To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

'Fifty Shades' Of DSK: With $400 Million At The Box, The Movie Will Definitely Have A Sequel; Dominque Strauss-Kahn Might Have One Too

Hollywood has long looked to high profile criminal trials for source material. Now it seems it’s looking to them for box office synergy. 

I mean, scheduling Fifty Shades of Grey to open in the very same week that the DSK trial was peaking in the French city of Lille is classic synergy, oui?

So much so in fact I wonder whether magazine editors in NYC --or the publicists coaching them---missed a great opportunity to capitalize on that convergence by not assigning former IMF official Dominque Strauss-Kahn himself to review the film. 

According to various news reports, Straus-Kahn seems to be at a moment of dawning self awareness about his own rough sex excesses, which took place during high end hotel orgies that he has said helped him release the stress of “saving the world.”

This might give DSK unique insight the ultra luxe kinkiness of the movie’s Christian Grey, he of the S&M playroom, the bondage neckties and rather odd regard for sexual contracts.

As the New York Post put it, after two former hookers described brutal sexual encounters with the disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief, (DSK) said he finally understands the sex wasn’t as good for them as it was for him.”

Describing her experience at a wild hotel orgy, one former prostitute recalled a moment that was “more than unpleasant” when she was lying with her back to “Monsieur DSK” and she, using the passive voice, “suffered a penetration.” The prostitute told the court: “If he had asked me, I would have said no. I didn’t like that. ” She added: “With a swinger, you at least ask the question. I was impaled and he didn’t ask at all.” Asked to account for why DSK might have behaved in such a manner, she speculated that “I think it was because I was a prostitute," adding that “Unless, somehow, he thinks he is on a different level to the rest of us and he can do anything that he wants.”

Another former prostitute claimed he forced her to have anal sex while she wept. “I cried a lot,” she said while Strauss-Kahn smiled from start to finish.

According to the Times, Straus-Kahn “discussed his sexual predilections with the matter-of-fact demeanor of a banker describing macroeconomic policy,” noting that DSK “insisted that he did not know some of the women were prostitutes, and that sexual ardor was no crime.” Strauss-Kahn told the court that 

I think I must have a form of sexuality which is rougher than the average. I am beginning to realize that and I deplore it. But I had no idea at the time that these experiences were so unpleasant as the women now say.

Besides offering insight into the manners and mores of the sexual demi-monde DSK inhabited, trial coverage offered a look into the distinctly French political psyche. The Times said that

If nothing else, the Strauss-Kahn case has revealed the limits of what even the libertine French will tolerate from their leaders. For many, Mr. Strauss-Kahn had gone too far.

It was not the bacchanalian scenes of libertinage pored over in a Lille courtroom that appeared to offend French sensibilities, but rather the lack of judgment and recklessness of a powerful man, who believed that he was invincible.

The French public’s takeaway however, was far from clear-cut. One French legal correspondent told the Times that “There is little doubt that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is now politically dead” but that even if many people feel that DSK “behaved like a pig, they also think he is a very able and competent economist and still has a role to play.” It was, the correspondent said, “a very French reaction.” The Times noted that in ne public opinion poll taken before the trial, “79 percent of those polled thought Mr. Strauss-Kahn would have been a better president than the current one, Fran├žois Hollande.”

Strauss-Kahn’s biographer, Michel Taubmann, noted the “huge downfall,” but offered the possibility of redemption. “A man who was once on the cover of Newsweek for saving the international financial system found himself first in Rikers and now in a Lille court, alongside a pimp,” Taubman explained. “Can he be a new man, a better man? Anything is possible.”  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Rolling Stone UVA Rape Post-Mortem, Why Is Columbia Journalism School Taking So Long?

For those who still actually remember the great Rolling Stone UVA “campus rape” fiasco brought to us in late 2014 by prize-winning reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the wait for the Columbia Journalism School’s investigation into what went wrong there is growing a bit frustrating --- and puzzling.

Identifying the bad editorial decisions and poor reporting methods that led to this journalistic train wreck isn’t exactly a lay-up, but it’s not exactly on par with the challenges faced by the 911 Commission either.

In fact, it’s been two months now since Rolling Stone gave up on the internal review it spent several weeks telling media reporters it was conducting on its own and threw the ball to Columbia J School. In announcing the Columbia J School’s involvement, Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner said J School Dean Steve Coll and Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel, herself an much-acclaimed investigative reporter, would be leading the “independent review,” of the “editorial process” that led to the publication of the controversial story. At the time, Coll told the New York Times that Rolling Stone had promised unfettered access to its staff and materials, and that while they were going to focus on the “editorial process” he and his colleague had “the freedom to move in any direction along the way that we believe would be germane and of public interest.” The Times also noted that while Coll said he hoped to complete the review “as soon as possible,” he did not have “a firm deadline.”

