Friday, November 22, 2013

An end of innocence.

John F. Kennedy was not our first assassinated president, but in 1963 it had been sixty-two years since the last.  Well out-of-sight and most certainly out-of-mind as the president and first lady began that fateful drive in Dallas.  There had been two world wars and an unresolved one in Korea by the time JFK took office.  Violence was hardly a stranger in the American landscape — Medgar Evers had been gunned down in his driveway just months before.  It didn't matter.  The assassination of a president was the last thing on our minds and death seemed so distant for the youngest man ever elected to the office.  The Kennedy's embodied vibrancy and life.

There was of course a kind of naive innocence in all of that.  Not merely the recent Evers killing, just days before the assassination we had commemorated the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's stirring Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln said that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here".  Of course the opposite is true.  Most every school child could recite his words in whole or in part — "Four score and seven years ago" without necessarily appreciating the unprecedented battle that took place there.  Americans may know that the Civil War was our most costly.  We certainly take note of the fallen in battle, but what we remember most is the fallen man from Illinois.  We remember but, with our generally sunny national disposition, assumed that nothing like that would happen to this man, to this couple.

Compared with Lincoln and Kennedy little is written about Garfield and McKinley and most of us know nothing about how Americans took their murders.  Garfield lingered for eleven weeks after he was shot, so the shock had likely worn off.  McKinley died eight days after being attacked.  Interestingly those deaths can probably be attributed more to poor medical treatment than from the bullets.  In fact, the wound McKinley sustained would likely not have been life threatening today.  Reagan survived his would-be assassin's bullet.  Perhaps we don't focus much on McKinley's end because the larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt succeeded him.  TR, who actually ascended at a younger age (42) than JFK, is the man most of us remember from that era. 

In contrast, Lincoln died shortly after being shot and had no charismatic successor to distract us.   As with Kennedy, we all know/remember the name of his wife.  Mary Lincoln may not have been a cultural icon like Jackie, but to this day we can picture her melancholy knowing that, beyond losing her husband, she was still grieving for their son Willie.  Mary and Abe Lincoln went to the theater innocently with no expectations that this would be the last thing they did together.  Jack and Jackie, she decked out in her pink outfit and a trademark Pillbox hat, were on their way to just another political event.  They were all smiles, never dreaming that their drive together would be their last.  They too were innocent of what was coming and so were we.

Dying  is a solo experience, but most of us leave loved ones behind, especially life partners, who face their own aloneness.  With a public figure, national grief is often visualized in the altered facial expression of those closest to him or her.  The contrast between before and after, if we can witness it, tells the story of loss most powerfully.  That
Andy Warhol: Jackie I (private collection)
day in Dallas was one of multiple images.  It was one of the many trips presidents make, and most often they make them alone.  Dallas was different and consequently many of the photos taken on November 22nd were of the couple — Jack and Jackie.  Perhaps the most indelible was of the two sitting in the back seat of that stretch convertible, a picture-perfect husband and wife smiling broadly at the crowds and for the camera.  Andy Warhol captured it in the way only he could.  His silkscreen rendition of an iconic photographic image printed with silver ink on an off white paper fades away in some lights.  The fragility of the image mirrors the fragile story it tells.  And then there are all those shots of Jackie newly alone — watching LBJ being sworn in, standing with her children as the casket passes by and black veiled at the funeral and graveside.  Her pain was far greater than ours, but somehow she was expressing what we felt, her public display of sadness echoed our own and was broadcast so that everyone could see the mutual pain.

It is fitting that we pause to remember John F. Kennedy and that an earlier generation did the same with Abraham Lincoln.  But let's not forget Jackie and Mary and those who were really close, family left behind.  Going on is what we humans must do, but it's not easy.  Jackie brought up two children, remarried and had a productive professional life.  We do go on.  But we the public will always keep that dual image — before and after, the smiles and grief — in our minds.  Perhaps as much as anything else these very personal images that also projected how we felt are what still reinforces the memory of the day many of us lost our innocence.  When we see Secret Service Agents surrounding this and previous presidents, we no longer underestimate the real and potential dangers that lurk.  We don't and shouldn't obsess about another November 22nd, but, in its own way, that day changed everything.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Time out.

