Monday, August 27, 2007

Into the sunset

It’s been a busy summer for the White House department that handles severance pay. Besides the departures of staffers who have had enough of the administration (or maybe it’s the other way around), there was the long goodbye of Karl Rove from his post as senior adviser and deputy turd blossom.

Now, just days before Rove heads back to Texas to pursue some lucrative enterprise or another (let's watch how fast he shows up on Fox), there’s news of another Bush White House figure set to leave Washington, and not a moment too soon for the folks on the Hill. Alberto Gonzalez, the U.S. attorney general, today announced his resignation effective September 17.

‘Celebration’ may be too mild a word to express the feelings of Democrats on Capitol Hill. It’s not hard to imagine the congressional leadership dancing a conga line around their offices. Sen. Charles Schumer, circumspect as usual in a press conference, was understated in his view of Gonzalez’s departure from a Justice Department that he said was, from a standpoint of public confidence, a federal agency "worse than FEMA." Imagine that.

With his announcement, Hurricane Alberto has been officially downgraded to a political depression, spinning out the last of his furious winds en route to his homestead in Texas. What’s left for the administration is to pick up the pieces and rebuild, trying to rebound from this latest exit from a White House in deep existential crisis.

Now comes the confirmation dance between the White House and those in Congress, especially the Democratic leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will direct the confirmation hearings. Finding a consensus with its political opposites, a process that the administration has long and largely rejected, is the first challenge.

The work for the Justice Department itself is more daunting. It's left to them to undo the damage done by draconian policies affecting everything from the rationale for mistreatment of prisoners in the Iraq war to the criminalization of ordinary people looking for better lives, the undocumented human beings you see every day in the parking lots of Lowe's and Home Depot stores, desperately seeking nothing more criminal than an honest day's wage.

It falls to the Justice Department to restore a belief, not so widespread anymore, that justice is possible from the agency with its name on the door.

Ciao, Alberto. It's been real. Don't let the Constitution hit you in the ass on the way out.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Vietnam, the sequel II

As the death toll of civilian and Defense Department forces in Iraq sprinted past 3,700, and three scant weeks before the breathlessly awaited report from Gen. David Petraeus, the White House has begun circling the wagons, retrenching to old positions – and reframing old arguments for the war in terms we wouldn’t have expected. Its latest rejiggering of old rationales points to just how rudderless this administration has become on how best to resolve its defining debacle.

President Bush spoke Monday at the Montebello meeting of North American leaders in Canada. Expressing a sentiment Americans can sympathize with, Bush admitted to “a certain level of frustration” with the Iraqi government’s failure to unify its warring enclaves. His comments came shortly after the top American diplomat in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, offered a downbeat assessment of the Iraq situation -- a kind of report before the report -- calling political advances there “extremely disappointing.”

On Wednesday, in a speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., Bush repackaged his standard stick-with-the-plan speech, with fresh urgency:

“Our troops are seeing this progress on the ground. And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq?”

Then the president further tried to make his case by summoning the ghost of the last truly disastrous national military intervention, a spectre we would not have thought this White House would dare to arouse.

“Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields,’ ” Bush said, alluding to the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

But wait. He said the V word! VIETNAM. The images cascade before the national eyes. Choppers landing in blood-soaked LZs to ferry scores of American wounded to a safe place. Frantic firefights. The incineration of innocents. An embassy under siege. The North Vietnamese flag flying over Saigon. American might visually characterized, forever, by the images of empty Huey helicopters pushed from the decks of aircraft carriers into the sea, or crowded Hueys in bugout mode with refugees dangling from the struts.

After seeing an advance draft of the Montebello speech, historian Robert Dallek said in a New York Times interview excerpted on Aug. 21 that the mayhem under the Khmer Rouge “was a consequence of our having gone into Cambodia and destabilized that country.”

Dallek’s historically-based assertion is surely the right one, and points to another White House misreading of recent American history. But what’s more curious, and wholly unexpected, is the administration’s relatively sudden embrace of analogies with Vietnam in the voicing of White House policy.