Some cynics thought the hand-off was a savvy crisis management tool on the part of Rolling Stone, a way to stall for time so that sharp-knived media reporters might move on to other, newer things. But Steve Coll was too smart and had too good a reputation to get suckered into carrying Jann Wenner’s water, I remember thinking. 

As noted however, we're at the two month mark. And if the old Japanese adage that people tend to forget everything after two and half months holds here, Coll and his team will be publishing their findings just as everyone’s interest in the case, and the sense of urgency it produced, has dissipated. It’s not a matter of “justice delayed is justice denied.” The libel lawyers will certainly have their day in court, most likely a very lucrative one. But in terms of broader public interest, the window on that is closing, which is going to limit the attention the J School report receives and with that the “impact” it will have in terms of who is held accountable and what kind of accountability they will experience. The wait just works in Rolling Stone's favor. It’s hard to scream for heads to roll or other forms of professional sanction when everyone around you is scratching their own heads trying to recall what all the fuss was about-- or yawning because other things that just happened yesterday are just so much more interesting, principally because they just happened. 

I’ve been rubbernecking on the Rolling Stone UVA Rape story pretty hard--maybe too hard, perhaps indulging in schadenfreude to mask the unconscious dread I might have at the prospect, far-fetched though it is, of one day finding myself in the same position as Sabrina Rubin Erdely. But as a career-long magazine writer, I do also find it fascinating how much of a “perfect storm” this case represents--how much it seems to embody many of the less desirable tendencies in this end of the journalism business---the premium put on “narrative storyline” at the expense of inconvenient facts that might clutter or complicate it; the need to know what your story is before even getting your assignment (and your reporting allowance); the overreliance on digital reporting at the expense of spending time in the field, on the ground, doing the face-to-face reporting that used to be considered journalistically indispensable but is now regarded as merely decorative. I've discussed the ridiculously paltry time Sabrina Rubin Erdely spent in Charlottesville itself reporting her story---one weekend---with fellow professionals and with civilians alike, most of whom are quite struck when I bring it to their attention. But the only people who are not struck by it have been fellow media professionals, either because they've come to accept this lack of shoe leather reporting as a sad, if disturbing, sign of the times or because they actually don't think it matters, which is even more disturbing. 

I also find the Rolling Stone disaster so compelling for what it says about who gets recognized and who does not in the magazine writing biz. Sabrina Rubin Erdely may have been of the right ethnicity, and might have had the right Ivy League credentials. But after combing through her oeuvre, which reflects an annoying ideological predictability and may yet to be found holding other journalistic dishonesties on par with her UVA piece, I can’t help but think of her in terms other than the Emperor’s New Clothes. The fact that she won so many seemingly prestigious journalism awards seems to say less about her noteworthy talents than it says about the credulousness and cheap politics of the organizations  who bestowed those awards on her, which it should be noted, include Columbia J School itself in the form of the Dart Center Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma Rubin Erdely won in 2013. It’s also quite striking that Rubin Erdely’s piece is still up on the Rolling Stone website despite having been almost thoroughly debunked by reporters from the Washington Post, ABC News, CNN and others. The fact that the online version is now framed by an editorial note acknowledging that the piece's disputed status just doesn’t justify leaving it up there for so long in such a wounded state. It may have been a bit premature of me to call for its removal back in early December on WNYC Brian Lehrer’s show. But for that piece to be still up there a full two months later, like bad meat hanging in a butcher’s window, is just contemptible. The piece is full of  misrepresentations, falsehoods and collective character assassination. Why would any publication pretending to be serious about its journalistic credibility and reputation leave a piece with those kind of issues up on its site?    

Coll and team have been maintaining a tight seal on what they have found. But some facets of their investigative approach have leaked. They are, in fact, conducting face to face interviews with the principals involved at the magazine, and have taken these depositions, so to speak “at various locations,” as one source put it, meaning they’ve gone into the Rolling Stone offices to interview some of the subjects and have met with others up at Columbia or at neutral locations. Contrary to rumor, I’ve been told that Columbia has no complaint about RS level of cooperation, although it has been difficult to schedule interviews with editors and fact-checkers given the magazine twice-a-month closings. As for the sixty-four dollar question whether Sabrina Rubin Erdely is cooperating, no one will say, although if I were her lawyer, I certainly would not advise her to do so. No word either on whether Coll and Coronel have journeyed to UVA to re-report parts of the Rolling Stone piece purporting to document "institutional indifference"on the part of administrators, although some have argued this is "germane and of public interest." 

