Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Truth About Midterms

The president spoke at a Democrat fundraiser in Miami a few days ago — and, once again, the former constitutional law professor demonstrated an amazing lack of understanding of how things work in America.

That's really remarkable, given the fact that the man has run in two national campaigns and has been immersed in the Washington political culture for nearly a decade — in addition to the time he spent teaching constitutional law.

I know that most Americans really have no knowledge of American history, but I've always wanted to believe that the president, whoever he happened to be, was more knowledgeable than the average American — if only because he or someone acting on his behalf researched something before he opened his mouth.

When he said that Democrats "do pretty well in presidential elections" but "get clobbered" in midterms, Obama was playing the victim card once again.

Surely, I thought to myself, he must know better than that. He's been to college, where he must have had to study some history. He's written books, which required him to write and think about history. He's been president, a role in which he has made history, for more than five years. He knows it isn't as simple as he suggests.

He isn't stupid, is he?

Maybe he has a selective memory. Or at least a very short–term one that doesn't predate his presidency.

Granted, his only experience with midterms during his presidency wasn't a good one. The Democrats did get clobbered. They lost 64 seats in the House.

And, from that same perspective, presidential election years have been better for Democrats, at least during the Obama era. In the years when he was at the top of the ballot, Democrats gained seats in Congress.

But that is how it usually is for presidents, regardless of party. Historically, midterms have been referendums on presidencies. Most of the time, they aren't favorable, even when a popular president sits in the Oval Office. The lower a president's job approval ratings are, the worse midterm elections tend to be.

(And that doesn't bode well for Obama, whose approval ratings are generally worse now than they were at this point in the 2010 election cycle.)

Obama's presidency only covers the last six years — actually, it is more like years right now. In the context of the lifespan of a nation that will celebrate the 238th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence this July, that is less than 3% of the total. Even if you calculate that lifetime from 1789, when George Washington was elected America's first president, it still represents less than 3% of the total.

In 2006, the last midterm election of the George W. Bush presidency — two years before Obama was elected president and while he was serving in the U.S. Senate — Republicans lost more than 30 House seats and six Senate seats. Democrats seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994.

I'm quite sure he must have been aware of that when it happened.

In fact, midterms nearly always go against the party that holds the White House. In the last half–century, there have been only two exceptions to that rule — 2002, when voters rallied around the party in power just after the 9–11 attacks, and 1998, when there was a backlash against Republicans for their attempt to impeach Bill Clinton.

Otherwise, the president's party has, to use Obama's expression, been "clobbered."

Well, clobbered isn't always the best word. Sometimes, it hasn't been so bad. In 1990, George H.W. Bush's Republicans lost only one Senate seat and eight House seats as the nation was mobilizing for the Gulf War. Historically, that sort of loss is probably typical.

But sometimes it has been terrible. Clinton's Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1994 (nine Senate seats, 54 House seats). Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 1986 midterms (eight seats flipped) and lost quite a bit of ground (27 seats) in the House in the 1982 midterms.

There was a time when massive losses were the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time, losses were kept to a handful of seats either way. In 1978, for example, Jimmy Carter's Democrats lost only three seats in the Senate and 15 seats in the House, which may have hinted at but certainly didn't predict Carter's landslide loss in 1980.

In fact, Carter's party suffered losses in 1978 that were dwarfed by the hit the Republicans took in the Watergate midterm of 1974 (five Senate seats and 48 House seats), but the Republican president, Gerald Ford, did much better against Carter in 1976 than Carter did against Reagan in 1980.

That was probably more characteristic of the way things used to be — when most midterm shifts were modest. In those days, massive midterm losses were more rare. When they happened, you knew that habitually long–suffering Americans were running out of patience.

But voters haven't been showing a lot of midterm patience in the last couple of decades — and they have almost never had much patience with the president's party in the sixth year of a presidency.

That alone made Democrats vulnerable in 2014 — along with the fact that the party's success in congressional elections the year Obama was elected president means Democrats have to defend twice as many Senate seats as Republicans. The problems caused by Obamacare and the concern over Russian aggression — as well as lingering scandals — have made the landscape even more treacherous for Democrats.

I mentioned Reagan's problems in the 1986 midterms — and his approval rating before the election was more than 60%.

Dwight Eisenhower's Republicans lost 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats in 1958 — and Ike's approval rating was in the 50s.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't immune. His popularity was in the 50s prior to the 1938 midterms, but his Democrats lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats.

