Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Doing the wrong thing

The main suspects in the death of truth.

If  you have a documented history of lying to the American public – and even admitted to it when being questioned during a Congressional investigation – the odds of being hired by a reputable news organization would appear to be mighty slim. Am I right?

Welcome to the Fox News family, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

You will be forgiven for forgetting that Sanders defended Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, claiming she had heard from “countless members of the FBI” that they had no confidence in him. Apparently, Sanders can’t count very high. According to the Mueller Report, while testifying under oath that she was telling the truth, Sanders admitted that her claim of “countless members of the FBI” rebelling against Comey “was not founded on anything.”

Months later, and freed from that burdensome formality of testifying under oath, Sanders was asked about the Muller Report’s assessment of her baseless Comey charge. And she lied, said her claim of FBI agents rebelling against their boss had merely been a slip of the tongue. And besides, it was the Democrats who were to blame.

So Sanders joins Fox as a “contributor,” joining a roster of fabrication contributors whose long list of lies rivals that of… well, of Trump.

I heartily endorse second chances. Third chances? I’m not so sure. Especially when the individual in question is being granted access to a powerful public platform.

Giving a bad idea a second chance is endemic to media. “McHale’s Navy” was a really dumb television show. Somehow a respectable actor, Ernest Borgnine, was talked into starring as the commander of a P.T. boat and its crew of fun-loving, scamming lunatics. This was set during World War II, mind you, where a lot of people fought and died. The show ran from 1962 to 1966, plus two feature films, and you’d figure that would be enough. But no, someone did a “McHale’s Navy” movie in 1997, updated with Russian terrorists or something, I don’t know, to my credit I never saw it. Perhaps because it starred Tom Arnold.

Brand familiarity is money in the bank. The original “Godzilla,” the 1954 Japanese film in which a giant lizard destroys Tokyo, was a metaphorical tale warning of the dangers of nuclear technology. Released nine years after the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated, who would know better than the Japanese about the horrors of the atomic bomb? And for better or worse, the Godzilla franchise exploded.

Now that’s entertainment. It’s mythology. And in the mythology that increasingly penetrates our news, Fox News – my parents’ only news source for years – is not the only offender.

“The McLaughlin Group” was a shouty news roundtable that played for 34 years on various public television outlets. Now Maryland Public Broadcasting is re-booting the show. The producers are not willing to spend the money necessary to bring back host Tom McLaughlin – he died in 2016 – but they have resurrected the corpse of Pat Buchanan. Buchanan is a white supremacist, and it’s not just a matter of a slip of the tongue here and there. Buchanan is a reservoir of racism.

Buchanan has called Hitler “an individual of great courage” who did not want war, a statement that might be disputed by the Polish people who awoke one morning in 1939 to find Nazi tanks rumbling down their streets. He is anti-LGBTQ citizens, saying that in a just society, “gay people will be contained, segregated, controlled, and stigmatized.” He said of the Civil War, “in a way, both sides were right.” Words that would be echoed years later by Trump after a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended with a white supremacist driving a car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, resulting in the death of a young woman and injuring 28 others. And immigrants are “a third world invasion,” Buchanan has said, adding that, “Americans have the sovereign right to discriminate in favor of some continents, countries and cultures, and against others.”

Why didn’t this country’s native people think of that in 1492?

Here’s the Buchanan quote of all time:

Exceptional women can and do succeed; and women deserve an equal chance at the starting line. But, for women, there is an honorable and honored exit from the rat race – home, hearth and family. It is an option closed, by social sanction, to the average male. By a ratio of eleven-to-one over men, women exercise this option of voluntary separation from the marketplace, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades. The momma bird builds the nest. So it was, so it ever shall be. Ronald Reagan is not responsible for this; God is.

Or, maybe this is the Buchanan quote of all time:

America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known. … We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?

Yes, the gratitude for their ancestors to have been brought here in chains, to be beaten, raped and lynched.

Pat Buchanan. Fair and balanced reporting gone awry.

Republicans are being rightly skewered for quietly stepping aside as Trump destroys the Constitution, divides the country over race, rolls back environmental protections, enriches himself through the presidency, and on and on and on…

And on. Mark Halperin has a book deal. Thanks to more than 75 top Democratic strategists.

Halperin always struck me as a smarmy jerk when I’d see him on MSNBC, as a pundit who seemed to be wrong a lot. And the smarm proved to be real, when in 2017 a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. That’s a dozen chances to do the right thing. Halperin didn’t, and MSNBC promptly dumped him.

So now Halperin has a book coming out in November. “How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take.” That’s a fine goal, but we don’t need the likes of Halperin. He’s getting real money, while real writers can’t get into print. No one with a conscience should be a part of his career-reclamation project. I can’t imagine what those 75 Democratic strategists – familiar names such as Donna Brazile, David Axelrod, Kathleen Sebelius – were thinking when they heard on the other end of the phone, “Hi, this is Mark Halperin…”

They should have hung up right there.

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The Tragedy Slut reveals himself

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

I turned down a chance to interview Glenn Beck. Twice, in fact.

Late in 2005, Beck was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted an interview with the conservative Fox News host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.

I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”

Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?

“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”

Am I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I work for?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. And in recent years, the truth has taken quite a beating.

President Obama has finally laid some truth on us when he admitted that, yes, the United States had tortured prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This wasn’t news – most of us knew we’d lost our moral compass in the 9/11 rubble – but we’d been trying to fool ourselves for years, using phrases like “enhanced interrogation techniques” when, in truth, it was torture. And the CIA has admitted now what many people had already figured out on their own, that it lied when it said it wasn’t spying on American citizens and members of Congress. Yes, it did all of that. If you believe the CIA this time.

