Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, August 27, 2004


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*Reason #1

It's been both a thrill and an embarrassment to watch the country's most prestigious media apologize for doing a lousy job at reporting the news.

If you've wondered why the New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic and even "60 Minutes" have publicly kicked themselves for being "insufficiently skeptical" and "not as rigorous" as they should have been about President Bush's reasons for going to war in Iraq, here's reason #1:

  • They don't mean it!
  • What they really mean is, *please* don't leave us for the Internet. *Please* don't believe the likes of Michael Moore instead.
  • Why apologize in the first place? I think part of the outpouring comes from a new trend in journalism, the ombudsmen reporter (i.e., someone on the payroll telling editors not to be snobby).
  • The ombudsman says, Look, you can't hold yourself up as the Newspaper of Record or the Smug Prime Time News Show anymore. People are getting information from other sources. They want different angles on the news, more in-depth reporting, analysis of dissident views. If we fail to deliver, we have to own up to it.
  • But the editors somehow don't hear this right. They "apologize" to the audience by saying, Oh, *we* get it. We're just like you! Life is one big focus group, and if you don't like what we're saying, you get to tell us how to do our job. Then we pretend we're listening and act like things are gonna change.
  • So NOW will you stop trusting the Internet or these foul documentaries more than us?

The Aw! Rationale

But then came the Reaction to the Apologies. Last week, Terrence Smith of Jim Lehrer's News Hour asked Washington Post executive editor Len Downie to explain the Post's apology. He responded with The Aw! Rationale. Here's how it went:

Smith: Did the Post "pull its punches" about Bush's announcement that Iraq was hiding WMDs (weapons of mass destruction)?

Downie: "Well, administration views ended up on page one because it was the administration deciding whether or we were going to war...[So we think our coverage was] good accountability reporting."

Smith: What else could you have put on the front page?

Downie: "What we did not place in the front page enough at the same time were the voices which were in many cases anonymous and not on the record and obviously not people in the same public offices at that time, retired generals rather than active generals who were warning that perhaps this was not a wise war."

[Holt (thinking as any viewer might): Huh?]

Smith: "Do you think 9/11 was a factor in this or...criticism from the right?"

Downie: "What goes on inside newsrooms is complicated ... We did have 9/11. We did have the war on Afghanistan to cover. It was a difficult war to cover because journalists had to go there on their own and risk their lives to cover that war."


"During the run-up to the war [in Iraq], we had the Columbia Shuttle disaster, which occupied a lot of attention in newsrooms. There were a lot of things going on, and I think that made it more difficult. Sometimes people confuse motive; that is to say whether or not we are pulling our punches, with just the workload we have and concentration."


George Bernard Shaw: "Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization."

Okay, Shaw wasn't in the studio, but if he were, he might have asked: Why are these big publications and TV shows apologizing? They didn't used to. Apologizing never occurred when they fouled up on other buildups to war (Vietnam, for example). So why now?

A Historical View: Thank You, Frank Snepp and Ronald Reagan

I think the answer goes back to the roots of the Reagan administration and a key Supreme Court decision in 1980 against a Random House author named Frank Snepp.

Snepp was a CIA agent who had signed an agreement with the CIA "not to disclose any classified information relating to the Agency without proper authorization." After he was sent to Vietnam, Snepp became horrified at what he witnessed and wrote a book called "Decent Interval" that did not cast the CIA in a positive light.

(For one thing, Snepp suggested rather hilariously that at the end of the war, CIA agents high-tailed it out of Vietnam so fast, they overturned cabinets and spilled files in their wake that any boob could have read and published for all the world to see. But Snepp himself was not that kind of boob.)

The significance of the case is that government prosecutors said the book did not divulge classified information and never accused Snepp of disclosing any secrets. Instead, they charged, and the Supreme Court found Snepp guilty of, "faithlessness" to the CIA, and of destroying the agency's "appearance of confidentiality."

Because of Snepp's book, the CIA said it was harder to recruit new agents - after all, who would want to join such a bunch of losers? - so for that, Random House had to call back and destroy all remaining books, and Snepp had to give the U.S. Treasury any profits he had made from the book.