Now, I realize that politicians have to project a sense of urgency to get a response from their usually reliable financial backers. Perhaps that is what Obama was doing in Miami — just stirrin' things up, hoping for a reaction. He must know that midterms are seldom kind to sixth–year presidencies, and it usually takes extraordinary circumstances to change that.

Obama's job approval will have a direct bearing on what happens on Election Day.

Based on Gallup's latest numbers (Obama at 43% approval), the president has a lot to do.

Does he have enough time to do it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Searching for a Missing Jet

The longer the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing now for more than a week, goes on, the more frantic and hysterical some people seem to be.

At least, that is what I gather from some of the theories they are putting forth.

I'll grant you that it is an intriguing mystery, but it is not a cause for panic.

I guess I owe my calm to my training as a journalist. When you work for newspapers, you learn quickly that very seldom (if ever) can you give your readers the whole story on something important the first time. It tends to dribble out over time, especially if you're dealing with people who are intent on keeping the truth hidden. Heck, it took Woodward and Bernstein nearly a year of writing about the Watergate break–in before the Senate started calling witnesses to testify before a special committee — and it was another year after that before the House began considering articles of impeachment.

Journalists have to keep a cool head — and keep their eyes on the prize. Just because the answer isn't obvious doesn't mean it can't be found. Journalists must be patient.

I'm not saying this jet went missing because of a criminal act, that it has been hijacked or anything like that — although there are some who have been saying that for several days now. It may well turn out to be a terrorist act, but, without any evidence, I find that assertion to be, at the very least, irresponsible.

After all, the idea behind terrorism is to make sure that the people you want to terrorize know what you have done. The plane has been missing for nearly two weeks, and no one has claimed responsibility for its disappearance or made any demands.

Some have suggested things that are even more dramatic and implausible — alien abduction, for example, or a meteor strike.

Courtney Love rejected the alien theory (but not the meteor theory), claiming that she had found the plane or, at least, she had found evidence of it — in an aerial photo of water in which she claimed she could see an oil slick. Rush Limbaugh suggested that the jet was shot down by a "hostile country."

Some of the theories that have been put forth are even more absurd. Few, though, are as absurd as the paranoid assertion that terrorists were behind the plane's disappearance.

So what did happen to it?

The most plausible explanation I have heard so far comes from Chris Goodfellow, an experienced pilot writing at He says he believes an electrical fire on board the plane led to the disappearance (and probable crash, either on land somewhere or in the sea, when the plane ran out of fuel).

My advice is this: Speculation won't accelerate the discovery of the plane or what is left of it (if, indeed, it is discovered), but as long as your attention is on the Eastern Hemisphere, you might want to pay closer attention to what is happening in Russia and the Ukraine.

What is happening there is sending signals to other potential hotspots, such as China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran ...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Unheeded Cry for Help

Fifty years ago today, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death a short distance from her home in Queens, N.Y.

By itself, that isn't too noteworthy, but there were unusual circumstances that made the case stand out, primarily the fact that more than three dozen of her neighbors apparently heard her screaming for help — but did nothing to assist the 5–foot–1, 105–pound woman.

Why? It was probably explained best in a simple comment one of the neighbors made to a New York Times reporter: "I didn't want to get involved."

The attack lasted roughly 30 minutes. The assailant apparently selected Genovese at random and was chased off twice after he started stabbing her — the first time when a neighbor shouted from his apartment window, "Hey, let that girl alone!" and the second time when other windows started opening and the attacker decided to go move his car — but returned twice, the last time to finish off the semiconscious victim, who had managed to get inside one of the buildings.

Her killer found her by following the trail of blood she left behind. He finished her off, then raped her corpse.

About 40–45 minutes after the attack began, one of the neighbors called the police — after first calling a friend for advice on what to do. The police arrived in a couple of minutes; in the course of their investigation, they found 38 witnesses who had heard or seen at least a portion of the attack.

He suggested the witnesses may have been confused by what they were seeing and hearing.

An investigator told the press that Genovese might have survived if the police had been summoned when the attack began; otherwise, there didn't seem to be anything too unusual about the murder at first. It received scant coverage in the newspapers, and little was said in the investigators' report.

"This tendency to shy away from reporting crimes is a common one," the deputy police commissioner said at the time — and, in fact, the case drew no special attention.

Until two weeks later, when the New York Times ran an article with the headline "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call."

