Paul Moses

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).

By this author

Judith Miller and Jon Stewart on journalism

"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter. 

But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.

During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's  attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.”  (Condoleeza Rice used the  line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)

“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.

Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.

"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be  so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"

Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context  by not reporting"--

Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--

Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."

Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."

Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."

 

Hillary Clinton on religious beliefs

During her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton talked a great deal about religion. At one point, she and Barack Obama faced off in a “Compassion Forum” in which they were interviewed about their beliefs.  Clinton used the occasion to continue assailing Obama for his quote that some embittered Americans "cling to guns or religion": 

… from my perspective, the characterization of people in a way that really seemed to be elitist and out of touch is something that we have to overcome.

You know, the Democratic Party, to be very blunt about it, has been viewed as a party that didn't understand and respect the values and the way of life of so many of our fellow Americans.

And I think it's important that we make clear that we believe people are people of faith because it is part of their whole being; it is what gives them meaning in life, through good times and bad times. It is there as a spur, an anchor, to center one in the storms, but also to guide one forward in the day-to-day living that is part of everyone's journey.

Contrast that to the speech Clinton gave last Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York:

Yes, we’ve cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.

That last sentence was an applause line, as you can see from the video (at 8:55). The italics are mine, but they reflect the emphasis Clinton put on these words through a change in tone, cadence and gesture.

The remark can be decoded in a variety of ways, but a reasonable reading is that Clinton called for efforts to change religious beliefs that oppose abortion. (I directed an email to the campaign press operation to ask if this was so, but received no response.)

 

Common Core: What if they gave a test and nobody came?

When public schools across Long Island gave this year's New York State English Language Arts assessment test to students in grades 3 to 8 this week, there were a lot of empty seats. A new survey by Newsday of most Long Island school districts found that more than 2 in 5 students declined to take the test.

That's a sign of how deep the parental opposition is to the school "reform" movement's emphasis on standardized testing as the chief solution to poor educational performance.

The school "reformers" -- that assemblage of bi-partisan political backers, foundation leaders, corporate executives, cheerleaders in the news media, think tank thinkers, etc. -- are very fond of using data to judge others' performance. So here are the numbers Newsday reported:

Nearly 65,000 students in Long Island elementary and middle schools refused to take the state English Language Arts test this week -- 43.6 percent of those in grades three through eight eligible for the exam, a Newsday survey of more than 80 percent of districts Islandwide found.

In 100 of the Island's 124 public school districts, 64,785 of 148,564 children opted out of the exam, according to figures the districts reported.

"Parents are speaking and are saying 'Enough is enough,' and they have had it with students spending this amount of time taking tests," the paper quotes the superintendent of a district where two-thirds of the students did not take the test.

What these numbers show is that the school reformers get an F when it comes to maintaining school relations with parents,  a critical element in the educational process.

 

The death of Walter Scott

With a murder charge filed against a South Carolina police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as he fled--according to a now widely circulated video--I wondered what account police initially gave of the shooting before the video surfaced. A story that the Charlleston Post and Courier carried on Saturday, the day of the shooting, provides the answer.

Bob Menendez: a look back

Back in 2006, I wrote an article in Commonweal that criticized some over-the-top attacks Republicans made on Bob Menendez during his campaign for U.S. Senate in New Jersey.

Seymour Hersh visits My Lai

While preparing a lesson about libel for my journalism students, I recently leafed through articles I had written on Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against CBS News in 1984. CBS had accused the general of deliberately underestimating the enemy’s troop strength during the Vietnam war, thus giving a false impression that the war was winnable. Westmoreland, charging that his honor had been impugned by slanted reportage, file a defamation suit.

My recollection is that both sides fared poorly in the courtroom battle. The evidence demonstrated some shoddy journalism on CBS’s part, with outtakes showing that interviews were quoted very selectively. But the testimony from Westmoreland’s chief of intelligence also showed that he had delayed reporting a higher enemy troop strength to Washington out of fear it would be a “political bombshell.” Rather than submit the case to the jury, Westmoreland settled the suit without collecting any damages. One press room colleague said, that CBS "framed him for something he did."

Seymour Hersh’s article in the March 30 New Yorker, “The Scene of the Crime: a reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past,” revisits the question of how important truths about the war were covered up. It’s a chilling piece in which Hersh recounts how he reported on the massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968, when U.S. troops rounded up and executed women, children and elderly people. Returning to the scene of the crime, he visited a Vietnamese museum dedicated to the massacre and reports:

The museum’s count, no longer in dispute, is five hundred and four victims, from two hundred and forty-seven families. Twenty-four families were obliterated—–three generations murdered, with no survivors. Among the dead were a hundred and eighty-two women, seventeen of them pregnant. A hundred and seventy-three children were executed, including fifty-six infants. Sixty older men died.

 

Rudy Giuliani and his upbringing

I think that what most disturbs me about Rudolph Giuliani’s  now-controversial remark that he doesn’t believe President Obama “loves America” is his comment on how his upbringing differs from Obama’s.

Giuliani had this to say at a fundraiser Wednesday for Wisconsin Gov. Scottt Walker:

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

What makes me cringe is that I suspect Giuliani is referring in some measure to his Catholic upbringing. From the time I met him in 1983 as a young AP reporter covering him on the Manhattan federal court beat, I’ve observed how that upbringing was a part of him. 

 

Fethullah Gülen on Islam, democracy and freedom of speech

Publishing a book in 2009 about Francis of Assisi's peaceful encounter with Egypt's Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade led me to meet a lot of people with an interest in improving interreligious relations. Among them were a number of Turkish immigrants who are followers of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. I observed that through a network of private schools, foundations and media organizations, they have worked very hard to improve Muslim-Christian relations.

Gentrification is no myth

Slate's recent article “The Myth of Gentrification” is the latest journalistic attempt to argue that gentrification is not really displacing the urban poor from their homes. The claim: “It’s extremely rare and not as bad for the poor as you think.”

You will not actually see poor people quoted in these stories because, well, that's anecdotal. So let's look at the data.

This school of thought relies heavily on work by Lance Freeman of Columbia University, who found  that residents of low-income, gentrifying neighborhoods were statistically less likely to move out than were residents of poor communities that were not gentrifying. It's not surprising because the poor also want to live in neighborhoods that are safe and attractive.

But there is more to Professor Freeman’s work than that. In one talk I attended,  he said he also found that poor households living in gentrifying neighborhoods “had an average rent burden of 62 percent,” which he said was “astronomical.” He added: “The people who were staying were paying exorbitant amounts of their income toward rent.” His work is no remedy for upper-middle-class guilt over gentrification.

Mario M. Cuomo, R.I.P.

"I take my religion from Cuomo and my politics from O'Connor."

So said the great columnist Murray Kempton, his voice booming across the newsroom at New York Newsday. It was some time in the 1980s, and from my vantage point as a much younger reporter, it seemed that whether in church, state, media, law enforcement, politics, even ownership of baseball teams, New York was well stocked with larger-than-life characters.