Monday, December 15, 2008

Please visit my new blog

Dear friends,

I'm off and running again with a new blog: America in the Age of Obama. Please stop by to check it out. You can find it by going to



Friday, September 12, 2008

The media's job is to unearth facts, not repeat myths

This piece was published in the Christian Science Monitor

9/10/08 -- In the summer of 2002, a senior aide to President George W. Bush met with a writer whose work had annoyed him to deliver a lesson in how his administration saw its mandate.

"The aide said that guys like me … 'believe that solutions emerge from … judicious study of discernible reality,'" Ron Suskind wrote, recalling the event two years later. "'That's not the way the world really works anymore...,' [the aide] continued. 'When we act, we create our own reality.'"

Even in the days before the Bush presidency and Karl Rove, widely believed to be the source of that quote, political campaigns of all stripes have strived to "create their own realities."

But while reporters have ridiculed Democrat Michael Dukakis for riding in a tank and belittled Barack Obama for the Greek columns at his nomination speech, Republicans have succeeded in turning the manipulation of myth into an art form.

That's been evident this week as Rove protégé and Sen. John McCain's adviser Steve Schmidt has steadied the ship of Sarah Palin's rollout. First, he bullied the news media into submission. Then the campaign pushed an unrelenting portrayal of her as a maverick.

As reporters disclosed that Ms. Palin sought earmarks for her hometown before she opposed them and supported the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it, the campaign's message only got more persistent and better packaged. On Monday, it released a new ad titled "Original Mavericks."

And while the McCain campaign hammered the media for invading Palin's privacy, it has used every opportunity to idealize her family, even flying in the boyfriend of her pregnant 17-year-old daughter Bristol and parading both on stage behind the governor after she accepted the Republican nomination for vice president. Reality television seemed to trump reality itself as the nomination took on the look of a new daytime soap. Meanwhile, the news media – pushed back by the McCain campaign, then fed this feel-good story line – converted Palin from untested and unvetted to "hockey mom," a "pit bull with lipstick" ready to bite Obama.

The turnaround has been breathtaking.

Just over a week ago reporters disclosed that Palin is being investigated for allegedly trying to intimidate state officials into firing her estranged state trooper brother-in-law. Commentators raised sharp questions about her inexperience and poor vetting. Airwaves filled with idle – and sexist – speculation over whether a mother of five could handle the vice presidency.

But by Friday, an MSNBC commentator offered the breathy pronouncement that the McCain-Palin ticket "will be ahead in the polls by the end of the week." And on Sunday a long profile in The Washington Post pivoted on this sentence: "Of the many striking images of Palin – sportswoman, beauty queen, populist – in Alaska the most iconic is working mother, a perfectly coifed professional woman balancing public duties and child-rearing in a charismatic blur of multitasking."

Meanwhile, reports of Palin's hard-right credentials (anti-abortion, pro-gun, possibly pro-creationism, and pro-abstinence education) receded rapidly as did news, covered in a blur, that she had attended five colleges over six years before graduating.

The see-saw story of Sarah Palin should give the press pause. Feeding frenzies followed by fawning serve only to confuse. If the public is to make sound decisions, to sort what's real from what's manufactured, the media must do their job with greater consistency and greater care.

1. The media should redouble efforts to unearth facts and spend far less time on speculation and titillation. McCain, Palin, Obama, and Joe Biden all have records. It's the media's job to expose contradictions in them – and to keep doing so even when campaigns push back. It is not the media's job to speculate who will be leading next week or whether a candidate can parent and govern simultaneously.

2. The media need to reexamine the meaning of journalistic objectivity. It is not to give equal weight and space to each side of an issue. It is to report fully and fairly, to determine where the facts fall, and to write what's verifiably true – giving a say, but not equal space, to those who contest the facts without evidence.

Palin, for example, does not believe climate change has a human cause. The scientific consensus says otherwise. Should her views carry equal weight as the campaign grinds on? My journalism professors would have said "no."

