Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 18, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

By David K. Shipler 

            The phone at Ed Walsh’s Jerusalem home rang during a small dinner party one evening in the early 1980s. He was the Washington Post’s bureau chief, but the call was for me. In those pre-cell phone days, I made it a practice to let the New York Times Foreign Desk know where I’d be and how to reach me.
            Ed said I could take it in his office, which was near enough to the dining room that the guests could hear my end of the conversation. An editor in New York wanted me to expand on a short piece I’d done on a small and insignificant event. They were considering it for the front page.
            No, I said, please don’t. It will send readers the wrong message. It will inflate the importance of a minor incident. I no longer remember exactly what it was: perhaps a cabinet minister threatening to resign from the governing coalition, which always got New York excited although it was the Israelis’ routine method of conducting politics. Or, it might have been the time when a couple of Palestinian would-be terrorists crossed the well-patrolled border from Jordan into the West Bank, prompting a manhunt by the Israeli army, which caught them before they launched an attack. In any case, it needed to be reported but certainly didn’t rise to the level of major news, and I managed to talk the editor down from the height of what would have been embarrassing hype.
            I returned to the table to see quizzical looks from a couple who were not journalists. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was for Ed, and we could hear him in the same conversation, working to dissuade his editor in Washington from overplaying the story. When he came back, one of the non-journalists laughed in amazement: I thought you guys were always pushing to get ONTO page one, and here you were trying to stay OFF!
            Ed and I had violated the stereotypes of the hard-bitten newsroom in The Front Page, and we joked about that evening for years afterwards. I guess we tried to explain to the bemused guests that it was not the first time that Washington and New York had exaggerated the gravity of developments in Israel, that we thought our responsibility as correspondents included perspective and sober judgment. Ed must have given his crooked smile and a twinkle of irreverence for those in power, as he did wherever he encountered them--whether among politicians or editors.
Ed died on Valentine’s Day. I find myself wondering if his breed of reporter is dying too. The pressures in this age of cable and Internet and gotcha journalism work against the lower key. They promote self-promotion. They induce hype. And they distort reality as a result.
Ed and I were far from perfect, and we certainly didn’t always try to argue our stories off page one. But we were good friends even as competitors. For my part—besides the fact that he was a great guy and wonderful company—it was because I could always trust his reporting as solid, accurate, and level-headed. He was never a scoop artist, never one to dig out a small fact and blow it up enough to get it onto the front page. Such people existed, on my own paper as well as his. But when Ed got a story that I didn’t have, I knew that I should have had it, too.
I think his editors mostly listened to him, as mine mostly did to me. They were not constantly bombarded back then by screeching headlines from the video monitors that now surround them, so they probably took their cues more seriously from their own people in the field. They were not in a race against insolvency brought on by the wild upheavals in technology. Usually—not always, but usually—they were able to tamp down the hysteria that now grips the 24-hour news cycle, which propels “journalists” to say things, especially on the air, before they have had a chance to check what actually happened, as if under the motto: Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
Sorry to sound like an old curmudgeon, but most Americans do not get their information from the respectable Post and Times, NPR, and other organizations that have retained their basic standards of thoroughness and fairness. Those islands of solid reporting, while somewhat influential, look more and more like refuges of honest accuracy in a stormy sea.
This is not inevitable, and there are serious journalists creating online outlets to counteract the trend. To them I will tell this final story about Ed Walsh.
The Christmas letter that he and his wife, Michelle, sent two years ago revealed the news of his cancer, but not until the last paragraph. The letter began with joyous tales of family, and only at the conclusion did he write about the tumors. Now, I thought, this was taking the effort to keep stories off the front page much too far, and I teased him about burying the lede. He replied that he always liked to end a piece with a kicker.
So here’s a kicker (courtesy of Dylan Thomas) in the name of Edward Walsh, for all those reporters and editors on whom this democracy depends to fight to uphold his high standards:
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