The case was troubling for many people who wondered how civilized humans could stand by and do nothing while a young woman was being brutally murdered. Some offered the explanation that they thought it was a lovers' quarrel, and they didn't want to interfere.

One psychiatrist said the failure of the witnesses to act promptly may have been at least partly because of television. "We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain," he said. "The immediate effect can be delusional, equivalent to a sort of post–hypnotic suggestion."

There were numerous theories offered to explain why no one did anything, but none was satisfactory. The Times, in a hand–wringing editorial, wondered why that was. "Seldom has The Times published a more horrifying story," the editorial said, "than its account of how 38 respectable, law–abiding, middle class Queens citizens watched a killer stalk his young woman victim ... without one of them making a call to the Police Department that might have saved her life."

Fear was a plausible reason, I suppose. The city of Boston, about 200 miles to the northeast of New York, had been gripped by the fear of the "Boston strangler" killings around that time. The thought of that may have intimidated some of the witnesses.

But, in the end, it was still hard to rationalize what had happened.

Folks are still trying to make sense of it. Karen Matthews writes for the Associated Press that the case still fascinates people half a century later.

"Kitty Genovese's screams for help couldn't save her on the night she was murdered outside her apartment in 1964," Matthews writes. "Fifty years later, those screams still echo, a symbol of urban breakdown and city dwellers' seeming callousness toward their neighbors."

There are those who, much like the folks who deny the Holocaust, argue that Genovese's murder was not quite what it has been made out to be. Some people, including author Kevin Cook who just published a book on the subject, take issue with various parts of the story, including the number of witnesses.

Some observe that Times metro editor A.M. Rosenthal had lunch with the city's police commissioner about 10 days after the murder, and the commissioner mentioned the case, prompting Rosenthal to send a reporter out to Queens to get a compelling story.

And the reporter came back with a compelling story.

The Genovese case was responsible, I think, for the designation "the bystander effect," a psychological phenomenon in which the more witnesses there are, the less likely people are to help an individual in distress. They conclude that someone else is sure to call the authorities, that such a call may already have been made.

In the long story of human history, I'm sure something similar must have happened before Genovese was slain, but, for whatever reason, it never caught the public's attention the way the Genovese case did.

If you want to find something good that came from the case, Matthews points out that "[i]t has been credited with spurring adoption of the 911 system in 1968 as well as 'Good Samaritan' laws that give legal protection to people who help those in trouble." And that is good.

The emergence of mobile technology makes it easier for people to reach out for assistance as well.

So I suppose the question is: Can a Genovese case happen in the 21st century?

And my answer is: I don't know. Modern technology might not make a difference. I gather that most, if not all, of Genovese's neighbors had access to telephones.

The "bystander effect" might still apply, anyway, whether the phones were mobile or landline.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Voting

"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable."

G.K. Chesterton

I read with interest an article by Peter Grier in the Christian Science Monitor that sought to clarify what recent poll numbers indicate.

For example,the Associated Press found that, while the majority believe the president is a nice guy, two–thirds rate his presidency as average at best — and nearly half rate his presidency below average. Clearly, liking the president and liking his agenda are two separate things.

I guess one of the most intriguing quotes I read said, in effect, Barack Obama seems like a nice guy, someone I might like to hang out with, but I like a lot of people and most of them aren't qualified to be president.

That's the part of public opinion polling that I have never fully comprehended, I guess. I get that people want to feel good about the people for whom they vote, but, please, try to understand. I was a child during the Nixon years. No one seemed to like him, not even people who voted for him, yet he was elected president twice. The second time he was elected, he got a higher share of the popular vote than anyone in American history except Lyndon Johnson.

The lesson I took from that was somewhat Machiavellian, I guess — a leader does not have to be loved or even liked. (Yet, the questions that are put to modern voters about their political choices — Which candidate do you like best? Which candidate would you rather have a beer with? — suggest that likability is the only thing voters consider.)

But a leader does need to lead.

Being liked simply isn't a requirement of the job. It's a plus, but it isn't necessary. And my assessment, after the special election in Florida, is that Democrats relied too much on the impression that Obama is generally well liked — and gave too little credibility to voter opposition to the policy.

I know that voters want to like the people for whom they vote, but I have voted in many elections, and I know it isn't always possible to like the candidates for whom you choose to vote.

