Archive for June, 2010
I’m late to this, but considering my experience covering the Hill as non-credentialed media, I thought I’d share some thoughts.
Let’s dispense with the obvious: Etheridge assaulted the kid. Assaults like this happen every day in any number of contexts and are very rarely prosecuted, so I’m not willing to go so far as Glenn Greenwald and say that Etheridge should be arrested and tried. Moreover, I’m fairly certain this happened on Capitol Grounds which is a kind of magical area for Senators and Members of Congress in which they are virtually immune from arrest. This is a murky area of law; so far as I understand the Constitution gives Congress the power to make their own rules and they are responsible for policing themselves. Where do I get such a strange idea? Well, that’s a decent segue to my next point…
Etheridge is not a lonely perp when it comes to lawmakers somehow believing they have the right to lay hands on people they consider to be disagreeable. Recall my incident with John Cornyn – a former Attorney General! I learned that the Capitol Police cannot take a complaint against a Senator or Member of Congress. Any compliant must be filed with the Sergeant at Arms.
There have been several other minor assaults that I haven’t reported (including one by another former prosecutor, now a Representative). Innumerable staff have laid unwanted hands upon me. I’ve stopped reporting these incidents for several inter-related reasons.
The first is that they are invariably trivial; nobody is punching me in the face or tackling me or engaging in any real violence. Instead it’s been staff deliberately walking into me to separate me from the principal they are protecting (most common) or aggressive touching to either block the camera or turn me around so that I’m not pointing the camera at them (it’s also a type-A show of control). In short, the behaviors are obnoxious and annoying (and inexcusable), but not truly threatening or fear-inducing.
The second reason I no longer report these things is that I’ve learned to put myself in their shoes. I am by no means coddling these people, but here’s a not-uncommon scenario: Politician is walking with staffer engaged in conversation about I-don’t-know-what. I’ve been trying to catch up with said politician, so I seize the opportunity. I turn on the camera, train it on the pol and begin walking alongside waiting for an opportunity to introduce myself. Politician sees camera recording his conversation, gets peeved. That actually happened to me and if you watched the Cornyn video linked above, you witnessed it. That doesn’t excuse Cornyn’s behavior, but as weeks passed and I learned the ropes around the Capitol a bit more, I realized that I could have handled the situation much better myself. Ultimately, about a month ago, I apologized to Cornyn (actually, his back, he still won’t talk to me) for my own handling of the matter. Of course, I didn’t let him off the hook; I told him that I still believed that he was way in error for escalating the situation into a physical confrontation.
Another way I put myself in their shoes is in realizing that I do not have media credentials and am a complete unknown to these folks. Approaching them with a camera running and attempting impromptu interviews isn’t, to say the least, a best practice. Much to my discredit, that was my approach when I first got to the Hill. I had been “blogified” – for too long I had watched the news and witnessed the shameful lack of an oppositional, skeptical press. On the other hand, the blogosphere was (and is) filled with insightful and unmerciful commentators that demand and, in their own way, achieve, accountability on a daily basis. The conversations I find most appealing are unvarnished, unflinching and uncompromised expositions of everything that is wrong about our too-often corrupt politics and the power-worshipping press that consistently and dismally ignores its 4th Estate function. I was determined to bring something different to Washington and made some bad assumptions. My first mistake was assuming that nobody would talk to me, so I tried forcing the issue. That’s why I always approached with the camera rolling.
It turns out that, for the most part, these folks will give you a few minutes. Not all of them do – Bernie Sanders, for example, hasn’t given me diddly, even as he tells progressives that we need a progressive press to counter the right’s noise machine – but a sizable majority are willing to spend a couple of minutes speaking with me when I’ve got something to ask. Ultimately, I’ve learned that the Rachel Maddow approach is much better than that of Jason Mattera or the two kids that approached Etheridge. So now I introduce myself, ask if they’d take a few questions on video (or audio if they prefer), accept their answer (if it’s “no” I give them my card and tell them that I hope they’ll find time in the future) and establish with them that I’m not an asshole, I’m a journalist. I suspect that if I had taken that approach with Senator Cornyn, he’d be willing to talk with me from time to time.
One more thing that should be remembered is that every single politician in the United States is fully aware of what a “Macaca moment” is. Unfortunately, many of them blame the camera rather than blaming the stupid man that used the racial slur. The YouTube age is still relatively new. Politics is like poker in that you don’t get to the final table (Congress) by taking a lot of chances. They see a camera, remember what’s happened to George Allen, Trent Lott and many, many others, and make the entirely rational decision that if they don’t engage, they won’t be singed. Moreover, with a compliant, lapdog press waiting back in the gallery, why take chances with the random guy in the street?
One last point about the too-common physical confrontations: ultimately, the situation is grossly unfair. I’ve said it before: If I cannot lay hands on a Senator or Representative without risking being shot (a real risk, as anyone that has seen the assault weapons carried by Capitol Hill Police can attest to – they don’t even carry tasers), how can they possibly justify doing it to me? Moreover, when it happens, if someone is going to face consequences, it will be me. I already have. Let me direct you back to the Cornyn video.
