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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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Yes, Senator, freedom from religion, too. Religion is starting to sneak into the presidential campaign in a fairly rancid way. The latest example is Joe Lieberman, who, according to this article in the New York Times, is going after Howard Dean for being too secular.

In what Times reporter Diane Cardwell calls a "veiled swipe" at Dean, Lieberman reportedly said:

I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square. They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Some people forget that faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purpose and our individual lives.

The good senator, of all people, should know that religion is treacherous territory in public life - and that if religiosity is a good, old-fashioned American value, so too is anti-Semitism. If Lieberman were actually in a position to win, his Orthodox Judaism might prove to be a problem with some of the very people he's trying to win over. It's unseemly of him to go after a fellow Democrat on religious grounds.

Still, Lieberman's outburst is not without context. This week's New Republic features a cover story (sub. req.) by Franklin Foer arguing that Dean simply isn't religious enough to get elected in November. Foer notes a survey showing that "70 percent of Americans want their president to be a person of faith."

"Howard Dean is one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history," writes Foer, citing Dean's switch from the Episcopal to the Congregational church over his anger at the Episcopal diocese's opposition to a bike path he was championing; his admission that he rarely goes to church; his marriage to a Jewish woman, Judith Steinberg, whose religious views also appear to lean secular; and his frequent attacks on religious fundamentalists. (Representative Dean soundbite: "I don't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore.")

But is it the religion of the politician that matters, or the politics of the religious? Earlier this week, the Boston Globe published a column by its former Washington-bureau chief, David Shribman, on a well-known phenomenon: the overwhelming preference that Christian fundamentalists have for Republicans. (You can find it here, on the website of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where Shribman is the executive editor.)

Shribman notes:

In the 2000 election, Bush swept more religiously observant voters by large percentages - and, in the case of white evangelical Protestants, by a margin of more than five to one.

Shribman doesn't quite connect the dots, so I will: this wide split took place despite such Gore-ian ick as his wearing a WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") bracelet. For the fundamentalists, it's not whether you were born again; it's where you stand on such cultural issues as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

It doesn't matter to me whether a candidate is a secular Protestant, such as Dean; a Catholic, such as John Kerry; or someone like Wesley Clark, whose father was Jewish and who apparently switches to a different Christian denomination every couple of years.

Then again, I suppose I'm one of those secularists who Joe Lieberman's mother warned him about.

A close encounter with mad-cow disease. News that a downer cow in Washington State has been diagnosed with mad-cow disease has brought this low-simmering story back to a boil. Here is the story from the hometown Seattle Times.

Two years ago I identified mad cow as a shamefully undercovered story and urged the media to get off their butts and start reporting. You can read it here.

The best - and most horrifying - overview remains Ellen Ruppel Shell's piece in the Atlantic Monthly of September 1998, "Could Mad-Cow Disease Happen Here?"

So put down that burger and start reading.

And have a Merry Beef-free Christmas!

posted at 8:59 AM | comment or permalink

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Interview Ben Affleck? Go directly to jail! Not that anyone should be surprised, but now comes evidence that the administration's thuggishness toward foreign visitors extends to journalists as well.

According to this December 13 editorial in the Toledo Blade, of all places, "immigration and customs people are arresting, detaining, and deporting journalists arriving here without special visas. This is so even when they come from nations whose citizens can stay for up to 90 days without a visa if they are arriving as tourists or on business."

The Blade recounts the story of Peter Krobath, of an Austrian entertainment magazine called Skip, who was jailed overnight like a common criminal after he arrived in the US to interview Ben Affleck and attend a screening of the movie Paycheck. His crime: showing up without a visa.

There are other horror stories as well. Read the whole thing.

More information is available on the website of the International Press Institute, based in Austria. Be sure to check out this letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, which includes more details on Krobath's detention. This is outrageous:

When Mr. Krobath landed at Los Angeles Airport (LAX) on 2 December 2003 to cover the above-mentioned junket, he was questioned about the purpose of his visit and further interrogated for almost five hours. After he was body-searched, and his photograph and fingerprints were taken, two security officers led him handcuffed to an isolation room. Later on he was transferred to a downtown prison where he spent the night together with about 45 persons (some of whom were convicted criminals) in a room with iron benches and two open toilet facilities but without blankets despite the low temperature. His luggage and his personal belongings were kept separately.