When you're casting your vote, my experience is that you are more likely to encounter a race in which you really don't like either of the candidates as you are to encounter a race in which you do like them. (Most of the time, there will probably be one candidate you like better than the other.)

In every election, though, you really have two options. You can skip voting in that race entirely (you certainly aren't required to vote in every race on your ballot, and I generally do skip at least one such race every election), or, if you have no clear preference in the likability department, you can choose a candidate based on other (usually more important) factors, such as the candidates' relevant experience and records of achievement.

That, too, can be exaggerated, but the truthfulness of what a candidate says about himself or herself can be easily verified by enterprising reporters. So, too, can the success or failure of the policies and programs with which a candidate and/or the candidate's party are linked in the public mind.

Which brings me to the special election in Florida.

It's hard, in the aftermath of yesterday's special election in Florida's 13th congressional district, to avoid wondering just how much of an influence the low popularity of Barack Obama and the implementation of his signature achievement, the passage of Obamacare, had on the outcome — and, by extension, how much it will affect other races across the country in November.

Predictably, Democrats are downplaying the Obamacare part of it. Instead, they are pointing out that Republicans narrowly held on to a seat they have won comfortably for decades. Party cheerleader Debbie Wasserman Schultz was spinning so fast today that the loss amazingly became a positive.

Just as predictably, the Republicans are calling this an early indication of a national rejection of Obamacare. They dismiss the fact that the Republican winner was held under 50% in the three–candidate race. House Speaker John Boehner called it a "big win," which is a considerable stretch.

But here's the bottom line: The special election in Florida's 13th was a "must–win" for Democrats, in the words of political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

For years, Democrats have been anticipating a takeover when the seat was open. After all, Democratic presidential nominees have carried the district in five of the last six national elections. But the takeover did not happen.

After the votes were counted, Rothenberg wrote this: "The Republican special election win doesn't guarantee anything for November. But it is likely to put Democrats even more on the defensive, undermining grassroots morale and possibly adding fuel to the argument that Democratic dollars should go toward saving the Senate than fighting for the House."

That's about the size of it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Not-So-Special Special Election

What is there to be made of the results of today's special election to fill the vacancy in Florida's 13th District?

Even though I know that, in the days ahead, both parties will spin the outcome in the direction that makes them look better than the other, I'm inclined to think there isn't a lot to conclude. Someone had to win, but I think it is more of a draw more than anything else.

There's some good and some bad for everyone.

The election — to fill the vacancy left by the death last October of Bill Young, who held the seat more than 40 years and for whom the winner, Republican David Jolly, served as general counsel — didn't really tell us much. The polls closed there a couple of hours ago, and it is already known that, with 100% of the precincts reporting, Jolly received 48.5% of the vote, Democrat Alex Sink received 47% of the vote and Libertarian Lucas Overby took 5%.

Republicans will say that this is proof that Democrats will struggle under the burden of Obamacare this year — and perhaps that is true, although you really can't draw that conclusion based on the results of one special election for a seat that has been held by Republicans for decades.

Another Republican was elected to complete the current two–year term, but his support level was far below his predecessor's — ever. Even when Republicans were getting hammered nationally in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned, Young, then a two–term congressman, received in excess of three–fourths of the vote.

Young, as I mentioned before, was more of a centrist than most of his Republicans colleagues are perceived to be.

The results did indicate a certain amount of loyalty to the deceased congressman. And, if the Libertarian had not been on the ballot, it is conceivable that Jolly would have received a majority of the vote. But even if Jolly had swept all of Overby's votes, he would not have matched Young's performance in 2012 — or in any other election since 1970.

Before the election, Democrats wanted people to believe the times they are a–changin' in Florida's 13th. Perhaps they are. But that, too, is far from clear.

Barack Obama carried the district in 2008 and 2012, and Democrats were hopeful that this was indicative of a permanent shift. But I'm inclined to see it as proof that, while Young's district is a reasonably reliable bellwether for national politics, it isn't necessarily so on the congressional level.

Young won 22 consecutive elections, even in years that weren't good for Republicans nationally; while Young's constituency did change as district lines were redrawn every 10 years, the same voters that sent Young to Congress voted for nine of the winners in the 11 presidential elections that were held during Young's tenure (10 winners if you count Al Gore's popular vote victory over George W. Bush in 2000).

The real bottom line for Democrats is that they still need 17 seats to grab a narrow majority in the House. They had hoped to bring the number down to 16, which would have been a steep uphill climb as it was. It will be harder still to find that 17th seat this November.

