If we needed one, and apparently we did, the Gulf oil disaster is a sobering reminder that our technological reach often exceeds our grasp. It’s also a tragic reminder that when we cut corners, we take huge potential risks.

What hasn’t helped much has been the table pounding, foot stamping demands that the federal government DO SOMETHING, as if President Obama or the federal government or British Petroleum had an ace up their sleeve but were reluctant to play it. James Carville comes to mind—red-faced, eyes popping out of his head, yelling at the camera, demanding that President Obama and the federal government do something; it may have made for good television, but it missed the point.

The question we ought to be coming away with from this ongoing catastrophe is, what are we going to learn from it, and what are we determined to do to prevent its recurrence? And what are we willing to pay?

No doubt more could have been done. The federal government could have sent 42,000 people instead of 22,000 to the Gulf to try to stem the tide, More booms, which didn’t seem to do much good, could have been deployed. Sand could have been dredged up to create berms. Any number of things could have been tried. To what effect? And at what cost, especially to an already ravaged environment?

One potential benefit of the Gulf oil spill is to illustrate vividly how we have the ability to start fires that we can’t put out. We can punch a hole in the earth that we may not be able to plug. Maybe we ought to be asking ourselves if we ought to be doing something potentially dangerous before we have in hand a remedy if things don’t work out as planned.

It turns out that it’s a lot easier to blame the president for “not doing enough” than it is to take a good hard look at how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place and how we can prevent a recurrence. However incompetently George W. Bush handled the aftermath of Katrina—and it was pretty incompetent—he didn’t build the inadequate, poorly constructed system of levees that didn’t protect New Orleans, or allow houses to be built in a flood plain, or mess for decades with the flow of the Mississippi in a way that ultimately contributed to the destruction of wetlands that would have helped protect New Orleans.

Barack Obama inherited a corrupt regulatory system designed to facilitate oil exploration and drilling by minimizing restraints on the explorers and drillers, accepting their assurances that they were on top of the process and had adequate safeguards in case the best case scenario turned bad. Oil isn’t the only industry where we take the word of the producer when it comes to safety. What about drug testing? What about meat inspection? If we don’t want Big Government protecting us, prepare to accept the consequences.

We need to decide where we want to be on the continuum between maximum production and absolute safety. Or between cheap energy and energy independence. Or between cheap imported goods and financial independence.  We can’t be safer, more self sufficient and more independent if we’re unwilling to pay the additional cost.

When this disaster is finally brought under control, is the final word going to be that Obama and the federal government should have done “something” sooner, never mind what that might have been? Or are we going to establish properly tested safeguards for all of the offshore oil platforms–and there are thousands of them– including existing ones already operating? Or are we just going to wait until the next disaster and then start complaining again that the president, the federal government—somebody—needs to do something?

David Remnick, a great reporter, writer and editor, talks about the New Yorker, where journalism is going and paying for news online. It’s an interesting interview, all the more so because it’s a transcript, not an article.

Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general and a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate, misrepresented his service record — claiming to have served in Vietnam when, in fact, he did not.

Chris Matthews, on Hardball Tuesday night, had smoke blowing out his ears, condemning Blumenthal’s misrepresentation as “unspeakable”. Matthews couldn’t contain his outrage — “I don’t know how you could lie about such a thing.” The only moral course for Blumenthal, Matthews suggested, was to fall on his sword, and if he doesn’t, then the Senate — that body of high virtue and moral standards — maybe should refuse to seat him if he’s elected. “The United States Senate cannot take on the morally dead weight of this candidate without honor.”

Blumenthal received five deferments from the draft before joining a United States Marine Corps Reserve unit in Washington, DC in 1970. He served six months active duty, going through Marine boot camp at Parris Island, and then attended Reserve meetings and participated in summer exercises for six years. He did not serve in Vietnam, never heard a shot fired in anger, and never apparently was in danger of losing his life while on active duty.

Blumenthal has been Connecticut’s attorney general for 19 years. He has on at least one occasion in public alluded to having served in Vietnam. He characterized his misrepresentation in a news conference on Tuesday as “misplaced words”. On at least one other occasion, while debating on television, Blumenthal stated that he did not serve in Vietnam. Today he apologized for having “misspoken” about having served there and said he regretted doing it.

Misrepresenting your service record is bad, especially falsely claiming to have been in combat. Let’s get that out of the way. But doing so doesn’t make Blumenthal a moral leper. He wasn’t a traitor to his country. He didn’t sell nuclear secrets to the Russians or give aid and comfort to the enemy. In fact, in the end he didserve, albeit in a cushy kind of way.

And, before I get to my big wind-up, a little full disclosure. I served in the United States Marine Corps from 1966 until 1968. In truth, I was drafted into the Marine Corps. Yes, the Marine Corps doesn’t like to broadcast the fact, but they do draft when they need more than a few good men, and I guess I was good enough. No, I did not go to Vietnam. I went to Norway, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, but not to Vietnam. I didn’t do anything to get out of it and I didn’t try to go, either. While I was in the Mediterranean with a battalion landing team for six months, I did get orders to Vietnam, but they were canceled because I was already deployed in what was considered an equivalent activity. Go figure.

