Increasingly Blurred Partisan Lines Offer Hope for Journalism in 2018

2017 has been a strange and disturbing year for the United States in so many far-reaching ways. Long, well-researched books will be written about this year’s impact (or lack thereof) on income inequality, government corruption, gender dynamics, the justice system, immigration, suffrage, healthcare, civil rights, the First Amendment, foreign policy, war and climate change. I’m hard pressed to think of a major issue facing humanity that hasn’t been stress tested to the point of breaking spirits, cultures, families, the economy and the nation in the seventeenth year of the 21st Century.

For liberal political journalists, it’s been especially hard to dissociate the self from the reporting. 2017 has been an unusually challenging year for investigating topics unemotionally. At least tangentially, we have a stake in the story by virtue of sharing space with other people affected by a policy, decision or revolution.  I don’t live in Puerto Rico, but I don’t need to in order to feel helpless anger over fellow Americans failed by every possible government system in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. People are still dying from the ripple effects of disease, water and power shortages, not to mention the callousness of a President who believes a paper towel tossing photo op is #MAGA – because brown people are takers.

As a writer/human hybrid, there have been many days and weeks this year when the power of the pen hasn’t felt forceful enough. That the exercise in information sharing that is journalism falls impotently short of the action needed to right a country that has popularly lurched toward heartlessness at the highest levels of government. Isolationist xenophobia, backs turned to war-torn refugees, a place where Nazis are labeled “very fine people,” black lives only matter when it comes to kneeling in protest and female reproductive health is a political bargaining chip for the dominant hierarchy of middle-aged white men. It’s easy to become disoriented and confused to the point of inertia. Should I be writing about this? Should I be in the streets? Am I supposed to be deliberating? Hand me another scotch in the meantime.

I do not pretend to be a moderate. Never have. I can’t be less than all the way when it comes to constructing government and social systems that support and offer opportunity equally. I do not believe we go it alone. Call me a socialist, a radical, an angry intersectional feminist or any of the more colorful epithets offered by my (typically male) Twitter trolls. When the leader of the country governs by pandering to the ignorant 35 percent, rather than representing all Americans, displaying the kind of divisive, threatening behavior and rhetoric well known to despots, I’m happy to be branded an enemy of the state. As lonely and frightening as it can be to sit outside the circle, the air is a lot less toxic.

All of this is to say that as the end of the year approaches, I and many other exhausted journalists in my acquaintance are still trying to find our footing. Just the facts has been replaced by fake news, many of the policy threats are deeply personal and after all, wallowing in the muck of the Trump era is spiritually exhausting. However the work continues in a bi-partisan way, and if there’s comfort to be found in the crusade, it’s the unexpected shared experience with an increasingly large number of conservative writers and pundits. If you’d told me just 18 months ago, that I’d find myself aligned with the thoughts of the New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan and Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center – in the same week! – I wouldn’t have believed it possible. But here we are:

“The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation…Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever.”

“The support being given by many Republicans and white evangelicals to President Trump and now to Mr. Moore have caused me to rethink my identification with both groups. Not because my attachment to conservatism and Christianity has weakened, but rather the opposite. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical — despite its rich history of proclaiming the ‘good news’ of Christ to a broken world — has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.”

“[Republicans], have faith. Not everything comes down to an immediate election that is this coming Thursday. Think long term, philosophically. Be true to your own political principles, but have some faith and don’t make decisions that are not ones that you’re really comfortable with.”

Suddenly it seems conservative to stand against cynicism, pedophilia, party before country and the corporate raiding of the American people. I and other liberals may disagree with these writers on “everyday” policies. But in 2017, normalcy has been supplanted by Constitutional crises and the end days of representative democracy. The journalistic blurring of party lines may offer small 2017 comfort. But as a writer, it gives me energy to take on 2018.

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Are Americans Wearing Down President Trump?

contemptor

“A series of strange events launched with the 45th President’s inauguration on Friday, January 20, 2017. The introduction of the country to Press Secretary Sean Spicer and “alternative facts,” protesting crowds at the Women’s Marches far exceeding attendance at the President’s own parade. And Chuck Todd remembered he was a journalist. Writer Egberto Willies and others have offered measured praise: “Recently Chuck Todd has been doing his job in reducing the spin by pointing out unadulterated facts when Republicans enter their lying mode.”