Republicans are likely to retain their advantage in the House. Currently, most observers see little, if any, movement in the midterm elections this fall.

But what do the results of today's election tell us about the Republicans' prospects for winning the six seats they need to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats? Nothing, really. There is no Senate race in Florida this year so the outcome tells us nothing of value about whether Republicans are likely to win enough seats to gain control of the chamber for Obama's last two years in the White House.

This early in the cycle, though, it seems to me there isn't much that can be known for certain. Nearly eight more months will pass before the midterm elections are held, and there many things that can happen in that time.

But history suggests — and today's results may well confirm — that the political landscape will not be favorable to the president's party.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Insurgency in New Hampshire

"On Tuesday, March 10, New Hampshire enjoyed an old–fashioned New England blizzard: up to 14 inches of snow from the Canadian to the Massachusetts border — snow crusting the kepis of the Union veterans, snow blocking Gov. John King's new state highways, snow slushing the streets of Manchester, snow over mill and factory and ski slope and farm. New Hampshire's polls closed at 7 p.m. ... By 7:18, Walter Cronkite announced over CBS that Henry Cabot Lodge had won New Hampshire."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1964"

To say the least, it was an unexpected way to begin the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

In 1964, the Republican Party was divided between its conservatives and its moderates. Former Vice President Richard Nixon managed to bring the two groups together in 1960, but he wasn't a candidate in 1964. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona was the favorite of the insurgent conservatives, and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York was the candidate of the establishment moderates.

"By 1964, New Hampshire was not quite so rural, Yankee and insular as popular myth held it," recalls the Manchester (N.H.) Union–Leader. "Yet the 1964 primary provided a result so startling that the belief in the Yankee traits of independence and inscrutability would find new life."

Startling was probably a good way to describe 1964.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 cast a dark shadow over everything. It was a startling event — to put it mildly — and it changed the political landscape in 1964.

Historian Theodore White wrote that, until the assassination, Goldwater saw Kennedy as "history's perfect opponent." The two men would "debate the issues up and down the country, they would draw the line between the conservative and liberal philosophies," much as they had when they had been colleagues in the Senate. Goldwater expected to lose, but he also expected to do well enough to put the fledgling conservative movement in position for greater things in the future.

Goldwater genuinely liked Kennedy, White wrote. When they were in the Senate together, Goldwater often chided Kennedy with "Your father would have spanked you" for casting certain votes. They disagreed often, but they liked each other.

"And then came the assassination," White wrote. "The assassination shocked Goldwater as it shocked every American by its brutality and senselessness. ... Now, after the assassination, he was faced with running against another man, a Southerner, of an entirely different sort. "

Goldwater was heartsick, White wrote. He had received hundreds of hateful letters "as if he, personally, were responsible for the killing of the man he was so fond of." He thought of abandoning his campaign, then thought better of it.

When the campaign for the nomination began, Rockefeller was seen as the front–runner, but he lost considerable momentum due to a couple of related personal issues. First was the subject of his recent divorce. At the time, no president had ever been divorced, and that was enough of a social taboo by itself (at least until once–divorced Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980).

But then Rockefeller remarried in 1963. His bride, who was 15 years younger, had recently been divorced, too, and she had given up custody of her four children to her ex–husband. That was a double whammy.

"Have we come to the point in our life as a nation," asked Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of presidents, "where the governor of a great state, one who perhaps aspires to the nomination for president of the United States, can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of four youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?"

So that was working against Rockefeller, who lost 20 percentage points among Republicans amid rumors that he had been having an affair with his bride while she was still married. The rumors were fueled by the rapid succession of events — her divorce quickly followed by her remarriage to Rockefeller. The appearance of it would cost Rockefeller the nomination, many said, although many also were not comfortable with Goldwater.

The race between Goldwater and Rockefeller was regarded as close when New Hampshire's voters went to the polls 50 years ago today. Both sides thought they would win, but neither one did.

They were undone by ex–Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's 1960 running mate who won the primary as a write–in. Lodge received 36% of the vote to 22% for Goldwater, 21% for Rockefeller and 17% for Nixon.

To say the least, it was a surprising outcome. Some folks probably were shocked, and Lodge likely was one of them. The whole write–in movement had been the work of a small group of political novices; Lodge didn't think it would amount to much and made no effort to encourage the movement. In fact, he had renounced it two months earlier.