To the best of my memory I have never claimed to have been in Vietnam. I did think, for the first year of my enlistment, that I would surely be going there. I lucked out, or missed out, depending on your point of view.

But enough about me.

My recollection from the late ’60s is that a lot of young men of Blumenthal’s age tried to avoid going into the military. They didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Vietnam was, when all is said and done, a stupid war. A lot of young Americans and a whole lot of Vietnamese were killed or maimed for no good reason. My hat comes off for those who did serve even though, in the end, their sacrifice served no good purpose for the country that sent them there to fight.

Now, how about Chris Matthews? Was he, as he put it in his Tuesday television harangue, “in it”? Actually, no. Chris didn’t go to Vietnam. He didn’t go into the Marines, or the Army, Navy or Air Force. Chris went into the Peace Corps and served in Africa from 1968 until 1970. Peace Corps service is national service and having served is definitely something to be proud of.

But if Chris Matthews thinks it was so important to be “in it” back then, why wasn’t he “in it”? He could have enlisted. What was on his mind when he joined the Peace Corps? (For those too young to know or who have forgotten, Peace Corps service generally got you out of the draft back then).

Can we get over this now, please? Vietnam was 40 years ago. Shame, shame on Richard Blumenthal for misrepresenting, or misspeaking or whatever he did. He has nothing to be proud of as far as that goes.

But who appointed Chris Matthews the spokesman for duty, honor and country? Come on down, Chris. Save the moral indignation and hot air for something truly disgraceful. Plenty of opportunities will present themselves in the days and months ahead. You can count on it.

Does Elena Kagan eat meat? Is she a vegetarian, or a vegan? Does she observe Jewish dietary laws? Does she keep the Sabbath?

I’d like to know, and I’m sure other Americans would like to know the answer to these questions. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how many Americans without doing a poll to find out. Apparently, some Americans would also like to know whether or not Elena Kagan is a lesbian. After all, she’s 50 and isn’t married. Does she date anyone of the opposite sex? If she does, aren’t we entitled to know whether she sleeps with this person? Once again, we don’t know how many Americans are interested in these questions, but that ignorance does not prevent some (there it is again) in the media from claiming that hordes of Americans want to know.

That begs the question, if people want to know, are they entitled to an answer? Actually, no. Just because they want to know and think they have a right to know doesn’t mean that they should be satisfied. Well, the answer goes, that’s part of their value system, and regardless of whether or not I care about the question, they do.

If she’s a lesbian, maybe that predisposes her to favor gay marriage and gay adoptions. So she would be biased in that way. But wait. If she isn’t a lesbian and favors gay marriage and gay adoption and believes that gays and lesbians are entitled to equal protection under the law, then what? In other words, if she can arrive at the same position without being a lesbian, why would the same position be discredited if she were a lesbian?

We know that she’s not going to be asked questions about her sexual orientation during her confirmation hearings, and, even if she were, she wouldn’t answer them. Nor, in all likelihood will she answer questions with any specificity about abortion rights, healthcare, the commerce clause of the Constitution or reading defendants their Miranda rights. The custom now is for Supreme Court nominees to reveal as little as possible about their beliefs and constitutional philosophy in their confirmation hearings. They may even obfuscate and dissemble. See, for example, the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

So apparently some members of the media have come forward to guard the public interest by raising questions about nominees and speculating, whether or not the questions or the speculation have any relevance to the qualifications of the nominee.

The Supreme Court now has six Roman Catholics sitting on it. Once upon a time in America, that would have brought mobs out into the streets. Now, hardly anyone notices. A justice’s religious beliefs may or may not influence his or her thinking in coming to a decision, but the entire panoply of our experiences influences our thinking and decisions. Why focus on one aspect of a person’s character or experience and elevate that to paramount importance?

And even if, and it’s a big if, some group, because of its value system, demands to know one thing or another of questionable relevance about a nominee, the media are not obligated to raise the question. We’re here to exercise judgment and—excuse me for exhibiting a little elitism here—tell people what we think they need to know, which isn’t the same thing as what they may want to know. People seem to want to know a great many things about public officials that are of questionable value to the well being and future of the Republic.

Let’s not confuse the desire to know with the need to know.

He tells Howard Kurtz that it was a hazing. Is there any reason to expect that the second year will be better? The good news is that the Post lost less money in the first quarter of this year. The bad news is that the Post is still losing money.

Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, has written a nice piece in the wake of last week’s announcement that The Washington Post was putting the magazine up for sale. Someone, or some group of someones, may well buy it. The point I’m most interested in from Meacham’s piece is:

“There is a place for NEWSWEEK in some form in a fragmented culture. We represent an opportunity to focus the attention of a large number of people on a single topic. The moment of focus may be fleeting, but there are fewer and fewer common denominators left in American life, and the conversation is not going to be enriched by having fewer still. We are not the only catcher in the rye standing between democracy and the abyss of ignorance and despair.” (my emphasis)

That statement may be a little melodramatic, but Meacham’s entirely correct. At the risk of repeating myself (again), the point is precisely that we need a common pool of information and a common point of departure in focusing on the myriad issues confronting us. The challenge for the media is restoring the public’s trust that we’re presenting a fair, balanced and comprehensive account of whatever issue we’re discussing (and I mean truly fair and balanced). Unfortunately, we have few institutions that still command universal public respect. Have our institutions become m0re corrupt, or have they always been as they are now and we just know more about them? One thing is for sure, we can’t on the one hand demand total purity on the part of our public servants and then on the other hand search for any impurity, however slight or minor, to discredit them. Men and women of goodwill will decide, as many have, that the game isn’t worth the effort if their reward will be a splash of mud all over them.

The other point I’m interested in from Meacham’s piece is this:

“… the task now is to find the right economic and digital means to meet our traditional ends while trying to discover a sustainable business model. ”

I’m not sure exactly what he means. Obviously, any enterprise has to be able to pay its bills to survive, regardless of whether it’s a profit-making business or one sustained by an angel of one kind or another. It would be better all around for the enterprise to be profit-making because that would show, among other things, that it’s meeting the wants and needs of its audience and not simply indulging some elite’s whims or interest. When Meacham says “the right digital means” though, is he being deliberately obtuse? He published his piece on “the right digital means”, so where is the mystery? The task is to present a product that will bring enough paying customers back on a regular basis to show a profit and keep the ‘publication’ (if that is the right word in this context) going. Newsweek, or any other magazine, has to recognize the expectation that readers have been encouraged to develop that something new and interesting will be there for them to read whenever they turn to a publication. And they’re not going to wait until Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday morning or afternoon every week to get it.

This is the venue, for better or worse, where Newsweek and all the other magazines and newspapers have to sink or swim. And they will just have to get better and quicker at presenting whatever they are doing in order to stay afloat. And readers, as I have said too many times already, will have to get used to the idea that they’re going to have to pay for information. In the best of all possible worlds, maybe information would be free. In this one, it isn’t.

Today’s announcement that The Washington Post has put Newsweek up for sale is obviously another indication of how the news business is changing. Newsweek already had scaled back and was in the process of becoming a digital operation, with the print edition taking a back seat. It was losing money, though, and according to the statement of Don Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Company, the Post didn’t see a way that it could reverse the trend.

News magazines may have outlived their usefulness in a world where anyone can have access to up-to-the-minute news reports 24/7. Waiting a week to read what you already know doesn’t make much sense, and there are so many voices out their already commenting that the loss of a couple of weekly voices may not seem to matter much.


Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, appeared on the Daily Show tonight to talk about the sale, what’s going on in journalism and the importance of publications like Newsweek to American democracy. He made two points that have been made here in the past couple of weeks. 1) that if people aren’t ready to pay for news, “they should be prepared to get a different kind of news”; and, 2) that in an increasingly fragmented world, Newsweek and other publications like it constitute a source of information that people have in common.

We need to be drawing on the same pool of information if we’re going to have any kind of dialogue. Meacham repeated another point made here, that the informati0n may not be accurate 100 percent of the time in a publication like Newsweek, or The Washington Post, or Time, or the New York Times, but they make an honest effort to get it right and avoid blatant bias.

We need to hear facts that we may not like, and we need to get used to the idea that there’s no free lunch. Someone has to pay for all those reporters running around–occasionally risking their lives–to gather information. They love their jobs, of course, but they have to eat and support their families. If no one wants to pay them, they’ll have to find another line of work. Once again, quoting King Lear, nothing comes from nothing.

Warren Buffett, whose company owns the Buffalo News, expresses his amazement at how quickly newspapers are losing ground. Buffett is obviously very astute as an investor, but he shouldn’t be so surprised. Newspapers have been fumbling around for 20 years while they lost readership. It began before the Internet was a factor, so it can’t all be blamed on technology. Something will eventually serve the function that newspapers filled for more than 200 years in this country, although the transition is obviously rocky. The desire and need to know is too great for the void not to be filled.

Technology has made it possible for more than 150 years to report news immediately. Anyone who could receive telegraph messages could know what was going on in a particular place almost to the minute. The problem was that most people didn’t have telegraph machines in their homes. When radio came along, people could also receive news immediately as it happened. The problem was that people who listened to the radio were interested in more than news, and it wasn’t commercially viable for radio stations to report news only. Even if they could, the volume of news that they could report was limited. Even if it was unlimited, if you weren’t listening to news when a particular report was made, and it wasn’t repeated, then you missed it. Ditto for television.

The difference is that the Internet can present news immediately. It’s always there when you want to read it, or watch it, or listen to it. (It’s multi media, in other words, as well as being immediate). And people can receive it almost anywhere now using machines that aren’t very expensive. Newspapers have lost their preeminent position as the necessary intermediary for comprehensive information.

The problem is that the prevailing notion with the Internet is that information should be free–free to consumers that is. But, to raise this question again, who’s going to pay the cost of gathering the information? That’s the heart of the matter. And if newspapers continue to fade away, we still don’t have an answer to that question.