China and its Discontents

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What’s Wrong with the Israel-Iran Nukes Story?

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The United States news media’s coverage of the possibility of Israel or the U.S. targeting Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program is not really about Iran; it is about us. Just as Herbert Gans noted that Vietnam was primarily a domestic news story in the 60’s and 70’s, the Iranian nuclear threat is also. (Gans, 37) Most recent news coverage has devolved into a few dominant narratives, representing different political factions. Different media outlets either report on or explicitly represent the factions, and they generally make arguments that have very little to do with the substantive evidence for or against the existence of Iran’s nuclear capability; rather, the news follows election year trends, the possibility of war as it relates to the Jewish population in the United States, and criticism of the political actors involved.

The first narrative, representing the contingent of neoconservatives who pushed for war with Iraq in 2003, also supports not only a limited tactical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but even a large-scale war. This perspective mainly shows up as representing the policy positions of the GOP presidential candidates or as the author’s view in opinion pieces. And then there is the narrative told by the traditional news sources such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most major news organizations were embarrassed by the general failure to “get it right” on Iraq a decade ago, when they almost uncritically accepted the administration’s arguments that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This time around, mainstream news is slightly more cautious in tone, but it still rarely publishes explicitly foreign-centric stories or stories with a serious consideration of the evidence on both sides, for and against Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons. The mainstream media much prefers to focus on the domestic political situation. Finally, there is the more liberal coverage, which often focuses on politics or criticisms of the neoconservatives for being so blithe about war.

Before one can even approach these narratives, one thing is glaringly clear: the news does not focus on the fact that the U.S. Intelligence Community still stands by its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that Iran continues to only enrich nuclear fuel, which could be used for a variety of peaceful purposes. This was reported on once in February by The New York Times, and scarcely appears in any of the related articles that I surveyed, either at the New York Times or at any other news organization. Much more common is the domestic political news story: “U.S. Backers of Israel Pressure Obama Over Policy on Iran.” This story is far more newsworthy. Why write about the intelligence community when you can report on Eric Cantor at the meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “We must stop following mirages in the Middle East and start following through on this reality: our mission in the Middle East is to drive our stake in the sand with our values—to proclaim our values rather than apologize for them.” If the news chose to highlight Senate testimony by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper saying that Iran is not building the bomb, the media would kill the most profitable and long-lasting angle by which to view a possible war with Iran. Political squabbles can extend on forever. The story will never end—according to Paul Begala (writing in The Daily Beast), war with Iran is one of the GOP’s biggest strengths going into this election year.

One factor complicating Israel’s and the United States’ decision to strike is the two countries’ on-and-off-again relationship. And it has become “a complication” in this otherwise calculating story of whether to strike Iran precisely because the media has made it so. President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have notoriously not gotten along—it is mentioned in almost every newspaper article where the two are discussed in tandem. And they are supposed to disagree: President Obama comes from the center-left party in the United States while Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party is partnered in a coalition government with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist and ultra-conservative Yisrael Beiteinu Party. But instead of focusing on the conflict between two governments based on legitimate policy differences, the media casts this as an acrimonious personal dispute between the two men. Why cast this as a story of, “If Mr. Obama trusted Mr. Netanyahu more, he might issue a more muscular statement of military threat to Iran…And if Mr. Netanyahu trusted Mr. Obama more, he would be less jumpy over every statement of caution emerging from Washington,” as so many stories do? Surely the entire diplomatic decision-making process does not rely solely on a pop-psychology assessment of the two.