But former President Dwight Eisenhower had publicly urged Lodge to run in December, and moderate Republicans were encouraged the day before the primary when it was revealed that Lodge had not had his name removed from the ballot in Oregon, site of the next officially contested primary.

It was a time when delegates were still won in caucuses or state conventions, not primaries, and that was the path to the nomination for presidential hopefuls, but contested primary results were often viewed as evidence of a candidate's vote–getting ability (or lack thereof).

In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, all the attention was on Lodge. Without lifting a finger, he had won the first Republican primary. But there would be no more legitimate tests of vote–winning skills for a couple of months.

Illinois actually was next on the political calendar, but the state's party leadership was staunchly behind Goldwater. New Jersey's primary was a week later. No candidates had filed so all votes were write–ins.

Primaries were held in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania the week after that. No candidates appeared on the ballots in those states, either. The day before the primaries, Rockefeller called for air strikes in Laos and Cambodia to help South Vietnam. It was a controversial position. Lodge won Massachusetts, Pennsylvania voted for its governor, and Rockefeller received 9–10% of the vote in both.

Mostly uncontested primaries followed in Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio and West Virginia.

Lodge began to reconsider when the write–in campaign paid off with a victory in New Hampshire. So did the press and GOP elders.

Lodge won primaries in Massachusetts (the state he had represented in the U.S. Senate) and New Jersey, but then he decided that he really didn't want to be president and withdrew his name from consideration.

As the campaign moved West for the Oregon primary, White wrote, "Lodge's picture was on the magazine covers across the country; Lodge led every poll from coast to coast. ...

"In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary," White wrote, "Oregon's Republicans shifted as the nation's Republicans shifted, and the first Harris (Poll) samplings showed thus: for Lodge, 46%; for Nixon, 17%; for Goldwater, 14%; for Rockefeller, 13%."

"For Rockefeller," wrote White, "the name of the game was now impact. From New Hampshire on, there was no longer any realistic chance of his becoming the Republican nominee. But to veto the choice of Goldwater, he must prove before the convention assembled that Republican voters would not have Goldwater on any terms."

That next round would belong to Rockefeller — but the nomination would go to Goldwater.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Standing Up to Joe McCarthy

"If none of us ever read a book that was 'dangerous,' had a friend who was 'different' or joined an organization that advocated 'change,' we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants."

Edward R. Murrow
Speech to staff before March 9, 1954 broadcast of See It Now

Most of my life has been devoted to the printed word — supported by a steadfast faith in freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Even when I disagreed with what was said.

That is what led me into journalism — along with the examples of great journalists like Edward R. Murrow, who was before my time but whose legacy lives on. He wasn't a print journalist, though. He was a pioneer of broadcasting.

I often heard his name mentioned in my journalism classes in college. I had already heard my grandparents speak of listening to his wartime radio broadcasts from London:
"He was on top of the BBC building, a major German target, a place so dangerous that Winston Churchill's personal intervention was required before broadcasts could be permitted. Night after night Murrow went up there and elsewhere to describe the havoc around St. Paul's, the Abbey, Trafalgar Square. Buildings collapsed around him, his CBS office was destroyed three times, yet his measured, authoritative tones continued to bring the war ever closer to American homes. His effectiveness owed much to understatement. There were never any heroics in his newscasts. At the end he would simply sign off with the current London phrase: 'So long — and good luck.' "

William Manchester
"The Glory and the Dream"

He was among the first reporters at the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945.

After the war, the emphasis was on the emerging technology of television. Murrow had misgivings about television, and some of his concerns have proven to be justified, but he persevered, in his pioneering way, transferring his popular radio program Hear It Now to television, where it became See It Now. On the night that See It Now debuted, Murrow reminded the audience, "This is an old team, trying to learn a new trade."

Sixty years ago tonight, See It Now had learned its new trade well enough to take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin"when he was his most powerful," wrote historian William Manchester, "and exposed him as a fraud."

Murrow used clips from McCarthy's speeches to criticize him and point out contradictions.

(I always thought it was interesting that early audiences of "Good Night and Good Luck," the 2005 movie that told the story to a 21st–century audience, thought that the McCarthy sequences were too mean–spirited when, in fact, they were actual clips of McCarthy, not an actor hamming it up.

(Not really funny — because it makes me wonder if we learned anything from that experience. Of course, much of what happens today makes me wonder the same thing. It is interesting, though.)

