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Impromptus
Ambush! Peeking through the Hedges. Advice to the Harvard-bound. And more


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Folks, I’ve got a story to tell you. I went on Fox & Friends over the weekend — and got good and ambushed.

Here’s what happened. Last Thursday, a producer from this show called me and asked me to appear on Saturday. He had seen an op-ed by me, published in the New York Post. The op-ed concerned meltdown at the New York Times: the Jayson Blair case, the Chris Hedges case, and the paper’s changing reputation.

I went through two “pre-interviews” — with two Fox producers — about my thinking on all things Times. We were going to cover the waterfront, or at least as much of it as possible.

So, I show up on Saturday, nice as can be, and there’s a third Times scandal: not just Blair, not just Hedges, but reporter Rick Bragg, who had just been suspended for deception in the paper. The Fox people were quite concerned that I knew about the Bragg matter. Indeed, as I was on the set — and someone was counting down (“7, 6, 5 . . .”) — one of the three hosts of the program said, “Now, you’re prepared to talk about this Rick Bragg business, right?”

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Let me set the scene, a little more completely. On this program, there were three hosts and one guest. That’s different from the more common ratio — one host and three guests, say. And it’s sort of a cool format.

So, we go on the air, and the host on the far end lights into me: on affirmative action. Affirmative action, and affirmative action alone. Apparently, he had read my New York Post piece, or had been told about it, or simply knew that I was in the conservative camp. In that piece, I did indeed discuss the role of race in the Blair affair — in part because Blair himself had.

Well, the host was mighty upset. How dare I imply that affirmative action had anything to do with the Blair mess! How dare I insult honest, hard-working black journalists all over the country in this manner! The Blair case had nothing — nothing whatsoever — to do with affirmative action, this guy insisted. I was a scoundrel for suggesting otherwise.

Parrying as best I could, I replied that this was exactly the problem (one of the problems) with a race-preferential policy: It casts everyone under suspicion, whether that suspicion is justified or not. Take away the preferential treatment, and this kind of conversation doesn’t occur: Jayson Blair is just another charmer, another con man, another journalistic fraud.

But, of course, there are profound and wrenching affirmative-action implications in his case: He was hired, by the Times’s own admission, in a “diversity” slot. Indeed, he even lacked a college diploma. In this certificate-crazy age, you can hardly work at a gas station without a college diploma. And the New York Times? As a reporter? Gimme a break.

(Mind you, I think the certification madness is just that: mad. But the Times, to my knowledge, is not in the habit of passing out reporting jobs to the ungraduated.)

Then, of course, executive editor Howell Raines admitted that, as a white Alabamian, he was minded to cut Blair more slack than he would have others.

Check out Jayson Blair’s own words on the subject of race. They come from a sadly bizarre interview in the New York Observer: “I was black at the New York Times, which is something that hurts you as much as it helps you.” “Anyone who tells you that my race didn’t play a role in my career at the New York Times is lying to you. Both racial preferences and racism played a role. And I would argue that they didn’t balance each other out. Racism had much more of an impact.” (Blair did not go on to justify this charge, but said that he had “anecdotes upon anecdotes upon anecdotes,” indeed “a book full of anecdotes,” which we may get to read someday — but how could we believe it?)

You perhaps remember the metro-desk editor, Jonathan Landman, who wrote, “We have to stop Jayson from writing for The Times. Right now.” In that Observer interview, Blair had something interesting to say about him: “[Landman is] an honest, honorable, misguided man. He wants to believe that we live in a meritocracy simply because he follows a meritocracy.” (That must mean “abides by” a meritocracy.)

Well, if true, good for Landman.

Point is, the idea that the Blair case had nothing to do with race and affirmative action is nutty. I wish it were otherwise. If it weren’t for affirmative action, it would be just another personal tragedy, or a crisis for a newspaper. Instead, it is a national tragedy. This is what affirmative action does. No one should blame people like me for pointing it out. Race preferences are a poison that infiltrates the workplace, the college campus — America itself. Remove this poison, agree to equality of opportunity, decide to judge people on qualities other than skin color, and we can all be something more like human beings, instead of pawns in a racial game.