The "Gag Regime" Begins

Ronald Reagan was elected president in the same year that the Snepp decision was handed down and used the Supreme Court decision to force CIA agents to submit all the writings and speeches they would ever make for their entire lifetime *before* publication so that the government could cut out all the SCI - meaning "sensitive compartmented information" or whatever the heck they wanted to censor.

And that was not enough. The Reagan administration soon became what is called today a "Gag Regime," requiring Department of Justice employees, then all executive branch workers - something like 100,000 government employees - to buckle under to the same "secrecy contracts." By the time George Herbert Bush was president, "secrecy contracts" had been mandated for millions of government employees AND civilian contractors.

Where Was the Press?

The media knew that the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations were gutting the Constitution's measures against "prior restraint" - i.e., censorship before the fact, which is protected by the First Amendment. And they knew that Reagan cared less about national security than White House secrecy to cover up such covert military operations and illegal activities as Iran-Contra, for example.

But the American press did very little to stand up for itself or its audience. Even when Freedom of Information procedures got scuttled, little was said. Even when private companies like Brown and Williamson used the Snepp decision to create similar non-disclosure agreements with employees, nothing was said. (These agreements were supposed to stop TV news shows like "60 Minutes" from building stories around whistleblowers such as the former employee played by Russell Crowe in "The Insider.")

And the chilling effect of the Frank Snepp decision on the book business was immeasurable. Why was it, book critics like myself kept asking in the 1980s, that during the eight years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, only two books surfaced - one by Seymour Hersh, the other by Bob Woodward - that were critical of the White House?

Publishers laughed at such a question. Would YOU want to publish an anti-Reagan book in the post-Snepp climate? they asked. Robert Bernstein, who headed Random House at the time, at least had the courage to call the Reagan exploitation of Snepp "clearly an attempt to keep still more information from the American people ... It can [hold up] publication of any book by a government official indefinitely."

Attacking the "Liberal Bias"

It may appear that things have changed since Reagan and Bush Sr.'s time, because today there are *hundreds* of anti-Bush Jr. books. But that's more typical of the book biz tendency to glut bookstores with something popular than anything else (see below re NO anti-Bush books until Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men." ***).

Reagan was so popular that he not only got away with turning the Snepp decision to his advantage, he also opened the door to conservative attacks on the "liberal bias" of the media in general.

You remember those attacks. Every joke, every reference, every quote, every news story and every book that did not present "the other side" (read the conservative side, the Reagan side) resulted in a barrage of phone calls, letters to the editor and protests outside buildings that tied up and phone lines and communications for hours, days and weeks.

This was the period that reporters inside newsrooms were told, Hey, don't use terms like civil rights, deficit, feminist, anti-trust, abortion, star wars, trickle down, Iran-Contra, media conglomerate or we'll get a thousand letters.

When Clinton came in, this attitude of defense against conservative fanatics held sway. Editors would say: We can't run a story about (Clinton appointee) Lani Guinier's very interesting idea about proportional voting or the phones will never stop ringing. Instead, let's run this 6,842nd article on Whitewater to show we don't have a liberal bias.

In the '90s, audiences kept waiting for somebody like Jim Lehrer to ask why newspapers never really questioned what was behind the impeachment of Bill Clinton - never gave Hilary Clinton's fear of a "vast Right-wing conspiracy" any real credence, even a forum for discussion, let alone front-page coverage. The lack of investigative reporting on the 2000 election went so unnoticed that it took a scene in "Fahrenheit 9/11" (of African-American leaders rejected by the Senate) to shock audiences into realizing the depth of the problem.

TV Anchors Hear the Worst about Michael Moore's Movie

So the pressures against seeming "too liberal" have deepened even further, almost so we can't see them any longer.

This became clearer than ever at a panel discussion for TV critics in Los Angeles earlier this year, when news anchors Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings were not happy to hear from moderator George Stephanopoulos.

Stephanopoulos told that panel that moviegoers said they went to see Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" "because we wanted to get the facts."

