The Importance of Impertinent Questions

A reporter asked a tough question at a presidential news conference Wednesday, and it was one of the big stories of the day. Not the continued imprisonment of American hostages by our new best friends in Iran that prompted the question, nor the president’s newsworthy indignant non-response, but just the fact that a reporter had asked a tough question at a presidential news conference. This might seem odd, given all that’s going on the world, but by now there’s a certain dog-bites-man aspect to riots in Greece and Chinese stock market slides and American capitulations to nutcase regimes, while presidential news conferences are rare and tough questions being asked there even rarer.
The question was posed by Major Garrett, of all people, from CBS News, of all places, so that makes it all the more notable. After some gloating by the president about his newly-made deal with the government of Iran, Garrett asked: “Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges according to your administration and one whereabouts unknown. Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content with all the fanfare around this deal to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?” In non-response, the president offered a widely reported glare and replied, “I’ve got to give you credit for how you craft these questions. The notion that I’m content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails, Major, that’s — that’s nonsense, and you should know better.”
How Garrett should have known better was not explained in the president’s remarks, given the president’s apparent contentment with the deal, and that from the outset of his give-away-the-store negotiations he had agreed not to raise any “non-nuclear issues” such as the four Americans languishing in Iranian jails, and that the latest incidents in Iran’s long history of American hostage-taking would have once again gone entirely unmentioned if not for the impertinent question. Still, the rest of the assembled press corps, who took up the rest of the time asking tossing softballs and refusing to play defense against the presidential’s questionable assertions about his gloating, were quite shocked by the lese majeste of the query, and the president’s dwindling cadre of supports immediately took to Twitter and other social media to express their indignation.
The indignant panelists on CNN even spent a couple of hours of airtime that could have been devoted to the myriad flaws in the president’s deal or the rioting in Greece or the scary economic developments in China with much huffing and puffing about such flagrant disrespect for a president. Those panelists cited their long experience of covering presidential press conferences, but apparently it doesn’t stretch back far enough to recall the rough treatment that George W. Bush and other previous presidents used to get it. The second Bush considered it a good press conference when he didn’t have to dodge any shoes being thrown at him, or endure the cheerleading for the shoe-thrower from the rest of the press corps, and even the Democratic presidents of our recollection all were subjected to more pointed questions.
Perhaps Garrett’s question was crafted to imply a certain presidential insouciance about the hostage Americans, and perhaps we should more generously assume that the president does truly care about those Americans but just not enough to let it interfere with his capitulation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions for the sake of his legacy, but we’re glad it was asked nonetheless, and we’re pleased that Garrett thus far isn’t backing down to the criticism. That hostage-taking remains a part of Iran’s as defiant-as-ever anti-western crusade, and that the deal the president is gloating about does nothing to deter that country’s constant global trouble-making and instead provides them with hundreds of billions of dollars to do more of it, deserves some attention, and should raise doubts about the rest of it. A better press corps would have followed up on that question, but the one we’ve got was more offended that one of their own would be so gauche as the ask a rude question of this particular president.

