December 7, 2016

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“This sh*t really isn’t on the level, is it?” Vice quotes President Obama declaring to an unidentified top aide (actually David Axelrod) just eight days into his tenure, on his way to a key early meeting with resistant Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The line is recalled by Politico’s Michael Grunwald and helps frame “A House Divided,” a superior Vice documentary that airs on HBO Friday and sets an early, high standard for the inevitable long-form TV dissections of the Obama era. It’s more a combination of C-SPAN/”Frontline” than what you’d figure from idiosyncratic and opinionated Vice.

This is a detailed, even vaguely wonkish look at issues and tactics that led to the partisan rancor in Congress the past eight years. It melds Vice founder Shane Smith’s interviews with Obama (in self-reflective overdrive these days) and all the key Republican players as it mostly focuses on the stimulus, Obamacare and the GOP’s disastrous shutdown of the federal government in 2013 (“For 16 days, we looked like idiots,” says former House Speaker John Boehner, a recurring interlocutor here).

It shows how the then-minority GOP commandeered debate on the stimulus and Obamacare — and the link between those legislative dramas and what proved to be a rising Tea Party, fake news, public ignorance and a media-enabled Donald Trump. It shies from hype and, while flawed, provides a primer on critical elements of an historic presidency.

Smith told me Tuesday that Vice started to do a de facto “legacy” piece, then took another path as the themes of political dysfunction, populist frustration and the rise of Trump seemed more significant. “The election changed the focus” and underscored a perilous political inability to reach consensus on matters big and small.

He found Obama very smart and rational and embodying some of a great politician’s best attributes. His Obama is progressive about policies, conservative about institutions and, as the final words make clear, worried that people don’t understand how government works or respect the same institutions that have helped the nation “weather” many storms.

But, says Smith, Obama also didn’t fully “realize that Washington had become a bloodsport” and tried to do too much too quickly. As put by Frank Luntz, a favorite Republican pollster who is positioned here as a capital savant, “We f*cked up.”

This is excellent on symptoms, not quite as strong on diagnosis. It’s too measured. Imagine criticizing Vice for that?!

It gives so much airtime to Obama’s GOP antagonists, notably Boehner and former U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, it lends undue credibility to their arguments. On the stimulus alone, Obama gave them their $300 billion in tax cuts. The Republican leaders’ grousing about being victimized by Obama partisanship is very much a crock. Check Grunwald’s own very good book, “The New New Deal.”

And, on Obamacare, it doesn’t take you to the obvious conclusions merited by Cantor’s pledge of GOP intransigence and his side’s bogus claims of “death panels,” a government “takeover” of health care and spiraling deficits. For example, this doesn’t underscore that the death panels claims were baloney and the whole plan actually reduced deficits.

Finally, two things. First, to place the government shutdown in the context of partisan disarray is errant. It was about one side’s total intransigence (on the debt ceiling).

Second, when will the press stop relying on Luntz, who’s more entertainer than serious pollster, a guy just not respected by many in his field? Both the media mainstream and rebels seem united in legitimizing his showmanship as insight.

So, ironically, badass Vice is too even-handed. But they’re really worth a look-see Friday night. Theirs is a serious and very commendable effort. Here’s a trailer.

Trump and facts

The Washington Post editorializes:

“Mr. Trump’s own embrace of conspiracy theories created a safe zone for fact-free discourse. His birther obsession; his hint that Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered; his assertions that Muslims in New Jersey cheered as they watched the Sept. 11 attacks; his comments associating Sen. Ted Cruz’s father with President Kennedy’s assassination — all of that has normalized the bogus and dissolved the opprobrium that traditionally attached to public figures who traded in falsehoods.” (The Washington Post)

A multimedia extravaganza

The Island of Man “Tourist Trophy,” or TT, is probably the most dangerous sports event in the world. It’s the subject of a dazzling video and graphics effort by STAT, the Boston Globe’s health sciences site. (STAT)

Imagine: 252 people have died since 1907 in “a 37-mile motorcycle race that winds through this small British isle at speeds matching that of a high-speed train. The high-speed train has it easy. Riders here must navigate through hairpin bends, bumps, jumps, and manhole covers while passing perilously close to stone walls, buildings, and roadside spectators — at speeds approaching 200 mph.”

This captures the daring, the excitement and, as much as anything, the well-organized medical teams who are central to the race. This year, four riders died.

Why Trump’s figures were inflated

Hand it to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. No sooner had I relayed the qualms of pollsters about the seeming doubling of Donald Trump election results in some Allegheny County towns than the paper pulled those results down and did a check.

Yup, says news editor Lillian Thomas, “It was a programming error that resulting in pulling in duplicate Trump numbers from the Allegheny County elections department. It has been fixed.”

The latest digital fatality

“Raleigh Agenda, the news site founded by local media entrepreneur Ted Williams, announced this afternoon that it’s closing.” (Poynter) Editor-in-Chief Grayson Haver Currin said the demise resulted from an inability to “figure out a sustainable business model for this market.”

He and reporter Jane Porter got severance packages and kept their laptops.