And when the media cannot play up “Bibi” and Obama’s disagreements, they focus on how the President and every other mainstream politician must remain unswervingly loyal to the state of Israel. One might think that these are two contradictory narratives. But this oath of support to Israel is apparently the sole metric by which Jewish Americans decide who to vote for. Obama, even after clashing with Netanyahu over military action against Iran and even after denouncing the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, cannot completely rebuke Israel (when push came to shove, he did not even follow-through with support of a UN resolution officially rebuking Israel for the “illegal” settlements). For the Republican Party, “fealty” to Israel is a solemn vow. For the Democratic Party, “fealty” to Israel is (mostly) a solemn vow. At this past week’s AIPAC meeting, President Obama assured the attendees that he is behind Israel every step of the way: “So there should not be a shred of doubt by now — when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” In a blog post by Colum Lynch on, President Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is quoted as putting it in even more emotionally charged terms, relating her memories “as a 14 year-old tourist where she floated in the Dead Sea,” of a visit with then Senator Barack Obama where she touched the “charred long remnants of the rockets that Hamas continues to fire at the brave unyielding citizens of Sderot,” and of her favorite psalm, “’Hinei ma’tov u’ma-nayim, shevet ach-im gam ya-chad’ — or ‘how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood.’” Rice went even so far as to say: “Last October, when the Syrian regime’s ambassador, speaking in the Security Council, had the temerity — the chutzpah — to accuse the United States and Israel of being parties to genocide, I led our delegation in walking out.” (Ital added) How is this any different than when Obama delivers a sermon in a Black church speaking Ebonics? What is surprising about this whole episode is not just that Susan Rice quoted psalms in Hebrew that have an almost comically transparent political effect and chose to sprinkle in some Yiddish to play up the schtick—it is that the blogger, Lynch, not only thought to make a whole post revolve around that schtick but also to entitle it, “Has Susan Rice found her cojones moment?” And this happens in the media all the time. Do politicians say these things because they think the AIPAC attendees and the American Jewish population will simply accept it uncritically, that it won’t sound like pandering? And do journalists dutifully report these speeches because they don’t know any better? Or do they not want to make a fuss over a common political trope, so they pass it along with a nudge and a wink? Or did Lynch write that post because he actually supports these theatrics, and didn’t stop to think that his title might be misogynistic? It is hard to accept the last conclusion, but it is probably the most correct (perhaps a combination of the latter two).

But some in the media have commented on the absurdity of AIPAC and the reversal of Israel’s “client state” dynamic with the United States. Israel, after all, receives nearly three billion dollars annually in foreign aid from the United States. Why does the U.S. President, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and politicians of all political stripes have to speak in emotional terms of their undying loyalty to the state of Israel, when it is in fact Israel that needs us more than we need them? In his blog at The Atlantic’s website, James Fallows noted (speaking of the President’s AIPAC speech), “I can’t think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way.”

And in the latest issue of Washington Monthly, Paul Pillar makes the same meta-argument that this paper is making—that the rhetoric surrounding a possible war with Iran is not aligned with the evidence: “Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping…we find ourselves on the precipice of yet another such war—almost purely because the acceptable range of opinion on Iran has narrowed and ossified around the ‘sensible’ idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The media is an intentional accomplice to political actors who want to sensationalize impending war with Iran. The media is interested in GOP conflict with the President over Israel and Iran because it is a better story, a more relatable story to the American public. The media cares about and politicians pander to the Jewish-American population because they are a substantial portion of their readership and electorate, respectively. But the media also forgets the essential truth behind any future war with Iran, as articulated by the President in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: “[I]f people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they’re lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me — I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn’t mindful of the costs of war shouldn’t be here, because it’s serious business. These aren’t video games that we’re playing here.”

The Challenge for All of Us, Not Just Presidents

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A president needs empathy and emotional intelligence, so that he can prevail in political dealings with his own party and the opposition in Washington, and in face-to-face negotiations with foreign leaders, who otherwise will go away saying that this president is “weak” and that the country’s leadership role is suspect. He needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical; personally disciplined but not a prig or martinet. He should be physically fit, disease-resistant, and capable of being fully alert at a moment’s notice when the phone rings at 3 a.m.—yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids.

Ideally he would be self-aware enough that, in the center of a system that treats him as emperor-god, he could still recognize his own defects and try to offset them.

From James Fallow’s latest cover story on Obama in The Atlantic.

Written by Will

February 10th, 2012 at 8:16 am

What is News?

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I’m taking a class on journalism that requires us to blog (not a journalism class, but a class on journalism). So I thought I would put those posts here too. Readings from the class will be referenced (but don’t worry, the references are quoted and explained).