— Bud Norman

The Race Is On

We’re still habitually writing 2014 on checks, but already the 2016 presidential race is underway. The Democrats still haven’t decided whether they’ll have a race or just hand a crown to Hillary Clinton, but there’s more than enough going on with the Republicans to keep the press happy.
There was a big confab of conservatives in inordinately influential Iowa that attracted many of the likely candidates, a few more likely candidates were conspicuous by their absence, a pair of very famous people have indicated an interest in joining the fray, and there seems to be a very wide and diverse field forming. All of it neatly serves one or another of the preferred press narratives, and while the potential Democratic candidates are dithering all the respectable media attention can be paid to those crazy Republicans and their traveling freak show.
The spectacle of Republican hopefuls seeking the support of conservatives, of all people, was almost too much for The Washington Post to bear. That oh-so-respectable publication’s report from Des Moines frets that the gathering of conservatives there “highlighted anew the thorny patch ahead for candidates as they try to attract support from the party’s conservative base without compromising their hopes for a general election.” They note that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was being lauded elsewhere in the paper for promising “adult conversations on big issues,” and former Massachusetts Governor and past presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is ruefully described as a past casualty of conservatism, declined invitations to the event, and one can’t help noticing the “tsk-tsk” between the lines as they contemplate the notion that such pillars of the party establishment did not feel welcome among such rabid Republicans as one finds in places such as Iowa.
As much as we appreciate The Washington Post’s deep, deep concern that the Republicans might be endangering their prospects of winning a presidential race, we think their worries are unwarranted. The conservatives’ insistence of stricter enforcement of immigration law and preference for lower taxes, the two issues the paper cites as reasons for Mitt Romney’s defeat in ’12 election, will likely prove a benefit to any Republican candidate after Romney’s resulted in tax hikes and amnesty for trainloads of unaccompanied minors from Central America. The reporters can’t seem to think of anything else on the conservative agenda that would compromise their hopes for a general election, and neither can we. A greater worry would result from nominating a candidate that fails to bring out the conservative base, as happened with Romney.
There’s still abortion, same-sex marriage, and a host of other social issues, including almost daily new ones involving acronyms and neologisms and exceedingly rare behaviors that are still unfamiliar to most Americans, so the quadrennial stories about the Titanic of the Republican party ramming into the iceberg of conservatism can always make do with that. In yet another Washington Post dispatch we learn that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal skipped the Iowa event not because he was insufficiently conservative but in order to accept an invitation to speak at a “controversial” prayer rally in his home state, where he “called for a national spiritual revival and urged event attendees to proselytize on behalf of their Christian beliefs.” This particular prayer rally is apparently controversial because it was organized by the American Family Association, which hews to traditional Christian beliefs about sexual morality, but the paper doesn’t go so far as to find anything controversial Christians retaining a freedom of speech. Once again there’s that deep, deep concern that the Republicans might be making a mistake, but if opposition to abortion was such a challenge to general election chances the party wouldn’t have won anything in the last 43 years, and while same-sex marriage is polling a bit better than even these days we don’t sense that the public wants to start enforcing proper opinions on the matter, and by 2016 the Democratic party’s association with all the craziness that’s going on in the cultural left won’t do it any benefit. Jindal has also lately been outspoken about the Islamic roots of Islamic terrorism, and we can’t expect that the press will also find that controversial, but it shouldn’t prove a general election problem.
For the benefit of the press caricaturists who wish to to portray the craziness of the Republicans, however, we might see the entrance of former Alaska Governor and past vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin as well as real estate mogul and television reality show star Donald Trump. We rather like Palin, and delight in the way she drives all the right people insane, but after too few years in office and too many years of relentless ridicule by the late night comics of the left she’s unlikely to win the nomination and all too likely to distract from the more accomplished candidate who does. We don’t particularly like Trump, and find no reason whatsoever he should be president and see no plausible argument that he ever could be president, but he does have an undeniable ability to attraction attention to himself. Between the two the press could easily pay diminished attention to an otherwise impressive slate of candidates, and those late night comics of the left will surely do so.
Among the candidates that have impressed us is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose bold reforms have so enraged the public sector unions that he was forced to survive a recall election that featured state legislators fleeing to other states as rowdy mobs rampaged through the state capitol, as well as a bruising but successful re-election campaign, and we note from the oh-so-respectable but frequently reliable The Hill that Walker a big hit at the Iowa gathering. The paper went so far as to say he “shows fire,” a significant compliment given the governor’s reputation in the press as a rather blandly polite midwestern sort of fellow, although we think blandly polite might play well after eight years of the world’s greatest orator and most petulant president, and it further noted that he stressed his own conservatism, which we sense they did not intend as a compliment. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in Walker’s home state reported that he told the Iowans to “go big and go bold,” but over at the National Review they note that Wisconsin’s legislative agenda includes a right-to-work law and a gambling casino, and worry that the governor’s presidential ambitions might prevent him from going big and bold on either issue. We’ll be watching to see how the governor responds, and will be disappointed if he doesn’t back the right-to-work bill in order to prevent a round of drum circles and hippie sleep-ins at the capitol building. Right-to-work is good economics and, well, a right, and even in Wisconsin it’s good politics these days, and nightly newscasts full of dirty hippies protesting your policies isn’t going to hurt a bit. The gambling thing is trickier, as even conservatives are split on the advisability of the government getting into the monopolized gambling business, but after all Walker’s been through he should survive any outcome on the issue.
Walker’s just one of several Republican governors who have brought greater prosperity to their states with conservative reforms, however, and at least three senators who have an expressed an interest in the presidency also warrant consideration. We can’t see the party giving Romney another chance, and we expect that Bush’s stands on immigration and common core and a general sort of big government-run compassionate conservatism associated with his family will be more than money and organization can overcome, but even those men have real accomplishments they can point to. Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and former high-tech businesswoman Carly Fiorina have never held public office, and Fiorina lost a senatorial bid in heavily Democratic California, but both bring impressive resumes and appealing personalities and common sense conservatism as well the ethnic and sexual identities that Democrats like to claim. They represent a wide range of views being passionately debated in the party, which could be considered a sign of Republican vigor, but the stories will tell of petty infighting between the crazies and the moderately crazy. Should the moderately crazy prevail, once again, the press will then begin to describe them as merely crazy.
Meanwhile, over on the Democratic side, the few stories we find about potential challengers usually mention Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who isn’t so frank about her political ideology. We’ll be on the lookout for any stories fretting that any Democratic nomination race that might break out would drag Hillary Clinton too far to the left, but given that socialism isn’t so controversial as Christianity and the press isn’t nearly so concerned about the political fortunes of the Democrats it might take a while.

