Katie and Diane, Bill Frist, and a Plea For a New Strategy Against Terror

In The New Yorker, Ken Auletta weighs in with a lengthy consideration of Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and television in the morning. (The piece isn’t online, but a related Q&A is here. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, skip to the biting final paragraph.) The key to scoring viewers just out of bed and trying to prepare for their days, he says, is — surprise! — likeability. “They all want to be regular folks, despite their multimillion-dollar paychecks,” writes Auletta, noting Matt Lauer jokes on air about losing his hair and Sawyer, an East Coast sophisticate, lapses into a folksy use of “y’all.” But it’s a tough balancing act: Couric explains that it’s okay for her to flirt with guest Hugh Jackman, but she can’t go so far as to compliment his butt. (Yeah, you read that right.) Lately, however, focus groups have ruled that the once-chirpy Couric has been coming off as too much of a diva, leaving an opening for “Good Morning America,” which has been taking away “Today” show viewers.

So what are the rules for morning network TV? They mostly flow from one simple fact: Seventy percent of the audience is female, so stories need to be developed with that in mind. They need to be “relatable” to women. “For example,” writes Auletta, “the most important job of ‘Today’s’ Al Roker is not to provide weather reports but to play a character — friendly, jokey — called Al Roker. The weather is beside the point.” And the anchors need to get a little sappy with their celebrity guests, even as they try to maintain their “news” bonafides — which explains why Lauer followed up his confrontational June exchange with Tom Cruise about psychiatry with this saccharine reassurance to Cruise regarding his upcoming marriage to Katie Holmes: “I’m happy you’re happy. I really am. It’s good to see you this way.”

In The Weekly Standard, meanwhile, Eric Cohen and William Kristol editorialize about Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s decision to support federal funding of new embryonic stem cell research. Writing that “Frist did the wrong thing at the wrong time,” they deem “the incoherence” of his position “staggering”:

In his Senate speech, he explained that the “embryo is a human life at its earliest stage of development.” He said that he believes, as a person of faith and a man of science, that “human life begins at conception.” He reminded us that “we were all once embryos.” He called on all citizens, including scientists, to treat human embryos with the “utmost dignity and respect.” It was a clear and elegant statement on the dignity of early human life, backed up by a doctor’s understanding of elementary embryology.

But then, as if giving a different speech, Frist called on the federal government to promote, with taxpayer dollars, the ongoing destruction of human embryos. In a television interview that day, he said that research using and destroying the “spares” can be done ethically so long as there is a “moral framework around informed consent.” But if embryos deserve respect as nascent human lives, as Frist says he believes, it should not matter whether researchers have permission from their parents to destroy them. If embryos are “human life at its earliest stage,” as Frist says he believes, then none of us possesses the authority to consent to their destruction. To promote embryo destruction and still claim to be “pro-life,” as Frist did throughout his speech, is absurd.

On another front, according to The New Republic’s J. Peter Scoblic, the fervent ideology of the Bush administration has left us vulnerable to nuclear terrorism. Despite the president’s rhetoric, he writes, “the notion that we should defend ourselves chiefly by spreading democracy seems less than reassuring on the heels of the July 7 attack. After all, the four bombers who struck London were British — residents of one of the world’s oldest and most stable democracies.” He compellingly argues that “near term, the war on terrorism — whatever else it is — should first be a war on nuclear terrorism.” Which is a problem, because “this is a war the Bush administration is spectacularly ill-equipped to fight, handicapped as it is by a worldview that revolves around our enemies’ intentions rather than their capabilities.”

Adds Scoblic:

Democratization is a strategy to change the behavior of our enemies by draining them of hatred. But we cannot fully erase hatred, and Bush’s “hope and compassion” are thin defenses against a nuclear weapon. A better tack would be to strip our enemies of the ability to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place — a difficult goal, but an achievable one, given that there is a finite amount of the fissile material needed to make nuclear weapons and that, by themselves, terrorists can’t produce more. Alas, the very ideology that has led Bush to embrace democratization has also mired him in a nonproliferation strategy that emphasizes regime change while eschewing diplomacy. The administration is consumed by the idea that the character of states is of primary importance to U.S. security. This ideology, this conservative fixation, explains why, for much of Bush’s presidency, his administration focused on Iraq to the exclusion of North Korea and Iran. It explains why Bush stood by while Pyongyang moved to produce enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear weapons. It even explains why he has acted so slowly in securing the hundreds of tons of vulnerable nuclear material in Russia. Indeed, an examination of the Bush administration’s ideology shows that, not only has it made some bad decisions for U.S. security, but that it is constitutionally incapable of making the right ones.

This is one of those pieces that crystallizes something that’s been floating around in the back of your mind without quite ever getting articulated. Read it and weep.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.