There are cameras everywhere in DC that capture every square inch, both inside the buildings and outside. Every movement is recorded, if not observed. When Cornyn assaulted me (it was an assault), a cop was standing less than 15 feet away. I had followed every rule and been completely within my legal rights (even if my actions were less than optimally social). But I was the one detained. For about 30 minutes.
That was far from the only time I’ve been detained for being a journalist and asking unwelcome questions. Virginia Foxx alone has reported me to the Capitol Police on at least five occasions. Each time they detain me for 15-20 minutes while they run a check for warrants and establish that I’ve done nothing wrong. all in all, I’ve been through the experience at least 25 times. Each time I was set loose after it was determined that I was completely within my rights and had not committed any offense.
That’s bad enough, but it’s understandable. When a Member of Congress calls the cops, I’m not going to be upset with the police for investigating (the Member of Congress is another story; they are clearly abusing their power and wasting police resources, simply because they don‘t like being questioned). What bothers me is when a situation like the one with Cornyn arises. More than once, police have stopped me of their own accord simply because I was asking questions of Senators, committee witnesses, etc. That get’s to be a really difficult situation.
To begin with, they have no plausible cause to detain me. But how do you tell a cop that? How do you say, “Sorry, sir, but you are wrong about the law. I’m perfectly entitled to do what I’m doing and I won’t (and can’t) stop doing my job.” Police are trained to assert authority and demand unflinching compliance. I generally ask to have them call their Sergeant to clear things up, but even that is often taken as impudence. (It’s at those moments I’m grateful Capitol Police don’t carry tasers). Anyway, the point here is that the entire racket is set up to protect the powerful. Through persistence, a willingness to self-examine and learn from mistakes, and true earnestness, I’ve been able to navigate these largely unchartered waters, but the seas have been choppy at times.
Before I go, one last point on the Etheridge video. Compare it to the Cornyn video. Any difference is superficial, at best. The Etheridge video has been seen far and wide; Politico did an entire story on it and it was splayed across our tv sets all day yesterday. The Cornyn video was mentioned in passing in a Politico story about an entirely different subject (the Republican objection to being asked questions about the Franken Amendment), but was otherwise not seen anywhere except DailyKos and starkReports (the two places I posted it). If you doubt the existence of a Republican noise-machine, let this be a lesson.
I first became inclined toward politics back in the early 90′s while attending community college. It was around that time that I read an in-depth article about the S&L crisis in Harpers Magazine. I had heard about S&L’s in the news and seen the headlines in the papers, but you know… Why would a college kid be interested in financial news? Especially something with such a banal name like “the S&L crisis”? Talk about mego…
But for some reason I picked up that magazine and read the article. It was a long article by L.J. Davis that crystallized how connected businessmen and politicians rigged the system for their own gain, at the expense of pensioners, savers and unwitting investors. The political engineering was so complete that even after the scheme catastrophically unraveled, there could be no consequences for the bad actors. In fact, even as the artifice crumbled, the moral (if not legal) criminals that had built it up profited from its destruction. (Of course, today’s financial scandal is a perfect example history repeating.)
Back then the outrage that moved me was the lack of recourse. Concerned and knowledgeable citizens were utterly powerless; it was clear that there were just too many complicit actors in high places. Sure, some careers were derailed here and there… A bank president or two went to jail… But overall, the imposition of consequences proportionate to the crime was an exceedingly rare sight. And there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Well, for the next fifteen years I kept my finger on the pulse of the news and watched as the environment was raped, tyrants were coddled, unjust wars were launched, innocents were jailed, and workers lost ground while the powerful pillaged by paper and sword. And the frustration I first felt after reading the Harpers article never abated. I didn’t see any means by which I, or anyone else that cared, could make a difference.
In 2003, everything changed when I discovered something entirely new: blogs. In the years since, I’ve combined a personal commitment to activism with my new-found ability to reach hundreds of thousands of people almost at will. It’s been one hell of a ride, and at times I’ve felt surprisingly empowered, but… now I’m having second thoughts.
Back when this adventure started, Tom Delay (with his lackey, Denny Hastert) led the House and Bill Frist, the Senate. George Bush and a radical Republican administration spoke of perpetual Republican governance. All of that came crashing down, and some of that can be credited to the liberal blogosphere and its allied activists. Our commitment and resourcefulness was noticed: you can bet that in 2003, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi would have drawn a blank if asked to comment on “bloggers.” Today, both attend our events, hold fairly regular blogger conference calls and even have staff tasked with “New Media Outreach.”
But for all of our success, how much have we changed?
When I ask Hill staffers that question, an air of defensiveness descends like a wet blanket. I’m told that sure, we haven’t enacted every item on the progressive wish-list, but we’ve stopped the bleeding. In other words, without Republicans in power, we don’t wake up to stories about torture being approved at the highest levels, wilderness areas being opened to oil and gas exploration, and the Department of Justice being overrun by ideologues.