Okay, everyone, take a very deep breath.   No, deeper than that.  Things have been pretty dicey these last few weeks, actually much longer than a few weeks.  I'd characterize it as an amplified mess.  As to the mess, the launch of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a colossal embarrassment with its not-ready-for-primetime website and communicative missteps.  The Administration screwed up and badly!  As to the amplified, a not so surprising rocky start to a very complicated undertaking has been blown way out of proportion.  This would have the ACA doomed and President Obama on his way to oblivion.  Right.  That may well be today's storyline put out by the program and his opponents, one opportunistically fueled by the media, but we're only about a month in for a program designed to last for many years to come.  Moreover, this is hardly the first time the President has been written off.  Remember that widely predicted (though never substantiated by polls) cliffhanger of a presidential election?

That deep breath, please!  Let's start with the basics.  There is nothing wrong or malfunctioning with the ACA program as enacted into law.  If it has faults, they lie in its doing too little, covering too few, not in doing too much or being too intrusive.  This legislation is the product of big time compromises. Republicans like to paint it as socialized medicine.  In truth, the private insurance industry, which lobbied hard against anything close to universal Medicare, was and is a big winner.  There has been a big brouhaha about people being thrown out of their (mostly sub-par) insurance plans.  In fact, not only are the vast majority of covered Americans keeping their plans, they no longer have to worry about pre-existing condition turndowns when or if they move to new ones.  Women can no longer be penalized with higher premiums.  And, perhaps most important, the kind of lifetime caps that brought families to the poorhouse are no longer legal.   Basic Medicare stands unchanged except for a significant enhancement: closing the so-called doughnut hole in prescription drug coverage.  Finally, unless living in a state like North Carolina or Texas controlled by (seemingly mean-spirited and cruel) right-wingers, millions of the heretofore-uninsured poor will have access to expanded Medicaid.

There is an abundance of misinformation about the ACA, facilitated in part by the fact that insurance — all insurance — is complicated.  This is a murky fine print terrain.  What is not in question is that even before its start, Republicans, especially but not exclusively in the House, have been relentlessly fighting it.  As of this writing they have voted to repeal or defund the program 47 times.  They made it a principal issue in 2010 and again in the 2012 presidential election.  They tried to use defunding as a bargaining chip during the manufactured crisis that ended up closing the government and threatening the country's full faith and credit.  They made gains in the House in 2010 but President Obama was reelected and with a higher margin than any recent chief executive.  So, despite all their efforts, the act is moving forward and by the still months away deadline millions of the uninsured will likely have signed up.

What the Republican opponents have been up to of late, including purposeful misinformation and fear mongering, is nothing new.  Back in 1961 Ronald Reagan, then a spokesman for the business right, cut a record for the American Medical Association opposing the establishment of Medicare.  Reagan considered the proposed approach to healthcare contrary to the American free enterprise way.  The future president argued that it was simply a foot-in-the-door toward socialism. 

Reagan concluded his argument and call to action with this dire warning about the bill's passage:
I promise you...just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow and behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day...we will wake to find that we have socialism, and...one of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.
Needless to say, his prediction was totally off the mark.  Not only is Medicare an excellent and essential program, no American could even imagine being without it.  And in case you haven't noticed, our free enterprise system is alive and well with businesses raking in the billions, far more than back in 1961. Reagan was wrong, but worse was his fear mongering.

He remains the hero of today's Republicans — Reagan's party not Lincoln's.  Some say, the current crop are much more conservative, but look at this anti-Medicare message and you'll likely come to a different conclusion.  There is clearly a sense of déjà vu consistency in what Reagan's ideological descendants are doing and why they are so worked up about the AFA.  It isn't just about health insurance but about a perceived threat to their way of life.  One has to wonder what that "way of life" might be relative to other Americans, most especially those who have been deprived of something as basic as healthcare.

