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Notes and observations on the press, politics, culture, technology, and more. To sign up for e-mail delivery, click here. To send an e-mail to Dan Kennedy, click here. For bio, published work, and links to other blogs, visit For information on Dan Kennedy's book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes (Rodale, October 2003), click here.

Friday, March 14, 2003

What the hell was that about? II. Seth Gitell offers some useful thoughts on what he calls George W. Bush's "bizarre statement" on

posted at 12:35 PM | link

What the hell was that about? I went into white-knuckle mode driving in to work, waiting for whatever President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell were going to announce at 10 a.m. Now I don't know what to think.

If you haven't heard, Bush delivered a brief statement saying, essentially, that he was really, really glad that the Palestinian Authority has finally named a prime minister, and that once he's been confirmed, he'll release his "road map" for peace. Powell didn't even get to talk.

On NPR, Bob Edwards sounded dumbfounded both at the brevity of Bush's statement and at the fact that Powell didn't say anything. Unfortunately, WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) cut him off and went to The Connection before Edwards and an analyst could kick it around any further. (Memo to Jane Christo: Bad! Bad!)

What to make of it? Who knows? My first impression is that the wheels have totally come off the White House spin machine this week, and that they're just throwing anything they can against the wall, hoping that something will stick and make Bush look good.

This didn't.

posted at 10:31 AM | link

Aaron Brown's glare of death? Was I imagining this? Or did Aaron Brown, the host of CNN's NewsNight, really try to vaporize reporter Jean Meserve with his laser stare last night? The newscast opened with Elizabeth Smart, and Brown instantly made it clear that he didn't want to hear any cynicism or negativity about the 15-year-old kidnap victim, found, incredibly, near her Utah home on Wednesday. Roll the CNN transcript:

We begin with Elizabeth Smart and something unfortunate that crept into the coverage today, the question: Why didn't she try to escape? There's something faintly accusing about that, putting the burden not on the culprits, but on a child who was stolen from her home, from her bedroom. And as her dad said today, [she] appears to have been brainwashed.

Meserve then ran through the day's news, an update on the girl's first day home, why the police investigation appeared to be so inept and wrongheaded, and some details on David Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, the creepy couple accused of holding her for all these months. Then this:

Meserve: Chief [Rick] Dinse [of the Salt Lake City Police] says he believes he knows whether or not Elizabeth Smart was sexually abused during her captivity, but he isn't telling the media. He also says that Mitchell, as part of his religious beliefs, believed in polygamy. But, again, he will not tell the press whether or not Mitchell viewed Elizabeth as one of his wives. Back to you, Aaron.

Brown: Well, to the extent that that question becomes important, the eventual charges that I assume will be filed will answer that. Tell us what you know and what you have been able to find out about the moment that police came upon her. What she said, what they said.

As I said, it could be my imagination. But as Brown was speaking, he looked as though he were trying to figure out a way to reach through the camera and put Meserve in a chokehold. Meserve finished her report, and that was that.

If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. But if I'm right, I can't say I blame Brown, who's done an admirable job of keeping the tabloid values of cable news from infesting his program. Still, this is the question everyone is asking. Even the New York Times asks it today. I'm not sure how you avoid it.

posted at 7:57 AM | link

Deep background on Iraq. Given that the debate over war with Iraq has been going on since last summer, it's rather amazing that anyone can come up with something interesting and original to say. From this morning's Times, two pieces that qualify on both counts.

-- On the op-ed page, Richard Nixon biographer Roger Morris offers a fascinating slice of history: John F. Kennedy's support (over the objections of France and Germany) of a 1963 coup in Iraq that brought Saddam Hussein closer to power, and Lyndon Johnson's support of a 1968 coup that actually vaulted Saddam to within the inner circle. Morris writes:

This history is known to many in the Middle East and Europe, though few Americans are acquainted with it, much less understand it. Yet these interventions help explain why United States policy is viewed with some cynicism abroad. George W. Bush is not the first American president to seek regime change in Iraq. Mr. Bush and his advisers are following a familiar pattern.

-- As columnist Paul Krugman notes, over the last few weeks some of the lonely liberals who had supported George W. Bush's war plans have backed off, repulsed by the president's inept, bullying approach. Elsewhere, though, reporter Kate Zernike (a former Globe reporter) files a piece from Boston on liberals who do support war, or who at least refuse to side with the antiwar movement.