3. The media should regularly explain what reporters do and why. In an era in which reporters are about as popular as $4-a-gallon gasoline, this is imperative. This spring I gave a workshop to some 50 university public information employees. I faced a long silence before anyone could tell me what the First Amendment protects.

Until the news media turn both tougher and fairer, provides contextual truth and not just balance, political operatives will hold the upper hand. And the public will move through election cycles like motorists peering into a thick fog.

"You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time," Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said.

Only a vigilant media can keep Machiavellian calculations of contemporary campaigns from fooling enough people enough of the time to make such deceit the deciding factor in our elections.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hillary: It's Time for a Gracious Exit

A slightly different version of this piece ran first in the Christian Science Monitor.


Dear Hillary,

Enough. You've reaffirmed your standing as a fighter, reconnected with blue-collar America, forged an identity as a woman of heart and steel. Now you can be a uniter, too, hailed for your toughness and grace in recognizing when a losing cause is just that.

It's time to bow out of the Democratic contest.

Yes, you can fight clear through to the convention, demand that the Florida and Michigan delegations be seated; bring in your attack dogs to question Barack Obama's testicular fortitude; wink at another round of Internet whispers that question your opponent's funny name, his patriotism, and his religion.

You can bash the press, browbeat the superdelegates, and boast of your prowess in the working-class kitchens of big states the party must win come November. You can post more ads of that irritating red phone and revel in your ability to nick your opponent just enough to keep him slightly off stride.

But you'll still lose. And the Democratic Party may lose with you.

Consider your legacy. Do you want to be remembered as Hillary the Pillorer, Hillary the Heckler, Clinton the Cutthroat? Surely not.

Doesn't Hillary the Healer seem more salving, more uplifting, on the pages of Democratic Party history? Surely you and Bill don't want to risk discarding your moneymaking memoirs in the trash heap of Democratic sore losers?

In so many intimate aspects of life, timing is everything. And in the end, even in the 24-7 glare of panting journalists and pushy photographers, politics is a most intimate sport. Seize the moment.

As you walk to the podium, the photographers will bring their lenses in tight. You are smiling now – a broad, wise, embracing smile. (Was that a hint of dampness in one eye or just the glare?)

You spread your arms and speak. Shower love on your supporters. Thank them for showing that a woman can win in America, that women will be back – in 2012, 2016, 2020. Hint perhaps that it may even be you. But then praise Obama as a man of toughness and integrity, a leader who can set a new course for America. Say that you will stand by his side in his fight against John McCain. That he deserves to be president. That you will fight with all your strength to make sure he gets there. That if called on, you will even serve as his vice president.

Again Hillary, timing is everything. Your horoscope reads: "Don't delay." So I'd speak out immediately. Why gamble away another $6.4 million on a campaign car that's leaking oil? There's no need to be the Ralph Nader of 2008; Ralph's already running. And who knows. By mid-June even some of your old friends could be calling you the Benedicta Arnold of the Democratic Party.

But act now and you will be an American heroine, irresistible to the TV bookers from Today to Tonight. Sure. Your campaign aides – and most loyal supporters – will feel hurt. Some may even feel sold out, and that's tough. But the press and public will hail you as a woman of character and principle, the savior of her party, a fighter who understood that her fight was for America's people and not for herself.

I can't help tearing up just thinking about it. You can still write a happy ending to your narrative, Hillary. Tomorrow it may be too late.

Warmest regards,

Jerry Lanson

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A petty round of 'gotcha'

04/17/08 -- Let's cut to the chase: I've never seen a worse-moderated presidential debate, a more biased moderator performance, a less intelligent series of questions.

For 45 minutes, the first half of last night's Democratic presidential debate, ABC's Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos (Bill Clinton's old communications guy) double-teamed Barack Obama. Unrelentingly, they asked a succession of questions about this campaign's not so golden oldies: the beaten-to-death bitter comment, Obama's pastor, Obama's relationship with a neighbor who 40 years ago was a radical activist, even the Illinois senator's penchant for celebrating his patriotism in ways other than parading around in flag-lapel pins.