A shot at Obama

A dissenting view comes from The Intercept on a new White House report on the administration’s professed high-minded, self-imposed limits on military operations, including the torture of alleged terrorists. “After 8 Years of Expanding Presidential War Powers, Obama Insists They Are Limited,” it says, not buying the gist of the report. (The Intercept)

A tweet of the day

First you had this “news”: “Japanese telecoms and internet firm SoftBank Group Corp plan to invest $50 billion in the United States in businesses and create 50,000 new jobs, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said on Tuesday.” (Fox Business)

Ah, wait a second. Back in October, The Wall Street Journal had informed, “SoftBank and Saudi Arabia Team Up for $100 Billion Tech Fund.” (The Wall Street Journal)

Last night came a tweet from Kurt Eichenwald, contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a senior writer at Newsweek: “If Trump taking credit for the SoftBank investment announced in October, how long until he takes credit for killing Bin Laden? Winning WW2?” (@kurteichenwald)

The SPJ take on the Santa Maria cops

Folks were justifiably aghast at the bogus press release put out by the Santa Maria, California police in an attempt to fool some bad guys. It was a dictionary definition of “fake news.” (Poynter)

I tracked down Lynn Walsh, an investigative producer at San Diego’s NBC 7 and the national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Her take:

“I think this is a dangerous precedent, one that the public should also be outraged about. They did not just send out a press release, they sent out a tweet, publicly, for all to see that was a lie. I can respect and understand the need and want to protect an individual’s life, but did the agency have to lie to do that? The police chief says the answer is ‘yes,’ but I have to think there was another way.”

“Agencies like police departments are considered credible, reliable and authoritative sources for the public and journalists. When an agency or department leader speaks, it is taken as fact. But, if they are going to use tactics like this, that can no longer be the case. What they say will no longer be taken as fact, and then where is the public and where are journalists supposed to verify information about public safety.”


From the ‘gee whiz’ department!

“When I stepped on the Delta shuttle to D.C. tonight, who was sitting in the seat right next to me? Rudy Giuliani,” tweeted Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times last evening. (@andrewrsorkin)

It’s an incredible world, isn’t it?

Birds of a feather

“By the way, isn’t it better to be on a network where it’s not 10 on 1?” said Trump courtesan Sean Hannity to fellow acolyte Corey Lewandowski.

“Well, look, I’ll tell ‘ya, I’ve got a lot of friends on the other side but it’s nice to be here where we both agree that Donald Trump is the right candidate for president of the United States.”

Hannity also bashed CNN as a “so-called news network” before Lewandowski and Hannity tag-teamed University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee. It was a brief mini-classic of rhetoric (Lewandowski/Hannity) vs. actual economic knowledge (Goolsbee) and facts as the amiable academic served as liberal piñata.

“You are the only American who gives him good grades on the economy,” said Hannity, which is B.S. “We’ll survive his (Obama’s) mess.”

Michael Lewis on Trump

“President-elect Donald Trump may have campaigned on the premise that the economy was rigged, but now it seems like he’s ‘trying to restore the inequities that existed before the financial crisis,’ best-selling author Michael Lewis told CNBC on Tuesday.” (CNBC)

Lewis knows a thing or two about government policy, as made clear in “The Big Short,” so as Trump blabs about rolling about various banking regulations, he says, “If things go well, traders keep the money and if things go badly, it becomes the taxpayers’ problem.”

A jealousy list to be envious of

Bloomberg Businessweek just unveiled its wonderful list of more than 40 stories from 2016 that it wishes it had published. There’s too much to read these days, so this is a collection of top-notch stuff you might have missed.

Such as?

“Racist algorithms that measure a defendant’s risk of committing a crime in the future (damn you, ProPublica). The corporate defense lawyer who turned his life upside down to take on DuPont when an Appalachian cattle farmer whose cows were dying reached out for help (ptui, New York Times). A portrait of the richest touring musician in the world … guess who … nope (Deadspin!). A cottage industry of Balkan teenagers faking out Trump supporters with fake news (oh you BuzzFeed, you).”

There’s far more here.

The morning babble

CNN’s “New Day” discussed Trump’s “Buy American and hire American” urging, his declaration about canceling the Boeing Air Force One contract, new union grousing about the Carrier deal and whether Ben Carson will face any trail in a HUD confirmation hearing.

“Fox & Friends” went to Clearwater, Florida to see what Trump voters are thinking (no surprise, they like him). They also made the case Trump is not hiring too many generals, with former National Security Agency boss Michael Hayden saying he’s not worried (no surprise) and damned slightly with faint praise as he argued that Retired Marine General James Mattis “will be a counterbalance” to a president-elect who sometimes seems to speak (“and I hope doesn’t act”) irrationally.

MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” discussed Lt. General Michael Flynn’s son being booted from the Trump transition team after pushing fake news stories, including the now notorious Pizzagate. And Joe Scarborough held up The New York Times — where would TV be without papers? — as he and Mike Barnicle both urged viewers to read this story on Saudi Arabia funding both sides in the grinding Afghanistan mess, notably the Taliban.

What Price Glory?

The Chicago Sun-Times headline: “What Price Glory? Cubs Raise Ticket Prices 19 Percent!”

That’s an average. Already with one of the two highest-priced average tickets, the Cubs will boost some of the best by 31 percent following its World Series Win.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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