We should keep this in mind in watching the drama of a so-called ACA failure unfold.  We should remember that those who are yelling loudest about the launch problems are exactly those who oppose its implementation in the first place.  Their voiced concerns about difficulties in sign up are, to be generous, disingenuous.  They don't want to expand coverage, which they surely see (or pretend to see) as what Reagan characterized the end of our freedom.  Some Democrats in Congress, concerned about their own reelection in swing districts are being sucked into this hysteria — shame on them.  The Affordable Care Act is a modest step forward in bringing all Americans under the umbrella of healthcare coverage.  A bump in the early road to its implementation is troubling, but we can't let it stand in the way of progress.  We can't allow ourselves to be swayed by the calculated hysteria.  Far from being the end of the America that should be, it is a major step forward.  Let's all take that deep breath, see what's going on for what it really is, and continue our support.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Who said the individual doesn't count, or make that two individuals.  For sure the times do have an impact on leaders and those who serve them, but I have always believed that the individual makes a difference, often a big difference.  That idea was only reinforced in my reading of Stephen Kinzer's excellent new book, The Brothers: John Foster, Allen Dulles and their Secret World War.  It is a tale centered mostly in the 1950s, one focused on the perhaps the most significant brother act in American history.  John Foster Dulles (known as Foster) served as Eisenhower's secretary of state, Allen Dulles his CIA director.  What that meant can be best expressed in this simple equation: D2+P=C. Take two Dulles' with their multiplier effect (D2) add power (P) and there will be big consequences (C).  Some of those consequences remain evident today, more than five decades on.

To say the Dulles boys were destined to play their roles is hardly an exaggeration.  Born to privilege, their grandfather and uncle both served as secretaries of state — John Watson Foster (Benjamin Harrison) and Robert Lansing (Woodrow Wilson).  Their father, Presbyterian minister Allen Macy Dulles came from a line of missionaries.  A powerful life-long streak of Calvinistic ran especially through Foster's body.  It was a large part of what oriented and moved him during his years of private and public service.  Both brothers were lawyers and not merely so, they were partners at Sullivan and Cromwell, the leading Wall Street firm — Foster its managing partner.  They represented some of America's largest corporations of their day, the likes of Standard Oil, Babcock & Wilcox and United Fruit, connections that played large in their public service.  The policies they drove were business client friendly, sometimes outrageously so, whether in Iran, Central America or Africa.

As to the time as a driving force in what makes the man, Foster and Allen matured in the World Wars and were obsessed with the Cold War that followed.  Their worldview was one of black and white — the absolutely good vs. the totally bad.  And that bad was Communism, especially the Soviets but also any person or place that they deemed dominated or influenced by Moscow.  That rigid view allowed for no nuance and quickly drawn good-bad assessments allowed for no modification.  They listened to only those who agreed with their point of view — they fired naysayers — and indeed listened mostly to each other.  Because they concurrently occupied the two most important foreign policy and action posts of their time, it was a view that prevailed and not necessarily to America's immediate or longer term interests.  To be fair, the Dulles brothers largely acted as the bad cop partners to their good cop boss, Dwight Eisenhower, whose nice guy facade masked a nail-tough inner man.

Kinzer's narrative brings Foster and Allen into vivid relief from cradle to grave.  Despite being exceedingly close, the brothers were as different in personality as two people could be.   Foster was the austere Presbyterian who shunned social occasions and was, if not awkward then certainly reserved with people.  Allen was a womanizer who loved to party, a daredevil whose life in the shadows of clandestine activism suited him well.   To say that their professional life was awash with conflicts of interests would be an understatement.  That they were tone-deaf to the notion that mixing client and public service might be questionable may speak as much to their time — the age of incestuous good old boys — as to their own judgment.  While wrongly attributed to their cabinet colleague Charlie Wilson, the idea that "what's good for General Motors is good for the nation" expresses the mentality of the day, one to which they fully subscribed.

