Saturday, June 13, 2009

FRANK RICH The Obama Haters’ Silent Enablers

WHEN a Fox News anchor, reacting to his own network’s surging e-mail traffic, warns urgently on-camera of a rise in hate-filled, “amped up” Americans who are “taking the extra step and getting the gun out,” maybe we should listen. He has better sources in that underground than most.

The anchor was Shepard Smith, speaking after Wednesday’s mayhem at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Unlike the bloviators at his network and elsewhere on cable, Smith is famous for his highly caffeinated news-reading, not any political agenda. But very occasionally — notably during Hurricane Katrina — he hits the Howard Beale mad-as-hell wall. Joining those at Fox who routinely disregard the network’s “We report, you decide” mantra, he both reported and decided, loudly.

What he reported was this: his e-mail from viewers had “become more and more frightening” in recent months, dating back to the election season. From Wednesday alone, he “could read a hundred” messages spewing “hate that’s not based in fact,” much of it about Barack Obama and some of it sharing the museum gunman’s canard that the president was not a naturally born citizen. These are Americans “out there in a scary place,” Smith said.

Then he brought up another recent gunman: “If you’re one who believes that abortion is murder, at what point do you go out and kill someone who’s performing abortions?” An answer, he said, was provided by Dr. George Tiller’s killer. He went on: “If you are one who believes these sorts of things about the president of the United States ...” He left the rest of that chilling sentence unsaid.

These are extraordinary words to hear on Fox. The network’s highest-rated star, Bill O’Reilly, had assailed Tiller, calling him “Tiller the baby killer” and likening him to the Nazis, on 29 of his shows before the doctor was murdered at his church in Kansas. O’Reilly was unrepentant, stating that only “pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters” would link him to the crime. But now another Fox star, while stopping short of blaming O’Reilly, was breaching his network’s brand of political correctness: he tied the far-right loners who had gotten their guns out in Wichita and Washington to the mounting fury of Obama haters.

What is this fury about? In his scant 145 days in office, the new president has not remotely matched the Bush record in deficit creation. Nor has he repealed the right to bear arms or exacerbated the wars he inherited. He has tried more than his predecessor ever did to reach across the aisle. But none of that seems to matter. A sizable minority of Americans is irrationally fearful of the fast-moving generational, cultural and racial turnover Obama embodies — indeed, of the 21st century itself. That minority is now getting angrier in inverse relationship to his popularity with the vast majority of the country. Change can be frightening and traumatic, especially if it’s not change you can believe in.

We don’t know whether the tiny subset of domestic terrorists in this crowd is egged on by political or media demagogues — though we do tend to assume that foreign jihadists respond like Pavlov’s dogs to the words of their most fanatical leaders and polemicists. But well before the latest murderers struck — well before another “antigovernment” Obama hater went on a cop-killing rampage in Pittsburgh in April — there have been indications that this rage could spiral out of control.

This was evident during the campaign, when hotheads greeted Obama’s name with “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” at G.O.P. rallies. At first the McCain-Palin campaign fed the anger with accusations that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” But later John McCain thought better of it and defended his opponent’s honor to a town-hall participant who vented her fears of the Democrats’ “Arab” candidate. Although two neo-Nazi skinheads were arrested in an assassination plot against Obama two weeks before Election Day, the fever broke after McCain exercised leadership.

That honeymoon, if it was one, is over. Conservatives have legitimate ideological beefs with Obama, rightly expressed in sharp language. But the invective in some quarters has unmistakably amped up. The writer Camille Paglia, a political independent and confessed talk-radio fan, detected a shift toward paranoia in the air waves by mid-May. When “the tone darkens toward a rhetoric of purgation and annihilation,” she observed in Salon, “there is reason for alarm.” She cited a “joke” repeated by a Rush Limbaugh fill-in host, a talk-radio jock from Dallas of all places, about how “any U.S. soldier” who found himself with only two bullets in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden would use both shots to assassinate Pelosi and then strangle Reid and bin Laden.