Not so long ago, any phrasal linkage of the war in Iraq with the Vietnam War was anathema to the administration. The connections between the two, so White House reasoning must have gone, were too redolent of historical failure and horrific memories to be of service in establishing the policy language for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Why the switch?

Maybe it was what Alexander Haig said last year. Haig –a man more or less present at the creation of the Vietnam Experience -- spoke at a March 11, 2006 conference at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Haig compared Vietnam to Iraq as an example of America repeating an earlier mistake. “Every asset of the nation must be applied to the conflict to bring about a quick and successful outcome, or don’t do it,” Haig said, according to the Associated Press. “We’re in the midst of another struggle where it appears to me we haven’t learned very much.”

Now, by invoking the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields and other signatures of the Vietnam conflict, the Bush administration seems to have come to terms with the analogies – as well as with validating, whether intending to or not, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s long-ago assertion that “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.”

That would suggest it was intentional. The other possibility is that the administration didn’t see the analogy through, that they really don’t realize how bad the comparison looks. Yeah, the West Wing speechwriters came up with the name of a group of terrorists who slaughtered in wholesale numbers. That's the easy association.

But the dissimilarities between the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and al-Qaida in Iraq, and the eras in which they grimly prevailed, beg the question of why the Bush White House would use a cold-war symbol to analogize a situation in the current asymmetrical conflict in the first place. Is this just more tone-deafness from the Bush White House? Has Karl Rove left the building yet?

The countdown clock to release of the Petraeus report is off and running, but it would seem the administration is field-testing responses to that report right now. But Bush’s Kansas City address summons precisely the historical comparisons the administration used to say were Not Helpful, and points again to a White House at odds with itself. There’s a disconnect somewhere, but one not nearly as troubling as the short-circuit of confidence playing itself out between Washington and Baghdad

The lack of confidence in the Iraqi government the White House has invested blood, treasure and credibility in speaks poorly of the Maliki government, and less well for the U.S. government that made the Maliki government possible.


Images: Wikipedia > Defense Department > Public domain

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Loving him tender

Thirty years ago a green reporter for a college newspaper in Boulder, Colorado was startled by news that suddenly belched from the AP wire machine in the corner, swirled around the newsroom and then around the world: Elvis Presley was dead.

The reporter – like more people than might be prepared to admit it – had never known a world without Elvis in it. He was like Sinatra or Mao or Groucho Marx, one of those people whose antecedent presence and outsize personality suggested that they’d somehow reached an accommodation with the Almighty – that they’d been made exempt from that third act of life that awaits the rest of us.

Since Elvis died on August 16, 1977 – his death effectively becoming the Elvis Impersonators Full Employment Act – his life and career and bad movies have formed the basis for a cottage industry. Or a mansion industry: his estate, Graceland, continues to be a top draw for visitors coming to Memphis, Tenn., in a pilgrimage that shows no sign of ending. Memorabilia with his images still sells well there and everywhere else. Early this year, in anticipation of the very anniversary written about now, Elvis fan Chuck Murphy published an "interactive pop-up tour" of Graceland's many rooms. And his surviving heirs – his widow, Priscilla Presley, and his daughter, Lisa Marie – still reap an estimated $40 million a year in royalties.

For Elvis – as with the estates of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix before him and Frank Sinatra and Kurt Cobain after him – death was, among other things, a brilliant career move.

Cynical? Maybe a little. There’s no escaping the real, deep affection that Elvis fans still bear for the man and his music. Legions of fans continue to show that they love him tender today, more years since his death than Elvis spent alive on the national scene. And a touring production, Elvis Presley in Concert, is filling concert halls. Members of his original group perform Elvis’ greatest hits, backed by a 16-piece orchestra, a choir and, towering above everything, the image and sound of a video-projected Elvis doing an array of hit songs, in a deftly-edited montage of some of his best concert performances.

“Today, people are accustomed to seeing giant video screens used in live concerts to bring the star closer to the audience,” says a statement on the official Elvis Web site. “Elvis' recorded voice and his on-screen presence are so powerful, the interaction with the live musicians and singers so seamless, the audience reaction so intense that, a few songs into the show, one can almost forget that Elvis isn't really there in person.”

