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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 1999/ 1 Teves, 5760


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The Post: As Biased as the Times -- TWO WEEK AGO, I was sitting down at a family dinner on Necker Island when my nephew Doug, who loves to get my goat, interrupted his cellphone conversation to a business associate in Manhattan to tell me: “It’s official. Hillary Clinton just announced her candidacy.” How odd, I thought, two days before Thanksgiving, and after all that talk about waiting until February of 2000 to declare her intentions. It can’t be.

As I was stranded on Necker without television, newspapers or Internet access, it wasn’t until arriving home several days later that I learned the truth: that Clinton, who was making New York Democrats itchy, had merely told a group of teachers that she was in the race. Nothing official.

As Paul Greenberg wrote in JWR: “Hillary Clinton now has announced that she intends to announce for the Senate. How indirect. So is she in or is she out, or does that depend on your definition of is?”

Meanwhile, both New York’s Michael Tomasky and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, hardcore liberals, wrote in their respective Dec. 6 issues that much of Clinton’s difficulty in her weird campaign—some might say phantom—so far can be blamed on the New York Post. That’s hogwash, especially since the Post, as the city’s daily with the least circulation, is just doing what it always has under owner Rupert Murdoch: endorse conservative candidates and make its preferences known quite blatantly through headlines, columnists and editorials. If the Post were so influential, Al D’Amato would still be in the U.S. Senate today. Besides, The New York Times is just as biased in favor of liberal candidates, employing the same arsenal of headlines, choices of photos, columnists and editorials. The paper is just a shade, but only a shade to close readers, more subtle than the Post.

Alter’s “Between the Lines” was as noxious a column as I can remember from this particular writer. Talk about bias: not only does he refer to the First Lady as “Hillary” throughout the piece (although he’s probably horrified that feminists might find that condescending; the same way blacks do when Jesse Jackson is called “Jesse”), but he provides a blueprint for her eventual victory over Rudy Giuliani. Alter writes: “The last four months have been miserable for Hillary, and she has mostly herself to blame. But it’s not too late. To overcome bias against her in the press—and to take the edge off the monumental chutzpah it took to run in the first place—she needs to look beyond merely correcting her political tone-deafness.”

Alter doesn’t note that Giuliani is consistently leading Clinton in the polls; doesn’t mention the FALN fiasco; doesn’t pounce on her implausibly embracing the New York Yankees (although the accompanying picture of Clinton has her in a Yanks cap); that she’s only running even or behind the Mayor with Jewish voters; or that the original guarantor on her Chappaqua home was Terry McAuliffe, the White House fundraiser who’s now in legal trouble of his own.

He does offer this advice: “To win over undecided voters [there are very few at this point, according to the Times], the First Lady may have to act a little less like a lady. That doesn’t require descending to Giuliani’s level, but it does mean being more aggressive, and more honest about her political motives. New Yorkers demand a certain style. In order to look smart and competent again, Hillary needs to get mad, get sassy, get off her comfortable White House podium and on to the New York playground, where even Protestants learn to talk with their hands.”

I don’t know if Alter was in the running for the job of Clinton’s campaign manager, but with garbage like the preceding paragraph it’s no wonder the First Lady chose former David Dinkins aide Bill de Blasio.

Alter’s awe of the Post is simply astonishing. According to this New Yorker, the tabloid has set the tone for the campaign, with all the other newspapers, magazines and television stations following its cue. And he’s outraged that “Almost everyone usually fails to mention that the paper is biased against the Clintons. And there’s no countervailing tabloid.” So what? I think it’s aboveboard and far more honest for the Post to declare boldly their preferences instead of hiding behind the myth of objectivity.

Consider some of the Times’ anti-Giuliani headlines in the past two weeks: Bob Herbert’s Nov. 29 column, “Bullying the Homeless”; a Nov. 30 news story called “For Giuliani, Warmth From Bush but a Conservative Chill Back Home”; Maureen Dowd’s Dec. 1 column, about James Carville’s threat to campaign for Clinton, called “Thugs and Goons”; a Dec. 2 editorial headlined “The Politics of Homelessness”; and from Nov. 24, “Moving to Ease Doubts, First Lady Says She Will Enter Senate Race.”