This homicide-saturated vituperation is endemic among mini-Limbaughs. Glenn Beck has dipped into O’Reilly’s Holocaust analogies to liken Obama’s policy on stem-cell research to the eugenics that led to “the final solution” and the quest for “a master race.” After James von Brunn’s rampage at the Holocaust museum, Beck rushed onto Fox News to describe the Obama-hating killer as a “lone gunman nutjob.” Yet in the same show Beck also said von Brunn was a symptom that “the pot in America is boiling,” as if Beck himself were not the boiling pot cheering the kettle on.

But hyperbole from the usual suspects in the entertainment arena of TV and radio is not the whole story. What’s startling is the spillover of this poison into the conservative political establishment. Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan G.O.P. chairman who ran for the party’s national chairmanship this year, seriously suggested in April that Republicans should stop calling Obama a socialist because “it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.” Anuzis pushed “fascism” instead, because “everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.” He didn’t seem to grasp that “fascism” is nonsensical as a description of the Obama administration or that there might be a risk in slurring a president with a word that most find “bad” because it evokes a mass-murderer like Hitler.

The Anuzis “fascism” solution to the Obama problem has caught fire. The president’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and his speech in Cairo have only exacerbated the ugliness. The venomous personal attacks on Sotomayor have little to do with the 3,000-plus cases she’s adjudicated in nearly 17 years on the bench or her thoughts about the judgment of “a wise Latina woman.” She has been tarred as a member of “the Latino KKK” (by the former Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo), as well as a racist and a David Duke (by Limbaugh), and portrayed, in a bizarre two-for-one ethnic caricature, as a slant-eyed Asian on the cover of National Review. Uniting all these insults is an aggrieved note of white victimization only a shade less explicit than that in von Brunn’s white supremacist screeds.

Obama’s Cairo address, meanwhile, prompted over-the-top accusations reminiscent of those campaign rally cries of “Treason!” It was a prominent former Reagan defense official, Frank Gaffney, not some fringe crackpot, who accused Obama in The Washington Times of engaging “in the most consequential bait-and-switch since Adolf Hitler duped Neville Chamberlain.” He claimed that the president — a lifelong Christian — “may still be” a Muslim and is aligned with “the dangerous global movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood.” Gaffney linked Obama by innuendo with Islamic “charities” that “have been convicted of providing material support for terrorism.”

If this isn’t a handy rationalization for another lone nutjob to take the law into his own hands against a supposed terrorism supporter, what is? Any such nutjob can easily grab a weapon. Gun enthusiasts have been on a shopping spree since the election, with some areas of our country reporting percentage sales increases in the mid-to-high double digits, recession be damned.

The question, Shepard Smith said on Fox last week, is “if there is really a way to put a hold on” those who might run amok. We’re not about to repeal the First or Second Amendments. Hard-core haters resolutely dismiss any “mainstream media” debunking of their conspiracy theories. The only voices that might penetrate their alternative reality — I emphasize might — belong to conservative leaders with the guts and clout to step up as McCain did last fall. Where are they? The genteel public debate in right-leaning intellectual circles about the conservative movement’s future will be buried by history if these insistent alarms are met with silence.

It’s typical of this dereliction of responsibility that when the Department of Homeland Security released a plausible (and, tragically, prescient) report about far-right domestic terrorism two months ago, the conservative response was to trash it as “the height of insult,” in the words of the G.O.P. chairman Michael Steele. But as Smith also said last week, Homeland Security was “warning us for a reason.”

No matter. Last week it was business as usual, as Republican leaders nattered ad infinitum over the juvenile rivalry of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich at the party’s big Washington fund-raiser. Few if any mentioned, let alone questioned, the ominous script delivered by the actor Jon Voight with the G.O.P. imprimatur at that same event. Voight’s devout wish was to “bring an end to this false prophet Obama.”

This kind of rhetoric, with its pseudo-Scriptural call to action, is toxic. It is getting louder each day of the Obama presidency. No one, not even Fox News viewers, can say they weren’t warned.