Such willful ignorance is accepted as the norm, and you know the big lies. Obama’s a Kenyan, a Muslim, he wants to take your guns, he’s committed impeachable offenses. Voter fraud is rampant. Rich people create jobs. Immigrants are a threat to America and a drain on the economy. The Affordable Care Act will include Death Panels. Climate change isn’t real. The only way to stop a Bad Guy with a gun is a Good Guy with a gun. These, and hundreds of other errant ideas, lingered on long after the facts disproving them were available. And in many cases these notions continue to breed in the darkness, because our leaders refuse to yield to inconvenient truths. And often because the media is stuck on the notion of false equivalencies as legitimate argument. Be smart: The debate on climate change is over. Whenever you read the phrase “Some people say…” in a news story or editorial on climate change, immediately turn the page. “Some people say” is just a lazy editorial writer’s way of re-introducing a roundly defeated argument to the reader. Because very often “some people” is a guy like Ken Ham. The last time we should have seen Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, was after pop-science demigod Bill Nye the Science Guy had thoroughly kicked his ass in their Science vs. Creationism debate. But Ham keeps re-appearing in the public spotlight, saying dumb stuff. Some people never learn.

Points of debate should earn their way into the public discourse. Ideologies should stand on the truth. We give a loudmouth a microphone, and he whips a crowd of knuckledraggers into a frenzy by calling the president of the United States a socialist. Those people can’t possibly know what socialism is, unless they hate their city’s fire department.

So I denied Glenn Beck the opportunity to use my forum, minor as it is. I denied him the opportunity to say this: “I don’t think we came from monkeys. I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 201, 2010.

And this: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it.… No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out. Is this wrong?”  – Glenn Beck, May 17, 2005.

And this, on people whose homes were being destroyed in a California wildfire: ”I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 22, 2007.

And this, on the people who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina: The only ones we’re seeing on television are the scumbags.” – Glenn Beck, Sept. 9, 2005.

And my opinion on the responsibility we have to the truth is bolstered by an unexpected source. Glenn Beck. He seems to have been on an apology tour this week. “When you live your life five hours a day on live television and radio you’re going to say stupid things,” Beck said last Sunday. He conceded that one of those stupid things was his declaration that President Obama is a racist. That unsubstantiated claim was more fuel for the uniformed.  Indeed Beck admitted that, in this highly partisan, angry America, he may have “unintentionally… added to the situation we’re in right now.”

Later in the week, just to make sure we weren’t hearing things, he re-iterated the point: “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart,” he admitted. And on his radio show, he dropped this bomb on the war  mongers: “From the beginning, most people on the left were against going into Iraq. I wasn’t…. Liberals, you were right. We shouldn’t have.”

Welcome aboard, Beck, even if it’s just a momentary sanity. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late. Your ill-advised words fueled misery, and even death. I have no room in my heart for your apology. You are the true tragedy slut.

The Critical Mass

Luke, look at the size of that head!

I saw a reflection of myself in the bus window this morning. I thought, in a few years, that long hair will be a tangle of gray. That face will be lined from the intense heat of the barbecue flame. I’ll look like David Carradine, pacing the sidewalks, chattering to myself, an empty bag of mysticism.

Men recovering a typical giant skull.

Men recovering a typical giant skull.

For the past two weeks, distractions have gotten the best of me, weakened me, and dimished my role as an informed citizen. My news consumption became erratic. I have not been able to read The Sunday New York Times for two weeks. I have drifted into the territory occupied by the folks that political pollsters like to refer to as “Low Information Voters.”

Must… fight… back….

Good lord, what was all of that Anthony Weiner excitement about? Did he murder someone? I turned on the TV news one morning for a few moments during my accidental exile and baby-faced MSNBC correspondent Luke Russert was complaining that the New York congressman had lied to him. OK, Luke, here’s some Journalism 101: All of those politicians you interview? They’re lying to you every day.

I did check a few news web sites while out patrolling the Oort Cloud, just to make sure some key city hadn’t been wiped out by a tsunami or tornadoes or the raging Mississippi River. I noted that a new scientific study warns that the ecology of the oceans is much worse than anticipated, and mass extinctions can be expected. National Public Radio reported that climate change is accepted by fewer Americans now than it was five years ago, and that most people in this country are unaware that 97 percent of American scientists agree that it is a threat to our planet.

One news site reported that only two contestants in last weekend’s Miss USA pageant believe in evolution. And one of them was Miss Alabama, hailing from one of  the country’s third-world states.

Theoretically, we should be getting smarter. We’re not. I blame:

3, Fox News. 2, The Internet. 3, The mainstream media.

Fox News, because its falsehoods are computer chips in the brains of its viewers. Honest, hard-working people who believe that the president is a Kenyan. That the health insurance law creates “Death Panels.” That climate change is a myth. And Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. My mother – a coherent, 83-year-old nice lady – believes all of this because she heard it on Fox.

The Internet, once heralded as giving everyone a voice, has become a morass of lies and misinformation. Any point of view that you want to believe in can be substantiated on the Internet. You want to proof for your suspicions that giants once walked the Earth? It’s true! Click here: Big Dudes.

The mainstream media, because it doesn’t fight back. Rather than leading, investigating and reporting the truth, it simply follows. Each day’s news seems to be constructed around by one common phrase: “A new poll says….” As if Miss USA knows anything about evolution.  Except you, Miss Alabama.

Luke, don’t just repeat what they say to you, like you’re passing on a conversation in the health-club locker room. Present facts, not opinion. When John Boehner says we can cut the national debt by not raising taxes, ask him, “Mr. Boehner, when in the history of all of the world’s governments has that ever happened?” The answer: Never. Be a reporter, not a gossip columnist.

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