— Bud Norman

Two More Scandals to Consider

So many scandals are afoot that it’s hard to muster the necessary outrage for any new ones, but the recent revelations about the Veterans Administration and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency are worth noting. Both are outrageous even by the jaded standards of the moment, and both make important points about ongoing debates.
Some government officials are still insisting that there’s no proof anybody died as a result of what happened at a VA hospitals in Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and elsewhere, but that’s the best spin they’ve been able to put on it. There are allegations that hospitals in those states used off-the-books waiting lists to get around a federal requirement that veterans in need of care be seen within 14 days of calling for an appointment, which had been made after widespread complaints of dangerous delays, and the claims are being taken seriously. Congress has launched yet another investigation, and some Republicans have already joined the American Legion in calling for the secretary of veterans’ affairs to resigns. The president has appointed his deputy chief of staff to investigate the matter, and the even the usually respectful reporters at Reuters acknowledge that “The move demonstrated White House concern that the issue is taking on growing political weight.”
Less attention has been paid, for some reason, to the release by ICE of 36,007 criminals who were awaiting deportation hearings last year. The agency’s catch-and-release program freed 193 illegal aliens who had been convicted of homicide, including one who had murdered a public official, 426 with sexual assault convictions, 303 convicted kidnappers, and more than 16,000 with drunk or drugged driving records. Texas’ Rep. Lamar Smith said it “would be considered the worst prison break in American history, except that it was sanctioned by the president and perpetrated by our own immigration officials,” but few others were willing to address the matter with such candor. Another 36,0007 criminals on the streets doesn’t warrant much attention from the press, which seems more concerned that photo identification requirements might prevent the undocumented fellows from voting, but to the extent that the public is aware it will likely be miffed.
These stories will have to compete for space with the Benghazi and Internal Revenue Service scandals and the continuing sluggishness of the economy and all the crisis that are popping up from the South China Sea to Iran to Ukraine and beyond, but we hope they’ll find some room as the country considers what to do about Obamacare and the millions of people illegally in the country. The poor care being provided for the nation’s relatively small number of veterans should raise doubts about the government’s ability to run health care for the rest of the country, and the administration’s willingness to unloose 36,007 convicted on the streets should bolster arguments that it can’t trusted to enforce any closed-border provisions that might be tacked onto an amnesty plan. If the stories raise further doubts about the government’s ability to manage the entire economy and maintain some semblance of international order, so much the better.