That kind of staying power was hard for even Elvis to achieve when he walked among us; toward the end of his life, Elvis was a sad, bloated parody of himself in better days. Such adulation is harder still for living, breathing celebrities to achieve in these attention-shortened, rapid-fire times. You gotta give the man his props: He cast a long shadow, one that endures almost eleven thousand days since he became yesterday.

And what about that yesterday? Do you remember where you were when you heard the news that he was gone?

Yes you do. You may not admit it, but you do.
Image credit: U.S. Postal Service

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Back in the saddle again

The phoenix known as Don Imus has apparently done it again. In a settlement reached Tuesday with CBS, his former employer, Imus effectively abandoned his $120 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against the network. The terms weren’t disclosed (they never are), but bet the ranch that Imus walked away with a sum considerably south of $120 million.

The settlement is thought to formally free Imus to pursue another radio show somewhere besides CBS. Four months after his career apparently went in the can for comments about the Rutgers women‘s basketball team, and the corrosive fallout from those comments, the shock jock who seemed to be wearing a KICK ME sign since the middle of April is ready to kick ass and take names.

It’s not clear where Imus will hang his black Stetson next. There was brief talk that Imus would somehow resurface on WFAN, the CBS Radio affiliate that aired his program nationally, but that was never a realistic option [see “Imus, arise!?!”] The PR damage would have been too profound for WFAN/CBS to weather. The only time Imus will be anywhere near CBS will be to scuttle up to the cashier’s window to collect that last fat check.

The Associated Press reported that “Imus has had informal talks with several broadcasters, including WABC in New York, about a possible comeback.”

Understandably at this juncture, WABC denies, denies, denies. “I’ve had no conversation with Mr. Imus and no one at Citadel or ABC has had any negotiation with him,” Steve Borneman, general manager of WABC radio, told the AP. [Citadel Broadcasting owns WABC and 140 other radio stations.]

Also unclear is who would join Imus on the staff and become a part of the New Imus Experience. It’s a safe bet that wherever he lands, Imus will again retain the services of Charles McCord, Imus’ longtime partner and sounding board, the closest thing to a voice of moderation Imus has probably known besides his wife. It’s hard to imagine Imus being stubborn or stupid enough to re-enlist bald mushwit producer Bernard McGuirk, the prince of intolerance and the catalyst of the remarks that got Imus offed on WFAN.

But you never know with Imus. He’s a man who’s made a career of the kind of enlightened stubbornness that has endeared him to millions, and made him millions in the process. His credo of the past will probably bring him back to a radio station near you: If a mistake is worth making at all, it’s worth making until you get it right.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Turkey in the straw poll?

Cue the theme from "Rocky": Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had his big moment over the weekend, making like Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, his arms aloft in triumph. In the Iowa straw poll for Republican presidential hopefuls, an early beauty contest for the GOP candidates, Romney came in first place over his challengers -- flying hiiiiigh now!

But hold up. Turn the music off. Let's dig a little deeper. Turns out that Romney finished first in a crowded field of exactly three, prevailing in this early test of popularity over former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. The other major challengers for the Republican nomination -- former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- didn't even show up. That fact calls into question just how much traction Romney really has, even using this victory as a springboard to gaining wider gravitas among Americans outside the bustling metropolis of Ames, Iowa.

Leave it to a veteran reporter to put things in perspective. David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, interviewed yesterday by Tavis Smiley, called this temporary emperor on his wardrobe. Romney, Yepsen said, "got more votes than anybody else, so in that sense he can claim a victory. But I don't think it means a whole lot if you win a fight when the other champions don't get in the ring."

More important to Yepsen, and other pol watchers, was the strong second-place showing of Huckabee, whose folksy, accessible style and serious sense of humor has resulted in a lot of double takes from people once prepared to write him off. Witness the front-page story in yesterday's New York Times, a story whose focus on Huckabee's surprising finish effectively eclipsed Romney, a man the conventional wisdom said was expected to win in Iowa.

For Yepsen, Huckabee's strong second was "an indication that [he] is starting to rally some of the social conservatives" looking for a star to hitch to their wagon.