The letter urges Powell to support a resolution by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which has asked Congress to include journalists in the US Visa Waiver Program for Visitors from Friendly Countries.

Unfortunately, ASNE's website does not appear to have anything on it about this grotesque assault on the civil liberties of international visitors.

This story bears watching.

posted at 9:30 AM | comment or permalink

Monday, December 22, 2003

The overweening arrogance of George Will. George Will's buckraking ways have landed him in some trouble today. And what's not to love about that?

In this morning's New York Times, Jacques Steinberg and Geraldine Fabrikant report that Will was one of several conservative deep thinkers - along with National Review founder William Buckley, geriatric war criminal Henry Kissinger, Carter-era hawk Zbigniew Brzezinski, Margaret Thatcher, and others - who were paid to lend intellectual legitimacy to Conrad Black, a newspaper baron who is himself in quite a bit of hot water over his alleged corrupt business practices.

It seems that not only did Will provide a fawning blurb for Black's new biography of Franklin Roosevelt - the recipient of an unusually harsh assessment in the current New York Times Book Review by former Boston Globe editor Michael Janeway - but he has also sucked up to his secret benefactor in his column as well.

Here are the (literal) money paragraphs:

In a column syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group in March, Mr. Will recounted observations Mr. Black had made in a London speech defending the Bush administration's stance on Iraq.

In a rebuttal to Mr. Bush's critics, Mr. Will wrote, "Into this welter of foolishness has waded Conrad Black, a British citizen and member of the House of Lords who is a proprietor of many newspapers."

Asked in the interview if he should have told his readers of the payments he had received from Hollinger, Mr. Will said he saw no reason to do so.

"My business is my business," he said. "Got it?"

Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of The Washington Post Writers Group, said he was unaware of Mr. Will's affiliation with Hollinger or the money he received. "I think I would have liked to have known," Mr. Shearer said.

Buckley comes in for some criticism, too, but in the main his response is that of an old-fashioned gentleman: he has often disclosed his friendship with Black, but not his financial arrangement. Will, by contrast, looks like a money-grubbing worm.

Of course, Will has made a career out of using his column to advance his own interests, political, financial, and otherwise. Most memorably, in 1980 Will secretly prepped Ronald Reagan for his debate against Jimmy Carter - a coaching session made all the easier because the Reagan campaign had improperly obtained a copy of Carter's briefing book. Will later went on television and pronounced Reagan's performance to be that of a "thoroughbred." Norman Solomon has a good synopsis here, on the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting website.

FAIR's Steve Rendall recounts a bit of unpleasantness that descended on Will in 1996, when he continually tore into Bill Clinton at a time when Will's wife, Mari Maseng, was working for Clinton's opponent, Bob Dole. Will, naturally, didn't disclose.

George Will is an elegant writer, and he sure knows how to wear a bowtie. But he has always subordinated the interests of his readers to his own, narrower causes.

I'm glad to see that his editor is pissed off. Editorial-page editors across the country might consider whether Will has now proven himself to be a repeat offender with no possibility of rehabilitation.

Convention-al wisdom. The contracts, as they say, have already been signed. But are Mayor Tom Menino and planners for the Democratic National Convention really going to walk into a full-blown catastrophe now that a viable alternative has been identified?

Last Friday, the Boston Herald's Cosmo Macero wrote (sub. req.) that the new convention center in South Boston would be ready by next July if the go-ahead to move the DNC were given.

It is a brilliant idea. The FleetCenter is a disaster waiting to happen. There is no place to put the media (and the modern convention is, above all else, a media show). And security in such a crowded neighborhood is bound to be so odious that it will leave a bad taste for years to come.

Check this out from Macero's column:

"If we got the call from the mayor or the committee ... I believe we could do it," says Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and Menino's one-time chief of staff. "It would look different. But it could and would be made to look like a good media event, which is by and large what conventions are."

The analogous situation is Philadelphia, which hosted the Republican National Convention in 2000. Most of the events took place in the downtown, all within a few blocks. But the convention itself was held far from the downtown, in a facility surrounded by acres of unused land - plenty of room for tents to house the media, security, and the like.

It was an ideal set-up, and one Boston would do well to emulate. Now that it appears this could really be done, the only intelligent response is to make it happen.

posted at 8:56 AM | comment or permalink


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

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