Does anybody really know what time it is?


I've got a new column in Moment magazine about my trip to Israel. It's a lot shorter than this and with a great deal less repetition than I would have predicted.

There's an old rule in journalism: simplify. If there's a shorter, simpler version of a word, use it. Instead of saying "at this point in time," just say "now." This is doubly true in headline writing, where space is limited.

Jonathan Weisman breaks this rule on the front page of today's Washington Post. His story is headlined: "As Campaign Heats Up, Untruths Can Become Facts Before They're Undone." Untruths -- that's a clunky word. How about "lies"?

According to Weisman, that's a "taboo" in politics. He refers to it as the "L-word," and only uses it in sentences like this: "Palin and John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, have been more aggressive in recent days in repeating what their opponents say are outright lies." But Palin's Bridge to Nowhere story is an outright lie; that's an objective fact.

The problem, as I wrote in my January Nation column, "The Lies of Quinn-Broderville," is that it's only easy for many in the insular mainstream media to call things lies when they step outside their well-defined assumptions -- for example, as I wrote, Richard Cohen easily (and without evidence) said Barack Obama and John Edwards lied when they respectively implied that institutional racism continues to rule the American justice system, and that so-called free-trade agreements destroy more working-class jobs than they create.

But John McCain has spent decades cultivating the assumption among journalists that he's an honest, straightforward politician with a distaste for actual politics. A maverick, if you will. And so Weisman has a hard time bringing himself to write that McCain is currently lying about Palin's "Bridge to Nowhere" heroics. The closest we get are some "untruths" -- charges leveled by opponents of course. Those outside the village. What's worse, alas, is the point that the Today's Papers person at Slate notices:

Although the WP does note that the Republican ticket has "been more aggressive in recent days in repeating what their opponents say are outright lies," it tries to make it seem as though this is the way both campaigns are operating by noting that there have been untrue rumors swirling around the Internet about Palin. But isn't there a fundamental distinction between e-mail rumors and what is said by candidates on the stump? TP sure wishes the WP-and all the other papers-would be less reluctant to explicitly qualify these lies and call them as such instead of saying that "their opponents say" they're lying. It would also be nice if there was recognition that not all "untruths" are created equal. For example, Obama's campaign has repeatedly quoted McCain saying that the economy is fundamentally sound. Is it disingenuous? Sure. That quote is months old and now McCain can't stop repeating that the economy is in trouble. But he did actually say it, which is quite different from making something up. Not that it would matter. "We have created a system where there is not a lot of shame in stretching the truth," one analyst said. And once these lies seep into the public consciousness, it's difficult to change them.

It often appears to me that to play by the rules of this particular game one has to pretend to be far stupider than one can possibly be. I'm sure Weissman knows the difference between Obama's level of "untruth" and Palin's. But he has to be even-handed and so we get this false equivalence, which is a disservice both to readers and to the truth.

We may see our first glimpse of Sarah Palin facing a journalist tomorrow -- the AP reports that excerpts from Charlie Gibson's interview could be broadcast on tomorrow's ABC World News.

The story also tells us that, while no issues were negotiated to be "off the table," Gibson "said he thought hard about it, but decided not to ask questions then about Palin's family, including her 17-year-old pregnant daughter." (The latter angle is certainly good to stay away from, but hopefully the no-family restrictions won't also include Todd Palin's membership in a fringe secessionist political party, nor the troopergate affair, which is family-related. These are all serious issues that a journalist should probe, so the public can assess Palin.)

Palin's handlers chose the interviewer, the article says, and "there was some talk in news circles about whether MSNBC's opinionated programming was hurting NBC News' ability to book such an interview." David Westin, the head of ABC News, noted that MSNBC was a "challenge," and said "All I know is I was delighted they chose us over someone else."

This all adds up to a potentially softball interview, but we will see tomorrow. At the least, I hope the full interview gets played on Nightline or the Internet -- there's only 22 or so minutes in the World News broadcast, and a lot of other news to work in. They reserved a whole Nightline for John Edwards' confessional -- surely they can find time for a potential vice president. And since Gibson has basically played patsy for the Republicans when demanding that Democratic candidates agree with Republican tax proposals and gone so far as to offer phony evidence -- repeatedly -- to support his points, let's see if he takes the same tack with a Republican. Will he demand that they endorse proposals to protect the Constitution; the right to organize; the right to a minimum wage?

Holding your breath, anyone? Yeah, I know ... to ask the question is to answer it. Palin's people didn't pick Charlie G for no reason ...

Or what about this?

From Common Dreams: Percentage of wealth held by the top 10 percent in a given country:

U.S.: 70%

France: 61%

United Kingdom: 56%

Germany: 44%

Japan: 39%

Quote of the Day: "A special thank you to our friends in the liberal media establishment. Who knew they would come through so spectacularly? The ludicrous media feeding frenzy about the Palin family hyped interest in her speech, enabling her to win a huge audience for her smashing success Wednesday night at the convention. Indeed, it even renewed interest in McCain, who seems to have gotten still more viewers for his less smashing -- but well-received -- presentation the following evening." -- Bill Kristol

Quote of the Day 2: "I admit it. The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures." -- Bill Kristol

From TomDispatch:

"The events of the past seven years," Andrew Bacevich begins in his new piece at, "have yielded a definitive judgment on the strategy that the Bush administration conceived in the wake of 9/11 to wage its so-called Global War on Terror. That strategy has failed, massively and irrevocably. To acknowledge that failure is to confront an urgent national priority: to scrap the Bush approach in favor of a new national security strategy that is realistic and sustainable -- a task that, alas, neither of the presidential candidates seems able to recognize or willing to take up."