Someone might just as well have asked: "Senator, are you or were you ever a member of the Communist Party? A sympathizer, perhaps? Because the tenor of the questions at times seemed vaguely reminiscent of the '50s, the early '50s when Joseph McCarthy took his communist witch hunt from the State Department to Hollywood.

To his credit, Obama kept his cool. But he did so at a cost. He at times seemed muted, politely - perhaps too politely - understated as he said once, twice, and then three times that the American people were interested in how the next president was going to deal with health care and the housing crises, energy and the Iraq war, not the kind of gotcha issues the moderators kept bringing up. And then Gibson and Stephanopoulos fired back with the next gotcha question.

Sure, Hillary Clinton had to face her own gotcha moment: A Pennsylvanian taped earlier asked her why she said she'd been fired on by snipers in Bosnia when she actually was greeted with flowers. She rambled a bit, sort of went, "ah shucks," and then the moment ended. It was back to Obama.

My scorecard shows Obama got four gotcha questions, Clinton one. Even the camera pans of the audience repeatedly settled on Chelsea Clinton. Surely, someone from Obama's team was in the house?

Finally, when the script turned to actual policy in the second half, the two moderators sounded a lot more like employees of Fox News than of a neutral network. Would the candidates pledge to never raise taxes? Would they really withdraw troops from Iraq if their generals asked for more time? Would they bomb Iran to protect Israel?

John McCain couldn't have asked for a friendlier script.

Granted. Reporters get paid to ask tough questions. No complaint there. But they should be tough questions of substance, not rehashed spam. Surely, if ABC's producers had done some hard reporting, they could have found something fresh -- inconsistencies of policy statements over the campaign's long march, perhaps; contradictions between the candidate's current stands and past votes; or subtle differences between them on issues that really matter to the American public. Relooping an already weary newsreel, trotting out the tired and really terribly limited fudges and guilt-by-association embarrassments of this campaign, make for neither good debates nor good journalism.

For years now, I've grimaced when I see polls showing the persistent downward slope of public trust in the American news media. This Wednesday night, I could hardly blame that public.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

McCain may be the last man standing

03/25/08 -- The political whispers get stranger and stranger.

Now gossip is surfacing that Hillary Clinton would just as soon have John McCain win if she loses the Democratic nomination, figuring at his age he’d only last one term. I sure hope this rumor is false. But it does seem as if both Democratic campaigns are intent on stealing defeat from the jaws of victory come November.

A Barack Obama surrogate compared Bill Clinton to Joseph McCarthy (could Strom Thurmond be next?). Hillary marches around saying that she would pick her pastor with care and that McCain is better prepared than her opponent to be commander-in-chief. Suddenly a Bloomberg-Hagel third-party ticket is starting to look pretty good.

This Democratic primary campaign, one that started with so much excitement, so much anticipation, now has the feel of two lumbering prize fighters sleep-walking through the 14th and 15th round. They throw wild, wide punches that nick and sometimes cut but ultimately do nothing to change the outcome. The winner will be the last one standing. But how much of the audience will have thinned by then?

McCain, meanwhile, is waltzing through Tennessee, Iraq and anywhere else he pleases, largely unscathed. He’s taken the lead in several national polls against Obama and Clinton. And a new Gallup poll finds that he'd win the support of one in five Obama supporters should Clinton win the nomination and a whopping 28 percent of Clinton backers should Obama win it.

At this point, anyway, McCain is the frontrunner, a fact that is absolutely amazing given an incredibly unpopular Republican president who is spending the rough equivalent of 350 to 400 full, four-year private college scholarships per day on a war that John McCain believes we should stick with in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, our dollar, our housing sector, our health care sector and (less obviously) our democracy continue their collapse. Yet neither Democratic candidate has done much to connect the $500 billion cost of the war (so far; it will at least triple) and the debt-ridden society that is America today.

Will someone speak up please? The war is the economy, stupid. Look at it this way. If every time you ran out of money you took out a new credit card, don’t you think the time inevitably would come when you’d be in big trouble, when you’d reach the limit on borrowing and creditors would begin asking for repayment?

