 25 newspapers in the country ranked by daily (Monday-Friday) circulation for the six months ending September 2009 from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The percent change compares the same six-month period ending September 2008.

Go here for more on this list by E&P Senior Editor Jennifer Saba, and here for a list of the top 25 papers on Sunday. For a list of the top 10 gainers this time around, go here.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL -- 2,024,269 -- 0.61%
USA TODAY -- 1,900,116 -- (-17.15%)
THE NEW YORK TIMES -- 927,851 -- (-7.28%)
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- 657,467 -- (-11.05%)
THE WASHINGTON POST -- 582,844 -- (-6.40%)

DAILY NEWS (NEW YORK) -- 544,167 -- (-13.98%)
NEW YORK POST -- 508,042 -- (-18.77%)
CHICAGO TRIBUNE -- 465,892 -- (-9.72%)
HOUSTON CHRONICLE -- 384,419 -- (-14.24%)

NEWSDAY -- 357,124 -- (-5.40%)
THE DENVER POST -- 340,949 -- N/A
THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC -- 316,874 -- (-12.30%)
STAR TRIBUNE, MINNEAPOLIS -- 304,543 -- (-5.53%)
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES -- 275,641 -- (-11.98%)

The PLAIN DEALER, CLEVELAND -- 271,180 -- (-11.24%)
DETROIT FREE PRESS (e) -- 269,729 -- (-9.56%)
THE BOSTON GLOBE -- 264,105 -- (-18.48%)
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS -- 263,810 -- (-22.16%)
THE SEATTLE TIMES -- 263,588 -- N/A

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE -- 251,782 -- (-25.82%)
THE OREGONIAN -- 249,163 -- (-12.06%)
THE STAR-LEDGER, NEWARK -- 246,006 -- (-22.22%)
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE -- 242,705 -- (-10.05%)
ST. PETERSBURG (FLA.) TIMES -- 240,147 -- (-10.70%)

(e) Individually paid core newspaper five-day average reflects a reduced home-delivery schedule

Are You Ready to Subsidize Reporters?

By Bill Frezza
Have you ever stumbled on an oxymoron so stunning that it takes your breath away? Try coupling this with a case of chutzpah so revealing that the lack of shame on the part of those involved serves as prima fasci evidence that their elite cultural isolation has rendered them incapable of critical thinking.
Behold the "Independent Journalism Tax."
In order to preserve independent journalism in the age of the Internet, a national Fund for Local News should be created with money the FCC now collects from or could impose on telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers.
Click Here
This is the key recommendation buried on page 91 of a 100 page report issued last week titled "The Reconstruction of American Journalism" by Leonard Downie, Jr. Vice President of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.
Lamenting the demise of the "hegemony that near-monopoly metropolitan newspapers enjoyed during the last third of the twentieth century," these guardians of journalistic integrity recommend that your tax dollars be distributed to their brethren by "Local News Fund Council boards comprised of journalists, educators, and community leaders" to make sure that "advocacy journalism is not endangered."
Juxtapose this learned study with some recent poll data collected by the Pew Research Center.
Only 29 percent of 1,506 adults surveyed said news organizations generally get the facts straight. The facts! Sixty percent said the press is biased, up from 45 percent in 1985. Just 26 percent said that news organizations are careful their reporting is not politically biased.
The market appears to be speaking about how it views "advocacy journalism" as practiced by the likes of the money-losing Washington Post, reduced to bragging that its decline in circulation may finally be starting to slow. Kept alive by its profitable Kaplan division, one can only marvel at what sort of independence Leonard Downie would expect to maintain living on the dole. Reporters would have lots of company, of course, joining the ranks of bankers, car manufacturers, ethanol producers, and climate scientists who rely on the public weal for their daily bread. But independence? When was the last time you heard taxpayer-subsidized NPR bite the hand that feeds it?
The amazing thing about Downie & Schudson's study is that the vast majority of the pages are actually devoted to describing the amazing ferment being generated by new news-gathering organizations empowered by the low barriers to entry afforded by the Web. These are supported by a bewildering array of new business models, all interacting in a dance of discovery and renewal that the authors seem to mistake for the last days of Pompeii. What clearly irks them is the lack of professional training and credentials that they believe are required to turn college kids who aren't sharp enough to study medicine, law, finance, or engineering into paeans of virtue imbued with an ethos of Olympian detachment and moral rectitude.
Gimme a break. Have you ever read a newspaper article about an event you personally attended wondering which other planet the reporter actually visited that day? Have you ever been interviewed by a journalist with a major newspaper who had any subject matter expertise on the material he was covering? Were you fooled for one minute that he hadn't already written his story and wasn't just looking for sound bites that would fit his preconceived notions? Did you notice how lazy he was about tracking down a diversity of independent sources and how easily he could be guided into a self-referring circle of cronies? And these are the professionals?
At least when you read a blog you know what axe the author is grinding. Who needs an editor with a 29% success rate to check the facts when you know that ten more bloggers are poised to pounce? And thanks to the Internet we can all get our own hands on the same source material the reporter is reading and decide for ourselves. Case in point is the Downie & Schudson study. Go read the mainstream press reports on it then Google up the original document. The contrast is illuminating.
In the current era of single party rule, is there any chance that this further intrusion of the government into our lives might actually come true? Might we one day be forced to pay a tax every time we make a cell phone call to make sure the Press Room in the White House is stuffed with even more reporters eager to credulously swallow whatever nonsense comes out of the President's mouth? Could truly independent newspapers be forced to compete with government subsidized lapdogs like, say, truly independent banks or car companies?

