full court press

Winners & Sinners

Kaiser on Jon Stewart, Nathaniel Frank, David Gates and more
March 13, 2009

The Biggest Winner: Let’s be clear: Jon Stewart is the best interviewer on television, because he is the toughest, the smartest, and the best informed in the business.

That is the real lesson of his week-long assault on CNBC, Rick Santelli, and Jim Cramer, which culminated in last night’s extraordinary evisceration of the Mad Money man.

Sinner Dan Mitchell was completely mistaken when, in Slate, he called Stewart a “satirist” instead of a journalist”—and described his initial attack on CNBC as “not inaccurate” but “completely unfair.”

What makes Stewart so important is that he does all the things that most of Washington’s best paid journalists have forgotten how to do: he educates himself deeply about the issues, he is always skeptical of official sources (the more “important” they are, the more skeptical he becomes), and he never hesitates to identify a lie as a lie. These are nothing more than fundamentals of Journalism 101, but most of the reporters immersed in the culture of Washington have forgotten them.

The truth is, The Daily Show has focused on more of the most important facts about American torture, the war in Iraq, and financial “reporting” than any other American media outlet. And that is a very sad truth indeed for American journalism.

Winners Brian Lowry in Variety, Steve Benen in The Washington Monthly, and, especially, Glenn Greenwald in Salon, understand this. Sinners like Alessandra Stanley, who chose to focus on how the Stewart controversy may help Cramer’s ratings, didn’t have a clue about what really mattered here.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The bottom line: every sentient viewer of The Daily Show now understands that CNBC is the opposite of a “news” organization. Instead of devoting its resources to the unraveling of financial scandals, its “stars.” like Cramer and Santelli, have acted as shills for the most disgraceful shell game in Wall Street’s tawdry history.

Winner: Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire. This new book from the academic who first broke the story about the gay Arabic translators who were thrown out of the military is the best thing ever written about Bill Clinton’s disastrous policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Not only does Frank get many of the people responsible for this policy to admit that it was based on prejudice, instead of data; he also proves that by banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces, the United States has seriously damaged its own security. Watch him here with Jon Stewart last Monday:

Winners: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the American people. The best news out of Washington is a story you probably haven’t seen, unless you spotted it on Bloomberg News (which broke it here, or noticed the one-sentence pick up of it in Al Kamen’s column in The Washington Post: Hillary Clinton plans to nominate Mike Posner as the new Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights.

To anyone who is still nervous about the Obama’s administration’s commitment to ending American torture, or Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to criticize the Chinese for their abuses of human rights, this is the most exciting news since the new president took office.

Posner has devoted his entire working life to the improvement of the lives of others. As a founder and current president of Human Rights First (formerly The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), Posner has done as much as anyone over the last three decades to fight for the principles of basic human decency everywhere.

From the moment the Bush administration embraced waterboarding and other forms of torture, Posner has worked continuously to end these practices. Some of his greatest contributions have been the encouragement and support he gave to a group of fifty retired flag officers of the Army and the Navy who have bombarded Congress with arguments to outlaw American torture. Posner even organized meetings with the producers of the TV show 24, to help them understand how their program was encouraging young American military men and women everywhere to believe that torture was both acceptable and effective. His chapter in Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism (a new book coming soon from CQ Press) provides the definitive arguments for why torture is both immoral and completely counter-productive.

Clinton’s choice of Posner means that one of our smartest and most articulate advocates will have the ear of the new administration’s top policy makers. And that is great news for everyone.

Winner: David Gates, for producing the most literate and erudite takedown of Jonathan Littell’s strange, 975-page novel , The Kindly Ones, which is the most unlikely sensation in France since Jerry Lewis. The book’s narrator is an SS functionary for whom incest, matricide, and sadomasochism are among his more mundane obsessions.

The book won two of France’s most important literary prizes, but Gates make it abundantly clear why “it’s hard to trust that the author knows what he’s doing”—and calls the book “less a moral challenge than a sheer test of endurance.”

Sinners: All of the Washington economic reporters who missed the news in last week’s piece on 60 Minutes, narrated by Scott Pelley and produced by Henry Schuster. The story was about what happens when the FDIC takes over a bank that fails, but this was the news in it: Sheila Bair, the chair of the FDIC, and the only sensible financial official from the Bush administration, said Congress should start thinking about limiting the size of American banks. Here is the relevant exchange:

‘”And going forward, I think we need to really review the size of these institutions and whether we should do something about that, frankly,’ said Bair. Bair surprised Pelley when she suggested that maybe the mega banks, those bailed out by taxpayers, shouldn’t be allowed to exist in the future. ‘I think that may be something that Congress needs to think about,’ she said.

“‘Actually limit how big a bank can be?’ Pelley asked.

‘”Yeah. Well, you know, I think taxpayers rightfully should ask that if an institution has become so large that there is no alternative except for the taxpayers to provide support, should we allow so many institutions to exceed that kind of threshold,’ she explained.

‘”The idea would be that no bank would grow so large that it posed a systemic risk to the economy,’ Pelley said.

‘”Systemic risk, that’s right,’ Bair agreed.”

Winners: Lesley Stahl and Shari Finkelstein. The unreliability of eyewitness testimony is the oldest story in the criminal justice world, but CBS’s Stahl and producer Finkelstein still managed to make it new and dramatic with a double-length 60 Minutes segment about Ronald Cotton, who was wrongly accused of rape and spent eleven years in prison after Jennifer Thompson misidentified him as her attacker. After Cotton was released, he forgave his accuser. Then the two of them became close friends and even co-authored a book together, called Picking Cotton. A heartbreaking tale of injustice and redemption.

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.