My favorite Times article slanted against Giuliani was from Nov. 28 and headlined “Sharpton Condemns City’s Crackdown on the Homeless.” Giuliani’s stance on the homeless is certainly a legitimate story, but giving credence to a fraud like Al Sharpton to advance its jihad against the Mayor is just as partisan as anything in the Post, and also read by more than twice as many people.

But while Alter’s piece was just more squishy liberal pap, written by an elite upper-middle-class yuppie, Tomasky’s New York column was downright hysterical on the subject of the Post. Why Tomasky was in such a lather I’m not sure; while I almost never agree with the political tone of his columns, they’re usually even-handed and sober. But not this effort, called “Going Postal”

(Tomasky told me he didn’t write the headline, so at least he’s absolved from that awful cliche; probably some grunt in the production department who didn’t want to miss the free chicken wings at a local happy hour).

He claims that this Senate campaign, with two still-undeclared candidates, has inspired coverage “both sillier and more shameful than anything I’ve ever seen in reporting on New York politics.”

Tomasky blames the Post, which he insists, like Alter, is setting the agenda for every other local and national media outlet. I’ve never really believed that Clinton would actually run and still don’t: she doesn’t want to lose.

(Now, if the current National Enquirer story is correct, that the First Lady plans to divorce the President, all bets are off. And it is interesting that David Kendall, the President’s personal lawyer, is a member of the law firm that vetted the Enquirer story.)

But Tomasky blames the latest “is-she-or-isn’t-she” guessing game on the Post, specifically columnist Dick Morris (who certainly knows the First Lady more intimately than Tomasky), and “one or two other Post columnists I’ve never seen at a Clinton function (and doubt I ever will, at least until she starts serving an open bar).”

Incredibly, Tomasky writes, “The Post has ‘covered’ this race in much the way that Pravda covered the show trials. Or as Ramparts used to write about Nixon, although since Ramparts was on the left, and genuinely funny, I guess you’d have to say the opposite of Ramparts.” I remember reading Ramparts too, and although it was my kind of mag back in the 60s, it was never very funny; yet compared to left-wing political writing today, I suppose it’s all relative. I’ve often wondered why it’s the conservative writers—say, Tucker Carlson, Andrew Ferguson or Chris Caldwell—who provide humor along with the politics. If you can name more than three left-wing writers who inject some humor into their essays, please give me a ring.

Anyway. Tomasky claims that the other dailies in the city have been forced to follow the Post’s lead, simply because the tabloid is shrill and unambiguous about its conservative positions. About the take that local Democrats were getting mad at Clinton’s tentativeness—and despite what Tomasky says, it was a real story, as Democratic bigwig Judith Hope’s desperate comments to the press proved—the New York writer says, “Reporters at the other papers, even at the New York Times, who knew it wasn’t true, had to file stories about it.”

Why? If it wasn’t legitimate, I’m sure the overstaffed news bureau at the Times—I get nauseated when Tomasky describes it as “the world’s greatest newspaper”—would simply ignore it. And assign another profile of Sharpton.

Tomasky defended his piece to me in an e-mail last weekend: “I haven’t given it too much credit at all [the Post’s influence]. What has been the story line of this campaign so far? In a phrase, it’s been Hillary’s screw-ups. That’s really what gets reporters salivating, that’s what the national press has been interested in, that’s the chatter and buzz. This is understandable from a simply human—non-ideological—perspective, because she’s a celebrity, what she’s doing takes some chutzpah, and it’s only natural for people to want to see her take a tumble or two. But as I asked in the piece: Should this be the only theme? No. Now: Pretend for a moment that the Post didn’t exist and think back over the big stories of this campaign so far.”

He then goes on to say that Clinton’s “screw-ups” that get “reporters salivating” wouldn’t have as long a news cycle. Perhaps. But the Post does exist and if the tabloid truly is driving this campaign, I’d blame the other newspapers and reporters for not doing their jobs, and not the Post for following its mandate.

Not that I don’t have problems with the Post myself. Its marquee columnist, Morris, clearly has his own unidentifiable agenda, and so while his political instincts are undoubtedly keen, the reader can’t really trust what he says. Steve Dunleavy and Andrea Peyser are two columnists I’d never hire.