Whether the brothers Dulles or Eisenhower are to blame, the fact is that the turn American policy took coupled with the actions that followed under their watch pretty well set the course for the country's direction.  It impacts and, I'd argue, haunts us still.  We continue to be influenced by large business interests.  In their day that influence was exerted by two lawyers who represented, and made their substantial wealth from, giant corporations.  Today, lobbyists many of whom are former revolving door government officials, play that role.  Perhaps less overt, but the inherent conflict of interest still pertains.  The hostile relationship between the United States and Iran was set in motion by the Dulles led 1953 overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh.  So, too, is our uneasy relationship with Latin America rooted in the mischief of the Dulles brothers, epitomized by the coup against Jocobo Arbenz coup in Guatemala.  They refused to accept or work with Fidel Castro and then Allen's people constructed what became the ill-fated Bay of Pigs mission that so-discredited Eisenhower's successor.  Perhaps most important they set the table for our intervention in Viet Nam.  Kinzer suggests that Forster promoted policy probably prolonged the Cold War, the remnants of which pertain in the Putin era.

Without letting Foster and Allen off the hook, Stephen Kinzer ends on a cautionary note.  The brothers did their thing, but in large measure they reflected what Americans wanted them to do.  As suggested in previous posts, we the people bear substantial responsibility for what our leaders do.  In some cases that's the result of our remaining silent or not voting/participating, but often they are simply giving voice to what we believe.  Constant polling only feeds that syndrome.  And it isn't only the residual effects of Dulles brothers' actions that we feel in 2013; there is something "new" in our world that mirrors theirs.  Communism obsessed them; Islamism plays a similar role in ours.

Just as Foster Dulles painted all his real and imagined foes with a simplistic common brush.  We have a tendency to do the same.  We become unhinged when Islam of any stripe emerges as a major player in a country's government.  Dulles equated Communism with brutal dictatorship even where the two were not in fact aligned.  We seem to think that Islam oriented rule and terrorism are always one and the same.   For Forster an autocratic Christian dictator got a pass while a socialist leader who came to power through democratic vote was deemed a danger.  The 1950s fear of Communism led to an uptick in spying and, albeit enabled by the most primitive technology, surveillance.   What we're doing today is not new; it's just more sophisticated and consequently more pervasive.  By the way, in their day we listened in on foreign leaders and they listened in on ours.  While both Communism and Islamism have their unquestioned dark sides, there was an overreaction and a semblance of irrationality in the Dulles approach and in ours.

The tale of two powerful brothers is both fascinating and disturbing.  We can and should look at it as a cautionary tale.  Cautionary, not because it's something that can happen again, but because it still is happening.  We continue to look at foreign countries through American eyes measured against our sense of ourselves, our presumed exceptionalism.  We are often clueless and worse uncurious about other cultures and ways.  When Foster Dulles refused to grasp Zhou Enlai's outstretched hand, he didn't understand what being dissed means to an Asian.  It was undiplomatic but more so an expression of arrogance and ignorance.  We still send out our representatives with poor or non-existent language skills and knowledge of culture.  Disrespect comes in many forms.  In the end, the Dulles formula probably did us more damage than good.  There were consequences and there should have been lessons.  We've felt the first but I'm not sure we learned from the second.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

After death.

In his book, Society without God, sociologist Phil Zukerman quotes a Dane named Jarl who told him, “when we’re dead, we’re dead…I think that’s it.”  I couldn't agree more.  The idea of an afterlife, a soul that returns to God or a state that reunites us with the predeceased may be comforting but is no more than that.  Death as a definite end point means that we better make the most of life because it's our only shot.  It also means that whatever "afterlife" we might have is subject to what we've done in life that may impact on others or in the memories of those who have known us.  The good news, if there is any, is that our works may endure and ouf life's story may be remembered.  The bad news is that after death we will have no real control, especially of that narrative.  History, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is what we chose to remember — we all selectively tell the stories of the dead.  Memories may say as much, sometimes more, about us as the remembered.