January 9, 2014

On Obama: The Virtue of Doubt

By David K. Shipler

            President Obama deserves praise, not criticism, for the views on Afghanistan attributed to him in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s memoir. In the book’s most quoted lines, Gates writes of a meeting in March 2011, “As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Gates doesn’t mean this as a compliment, but if it’s accurate, then two cheers for Obama. It’s just too bad his actions didn’t coincide with his doubts—a familiar pattern.
Let’s take Gates’s observations one at a time:
Obama was obviously right to distrust his commander, David Petraeus, who was felled the following year as CIA director by an extra-marital affair, and whose counterinsurgency brilliance was always overstated. Petraeus was a charming man of poor judgment.
Obama was justified about Karzai, who has proved to be a puppet without strings—a self-absorbed enabler of corruption who cannot govern his country or practice sensible diplomacy with his chief benefactor.
Obama was correct in not believing in “his own strategy” of beefing up troops in Afghanistan, articulated during his 2008 campaign.

December 30, 2013

The Thirteen Lessons of 2013

By David K. Shipler

            1. Every solution creates at least one new problem. (Obamacare.)

            2. The natural alternative to autocracy is more autocracy, not democracy. (Egypt.)

            3. The initial result of revolution is anarchy. (Syria, Libya.)

4. Radical ideas can survive the ballot box. (Tea Party.)

5. The threat of compromise is less satisfying than the threat of warfare. (Iran, Israel.)

6. Racism is animated, not eliminated, by electing a black president. (Obama.)

November 21, 2013

The Immortality of Presidents

By David K. Shipler

            History is supposed to have an unerring eye for ultimate accuracy. From the distance of time, historians are expected to act as the final judges, to cut ruthlessly through to the truth. It is fitting to reflect on this now, during a week of renewed mourning for President John F. Kennedy, who was felled in Dallas by an assassin half a century ago.
He and Jackie were dazzling. They tapped Americans’ vestigial yearning for royalty, the excitement of stylish celebrity, and the deep need for optimistic commitment to high purpose. Yet as popular as Kennedy was—his Gallup approval rating averaged 70.1 percent—he was never so widely admired as he became after his death. Indeed, Gallup’s graph of his rating shows a gradual, yearlong downward slope to 58 percent the week before he was killed—still higher than President Obama has enjoyed since the first six months of taking office, but a significant decline nonetheless. It followed a sharp bump up 13 months earlier after JFK faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis. (Presidents’ percentages typically rise after a national security crisis, as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s did after Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush’s following 9/11.)
One is tempted to wonder what course the line on that graph would have taken had JFK lived and had been able to win a second term.

November 1, 2013

Food Stamps: The Chain Reaction

By David K. Shipler

            Let’s give the Republicans in Congress the benefit of the doubt. (Yes, I hear the groans, boos, and catcalls.) But let’s be charitable for a moment and assume that they had no idea, when they allowed severe cuts in food stamps to take effect today, that they were damaging the brain development, lifelong cognitive capacity, and therefore the future earning power of untold numbers of American children. If they had known, surely the legislators would not have done what they did.
            That may sound like an overstatement until you look at the science or, more broadly, the interaction between economics and biology.
            The chain reaction between early malnutrition and various intellectual and behavioral deficits has been well established by neuroscience. Extensive documentation, in readable form, can be found in a thick digest of studies published in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences, with the provocative title From Neurons to Neighborhoods. The research has been updated since in scholarly papers and conferences.
            Inadequate iron and other nutrients during the critical periods of brain development—especially the second and third trimesters of pregnancy and the first two years after birth—damages the complex, overlapping processes of growth.

October 14, 2013

Why is the United States Too Big to Fail?