The anchors were horrified. They contended their own TV news programs covered the same events every day that Moore covered. The difference was, as Ted Koppel said, "we didn't do [these stories] as political polemics" or as "entertainment" in the way that Oliver Stone did in the movie "JFK" or Moore does in "Fahrenheidt 9/11."

Brokaw said that Moore's film "took a lot of liberties, not just with the facts but with how you arrange the facts," thus causing many of the TV critics in the audience to start making lists of what facts in the Moore film weren't covered by TV news (the White House flying airplane-loads of bin Ladens out of the country after 9/11 was one, for example).

But the news anchors knew their programs never reported aggressively on 90% of the questions raised by "Fahrenheit 9/11" because network TV news is managed by conglomerate owners, who are in turn afraid of stockholders, who are in turn afraid of controversy.

Thus when a small group of conservative fanatics criticizes the press for being "too liberal" when it questions the status quo, their phone calls, emails, protests and letters feel like the weight of the world has come crashing down. That's why a host like Bill Maher of an entertainment program like "Politically Incorrect" got canned for a single remark in the post 9/11 atmosphere of super-patriotism.

*Reason #2

So if you've wondered why the New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic and even "60 Minutes" have publicly kicked themselves for being "insufficiently skeptical" and "not as rigorous" as they should have been about President Bush's reasons for going to war in Iraq, here's reason #2:

They don't mean it! Again.

What they really mean is: We're *still* not as liberal as you think! We *still* support the Bush agenda! We don't even have that many Jews or gays around ...

The "Too Liberal" Stigma in an Election Year

My point is that a scaredy-cat mentality was introduced nearly 30 years ago during the Reagan era and has extended so deep into the heart of the Bush administration that it's almost impossible to dig out.

As a result, today we are seeing the very best newspapers and news media eating themselves alive by kowtowing and apologizing to all the wrong task-masters - conservative fanatics, corporate owners, power-mad presidents.

And the book business has its own problems. One of the reasons we have hundreds of anti-Bush books today is that a smart bunch of librarians stood up for Michael Moore after 9/11 and created a movement that shamed HarperCollins into publishing "Stupid White Men." Before that, there were NO anti-Bush books, isn't that odd? Now that it's safer, there are too many.

The fact is, OF COURSE the press is liberal, in the sense that it's *liberal-minded.* It's pro-free speech, pro-civil rights, pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-diversity and pro-gay. It's laissez-faire; it's against war until the need for war is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Why hide such standards? Why apologize for it?



Thanks to yesterday's news that a federal judge has struck down the government's ban on late-term abortions, Gloria Feldt's new book, The War on Choice: The Right-Wing Attack on Women's Rights and How to Fight Back (Bantam; 326 pages; $12),couldn't be more timely.

For one thing, the judge issued his ruling ONLY because the ban failed to provide an exception to protect a mother's health, not because abortion at this stage of pregnancy should be the exclusive decision of the mother and her doctor.

What we know about the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003, as Feldt explains it here, is that "it is the only federal law *ever* enacted that criminally bans abortion procedures." Even the name, "partial term abortion," is such a misnomer that the very judge who struck it down referred to the procedure as "gruesome" and "barbaric." Feldt quotes a doctor who says a better term would be "partial-truth abortion."

Another scary part of the ban, however, was language so broad "that it could ban techniques that doctors use regularly and safely even early in the second trimester," Feldt writes. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the law "enlarges the civil rights of the fetus," which encouraged even the lawyer quoted in the press who represented the government's side to refer to abortion as "infanticide."

Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood, showed that threats to Roe v. Wade were only the tip of the iceberg last year in her previous book, "Behind Every Choice is a Story," [see #369]. But it's impossible to see the extent of the damage to Constitutional protections of abortion - or how FURIOUS Feldt says we have to become to get these protections fully restored - until you dip into this invaluable guidebook.