Huck's campaign in Iowa takes on even more significance when you consider the bottom-line factors involved. Romney spent in the mid- to high six figures to win the straw poll, papering the hall with his own paid staffers, there to cheer and wave the placards with the boss's name.

Huckabee spent chump change -- about $87,000 by one "Hardball" estimate -- to come in a solid second place, making his showing one of the most cost-effective presidential campaign moves since Jesse Jackson won the Michigan primary in 1988 with not much more than what he found in the couch cushions.

It's anyone's guess how Romney would have done against the other contenders. It's questionable whether McCain would have showed up even if he had showed up. Fred ("Law & Order") Thompson has been pulling his chin, waiting to officially get into the campaign for so long now, Yepsen said he suspects Thompson will peak the minute he declares. Only Giuliani had any real throw weight among the no-shows.

So really, Romney's yet to be tested. Romney's got the serious deep pockets needed to go the distance; the Boston Globe screamed his net worth, an estimated $250 million, on its front page. But the Book of Mormon still hangs around his neck as a possible political liability, one Romney may have to address in some Major Speech not unlike the one John Kennedy made in defense of his Catholicism back in 1960.

It's early yet, and way too early for anyone to coronate Mitt Romney, or for Mitt Romney to coronate himself. He's not "flying high now" so much as still flying under the radar.
Image credit: Romney source: AnnMarie Romney; author: Parachutegurl), used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license; Huckabee: Huckabee campaign

Monday, August 13, 2007

Foul calls

Just when you thought that sports in America couldn’t get any more fraught with controversy – NBA refs making calls based on personal bets; the continuing debate over whether Barry Bonds pharmacologically cheated to become baseball’s new home-run king; Michael Vick’s preoccupation with canine blood sports – it gets worse. A new study suggests that America’s great national pastime may have something – maybe too much – in common with America’s great national poison: racism.

The new issue of Time magazine reports that the study directed by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, strongly suggests that home plate umpires in Major League Baseball games call balls and strikes more favorably when the pitcher is the same race they are. You can’t make this up.

From the Time story: “In the new study, Hamermesh's team analyzed the calls on 2.1 million pitches thrown in the Major League between the 2004 and 2006 seasons. Controlling for all other outside factors, such as the pitcher's tendency to throw strikes, the umpires' tendency to call strikes and the batter's ability to attract balls, researchers found evidence of same-race bias — and the data revealed that the bias benefits mostly white pitchers. Not surprising, since 71% of MLB pitchers and 87% of umpires are white.”

The study determined that the disparity occurred in 1 percent of pitches.

There is one bright aspect to this: Apparently, and unlike in society as a whole, the bias can be readily corrected. “When a game's attendance is particularly high, when the call is made on a full count or when ballparks use QuesTec, an electronic system that evaluates the accuracy of umpires' calls after the game, the biased behavior disappeared, according to the study,” Time reported. The QuesTec system has been used in MLB games since the 2003 season, and even then generated complaints from umps. Sandy Alderson, MLB's executive vice president for operations, said back then that the system "has done wonders" and “it’s not going away.”

But chalk any biases up to plain old human nature. "We all have these subconscious preferences for our own group," Hamermesh told the magazine. "When you're going to be watched and have to pay more attention, you don't subconsciously favor people like yourself. When discrimination has a price, you don't observe it as much."

The underlying message there is obvious: If there’s a chance of getting caught, cheaters generally don’t cheat. In that, there’s no difference between umpires embroidering the truth, pitchers scuffing the ball or hitters using whatever, uh, advantage they can find to put the ball in play.

Makes you wonder about all the attention paid to Barry Bonds’ home-run total. You don’t suppose there’s a chance he was robbed by the umpires of five or eight balls this season that could have led to home runs, do you?

Say it ain’t so.

The collapse of the Architect

Karl Rove, the embattled, vilified deputy White House chief of staff, the lightning rod of the Bush #43 presidency and its most polarizing policies, announced Monday his intention to resign his position effective on Aug. 31. For quietly high-fiving Democrats, it’s safe to say, the Prince of Darkness has left the building (or at least stated when he’ll do so).