Among them: Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, Kennedy School of Government dean Joseph Nye, and Carr Center for Human Rights director Michael Ignatieff, who tells Zernike, "Liberals are always accused of equivocating and splitting differences, but this guy [Hussein] really is awful. But I'll tell you, it's extremely unpopular among my friends."

posted at 7:57 AM | link

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Rhetoric and reality at UMass. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby this morning writes this about UMass president William Bulger, whose job has been targeted for elimination by Governor Mitt Romney:

Would he sacrifice, say, some of his immense $309,000 salary or the lavish benefits that go with it? His personal retinue of -- count 'em -- 68 courtiers? His opulent chambers at One Beacon Street? Bulger's predecessors managed to function without such trappings. Could Bulger? He didn't say.

The notion that Bulger has treated himself far more lavishly than his "predecessors" is a phony proposition, and if Jacoby doesn't understand that, then he should.

The current UMass president's office was created in 1991, when five separate schools -- UMass Amherst, as well as colleges and universities in Boston, Lowell, Dartmouth, and Worcester -- were combined into one massive state university system in an attempt to put Massachusetts on a par with other states.

The plan was approved by Republican governor Bill Weld, and at least until Romney came along, it had been pretty much universally regarded as a success.

Bulger had precisely one predecessor as president of this reorganized system: Michael Hooker, who left after just two and a half years. At the time of his departure, in 1995, Hooker was making $189,000. Bulger was named in late 1995, and was initially granted the same salary. Bulger's annual salary increases amount to an average of just under six and a half percent per year. That's a lot, but it's not as though the Hack God reached down out of the blue and bestowed $300K on Bulger.

The problem with Jacoby's analysis is that it's based on the sort of sneering populism that doesn't depend on facts. Here's what we need to know -- and here's what the Globe and/or the Herald ought to find out and report before this debate devolves any further.

  • How does Bulger's $309,000 salary compare with those of the presidents of similar-size state university systems around the country? Is it too high? Too low? About in the middle?
  • We already know that Bulger lacks the academic qualifications normally found in a major university president, and that his political background -- mainly his long stint as president of the Massachusetts Senate -- was paramount when he was selected. By nearly all accounts, Bulger has done a good job promoting and running UMass. But has his lack of academic credentials hurt in other, unseen ways? Again, a look at other major state university systems would be in order.
  • What do the 68 people who work for the UMass president's office do? The implication put forth by Jacoby is that they're all nothing but pinky-rinked coat-holders whose jobs could be eliminated tomorrow without anyone noticing. Herald columnist Howie Carr recently listed a lot of high salaries, as though that settles the matter. But again, we need a real analysis: what jobs do those 68 people perform? if they were eliminated, would their duties have to be parceled out to the local campuses? how does that compare with other major state universities? is their pay really out of line?

The problem, of course, is that this has turned into a steel-cage death match between the widely disliked Bulger and Romney, the new kid whose reputation as a reformer is likely to survive for at least a few more months.

As the Globe's Joan Vennochi argues this morning, Bulger, having chosen loyalty to his mobster brother over public accountability, needs to get out of the way so that someone without taint can make the case for UMass.

posted at 9:31 AM | link

Sanctions kill. Foreign-policy expert Walter Russell Mead makes the liberal case for war in Iraq brilliantly in yesterday's Washington Post. Sanctions, he observes, are killing an estimated 60,000 Iraqi children every year. Our longstanding policy of containment may be working in a narrow sense, Mead argues, but it's costing the lives of children, destabilizing the region, and forcing the US to keep massive numbers of troops in the region, thus indirectly contributing to the hatred that caused 9/11. He writes:

Morally, politically, financially, containing Iraq is one of the costliest failures in the history of American foreign policy. Containment can be tweaked -- made a little less murderous, a little less dangerous, a little less futile -- but the basic equations don't change. Containing Hussein delivers civilians into the hands of a murderous psychopath, destabilizes the whole Middle East and foments anti-American terror -- with no end in sight.