The real mystery left unexplained by Columbia’s slow delivery is what kind of deal Rubin Erdely, and presumably her editors, struck with “Jackie,” the article’s central source, for the use of her story about the fraternity gang rape she claimed to have suffered. According to the Washington Post, after giving Rubin Erdely extensive interviews, Jackie told the reporter that she had grown uncomfortable about the magazine using her story and would prefer not to be included in the piece. The Post said that the magazine only secured Jackie’s permission to do so by making an agreement that let Jackie “fact check” her own story. But the paper did not say if that fact-checking privilege extended to aspects of the article that involved more than what personally happened to Jackie in the fraternity bedroom that night, such as the experiences of other alleged assault victims or the purportedly callow, self-involved response of the three friends Jackie called for help that night. 

Columbia could be finding this question more involved to answer than it might seem, since it's always more time-consuming to figure out stupid than people generally think. This might help explain the delay in publishing the Columbia post-mortem, yet it won’t make that post-mortem any less dead-on-arrival if we have to wait much longer to read it. The quality of the report will most likely be very high, showing intelligence about the right questions to ask and diligence in answering them. If the case no longer holds public attention however, that report will be of academic interest only. Odd that the deans of such a prestigious journalism school wouldn't have set themselves a deadline. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

If Netanyahu Does Speak To Congress, Maybe Pat Buchanan Should Have A Say-So Too

Jim Fallows at the Atlantic says we should listen to what Netanyahu has to say to Congress in rebuttal to Obama on Iran. According to Fallows we should pay especially close attention to Netanyahu's core claim that the challenges of a nuclear Iran today hark back to the challenge of Nazism that the world shrank from in 1938. Fallows: 

Let's listen; let's set aside, if we can, the unprecedented and insulting nature of his appearance before Congress; and then let's think carefully about American national interests, which no foreign leader can define. I believe they're very different from what Netanyahu is advocating.

If so, I have a modest proposal: Let Patrick Buchanan give the surrebuttal, as such a rebuttal-to-the rebuttal is known in debate club argot.

Buchanan has been a pariah in certain circles ever since he referred to Congress as “Israeli occupied territory” on a 1991 broadcast of the McLaughlin Group when voicing opposition to the first Gulf War. 

The remark was in line with other controversial bon mots Buchanan delivered around that time. Among them was a disparaging reference to the Israel Defense Forces' “amen corner” on Capitol Hill, as well as complaints about disporportinately low rates of Jewish-American military service, which would mean that “kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and Leroy Brown" would be bearing the brunt of any Middle East fighting. These hot words led to William F. Buckley’s infamous National Review article in which he said it was "impossible to defend" Buchanan from the charge of anti Semitism, although Buckley qualified it a bit by saying that it was probably Buchanan’s “iconoclastic temperament” that had driven him to say what he had said and not bigotry. Former NYT executive editor Abe Rosenthal went much further though, insisting that Buchanan’s remarks could pave the way for another Auschwitz. 

This eventually led to Buchanan’s almost complete marginalization within the GOP. In the following years, pro Israel neoconservatives gained control and power, and often expressed their delight and domination over the "paleocons" (and even the "realists" like Bush 1 stalwart Brent Scowcroft) they had purged with a gloating triumphalism and arrogance---a kind of rhetorical frog-marching. The power grab that put neoconservatives in control of America's Israel policy will go down as Bill Kristol's legacy, as will the McCarthy-esque smearing, denunciation and demagoguery associated with that.    

The prospect of Netanyahu speaking before a joint session of Congress to second-guess presidential strategy on Iran's nuclear development however seems to redeem some of Buchanan’s anathemas. It also seems to redeem that controversial cartoon that the Economist was forced to pull a little more than a year ago suggesting that Israel’s undue influence in Congress was limiting Obama's range of diplomatic options with Tehran.

The speech, which will mark the third time that the Israeli Prime Minister will have addressed joint sessions of Congress, seems to represent a tipping point when the offensiveness of Buchanan's purported slur seems to pale before the offensiveness of the pro Israel overreach that is involved at this moment. It's an undeniable sign of the excess deference that Congress has long paid to Israel--and to its American Zionist supporters--- on both sides of the aisle. Which has led to an undesirable intermingling of our two very different political cultures--or at least the perception of that---as well as a confusion of what is expressly in America's national interest and what is in Israel's. In lobby-speak it’s called “capture,” which is a different thing from an "occupation" as in "Israeli-occupied territory" but not by much.
I'm  being somewhat facetious; don’t mean to let Buchanan completely off the hook. His utterances may not have been anti Semitic per se but they did come unfortunately too close to the “tropes” that are considered verboten in the American discourse on Israel and his use of them was probably counterproductive in terms of opening up public debate. But what happens when the truth and the trope converge, as they seem to be doing now? When the realities of foreign policy-making become indistinguishable from a cartoon?