For example, some of the most treacherous ways of eroding abortion rights have occurred, Feldt shows, as right-wing Christian forces support ways to:

  • finance "Marriage Promotion Initiatives" in which women on welfare are told that "marriage is the answer to poverty";
  • spread the rumor that abortions cause breast cancer;
  • restrict sex education courses to information on abstinence only;
  • require family planning counselors to file reports - REPORTS! - on minors seeking abortions;
  • strip coverage of contraceptive use for federal employees;
  • back politicians who oppose the use of condoms, EVEN TO PREVENT DISEASE;
  • enforce gag rules by withholding funds from such groups as Planned Parenthood for mentioning abortion as a legitimate option for women;
  • censor government communications (films, programs, websites, publictions) by erasing the very language of choice - not only about abortion, but about sexuality and contraception;
  • fill vacancies on women's health boards with Christian doctors who insist that reading scripture is better than using contraceptives;
  • export extremism - making anti-choice policies the norm in other countries through restrictions on U.S. foreign policy is, right now, establishing a status quo in which 20 MILLION abortions are being performed around the world under unsafe conditions every year. This in turn means that 78,000 women are killed because of botched abortions and that figure in turn means "every minute of every day, a woman dies of pregnancy-related causes in the developing world, the majority of them preventable," writes Feldt. We're not even talking about the number of people who die from AIDS because they couldn't get condoms after some antichoice politician pulled the plug on a bill that would have cost the U.S. pennies.

[DRIB (Don't Read If Busy):

The intrusion of fanatically right-wing Christian attitudes about sex inspired me to call Feldt at Planned Parenthood and ask her about Gary Heavin, founder of Curves International, the largest fitness franchise in the USA. I joined Curves last year because its low-key, low-maintenance circuit training for women promises that 30 minutes' exercise three times a week - along with a healthy diet, of course - can keep even the aging body fit, and it works.

Feldt confirmed that Heavin has donated millions of dollars to anti-choice causes including phony "pregnancy centers" that pretend to offer "health care" when in fact they bully pregnant teens into giving up their babies to a "good Christian family." That Heavin promotes the idea that abortion is not healthy and can lead to breast cancer; that his multimillion-dollar ranch is next door to his buddy, George Bush, in Crawford, Texas; that he has financed efforts to drive Texas Planned Parenthood into the ground all caused me to quit Curves (and thank heaven for a hip injury or I woulda paid through the nose to get out of the year-long contract).

Important note: I am not saying that Curves itself officially donates a percentage of company profits to anti-choice causes. Rather, I'm saying that founder Heavin personally contributes millions to these places from his own bank account, which is fattened regularly by the 7000 Curves franchises across the country that pay him monthly fees.

So however you look at it, every woman who joins Curves ends up contributing some portion of her $49 per month to Heavin's anti-choice crusade. When that fact surfaced earlier this year, women all over the country began to quit Curves, OR they turned to www.CurversForChoice.com, a pro-choice website where Curves members can pledge money to Planned Parenthood and feel better, but not much, for staying in Curves.

For those like me who quit, here's the saddest part: Curves franchises are run by women who are seeking financial profit through good ol' American entrepreneurialism, and many have gone into serious debt to buy the franchise rights to begin with. These owners have created a welcoming egalitarian atmosphere for women of all ages, races and sizes, many of whom feel the women-only component of Curves was a key factor in joining. They didn't want to feel looked at or judged in any way, as women often do feel in men/women gyms. At Curves, they found, the atmosphere evokes a sense of universality and acceptance, a we're-all-in-the-same-boat mentality. In that little room 3 times a week, people feel they can help each other beat America's screwed-up notions about what makes a woman "fat" in the first place. So the humor and support that comes with such comeraderie are a welcome bonus.

Thus the problem. If enough members like me quit Curves because of a bigot in Texas, the immediate result is to abandon these wonderful franchise owners just when they need us to pay back something like $50,000 before they see a penny of profit. And the sting of leaving them stranded is to know that the man who profits most from Curves essentially hates women's bodies or he wouldn't treat women as reproductive vessels under his or anybody else's control. The important point that pro-choice Christian Republicans often make (and Feldt quotes them on a variety of subjects) is that you don't have to approve of abortion to be 100% behind a woman's right to choose. How to handle an unwanted pregnancy isn't Gary Heavin's decision. It isn't anybody's except the woman who finds herself pregnant.