In hindsight, the program was an important turning point — for broadcast journalism and for McCarthy's influence. Broadcast journalism was on its way up, headed for a rendezvous with destiny in which it would bring all the most important events of the next half century into America's living rooms. McCarthy's influence, ascendant for the previous four years, began to wane.

Initially, McCarthy insisted he hadn't watched the program and attempted to smear it with the same brush: "I never listen to the extreme left–wing, bleeding–heart elements of radio and TV," he said.

But that was a false characterization. Do not confuse the left–wing slant of modern broadcasters with Murrow, who asserted, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." Murrow was anti–communist; he was also an advocate of civil and political liberties and a defender of free speech and freedom of the press.
"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.' Good night, and good luck."

Edward R. Murrow
March 9, 1954

I sometimes wonder what Murrow would think of digital journalism. I suspect he would have his misgivings about that, too, just as he had his misgivings about television.

But I also suspect he would have embraced it as he did television, acknowledging as he did so that he was "trying to learn a new trade."

"I have reported what I saw and heard," he simply told his listeners after witnessing the atrocities of Buchenwald.

He could have said the same thing after exposing Joe McCarthy on national TV 60 years ago tonight.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Golden Anniversary of Times v. Sullivan

When I was studying journalism in college, my professors all spoke of the landmark Supreme Court decision in the New York Times v. Sullivan case, and they did in reverent terms. Rightfully so.

Most of us students knew nothing about it — it had all happened before our time — but, within the context of my own experiences since college, I appreciate it more with each passing year. It reaffirms my faith in the First Amendment.

They told us that perhaps no other Supreme Court decision — certainly no modern–era decision — has been more important to the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press than the one in the Times v. Sullivan case, and they were right.

(Richard Labunski, for one, asserts without hesitation in the Providence (R.I.) Journal that it is the "most important First Amendment case in the nation's history." I'm inclined to agree.)

I teach journalism in the community college system here, and Sunday's 50th anniversary of the Times v. Sullivan decision makes me wish I could teach a class in communications law. I'm not a lawyer, though, which I suppose would prevent me from teaching such a class, but I think I understand that case well enough that I could discuss it with my students. I'm sure it would be a lively conversation.

Maybe it is enough to know that it is possible for me to tell my students so many other things because of the freedoms that decision affirmed and strengthened.

It probably would be helpful to give a little background information.

Nearly four years earlier, in 1960, the New York Times ran a full–page advertisement that had the appearance of an article but was actually an attempt to raise money for Martin Luther King Jr.'s legal defense against perjury charges in Alabama. In modern lingo, I suppose you would call it an advertorial.

At issue wasn't deception but inaccuracy and defamation. The article in the advertisement described actions that had been taken against civil rights activists in Alabama. Some of the descriptions were accurate, some were not — and some involved the police in Montgomery, Ala.

The article in the advertisement incorrectly reported that Alabama's state police had arrested King seven times; in fact, he had been arrested four times. Montgomery's public safety commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, considered the advertisement defamatory (to him because he supervised the police even though he was not mentioned by name) and demanded a retraction (which was a condition, under state law, for a public official to pursue punitive damages; he could do so if no retraction was forthcoming).

The Times refused, and Sullivan filed suit against the Times and four black ministers who were mentioned in the advertisement.

At this point, there were hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of libel actions pending against news outlets covering the civil rights movement in the South, which had kind of a paralyzing effect on many members of the press. The fear of legal action prevented many news organizations from being more aggressive in their coverage of civil rights in the South.

Half a million dollars was awarded to Sullivan by a Montgomery jury, and the Times appealed the decision. The appeal made its way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the decision by a 9–0 vote and, in the process, established the standard of actual malice.

The Alabama law was ruled to be unconstitutional because it had no provisions protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are required by the First and 14th Amendments. The Court also held that, even if such provisions had been made, the evidence did not support the judgment against the Times.

The Court's ruling imposed a new burden on public officials who are plaintiffs in a libel suit — actual malice. There must be proof that the defendant knowingly published false information or acted with "reckless disregard for the truth."

As Justice Hugo Black wrote, it is hard to prove or disprove malice. Well, it might be easier to prove today, what with the digital paper trail that is left through emails, text messages and the like. I don't know. Undoubtedly, that part of the law will be shaped and refined in the years ahead.

