"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
From time to time Salon has thought about launching a cable TV show. It seems like a natural leap — we have a stable of smart political and cultural commentators who know how to banter and entertain on camera. And God knows the chat channels could use a regular dose of strong, articulate progressive voices to balance the fire-breathers on the right and the cautious centrists often presented as the liberal alternatives. Plus, Salon doesn’t just chatter, we break news stories that create buzz. But whenever we engage with the cable TV gatekeepers, we never get beyond Step 1.
When Walter Isaacson took over CNN two years ago, I thought we had a shot. I was an acquaintance of his and I knew he read Salon — he even poached our media critic when he was running Time magazine. But when I contacted Isaacson about exploring the possibility of a Salon-produced show for his network, his reply was vague and noncommittal. Not long after, it was reported that the new CNN chief was making a run at Rush Limbaugh, in what turned out to be a futile attempt to outfox Fox.
Salon’s efforts to stir up interest at MSNBC also proved fruitless. When I called MSNBC chief Erik Sorensen, his assistant said he would get back to me. That was in December. Earlier this week Sorensen announced he was firing the network’s sole liberal host, Phil Donahue, who admittedly seemed lost in the new TV environment, but who enjoyed the highest ratings on the struggling network. Meanwhile, days before, Sorenson announced he was hiring Michael Savage, a right-wing talk-show host so viper-tongued, as Ben Fritz recently observed, he “makes Rush Limbaugh look reasonable.”
Ironically, the only cable news operation interested in meeting with Salon was Fox, liberals’ favorite media whipping boy. Fox’s top news executives sat down with a team from Salon in their Manhattan offices late last year, a meeting enlivened midway by the entrance of Fox’s chatty, roly-poly dark lord, Roger Ailes himself. Now here was a man so supremely confident in his domination of talk-TV that he could grant a meeting to the enemy and graciously consider the counterintuitive notion of giving Salon a slot in his lineup, cheek by jowl with O’Reilly and Hannity and Hume.
Sitting at the head of a large oval table in the Fox conference room, Ailes launched into a spirited monologue on politics and media, dismissing Sen. Trent Lott, then the embattled Senate majority leader, as toast (which confirmed to us his days were numbered) and chuckling over the war that Bill O’Reilly had declared on Jesse Jackson. Ailes was the king of cable and he was clearly reveling in his power. Alas, he couldn’t squeeze us into the Fox News schedule, Ailes told us — every show in his lineup was “kicking the competition’s ass” and he was not about to mess with success by opening a hole for Salon. Though he didn’t say it, there was also a clear implication that a regular dose of Salon might be too much for his audience, which Ailes described as age “55 to dead, like me” (he left out white and intolerant). Years earlier, when hunting for a liberal punching bag to pair with Sean Hannity, Ailes had tried out a tough Salon writer. He apparently punched back so effectively in his audition that Fox picked bespectacled milquetoast Alan Colmes instead. Fox likes its liberals soft and chewy, the better to eat them, my dear.
Salon’s unfortunate experience with the moguls of cable TV came back to me as I was reading Eric Alterman’s new book, “What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News.” Alterman’s book, which effectively demolishes the curiously resilient myth of liberal domination of the media, makes it plain that Salon’s story is not unique. It’s a myth that still has wide appeal, as the success of former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg’s book, “Bias,” demonstrated. But Alterman, a media critic for the Nation and MSNBC.com, makes a persuasive case for why the Goldberg view of the media is quaintly out-of-date. If a sophisticated, corporate liberal ethos once prevailed in the leading newspapers and broadcasting companies of America, that has long since been replaced by a media world characterized by a frenzied, profit-driven opportunism and thunderous rabble-rousing on the right.
Alterman paints a bleak picture: Talk radio is dominated by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, the Web has fallen to Matt Drudge, and cable TV is ruled by Ailes and his wannabes at the rival channels. Smart, media-savvy conservatives like William Kristol and Pat Buchanan quietly acknowledge that there is no longer a liberal media monolith — but that doesn’t stop them from “working the refs,” writes Alterman, and using the myth to pressure mainstream media to tilt further right. “Many conservatives who attack the media for its alleged liberalism do so because the constant drumbeat of groundless accusation has proven an effective weapon in weakening journalism’s watchdog function … As [New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes]: ‘The next time the [Bush] administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media — fearing accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of balance — won’t report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they’ll report that some Democrats claim that it’s brown.’”