Perhaps an international perspective that comes indirectly from Feldt's book (she doesn't mention Heavin) is that today, even in the USA and other First World countries, a company like Curves, which spends a lot of money championing women's self-esteem, can be exploited by its founder to the point that it turns into a perversion. After all, one has to ask, why is Heavin, the founder of a women's FITNESS program where pictures of newly confident women surround clients with captions about taking charge of their bodies, supporting antichoice fascists who want nothing more than to take charge of women's bodies. Indeed, Heavin's punitive attitude toward pregnant girls appears to wield the same kind of menacing power as the punitive attitude we are seeing in soldiers of some Islamic countries who threaten to beat women if their head-to-toe black robes reveal a smidgen of skin. The message from both sides of the world is clear enough: If you are a woman, every place on earth is repressive in some way to you. Make one mistake and soon you'll hear just how repressive it is. Curves is simply one of many millions of examples.]

What inspires me about Feldt's book is that she devotes the last 100 pages to "Fighting Forward: A New Pro-Choice Crusade," in which she lays out a blueprint for joining the NINETY PERCENT of Americans who support access to family planning and to making choice a reality for all women throughout the world. "The first step is to get off the defensive and set the agenda ourselves," she says. You can go right to it on page 233 for a list of actions we can all take right now to cut through bureaucratic mishmash (i.e., make all insurance companies provide contraceptive coverage, for example), outdated government restrictions (i.e., change the language of sex education from "abstinence only" to "medically accurate") and media silence, thereby giving women's choice its rightful place in every society.

So hurray again for the federal judge's decision to strike down the ban on late-term abortions. But it scares me, too. Waiting for the courts to reverse anti-choice legislation is literally like putting all our eggs in the wrong basket.



Dear Holt Uncensored,

A concern to share. Recently, I hear, Publishers Weekly decided to discontinue the Forecast dedicated to poetry. Apparently, they will still offer 2-4 reviews a month of poetry titles, though these will most likely concentrate on the better known poets. Forecast will periodically present a special section devoted to poetry, but surely this will not compensate for the loss of a dedicated section.

According to my informant, Martha Rhodes of Four-Way Books, Jeff Zaleski of PW gave Jeffrey Lependorp, Executive Director of CLMP, "multiple reasons for the decision, which were primarily bottom line-related. He stated that he has to put his 'resources where the subscribers ask for them--and that's not poetry.' Zaleski apparently went on to say that because so many of the big stores and chains now have people dedicated to poetry, and there is so much readily-accessible online commentary about poetry,. . . the 'PW reviews have become redundant.' He also acknowledged that poetry makes up a very small base in terms of their advertising revenue."

PW's decision will come down particularly hard on the many small, independent publishers of poetry. It will diminish the vitality of alternate publishing in the United States and dilute the strength of American literary culture. PW's policy strikes me as short-sighted, and I think all American readers--even those who are uninterested in poetry--will ultimately suffer from the constriction of choice that is enforced if industry review organs don't help smaller publishers inform booksellers and libraries of the full range of available books--many of them as delightful as any published by the larger, more commercial houses.

But enough from my soap box. I wonder what you and other readers of your newsletter make of this development.

Best wishes,
Patricia Eakins

Dear Holt Uncensored,
I read with interest your comments about the decline of reading -- everything you say is true and important. (The letters exchange in the NY Times about it was also very good.) I think, however, that there's another point to be made. When a large percentage of the population is exhausted, stressed out, pressed for time, counting every penny -- and often working long hours or two jobs to try to survive -- reading becomes difficult, if not impossible. In New York, I see people on the subway every day, reading in a way that strikes me as frantic, reluctant to close the book even when their stop is called, reading all the way to the door. My impression is that a subway ride twice a day is their only reading time. Maybe the simple truth is that, for a lot of people, just slumping in front of the TV at the end of a hectic day is a way to relax and veg out, even to deaden their brains, in a way that reading can never be. This isn't something that can change until our present regime! is changed. But it's important to talk about it.

