"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)
Topics: Politics News
CBS News‘s Bob Schieffer is the classic American establishment TV journalist: unfailingly deferential to the politically powerful personalities who parade before him, and religiously devoted to what he considers his own “objectivity,” which ostensibly requires that he never let his personal opinions affect or be revealed by his journalism. Watch how thoroughly and even proudly he dispenses with both of those traits when interviewing Ron Paul last Sunday on Face the Nation regarding Paul’s foreign policy views. In this 7-minute clip, Schieffer repeatedly mocks, scoffs at, and displays his obvious contempt for, two claims of Paul’s which virtually no prominent politician of either party would dare express: (1) American interference and aggression in the Muslim world fuels anti-American sentiment and was thus part of the motivation for the 9/11 attack; and (2) American hostility and aggression toward Iran (in the form of sanctions and covert attacks) are more likely to exacerbate problems and lead to war than lead to peaceful resolution, which only dialogue with the Iranians can bring about:
You actually believe 9/11 was America’s fault? Your plan to deal with the Iranian nuclear program is to be nicer to Iran? This interview is worth highlighting because it is a vivid case underscoring several points about the real meaning of the much-vaunted “journalistic objectivity”:
(1) The overarching rule of “journalistic objectivity” is that a journalist must never resolve any part of a dispute between the Democratic and the Republican Parties, even when one side is blatantly lying. They must instead confine themselves only to mindlessly describing what each side claims and leave it at that. Their refusal to label Mitt Romney’s first campaign ad as dishonest — even though it wildly misquoted Obama — is a perfect example; so, too, was their refusal to call torture “torture” on the ground that Bush officials called it something else. This is also what The Washington Post‘s Congress reporter Paul Kane meant in his widely disparaged attack this week on those who condemn the media’s “cult of balance”; when Kane defended the political media’s trite, reflexive both-parties-are-at-fault coverage of the Super Committee’s failure by saying “news coverage should always strive to present both sides of the story,” what he means is: whenever Democratic and GOP leaders say different things, it’s the job of opinion writers — but not us objective reporters — to say what the truth is; our job is simply to faithfully write down what each side says and go home.
To these types of journalists, “objectivity” compels that lies and truths be treated equally and never resolved — that is, when the dispute is between the two parties (they allow themselves exceptions to this mandate — their overt swooning for George Bush and contempt for Al Gore in 2000 was probably the most blatant example, and they also eagerly seize every opportunity presented by sex scandals to self-righteously rail against a political figure because sex is apolitical and thus entails no danger of being accused of political bias — but, in general, mindless neutrality in disputes among the two parties is the prime commandment of their objectivity religion).
(2) When it comes to views not shared by the leadership of the two parties, as in the above excerpt from the Paul interview, everything changes. Views that reside outside of the dogma of the leadership of either party are inherently illegitimate. Such views are generally ignored, but in those rare instances where they find their way into the discourse — such as this Paul interview — it is the duty of “objective” reporters like Schieffer to mock, scorn and attack them. Indeed, many journalists — such as Tim Russert and David Ignatius — excused their failures in the run-up to the Iraq War by pointing to the fact that the leadership of both parties were generally in favor of the war: in other words, since war opposition was rarely found among the parties’ leadership, it did not exist and/or was inherently illegitimate (in a March, 2003 interview, Schieffer explained what a great job the American media did in the run-up to the war). Relatedly, only members in good standing of the political establishment command deference; those who are situated outside that establishment — and only them — are to be treated with mockery and contempt (that is what explains the overt scorn by “objective journalists” toward, for instance, the Occupy movement).
I would have no problem with Schieffer’s adversarial behavior here if this were also how he treated claims made by David Petraeus, Joe Lieberman, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton. But one would never, ever see that. Part of this is what Jay Rosen calls “the Church of the Savvy”: journalists revere power and political success and thus revere those who wield it in their world (Washington) while scorning those who do not (like Paul). But part of it is also that their function is to defend the political establishment of which they are a part and glorify its orthodoxies — defined as: the approved views of the leadership of the two parties, which in turn reflect the interests of the private factions that control both parties — and, conversely, to try to delegitimize any views and/or persons posing a challenge to it.
This is why one sees truly adversarial conduct from establishment journalists applied only to those who are relatively powerless and marginalized (i.e., OWS), or to those views that have no currency within the political establishment (Paul’s foreign policy/civil liberties arguments). These journalists are, first and foremost, advocates, defenders, and spokespeople for prevailing establishment wisdom and institutions. They have every right to advocate for those views, but it is anything but “objective.” The problem with the Bob Schieffers of the world isn’t that they ooze political bias and subjectivity; most human beings do. The problem is that they’re fraudulently presented as journalists who don’t.