Right-wing media and the fringe:
A growing history of violence (and denial)

This week, the country's attention was captured by the horrific shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by James W. von Brunn, an 88-year-old man with ties to white supremacist and anti-Semitic organizations. The fatal shooting came just two months after an April 7 Department of Homeland Security report detailing potential increases in right-wing extremism.

As Media Matters for America documented, the DHS report was immediately and vehemently rejected by numerous conservative commentators, such as Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, and David Asman, who portrayed it as an illegitimate and politically motivated assault on conservatives. (Media Matters Senior Fellow Karl Frisch puts the attacks in even broader perspective here.)

Following the Holocaust Memorial Museum attack, these commentators faced criticism for their earlier dismissiveness. Some have since unconvincingly (and in the case of Joe Scarborough, inaccurately) defended their past assessment, and a handful of reporters and analysts are still engaging in falsehoods and inconsistencies in criticizing the DHS report. But on Fox News, Shepard Smith took a different position -- for which he was attacked by conservatives -- saying that the report "was a warning to us all. And it appears now that they were right."

The day before the Holocaust Memorial Museum attack, Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert wrote that Fox News and its hosts "will have more right-wing vigilantism to explain." He added that "militia-style vigilante rhetoric has become a cornerstone of the conservative media movement in America, and it's now proudly championed by Fox News on a nearly hourly basis." (He also appeared on CNN this week.)

While right-wing media are certainly not legally culpable for any recent attacks, they are responsible for promoting a culture of fear, paranoia, and violence that is anti-government in the extreme -- a culture in which extremists, including von Brunn and Richard Poplawski, who fatally shot three Pittsburgh police officers, were apparently immersed. Poplawski was convinced that the Obama administration was going to take away his guns. Even though no evidence of such a policy exists, right-wing commentators and news organizations made the claim repeatedly before the shooting and have continued to do so since.

Predictably, conservative media figures responded to the museum shooting by attempting to shift attention away from themselves and onto political liberals and even President Obama himself. On June 10, the day of the museum shooting, financial analyst and radio host Jim Lacamp said on Fox News that "we have an administration that's really done a lot of class warfare, a lot of class-baiting. And so, it sets the stage for social unrest." That same day, conservative Tammy Bruce wrote that the Obama administration's "increasing anti-Israel rhetoric and the pandering to the Jew-hating world Arab world ... encourages all the beasts among us." published an op-ed, cited on Friday by Michael Savage, claiming that Obama "is most certainly creating a climate of hate against" Jews. Colorado radio host Bob Newman even raised questions about whether Obama's recent visit to a concentration camp, or his statement about Israeli settlements, were factors in the shooting.

But as always, the most virulent reality-denier was Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh claimed that von Brunn "is a leftist if anything." He said that Obama is "ramping up hatred for Israel" and that "anti-Jew rhetoric comes from the American left." He claimed that MSNBC broadcasts "hate 24/7." Despite the right wing's repeated use of violent, revolutionary rhetoric, Limbaugh said that it was actually Obama who "thrives and needs chaos" to succeed. And in response to Shepard Smith, he remarked that the "claim that the atmosphere is somehow more violently anti-Obama is simply preposterous."

Indeed, Smith's remarks were the exception for the right. Despite its love of fearmongering, Fox News spent the 24 hours after the von Brunn shooting downplaying it. And on his broadcast that night, Bill O'Reilly, who hypocritically and incorrectly criticized the media for a supposed lack of coverage after the shooting death of Army recruiter Pvt. William Long, and who stokes the anger of viewers whenever it suits him politically, barely mentioned the shooting and instead featured what he called a "very important story" on gay penguins. "Do they wear tight T-shirts?" he asked, laughing. During the two shows after the shooting, Hannity barely mentioned it.

Other major stories this week:

Newt in the news

This was a big week for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is clearly attempting to position himself as the new (aka, old) voice of the GOP. (And according to USA Today, he's in the running.)

