full court press

Winners & Sinners

Kaiser on Michelle Cottle, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jim Sleeper, and others
November 25, 2008

Sinner: Michelle Cottle, for wasting the first 2,515 words of a 3,253-word piece about Barney Frank in The New Republic with overheated prose describing the Democratic congressman’s bad grooming, brusque demeanor, and involvement in a nineteen-year-old sex scandal—before finally discovering her lead: the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is

recognized by Republicans and Democrats alike as brilliant–for years, he has been voted the brainiest House member in surveys of Hill staffers–he is said to have an impressive grasp of both the policy and political implications of any given bill, with a particular gift for reduction…Colleagues past and present stress that, for all his partisan showmanship, Frank is fair-minded and practical. People point to his committee as the most prolific on the Hill last year, with the chairman shepherding through numerous bills on solidly bipartisan votes–a vastly more exhausting venture than rabble-rousing from the back benches.

Next time, give a lot less space to your subject’s shirttails, and a whole lot more to his cognitive functions. That way it won’t take the reader so long to realize that you’re actually profiling a national treasure.

Winner: The sublime Rick Hertzberg, for another superbly sophisticated “Comment” in the New Yorker, about Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative which outlawed marriage equality. His opening paragraph is worth the price of the magazine:

You might think that an organization that for most of the first of its not yet two centuries of existence was the world’s most notorious proponent of startlingly unconventional forms of wedded bliss would be a little reticent about issuing orders to the rest of humanity specifying exactly who should be legally entitled to marry whom. But no. The Mormon Church—as anyone can attest who has ever answered the doorbell to find a pair of polite, persistent, adolescent “elders” standing on the stoop, tracts in hand—does not count reticence among the cardinal virtues. Nor does its own history of matrimonial excess bring a blush to its cheek. The original Latter-day Saint, Joseph Smith, acquired at least twenty-eight and perhaps sixty wives, some of them in their early teens, before he was lynched, in 1844, at age thirty-eight. Brigham Young, Smith’s immediate successor, was a bridegroom twenty times over, and his successors, along with much of the male Mormon élite, kept up the mass marrying until the nineteen-thirties—decades after the Church had officially disavowed polygamy, the price of Utah’s admission to the Union, in 1896. As Richard and Joan Ostling write in “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” (2007), “Smith and his successors in Utah managed American history’s only wide-scale experiment in multiple wives, boldly challenging the nation’s entrenched family structure and the morality of Western Judeo-Christian culture.

Winner: Jim Sleeper, for delineating the exquisite love/hate relationship David Brooks enjoys with products of the Ivy League. Like his conservative confrere Andrew Sullivan, Brooks has a nearly unlimited capacity to come down firmly on all sides of every issue, as long as at least four years have intervened between columns. (See the invasion of Iraq and the perils of unsafe sex as two of dozens of examples of Sullivan’s flexibility.) At the dawn of the current administration, Brooks enthused:

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The skills [George Bush] acquired in the Texas oil business are suited for a world in which success and failure are measured by tangible accomplishments, like oil production levels and after-tax profits,’ so unlike Ivy League presumptions ‘suited to a world in which the definition of success is totally unrelated to tangible accomplishment of any kind.

Now, as an all-Ivy president-elect fills his cabinet with other Ivy Leaguers, Brooks is suddenly “tremendously impressed…..” This time, they “are twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them, three times if you include the columnists…open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence…..are admired professionals,….. hardheaded and pragmatic.”

Winner: The New Republic, for what turned out to be two of the most prescient and intelligent pieces of the entire campaign. Way back on May 28th, John B. Judis predicted that most voters would recoil from overtly racist appeals; he also identified the white women who were Hillary’s bedrock supporters as among the least racist voters: therefore “Obama should be able to inherit them.” And he did.

In July, Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco gave an almost unparalleled insight into Obama’s mind with a brilliant literary review of the candidate’s two books: “This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods.”

Winner: Josh Getlin, for his fond remembrance in the Los Angeles Times of George Moscone,
the visionary San Francisco mayor who is the mostly forgotten half of the tragic double assassination that claimed his and Harvey Milk‘s lives exactly thirty years ago.

Sinner: New York Times TV reporter Jacques Steinberg, who begins his piece about 60 Minutes baffled by the runaway ratings success of “a news program that reports regularly from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” and “devotes nearly 20 minutes to an arcane underpinning of the financial crisis known as credit-default swaps.” (Actually, that piece about the economic meltdown was a masterful example of how to make an intricate subject understandable to everyone.)

Eventually Steinberg does manage to acknowledge that the “biggest factor in the increased popularity of “60 Minutes” this fall may be that it has redoubled its efforts to provide a deep, substantive exploration of the most pressing news of the moment.” But then he goes on to display an almost pristine ignorance of all of the show’s greatest hits–including Steve Kroft‘s fabulous interview with Obama braintrusters David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, and Anita Dunn, recorded hours after the candidate claimed victory in Grant Park–and broadcast just two weeks ago.

For the record, here are some other reasons the show has soared in the last twelve months:

Lara Logan‘s balls-of-steel interview with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf immediately after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Bob Simon‘s shining profile of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the most electric personality to light up the classical music scene since Leonard Bernstein.

Scott Pelley‘s devastating piece (produced by Henry Schuster) about Remote Area Medical, a group of volunteer doctors and nurses that was formed to provide free health care in the Amazon and the rest of the developing world—and now finds the largest need for its services in the United States of America.

– Steve Kroft’s evisceration of one of the Iraq war’s architects, former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith. Great moments included Feith’s inability to remember key points in his own book—the one he was on air to promote.

– Scott Pelley’s wrenching portrait of German citizen Murat Kurnaz, an innocent victim of American “extreme rendition,” and another great piece by Pelley (produced by Shawn Efran)—a
of Kirk Johnson, a young American who has stepped into the breach left by the Bush administration to secure visas for hundreds of former Iraqi employees of the United States left stranded by our government in Baghdad.

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.