NPR frames itself

NPR stokes the liberal-bias canard.

I don’t buy the “NPR is Fox News for liberals” line, but they don’t have to invite such blather. On “Day to Day,” George Lakoff talks about Clinton’s and McCain’s claims that they misspoke (sniper fire and Al Qaeda, respectively), and says about the latter that, if he believes what he says, “he’s deluded and should never be president.” Lakoff is identified as a professor of linguistics at Berkeley and, at the end of the piece, as a fellow at the Rockridge Institute. Both of which are true, but does one listener in a thousand know what Rockridge is?

It might be relevant to mention that he has advised the Democratic Party, the Dean and Kerry campaigns, and MoveOn.org (I don’t know what his current status is). He’s as hyperpartisan a professor as you’ll find outside Bob Jones U, and a certified Obamaniac. Which is his right, but he’s hardly speaking as a disinterested linguist.

Get Realist

There’s a good reason why so few foreign-policy realists get high-profile commentator gigs–but they’re not an empty set.

Stephen Walt (recently well known not only to IR-theory geeks because of The Israel Lobby) writes in Salon that Bill Kristol’s hiring at the NYT is symptomatic of the neoconservative and liberal-internationalist domination of the country’s op-ed pages. Fair enough, so far as it goes. But then he goes on to say

Such views are hardly heretical, but there is not a single major columnist, TV commentator or radio pundit who consistently presents a realist perspective on world politics and American foreign policy. In America today, the mainstream media is a realism-free zone.

I’ve thought about this for ten seconds, and I’ve already come up with George Will, Paul Krugman, and Fareed Zakaria as counterexamples. True, none are realist theoreticians—and I have no idea whether they’ve read Waltz and Morgenthau, or would self-identify as realists—but their inherent caution and cold-bloodedness on foreign-policy matters would certainly qualify them. Furthermore, there’s a good reason why the Friedmans and Brookses get more play: realism doesn’t make for good copy in the new world of op-edutainment. Friedman’s internationalism lets him play “if this is Thursday it must be Thimpu”; Kristol can rally us to invade…wherever’s next on the list. Paleocons and isolationists of all stripes get to fulminate against whichever conspiracy they see getting us into foreign entanglements. But realist prescriptions are dry and bloodless—who wants to read that in their morning paper? Walt himself has written some good books (his latest, which largely contradicts them, not among them), but if I were a programmer or newspaper editor I wouldn’t hire him.

Tone and style

Coverage of Bush’s fairly long interview on NPR has attended almost entirely to the content. What struck me listening to it , however, especially as we didn’t learn much new objectively, was the president’s tone, or rather tones. It must have especially stuck in his craw to vouchsafe this interview to NPR, and this event was almost entirely in his two worst styles. The first is an impatient condescension, dissembling great patience with anyone so stupid as not to understand what is clear to him. The second, predominant in the WIlliams interview, is an abased whining, a tone that pleads for some sort of abuse to stop and for the interlocutor (or everyone) to see that he’s really a Good Person, Means Well, and would wag his tail and lick your face if only you would stop beating him. It is the universal manner of a bully who meets someone bigger.

I find this whimpering almost impossible to listen to, especially when it’s crosswise to the words being used; Bush now says he’s making decisions in the same pleading tone of voice students use asking to have their grades raised when they know they haven’t got a case. Added to the man’s maladroit, stumbling English, it’s a completely disagreeable and pathetic spectacle.

I’m uncertain how much this kind of thing should count, compared with the objective content of a politician’s discourse. Surely some right-thinking and smart people just don’t present themselves well; is it fair to disregard them because they need an acting coach? In this category I put Hillary Clinton, someone whose every public appearance sets my teeth on edge. To me she sounds so brittle, rehearsed, and tense that I am driven to a transcript (Bush’s transcripts lately don’t help him much, I should note). I worry that her poll numbers will collapse as more people hear and see her and not just about her, and if this happens after she’s nominated it would be very bad news. In contrast, Jim Webb was so competent and unaffected after the SOTU that I would have bought a bridge from him, a reaction that obviously raises another set of risks.

[I may be having an idiosyncratic reaction, or an episode of sexism. As to the latter, I reassure myself that while Nancy Pelosi is in no way my favorite speaker, nor a distinguished one objectively, she doesn’t trigger the same skin crawl. I’ve also been warming up for a teaching gig in France by listening to French TV and, boy, is Ségolène Royal an impressive package. She speaks in sentences and paragraphs, thinks on her feet, doesn’t lose her cool or bully interviewers, and comes across as someone with neither insecurity, false modesty nor arrogance (and I’m not especially aligned with her policies). ]

Williams was very light on followup. I think it’s time to stop treating Bush as one treats a grownup, competent, honest leader; respect for the office is not a bottomless well. In events like this, reporters need to stay on a question until they get an answer, even if that means they don’t get to all the topics in their outline. To refuse to answer a question is a president’s prerogative, at whatever political cost or gain it entails. To run the clock by pretending to answer is not playing the game, and reporters are not obliged to collaborate with cheating.

Legal Affairs RIP?

It is with great sadness that I report that the magazine Legal Affairs is suspending its print edition, having failed to attract sufficient funding to keep it afloat. This is a genuine loss to American journalism, for two reasons. First, LA is a publication of exceptional quality, filling a real void between the law journals, whose articles are often too long, too specialized, or too poorly written for most of us to bother reading, and law professor blogs, which while often quite illuminating, lack the polish and the in-depth reporting that LA featured. Second, LA is a real rarity in American journalism–a relatively new publication not designed to simply spout the pre-packaged positions of either side of political debate, but to provide a forum for thoughtful debate between both sides. Particularly valuable are the back and forth debates that the LA website hosts on legal questions–I can think of nowhere else on the web that publishes such sustained, illuminating discourse on important issues. For those of us who are genuinely persuadable on legal questions, this constitutes a major public service.

The potential demise of LA, at least in its print form, raises a further question, which has to do with the political polarization of contemporary philanthropy. As the LA editors point out, serious political magazines almost always run in the red, and depend for their survival on the willingness of wealthy benefactors (usually their owners) to keep them going. In modern America, what opens up the wallets of the wealthy is ideology–conservatives spent generously (and effectively) to get a network of magazines and journals going over the last quarter-century, as have liberals for longer than that. But who is willing to support a magazine that aspires not to speak to the faithful, but to be a forum for the unconvinced? I hope that there are enough of us fence-sitters in the culture war out there to provide the demand for such publications–but is the demise of LA a sign that the intensity of preference that is required to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a magazine, year after year, simply doesn’t exist for magazines without a particular ideological slant? The sad truth appears to be that the answer is yes.