In a matter of days we will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's violent death.  As with any historical figure, there will be a lot of remembering and it will most surely be selective.  JFK's memory is in our hands, not his.  As Jill Abrams wrote recently, "An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death...yet to explore [them] is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing."  The same can surely be said of Lincoln, our other larger-than-life assassinated and widely written about president, but also of many others.  The fact is that there is a limit to what we know about any public figure, not to mention about those we consider our intimates.  Kennedy's story lends itself to myth, a myth in which many of us are old enough to have considered ourselves participants.  We may not have been around when Lincoln sat in the White House but Jack Kennedy was our president, a player in our lives.

Not everyone is a fan of JFK.  Like Obama, the first African American president, he the first (and only) Roman Catholic president was the subject of abject and irrational hatred, merely because he was seen as from the other.  Some on the left will never forgive him for the Bay of Pigs or for his role in the early days of Viet Nam.  His trip to Dallas on November 22nd was considered a venture into very hostile rightist territory.  Other people, myself included, admired him greatly.  Regardless of how we felt then or may feel today in retrospect, no one can deny that his assassination was one of those events that we all remember, specifically where we were, or were doing, upon hearing the news.  Kennedy — preparing a Friday night sermon that would never be delivered.  Marilyn Monroe — driving in my convertible on the way to visiting one of my sisters.  9/11 — running in Central Park.

I first encountered John F. Kennedy while a student "working" the dedication of the Robert Berks sculpture of Justice Brandeis at the university that bore his name.  Berks would one day create an iconic bronze sculpture of JFK's head.  Chief Justice Earl Warren was the
Berks head of JFK
principal speaker at the convocation, but the young Senator from Massachusetts was the center of everyone's attention.  He was more striking in person than in photos and equally more charismatic.  What stood out about Kennedy, and what drew so may of us to him was something very elemental.  He was youthful when all we knew were presidents who were (or looked) really old: FDR, Truman and Eisenhower. He would speak of being part of "a new generation", our generation.  He was also the man for whom I cast my first presidential ballot.  As the son of Hitler refugee naturalized citizens — I was the first American born family member — voting was of great importance, and voting for a president especially so.

That brings me back to memory, the history that we control and is often as much a reflection of ourselves as of the remembered.  Kennedy's youth with which I, and many others, identified gave him a leg up in the memory department.  Being my first presidential vote just magnified that.  The idea that we could latch on to a president simply because of his age (Clinton and Obama were young) may seem somewhat superficial, but we had just been through eight years of Eisenhower.  Not only did he seem old, he had also suffered a heart attack while in office.  Ike may have been a hero of WWII, but beyond being a terrible orator, he and Mamie were kind of boring.  In sharp contrast, the Kennedys brought instant excitement, majesty if you will, to the White House.  They had young children, a family just like our own (sort of).  These were things we all craved and to which most of us responded.  Jack and Jackie became the vigorous image of America and consequently of us.  We liked what we saw in our national mirror.

Did the assassination color the memory of Kennedy?  Of course it did.  Would Lincoln loom quite as large as he does absent his assassination?  Probably not, but his presidency was far more momentous and consequential that Kennedy's so probably not to the same degree.   It's worth noting that we lost two other presidents by the bullet — Garfield and McKinley — but neither has been elevated to comparable mythical heights.  Lincoln's death was especially poignant because he was not permitted to enjoy the fruits of what he accomplished; Kennedy's because he was unable to accomplish the fruits that he promised to deliver.  Their deaths were unnatural and seemed grossly unfair.

There is another reason that we often link Lincoln and Kennedy.  While the first will be forever known for freeing us from slavery (or getting us on the way to doing so), both were actually slow starters and in the same area.  Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation only when being forced by events to do so and JFK had to be dragged into being a champion of civil rights.  Neither of these men were innately rebellious, both preferred measured change and consensus.  That obviously doesn't prevent us from remembering them, as we would have wanted them to be.  It's the history we chose to remember.

