Wall-to-Wall Craziness

Today’s skewed political spectrum allows The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to get away with falsifying facts, observes Eric Alterman.

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Foud Ajami, left, a Johns Hopkins University professor, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2007. Ajami's editorials in <i>The Wall Street Journal </i>frequently challenge President Obama's legitimacy. (AP/Wathiq Khuzaie)
Foud Ajami, left, a Johns Hopkins University professor, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2007. Ajami's editorials in The Wall Street Journal frequently challenge President Obama's legitimacy. (AP/Wathiq Khuzaie)

One of the least understood roles in the media is that played by the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. For decades, the Journal‘s conservative editorials benefited from being placed in a newspaper that was a must-read for the nation’s business community. The authority of its often-excellent news pages gave a certain gravitas to opinions that would otherwise have been considered quirky at best, and nutty and irresponsible at worst. Today, however, the political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that the oddball ravings in the paper’s opinion pages are considered comfortably within the spectrum of responsible opinion.

The Journal editorial pages constitute yet another valuable weapon for the conservative quiver by inserting the often crazy and irresponsible views of right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and Tea Party agitators into respectable discourse. This past Tuesday, for instance, Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami complained that President Barack Obama, “an untested redeemer,” has “little if any regard for precedents,” that his “logic was Jacobin, and unlike say, Ronald Reagan,” and that he communicates “narcissism” and “a bloated sense of personal destiny.”

This was rather tame, however, compared to a February column of Ajami’s, in which he complained of the “un-American moment in our history” that gave rise to Obama’s election. Gone was “the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics,” Ajami argued, apparently seriously, in the wake of George W. Bush’s fantasy presidency. “A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies,” he continued. Obama interpreted the election “as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic,” and “overwhelmed all restraint.”

The influence of this naked attempt to challenge Obama’s legitimacy in so high profile a forum, together with countless other examples like it—remember that Karl Rove is also a weekly Wall Street Journal columnist—presents a barrier to the president’s agenda that none of his predecessors before him have faced. Not even the same paper’s hysterical campaign against Bill Clinton can compare, because it was undertaken when the far-right media was much weaker and the mainstream media much stronger. (The Journal editors followed not long afterward with another anti-Obama op-ed by page staffer Dorothy Rabinowitz titled, I kid you not, “The Alien in the White House.”)

Aside from Rove, the best-known Journal editorial writer is another ex-Republican flack, Peggy Noonan, who also doubles as a frequent talking head on Sunday News programs. As far as I can tell she is considered to be perhaps the most reasonable regular contributor to the page. Noonan has an interesting prose style, which sort of floats above the real world in a mystical kind of cloud of self-absorption.

Her most recent column begins with a lengthy excerpt from a previous column during which time she noted that “The temperature in the world was very high.” (This being the Journal, she was not talking about the world’s climate, which is doing just fine, scientific evidence notwithstanding.) I can’t tell you exactly what the column’s topic was but it’s more interesting for its perspective rather than its content.

At one point its author observes, parenthetically, “(Who is the most self-punishing person in America right now? The person who didn’t do well during the abundance.)” Like her editors, Ms. Noonan appears unaware that just about all American wage workers fall into this category. To cite just one statistic, the U.S. worker’s average hourly wage, according to the 2006 Economic Report of the President, fell, in constant 1982 dollars, from $8.21 in 1967 to $8.17 in 2005, while over the last quarter century the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled.

Turning to immigration, Noonan writes, “The federal government continues its standoff with the state of Arizona over how to handle illegal immigration. The point of view of our thought leaders is, in general, that borders that are essentially open are good, or not so bad. The point of view of those on the ground who are anxious about our nation’s future, however, is different, more like: ‘We live in a welfare state and we’ve just expanded health care. Unemployment’s up. Could we sort of calm down, stop illegal immigration, and absorb what we’ve got?’”

This is a rather odd way of characterizing both sides. After all, the Obama administration is presently deporting a record number of immigrants convicted of crimes and has accelerated the pace of deportations overall. The authorities deported 389,834 people in 2009, which is about 20,000 more than in 2008, the final year of the Bush administration. They are also sending drones to the border together with National Guard units.

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it is expanding its Secure Communities program to all 25 counties along the U.S.-Mexico border. Secure Communities requires local law enforcement to give fingerprints they collect to immigration officials, who can then begin removal proceedings.

Meanwhile, Judge Susan Bolton of the Federal District Court found Arizona’s law unconstitutional owing not only to its overstepping on federal responsibilities, but also “a substantial likelihood that officers will wrongfully arrest legal resident aliens.” “By enforcing this statute, Arizona would impose,” she said, citing a previous Supreme Court case, a “distinct, unusual and extraordinary burden on legal resident aliens…”

This is hardly a “sort of calm down, stop illegal immigration, and absorb what we’ve got.” (Note also the innocent belief in Noonan’s column that we can “stop” illegal immigration anytime we feel like it, or that Arizona’s measures are likely to be effective in that regard.)

I picked just two short sections of Noonan’s most recent column, but I could have chosen almost any of them. She wrote in her July 30 column, “It’s a sign of Democratic panic that a week ago they were saying what was wrong with the GOP was they have no plan, while now what’s wrong is that they do have one.” Is it possible that Ms. Noonan is unaware of a third possibility: that while the Republicans might have come up with a “plan” of sorts, it might in fact be worthy of criticism?

In another recent column on the need for a “wise man” or two to come save the day, her nominations are Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Govs. Haley Barbour (R-MS), and Mitch Daniels (R-IN). Really? Tom Coburn is the guy who protested the television broadcast of “Schindler’s List” because television had been taken “to an all-time low, with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity.” He described the airing as "irresponsible sexual behavior.” He is also the fellow who warned about "rampant" lesbianism in rural Oklahoma.

Barbour, who is running in hot pursuit of the Republican nomination for president, has been a lobbyist of late for the tobacco and gambling industries. And Mitch Daniels, who is also a potential Republican candidate for president, was director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush at a time when government surpluses turned into some of the largest deficits in U.S. history.

Just one question, Peg. Why not Newt?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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