So anyway, Trump has been President for three weeks and I’m three for three with Meet the Press. These are strange times indeed. On today’s edition, the topic wasn’t explicitly discussed by the panel or guests. But with each installment of the suddenly reinvigorated program, Chuck Todd gets closer to verbalizing a question on the mind of many Washington talking heads. This week Politico published Trump Vexed by Challenges, Scale of Government. Writers Alex Isenstadt, Kenneth P. Vogel and Josh Dawsey report, “The new president’s allies say he has been surprised that government can’t be run like his business.”

Two thoughts and queries immediately present themselves.

  1. No shit, Sherlock.
  2. Is Trump going to give the nation the gift of resignation?”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Ignore Chuck Todd’s ‘Help:’ Six Journalists Lester Holt Should Emulate

meet-the-press-chuck-todd

“Though the seasoned journalist has long earned the public trust, there are two potential variables that leave me with some concern heading into tonight’s faceoff. The first is the debate prep “help” that Holt is receiving from Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. Though Meet the Press remains a Sunday morning Washington mainstay with high-profile guests and a rotating pundit panel, few are tuning in for Todd’s adroit interview skills. The guy has kid gloved Donald Trump in particular almost every step of the way. As Wonkette’s C.A. Pinkham wrote in February, “He is spectacularly bad at talking to humans, which is a problem when your entire job is talking to humans.”

Holt isn’t going to master the fine balance between equity and a quest for the truth by studying Todd. And Trump’s team has already taken great umbrage at the suggestion that fact checking should play a role in the debate. There’s a whole year and a half of established precedent – Trump running his mouth unchallenged by the media or moderators. As I’ve written angrily several times already, it’s key to his improbable campaign’s success.”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Ben Carson and the Alan Keyes Cautionary Tale

Ben Carson

In February of 2013, author and retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson gave President Barack Obama a piece of his mind on issues ranging from health care to political correctness, during the National Prayer Breakfast. And a Republican star was born. Earlier this month in a column entitled The Soft Bigotry of Ben Carson, New York Times Op-Ed writer Charles Blow offered this assessment of the confrontation:

“It’s not that others have not criticized the president before or since, but it was the particularity of the racial imagery of Carson’s critique — one smart, accomplished black man undressing another in public — that gave it particular power. It insulated the attack from racial characterization. He said things from the lips of a black conservative that roiled the minds of white ones. And it represented a prominent breaking of ranks, a slicing off of black solidarity from not only Democratic loyalty but also from fidelity with this president.”

The accomplished, soft-spoken Carson currently sits just five points below 2016 Republican front-runner Donald Trump in a recent release from Public Policy Polling. That is a sentence I’d never thought I’d write in my lifetime, but I digress. Carson may be a brilliant physician but as my sister Jennifer recently and astutely observed, he’s also “frankly, one of the smartest dumb dudes alive.”

In a 2016 Republican primary campaign depressingly rife with distortions, inflammatory hate speech and blatant cynicism, Carson has not been the voice of class and reason for which many undecideds hoped. No matter how accomplished his resume or soft his tenor, the good doctor has disqualified himself over and again for the nation’s highest office – even as “progressive” Republicans and conservative media pundits enjoy their latest mainstream alienating love affair.

I’m quite sure the party’s base would love him to go on talking. Because no matter how outrageous the right has grown in its free political ignorance, as Blow highlights, there are still things white candidates (Donald Trump notwithstanding) can’t allow themselves to say. Such as these gems from the Sunday, September 20 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press:

“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

“Congress is a different story, but it depends on who that Muslim is and what their policies are, just like it depends on what anybody else is. If there’s somebody who is of any faith but they say things and their life has been consistent with things that will elevate this nation and make it possible for everybody to succeed and bring peace and harmony, then I’m with them.”

To quote Bart Simpson, Ay caramba. This was not gotcha journalism (my thoughts on the investigative dereliction of Meet the Pressmoderator Chuck Todd will be happily shared another time). This is an unqualified, racist crackpot speaking with the authority and support (silent or otherwise) of his partymates, trying to convince the rest of us that he is wizened and thoughtful enough to lead a nation of disparate peoples.

23 percent of Muslim Americans identify as black. Most of the remainder are other persons of color. Carson is a person of color, therefore untouchable no matter how hurtful and discriminatory his statements. An ironic carte blanche. See Carson shoot up the polls.