A common violent end links our 16th and 35th presidents, but the second also shares powerful similarities with our 44th.  They are both firsts — Catholic and African American — and both are relatively young bringing to the White House model first families.  But more important, both Kennedy and Obama were, upon election, the embodiment of great hope.  We saw them as vessels of what we wanted to be, sharp contrasts with, first Ike, and then, W.  They had to perform against a stratospheric goalpost because, in our imagination, they had already done so.  It's no wonder that many of their most loyal supporters and, to a degree, the public at large were sometimes disappointed.  Oddly enough, some of that letdown comes not from their deficiency but from the nature of the office.  Presidents, regardless of party or ideology, are not full masters of their own destiny.  A country requires a large degree of continuity and the world beyond its borders demands no less.  Laws are in place and treaties have been signed.  We expect our presidents to fall pretty much in line — to uphold the full faith and credit.  Society could not function were that not to be the case.

The presidency is said to be the world's most powerful office.  Like our claim to exceptionalism, reality lags myth to a considerable degree.  Kennedy and his presidency fell victim to the Cold War.  This is not to say that he was not ideologically in tune with the anti-Communism of his day, but rather that how to pursue that war was virtually etched in stone long before the raised his hand to take the oath of office.  We were already committed on Cuba and to fighting in Viet Nam.  The proverbial train had left the station under Eisenhower and Foster Dulles and there was little he could do to stop it.   So, too, was Obama stuck with Afghanistan and Iraq.  And by the way, the spooks at NSA are just a continuation of an unbroken chain from when Allen Dulles ran the CIA in the 1950s.  Why is it hard to remember JFK or any other president with any accuracy?  Because whatever we may think or wish, none of them were totally their own men.  Presidents, to some degree, are a composite of their office and of their times.

Much of what we chose to remember of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is more image than substance.  Because he died so early and was in office for such a relatively short time, we are drawn to the aspiration, what we hope could have been.  We attribute to him the hope that he wouldn't have escalated in Viet Nam or would have gotten the civil rights bill though and signed.  In truth we don't know and in a sense are abusing our power over the narrative by fantasizing.  We do him and us no service.  Might he have been a great president?  I think he had the makings, the potential, of achieving greatness but again we will never know.  What is clear is that for some of us, perhaps even most of us, he had the capacity to inspire and, in doing so, to measurably impact on who we were and where we were headed.  My keen interest in current affairs and certainly in politics is in large measure attributable to him.  I don't know what might have been, but do know that losing Jack Kennedy on that November day hurt very much.  I don't think it's a hurt that ever has left me and that certainly says something.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting our news.

Early in October, Justice Antonin Scalia submitted to a long interview published by NY Magazine.  Not surprisingly, the Justice spoke of his "originalist" views of the Constitution and his religious beliefs.  I have always seen them as one and the same, a kind of fundamentalist consistency that pervades all his thinking.  There is little church-state separation in Scalia's head, something manifest both on and off the bench.   Scalia is also known for his transparently partisan sounding and driven opinions, his unabashed conservatism.  It's easy to predict where he will come down on most cases, a sense that his opinions are formed long before the legal briefs reach his desk or are formally argued before the Court.

For sure Scalia's discourse on his devil belief drew some attention, but what I found most revealing and troubling were his responses to questions about where he gets his news.  As to newspapers, the Justice noted just, "...The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times.  We used to get the Washington Post, but it just … went too far for me. I couldn’t handle it anymore."  Asked why, he replied, "It was the treatment of almost any conservative issue.  It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning" by what he characterized as the "shrilly liberal".  And where else does he get his news?  Talk radio, most especially from "my good friend Bill Bennett.  He’s off the air by the time I’m driving in, but I listen to him sometimes when I’m shaving. He has a wonderful talk show. It’s very thoughtful. He has good callers. I think they keep off stupid people."  Wow!

What's somewhat laughable about Scalia's comments is that the papers he reads, The Journal (certainly its editorial page) and the Washington Times might be characterized in the same way, only this time "shrilly conservative".  Both assessments are probably a tad simplistic.  What's notable is that Scalia's reading and listening is in line with what's happened to many, if not all, of us.  We tune in to the media that reflects our views and tune out all contrary voices.  Paraphrasing his words, "why should we get upset?"  What's sad here is that one would hope what's being taken in my members of our highest court, a place to which we look for objectively, would be a larger and diverse pallet of information.  If other Justices have similarly narrow intake patterns, it may explain in part why their positions appear to be more partisan and fixed than might have been the case in earlier days.  We don't see the kind of position transformations that characterized the careers of, for example a Hugo Black or William Brennan. 