And then there’s The Pod. John Podhoretz, the editor of the Post’s opinion pages, is not a stupid man. And his editorials on the Clinton-Giuliani possible matchup have been right on the money, with the exception of going way overboard on the Suha Arafat miscue. But Podhoretz is such an attention hog he can’t let well enough alone; he has to brag in his own paper about how important he is, that reporters like Alter, Tomasky and The New York Observer’s Joe Conason have all pointed to the Post, and Rupert Murdoch, as the devil’s agent in much of New York’s politics.

In a Dec. 3 column, Podhoretz, pretending to be writing tongue-in-cheek, says: “Forgive me if I’m a little self-obsessed, but just from reading this week’s press clips on The New York Post, I have grown drunk on my own power... In case you weren’t paying attention, the media decided this week that this newspaper and I (in my capacity as the editor of the opinions expressed on the editorial and op-ed pages) have taken control of New York... I gotta tell you, it’s enough to make a guy feel like Tarzan.”

Aside from the admission of self-obsession, a welcome burst of candor from The Pod, this kind of writing is just as bad as Alter’s.

And so unnecessary. It’s clear to anyone following this campaign that Clinton herself has created her problems; that Democrats like Charlie Rangel (who first urged Clinton to run) and Carl McCall were wondering if she’d ever get around to making her candidacy official. (Think Nita Lowey feels screwed right now?)

Podhoretz didn’t need to state the obvious when he correctly wrote: “Is The New York Post institutionally hostile to Mrs. Clinton? Let me put it this way: The Post is no more institutionally hostile to Mrs. Clinton than The New York Times is toward Rudolph Giuliani.”

Once more, I call for Murdoch (or publisher Ken Chandler) to fire John Podhoretz and replace him with an editor who’s neither a braggart nor a showboat. Someone (again, The National Review’s Rich Lowry is an excellent candidate) who can direct the Post’s political coverage without making it a target for ridicule. Alter and Tomasky were way, way off on the Post’s exaggerated importance in this campaign, but having a buffoon like Podhoretz in charge makes it easier for liberal pundits to take cheap shots.

(What do you know? Right before this issue went to press, I learned that The Pod had “resigned” to “concentrate on writing.”)

Finally, on New York’s Senate race, Mickey Kaus had a smart bit on the odious James Carville in his last Friday. Carville made a ruckus on Meet The Press two Sundays ago about bringing in the stormtroopers to wage battle with Giuliani and his “thugs.” Kaus writes: “Mrs. Clinton wants to get elected senator. Carville no doubt wants her to get elected too, but above all he needs to draw attention to himself to pump up his book sales and lecture fees. It’s in his interest to make a fuss in New York even if it doesn’t help Hillary a bit in the polls—even if it hurts her. How could he hurt? Because he’s a Clinton-era character who reminds undecided voters of everything about the past 8 years they’d like to be rid of.”

World Trade Disorganization

NOW, IN A completely different journalistic hemisphere from Brown’s, preferable in my eyes, The Nation can’t contain itself over last week’s scuffle in Seattle during the World Trade Organization conference. Marc Cooper, in an understandable Mr. Natural trip back to the 60s, was agog at the crazy-quilt alliance of union members, earnest environmentalists and slacker layabouts uniting in protest at the gathering. He writes: “Through the wisps of tear gas and among the forest of picket signs and banners held aloft, one could at last glimpse the rough outlines of the much-sought-after progressive coalition—an American version of a ‘red-green’ alliance. Hard hats and longshoremen standing with granola crunchers and tree huggers, bus drivers and carpenters with snake dancers and organic food activists.”

One can hardly blame Cooper for such fantastic poetry—it’s been a long time since tear gas was aimed at a relatively large group of white people. However, the author and his magazine are jumping the gun.

Remember, most of the unions, with the exception of Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters, have endorsed the tepid free trader Al Gore for president in the 2000 election; and I’ll wager that a majority of the “tree huggers” and “granola crunchers” don’t even vote. Protectionism, despite the slight paranoia of The Wall Street Journal, which worried in a Dec. 2 editorial that labor is now legitimized, is a concept almost as outdated as Earth Shoes.