What Mead fails to address, unfortunately, is the dubious wisdom of marching behind the banner of a president who has managed to alienate most of the international community with his arrogance and his "you're either with us or against us" rhetoric.

posted at 9:30 AM | link

Bias and the media. The myth of the liberal media is a load of crap. I explain why in today's Boston Phoenix.

posted at 9:30 AM | link

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Non to Freedom fries. In Newton and Brookline, the main objection to French fries is the cholesterol, not the French, according to this article in the Newton Tab. The best quote is from Jim Barrett, a Brookline Liquor Mart employee whose wife serves in the Air Force: "The French in general aren't any more opposed to the war than the average person in Brookline, so am I gonna go and boycott Brookline?"

posted at 10:17 AM | link

Eat the document. With the House of Representatives changing the name of French fries to Freedom fries, George W. Bush is starting to look awfully passive, don't you think? Where is the bold leadership that he showed at his news conference last week, when he droned about a dozen times that we need to invade Iraq because of 9/11? Why, you'd think Iraq had something to do with 9/11, which I guess was the point.

Anyway, I suggest that the president one-up the House by referring to turkey as constitution in order to signal our displeasure with Turkey, which continues to believe it's a sovereign state or something. Think of how proud we'll all be next Thanksgiving, when Bush carves up the constitution and then eats it. Let French -- er, freedom -- ring.

posted at 8:24 AM | link

The Buchanan factor. One of the problems with being antiwar is that you have to hop into bed with anti-American hate groups like International ANSWER. Another is that Pat Buchanan agrees with you. Buchanan's not anti-Semitic. No, really, he's not. Some of his best friends are Jews. Just ask him!

Fortunately, the antiwar movement is picking up more-respectable allies every day. Slate's Mickey Kaus has been keeping a list of what he calls the "Balking Hawks" -- pundits who were leaning toward war as recently as a few weeks ago, but who are now backing off, mainly because of how George W. Bush has botched it.

It's a group that I almost count myself among. I never favored war, but there were moments when I thought it might be the least-bad alternative in terms of disarming Saddam Hussein and liberating the Iraqi people from one of the world's most vicious tyrants.

But, as "Balking Hawk" Thomas Friedman observes in this morning's New York Times, you just can't invade a country and topple a government without international support. Hardly a controversial argument, but one that the White House just doesn't seem to get.

posted at 8:23 AM | link

Middle East strategery. If you want to be truly well-informed about the possible outcomes of invading Iraq, you've got to war-game it, just like the Pentagon does. Click here (make sure you've got Flash installed), and you'll be a military expert in no time.

posted at 8:23 AM | link

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Wholly war. Within the past few weeks, the mainstream media have shifted from treating George W. Bush's religious beliefs as a benign curiosity to a central part of his being. The question is whether this is an entirely good thing or if, instead, it has imbued him with the dangerous belief that God is on his side.

Today, two more entries in the Bush-and-God sweepstakes. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, Jackson Lears is distressed at how Bush has allowed his religion to shape his foreign policy, writing:

The belief that one is carrying out divine purpose can serve legitimate needs and sustain opposition to injustice, but it can also promote dangerous simplifications -- especially if the believer has virtually unlimited power, as Mr. Bush does. The slide into self-righteousness is a constant threat.

In the current Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes asserts that Bush's religious beliefs are well within the American mainstream -- true, no doubt, but beside the point, if the American mainstream believes that it is our national destiny to wage holy war.

Besides, as former president Jimmy Carter reminded us over the weekend, it is possible to share Bush's intense Christian beliefs while coming to a diametrically opposite conclusion as to how those beliefs should be applied to Iraq. Carter wrote in the New York Times:

As a Christian and as a president who was severely provoked by international crises, I became thoroughly familiar with the principles of a just war, and it is clear that a substantially unilateral attack on Iraq does not meet these standards.

When Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year, Bush played it perfectly. Despite Carter's considerable accomplishments during his long post-presidency, his award was widely interpreted as a swipe at Bush's saber-rattling. Indeed, one of the Nobel judges himself spoke words to that effect. But as many conservatives fumed, Bush was gracious, congratulating Carter for recognition that he richly deserves.

Now would be the perfect time for Bush not just to congratulate Carter, but to pay attention to what the man has to say. If Bush truly believes he has the mandate of heaven to wage war, perhaps someone whose religious views are similar could show him that maybe, just maybe, he might be wrong.

posted at 8:21 AM | link

Regulation or harassment? By all accounts, the tragic nightclub fire in West Warwick last month was the result of a confluence of mind-boggling stupidity: highly flammable soundproofing foam; a pyrotechnics display more suitable for an outdoor concert than a cramped, indoor stage; and, possibly, building and fire inspections over the years that were obscenely inadequate.

So it makes sense for officials elsewhere to take swift action to make sure such a thing could not happen in their communities. But does it make sense to harass responsible club owners to the point where they may no longer be able to do business? The Boston City Council seems to think so.