— Bud Norman

A Friendly Visit From the FCC

Those friendly folks at the Federal Communications Commission are planning a visit to your local newsroom, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception they’ll receive. If they drop by here we’ll be tempted to greet them with a combination of the First and Second Amendments, but we worry they’ll be greeted cordially at the more respectable publications.
The visits are entirely voluntary and merely a matter of intellectual curiosity, we are assured, and intended only to gather helpful information about how the various media decide which stories to report. More specifically, they hope to find out about the “processes” radio and televisions stations use in making their editorial judgments and how often they provide the “critical information needs” of news consumers. It strikes us as chilling that the government now concerns itself with the thoughts underlying the perfectly legal and openly expressed opinions of the media, and has already reached its own conclusions about what information citizens critically need, and one wonders how “voluntary” an invitation can be when issued by the agency that grants a newsroom license to broadcast, but we are assured this is merely right-wing paranoia.
Such assurances would be more reassuring if the government hadn’t lately been using the Internal Revenue Service to harrass the administration’s political opponents, the Department of Justice hadn’t been treating reporters’ investigative journalism as a criminal conspiracy, the National Security Agency wasn’t snooping around Americans’ phone records, and the United States hadn’t recently dropped another 13 spots to 46th place on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings. Our concerns do seem relegated to the conservative corners of the media, judging by the sources of the scant attention being paid to the FCC’s plans, but the quietude of the rest makes it all the more troubling.
The Fox New Network is on the story, possibly because they’re the ones whose reporters have treated as criminal co-conspirators and excluded from the White House news pool and routinely criticized by every level of the administration, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the radio talk shows have been paying some attention for obvious reasons of their own, but otherwise the story has gone largely unnoted. In our years of journalism we endured many a journalist’s self-righteous sermon about the obligation of the press to bravely resist any governmental interference, but that was mostly during Republican administrations, when nothing like the FCC’s current curiosity and the nation’s slide down the rankings of press freedom ever occurred, and at this moment of hope and change none of the over-the-air networks seem terribly concerned that their notions of the news consumers’ critical information needs will differ much from the government’s.
There’s little chance that the FCC will bother with such far-flung internet publications as this, but if they take a mind to we will save the taxpayers the cost of a visit. We select the stories we write about by a process of finding something that piques our interest or provides an opportunity for embittered satire, and we believe that Americans critically need to be informed that the government is getting too nosy and bossy, and that freedom of the press shall not be abridged.

— Bud Norman

Burying the Lead

An abysmal jobs report had the economy briefly back in news last Friday. The press feels obliged to report on these monthly pronouncements as a matter of journalistic ritual, and this time the numbers included so few new jobs and so many people giving up hope of ever finding one that there was no plausible way of explaining it as the Obama administration’s latest triumph, so there was a rather perfunctory feeling to the reports. As usual the news was described as “unexpected,” administration officials were quoted expressing appropriate concern, and the requisite amount of journalistic hand-wringing was applied, but one could sense that the reporters were eager to return to the livelier topics of gay marriage, gun control, or the latest celebrity shenanigans.
In some cases there was a game attempt to blame the “sequester,” and thus by implication by the Republicans, but that also seemed unenthused. It’s hard to blame federal budget cuts for the unemployment rate when the public sector remains all too healthy, by now it is well established that the whole sequester idea originated within the White House, and the news writers seem to have grown as bored with the whole subject as their readers. The press will keep trying to blame heartless Republican parsimoniousness, wedded as it is to the idea that catastrophe will surely ensue if the government doesn’t keep growing at a steady 6 percent or so every year, but explaining this convoluted theory apparently requires more effort than the ink-stained wretches can currently muster.
No other explanation comes to mind for the lack of attention being to the economy, given the old media’s usual giddy enthusiasm for the suffering of the common man. We can recall times of 5 percent unemployment during our newspaper days when the editors were adamant that we find a suitably sympathetic fellow who was out of work and demanding some government action, but now the press seems far less concerned with his plight and perhaps a bit worried that all the trillions of dollars of government action that are already going on might be the reason that a much larger number of equally sympathetic fellows are out of work. If it’s not an ideological bias on the part of the press, perhaps all that down-sizing at America’s newspapers has made it difficult to find any unemployed people other than former colleagues.
The past week also brought the news that America’s poverty rate has reached a level not seen since the ‘60s, but only the most were likely to have seen it. Back in the ‘60s the poverty rate was such a huge story that a “War on Poverty” broke out, with bureaucrats funneling billions of dollars into rural backwaters and urban ghettos, but this time around the few desultory press accounts seem intent only on preserving the status quo. An Associated Press reporter weighed in a story that featured the obligatory anecdote, but the best they could come up with was a formerly poor fellow who’s been lifted out of poverty with help from a Catholic charity. The subject’s poverty seems to have followed his cocaine and heroin addictions, habits that tend to induce poverty even the most booming of times, and his salvation was affected not only with privately-raised funds but with money from one of those faith-based charities that George W. Bush was so gauchely wild about, but the story still manages to conclude on a note of blaming budget-cutting Republicans. Any non-heroin-addicted poor people who aren’t being hired because of the regulatory costs will likely have to await a change of administrations for any press attention.