The only qualification Ben Carson seems to possess as a legitimate politician is the ability to talk (or mumble) out of both sides of his mouth. He wants everyone to succeed, peace and harmony for all, but he also wants to exclude an entire group of citizens from the White House against explicit Constitutional decree. Because 9/11 y’all. MD and skin color aside, Carson’s neck is just as red as Mike Huckabee’s.

As a longtime Illinois resident, the Republican and mainstream media’s pathetically forced Carson/Obama symmetry brings to mind the 2004 Senate contest between the future president and political activist, author and former diplomat Alan Keyes. Keyes, an African-American, demonstrated to his party’s caucus that being educated and black was far from enough to counteract Obama’s stride to Washington. The Free Republic reported at the time:

“He’s alienated almost all of the Republican party operatives throughout the state, starting with his wild-eyed rhetoric about Barack Obama’s pro-abortion stance (the ‘slaveholders’ position, similar to a terrorist, etc) and his attack on Dick Cheney’s gay daughter (Keyes called Mary Cheney a ‘selfish hedonist’).”

One has to talk a lot of crazy to alienate the Cheney family. 11 years later, Keyes exists as a frightening, if somewhat humorous political footnote. I eagerly await Carson’s similar recession from the public consciousness.

Roger and Me (April 5, 2013)

Roger and Me

Not since the 2008 passing of former Meet the Press moderator, seasoned journalist and accomplished author Tim Russert has the death of a celebrity or public figure hit me this hard. I am referring of course, to the sad news of legendary film critic Roger Ebert’s expiration yesterday, following a long and public battle with various cancers. I spent most of last evening drinking wine and reading some of Ebert’s classic meditations on the afterlife and the collapse of Chicago’s once grand movie palaces through sorrowful tears. As was the case with Mr. Russert’s untimely demise, I felt bereft, quite as if a friend or family member I knew intimately had left a gaping wound that could only be treated by traveling backward and savoring the witty, intellectual memories.
During the course of this binge, I ran into an essay Ebert wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2010. Entitled “Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists,” it turns out that the man who rose to fame in part for his ability to determine quality via rank, actually had no taste for the task. But among many wonderful attributes the icon possessed, a sense of humor was decidedly one of them. So it is with a purposeful mix of gratitude, respect and good-natured ribbing that I present my parting gift to the man whose erudite musings on film, politics, pop culture and life in general will inspire my own work for as long as I am able to do it.
The Top 10 Things I Learned from Roger Ebert
1. Be a Lifelong Student
Did you know that Ebert was a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, studying English Literature, even while employed as a general reporter for the Sun-Times? I didn’t until yesterday and dammit, this little nugget only increased my respect. But beyond traditional academic learning, the critic was a pupil of the world. Long after he lost his audible voice, Ebert was still looking for information and answers to some of life’s greatest mysteries. Complacency and arrogance are boring and lead to mental stagnation. He understood this – a huge reason his work continued to connect across a career that spanned nearly half a century.
2. Writers May Enjoy Diverse, Satisfying Careers Without Moving To New York City or L.A.
Robert Ebert was born and raised in Urbana, IL, enjoyed most of his career highlights in the Windy City and literally put Chicago on the film criticism map. To this day, most aspiring writers are under the impression that a stint in the traditional publishing and Hollywood scriptwriting centers is the only way to be “seen.” Ebert did it his way and in process, collected a Pulitzer Prize, a hit syndicated television program and millions of enthusiastic readers. Following his example, I have cultivated a four-year freelance theater criticism career – over 700 miles away from Broadway.
3. Late Bloomers Rock
I didn’t get my first period until I was almost 15 years old, kept growing until I was 20, had my braces removed at age 31 and didn’t form a functional adult romantic relationship until I was 33. As odd as these delayed milestones sometimes made me feel, I was in good company. Because my hero Roger Ebert segued into the genre that made him famous only after trying and discarding several other journalism ventures. He also married the love of his life, wife Chaz, at the ripe old age of 50.
4. Collaborating with Rivals Can Be Inspiring
Ebert famously said that when he was originally asked to co-anchor the popular show that eventually became At the Movies with his contemporary, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, he had little inclination to team up with “the most hated guy in my life.” Imagine all we would have missed had Ebert not reconsidered. Taking a page from Abraham Lincoln’s formula for greatness, Ebert was self-aware and gracious enough to comprehend that butting heads with adversaries produces the need to consider and articulate one’s viewpoint in ways that surrounding oneself with sycophants cannot.
5. You Can Have Strong, Divisive Opinions and Still Be Universal
This claim would seem to be an oxymoron in the overly politicized and hyper partisan 21st century, but Ebert personified it. An avowed atheist and liberal as well as a stinging pundit gifted with a turn of phrase, the icon nonetheless engendered almost universal esteem. Film director David Wain, a frequent target of Ebert’s negative reviews, still felt compelled to tweet: “Roger Ebert was an ongoing inspiration (if not always a fan) to me and I am truly, truly saddened by his loss. I will miss him.”
6. Be Human First
While Ebert made a livelihood out of sharing his unvarnished opinions with the masses, he was never cruel. The legend always understood that real people stood behind a piece of work – people with thoughts, feelings and emotions who poured themselves into a finished product, no matter how wobbly. As producer Chris Weitz said yesterday, “Rest in Peace, Roger Ebert. You were a gentleman. Sometimes loved my movies, sometimes hated them, but you were always fair.”
7. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
If he so chose, Roger Ebert could have played it safe. As a beloved critic and public figure, there was absolutely no reason for him to risk popular rejection by accepting director Russ Meyer’s 1970 commission of the screenplay for cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But he did it anyway, and even though the movie was almost universally panned upon its release, Ebert harbored no regrets. According to a report in the New York Times, “the film seemed a point of pride for Mr. Ebert, who was paid $15,000 and never tired of talking about it.”
8. Embrace Change
At the time of his death, Ebert had over 800,000 Twitter followers and was a frequent tweeter. He had an active Facebook fan page and was an avid blogger. It is important to remember that the man was 70 years old and began his career when “status updates” meant pulling out the electric typewriter and mailing the finished product via USPS. Ebert, rather than running scared from New Media, used it to share his topical musings and promote his brand, even after cancer had deprived him of the ability to speak. By jumping into the 21st century with both feet, Ebert was able to regain his voice.
9. Physical Challenges Are Only Limiting As You Allow
See above. And there’s this: two days before his death, Ebert took to his blog to announce a “leave of presence,” that included never-realized plans to continue reviewing the films he loved. It seems he never got the memo that illness and disfigurement require you to retreat and watch life happen from the sidelines. Literally nothing short of dying could get between Ebert and his work.
10. When You Can’t Talk About Anything Else, There’s Always the Movies
There are many good reasons why it’s best to steer clear of religion and politics as conversation topics in mixed company. But everyone has an opinion about film and, should discourse come to a screeching halt, they’ll be more than happy to share them.
On a personal note, Ebert’s annual film review anthologies offered me a platform for connecting with a confusing father when it often seemed impossible. Overrun by mental illness and debilitating addictions which included gambling and hoarding, sports and a love of film were the links that bonded my dad with a daughter desperate for common ground.