But that is today’s America – the big, muscle-bound, proud, patriotic and pawned super power. We're propped up by foreign investments from places Saudi Arabia and China. And it keeps getting worse, thanks in large part to those war policies that John McCain supports 100 percent.

I don’t believe either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton support them. But they – Hillary in particular – are so intent on bloodying each other that they seem to have completely forgotten the task they set out on: to lead America.

Yes. I, too, think it’s time for Hillary Clinton to step aside. In last week's New York Times, columnist David Brooks gave her a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination. Even if the odds are 10 percent, even if she does somehow win, by that point the Democratic Party will be so shredded I sincerely doubt she would be able to win the presidency. Soon the same will be said of Obama’s candidacy as well. Certainly, even if Obama can’t be convinced to give Clinton the vice-presidency, he could be convinced to make her his health care czar or housing honcho. Heck, he might even let her sit up at night to pick up the red phone when it rings at 3 a.m. Certainly there have to be enough goodies to go around in a new administration to salve wounds, enough Neosporin to disinfect them.

Sending out hound dog James Carville to howl that Bill Richardson is a Judas on Easter’s eve just can’t be a good thing for Democrats – whether you support Clinton, Obama or Chris Dodd, for that matter. I, for one, would vote for any of them over John McCain, a proud man, a largely honest man (for a politician, at least), but ultimately a misguided militarist who is still trying to win Vietnam or any other war down the pike.

Empires throughout history have collapsed when their appetite to control the world exceeded their reach. The United States is edging perilously close to repeating that error. And it’s starting to look as though no one capable of changing our course will be at the helm when the next administration’s begins Day 1.

Friday, February 08, 2008

All the dirt that's fit to print

02/09/08 -- Once again those intrepid investigative reporters at The New York Times are hard at work.

This morning's front-page expose: How much marijuana did Barack Obama actually smoke in high school and college? Apparently, not enough for The Times. After snooping around for classmates of Obama in high school and college, the paper seems seriously concerned that the presidential candidate does not seem to have been as stoned out 30 years ago as readers of his book, Dreams from my father, might have thought.

How’s that for a hard-hitting revelation?

Writes The Times Serge Kovaleski: “Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs ... significantly differs from the recollections of others. That could suggest he was so private about his (drug) use that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.”

Of course, it also could suggest that Mr. Kovaleski and The New York Times editors need to stop shilling for someone else's whispered smear campaign. Instead of conjecturing about what is a non-story to start, they should consider doing some real reporting -- on real issues.

Does The Times' brass really believe this kind of ungrounded guesswork is serious, ethical reporting -- that this kind of Rupert Murdochian rumor-mongering belongs at a paper that once bragged it published only “all the news that’s fit to print?”

Let's see. There must be something more newsworthy out there.

Perhaps The Times should try analyzng how the campaigns are positioning themselves for the final push in a Democratic primary campaign that is neck and neck. Perhaps it should look in depth at who is pouring all that money into the coffers of the rival campaigns. Or then again, it could re-examine other stories that regularly appear and disappear without resolution these days, such as whether the United States is continuing the covert practice of extraordinary rendition – kidnapping people off the street and whisking them away to prisons in third-world dictatorships.

But no. It seems Obama's reefer madness ... NOT ... is more important. Mr. Kovaleski digs deep. He notes that he interviewed three dozen “friends, classmates and mentors” from Obama’s Hawaiian high school and Occidental College.

Why he bothered, given Obama’s own brief acknowledgement in the book of youthful indiscretion, is a serious question in itself. This very tired story already has led to the resignation of Hillary Clinton's campaign co-chair in New Hampshire for a snide comment about the drug connection and loud complaints about another prominent Clinton supporter for his remarks about Obama in South Carolina.

What's more extraordinary, however, is that after investigating this story and finding essentially nothing new worth writing about, The Times invented a theory, out of thin air and thinner evidence, that questions Obama’s integrity. That, quite simply, is bad journalism. Really bad journalism.