While Alterman’s portrayal of the conservative media onslaught is convincing, the marginalization of liberals can’t be blamed entirely on big bad Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Alterman’s book is weakest at understanding why progressives also have themselves to blame for losing the media wars. More on this later.
But it’s clear that one key reason conservatives have been so effective at pushing corporate media to the right is that they have built their own robust journalistic infrastructure, observes Alterman: “It is not simply that when you add up the circulation/penetration of the Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the New York Post, Washington Times, Weekly Standard, National Review, American Spectator, Human Events, www.andrewsullivan.com, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, the entire universe of talk raadio, and most of the punditocracy, you’ve got a fair share of the media. The ability of these deeply biased and frequently untrustworthy outlets to shape the universe of the so-called liberal media gives them a large degree of power and influence that exceeds their already considerable circulations.”
Alterman knows firsthand the way the right built a network of think tanks and publications to nurture young journalists, thanks to the fortunes of ardent conservatives like Richard Mellon Scaife. He started his own journalism career in Washington in the early 1980s, and it was grim enough to send a lesser man to business school. “Between 1982 and 1984, I think I earned a grand total of about $500 working as a liberal journalist, for articles in The Nation, In These Times, the Washington Monthly, the Washington City Paper, and Arms Control Today. Meanwhile the bars and softball fields of the capital were filled with young right-wingers living on generous salaries and fellowships provided by the multi-million dollar institutions like the Washington Times, Heritage Foundation, and their various offshoots … Many of the writers who worship at the shrine of the free market would be lost if any of them were ever forced to earn their living working for it.”
This new generation of right-wing journalists is marked by a vitriolic, take-no-prisoners style, writes Alterman. Thus we have the phenomenon of Ann Coulter, the freak-show journalist whose rhetoric is so amped up that she once wrote that the real debate about Clinton should be “whether to impeach or assassinate.” Coulter’s violently anti-Arab post-9/11 outburst (“invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”) cost the bomb-thrower her column at the National Review, but her career is flourishing, boosted by her bestseller, “Slander,” and frequent appearances on shows like “Today” and Bill Maher’s new HBO program, where her Tourette-like fusillades are apparently regarded as bracing television. The boldly mendacious Coulter’s success at conquering the liberal media, writes Alterman, “demonstrates the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a journalistic culture that allows her near a microphone, much less a printing press.”
Not every conservative pundit is as unhinged as Coulter, of course, but as a group, writes Alterman, they dominate the TV and radio airwaves. The progressive side is still adequately represented in print, with columnists like Krugman and Frank Rich at the New York Times and syndicated columnists like Molly Ivins, Arianna Huffington, Robert Scheer, Richard Cohen and E.J. Dionne. But not one progressive pundit has a perch on TV or radio — the electronic marketplace where most of the public is exposed to the clash of ideas. Meanwhile, this marketplace resounds more and more with the angry fulminations of right-wing and far-right voices. George Will, Bob Novak, William Bennett, Patrick Buchanan, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, Charles Krauthammer, Oliver North, the entire reactionary editorial board of the Wall Street Journal (which was given its own show by CNBC), Lawrence Kudlow, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, the whole Fox News lineup (with the pathetic exception of poor sacrificial lamb Alan Colmes).
“It’s hard to come up with a single journalist/pundit appearing on television who is even remotely as far to the left of the mainstream spectrum as most of these conservatives are to the right,” comments Alterman. “These people, as [Washington Monthly editor Paul] Glastris noted, ‘are ideological warriors who attempt with every utterance to advance their cause.’ To find the same combination of conviction, partisanship and ideological extremism on the far left, a network would need to convene a ’roundtable’ featuring Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Fidel Castro.”
When a liberal does manage to squeeze through TV’s conservative phalanx and grab a regular network slot, the right can be counted on to howl in rage and anguish. Conservatives threatened to boycott CNN’s “Crossfire” when the show replaced the bland and ineffectual man on the left, Bill Press, with two genuine brawlers, James Carville and Paul Begala. And when ABC made George Stephanopoulos the anchor of its Sunday chat show, “This Week,” Bob Novak (a conservative TV fixture, Alterman points out, “who has enjoyed at least three shows at a time for decades”) insisted “with a straight face” that this “proved the liberals control the media.”