By David K. Shipler

It’s not our fault. We can’t help it that others are less worthy, with flawed values, weak currencies, lame economies, oppressive politics, and anemic militaries. We Americans can hardly be held responsible for being “exceptional,” a relative term, after all. It’s no badge of honor to be exceptional in such a world, I’ll tell you.
If you want to blame us, blame us for being too good. Blame us for being the land of opportunity and justice and unbridled freedom, for being a frontier on which the humblest masses can carve prosperous futures. Blame us for doing battle for human rights and personal dignity around the globe. Blame us for thinking up solutions and then putting them into action. Blame us for winning all those Nobel Prizes every year.
And if you believe all that—if you see our Nobel brilliance and don’t recognize our political ignorance—it's not our fault. It’s the fault of those who imagine an America too beautiful to exist. It’s the fault of those who think—or who once thought—that everything that we have said about ourselves is true. It’s the fault of those around the world who desperately yearn for us to be a perfect beacon, and who feel lost and frightened when the light dims and flickers. People hate us when we fail to be what they want us to be. They need heroes.

September 30, 2013

The Navy Yard and the NSA

By David K. Shipler

            With Congress locked in an ideological impasse, the U.S. government may look weak and bumbling, but it has never been more powerful in collecting personal information about Americans and foreigners—the guilty and the innocent alike. So how was it that the Navy knew less about Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis than the press was able to learn in a few hours? How come Alexis kept his Secret clearance despite police reports that he twice fired a gun, claimed to be hearing voices, and thought his brain was being manipulated by extra-low frequency radiation?
How did the Boston Marathon attackers escape detection, when one of them had been called to the FBI’s attention? And the would-be Christmas Day “underwear” bomber after his father warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria? And—given the global reach of the National Security Agency—the al-Shabab squad in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall? The answers are specific to each case, but among them is this: A dozen years after the 9/11 attacks, the government has still not learned the central lesson of that failure, which is not about amassing information but, rather, how to connect the dots among disparate points of data that have been filtered and focused. The lesson has remained unlearned partly because the indiscriminate collection accumulates unprocessed information so rapidly in such volume as to be practically useless.

August 27, 2013

Marching on Washington

By David K. Shipler

            We were the only whites on the bus, my mother and I. And when a matronly woman came down the aisle taking names and addresses to be sure she had a complete roster, we gave her ours and received a surprised, joyous reaction.
            We came from the next town over, Chatham, N.J., known as an all-white community whose real estate agents and homeowners were only just beginning to come under pressure to allow blacks to buy and rent property. There was no covenant, but anti-discrimination housing laws had not yet been passed, and excluding minorities was a legal practice in towns and neighborhoods across the land. My middle-class commuter town had a reputation as a white spot alongside its racially diverse neighbor, Madison, where we had boarded the bus for the March on Washington.
            So when we said, “Chatham,” the astonished attendance-taker beamed and chirped, “Well, welcome, Chatham!” Other passengers turned and gave us the biggest smiles I’ve ever gotten on a bus to anywhere.