In asking, “What is news?” I was reminded of a question recently posed in the form of a blog post by Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times Ombudsman: “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” Should newspapers point out that X politician made Y and Z false statements? The obvious answer is yes (Jim Fallows at The Atlantic generally summed up my views). Fallows’ critique of the media is common today, and has been common for a long time: that many journalists engage in superficial “horse race reporting” (where facts are presented without context and meaning) and “false equivalence” (where two opposing truth claims are treated as equally plausible). This critique is even mentioned in one of the readings, “If you call to mind the topics which form the principal indictment by reformers against the press, you find they are subjects in which the newspaper occupies the position of the umpire in the unscored baseball game.” (Lippmann, 50)

Some of our readings make the opposite case. According to Halberstam, news is not about providing context or explanation: “News reports, on the other hand, need not be explanatory and those explanations which do appear in news account are often adscititious intrusions.” (Halberstam, 13) Halberstam’s definition of the news would seem to rule out a lot of important news. Financial reporting on the recession, for example, would be useless without context and explanation of the causes and actors involved in the crash. Similarly, Halberstam’s emphasis on events as news would rule out most news stories concerning global warming, or other long-term patterns that impact us in dramatic ways.

I know that personally, I would like to believe that journalists exist as the fourth estate, uncovering malfeasance and inserting themselves into the political process in a way that makes everyone else more informed and better citizens. This sort of reporting would require context and explanation of events and long-term patterns. Lippmann argues strenuously against this idealistic vision: “If the newspapers, then, are to be charged with the duty of translating the whole public life of mankind, so that every adult can arrive at an opinion on every moot topic, they fail, they are bound to fail, in any future one can conceive they will continue to fail.” (Lippmann, 117-118) That might be a straw-man argument. I don’t think that the media, by fulfilling its public purpose, will hand down the truth from on high to the masses. Every person makes autonomous judgments. Rather, news media should seek to make people better-informed citizens, regardless of the political conclusions those people make. After all, Morson’s example of the degraded conditions at the Ridge Home nursing center could lead someone to conclude the government should improve the center, or that the government should abolish the center.

Written by Will

January 24th, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Putting the Focus Back on Housing Policy

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With the release of the Treasury Department’s new white paper on housing policy, the administration has restarted a national discussion on reforming the GSEs (government-sponsored enterprises, Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae). The long and short of it is that they distort the market for mortgages, and contributed to the collapse of the economy by backing risky mortgage securities that later blew up. (they are not however the root cause and creators of those exotic securities; you can thank Wall Street for that) Our bailout of Freddy and Fannie has cost the government far more money than the stimulus or TARP ever cost. This entire set-up is rather strange, given that these are for-profit corporations with an arsenal of lobbyists.

What’s the government’s plan? I got curious when I read Ezra Klein write this bit: “But the government isn’t looking to dramatically change the role they play in the housing market. They’re just looking to get away from poorly designed institutions like Fannie and Freddie.” This seems like a contradiction – and I think he misread the report, although I agree with everything else he wrote in that post. The government’s stake in the mortgage market is going to be substantially altered. As Daniel Indiviglio writes, the government will still subsidize a small portion of mortgages for the poor and veterans through FHA and VA programs, but under any of the options provided by the Treasury Department, the U.S. government will gradually exit the 85% percent of the market it had previously inhabited.

The plan makes GSEs less and less competitive with private sources of funding, gradually winding down its influence on the mortgage market. Fees guaranteeing mortgages will rise, more private capital would need to be raised to cover credit losses, and larger mortgages will not qualify for government-backing. Next, the plan offers three options for a limited government presence on the market: completely private, no government role of any kind; a crisis funding mechanism that is so expensive that during good times it is never used, and in bad times much cheaper to ease a credit crunch; and a catastrophic guarantee reinsurance program. Indiviglio describes this better than I can: “Mortgages would pay a premium to obtain this insurance, but the first losses (up to some specified percentage) would hit whoever held the mortgage asset, whether it be a bank or investor. If losses exceed that first loss piece, then the government would cover the remainder. The government would use the guarantee fees it obtained to do so. That way, theoretically, taxpayers would not be harmed. Think of this as a little like depository insurance, where there’s a fund in place paid for by insurance premiums that the government uses to cover losses.”

This is all good. When it comes to housing policy, one major question will shape how you view all related policies: is universal housing ownership a worthy goal of U.S. government policy? I would say: not in of itself. Owning a house is not a smart decision for every single person. It might be the American dream, but we do more harm than good when we try to force it on people. I would suggest everyone also take a look at the GSE section of the Roosevelt Institute’s 2009 report on financial reform, “Let Markets Be Markets”. There’s a very good lecture from Raj Date included. The full report is here (pdf).