Newt Gingrinch Gains a Little of My Respect…Before Promptly Losing It (May 18, 2011)

I have taken a detour the last couple months from my regular obsession with the political arena to talk all things divorce and cancer. But as I am enjoying a relative “good” period, filled with some degree of life satisfaction and emotional equilibrium, I am inspired to join the endless sport of Capitol Hill navel gazing once again.

I am a huge fan of NBC’s Meet the Press, the Sunday morning political chat stalwart now hosted by David Gregory. While Gregory with his whiny, waffley interview style is no match for the “just the facts” tenacity of the otherwise cherubic Tim Russert (may he rest in peace), MTP is a habit I just can’t break. In years past, I would enjoy the show while indulging in the traditional Sunday hangover remedy of carbs and Gatorade, but now I am in my 30s and am usually well rested and alert. There are things to like about aging.

Anyway, this past weekend I queued up my Tivo to watch the show commercial-free and nearly deleted it altogether when I saw that the featured guest was former Speaker of the House, and current Republican Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrinch. I will NEVER forgive Newtie for the 90s – from the ridiculous government shutdown of 1995, to his laughably hypocritical pursuit of President Bill Clinton on the “family values” front. This from a man on his third marriage, the second which began under the auspicious influences of infidelity.

For a number of years, Newtie sort of fell off the political radar, only emerging as the occasional commentator on really important issues like President Obama’s African, colonial worldview (I was under the impression that Hawaii ceased to be a colony in the late 1950s). Rhetorically, he was swatted away like the pop cultural gnat he became (though he prefers the term “gadfly,” thank you very much).