Newt, who had previously backed off of referring to Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a "racist," began the week by modifying his argument and repeating the dubious claim that she "clearly supported racial quotas" in the Frank Ricci case.

He followed it up at a congressional Republican fundraiser by proudly declaring that he was "not a citizen of the world," saying that "the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous." CNN's Candy Crowley and CQ Politics' Jonathan Allen reported Gingrich's statement without noting that President Ronald Reagan made similar remarks while addressing the United Nations in 1982. (You would think that Gingrich, a former history teacher, would have known better.) After Media Matters documented the oversight, MSNBC's David Shuster and Keith Olbermann, as well as by NBC's Brian Williams, subjected Gingrich's remarks to scrutiny.

Newt closed the week by reacting to a Weekly Standard article discussing the ongoing U.S. practice of reading Miranda rights to detainees. On Fox News' Hannity, Gingrich said that it was "unimaginable. It's worse than anything Jimmy Carter ever did. It's worse than anything that President Bill Clinton ever did." In doing so, he ignored the part of the article reporting that the FBI also Mirandized people at "specific bases" during the Bush administration.

Newt's factually challenged analysis has come to be so legendary that even MSNBC's Mike Barnicle felt compelled to ask, "[W]hy would anyone pay attention to anything he says?" It's a good question. Perhaps it's because networks like Fox News do whatever they can to make Gingrich, who hasn't held any office or official position since 1998, relevant.

Health care reform is coming, and the news is already making me sick

All three national networks covered a Thursday town hall meeting that Obama held in Wisconsin, during which he laid out his health care proposals in detail. And yet, not one of them reported on the substance of his remarks, focusing instead on a note he wrote for a 10-year-old girl who was skipping school.

On Friday, NPR's Mara Liasson claimed that the American Medical Association opposes a public plan as a component of health care reform, even though the AMA had backtracked the same day, stating that it was "willing to consider other variations of a public plan that are currently under discussion in Congress." Flaws in a New York Times story the day before about the AMA's position were the subject of Media Matters Senior Fellow Jamison Foser's column this week.

And during a Wednesday interview with Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell freely editorialized, lecturing him on how current proposals seemingly would "drive the deficit into these stratospheric numbers" and complaining that senators were engaging in "gobbledygook" on the issue.

The need for accurate and impartial reporting on impending legislation is made all the more acute by the long history and prevalence of misinformation from media conservatives on the issue. On Thursday, Limbaugh began pulling out the stops, sounding not unlike O'Donnell in the process. "And it's all about control," he said. "It's not about cost. This man's not worried about the cost of anything. He doesn't care what anything costs: a trip to New York for a date -- $12 trillion in debt over 10 years? He doesn't care what things cost." He went on to hypothesize that "exercise freaks ... are the ones putting stress on the health care system" because they keep getting injured.

Buchanan continues to test how much MSNBC will tolerate

Media Matters has already documented Pat Buchanan's racially charged and often sexist campaign against Sotomayor. Despite his recent (and past) behavior, however, MSNBC has provided Buchanan with a prominent platform from which to spew his invective. This week, Foser asked a question MSNBC -- which in the past has had to fire Michael Savage and Don Imus for their remarks -- should answer: just what would Pat Buchanan have to say to be fired from the network?

Well, during this past week, Buchanan was curiously absent from much of MSNBC's commentary. Was it a sign that the network might be re-evaluating its relationship with one of its favorite "analysts"? If so, it should take note of the fact that Buchanan is set to host what the Southern Poverty Law Center called a "prominent white nationalist" at the upcoming conference of The American Cause, a Buchanan-led organization.

Mainstream Medicine and the Oprah Factor

By DEEPAK CHOPRA posted on The Huffington Post

A recent cover story in a struggling news magazine, under the title "Crazy Talk:" accuses Oprah Winfrey of spreading "dubious advice" in a wide range of health issues from menopause and hormone replacement therapy to autism, cancer, aging, and weight loss. The tone of the article was the same tiresome blend of gotcha journalism and selective fact-reporting that fills tabloid coffers.