As impious as he may have been, Buchanan said something that historical facts show was true enough back then and is even more true now. In light of the lobby's unseemly, even dangerous hold on Congress, as explored last summer by none other than the New Yorker, it's just very hard, maybe even "impossible," to defend Pat Buchanan from the charge of being prescient. What he identified in the early 1990s has grown into something too big to ignore, or to be bullied into denying.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Lede of the Day: On Netanyahu Speech To Congress, the Washington Post Says Dems Are “skittish about appearing to be out of sync with whatever Israel wants.”

Truly remarkable lede to Greg Sargent’s on-line Washington Post column this morning which ran under the headline “From Many Democrats, An Odd Silence On Netanyahu’s Speech”

The piece reported on the the consternation among Democrats about how to respond to the speech Netanyahu is planning to give to Congress next month to rebut President Obama on the need to continue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. As per Sargent’s lede:    

To hear Congressional aides tell it, many House Democrats are angry at the prospect of Benjamin Netanyahu addressing Congress at a time when it could set back President Obama’s hopes for progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran. But relatively few of them are willing to say so publicly — the latest indication that Democrats remain deeply skittish about appearing to be out of sync with whatever Israel wants.

Has it really come to this? Whatever Israel wants?

Since diving into the discourse about the US-Israel “special relationship” two years ago after necons tried to crucify Chuck Hagel with totally baseless charges of anti Semitism, a recognition that this relationship is as “an alliance too far” has become as unavoidable as it is lamentable. The cravenness of the pro Israel deference is jarring, at least to anyone with a sense for the national honor (though the Israel Fisters defending the prospects of the speech would probably find a way to call that very patriotism anti Semitic too.)  It's as if there's been a silent coup of some sort, an almost Masonic-style conspiracy ready to punish those who point it out. Anyone checked that honker of a Scottish Rite Temple on 16th Street NW in DC lately to see who is going in and out---what kind of lapel pins or hats they're wearing?

Sargent goes on to note that Politico has a story reporting that dozens of House Democrats  are threatening to boycott the speech, although “virtually all of them are lodging this threat ‘privately.’”

As annoying as the idea of Netanyahu rebuking an American president before a joint session of Congress may be, the prospect is welcome at the level of clarifying just how much discomfort---fear, really---members of Congress feel about expressing that discomfort. The exigencies of the "special relationship" impose quite a burden, and one not terribly "American" I should add. 

"Because of the support they get from Jewish voters and donors, etc...," Jeffrey Goldberg said today on Twitter, in response to Sargent. Goldberg doesn't elaborate, but the money involved is formidable. Jewish-Americans represent barely 2% of the electorate but contribute roughly 50% to the two major parties in any presidential year. And that was before moguls like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban (who is a dual US-Israeli citizen) recently pledged to make unlimited donations to the candidates of their respective choices. According to reports Saban said he would give "whatever it takes" to see Hillary Clinton become president. Of course when Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer cited Jewish votes and Jewish money in their analysis of American support for Israel, both in their 2006 London Review of Books article and The Israel Lobby which followed, ethnic defenders like Goldberg, a former IDF soldier who still retains Israeli citizenship despite declaring he was going to renounce it,  jumped all over the authors. The Israel lobby, said Goldberg was only a sign of the remarkable political “empowerment” of American Jews.

I’ll be expanding upon this idea of why Netanyahu’s speech is welcome on other fronts that disparage the "special relationship," at least in its current overreaching form. For now though it’s just so delicious to hear the Jeffrey Goldbergs of the world echo the very same ideas that Walt and Mearsheimer were smeared for in Goldberg's goyim-baiting, demagogic TNR review back in 2007.  It was a very good career move back then, this kind of smearing, a critical step in Goldberg becoming the “official therapist of the “special relationship.” And let’s not forget that Goldberg got a very big assist on that career boost from former TNR literary editor Leon Wiseltier, recipient of the $1 million Dan Prize for lifelong service to Israel. It was Leon after all who assigned and edited the TNR smear; it's not beyond suspicion that this is one of the services that the Dan Prize people had in mind.  It's certainly helped put off for a significant period of time a reckoning with Walt and Mearsehimer's core arguments, leaving America with little leverage on Israel as it has gone about nullifying the Two State Solution, even as we pretend we still have an honest broker role in achieving it.

One of the core issues at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of borders: establishing mutually agreed upon lines demarcating two independent, sovereign states. Meanwhile, as the Netanyahu speech undercores with a certain obviousness, the core issue at the center of the US-Israel special relationship seems to be one of boundaries---as in “boundary issues." Time to stop the projecting. We are not them; they are not the 51st state. We have a representative body called the US Congress; they have the Knsesset. This, no matter how much pro-Israel supporters insist on the trying to fuse together our two very different political cultures and how much these supporters drone on about the “shared values” that make us “brothers joined at the hip.” As the Yiddish would have it: narishkeit