"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hit & Run 10.12.00


One thing all mothers agree on: Having children changes you. For Christiane Amanpour, America's peacetime war correspondent, the blessed event appears to have meant a transformation into Commander McBragg. "Before my son was born I used to joke about looking for bullet-proof Snugglies and Kevlar diapers," Amanpour joked during a celebrated speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in September. After a lengthy preamble about dodging mortar shells and "crazed Kalashnikov-wielding druggies" and spending "more time at the front than most normal military units," however, the CNN-powered Rommel got to the meat of her speech: the way irresponsible mainstream media have turned us into a country where major international stories go unreported and nobody knows where Sierra Leone is. "[W]e seem to have given in and encouraged a trend of self-obsession," Amanpour said, demanding why "we are terrorizing this country, leading with murder and mayhem, when crime is actually on the decline, as somebody, as somebody mentioned." The speech (which New York Observer TV columnist Jason Gay calls "a real humdinger — good, gutsy stuff") has generated a strong response from colleagues, according to Amanpour herself. But we can't help noting a few holes in the legendary journalist's story.

For starters, we have the now familiar argument that it's orders of magnitude easier to ingest foreign news — or for that matter any other kind of news — now than it was in the pre-web era when Amanpour first brought her campaign for global justice into our living rooms. Any student in any of those classrooms we've been wiring these past eight years or so can now get the news from Guinea-Bissa, and written by people who live there, not by globetrotting TV news glamourpusses.

Perhaps more pertinent is the question of whether Amanpour's vision of the world as an unbroken series of slain children is so different from the murder and mayhem we see on the news at eleven every night (mercifully tempered with features on gay marriages and honoring our veterans).

And finally, there's the matter of "self-obsession," and the policy concerns that attend on it. Implicit in Amanpour's idea of an important story is the notion that the people who learn of that story should do something about it. At least when we see a juicy murder on the local news, our possible responses are mercifully limited: We can lock the windows, and maybe vote for a tough-on-crime candidate for D.A. After the umpteenth report on those mass graves in Kosovo (damnably hard to find, it turns out a year and half after we stopped bombing the Serbs), the expected American response always seems to involve sending in troops, killing people, and otherwise getting involved in ways that contribute to the problem at hand. This view went sadly unarticulated in last night's joint Republocrat bull session (or as the kids say, "rap" session), during which both candidates reaffirmed the need to rebuild our shattered military and intervene in all cases where "nation-building" is not involved.

"[T]o be self-obsessed is simply not o.k. for the most important country in the world," Amanpour intones. We can say, as natural-born citizens (and thus potential future Presidents) of this important country, that self-obsession is as American as apple pie. If there's a problem here, it's that we can't quite tell where CNN ends and the US Security State begins (a situation, let's face it, further confused by Amanpour's marriage to former Lying State Department Bastard James "Jamie" Rubin). The American people have an inalienable right to be left alone. Everybody else has the right to be left alone by us.

Between "risky tax scheme" and "no controlling legal authority," the campaign season has developed a highly specialized lexicon of epithets and slogans whose defining qualities are a kind of practiced meaninglessness: They don't distort the truth so much as create an empty pocket of words into which the public can dump its own preconceived notions. This lexicon is further guided by the need to steer clear of language whose associations are too, well, political: No one but Pat Buchanan is calling for a "culture war," for example. This need for a perfect lack of discernable ideological content may be why we have yet to see either Bush or Gore resort to the ultimate in political name-calling: "un-American." The lieutenants and commentators of Decision 2000 are so bound, however, and lately we've compiled from the punditry a working definition of what it means, in this say and age, to be "un-American." The counts range from candidate Lieberman's indictment of racial profiling to the Weekly Standard's reminder of Senator Lieberman's similar take on affirmative action. The Wall Street Journal says not being able to pray before a football game is an "un-American development." Fox News has been particularly, well, liberal in its bandying about of the term: In the past few months, Sean Hannity has deemed it un-American to "lie about your mother-in-law and your dog," on the same show, Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler said that it's "un-American that...seniors can't afford drug prescription insurance," and during his "spin-free" rant-o-rama Bill O'Reilly explained that reporters' "lack of access to the candidates...is downright un-American, in my humble opinion." Pat Buchanan said that Joe Ezterhas has made un-American movies and the "marriage penalty" debate has given more than one Republican the opportunity to tell the press that "we believe it is un-American to make people choose between love and money." Historically, to be "un-American" has had a very particular political connotation, of course, and this may explain the reason why this bludgeon has felt slightly more comfortable in the hands of the right. But as Wexler and Lieberman have shown, it's not just commies who are un-American anymore.

It's an important issue and it requires an unequivocal stand, one the candidates were happy to make: Prospective senators Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio are both adamantly opposed to completely fictional legislation. When the nominees were quizzed about "Bill 602P" during their second debate last week, they fell for a long-standing urban legend, a rumored nickel-a-message tax on e-mail. Lazio, an eight-year veteran of the House of Representatives, reacted angrily to the non-existent bill proposed by a non-existent colleague. "This is an example of the government's greedy hand, in trying to take money from taxpayers that, frankly, it has no right to," he said, failing to add, "Or it would be if I had any idea what I was talking about." Immediately after the debate, Empire State governor George Pataki somewhat fixed the imbalance by declaring style manual author "E.B. Wyatt" to be a fictional person. (The Yale-educated executive later reversed course by naming Wyatt's survey of arachnid zoology Charlotte's Web as a personal fave.) Still, the Senate candidates' vehement stand against the hypothetical has pried open political discourse to a great range of pressing issues:

Vice President Gore, as you know, President Clinton is about to relinquish the sovereignty of the United States to the United Nations. As a hands-on member of the administration, were you involved in this decision?

Governor Bush, the organization Zero Population Growth has fitted many public toilets with testicle guillotines. How will you oppose these terrorists?

Senator Liberman, you have a long-standing concern about the effects of popular culture on children. Given that the "Harry Potter" books are leading to a rise in Satanism among youngsters, do you have any comment?

Secretary Cheney, your support of the Second Amendment is well documented. Do you disapprove of President Clinton's decision to recall the Massachusetts commemorative quarter because it depicts a gun?

One of the best articles de-bunking Project D.A.R.E was by Stephen Glass, which proves that the most common drug-related casualty is accurate information. Positions have polarized so thoroughly in the debate about whether it's effective (or even desirable) to use federal money to fight drug use that most advocates on both sides simply dispense altogether with the need to justify themselves. Our current president and both parties' Presidential candiates are rumored to have "experimented" with illegal drugs as part of the field work every prospective drug warrior in chief is required to complete. The latest blow to unity has come from the Advertising Shadow State. Last week Scripps News Service reported advertisers Ogilvy & Mather were being investigated for possibly inflating the taxpayer's bill for the firm's work on the "This frying pan is your family when you're on heroin" ads — an accounting impropriety which, like drug use, is also illegal. Unfazed, the all-American dance of prohibition and dissension (not to be confused with the un-American dance communism and style manuals) continued. With a square sub-head that warned "Rebelliousness Is Part of the Problem," a recent Los Angeles Times article updated the bogeyman, calling drug use "the dirty secret of the Dot-Com World." In a rhetorical flourish Upside publisher David Bunnell, confronted with evidence of "a toxic combination of alcohol, Valium and heroin," declared instead that his son "was a victim of the dot-com boom." Soon misguided zealots may launch a crusade warning that libertarian geek culture inevitably leads to personal irresponsibility. Perhaps Ogilvy & Mather can launch another cautionary ad campaign.

courtesy of The Sucksters