Anyway, on Fox News, we never got to discuss the Times case at large (and I believe that the paper, at long last, is suffering serious damage). It was basically that one host’s venting on me about affirmative action and the imposition of race on the Blair affair. Obviously, the affirmative-action issue arouses a lot of hurt. But the blame should be placed on affirmative-action policies themselves, not on those (of us) impolite enough to bring them up. And who knows? If we had more discussion of affirmative action and its consequences — for blacks and whites alike — we might all be better off, even if there is great discomfort in the short run.

Look, I feel tremendous sympathy for black journalists. I wish Blair had been white (and for that matter, I wish Willie Horton — the murderer, not the ballplayer — had been white; it was a good and defensible issue). No one should have to live with the burden of race; we should be free to live as individuals. No white journalist feels the weight of race when a Stephen Glass is found out. When Doris Kearns Goodwin has problems, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. doesn’t say, “Oh, shoot — that’s bad for us honkies.” But, thanks to affirmative action, the Jayson Blair case has to be a racial drama, in addition to a personal and institutional one. And I say again: Don’t shoot the messenger. I’ve been against hyper-race-consciousness all of my life. You got a complaint, talk to those who have imposed these policies on virtually every nook and cranny of American life.

As soon as you judge by color, you get into trouble. You go off the rails. You lose principle. You invite danger. Want to reduce racial grievances and suspicions and accusations and recriminations across this country? Fine. Don’t hire by race. Don’t promote by race. Don’t admit by race. Don’t offer contracts by race. Treat people as people — or as Americans, if you like — and leave dumb ol’ pigmentation behind.

So, I was jumped, by a worked-up journalist who had a full head of steam and obviously wanted to release it. Okay. I’m a big boy, and I know that TV is unpredictable. I also know that conservatives are supposed to play the heavy on TV — the villain (even on Fox, I suppose). Jerry Nachman, when he was producing Bill Maher’s old show, would tell me, “You’re here to sit in the Hitler chair!” He said it with a twinkle in his eye.

What happened on Saturday morning, however, was just a little odd. I don’t believe I was misled; I think the producers intended a general discussion; I imagine the other hosts did, too. But my particular segment was a blast out of left field.

And this was Fox News, mind you! The conservative network, or the “fair-’n'-balanced” one, whatever you like!

By the way, directly after this episode, I did a longer interview with French TV on the most recent post-war developments and the fate of Franco-American relations. The journos from Paris were nice as can be, and asked me precisely what they said they would.

How do you like that? Treated straight-up by the French, and treated . . . er, rather differently on Fox News — like a (pasty-faced) punching bag.

Well, the upside is that Rupert’s network can use this criticism from a rightie to say that, Yes — we’re an equal-opportunity offender.

And maybe it was “good television.” That’s the number-one criterion, right?

Since I’ve used up a fair chunk of my Impromptus already, why don’t we stick with the Times a bit? I wanted to highlight some of Chris Hedges’s life and thought. Remember, he’s the Times reporter who gave that astonishing commencement address at Rockford College — the one that caused the students to revolt (bless ‘em). Hedges is a serious man, who has written some serious books (as well as serious reporting). But he is also a serious . . . well, as I mentioned in that New York Post op-ed, his words are indistinguishable from Noam Chomsky’s, when he really gets going.

Here are some excerpts from a wide-ranging PBS interview, conducted shortly before the Second Iraq War.

Said Hedges, “[After Sept. 11] I woke up and realized in New York that we’d all become Serbs, that all of that flag-waving, all of that jingoism, that mass suppression of individual conscience — which I had seen in countries in war around the globe — was now part of my own society, part of where I lived. And it frightened me.”

“Because the Pentagon — with the connivance of the press — has sold us this bill of goods (that we can wage war and it won’t cost us anything), I don’t think we’re prepared at all as a nation for the kinds of casualties that potentially could take place.”

Hedges was asked, “Why do you think the press is so complicit in that?” He answered,

“Because that mythic narrative boosts ratings and sells newspapers. That’s how William Randolph Hearst built his empire. Look at CNN [CNN!]. Every time there’s a war, suddenly everybody starts watching CNN. But would they watch CNN if it was a realistic portrayal of war? I don’t think so.”

About the Christian Menace (in America): “I had a great ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, James Luther Adams. When I was a student, he was in his seventies. He told us that when we were his age, we’d all be fighting the Christian fascists, which we thought was rather silly then, but probably not so silly now.”