Stephanopoulos, who jump-started his media career by betraying the Clinton White House where he had worked, continues to take great pains to prove he is not a liberal loyalist. His debut program, Alterman points out, featured George Will but not a single liberal. The program grappled with Bush’s drive to war with Iraq, but not a “single guest or regular panelist spoke out” in objection to the president’s plans, according to Alterman. The neutering of George Stephanopoulos, who many still remembered as the young combatant in the Clinton war room, was complete.
As Alterman makes clear, all the hot air blowing across the nation from the right is not just, well, hot air — it has made a substantial impact on national events, from the Clinton impeachment to the 2000 election (and its Florida meltdown), to the marketing of the Bush administration and its Iraq war plans. After successfully seducing the media during his first presidential campaign, Clinton came to be despised by the Washington press corps. In part this was because of the Clintons’ ill-considered decision to shut out the press once they moved into the White House, concedes Alterman. But this was not the crucial reason. After all, the Bush team has been much more authoritarian and stonewalling in its relations with the media.
In a widely discussed commentary, Washington Post White House reporter John Harris pointed to a much more important reason for Bush’s easy ride in the press, compared to the bare-knuckled treatment Clinton got: “There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president. There was such a gang ready for Clinton in 1993. Conservative interest groups, commentators and congressional investigators waged a remorseless campaign they hoped would make life miserable for Clinton and vault themselves to power. They succeeded in many ways.”
What Harris did not mention was that it’s not just the conservative attack dogs in the media who were baying for Clinton’s blood, it was Washington’s press establishment, which has turned increasingly conservative and elite over the years. So much so, in fact, that the dean of the capital press, Post columnist David Broder, was moved to dismiss the duly elected president as a low-class usurper, sniffing to the equally disdainful Georgetown gatekeeper Sally Quinn that “Clinton came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.”
It was the conservative shock troops who kept adding fuel to the Clinton impeachment bonfire. But to its everlasting shame, it was the Washington and New York press establishment that made these flames the nation’s top story, month after month — a shame even greater, in retrospect, considering what a real conflagration the world was hurtling toward. A president’s sex life was suddenly declared the public’s most pressing business. These were the days when Tim Russert would respectfully bring Matt Drudge onto “Meet the Press” while flaying upstart Salon week in and week out (with no chance for response) for daring to ask questions about the endless, free-spending, and utterly unproductive Starr inquisition.
And in the process, an administration that in reality turned out to be relatively scandal-free was brought to the brink of destruction. (“During the single-term George H.W. Bush administration, seven officials were indicted, five were convicted, and five officials were pardoned before they could be sentenced or convicted,” observes Alterman. “For the Clinton administration, the sum of officials indicted, including all of the ‘gates,’ is zero.”) And the irony, of course, was that a number of Clinton’s political accusers were also active or former adulterers — as were “many of the top editors and executives of extremely powerful news organizations.”
Failing to bring down the Clinton presidency, the press took out its pique on Al Gore during the 2000 campaign. The “almost universal hostility he inspired in the reporters and editors who covered the race” was palpable, according to Alterman. Overlooking the issues, the press focused on Gore’s stuffed-shirt personality, comparing it unfavorably to Bush’s frat-boy cool, and turning the presidential race into the equivalent of a school election, where the dim but likable party animal was destined to beat the goody-goody student council know-it-all. During the disastrous Florida endgame, the media quickly took the aggressive Republican side (aided by the bungling and defeatism of the Gore-Lieberman team), making fun of the dangling-chad recount and fretting loudly about the “chaos” that could befall the country if the democratic process was fully honored (the American public, meanwhile, was sublimely patient). When Gore headed for his inevitable coup de grâce at the hands of the GOP-packed Supreme Court, the press cheered the smelly outcome as an affirmation of American democracy.
“A truly independent media, much less an allegedly liberal one, might have investigated some of the following questions in the context of the court’s decision,” writes Alterman. “Did it matter that Clarence Thomas was appointed by Bush’s father and had a wife working with Bush’s transition team? What of the fact that Antonin Scalia’s sons worked in the same firm with Bush’s lawyers? What of the comments made by Justice Sandra O’Connor at a Washington dinner party on Election Day, complaining of the Gore team’s tactics, and informing partygoers that Gore’s then-perceived victory was ‘terrible’ because, as her husband helpfully explained, she had hoped to retire from the court and did not want Al Gore appointing her successor … Whatever happened to that beloved old journalistic standby, ‘the appearance of a conflict of interest.’?”