For Republicans, the departure of the man dubbed “The Architect” and “Bush’s brain,” Rove’s resignation leaves a spiritual and philosophical vacuum in an administration already struggling to matter as events Rove had a hand in creating threaten to overtake that administration some fifteen months before the next election.

And it raises questions for the GOP -- with the Architect gone, what’s left of the structure he tried to build? – and for the President: With Bush’s brain gone, who’ll do his thinking for him?

Karl Rove has long been known for a certain blustery style, a swagger that extended beyond personality into his approach to governance. What may have doomed him – which is to say what may have prompted White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten to demand that he either resign or commit to staying on through the 2008 campaign – was Rove’s heartfelt embrace of hubris in recent years.

Witness his steadfast refusal to testify before Congress about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, claiming executive privilege; his implication in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity; or his combative, take-no-prisoners approach to presidential politics. All played a role in cultivating an us-versus-them sense of governing that plagues the country.

“Karl Rove was an architect of a political strategy that has left the country more divided, the special interests more powerful, and the American people more shut out from their government than any time in memory,” said Sen. Barack Obama.

After leaving the White House and speaking with The Associated Press, Rove downplayed the importance of his own departure. “I think it will be wishful thinking on the part of the president’s critics to think this means anything other than a staff change at the White House,” he said.

Rove couldn’t be more accurate, and more wrong at the same time.

In some ways Rove’s exit is just one of several resignations the Bush White House has been forced to endure for months, in the wake of a disastrous foreign policy, an ill-conceived war and the scuttling of various domestic agendas.

But his leaving was preceded by a change in congressional leadership, a change he was at least partly responsible for. Before the 2006 midterm election, Rove’s unshakeable confidence in a Republican victory was characterized by a brusque assertion of his rightness about everything political. “You're entitled to your math," Rove famously told NPR last October, about ten days before the election. "I'm entitled to the math.”

But Rove’s unerring calculus about the GOP holding onto control of Congress was just wrong [see “Meet the new math.”] That error, however great or small, was part of what cost the Republicans their congressional majority, setting the stage for what may – may – be a GOP defeat in November 2008.

It’s this hubris that Adam Nagourney alluded to in an analysis in today’s New York Times: “Many remember Mr. Rove’s lofty ambitions — his talk of overseeing a political realignment that would marginalize Democrats for a generation — and think he aimed too high. Many wonder if a strategy aimed entirely at methodically identifying and stoking the party’s conservative base, with issues like gay marriage, abortion and terrorism, was ever a recipe for long-term political dominance, much less for governing a country.”

Ken Duberstein, the White House Chief of Staff under Ronald Reagan, put it another way, one in concert with the historical perspective Rove was fond of taking – a foundational view the Architect may have overlooked:

“The art of campaigning is to demolish your opponent: you defeat him, take all his clothes off and kill him," Duberstein said to CBS’s Jeff Greenfield. "The art of governing is putting together coalitions. It’s making love to your opponent. It’s not having any permanent adversaries, but rather it is embracing those adversaries.”

The ardent desire for a permanent state of war with the loyal opposition may be Karl Rove’s legacy, no matter who wins in November 2008. In that sense, what the Architect built in his six years in the White House was a shaky structure, an edifice built on conflict rather than cooperation – a building that probably deserves to be condemned 448 days from now.
Image credit: U.S. Government (public domain)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Imus, arise!?!

“You can’t keep a good man down,” goes the saying, a testament to the irrepressible human spirit. Implicit in that phrase is our tendency to make comebacks against all odds, to triumph in the face of adversity, to improbably rise when the smart money said we were finished.

Don Imus, the radio personality fired April 12 from his morning program on WFAN Radio (owned by CBS) for needlessly incendiary racial comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team, may be the latest example of our inclination to rise from the ashes. Cashiered for his comments by CBS and MSNBC, both of which broadcast his program as a radio show and a cable-TV simulcast [see “Imus in the mourning”], Imus has quietly been taking steps to regain his place on the air, by some estimates as soon as January.