Bill Frezza is a partner at Adams Capital Management, an early-stage venture capital firm. He can be reached at If you would like to subscribe to his weekly column, drop a note to

Chin Music

by Louis Menand November 2, 2009

In 2008, half the people who watched the Fox News Channel were over sixty-three, which is the oldest demographic in the cable-news business, and, according to a poll, the majority of the ones who watched the most strident programs, such as Sean Hannity’s and Bill O’Reilly’s shows, were men. All that chesty fulminating apparently functions as political Cialis. Fox News shows should probably carry a warning: Contact your doctor if you have rage lasting more than four hours.
By effectively cornering the market on anti-Administration animus, Fox News has had a robust 2009 so far, and the recent decision by the White House to declare war on the channel is not likely to put a dent in the ratings. That decision has dispirited some of the President’s well-wishers. It has also puzzled them. In American politics, it should be considered a good thing when, after you have won a Presidential election by more than nine million votes, your chief critics accuse you of filling your Administration with Nazis, Maoists, anarchists, and Marxist revolutionaries. That is the voice of the fringe, and the fringe is exactly where you want the opposition to set up permanent shop.
One line of objection to the White House’s effort to ostracize Fox News is that Presidential wars against the press are always futile and self-defeating. Are they, though? So we are continually told by, well, the press. Actually, most people don’t especially love journalists, and press-bashing has a mixed history. Lyndon Johnson alternately schmoozed and browbeat editors and reporters and got nowhere with either tactic. On the other hand, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew demonized the press programmatically during their first term in office and were reĆ«lected by a near-record margin. Still, wars of words are distracting, and Obama campaigned as a listener—a contrast with his supremely deaf predecessor that was evidently welcomed by the electorate. Why are his spokespersons throwing red meat to Fox’s angry white men? Wouldn’t it be better to supply them with only tofu smoothies?
There is no point in splitting metaphysical hairs over the concept of objectivity: Fox News is a politically biased organization. It is the creature of Roger Ailes, a man who has as much claim as anyone to be called the founding father of mass-media politics. In 1967, Ailes was a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” in Philadelphia, when he met Richard Nixon. Nixon had every reason, after his disastrous performance in the 1960 Presidential debates, to regard television with dread, but Ailes persuaded him otherwise. Ailes left “The Mike Douglas Show” to help Leonard Garment and others invent the New Nixon, one of the great feats of modern advertising and the subject of Joe McGinnis’s book “The Selling of the President 1968.” Ailes later took over the cable channel CNBC; in 1996, Rupert Murdoch hired him to create the Fox News Channel. He knows his business.

    One of the things Ailes knows is that journalism has changed since Agnew referred to the press as “a tiny and closeted fraternity of privileged men.” In 1969, “the press” meant a handful of broadcast networks and a slightly bigger handful of nationally read papers and news magazines. In those days, one could plausibly talk about a media establishment. Everyone’s head fit into the group photo.
    No more. As Jeffrey E. Cohen documents in “The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News” (2008), the media has changed since 1968, as has the public’s relationship to it, and in complicated ways. There is a lot more news out there, but the audience for it is much smaller. And although political reporting today is both softer and more critical, it has less effect on how the public regards the President than it did back in the days of balanced disinterestedness.
    One manifestation of these changes has been mass-media niche journalism, a development, made possible by cable, whose opportunities Ailes was one of the first to appreciate. The more crowded and competitive this field becomes—more news chasing fewer newsies—the more journalism approaches the condition of coffee beans and major-league breaking balls: you never dreamed there could be so many varieties. But, unless you are an aficionado of political spin, you may prefer to grab the remote and start browsing for “Frasier” reruns. The market for news is narrowing down to people who need an ideological fix.
    This has led to widespread distrust of all news media. According to a recent Pew survey, public belief in the accuracy of news stories is at a twenty-year low. Only twenty-nine per cent of Americans think that news organizations generally get the facts right; sixty-three per cent think that news stories are often inaccurate; sixty per cent say that reporting is politically biased. Republicans have traditionally held the press in lower esteem than have Democrats, but the Pew survey shows that Democrats are pulling even. In the past two years alone, a period when Democrats had a lot of news to feel good about, Democratic distrust of the press grew by double digits.
    In a climate in which bias is increasingly taken for granted, cable channels have every incentive to enhance their appeal to their core constituencies. Among cable-news channels, Fox News is rated favorably by seventy-two per cent of Republicans against forty-three per cent of Democrats, and MSNBC is rated favorably by sixty per cent of Democrats against thirty-four per cent of Republicans. Many viewers treat Comedy Central as a news channel. Cable news, in short, is a sandbox. People throw things at one another, not just for fun but for profit. It is not a distinguished venue for statesmen or their surrogates to spend their time in.
    The dubious efficacy of a war on Fox News is not the only reason to feel qualms. It’s hard to kill the press, but it is not hard to chill it, and this appears to be the White House’s goal in the case of Fox. “The best analogy is probably baseball,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said—meaning that throwing a few inside fastballs, a little chin music, gets hitters to back off the plate. Maybe, but he should also remember that deliberately throwing at a batter is grounds for ejection. The state may, and should, rebut opinions that it finds obnoxious, but it should not single out speakers for the purpose of intimidating them. At the end of the day, you do not want your opponents to be able to say that they could not be heard. It may be exasperating, but that is what the First Amendment is all about. ♦

    Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Obama outs Fox, but reveals a big flaw

    Surely President Barack Obama and his advisers don't really think that their feud with Fox News will do anything but enhance the cable network's viewership. A deeper problem is what the flap reveals about Team Obama, which seems to be more comfortable with campaigning than governing.

    I'm not happy about that. It does not fill me with glee to see Fox News star Sean Hannity joyfully replaying Obama's 2004 come-together speech about how we're "not red states or blues states" but "the United States of America" and asking where is Obama's promise now?

    I don't agree with Hannity on much. He's only a tad more serious-minded as a news clown, in my grumpy view, than his colleague Glenn Beck. But, as much as my wife might run from the house when she hears me say it, Hannity's right on this one.

    Sure, it is disingenuous for right-wing pundits to accuse Obama of dividing the country, considering the five-star job they have done in turning us against each other. But if Obama is being judged by a different standard of civility, it is a standard he set for himself. He promised to bridge Washington's culture wars, not fire them up.

    That's why it was disappointing to hear what every administration does sooner or later, blame media for their problems. White House communications director Anita Dunn started the fracas by calling Fox "opinion journalism masquerading as news." Senior adviser David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel offered similar views and urged other media not to be led around by Fox on any stories.

    Obama defended his team while also noting that he didn't spend much time thinking about Fox. Right. So why talk about Fox in such harsh terms? When powerful people lash back at the media that cover them, they only make the media look sympathetic. They boost their adversary's audience with curiosity seekers who wonder what all the fuss is about.

    They also provoke a classic reflex: Other media and pundits from all sides circle their -- Our! -- wagons in solidarity, even when our embattled brothers and sisters make us feel like holding our noses while we defend the move.

    In fact, Fox is what their defenders say it is, not a political organization but a news operation. It just happens to have some strong right-wing voices like Beck and Hannity who happen to be two of Fox's biggest audience attractions. Such phenomena were forecast in the movie "Network" in 1976. Back then the idea of a half-deranged demagogue set loose on a national audience for the sake of ratings still sounded far-fetched. These days the movie looks almost like a documentary.

    But love Fox or hate it, it is a major news channel. Fox's credibility got a boost from two recent scoops that eventually caused other media to play catch-up: They hounded "green jobs" czar Van Jones into resigning, mainly because years earlier he signed a loony 9/11 "truther" petition, and they crusaded against the poor people's activist group ACORN, famously assisted by two young conservative freelance undercover reporters.

    So the White House is pushing back. The administration's real goal: raise questions with other reporters so they'll double-check anything they hear on Fox before they run with it. Try to isolate and marginalize Fox's voice. Cut off Fox's influence before it blossoms into the rest of the mainstream media.

    It's the sort of strategy that pops up when you're in campaign mode, a mode to which Obama's team is intimately familiar. But there also comes a time to ignore the yammering from the press box and pick up the olive branches of negotiations, compromise and reconciliation.

    That was the big take-away in Sen. Lamar Alexander's thoughtful speech last week. The Tennessee Republican, who worked for President Richard Nixon, cautioned Obama against creating a Nixon-like "enemies list" of media, industry or congressional adversaries. That's a wise warning, even if the "list" in Obama's case appears to have only one name on it.

    Hardball has its place. Obama doesn't have to cave in to his adversaries to get things done. But his inner circle could use the pragmatic, independent, old-school voice of, say, Ronald Reagan administration veterans like David Gergen, enlisted by Bill Clinton's White House, or Colin Powell, who has informally advised Obama.

    Every president needs campaign experts. But every president also needs people who know how to slip off to the private meeting and bring leaders together in ways that also bring the country together. That's the change we're waiting for.

    Friday, October 23, 2009