July 16, 2013

Absolutists and Democracy in Egypt and America

By David K. Shipler

            It is time to draw a new political spectrum, one that doesn’t go from liberal to conservative. A useful alternative is to put Absolutists at one end and Opportunists at the other. In both Egypt and the United States, we are seeing struggles between these extremes, while people in the middle—principled yet open to conciliation—find themselves on eroding ground.
It is distasteful to compare Egypt with the United States. We Americans are accustomed to watching with patronizing dismay as emerging democracies falter, pick themselves up, stumble forward, or slide backward into some variation of the authoritarian system they have just thrown off. We think we have something to teach them, and we do. But they have something to teach us, too, often in the form of a cautionary tale.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated elections, made the classic error of newly minted leaderships: It thought that winning the vote meant that they could ignore those who voted against them and could govern without compromise, without regard to minority rights or interests. The Brotherhood adopted a constitution rigged against the secular, displayed tolerance for intolerance toward the Coptic Christian minority, marginalized the political opposition, and indulged in xenophobic prosecutions of foreign non-profits that were trying to help Egyptians construct a pluralistic democracy—yes, trying to promote democratic institutions!
 In short, the Absolutists held sway—for a time. Absolutists are like marbles thrown into the gears of democracy. They halt and damage the mechanisms of political pluralism. They rob from governing all that is supple and fluid. The state becomes brittle. It’s worth remembering that what is brittle tends to break.
The United States has its Absolutists, of course. Mostly they’ve been at the edges of politics, relegated to insignificance at both ends of the traditional spectrum. But now, from the right, they come to Congress from districts drawn to make sure that no Republican primary will nominate anyone suspected of moderation. And once in Washington, they have shown as much iron determination, as much unyielding devotion to principle, as the Muslim Brothers have in Cairo.
Such invidious comparisons are unattractive, unfair, and overdrawn—I know. But only because the United States has what Egypt does not: a tempered democracy, a seasoned political culture and a superstructure of institutions to balance and check and impose measured judgments. In among these hard pillars of democratic tradition flow the soft values of negotiation, compromise, and regard for the common good—or so it has been until recent years.
Absolutists have been dominating Congress. As the majority in the House, and as the minority in the Senate, Absolutist Republicans have slowed and halted the workings of government.
They have exercised their prerogatives in the Senate, through the filibuster, to obstruct a wide swath of President Obama’s perfectly qualified nominees to key agencies. And why? Because these nominees are corrupt? Incompetent? No. Because the agencies they lead would follow policies that don’t suit the extreme right. So obstreperous have Absolutist Republicans become that Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has been driven toward the heretical option of limiting filibusters. 
In the House, Absolutist Republicans pass measures they know cannot be enacted—repealing Obamacare, separating food stamps from farm assistance—and yet refuse to consider compromises worked out carefully across the aisle: immigration reform, for example, as passed by the Senate. Nothing is negotiable to the Absolutists,  despite pleas some of their Republican brothers and sisters that the party will fail to win Hispanic voters without conciliatory change on immigration, as bill passed by the Senate.
A New York Times editorial the other day summed it up nicely: “These actions show how far the House has retreated from the national mainstream into a cave of indifference and ignorance.” Substitute “the Muslim Brotherhood” for “the House” and you’d have had a good analysis of Egypt.
The Republicans look as if they are still fighting the last election, still opposing everything that Obama proposes because Obama proposes it. Let’s hope the President doesn’t declare that the sun will rise tomorrow.
 Of course both Absolutists and Opportunists come in many forms. Absolutists may be political, religious, moral, or simply selfish. Opportunists may be gutless, amoral, or simply selfish. There are Absolutists and Opportunists on both the left and the right of the traditional political spectrum.
And then there are the negotiators, the conciliators, the people who respect others’ views, who listen well, and who try to find compromises that will work for most of the country most of the time. Most Democrats at the moment tend to fit this profile, because their constituencies are diverse. Obama, too, has tried to hold this center space between the Absolutists and the Opportunists—sometimes to the great disappointment and anger of his supporters who want more principle and more backbone.
It’s a delicate dance. It would be good to believe that most voters in both the United States and Egypt prefer that middle part of the spectrum where constructive governing can be accomplished. That cannot be done in the streets.

June 26, 2013

Frozen Scandals and the Myth of Self-Correction

By David K. Shipler

            Perhaps it’s premature to say, but it seems likely that Edward Snowden’s enormous sacrifice will be in vain. In the pattern of recent leakers and whistle-blowers before him, his damaged life will have no compensation in the form of revised policy. Nothing will change. So it has been with the likes of Thomas Tamm, Thomas Drake, and others who didn’t go to jail as Army private Bradley Manning will, but suffered the destruction of their careers for the sake of informing an American public that basically didn’t care about the wrongdoing they exposed.
This is the phenomenon of the “frozen scandal,” as Mark Danner described it brilliantly in 2008, in The New York Review of Books:
“We remember, many of us, a different time. However cynically we look to our political past, it is there that we find our political Eden: Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president. In retrospect those events unfold with the clear logic of utopian dream. First, revelation: intrepid journalists exposing the gaudy, interlocking crimes of the Nixon administration. Then, investigation: not just by the press—for that was but precursor, the necessary condition—but by Congress and the courts. Investigation, that is, by the polity, working through its institutions to construct a story of grim truth that citizens can in common accept. And finally expiation: the handing down of sentences, the politicians in shackles led off to jail, the orgy of public repentance. The exorcism of shame, the purging of the political system, and the return to a state, however imperfect, of societal grace.