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WHY THE POST DUMPED FROOMKIN! Jay Rosen explained the press under Bush. Can he be for real? // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 22, 2009

Samuelson’s ancient visions: Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Post is very instructive—if you want to understand the types of secret frameworks which drive much of our upper-class journalism.

Samuelson writes about “welfare” today. There’s nothing automatically wrong with “welfare,” of course; it was once a neutral word, until a certain type of person built unpleasant connotations around it. (“Charity” was always a word which named one of the highest spiritual qualities. Until a certain kind of person invented this phrase: “Charity cases.”)

There’s nothing automatically wrong with “welfare.” But to Samuelson, almost everything qualifies as “welfare”—and he doesn’t see welfare as a good thing. Let’s start with the types of “welfare” big corporations dole out:

SAMUELSON (6/22/09): Broadly speaking, the U.S. welfare system divides into two parts—the private, run by firms; and the public, provided by government. Both are besieged: private companies by competitive pressures; government by rising debt and taxes. GM exemplified the large corporation as private welfare state. In contracts with the United Auto Workers, GM promised high wages, lifetime employment, generous pensions and comprehensive health insurance. All this is ancient history: New workers get skimpier benefits.

As metaphor, GM's bankruptcy marks the passage of this model. Companies still provide welfare benefits to attract and retain skilled workers. But these shelters against insecurity are growing flimsier. Career jobs remain, but lifetime job guarantees -- whether formal or informal -- are gone. Last year, about 50 percent of male workers ages 50 to 54 had been with the same employer at least 10 years; in 1983, that was 62 percent.

In Samuelson’s mind, even wages qualify as “welfare,” if the wages are too high (in his estimation). But remember: Inside Samuelson’s head, almost everything is “welfare.” When corporations pay their employees (in part) with health insurance, those corporations are, in fact, dishing out “welfare benefits!” It takes a special sort of mind to see the world through this strange lens. But just a bit later, Samuelson keeps shining a light inside his mind, telling us (for example) that Social Security is just “welfare” too:

SAMUELSON: What most Americans identify as government "welfare" are payments to single mothers, food stamps and (perhaps) Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor.

But that's not the half of it. Since 1960, government has changed radically. Then, 52 percent of federal spending went for defense, 26 percent for "payments for individuals”—the welfare state. By 2008, 61 percent consisted of "payments for individuals," 21 percent for defense.

Social Security and Medicare—programs for the elderly—represented the biggest share: $1 trillion in 2008. Most Americans don't consider these programs “welfare,” but they are. Benefits are paid mainly by present taxes; there's little "saving" for future benefits; Congress can alter benefits whenever it wants. If that's not welfare, what would be?

“If that’s not welfare, what would be?” How about a government program in which citizens are paid benefits without ever having paid in? (For the most part, you have to submit a boat-load of payroll taxes to qualify later for Social Security.) Again, the use of “welfare” as a rolling insult is a choice of Samuelson’s, not a semantic necessity. But Samuelson has such a powerful picture in his head that he can’t even imagine the most obvious types of distinctions.

What picture does Samuelson have in his head? A picture that lingers from antiquity—from much earlier than that. In this picture, there are only two classes of people—there are only owners and serfs. By sovereign right, corporate earnings belong to the owners. When they pay more than a living wage, their serfs have been put on the dole.

If you’re paid more than you need to survive, your owners are giving you “welfare.”

Ancestral pictures of this type do linger in peoples’ heads. And here’s a dirty little secret: An upper-class press corps seeks such people, knowing they’ll be reliable heralds. This ancient picture is hard-wired; rulers reward those in whom the wiring is strongest. What do you think Chris Matthews meant when he described the Democratic Party so strangely, just two years ago? Jimmy Carter was in the front row as Matthews shone a very bright light into his own tortured soul (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/07):

MATTHEWS (1/21/07): You know, I thought one of the smart things President Carter did as a candidate...was, every time President Carter won a primary, instead of standing on a platform with a bunch of sweaty, yelling people—you know, the scene with the Democratic Party usually, a bunch of crazy people yelling—and you had to have the full potpourri of Democrats present on that stage or someone would be ticked at you— You would meet in a hotel room and it was amazing! You’d sit down one-on-one, it was a unilateral, with some anchor or reporter, a serious reporter. And every time you saw a primary, you’d stay up till 11:30 to see who won, and you’d see the president, the candidate, sitting there very calmly talking about the future of the country.

Inside this sweaty nut-job’s head, the Democratic Party is just a bunch of sweaty, crazy, yelling people. When Carter behaved in “calm” and “serious” ways, he distinguished himself from this breed.

Matthews was talking about working-class whites and minorities, of course. He was talking about those ancestral serfs! Result? In mahoganied halls, at the top of GE, Jack Welch saw something he liked.

These pictures do linger in peoples’ heads. An upper-class press corps rewards those who have them. Sometimes, such ownership front-men reveal a bit too much of their internal pictures. On this bright blue Monday morning, Samuelson did just that.