— Bud Norman

Inauguration Day

President Barack Obama took the oath of office for a second term on Sunday afternoon. According to the reports it was an uncharacteristically low-key affair, arranged solely to satisfy the requirements of that pesky constitution, but there is plenty of appropriately expensive hoopla planned for today.
At the risk of sounding insufficiently respectful of the office, we’ll be doing our best to ignore it all. Obama’s first term was marked by the sluggish economic growth, vigorous expansion of an ever more meddlesome government, and declining American power that we had expected at the time of his first inauguration, and we now expect that a nation which voted for four more years of the same will wind up getting far worse. This could have been the day America began putting its finances in order, returning government to its proper limited role, and resuming the country’s leadership role in the world, but an electoral majority of the people decided to put all that bother off in favor another 99 months of unemployment checks.
None of which puts us in a celebratory mood. At least the hype should be more easily avoided this time around, so in some ways this inauguration will be less troublesome than the first.
Four years ago the inaugural festivities were inescapable. After eight years of relentless Bush-bashing from all corners of the media Obama had been elected on vague promises of hope and change, and the inauguration was regarded with an unsettling worshipfulness by a public that had only the vaguest idea what sort of change it was hoping for. There was the added angle of America’s first black president, too, heaping an extra guilt-ridden helping of historical significance onto the occasion. Obama came in to office with the most adulatory press coverage any president had ever enjoyed, compliant majorities in both houses of Congress, and sky-high approval ratings, to the point that there simply weren’t enough stations on the radio to avoid the resulting giddiness.
This time around Obama comes in with a smaller percentage of the vote after a scorched-earth campaign of hysterical vitriol against his political opponents, with a Republican majority in the House that was elected on a promise to rein in his most ambitious legislative goals, and a mere 50 percent approval rating in the latest Gallup poll. What’s left of Newsweek is heralding the inauguration as a “Second Coming,” and similarly religious imagery pops up here and there, but for the most the part the press can’t seem to muster the same messianic enthusiasm it once had. The only person we’ve encountered lately who seemed unduly enthused about the second term was slightly drunk, and even he wound up admitting that the whole Benghazi thing was an utter fiasco and that the debt has been piling up too high and will probably continue to do so.
In other ways, though, this time around feels even worse. It was bad enough to see the country fall for all that hope and change nonsense of ’08 race, and embrace a creepy cult of personality that is entirely unsuited to a free nation, but even more dispiriting to see it re-elect Obama without even the pretense of such optimistic delusions. The only rationale for Obama’s re-election was an obstinate unwillingness to face up to the country’s harrowing fiscal reality, along with a resultant willingness to believe the worst about anyone who might make the hard choices that are still available, and it looks as though the second term will be marked by the same cynical attacks on anyone who dares try to slow the nation’s headlong rush toward to financial insolvency.
The president used the last press conference of his first term to charge that the Republicans wish to see old people starving in the streets, or at least that they are “suspicious” of his heroic efforts to prevent that calamity, and while most of the media have abandoned the implausible claim that Obama is the messiah they’re still willing to echo the message that his opposition is the devil. One can still hope the House will still restrain Obama’s spending, or merely limit its increases to a level that will allow the country to forestall catastrophe long enough to get a more responsible president, and the mass protests against his gun-grabbing proclivities have already begun, but at best it will be a bitter fight with the sort of divisiveness that the president seems to relish.
By strange coincidence this inauguration day falls on what we are told is the most depressing day of every day, the “Blue Monday” when the holiday cheerfulness has entirely dissipated and the reality of a cold and dark winter settles in on the human psyche. Perhaps it’s just this calendar and the climate, but this is a bluer Monday than most.

