Winners & Sinners

Kaiser on Daschle, Newsweek, Philip Bennett, and more

Winners: Barack Obama, and the American people, for not getting Tom Daschle as their new Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Like many advocates of national health insurance, FCP was initially enthusiastic about Tom Daschle’s appointment as HHS secretary, and as director of a new White House Office of Health Reform. If the main reason national health care reform failed in 1993 was the inexperience of Hillary Clinton in the ways of Washington, wouldn’t a former Senate Majority Leader be the perfect person to shepherd it through Congress in 2009? But news of Daschle’s failure to pay taxes on the free car and driver with which he had been provided provoked a flood of other disturbing disclosures.

In the gentle words of the New York Times editorial which appeared the day that Daschle withdrew himself from consideration:

Mr. Daschle’s financial ties to major players in the health care industry may prove to be even more troublesome as health reform efforts proceed. Like many former power players in Washington, Mr. Daschle cashed in on his political savvy and influence to earn $5 million in recent years, including more than $2 million from Alston & Bird, a law and lobbying firm; more than $2 million from the private equity firm, InterMedia Advisors, which provided the car and driver; and hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches to interest groups, including those representing health insurance plans, medical equipment distributors and pharmacy boards.

And in the never gentle words of Glenn Greenwald:

Daschle’s expertise and insights, gleaned over 26 years in Congress, earned him more than $5 million over the past two years, including $220,000 from the health-care industry, and perks such as a chauffeured Cadillac, according to the documents.

Other than his ability to know how to swing doors wide open in Congress, what “expertise and insights” worth that level of compensation does Tom Daschle have? It’s pure legalized influenced peddling, and — upon being booted out of the Congress — he ran right to it as quickly as he could and engorged himself at the trough as hungrily as possible. In doing so, he followed perfectly in the footsteps of his second wife, Linda, who served as the Clinton administration’s Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and then, once she left her position running the agency that regulates the airlines industry, returned to her extremely lucrative lobbying practice with her largest clients being American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Boeing, Lockheed and various airports and airport executive associations — the very companies that she had been regulating. …There’s no need to withhold judgment on Daschle himself. He embodies everything that is sleazy, sickly, and soul-less about Washington. It’s probably impossible for Obama to fill his cabinet with individuals entirely free of Beltway filth — it’s extremely rare to get anywhere near that system without being infected by it — but Daschle oozes Beltway slime from every pore.

FCP doesn’t know whether the words of the Times or Greenwald had any effect on Daschle or Obama. If they did, at least in this instance, the press is actually helping to make the system work again.

Sinner: Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for opposing the prosecution of any Americans responsible for torture, and repeating the favorite tale of torture apologists, about Philippine agents who supposedly got “Abdul Hakim Murad to reveal a plot to blow up 11 American airlines over the Pacific” after being “beaten nearly to death”—although, even in this story, it was not the torture which supposedly got Murad to talk, but the threat of being turned over to Israel’s Mossad. Then Cohen says “the conventional wisdom that torture never works” is “so counterintuitive as to be an absurdity.”

Beyond the fact that torture is illegal, immoral, and inhuman (which Cohen naturally glosses over), whether torture has ever worked is an idiotic question. The intelligent question is, What works best most of the time? And about that there is no doubt at all: non-coercive interrogation is invariably more effective than torture at eliciting genuine, actionable intelligence. This is what more than forty retired generals and admirals have been arguing for years—including all the ones standing behind President Obama when he signed the executive order outlawing American torture in the first week of his administration.

Winners: Newsweek’s John Barry, Evan Thomas, Ron Moreau, and Sami Yousafzai for a superb cover story detailing all the ways that Afghanistan resembles Vietnam, and all the reasons why Obama needs to quickly grasp the lessons from that comparison.

Sinner: Fareed Zakaria, for another piece in the same issue, in which he manages to sound like every journalist who, thirty-five years ago, argued that just a little more intelligent effort could guarantee American success in Vietnam. Except that Zakaria was writing about Afghanistan.

Winner: Steve Weissman, for an even pithier summary of why our involvement in Afghanistan is doomed to failure.

Winner: Philip Bennett, who resigned at the end of last year as managing editor of The Washington Post after winning the hearts and minds of most of those who worked for him. Journalists often reserve their most evocative words for beloved colleagues. Here is how Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid remembered Bennett, in a tribute that was read aloud at the editor’s farewell gathering:

I first met Phil in November 2002. I’ll remember that date because it’s when I became a journalist. I had written plenty of stories. You do that spending 10 years as a reporter at the Associated Press. But only at that lunch with Phil did I understand what we can do as journalists. For an hour, I sat there, wide-eyed, shaking my head, as he seemed to reach inside my mind and pull out every ambition, hope and frustration I ever had. For the first time in my career, maybe my life, I was inspired.

“You’ve done everything you can do where you’ve been,” he told me as he asked for the check. “Now it’s time to become something more.”
I joined the Post because of its editors, and in Phil, I got the best there is.

In Baghdad, a few days into the invasion, he noticed the texture of the street conversations at the bottom of the story. To me, it was throwaway color. To him, it might be the essence of the invasion. In a story that was burdened by clichés, here was ambiguity and ambivalence. That might be your theme, he told me.

On one story, a long sketch about a family burying a young boy, he did something that no editor had done before and none has since. He cut the nut graf. He just cut it. There was a lyricism to the gesture, a move that was subtle and grand.

And as Rajiv and I tried to make sense of the chaos around us, we turned time and again to Phil. Let the reporting tell the story, he said to us. Lose our preconceptions. Get rid of the ideas we brought. Understand the story. That was our job. Phil never told me what he thought. He never insisted what the story should be. He never suggested there was an answer out there. Report the story, and in the end, we’ll have done right by ourselves and by the people and conflicts we cover.

He never flinched, not once, in letting us do that.

In writing this, I’m overwhelmed by how many lessons I’ve learned the past six years. I feel like everything I believe as a journalist has come from Phil. Through him, I learned to speak truth to power. I learned to fear assumptions and the chauvinism and bias they bring. I learned to embrace the gray in stories that are always too black and white. Perhaps most important, I learned to be quiet. It was another lunch, a few months into the war, and Phil scolded me for stories that had too much drama. There was too much shouting, too much gunfire. They were too loud, he said, and I realized then that quiet journalism is often the best.

When that year ended, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the attention. I felt undeserving, a little unworthy. Phil took me to the side. He seemed to sense what was on my mind. It’s not about you, I remember him telling me, it’s about your work, and the work can stand on its own. On that day, he had become a friend.

The work that I and other foreign correspondents do is going extinct. Sitting in southern Iraq tonight, trying to make sense of another story, I realize that. The same could probably be said about American journalism, at least as we’ve understood it. And at perhaps its most critical time – when we have to rethink it and reimagine it – we have to face the fact that we’ve lost its most courageous, brilliant voice. Journalism feels a little untethered to me, and the Post feels a lonelier place.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.