The story failed to gain traction for obvious reasons. Oprah has aired innumerable shows on health, of which the controversial ones are a tiny minority. Her intention to improve women's lives on all fronts is so obvious as to be almost above criticism. The credibility for women's well-being and welfare she has earned day after day over the past two decades will not be undone with a story that cherry-picks the guests who can be made easy targets of ridicule by the medical establishment. And the fact that she has celebrity guests who have causes and crusades in the area of health, such as Jenny McCarthy or Suzanne Somers, is not the same as Oprah herself endorsing what they say.

The criticism the medical establishment is directing at Oprah through this article only exposes their own frustration in having squandered their credibility with the public. They hope that if they can successfully attack the Oprah's immense credibility, then they can magically get some of that credibility back for themselves. However, if people still trusted the health care industry to act in their best interest the way they did decades ago, then it would be unnecessary to brand Oprah for "crazy talk" simply because she occasionally provides a forum for ideas outside of mainstream medicine.

The medical profession is burdened with a host of problems that Oprah addresses with more candor and force than the AMA. She promotes wellness and prevention, two areas that drastically need improvement. She brings up creative solutions to problems that medical science is baffled by, such as the healing response itself and the role of subjectivity in patient response. These are issues that few M.D.s are willing to explore, yet she has done so for decades.

Instead, we got a response from an oncologist in Canada repeating the establishment position: alternative treatments of cancer are bogus, subjectivity has no place in science, "soul talk" about illness is rubbish. This is exactly the kind of dismissive arrogance that drives millions of people away from conventional doctors. Every illness has a subjective component -- after all, to be sick is to change your moods and emotions, and severe illness causes one to examine primal issues like life and death and the meaning of existence. Do these subjective changes affect healing? Obviously they do, or we wouldn't have the placebo effect, which comes into play at least 30% of the time in illness.

Scientific medicine by and large ignores wellness, prevention, and alternative medicine in general. On a daily basis doctors don't deal in these things; few take courses in medical school centered on them. That's why a massive movement has arisen driven by patients themselves. Oprah serves as a public outlet for a conversation that needs to be ongoing. As long as official medicine, backed by huge pharmaceutical companies, denies the existence of the problem, much less alternative solutions, the movement will remain patient-centered and the attitude toward alternative medicine will be one of unfounded disdain, suspicion, and ignorance on the part of physicians.

Denial also plays a huge part in this story. Mainstream medicine continues to downplay the enormous drawbacks of a health-care system that is addicted to drugs and surgery as the two constant drumbeats of treatment. This lopsided emphasis has created dilemmas that official medicine hasn't remotely solved:

* In Seattle a recent study of 638 patients with chronic lower back pain were given either some sort of acupuncture or standard treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs and massage. On average, the acupuncture patients received twice as much benefit as those on standard treatment. The kicker is that some of the patients received fake acupuncture -- they were pricked superficially with toothpicks -- and received the same relief.

* Iatrogenic disease, roughly defined as illness that results as a complication from a doctor's care, leads to between 230,000 to 284,000 deaths every year, making it the third leading cause of fatality in the country.

* A survey of 1,249 health care professionals found that 81% had taken dietary supplements like vitamins and minerals. This, despite the fact that mainstream doctors frequently tell their patients that the only benefit of such supplements is "expensive urine."

* Two of the most frequently performed surgeries, heart bypass grafts and balloon angioplasty, became fashionable without serious testing (the government approves drugs but not surgical procedures). They continue to be used in the face of perennial findings that neither procedure increases life expectancy. Besides relieving symptoms, which of course can be very troubling to the patient, both procedures carry serious risks. (The most recent finding showed that diabetics with stable heart disease do not survive longer if given heart surgery.)

* In the past, such common procedures as hysterectomies and radical mastectomies were widely performed without testing their efficacy. Not until European results revealed that lumpectomies were often just as effective did American surgeons question the staunch support of mastectomies. One might also consider that surgeons were very slow to perform cosmetic breast replacement for women who faced devastating psychological fallout from their mastectomies -- a typical neglect of any patient's subjective response to illness.