But Newt got my attention on Sunday’s Meet the Press when he addressed rising GOP star Paul Ryan’s irresponsible, top two percent-friendly budget proposal. Specifically commenting on the plan’s goal of dismantling Medicare as we know it, converting it to a voucher program, his Newtness said: “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.”

Well ok! Newt never stood a chance of getting my vote, but such refreshing honesty, such lack of pandering! Maybe we have a new Maverick on the right.

But of course my praise and excitement was premature. Once the Tea Party establishment (who seem to accrue power in inverse proportion to their distance from the mainstream) got wind of Newtie’s comments, Gingrich began backpedaling faster than a honey badger.

Paul Ryan had this to say to Reuters: “I think he now understands the magnitude of his comments — how wrong they were. And I think he’s going to have more to say about that. And he’s working on that. He basically called and apologized. And I accepted his apology.” Newt – you just got served by a man with a freakishly big head.

Last time I checked, Ryan is a lowly House member from the minorityparty, but we currently live in an upside down political universe, where less is apparently more. As the brilliant Paul Krugman put it: “Normally, a party controlling neither the White House nor the Senate would acknowledge that it isn’t in a position to impose its agenda on the nation. But the modern G.O.P. doesn’t believe in following normal rules.”

And an article in the “Caucus” section of today’s New York Times asks, “Can Newt Gingrich Control Newt Gingrich?”

I may be wholly biased and partisan but I happen to believe that running afoul of an increasingly wingnut right establishment, which has essentially declared war on the middle class, is the FIRST positive thing Newt has done in awhile. Alas, no more. He has been cowed and has summarily returned to placating the ultra-conservative. I would have hoped he’d take a lesson from 2008 also-ran John McCain (another formerly bold player who relinquished any and all respect I ever held for him). Winning over your party’s base almost necessarily means alienating the mainstream in this century. In short, the already debatably electable Gingrich just become untouchable.

That’s Not My Name (December 16, 2010)

When my sister Jen suggested we collaborate on a blog in early 2009, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. An instantaneous and persistent fear of having nothing to say, of trying to sustain my creativity, but finding the well barren, almost kept me from trying.

On this point at least, it seems I worried for naught. Apparently, I have plenty to discuss. In May of this year, I took my musings to Open Salon at the suggestion of fellow blogger Mad Typist. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I post the exact same content in both forums – the joint venture I operate with Jen, as well my personal space there. In the spirit of streamlining, I also took my avatar, Becky Boop, with me.

Jen suggested we take pen names for security reasons. She is a mother of two young daughters, and she wanted to keep the personal information contained in her posts to a bare minimum. There’s just a lot of creeps out there. We were never arrogant enough to believe we’d become the next Huffington Post, but why invite trouble? For my part, it seemed expeditious to hide behind a persona different from my own while I worked to locate my voice.

Becky Boop, like the cartoon Betty she evokes, was initially quite the boozy, citified, fun-loving girl. Most of my initial posts, which tend to embarrass me upon reflection, were silly. I think I imagined myself a 21st Century Carrie Bradshaw: traveling, happy hours, a free wheeling spirit – my best, most interesting self. And there is definitely the bar trivia, Meet the Press side to me. But that’s not really the whole picture, you know?

As I have tried to maintain a strict thrice-weekly posting schedule the last two years, I have learned goo gobs about myself, first and foremost, that I am introspective and personal. I am not sure if my small audience always agrees, but I came to believe I am at my best artistically when I am confessional. As time has passed and I have grown more brave with my words, the list of taboo experiences that I will not publicly examine grows shorter. I have written about the mental illness that runs in my family, the infidelity that once haunted my marriage, my own social awkwardness, death, pain and unemployment (which often feels like a combination of the two former words). With the unyielding and patient support of my closest friends and family, I have been encouraged to expose myself. I now take great pride in this rawness, even as Bambi continues to find her footing.

I write what I mean to say most of the time, and even when the floodgates of criticism open, I can’t backpedal. In that moment, as I typed those words, it’s how I felt, or what I believed, or the facts I understood. As I try to grow more comfortable with me: the writer, the woman, the human, it has begun to gnaw at me that I am still hiding, in a very real sense, behind a character.

So it’s time to let go, to really put myself out there. I am Becky Sarwate. A work in progress. A mess oftentimes certainly, but I am willing to spill the blood and work up the sweat. No more closets.