On 1991: “How did they look at the Persian Gulf War, these kids who had nothing? They saw us, who consume 25 percent of the world’s petrol, fight a war to ensure our right to continue to consume this resource at very cheap prices. The message that the Gulf War sent to them was, ‘We have everything. And if you try and take it away from us, we’ll kill you.’ And I think they were right.”

And I think they were right. Dwell on that for just a moment — and then realize that this man is a major reporter for the New York Times.

At Rockford College, Hedges said Americans had become “tyrants to others weaker than ourselves.” He repeated the standard “Blood for Oil” canard. He said that terrorism is engendered by poverty. He said (in effect) that blacks are dragooned into the armed forces because they have no other choice (“Poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas [join up] because they cannot get decent jobs or health insurance”). And the U.S. government has imported the dreaded Christians into Iraq to “teach Muslims about Jesus.” (Iraq has plenty of Christians already, thank you very much — they just haven’t fared very well under the Muslims and Baathists.)

But the money Hedges quote from this address: “This is a war of liberation in Iraq — but it is a war now of the liberation of Iraqis from American occupation.”

Just lovely. There was no affirmative-action program for Chomskyites, was there?

A letter from a high-school student, addressing an age-old problem:

“I attend a small private school just outside Philadelphia, and my senior year is winding to a close. As school ends, inevitably the college issue is raised, usually by parents of kids who are not really friends, or by relatives with whom I have little contact. I was lucky enough to be admitted to Harvard — yet I always feel terribly awkward when I have to mention this fact. What is the proper tone to take? Sometimes I attempt to be as nonchalant as possible, though that can sound just as annoying as the aggressive ‘Harvard!’ Additionally, some of us had a discussion on how the entire subject of where someone is attending college can be a total conversation-stopper, and is capable of creating some pretty awkward silences. Any tips on what to do? Or is it best to just suck it up and deal with any unpleasantness? I realize that on the scale of seriousness this problem is pretty minuscule — I was just hoping you could help.”

Sure thing. As I said, this is an ancient problem. Harvardians for generations have always sort of blushed and stumbled when asked this question. “Where do you go to college?” “Out east.” “Oh, where?” “Boston area.” “But where?” And then the moment of truth — and the fatal response.

I believe that you should just say — straight out, without embarrassment or any drama — “Harvard.” Honesty is the best policy (I’ve heard somewhere). If others have a problem, yes, just deal with it (or let them). There will be some oohing and ahhing; there will be some sneering or clucking; there will be — you’re right — some awkward silences. There will be envy, congratulations, snarkiness, witticisms — whatever. You just have to roll with whatever comes. Play it by ear, in other words.

And, by the way, let me tell you about one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. It came from Tony Kornheiser, the Washington Post sportswriter and humor columnist. He said he had gone to Haverford, “school motto: ‘No, I Did Not Say Harvard.’”

Did any of you NR-niks catch what Tina Brown said about Sidney Blumenthal’s new book? She wrote that “his erstwhile friend, Christopher Hitchens (boo, hiss!), plays the role of Whittaker Chambers.”

I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think Brown means that as a bad thing. But I sort of like the imputation that Blumenthal is Alger Hiss (speaking of hissing).

You know how certain Republicans are always using “Democrat” as an adjective, as in, “I just don’t like them commie Democrat policies?” Well, I noticed — if the reporting is accurate — that Sen. Fritz Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat, uses it too: “I’d love to have a candidate that would run — a Democrat candidate. I’ve been trying my best for ten years to find one that will run.”

So, that perhaps opens the door to Republican usage of “Democrat,” adjectivally (“Democrat wars,” Bob Dole said, to his regret).

(N.B. I already did an Impromptu on this — long ago — so we really shouldn’t open this can of worms again, don’t you think?)

Finally, let me say something complimentary about Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the loopy Democrat(ic) presidential candidate (one of them, rather). In Iowa, the following exchange took place: “Congressman, according to your website, you’re a vegetarian.” “Right.” “Why should people in Iowa support a president who is anti-meat?” “Corn is a vegetable.”

Marvelous answer. Prepared or not, it was terrific — charming, engaging, smart. A second questioner immediately chimed in, “We often use corn to feed our livestock” — but Kucinich had done pretty well.

And on that weird note, I’ll end this — sorry — quite unusual (and not very fun) Impromptus.



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