Imus had signed a five-year, $40 million deal with CBS shortly before the Rutgers incident, in which he inexplicably referred to the Scarlet Knights basketball team, which lost the NCAA women's title, as "some nappy-headed hos." With lightning speed, advertisers from Staples, General Motors and GlaxoSmithKline to American Express, Bigelow Tea and Procter & Gamble pulled their ads from his lucrative program, or announced plans to do so.

Protests followed. "As an African-American, I believe that Imus has crossed the line, a very bright line that divides our country," said Bruce Gordon, a CBS director and former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "His remarks are so significant that I believe that the right outcome is for him to be terminated." Gordon said.

Imus was dismissed within days.

Since then he's been laying low on his ranch near Ribera, N.M., weighing his options. One of those options was to retain First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, who filed a $120 million wrongful-termination lawsuit against CBS, mounting a defense largely based on free speech issues. Garbus is no stranger to such issues; it was he who defended Lenny Bruce, the legendary comedian whose controversial incendiary delivery in the 1950’s and 1960’s made the shock jocks of today possible.

"According to Garbus, when Imus said 'nappy-headed hos,' he was being ironic—goofing on the pleasure white society gets from co-opting the lexicon of the black world," reported Robert Kolker in the Aug. 10 issue of New York Magazine.

Whatever the justification, it's thought that the prospect of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit has concentrated the minds of CBS suits -- particularly CBS president Les Moonves -- wonderfully, perhaps even to the point of pursuing an unthinkable course of action.

"Perhaps more than anything, it was the lawsuit that changed things," Kolker reported. "No one at CBS will confirm it had an effect, but after it was filed, network executives began considering the unthinkable: bringing Imus back.

"Giving Imus his old job wouldn’t just help restore WFAN’s morning ratings—it would quite possibly cost less than having to go to court with Imus," Kolker reported. "What if, instead of fighting, CBS renegotiated to take Imus back at, say, half the $40 million? Or even a third?"

“The demand was he be fired from a job he routinely abused,” Sharpton told New York Magazine. “There was never a sense that he be removed from making a living.”

But Sharpton's position amounts to a distinction without a difference. If Imus goes back on the air, what's to stop him from making a living doing exactly what got him fired in April?

More problematic for CBS is a foundational fact that its executives have yet to fully address: If the company is serious about turning a blind eye to those comments, it has to contend with what will be seen as blatant hypocrisy on its part. CBS fired Imus, justifying the dismissal with an array of reasons based on moral principle – the idea of “doing the right thing.” (Left unsaid was the big financial hit CBS would have taken if they’d let Imus stay on the air.)

How, then, can CBS possibly do an about-face, letting him back on the air, without undercutting the very moral arguments they had for firing him in the first place? Count on it: The same firestorm of protests, the same wholesale defection of deep-pocketed advertisers will surface all over again -- and for exactly the same reasons.

"Don Imus has a cockroach’s knack for survival," Kolker wrote in New York Magazine. And it's true: He was dismissed in 1977 after misisng 100 days of work in a year, and for reportedly going on the air mumbling incoherently while ripped to the tits on vodka and cocaine. After drying out at Hazelden, Imus returned to the airwaves within two years.

On Feb. 6, Imus opined that as a way to prevent Islamic terrorists in the future, "it might be good to start with somebody who is willing to take three [nuclear weapons] and drop one on Mecca, one on Jeddah, and ... one on Riyadh," all cities in Saudi Arabia. Imus was never taken to task for the comment.

Imus made a reference to the "Jewish management" of CBS Radio as "money-grubbing bastards" on the Nov. 30 broadcast of MSNBC's "Imus in the Morning" program. Imus was never taken to task for that comment.

Don Imus' apparently bulletproof instinct for surviving controversy is well-documented. What's less clear right now is how well his once-and-possibly-future employer might be able to do the same thing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Murdoch! Murdoch! Nightmare of Murdoch!

On July 31, after months of negotiation and great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the American press, Keith Rupert Murdoch, legendary boardroom buccaneer and king of tabloid journalism, completed acquisition of The Wall Street Journal, the crown jewel of his News Corporation media empire, for $5 billion – on a per share basis, a handsome runup in the value of the shares of Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent company.

