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When It Raines It Pours

From the Scrapbook

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26
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Whenever The Scrapbook finds the word “conscience” employed by a journalist, we feel obliged to plug in the old you-know-what detector and examine the specimen in some scientific detail. It’s a genuinely distasteful job—mucking through the mounds of insufferable piety and wading through the cesspools of dishonesty and hysteria—but somebody has to do it. 

This week’s eruption comes from Howell Raines, the former executive editor of the New York Times who, since his firing in 2003 for presiding over (and covering up) the Jayson Blair fabrication and plagiarism scandal, has been writing regularly about the press for various publications. This past week found Raines in the Washington Post, and he pulled no punches:

One question has tugged at my professional conscience throughout the year-long congressional debate over health-care reform, and it has nothing to do with the public option, portability or medical malpractice. It is this: Why haven’t America’s old-school news organizations blown the whistle on Roger Ailes, chief of Fox News, for using the network to conduct a propaganda campaign against the Obama administration—a campaign without precedent in our modern political history?

Sad to say, in the balance of his piece, poor Raines loses control. Fox News, he complains, has a “cadre of raucous commentators” and “video ferrets” who reinforce “Foxian reality .  .  . [with] actors .  .  . brought on camera to illustrate a preconceived universe as rigid as that of medieval morality.” For according to Howell Raines’s version of modern political history, Americans have always strongly supported nationalized health care and, Ailes/Fox News notwithstanding, never more so than today. 

The Scrapbook should say, at this juncture, that Roger Ailes is a big boy, and Fox News is no fledgling organization, and they can take care of themselves when bitten in the ankle by a duck. But you have to sit back for a moment and savor Raines’s vision of those “old-school news organizations”—the Times and Post, Dan Rather’s CBS, the Associated Press, Newsweek, NPR—quaking in fear of Roger Ailes and Fox News, keeping their mouths shut. In Raines’s view, reporters and columnists not employed by Fox News are “intimidated by [its] financial power and expanding audience, as well as Ailes’s proven willingness to dismantle the reputation of anyone who crosses him.”

Well, anyone who believes that is probably prepared to believe that Jayson Blair was hired as a reporter on merit, and wrote factual, scrupulously edited stories in Howell Raines’s New York Times. For the truth is that if there is a news organization in the United States that has restrained itself from speaking ill of Roger Ailes, or a journalist who has caught himself before writing critically about Fox News, we would like to know his/her/their name. In the rarefied circles in which Howell Raines travels, envy/contempt for the success of Ailes and Fox News​—​in journalistic as well as business terms—is not just rampant, but an essential component of their common vocabulary.

Indeed, the larger proposition is not that Fox News has manufactured opposition to Obamacare, as Raines charges, but that it has faithfully reported the inconvenient truth that the “congressional debate over health-care reform” has deepened and hardened public sentiment against Obamacare. Which may be especially difficult for Howell Raines to comprehend, since he and his fellow denizens of “old-school news organizations” have long practiced the black art of abusing their status as journalists in a free society to conduct political propaganda campaigns, and malign people (Ailes) and institutions (Fox News) they don’t like.

The Los Angeles Machine

As a believer that state and local governments are laboratories of democracy, The Scrapbook was fascinated to learn of the innovation concocted by the lab rats of the Los Angeles City Council: software that automatically votes “yes” whether the member is present in the chamber or not. 

As reported by David Zahniser and Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times, “Los Angeles City Council members have figured out how to be in two places at once.” Their voting sofware “is set to automatically register each of the 15 lawmakers as a ‘yes’ unless members deliberately press a button to vote ‘no.’ ” The reporters helpfully note that “lawmakers in New York and San Francisco are also allowed to leave their seats during meetings, but members must be in the room to have their votes recorded.” Indeed, and not just in those cities.

Some of the examples compiled by Zahniser and Reston: 

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