That's how it has worked in the last 50 years. Subsequent decisions and Supreme Court appeals have addressed elements of libel law and actual malice. For example, while the original Supreme Court ruling applied only to public officials, it has been extended to include public figures as well.

And it has had implications that went beyond the working press to include commentary, criticism, even satire as well as the definitions of concepts such as privacy, indecency and obscenity.

For advocates of the First Amendment (which should mean all Americans), the real hero in the decision was Justice William Brennan, who wrote about the critical role a free press plays in keeping the public informed and encouraging open debate. Even "caustic debate" is vital in a democracy, Brennan said.

Inevitably, Brennan observed, inaccurate statements will be made, and incomplete reports will be published in a dynamic democracy. Public debate must be "uninhibited, robust and wide open," and it "may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." Consequently, "breathing space" must be permitted.

The Supreme Court didn't have to hear the case. It always has the option of refusing to hear a case. But the Justices saw the First and 14th Amendment implications in the case, and the ruling that was issued half a century ago safeguards the "unfettered interchange of ideas" that continues to be defined.

Monday, March 3, 2014

On Stereotyping and Hypocrisy

Last night, as I was waiting for the Oscars broadcast to begin, I was casually looking at Facebook to see what people were saying.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I almost never go to the movies anymore. There was a time when I did, but that was years ago. I eventually get caught up through home video or TV broadcasts, but it's been several years since I could select a favorite in an Oscar category based on firsthand knowledge.

For some reason, that has seemed especially true this year.

(I have taken to joking that this year, more than usual, I feel like Bill Murray on a Weekend Update segment on Saturday Night Live circa 1979 or 1980 when he predicted the Oscar winners based on which movies he had actually seen — and repeatedly dismissed nominees by saying "Didn't see it ... Didn't see it ... Didn't see it," punctuated by an occasional "Saw it, didn't like it.")

Since I rarely have a dog in that hunt — to use an old expression that is so Southern that, if it didn't originate here, it should have — I don't feel compelled to stay with the Oscars broadcast until all hours. And I seldom do.

But I do like pre–Oscar conversation. I know little about most of the nominees so I say little, but I am interested in what more knowledgeable (or supposedly more knowledgeable) people have to say.

I advise the student newspaper staff at the community college where I teach, and one of the staff writers authors the movie reviews. He knows quite a bit about all the nominees so I have enjoyed listening to what he has had to say in recent weeks.

(Turned out he was wrong about some of the winners, right about others.)

Anyway, the red carpet stuff doesn't really interest me so I was cruising through Facebook, as I said earlier, to read conversation threads on the Oscars.

About an hour before the actual awards broadcast began, the minister at my church (Methodist) posted this statement: "Oscar voters are 94 percent white, 77 percent male, with a median age of 62."

This set off a thread that drew comments for two hours. The minister at my church is vocal about his support for liberal causes (there was a highly publicized same–sex marriage here this weekend that had him and many others fired up) and the clear presumption of the remark was that these old white men would behave as right–wing reactionaries when casting their votes.

Within minutes of the original post, two people replied, "That explains a lot."

To make sure the point wasn't lost, another replied, "Just like the Republican Party!" (The good pastor was among half a dozen folks who liked that comment.)

Still another replied, "Are they from the south?" (The good pastor liked that one, too, but he was the only one.)

Another one asked, "How is that possible in what is reputed to be very liberal Hollywood?"

Notice that the original post only mentioned race, gender and age. I ask you: What do those characteristics by themselves have to do with political philosophy? My father would fit in all three categories, and he is a liberal Democrat.

(Remember that same–sex marriage I mentioned earlier? It was conducted by a retired minister who would easily fit in all three of the demographic groups mentioned in the original post as well — and I doubt that anyone would call him a conservative.)

To continue ...

Another person commented, "That explains why Sandra Bullock was nominated. And why 12 Years doesn't stand a chance." (The good pastor liked that one, too — and it proved to be 100% wrong in its assumption.)

Bullock did not win Best Actress. Cate Blanchett did. And "12 Years a Slave" did win Best Picture.

(Incidentally, Lupita Nyong'o of Kenya won Best Supporting Actress. And Best Supporting Actor went to Jared Leto for his portrayal of a transgender woman.)

Liberals like to tell themselves — and especially others — that they are tolerant, that they are above this sort of thing, but the fact is that no group, no matter how high–minded it believes itself to be, has a monopoly on tolerance, stereotyping or hypocrisy.