* The benefit of lifestyle changes has been grossly underestimated and underused. Coronary heart disease, prostate cancer/breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity account for 75% of health care costs, yet the progression of these diseases may often be stopped or even reversed by making intensive lifestyle changes. The most recent findings show that such changes actually cause beneficial alterations at the genetic level, affecting up to 400 genes through such measures as improved diet, exercise, and meditation.

* Overall, this country's health care system is actually a "sick care" system. In 2006, $2.1 trillion were spent in the U.S. on medical care, 95% of which was spent to treat disease after it had already occurred.

We're just scratching the surface here. Yet even if these massive problems didn't exist, the Oprah affair raises the question of sins by omission. It's one thing for official medicine to decry alternative medicine and hurl accusations of quackery, not just at the non-M.D.s who work as health practitioners but at licensed, highly educated and qualified physicians who are creative enough to explore new avenues of treatment. Their own lack of curiosity and creative thinking is disturbing. Does the most brilliant researcher in the world know why cancer sometimes spontaneously disappears? Why a patient with obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression can respond equally well to talk therapy and drugs -- that is, why talk is as effective as chemicals in altering the brain? Or how the body's healing system is influenced by outside forces?

The answer is no. Which means that mysteries remain to be solved, and creative solutions have every chance of arising from unexpected quarters. Scientific medicine is leery of so-called anecdotal evidence, that is, individual stories of disease and cure. Their skepticism is rational and well-founded. We all agree that without impartial studies, the advance of knowledge becomes chaotic and untrustworthy. But Oprah is letting individuals tell their stories for other, positive reasons: to share their pain, to reach out to others in the same circumstance, to provide hope.

Official medicine falls short on these fronts far too often. It would be laughable if it weren't so sad that the typical TV ad for drugs paints glossy pictures of happy patients running through flowery meadows, ending with a list of every imaginable side effect, including death. The article sneers at the popular movement linking autism with childhood vaccination, yet current understanding looks at autism as a complex, multi-factorial condition in which some cases could be influenced by an outside factor like a vaccine. It's all too easy for medicine to disdain that possibility and cry foul against guests on Oprah's show, raising a smokescreen for the countless irresponsible prescriptions written, especially for elderly patients, by doctors every day.

One fears that all of these arguments will fall on deaf ears, because the schism between official and alternative medicine runs deep -- deep enough that the average physician doesn't bother even to skim the thousands of studies that bolster alternative claims. So let me offer a typical finding that comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other official sources. It concerns the effect of child abuse and other adverse circumstances on later health. Is it "soul talk" to believe that a child raised around parents who abuse substances, who suffer from mental illness, or who outright abuse the child will suffer health risks later in life?

According to the CDC study, covering 15,000 HMO members in San Diego between 1995-97, the risk of contracting an autoimmune disease as an adult is increased from 70% to 100% if you happened to be abused as a child or grow up with adverse home conditions. This finding isn't isolated. Autoimmune diseases are one in which the body's immune system attacks the body itself. There are few known causes; it is baffling to grasp why the body's chief defender against illness should turn around and become the cause of illness. This study suggests a human connection rather than a biological one. Or rather, human distress leads to biological distress. Doctors don't officially believe that; millions of ordinary citizens do. Earlier studies had already correlated adverse childhood conditions with the risk of inflammatory conditions. In the little picture, a new finding has been added to the long list of mind-body links for illness and aging. In the bigger picture, the fact that we don't fully understand the mind-body connection, much less use it for healing in official medicine, comes into glaring relief.

What this tells me is that medicine needs Oprah and other patient advocates who are demanding that official medicine heal itself. To accuse them of lacking medial credibility is a red herring. Patients aren't supposed to know more than their physicians. The fact that they often do, at least insofar as alternative treatment goes, is both a sign of hope and cause for distress.