A handful of liberal pundits decried “the court’s nakedly partisan performance,” Alterman remarks, but “most media types pronounced themselves pleased with the script’s ending.” He quotes the endlessly smug and irritating Cokie Roberts of ABC as blithely saying, “People do think it’s political, but they think that’s OK. They expect the court to be political, and they wanted the election to be over.” How Roberts, a born-and-bred product of elite Washington, managed to divine what “the people” were feeling, she left unsaid.
Liberal columnists Al Hunt and Richard Cohen offered this novel rationale for why the majority who voted for Gore should welcome a Bush presidency: The far right had turned America into such a nasty and brutish place that it could not be governed by a Democrat. Only Bush, wrote Cohen, could keep the “GOP Dobermans” on a leash. To which the only response could be: Why had the country bothered with an election at all?
The media’s fondness for Bush has continued, for the most part, throughout his administration, even unshaken by the brief turbulence over his embarrassing Harken Energy affair (in contrast with Clinton’s crisis-level Whitewater treatment), Enron (more of a business story than a political one, the press decided, despite Bush’s cozy relationship with “Kenny Boy” Lay) and Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and energy task force controversies (stonewalling didn’t pay off for Hillary Clinton on the Rose Law Firm files, but the vice president clearly succeeded in staring down the press).
When Republicans are in power, they benefit from a fear factor in the media that the Democrats don’t enjoy. During the media’s fleeting spasm of interest in Harken and GOP-related corporate scandals, writes Alterman, “ABC’s politically savvy Web publication The Note warned its fellow journalists: ‘Since the Republican party is the only one of our two major political parties in America who believes the press is routinely biased against them, when such a frenzy is going on for a GOP administration, the press needs to be extra careful in making sure that perspective and fairness are maintained.” Thanks for the warning, guys! That’s just one more example of the way conservatives succeed at “working the refs.”
After 9/11, the media crush on Bush bloomed into a torrid romance. A lightweight blessed with his father’s name and his family’s Supreme Court connections suddenly — in the eyes of the press — assumed the grave mantle of leadership. Neglecting the pre-9/11 security lapses and failures that might have allowed al-Qaida to succeed, the media’s most celebrated investigative reporter, Bob Woodward, teamed up with his Washington Post colleague Dan Balz to produce what Alterman calls “a 40,000 word epic poem” in tribute to Bush’s leadership. “The impression this report created was not unlike that of an official Soviet-era account of the Great Patriotic War.”
Tim Russert went one step further on “Meet the Press,” asking first lady Laura Bush whether she thought her husband had ascended to the White House due to divine intervention. “To her everlasting credit,” writes Alterman, “she declined to credit the Almighty.”
Even now, with the economy in disarray, the terrorist leaders responsible for 9/11 still at large and mocking the U.S. efforts to capture them, his poll numbers falling, and his administration further alienating world opinion by threatening a unilateral war with Iraq, Bush still enjoys a warm reception in the press, apart from such outposts of media vigilance as the New York Times. The “liberal” Washington Post editorial page has been sounding such a one-note bugle blast for Bush’s war with Iraq that it was forced to respond on Thursday to irate readers who, in the words of one, “have grown tired of your bias and endless drumbeating for war.”
While Alterman makes a powerful case for how the news media have shifted dangerously to the right, he does not fully address the left’s role in allowing this to happen. Liberals like to say that one reason they have failed to produce their own Rush Limbaugh is that their views are too nuanced and complex to fit the black-and-white format of shout TV and radio. (Jeffrey Scheuer wrote a whole book elaborating this theory, “The Sound Bite Society.”) Conservatives like Bill O’Reilly are quick to endorse this explanation. And why wouldn’t they? It reinforces the image of liberals as too highbrow and snooty to duke it out in the rough-and-tumble populist bullrings.