The new boss celebrated his latest acquisition with execs and advisers at News Corp. headquarters in Manhattan by breaking out bottles of Australian Shiraz, a fine full-bodied red-wine narcotic. His employees no doubt used something stronger; Oxy-Contin might not even be enough. There’s been great trepidation on the part of Journal staff; resumes have reportedly been in circulation for weeks, if not months. But with the deal done, Murdoch has exercised his right to tweak that famous excerpt from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita:

“Now I am become Owner, destroyer of standards and reputations.”

From now until the deal is fully consummated, probably some time in early October, the mouthpieces of the media will be circling the wagons and calling their bookies to place bets on how this most prestigious American newspaper will be transformed. If past is prologue, and it often is, the signs are not good.

The cognoscenti of the press wasted no time in discussing the issue. On PBS’s “Charlie Rose,” Ken Auletta, media columnist for The New Yorker, told Rose that the acquisition “gives him enormous power, enormous clout. The Journal will set an agenda the way the [News Corp.-owned] New York Post cannot.” Some of that clout will be evident when Murdoch’s Fox News Business Channel launches, with the assets and resources of the Journal, in more than 31 million homes, on October 15.

Much of the delay in the acquisition was a result of protracted discussions within the Bancroft family, previously the owners of Dow Jones and a clan Auletta told Rose was “as dysfunctional as Paris Hilton’s family.” The battlin' Bancrofts dithered and pulled their chins about selling the Journal for months, with some in the family sincerely expressing reluctance to sell based on principles of Journalistic Integrity and Editorial Independence.

But Andrew Ross Sorkin, a brilliant New York Times business reporter, made a telling point on the Charlie Rose program, one that’s largely flown under the media radar: That, after all the breast-beating from the Bancrofts about maintaining credibility and upholding the Journal’s values and traditions, it all came down to chump change – a relatively small amount of money, given the Bancrofts’ already formidable resources.

Sorkin: “On Sunday night the Denver trust [of the Bancroft family], which was the last holdout trust said, ‘you know what? We want more than sixty bucks. You gotta give us more than sixty bucks. And Rupert’s team said, ‘no, we’re not giving you anything more , and that’s it, and we’re gonna walk and that’s the game.’ And [the Bancrofts] said, ‘well … would you think about paying our bankers and advisory fees?’ … In the end, that’s what put him over the goal line. Forty million dollars!”

The crafty Australian-born magnate was apparently smart to make an offer for Dow Jones north of its market worth right from the start. Murdoch’s $5 billion bid valued each Dow Jones share at $60, well above its trading range in the thirties earlier in the year. Thus, Murdoch froze out the competition. For good.

“You’d think everybody and their brother would want to own the Wall Street Journal,” Sorkin said. “Well, everybody and their brother does want to own the Wall Street Journal, but not at 60 dollars a share. … The idea of not accepting the bid – just think of what would happen: the shares would go down, management would freak out, the staff would be in turmoil and … we would be talking about this for the next two years and Rupert would be back and buying it at half the price. If you think this was a distraction, having said ‘no’ would be worse.”

Meanwhile, concerns about the future of the Journal continue among professional journalists. In today’s Boston Phoenix, for example, Adam Reilly recounts how Murdoch and his minions transformed the Boston Herald, which Murdoch acquired in late 1982:

“Step One was changing the layout from four columns to seven -- better for packing the pages with short, easy-to-read stories. Step Two was changing the paper’s ethos, from the subdued tabloid style cultivated under Hearst to something more authentically Murdochian -- edgy, sensationalistic, and shameless.”

Reilly relates that Les Hinton, an Australian who was assigned to be the Herald’s new managing editor, told another editor that “every page should look like it’s having a nervous breakdown.”

If that’s in any way the marching order for the new Journal, we can kiss any enduring sense of its journalistic gravitas goodbye. There’s a new sheriff in charge at Wall Street’s paper of record.

"I may be evil," Rupert Murdoch said, "but I'm not Pol Pot evil." Lord help us all.
Image credit: Michael Albov, used under terms of Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license; WSJ logo ©2007 Dow Jones
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