George W. Bush and John McCain would do the country a favor if they included this message in every speech they give during the primary season. I have a feeling Cooper knows this instinctively, but just can’t help himself. He gets off an hilarious line about Bill Clinton with his “weather-vane” sensibilities, writing about the First Phony: “You half-expect Clinton himself to don a sea turtle get-up the next time he speaks on the WTO.”

I think the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman summed up the week quite aptly on Dec. 2: “Free trade means that governments give up some of their power to tell people what to buy and how to live, in favor of letting them decide for themselves. For the activists in Seattle, who would like to exercise a great deal of control over our lives, that’s what’s really scary.”

And recognition is due to the Journal, which was prescient in an editorial the Friday before the melee began: “Perhaps it’s just as well that Bill Clinton, having praised and welcomed the protesters as friends of the earth at his news conference last month, apparently has failed to persuade an array of world leaders to join him in Seattle. One thing and another, this WTO meeting is not likely to be a pretty sight.”

In the same issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn took a more sober view of the violence in Seattle. While heaping absurd praise on the “Ruckus Society agitators, anarchists and other courageous troublemakers,” Cockburn contradicts Cooper by explaining that the union members never showed up in force for the desired chaos. And never planned to. Cockburn drifts off to his own holiday fantasy, imagining if some 40,000 workers actually did join the layabouts, the police would not have behaved with force and Clinton, perhaps, “would have been forced to make his welcoming address from SeaTac airport or from the sanctuary of his ardent funder, Boeing.” He then dreamily writes of a Wobblies show of defiance in 1919 when Woodrow Wilson showed up in Seattle, after a strike had been broken, and stood “in furious silence as his motorcade passed by. Wilson had his stroke not long after.”

But Cockburn really throws cold water on the rhetoric of old-timers like Tom Hayden who believe, at least for publicity purposes, that anyone will even remember this freakshow two weeks from now.

Hayden said on CNN’s Talkback Live last Wednesday: “I think that they’ve made a very brave statement, particularly the ones who committed the nonviolent civil disobedience, and they should be commended by our nation for bringing to our attention the problem that has been very obscure but affects our lives and our wages and our environment... The bigger picture is that last week nobody knew what the WTO was about. This week I think everybody has heard of it, and questions that perhaps should have been asked 10 years ago are now being asked.”

Cockburn counters that no one should have any illusions that there will now be an alliance between his beloved “street warriors” and organized labor. “Back in February of this year,” he writes, “the message came down from AFL HQ that rallying in Seattle was fine, but the plan wasn’t to shut down the works; it was to maneuver from inside. No surprise. Institutional labor is not structured to be the advance guard of a social movement. At the end of the day it wants what it has always wanted: in James Hoffa’s phrase, a place at the table.”

As a whole, however, The Nation was just downright jolly this week, with a cover story about Ralph Nader, wondering whether he’d run for president again. Author Micah L. Sifry says that Nader won’t decide until January whether he’ll run again as the candidate of the Green Party. No doubt at least 100 people are holding their breaths, hoping the Great One will provide a choice for which to register a protest vote.

But I look forward to reading The Nation each Friday, if only to get irritated or have a chuckle. And it’s good news that William Greider has defected to the weekly from Rolling Stone—where he’s been an odd duck since ’82—to write about “national affairs and the global economy,” as the magazine’s press release said. Greider’s one of the country’s few left-wing writers who isn’t hysterical, and though his prose is dry and I almost never agree with it, he’s a writer worthy of respect. I don’t follow his reasoning for joining The Nation, a publication whose circulation is dwarfed by Rolling Stone and where he’ll be preaching to the converted, instead of possibly influencing younger minds, but perhaps he’d had his fill of being stuck between condom and beer ads.

And when he says, “It’s exciting to join a magazine that is dedicated to thinking anew about the larger possibilities,” I think he’s dead wrong, since The Nation hasn’t been thinking “anew” for the many years I’ve read it. But, in the holiday spirit, I’ll accede to Greider’s spin.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©1999, Russ Smith