Try to imagine councilor Stephen Murphy talking his fellow councilors and their aides into squeezing themselves into a five-foot-by-seven-foot square in order to prove that current club standards allow for too much crowding. I'm surprised someone didn't throw a punch.

posted at 8:20 AM | link

Veterans for War. First the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council didn't want lesbians and gay men proclaiming their identity in the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Now they don't want an antiwar veterans group sullying the festivities. Apparently peace is not a family value. One would hope that Congressman Stephen Lynch, who's refusing to take a stand in public, is privately counseling parade poobah Wacko Hurley to do the right thing. But probably not.

posted at 8:19 AM | link

Double bogey. Boston Herald Inside Track columnists Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa today insist it was they, not New York Times reporter Don Van Natta, who first broke the story that Bill Clinton cheats at golf -- not in 1999, which is when Van Natta wrote about it, but way back in 1994. (Third item.)

posted at 8:19 AM | link

Monday, March 10, 2003

The problem is pedophilia, not liberalism. John Farrell has posted a longish and impassioned critique of conservative Catholics such as Richard John Neuhaus, whose recent essay in First Things, according to Farrell, evinces more interest in attacking Church liberals than rooting out child molesters. Farrell writes:

I'm not a liberal ... [but] I am alarmed by the apparent strategy on the part of critics like Father Neuhaus to go after doctrinally lax clergymen in print when what he and other writers need to be doing is reminding the bishops and administrators in the Church in this country that they need to operate less like corporate bankers and more like the preservers of the Gospel Jesus Christ meant them to be.

The Catholic hierarchy's inability to understand what the problem is continues to astound.

posted at 10:06 AM | link

Trivial pursuit. John Kerry's non-Irish roots are a real -- if exceedingly minor -- story. But whether you're for Kerry or not, you should be concerned about the damage that will be done to our public discourse if minuscule points over whether Kerry may have allowed someone at one time to believe he might be part-Irish are used by his political enemies and the media to tar him as some sort of two-faced lying weasel.

This is exactly what was done in the 2000 campaign, when a series of stories about Al Gore's so-called lying -- led by the false, Republican-created charge that he had once claimed to have "invented the Internet" -- ended up defining the context through which the media viewed him, and, given the closeness of the final vote, probably cost him election. (Not that he actually lost.)

The Herald's Joe Sciacca -- no Kerry suck-up -- today has an exceptionally lucid take on the nitpicking over Kerry's ethnic background, his haircut, and even whether he colors his hair, writing: "If one considers the nature of the scandals that have hounded Kerry in his White House run so far, it seems the bar for what constitutes a relevant campaign issue has been lowered to ant level."

And here's the Daily Howler's characteristically caustic deconstruction of the Globe's latest on Eringate (last item). Unlike the Howler, I do think this is a legitimate story. But let's get a grip, folks: this is cool stuff to know for a trivia quiz, nothing more.

posted at 8:02 AM | link

More on Shribman. The Boston Globe's former Washington-bureau chief and now the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Shribman, is profiled today by the Buffalo News, his wife's hometown paper.

He tells Anthony Violanti: "I spent nearly two dozen years in bureaus far away from the people who read the paper. Now, my phone number is in the paper and people call me. Sometimes they cuss me out. Sometimes they want to give me a hug. But they call every day, and it's kind of nice to be so close to your readers." (Via Romenesko.)

posted at 8:01 AM | link

Bill, Bob, bore. I was out last night and messed up my attempt to tape the first 60 Minutes faceoff between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. If you missed it, too, well, here it is. Nicholas von Hoffman and James Kilpatrick it isn't.

posted at 8:00 AM | link

The return of Gary Webb. My former Phoenix colleage Al Giordano, the publisher and editor of the Narco News Bulletin, has taken a sabbatical. His temporary replacement: Gary Webb, the legendary investigative reporter whose work for the San Jose Mercury News demonstrated pretty convincingly that the Contra rebels in 1980s Nicaragua, backed by the US government, funded their activities by selling crack in the United States -- and that the CIA, under the best possible interpretation, looked the other way.

Webb's reporting ended up in a journalistic limbo. His editors apologized for some of the series' excesses, yet Webb claimed that those excesses were stuck in by those very same editors, over his objections. At the very least, it seems that the Mercury's editors, feeling intense heat, were only too happy to use the series' flaws to discredit Webb's entire body of work.

posted at 8:00 AM | link


Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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