The truth is, there are plenty of progressive pundits, authors and political activists who know how to express themselves passionately and in the idiom of talk TV. This list would begin with Al Franken, Michael Moore, Joe Conason, Arianna Huffington, Molly Ivins, Mario Cuomo, Robert Reich, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Janeane Garofalo and Eric Alterman himself. The problem is that no one in progressive circles ever seems to get their act together to package these gifted talkers in a compelling way.
Every now and then, Democratic Party contributors or Hollywood celebrities make noises about producing a liberal show for radio syndication or even raising money to build a liberal cable network to compete with Fox. But nothing ever comes of it. Wealthy progressives can be counted on to help finance Democratic candidates and worthy environmental and civil-liberties causes. But despite the fact that many have experience in the entertainment and media industries, they seem clueless about to how engage their political opponents in the media ring. They have proven unwilling to kick in the kind of money that a Richard Scaife or Rupert Murdoch has in order to start a rival media empire, or even to substantially fund the existing progressive media companies, allowing them to expand their influence. Liberal donors realize that Election Day is important, but unlike their conservative counterparts, they fail to appreciate that Election Day is won or lost months or years before by winning the hearts and minds of the American people. And that’s done largely through the media.
Alterman understands that liberals need to shed their elite image if they want to win the media wars, telling Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” this week they must find “their own populist voice.” But he never suggests how this might be accomplished. And the swipes he has taken at Salon and other publications for their “tabloid” inclinations — running sex and celebrity coverage side by side with more serious political and cultural journalism — betray his own elitist bias. As the Nation and American Prospect have demonstrated — or the National Review and Weekly Standard on the right — there is no way to build a mass audience for an editorial product filled only with political reporting and analysis. Pundits, activists and policy wonks might find this a nutritious diet, but most readers want some sugar and spice as well.
Rupert Murdoch gets this big-time, and so does Roger Ailes. And that’s why they’re beating the hell out of the prissy corporate wafflers at the other networks. They mix their fire-breathing ideology with heaping doses of crime coverage, sensationalism and — in the case of Murdoch’s entertainment channel — lots of cheap titillation. Alterman turns up his nose at all this. But there was a time when American media moguls — not just Australian — knew how to reach a mass audience of working stiffs and immigrants. And, like the young Hearst, they did it not only with progressive journalistic crusades, but with lurid coverage of the sex and violence-filled urban streets, gaudy comics, frothing columnists and the like. Liberal journalists need to spend less time mulling over the big ethical questions at the Kennedy School and the Aspen Institute, and more time thinking about how to engage and energize their audience.
There is one other question raised by Alterman’s book. Yes, American journalism is being pushed in an angry, partisan direction by conservatives. But is the answer for liberals to push back with equally partisan fervor? This is a question that we grapple with nearly every day here at Salon. We still try to follow our original goal of emphasizing reporting over editorializing and of opening up Salon to a variety of voices, “like a good dinner party,” as our mantra goes. But as the conservative din smothers alternative voices in the media at large, and as Washington becomes a one-party town, Salon has become more consistently progressive over the years, as if to balance everything around us in the media world. But for some ardent progressives, Salon is not politically pure enough. Alterman takes us to task (as well as Slate) for publishing conservatives like Andrew Sullivan — as do many of our readers. Imagine conservatives boycotting Fox because they let Alan Colmes spar with Sean Hannity? But party-line journalism, of the left or right, that won’t allow for dissenting voices makes for a grim and dull world. And we want no part of that, no matter how “them vs. us” that American society becomes.
Neal Gabler has written that the real media battle is not between conservatives and liberals, but between “those who believe in advocacy and those who believe in objectivity — or at the very least, in the appearance of objectivity. And what we are witnessing is not just a political skirmish, but a battle for the soul of American journalism.” According to Gabler, conservatives are dragging journalism back to an earlier, more primitive stage “when the press wasn’t a light but a bludgeon. And the losers aren’t just liberals. The real loser is the idea that the chief obligation of the press is to tell it the way it is without fear or favor.” He makes a sobering point.
But while we’re waiting for a more enlightened journalism to emerge, Eric Alterman is to be thanked for fully engaging the conservative media horde that has overrun the citadels of American communications. Because until liberals reassert their voice in the national dialogue, there can be no civil exchange of views.
David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He is now working on a book about the legendary CIA director Allen W. Dulles and the rise of the national security state.More David Talbot.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)