— Bud Norman

Foreign Affairs and the Full Court Press

Four Americans are dead after the sacking of the American embassy in Libya on Tuesday, the embassy in Egypt was again under siege on Wednesday in what now appears to be a coordinated attack, embassies throughout the region are threatened, and the Israeli Prime Minister still cannot arrange a meeting with the American president about the increasingly likely possibility of a war with Iran. Quite naturally, much of the American media is most concerned about how all of this will affect the prospects for the re-election President Barack Obama.

Even as they pilloried Republican rival Mitt Romney for “politicizing” the embassy attacks, reporters and pundits were striving mightily to limit whatever political damage might have been inflicted by the attacks. With no plausible way to blame Romney for the events, they settled for scolding for his effrontery in criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and the embassy’s initial apologetic response the violence.

The differing treatment of the two candidates was starkly apparent in their respective appearances before the media on Wednesday. Obama made a brief statement at the White House, vowing that “Justice will be done” without offering any hint how that might be accomplished, then turned and walked away as a couple of reporters attempted to shout questions. In a later interview with the Spanish-language television network Telemundo, Obama insisted that now “is not the time for politics,” then promptly moved to another interview to disparage his opponent for giving interviews about the events.

Meanwhile, at a Romney news conference, the Republican was facing a coordinated attack by the press corps. Following the official Obama line that an election is no time to be discussing the wisdom of a president’s foreign policy, the reporters took turns demanding to know how Romney dare to offer a dissenting opinion.

The upside to the attacks, as far as the reporters seem to be concerned, is that is spares them the unpleasant duty of asking any impertinent questions about the sorry state of American-Israeli relations. Someone named Mike Barnicle attempted the most creative preemptive argument for Obama by openly wondering whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameni is “the more dangerous player on the world stage right now,” but even his fellow lefties on the MSNBC network seemed to think that was taking things a bit too far.

Despite the best efforts of the news writers, though, questions regarding the conduct of our foreign policy over the past years will inevitably be asked. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government that allowed the embassy attacks was ushered in when Obama demanded that unsavory but generally reliable American ally Hosni Mubarak step down, the Libyan mobs gathered after Obama had used American military might to depose that country’s odious yet recently compliant dictator, and Romney rightly argues that the result of Obama’s “open hand” policy has not yielded any benefits to the region or America.

Which is probably why the reporters prefer to keep their attention on the challenger, but the questions cannot be put off forever. It is becoming clear that Tuesday’s embassy attacks were not the result of anger over an anti-Islamic film that is little-known and ineptly made even by the cinematic standards of the Middle East, but rather a coordinated effort by diligent anti-American forces that won’t be placated by apologies or cowed by the vows of Barack Obama. Should the Israelis decide that they have no option but to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, with or without the support of the American president, the administration’s failings on that front will also be impossible to ignore.

At the very least, the conceit of Obama’s ’08 campaign that his dark skin, Islamic middle name, and silver-tongued oratory would give him such an effective rapport with the Third World that the harsher methods of the Bush years would no longer be needed has been decisively debunked. He’s now reduced to the same sorts of vows of vengeance that earned Bush a reputation as a shoot-first cowboy, even as he accuses Romney of the same thing, and it will be interesting to see what mythology the press contrives as a replacement for his lost reputation as a peacemaker.

— Bud Norman