Of course, Mr. Kovaleski couldn’t have written this conjecture unless his editors had allowed him to. So let me ask them: Why would a man with aspirations to be president write a book in which he exaggerates his childhood drug use? Hmmm. Good question.

The answer: It defies logic.

But then, so does the entire premise of The Times article.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Can the Democrats blow it again?

This appeared on on Feb. 3, 2008

02/03/08 -- The polling numbers in today's Washington Post offer nothing more than a pit stop in a long-distance car race.

But still. If the race today matched John McCain against Hillary Clinton, he'd have the support of 49 percent of voters to her 46 percent. If McCain took on Barack Obama today, the Illinois Dmocrat would be in front 49 to 46.

What the poll doesn't say is that Hillary Clinton already is running her best laps. She's got the gas to the floor. Barring the entrance of a third-wheel, right-wing Republican jalopy into the race -- and none has been advertised -- McCain likely would extend that lead and beat her to the finish line with some ease.

Obama, on the other hand, continues to gain momentum in this race. With each passing month, he handles his campaign car that much better. He's gotten tougher, quicker, without losing the ability to look way down the road, to see the whole map. Come the finish line, he beats McCain, pulling away and pulling a Democratic House and Senate with him.

Enough with the analogy. How about presidential politics? Listen to David Gergen, the Kennedy School of Government professor who worked for the Clinton White House: "She (Hillary) has not found the campaign theme yet," he tells The Boston Globe.

One year into the campaign, with some of the savviest political minds in America behind her and Hillary Clinton has not found her campaign theme yet? She's still talking about 35 years experience and managing from Day 1. She's talking about toughness and the intricacies of policy. She's always competent, never inspirational. And, besides that, her message won't work against McCain, a man with competence, experience and the resume of a hero.

I have nothing against Hillary Clinton. She's smart. She's undoubtedly an excellent manager. She is tough. She'd probably be a very good president.

She just won't win. Because in a race for the middle, this country still leans conservative. Because the American people are tired of looking back, so tired that they've to some extent mixed up Bill Clinton's largely positive legacy with the cumulative disaster of Bush I and Bush II. Because Hillary Clinton believes that politics is war even though, ironically, politics is one war both the American people and John McCain have had their fill of.

Enter Barack Obama, the man with a Kansan mother, an African father, a Hawaiian childhood. He talks of hope, of change, of bringing the country together. He can and does run against the Iraq war and the war of Washington politics as usual. He seems to live the politics of inclusion. But, as he's shown, with the Billary campaign in South Carolina, he can take a hit and fight back.

Most importantly for Democrats, he can win. He has inspired new generations in a campaign that would pit him against a 71-year-old war hero. He has consistently won the independent vote over his Democratic rivals and would compete well against a Republican opponent whose strength is with independents. Unlike Clinton, he will not mobilize the somewhat demoralized Republican right-wing base against him.

The trouble is, he's still the longshot to win the Democratic nomination. Clinton has the backing of the Democratic Party establishment. She and her husband have doled out favors for a long time. Clinton captures the imagination of women, particularly those 40, 50 and older who grew up banging their heads against a glass ceiling. And she has the loyal backing of many in the Latino population, a major voting block in key western states that doesn't fully know or trust Obama, yet, and feels at home with Bill and Hillary.

Taken together, these give her a formidable edge, a wide-body limo with little room for Obama's sleeker Corvette to sneak past. That perhaps will be the irony of 2008. If the primaries were spread across many months as in past years, I believe Obama would gain the momentum to race off with the nomination. This year, with Super Duper Tuesday, with too many votes in too short a time, it's a sprint. with Clinton drawing the advantage of the rail position.

Waiting down the track sometime this summer will be John McCain. He'll have his own wide-body limo and one with a lot more traction across the heartland of America. Should Clinton get to him first -- should she win the Democratic nomination -- the Democratic faithful, and particularly the Baby Boomers, will have no one else to blame but themselves.