The Scandal Is that Jonathan Alter Doesn’t See the Scandal

[Sorry for my unannounced absence. I’m on a road trip visiting Mr. EW’s family. Thanks to Jim White and bmaz for guarding the likker cabinet! I know they’ll keep it safe!]

I once got in trouble for mocking people who thought that blowjobs were a scandal worth legal investigation, but torture was not. Given that Jonathan Alter is the so-called liberal who, weeks after 9/11, affirmatively embraced torture, I’m not surprised he still falls in the former group. On Thursday, he wrote a Bloomberg piece sycophantically wondering how Obama managed to have such a scandal-free Administration. This, of the President whose Administration continues to invent all sorts of legal gimmicks to protect his predecessor’s torture. And this, of the guy who is looking high and low for new ways to bail out the banksters from the consequences of their crimes.

This Administration has smothered what was left of rule of law. And yet Alter can’t find a scandal?

Part of the problem stems from Alter’s terms. he equates scandal with some kind of honesty.

President Barack Obama goes into the 2012 with a weak economy that may doom his reelection. But he has one asset that hasn’t received much attention: He’s honest.

Obama certainly lies: about his commitment to the public option, his opposition to telecom immunity, and even his belief that no one is above the law. But what Obama does more is spin–spending months claiming that the deficit is the biggest threat to our country, claiming that a bank settlement is necessary to get the housing market back on track. That kind of spin requires real analysis to catch. Which, I guess, Alter isn’t up to.

And part of Alter’s problem is his adoption of Brendan Nyhan’s definition of scandal: the reference to something as a scandal by a WaPo reporter on that rag’s front page.

Nyhan says that political scientists generally see The Washington Post as a solid indicator of elite opinion — so for his study, a problem officially curdles into a scandal once the S-word is used in a reporter’s own voice in a story that runs on the front page of the Post.

Given that one of the WaPo editorial page’s most striking ideological commitments is to torture, it seems nearly impossible that torture–and the refusal to prosecute it–would ever be a scandal by Nyhan’s (and therefore Alter’s) terms. And Dana Milbank’s bankster epiphany notwithstanding, WaPo reporters are, almost by definition, isolated from the effects of the banksters’ crimes by class and distance.

The WaPo is designed not to see the scandals at the heart of the Obama Administration, not least so people like Jonathan Alter can pretend they don’t exist.

And part of Alter’s blindness to the scandal of Obama finishing off the rule of law in this country lies in his banal understanding of how spin can immunize from scandal. Apparently, tone matters. Substance does not.

For starters, the tone is always set at the top. Obama puts a premium on personal integrity, and with a few exceptions (Tim Geithner’s tax problems in 2009) his administration tends to fire first and ask questions later.

TurboTax matters, the conflict of interest that leads men to try to hide their past horrible decisions (TurboTax Timmeh) or serve their employer (Bill Daley) does not.

And curiously, Alter finds fault with Obama’s selection of people like Daley (instead of, presumably, people like Jamie Dimon?), and not with the way Obama permitted people like TurboTax Timmeh to undercut Elizabeth Warren’s efforts.

But the White House’s intense focus on scandal prevention has had mixed results. The almost proctological vetting process has ended up wounding Obama as much as prospective nominees. He gets cleaner but often less imaginative officials. The kind of swashbuckling figures from the private sector who might have, say, come up with a far more ambitious job-creation plan often don’t bother to apply for government service these days.

The problem seems to be that Alter can’t see the scandal of Obama’s betrayal on the rule of law because he remains committed to elites, like him, playing the fixer, no matter what that does to this country’s integrity (or, more basically, their ability to actually fix anything).

The scandal at the heart of the Obama Administration is that people like Alter–and most within the Administration–don’t see that they are deploying the tools of the federal government to institutionalize looting and other abuses.

Just as interesting as Alter’s failure to see this scandal, though, is his interpretation of how it will affect the 2012 election. In his mind, the economy might doom Obama, but his purported freedom from scandal will mitigate that.

These kinds of stories [Solyndra] are unlikely to derail Obama in 2012. If he loses, it will be because of the economy — period.

There are people occupying squares all around this country to protest, largely, bankster corruption. The bankster corruption Obama has enabled. The corruption that caused the lousy economy.

And yet, because Alter doesn’t get that Obama’s coddling of the banksters exacerbated the lousy economy, he doesn’t see that that scandal–Obama catering to his donors the banksters while the biological people of this country suffered as a result–might be the only thing that gives the parade of nutcases auditioning to run against Obama an opening against him.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. bmaz says:

    In fairness to Alter, it is hard to see the big picture with your head buried in Obama’s lap like Monica Lewinsky.

  2. geoschmidt says:

    Right, and just the tone of his/its voice… a flat scratchy one, and the look on that face if you could call it, no personality worth 2 cents. Sycophant personified.

  3. Neil says:

    The word humdinger comes to mind, not sure exactly why. Thanks for pointing out what hack Alter is. It never occurred to me but clearly that’s becuase I was happy to hear what he was saying.