This post represents a powerful analysis from an important critic of the Bush administration's Global War on Terror -- of just how a small group of Washington officials, dreaming of "transforming" the political and military map of the Middle East and deeply convinced of their own perspicacity, led us into disaster. They were, Bacevich writes, believers in the deepest sense. "They worshipped in the Church of the Indispensable Nation, a small but intensely devout Washington-based sect formed in the immediate wake of the Cold War. Members of this church shared an exalted appreciation for the efficacy of American power, especially hard power. Their strategy of transformation emerged as a direct expression of their faith."

For them, Iraq was merely "a convenient place from which to launch a much larger and infinitely more ambitious project." Their "project" would prove one of the great failures of American history and, in this striking post, Bacevich makes clear just what that failure means for us today.

This is a major piece to mark the 9/11 moment, the seventh time around.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Larry Howe
Hometown: Oak Park, IL

Eric --

The Times op-ed page today is graced with Bob Herbert's passionate eloquence about the virtues of liberalism and why Democrats ought to take a stand defending not only liberalism but all of the rights and benefits that this political philosophy made possible. But moving across that page, the discourse moves precipitously into wrong-headedness.

In the middle column, "On Nov. 4, Remember 9/11," Jeffrey Goldberg makes the following absurd claim:

"The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America. Everything else -- Fannie Mae, health care reform, energy independence, the budget shortfall in Wasilla, Alaska -- is commentary."

Now the attacks of 9/11 were horrible, and a repeat of even lesser proportions, let alone a nuclear version, would be catastrophic. But to say that this is the only thing that the next president has to confront is ridiculous. Perhaps Goldberg missed Osama bin Laden's prediction that when oil hits $140 per barrel, the US will be brought to its knees (he's evil, yes; but he has a better understanding of economics than either Bush or McCain). A nuclear attack is not the only threat we face, though it would be the most spectacular. This kind of simplistic nonsense might work on the stage at the Republican convention, but it doesn't belong in the national "newspaper of record."

Last, we have the musings of David Brooks, who notes that this election season is fueled by surprise, that electorate wants novelty entertainment not sincere and workable solutions to the problems we face. The attention that Sarah Palin has generated gives a shred of credence to Brooks's observation. But at the end of the column he admits that "The Republicans are intellectually unfit to govern right now, but balancing with Democrats, they might be able to do some good." And then advises that McCain should "tell the country that he looks forward to working with Congressional Democrats, that he is confident the can achieve great things together." That's right -- the winning ticket is to admit -- at least implicitly -- that they're "intellectually unfit"; but if the Democrats provide the ideas, the Republicans will be happy to take the credit.

Bob Herbert, my heart continues to go out to you. How do you stand being in this company?

Name: Jesse Zander Corum
Hometown: Portland, OR

Chris Matthews isn't the only one picking up the Norma Rae idea. Or he just stole it from Jeff Greenfield at CBS News, from Thursday the 4th.

Greenfield decides Palin is a Sassy Lady from Hollywood central casting. He shows clips of such characters, including not only Norma Rae, but also Dolly Parton's character from "9 to 5" and Erin Brockovich. Never mind that those films are about unions, gender discrimination in the workplace, and fighting corporate pollution, the women in them give off the same "folksy spunk" that Palin does. Never mind that the Republicans, including Palin, are opposed to the messages of those films. Never mind that two of them were based on real people, not just Hollywood archetypes.

To cap it all off, the piece was full of technical incompetence -- they couldn't keep their aspect ratio right. Copying from widescreen (or HD) footage, the editors failed to properly reformat anamorphic video. Look how the clip from "Brockovich" is stretched horizontally. Worse, they do the same thing with a clip of Michelle Obama, making her look odd, squat and squished, then cutting back to proper footage of Palin, who looks real and human.

Now, I'm all for understanding the world through movies, but it helps if you actually pay attention to the movies. And pay attention to the world.

Name: John Ruffier
Hometown: Orlando, FL

On last Sunday's "Face the Nation" interview with Bob Schieffer, he started the interview with an interesting (but not surprising) fact: John McCain had appeared on FTN more than any other politician. Who did he surpass? Bob Dole. I'd love to know who rounded out the top 5: but my guess is that not many have a "(D)" following their names. What Liberal Media?!

George Zornick adds: Actually, over a nine-year period, 1997-2005, McCain was the most frequent guest on all Sunday shows, which was 50 percent more than the closest competitor. See Media Matters' study here.

Name: Larry Israelson
Hometown: Glendale, CA

Re: Billy Wagner's season-ending injury, all was foretold by reader Karen Abrams in the July 16 Altercation when she linked to the news that Wagner would be dining at The White House the day after the All-Star Game: "If I were a Mets fan and the kind of person to worry about that type of thing, I'd be much more concerned about God visiting injury upon Billy Wagner because of [that]."

Name: Kevin Bartner
Hometown: Alpharetta, GA

Why be so quick to declare the season over with yesterday's news regarding Wagner? They've managed to go 22-11 since he went down.

Name: Joe Raskin
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

Dr. Alterman --

The loss of Billy Wagner is terrible, no question. I feel very badly for him, especially after seeing that press conference today. But as an earlier left-handed relief pitcher (and my all-time favorite Met), Mr. Frank Edwin McGraw once said: "You Gotta Believe."

Realistically, Billy's been gone for weeks, but the rest of the bullpen has finally got their act together, and the team is winning games that they would have lost a year ago.

Carlos Delgado is in a full-fledged, Yaz in '67, refuse-to-lose mode, and the rest of the team is following. It will be tough, but the Mets are in first place, and they're not looking back this time.

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