Kitty Florey

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I love the passion you display in your column and often agree with your point of view. But regarding the Reading at Risk study, although the Census Bureau did, indeed, conduct the survey, it was, or so the report states, not part of the regular Census but a sampling of 17,000 respondents, and I have no reason to believe that the Census folks would do any less of a job than some private outfit with less data-gathering experience (you aren't going Republican on us, are you?).

Meanwhile, if the National Endowment for the Arts doesn't state the obvious, who will? Alarms sounded by authors, critics and book publishers aren't enough; it takes a government bureaucracy to add up the numbers and remind us of what we are doing to ourselves.

The evolution from a culture of the word to a culture of the picture is no small matter: It results in shorter attention spans and fewer critical thinking skills, which in turn produces a society that's more easily manipulated by politicians and corporations. It serves powerful interests (media and marketers as well as the military industrial complex) to have people rely on sensation over reason, reminding me of that wonderful Kurt Vonnegut story in which the population is effectively regulated with a small chip that the government implants in each person's brain. Every time someone has an independent thought, the chip creates a buzz.

Ellen Heltzel, a.k.a. Book Babe

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Item 3 in your "List of 10 mistakes Writers Don't See" says certain words "have creeped into the language." The past tense of the verb "to creep" was crept last time I looked. "Creeped" may only be used as the past tense of the verb formed from the noun "creep," as in: "I was, like, I mean, TOTALLY creeped out!!!"

A Writer Holt responds: Many thanks and apologies to all who have written about this - it's finally been fixed on the website, proving once again why the title of this list is so accurate (and why everybody needs an editor). And even for all this, "crept" still sounds wrong to me.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I noticed the letter about gay divorce in your recent newsletter, and I'm confused about what the reader is trying to say. Does s/he think you hold gay marriage as some sort of "better-than-thou" institution?

Obviously there's nothing special about the people in a gay relationship vis a vis the people in a straight relationship; that's the whole point! They should be allowed to marry just like their straight counterparts. And, sure, there'll be divorces as well, just like there are among straight couples. I even imagine it will hew pretty closely to the norm: about 50% if we judge by straight marriages. I'm just not sure I understand his/her point.

Anyway, just blinking my eyes quickly in incomprehension.

Derrick Schneider Holt responds: I think the reader believed that gay marriage got too idealized and the first gay divorce would burst the bubble. It's like gay couples fighting for equal parenting rights who then split up and come back to court fighting for custody - to me, it's all one process, but to others it looks contradictory. Honestly, some people are so odd.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your reader who's billed "An Observer" needs to know:

Gay divorce is one of the most compelling reasons we need gay marriage, so there is a framework for sorting out child support, custody, and visitation, to protect the children.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your advice to the writer who seeks an editor before submitting his novel to a publisher.


A publisher who likes a novel should have an editor on staff, and put his/her/its money where his/her/its mouth is.

Remember Heinlein's rules:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write
  3. You must send it out
  4. You must keep sending it out
  5. You must never revise except to suit your own taste or the taste of whoever is BUYING the piece.

Too many vanity presses who call themselves "subsidy" presses and try to distinguish themselves from legitimate (risk) publishers have an "editor" in their back pocket who gives them kickbacks. A rip off. Be wary. A WRITER

Holt responds: The problem I think we all face in today's book business is that few editors on staff seem to have the time to do this crucial editorial work. Since authors are treated so dismissively by so many, why shouldn't they seek their own counsel and make the book as good as they possibly can before submission? Networks are out there to open these channels for authors, and TOO, because of that, you're right: Rip offs also exist. Being wary and doing one's homewark are good ideas.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

You wrote

<< And I want to know: How did it happen that the time limit of a Congressional vote could be extended for reasons of political partisanship - i.e., the Republicans were losing so they changed the rules? >>

It's endemic in the current administration. Let's see if they manage to postpone (or outright cancel?) the November election.


Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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