    On your travels, will you get a chance to enjoy a pint of your favorite stout? Yum. Do they serve ladies a pint or do you have to order two halves?

    A long time ago, I visited a college friend studying abroad in London. He was a junior and I was working my first job, in investment advisory. A superlative student, he had already spent all of the money his grandmother had given him for a nice Burberry overcoat… on beer. In the same exchange program was an engineering student from Bucknell. She could not buy a pint, two halves only.

    Now I’m not one to gossip so you ain’t heard it here, but Jim White and bmaz skipped right passed you likker cabinet to your beer stash and I think they’ve worked their way clear through it.

    Is Occupy making a big impact in the press over the pond? Check out Occupy Dame Street if you get the chance.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @Neil: Oh, we’re not over the pond.

    We’re in South Carolina.

    This time we were smart: we brought our own beer from MI.

  5. What Constitution says:

    It’s absolutely true that “The scandal at the heart of the Obama Administration is that people like Alter–and most within the Administration–don’t see that they are deploying the tools of the federal government to institutionalize looting and other abuses.”

    Alter would instead be too busy bookending that observations with “some say… whereas Serious People, such as myself, know better.”

  6. Scott Lazarowitz says:

    Most people who go into Washington, whether they be politicians, bureaucrats, journalists or professional business lobbyists bribing CONgressmen for more protectionist handouts, get put under that magical spell of power. Washington’s centralized bureaucracy has the power of monopoly and compulsion over the lives of millions.

    Even journalists such as Alter leave behind their common sense, their capacity for integrity and their ability to distinguish between right and wrong, as they elbow themselves inside that beltway of corruption, gangsterism, militarism and degeneration.

    As long as the compulsory, monopolist State rules over the territory, and claims ownership over all the people and their livelihoods, the sheeple remain obedient serfs, and the State’s reflexive stenographers in the journalism field will always be the State’s devoted press-slaves.

  7. prostratedragon says:

    Things like this condition social expectations of what things are outrages and what are not.

    And as we know, there are a lot of small minds out there who cannot or would not defy social expectations.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Alter is one of the few readers of Conan Doyle who would have no answer to the question about why the dog failed to bark in the nighttime.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @emptywheel: Blowjobs are undoubtedly one of the most oft-repeated acts inside the Beltway. There must be more of them than parking tickets. Whether one is newsworthy depends on its location and price tag.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A tragedy for America in 2012 will be the lack of credibility of the candidate the GOP manages to put up against him for the presidency. The field so far is populated by non-entities. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s definition of foxhunting, the GOP field is made up of the unspeakable chasing the unelectable.

    That does not mean Mr. Obama will be in a safe election. His support among recent immigrants, minorities of all kinds, the young and old – those most threatened by his disdain for the law and their economic interests – will be low. Nor will his support from independents and Main Street Americans will be high. Obama’s reversals, the gap between his rhetoric and the things he actually fights for, will have quenched the fire in the belly of the campaign beast. A lot of people will not contribute, campaign or vote for him. They will refuse to vote, a pattern more often seen in in-between elections than presidential ones. That is not likely to mean his opponent beats him, though it may. It will mean the majority of the population is saying a pox on both your houses while it attempts to construct a third house.

  11. Bob Schacht says:

    I would suggest sentencing Mr. Alter to a continuous playing of Rachel’s fine piece on October 27 about Eliot Spitzer and the Banksters, until he sees the light. Well, maybe alternate this piece by Maddow with “Inside Job”, until he sees the light.

    Which reminds me, I think Spitzer is a genuine talent who oughta be hired by some State AG to assist with work on bankster fraud. Better yet, he really oughta be hired by the DOJ to work on bank fraud. It is a real tragedy that they don’t.

    Bob in AZ

  12. ferd says:

    Point being, many (most? ) liberals in the mainstream press are most accurately described as courtiers. ‘Courtiers,’ not ‘Villagers.’ So, if Obama HAD pushed for public option, or prosecuted torturers, or resisted telecom immunity etc., what could this owned press have done to him? COULD they have utterly destroyed him?

    Notes re: the failure of Lewinsky to utterly destroy Clinton: Clinton is white and from the South. Impeachment then conviction, over a blow-job, was almost successful; and if memory serves, the press seemed largely prepared to sell such a conviction to the public.

    Question: Who saved Bill Clinton from conviction in the Senate? Was it the press, or was it a few principled Senators, or a few big money players, or what?

  13. Bob Schacht says:


    Point being, many (most? ) liberals in the mainstream press are most accurately described as courtiers. ‘Courtiers,’ not ‘Villagers.’

    I think you’re confusing the NYT and the WaPo with “the mainstream press.” If you get out of that zone, the press is a lot more diverse, and they behave a lot less like courtiers.

    Besides, if you really mean mainstream press not restricted to the print media, you’ve gotta include Fox News– and they’re not exactly courtiers of the present administration (but of Wall Street, yeah.)

    Bob in AZ

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