After all these years: When these nut-jobs go visibly crazy, ownership agrees not to notice. Yesterday morning, Maureen Dowd’s New York Times column appeared beneath this synopsis, on-line:

Obama’s Fly Move

President Obama’s swift killing of a fly may have resonated so much because some Americans fear that he is too prone to negotiation, comity and splitting the difference.

No joke—we cut-and-pasted. You can still see it—click here.

Maureen Dowd lost it years ago. The bosses have agreed not to notice.

WHY THE POST DUMPED FROOMKIN: Why has the Washington Post decided to sever its ties with Dan Froomkin? Obviously, we can’t quite say.

Many people have speculated about the reason for Froomkin’s firing. In particular, Glenn Greenwald has offered a series of posts on the subject, at Salon. To read his first post on the firing, click here. But several other posts followed. They can be accessed by scrolling down at this link.

For Paul Krugman’s thoughts about Froomkin’s firing, just click this.

Why did the Post sever ties with Froomkin? We can’t exactly say. The first public controversy about Froomkin’s work occurred in 2006. It concerned whether Froomkin was a reporter or a writer of opinion—more specifically, a writer of liberal opinion.

At that time, the name of Froomkin’s on-line column was changed—from “White House Briefing” to “White House Dispatch!” At the time, we couldn’t imagine how that name-change would signal anything to any Post reader. We couldn’t imagine why anyone, on any side, would care whether the column appeared beneath one of those names or the other.

Three years later, Froomkin has been released by the Post, with no real explanation.

For ourselves, we read the hard-copy version of the Post. For that reason, we’ve never read Froomkin’s column on anything like a regular basis. But we were very much struck by this conversation, posted at Salon, between Greenwald and Jay Rosen. We found several judgments expressed in this interview to be surpassingly strange. Strangest of all was Rosen’s account of why the press corps failed to deal more successfully with President Bush. But that was hardly the only point at which we stared in amazement.

For years, we’ve marveled at the liberal world’s failure to come to terms with some of this era’s most basic realities. Greenwald and Rosen seem to us to be speaking from Mars in this interview. Rosen seems to think that the press corps’ current problems began at some point in the first Bush term. As for Greenwald, he wants to give the “journalists” who have bungled so badly the right to say who is a liar.

Good God. What an awful idea!

Full disclosure: Long before Albert Brooks did Defending Your Life, an image had started to play in our brain. When you die, do you perhaps find yourself in some undisclosed location, confronted by a gang of laughing friends? Would your friends be holding their sides as they played tape of certain scenes from your life? Would they say this, as they roared with laughter: Even when THAT crazy thing occurred, didn’t you realize that your life was just a vast joke of the gods?

Surely, you couldn’t have thought THAT was real, your laughing friends would be saying.

Sometimes, we wonder if life is a joke of the gods, just as Homer imagined. We wondered that as we read this interview at Salon over the weekend. Tomorrow, we’ll look at Rosen’s account of the press corps’ recent problems (for partial text, see below). Our questions: Has the professor been on this planet for the past twenty years? How is it possible that accounts like this persist after all these years?

For those who would read ahead: What follows is the heart of the professor’s analysis. We’ll discuss this passage tomorrow. But go ahead. Just try to explain this:

ROSEN (6/19/09): Well, to answer that, Glenn, I have to go back to your question you said you were going ask, how do I interpret these events? And here is the explanation that occurs to me after three or four years of blogging about this general subject, and well over 20 posts written about the larger story here, which is, What happened to the press under Bush? The way I view it now, it comes down to this: The entire contraption of professional, elite-level political journalism, and especially White House reporting, which is an entire system bringing together the political players, the journalists, the media system and the audiences, was not built for, and didn't anticipate, and did not know how to cope with what happened when an outlier occupied the White House.

And when Bush came to power, this is essentially the situation our press faced, because Bush in his agenda for the expansion of executive power, in what I call the opacity agenda that followed from that, which is while you're expanding executive power, you're pulling a curtain over the government in as many ways as you can, and by increasing opacity, that itself is an expansion of executive power. As well as the roll back of the press itself, to a greater distance so that it can't see as well as the triumph over Congressional oversight. The radical agenda that Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson talks about as a former aide to Colin Powell. That whole thing presented an outlier to the Washington press, and it needed, in order to respond to something that big and that dramatic of a departure from White House press relations, imaginative moves of its own.

And essentially what happened, Glenn, is that the White House press, the Washington press, and The Washington Post staff, never came up with that response.

To us, that analysis comes straight outta Neptune. We regard it as simply astonishing. If society’s bosses wanted to invent a critique of the press “from the left,” this is the critique they would script. Needless to say, they wouldn’t forget to praise the good intentions of the noble Colonel Wilkerson.

More tomorrow. For today, a simple question: Can this be for real?