(3) There is another standard media bias at play in this Schieffer interview which I’ve written about before: most establishment media figures, by definition, are hard-core nationalists who scorn any ideas that suggest their country is at fault for anything. The very suggestion that the United States of America might have done anything to provoke rational hatred against it and thus helped cause 9/11 is like poison in Schieffer’s soul. Similarly, the very suggestion that the U.S. is the aggressor when it comes to Iran — rather than the other way around — is heresy to him (the idea that the U.S. seeks war with Iran will be slanderous to Schieffer up until the minute the first U.S. fighter jet drops a bomb, at which point the war will instantly become necessary and just). That’s because — and this relates to the prior point — their ultimate political allegiance is to the U.S. political establishment (the same one over which they claim to act as Watchdogs), and they cannot abide any arguments that that establishment engages in bad acts: it can periodically make “mistakes” or exercise “poor judgment” (almost always totally understandable and driven by good motives: they over-reacted to 9/11 out of a noble desire to keep us safe), but never engage in truly bad acts. Bad acts are only what America’s enemies do, not America’s political leaders.
That’s why — except on the rare occasions when a Ron Paul worms his way in and causes a glitch in the matrix — one almost never hears in establishment media discourse anyone advocating the view that is commonplace in the Muslim world and many other places on the planet: that the real aggressor is the country that is continuously bombing, invading, drone-attacking, occupying, overthrowing, arming and covertly subverting countless other countries. Media stars like Schieffer find such views so wrong — offensive even — that they should not even be aired, despite how commonplace and influential such views are in so many parts of the world. That’s why he cannot even maintain his objectivity mask as Paul expresses those views: it’s like someone is dumping chlorine down his throat. Again, Schieffer has every right to be a blind nationalist; he should just stop feigning “objectivity.”
Along those lines, Radley Balko has argued [link fixed], with ample documentation of the media’s almost unanimous opposition to any form of liberalization of drug laws, that the real media bias is authoritarianism: loyalty to those who wield power. That’s unsurprising: after all, when you watch a media star on TV, what you are seeing in almost every case is an extremely well-paid, high-ranking employee of a major corporate conglomerate. They are the consummate insiders in every single sense. Except in the rarest cases, it would be irrational to expect them to be adversarial to the establishment which is responsible for their status and which lavishes them with so many rewards. Those admitted to the royal court don’t make a habit out of agitating against the King; quite the opposite: they become his most loyal and devoted subjects, the ones most eager to protect and defend the monarchy which guarantees them their wealth and status. That’s all the Bob Schieffers of the world are doing. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, or at least not unusual. It’s just the very opposite of “objectivity.”
Contrary to popular wisdom, there aren’t two types of journalists: those who express opinions and those who are objective. The two types are those who honestly acknowledge their opinions and those who deceitfully pretend such opinions do not influence their journalism. One reason modern establishment journalism has become so corrupted and worthless is because of the conceit that they engage in some sort of objective reporting that is free of bias and opinion, even as they are the stalwart defenders of a clear set of political opinions and interests (those wielded by the same power factions which they pretend to hold accountable). Any time someone is tempted to believe these fairy tales of objectivity, they should just re-watch this Schieffer interview.
UPDATE: When George Bush dressed up in a fighter pilot costume and pranced around a warship declaring victory in May, 2003, Schieffer gushed on Face the Nation: “As far as I’m concerned, that was one of the great pictures of all time,” in response to which his guest, Time‘s Joe Klein, breathlessly decreed: “Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day.” In a December, 2005 interview with Don Imus, on whose show he frequently appeared, Schieffer said this about his coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War:
But when you come right down to it, and, I mean, I always have to tell you where I’m coming from. I mean, in the very beginning, when they told me that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon or was building one, I thought we had to go in and take it away from him. I thought there was no other choice for the president to make. But it turns out that was not correct. Whether – I still give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think they deliberately misled people. But the fact is, the reason they gave for going in proved to be wrong.
On March 9, 2003 — roughly 10 days before the American attack commenced — Schieffer, despite admitting that “no smoking gun” had been found, justified the war this way:
Saddam thirsts for power, not money, and he has willingly sacrificed the lives of his young people and used whatever weapons he thought necessary when his power was threatened. I hope against hope that there is a way out of this war, but I keep coming back to this: A man who is willing to kill his son-in-law is a threat to as many people as his weapons can reach.
So Schieffer openly drooled over the glory of George Bush’s war strutting, admits he was in favor of the attack on Iraq, offered rationalizations for it shortly before it began, and, when it comes to his journalism regarding American wars, proudly announces that he “gives [the government] the benefit of the doubt.” One can call a journalist who behaves this way many things; “objective” is most assuredly not one of them.
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)