I was thinking of Scalia's interview in reading Bill Keller's recent Times column devoted to his extended exchange with Glen Greenwald.  Back in September, I wrote about the implications of Jeff Bezos' $250M acquisition of The Washington Post and specifically of the sea change in how our news was being delivered to us.  Now another tech billionaire, Pierre Omidyar (founder and chairman of eBay), is investing an equal amount to fund a journalistic venture with, Greenwald, who while working for The Guardian, broke the Edward Snowden story.  According to Greenwald, the still to be launched venture will, take an, "adversarial [view of] journalism".  That is to say, the journalists will have a declared point of view that is reflected in their reporting.

I can't do adequate service to their exchange here, but do recommend that you read it in full.  Keller joined the Times in 1984 and had a distinguished reporting career there culminating in an eight-year tenure as executive editor.  He has been writing an opinion column since 2011.  Greenwald is a journalist, blogger and best selling author.  He was a columnist at the Guardian for two years.  He holds a law degree and has written for many publications including the Times.  Their exchange is focused on their sharply different journalistic philosophy.

Keller, quoting media critic Jack Shafer, suggests that Greenwald works within the framework of "partisan journalism".  In contrast, he puts himself within the tradition of journalists who, "have plenty of opinions" but set "them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence."  (Ah, Scalia)  He contends that the results "are more substantial and more credible".  Greenwald rejects this approach.  He finds "suffocating" the "constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves", which "produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring".  Greenwald believes reporters should disclose their point of view, not hide it, and that the even-handed reporting required in Keller's world diminishes the work, doesn't enhance it.

This brings me back to Scalia's news consumption and indeed to our own.  I totally understand Greenwald's point of view and can relate especially to his suggestion that objective based reporting requires many journalists to perhaps disingenuously (and often not successfully) hide their viewpoint, something that he says goes against human nature and thus hurts to product.  He calls it "a false conceit" because "human beings are not objectivity-driven machines," but..."intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms."  He sees no "...value in pretending otherwise". 

The problem is that this approach, especially applied broadly, which is likely considering Greenwald's contention that objective journalism is "impossible" and "ineffectual", only reinforces that already far too selective reading/listening.  So I'd suggest that his and Omidyar's venture might be very the last thing we need in our far too divisive society.  This is not to say that some of the journalism in Keller's camp doesn't fail to live up to its charter or promise of objectivity.  Ironically, where it often falls short is in its effort to report all sides of a story.  Here reporters often quote one or another view without ever challenging its accuracy or whether what's being said is in fact only blatant propaganda.  We see this when the media pick up on politically created and slanted nomenclature like the now routinely used Obamacare.

This sometimes rote reporting can become particularly egregious during the heat of a political campaign or a created crisis like we just experienced over the debt ceiling, but it happens elsewhere.  It's hard not to read, watch or listen to news these days without encountering what seems to be a kind of journalistic laziness, a reluctance to vet information by doing serious due diligence or even simple homework.  Putting forth "news" as if it is "true or accurate" when the opposite is the case does a disservice to a public that is already woefully ill informed.  In fact, such reporting may be exactly why they are so ignorant of facts. 

When the press allows itself to be instruments and thus verifiers of partisan messaging we are in trouble.  That happens more often in Keller's world than it should, but it's more likely to raise its ugly head in what Greenwald proposes.  When the Pentagon Papers were published by the Times in 1971, the reporter Neil Sheehan wasn't using them as a vehicle to express his opinion.  That may well be true of Greenwald relative to the NSA disclosures, but when the reporter is practicing "activist journalism" objectivity comes into question.  News, it seems to me should measured against its content not by the messenger.  In the long run that works against both the reporting and the story.  It's the last thing we need today in getting our news.