Is that good enough? Is it good enough that we’ve turned away from the absolute worst path we could choose? That instead of heading due south, we’ve changed course to south-by-southwest?
I bring this up because the same frustration that singed me throughout the nineties is manifest once more. When I see peace activists murdered in cold blood for something so decent as trying to deliver food to starving poor children, and then I look to my government and see the people I helped to elect run interference for the murderers, I begin to wonder if we’re wasting our time. If all of our commitment and all of our activism and all of our creativity and all of our money and all of our worn-out sneakers and all of our speaking truth to power and all of our hours spent phone-banking and all of our writing and all of our organization and all of our voting….
Well, what will it take to get our leaders to say that murdering peace activists is wrong? What will it take to get our leaders to say that starving an entire population is wrong? What will it take to get our leaders to say that crushing a non-violent proponent of peace (and an American citizen) with a bulldozer is wrong? That firing a tear-gas cannister into a crowd at close range and shooting out the eye of another peaceful American proponent of peace… is wrong? That at the very least, the American people deserve hearings. That at the very least, it’s time for a fact-finding Congressional delegation to visit Gaza?
I’m afraid that at this time next week, the world will have forgotten about the peace flotilla, the same way we’ve forgotten about Rachel Corrie… Our government will wait this out, and soon enough a new Janet Jackson will show a nipple. Our media will chase the shiny ball and the people of Gaza will continue to starve.
And when sarin gas is released in the New York city subways… or when a chemical plant alongside the 1-95 corridor in New Jersey is blown to pieces, killing thousands… or when gunmen storm an elementary school with assault weapons, killing scores of children… Well then we’re all going to cry rivers of tears and wonder how such an unfortunate calamity could happen. Why do they hate us so?
I’m writing this because yesterday I was on a conference call with Nancy Pelosi. I asked about the flotilla and Rachel Corrie and the American 21-year-old girl that lost an eye at the hands of the IDF. I asked about the starving kids of Gaza.
Here’s Speaker Pelosi’s reply:
Well first of all this incident, as you mentioned, is very recent. There is a very strong interest in getting the facts. A transparent and credible investigation is what people are calling for, that’s what the White House has mentioned and that’s what I support as well. We have to have the facts on which to make a judgment about how to go forward.
I don’t know and I appreciate what you are saying, that people are suffering from different physical challenges because of the blockade, I don’t know that… I know that blockades have consequences. And, again, we all saw this in real time because everyone has a camera and I think that people make a case on either side as to who was provocative and who was not. But the fact is this is a terribly regrettable situation. I regret the loss of life first and foremost and again call for a credible and transparent investigation to find our how this came to be.
I don’t know of any investigations planned to look into the Corrie incident, no.
Israel is our friend, well, we have a “Special Relationship” with Britian – I think that’s the only place we have that terminology. I think with Israel we have a very close friendship and to have a Democratic Jewish state in that region is something that has been a goal of our foreign policy. It is something that is based on our national security interest; it is about us as much – even more – than it is about them. We all – many of us here are striving for a two-state solution. They are not going to have a secure Jewish state in the region unless there is a two-state solution. But it has to be a solution where there is security for both sides. And hopefully President Obama will be able to use his good offices to achieve such a goal that has been bi-partisan in support in Congress. But again, I believe that the specialness of our relationship with Israel has as much to do with our own national security as it does with theirs.
Later, the speaker was asked if she thought the blockade of Gaza should be lifted. Her answer to that question:
I don’t want to go into a discussion of the blockade of Gaza. I would hope that we can end that by having a resolution in terms of Middle East peace. That’s where we spend our time – not necessarily on one particular tactic of one country or the next – but on the bigger picture which is we must have peace in the Middle East. It must respect both sides; it must have a two-state solution. And I emphasize the solution part of it so that both sides feel respected and well-treated and safe as they go forward with the new peace agreement. And I hope that whatever actions are taken on both sides, it’s in furtherance of reaching that peace.
I could go on to poke obvious holes in the Speaker’s responses, but that’s not the point here; I’ll leave that to Glenn Greenwald if he so desires. Instead, I want to ask this: why is it so difficult to achieve basic justice and decency when the contours of the issue are so starkly drawn? There is a clear villain here. If the netroots can’t be influential here, can we trust that we’ve got influence anywhere else? To the extent that we’ve had policy successes (as opposed to electoral), how can we be sure that any policy outcome was actually affected by our efforts? What I’m getting at is that I’m beginning to fear that the netroots is co-opted by the political establishment when it comes to politics, but when policy is discussed, we are simply patted on our little heads and told to go back to playing on our internets.
In other words, all that empowerment I’ve felt at times since the dawn if the blogs… well, beyond our ability to keep Republicans from really fucking up the world, I’m not sure how effective we are at achieving our ultimate ends: realizing better policy outcomes.