Nov 1 2009

Van Jones Is Happening and You Don’t Know Who He Is

Scolding big media for not following Glenn Beck’s lead

Photo Credit: Van Jones

Photo Credit: Van Jones

After a campaign led by Fox News’ Glenn Beck led to the resignation of White House staffer Van Jones, New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson offered something of an apology for being “a beat behind on this story.” “We should have been paying closer attention,” she wrote in an online Q&A (9/07/09)—even while accurately noting that “Mr. Jones was not a high-ranking official.”

Later, in a column by public editor Clark Hoyt (9/26/09) linking the Van Jones story to the Times’ supposed undercoverage of another Glenn Beck obsession—the community organizing group ACORN—Abramson plead guilty to “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio,” and agreed to “assign an editor to monitor opinion media” and brief editors on “bubbling controversies.”

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz (9/14/09) saw a general corporate media failure to take seriously Beck’s complaints about Jones—including the fact that Jones had signed a petition calling for a new investigation of the events of September 11: “In the Jones case, there is little question that the traditional media botched the story of an Obama administration official who, wittingly or otherwise, lent his name to those who believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney deliberately allowed thousands of Americans to be slaughtered.”

Kurtz presented his evidence:

By the time White House environmental adviser Van Jones resigned over Labor Day weekend, the New York Times had not run a single story. Neither had USA Today, which also didn’t cover the resignation. The Washington Post had done one piece, on the day before he quit. The Los Angeles Times had carried a short article the previous week questioning Glenn Beck’s assault on the White House aide. There had been nothing on the network newscasts.

Kurtz’s piece concluded: “The followup news pieces focused on the administration’s failure to vet Jones’ background. Perhaps the media bloodhounds should be just as curious why they failed to sniff out a story that ended with a White House resignation.”

Well, if that’s the question they’re going to be asking themselves, they should start by figuring out why they paid so little attention to Philip Cooney.

Who, you might well ask? In the George W. Bush administration, Cooney was chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality, the same rather obscure White House office to which Jones was a special adviser; in other words, Cooney was a higher-ranking official than Jones. A former oil industry lobbyist, Cooney resigned on June 10, 2005, after a New York Times expose (6/8/05) disclosed that he had been editing climate-change reports to make them more industry-friendly. That is, he was accused of actual malfeasance in office, on a matter of global consequence, rather than of holding objectionable opinions unrelated to his job.

The New York Times, which broke the story, ran two news stories and two editorials before Cooney’s resignation. Neither the Washington Post, L.A. Times nor USA Today had any coverage before he resigned; in contrast to Jones, whose resignation produced a flood of coverage, these papers paid little attention even after Cooney almost immediately got a job with ExxonMobil (Washington Post, 6/15/05), giving the story a newsworthy whiff of corruption. NBC News was the only broadcast TV network to run a story on Cooney before his resignation (6/8/05); and CBS didn’t mention him even after he quit, according to Nexis transcripts. (See FAIR Blog, 9/14/09.)

So apparently these leading outlets did not see the newsworthiness of documented evidence—uncovered by the New York Times, not self-proclaimed “rodeo clown” Glenn Beck—that a member of the Bush White House was altering scientific documents about a global crisis to benefit his corporate pals (and once and future employers). Yet conspicuously absent from the Cooney story was any complaining by Kurtz about the paucity of coverage—or any apologies from leading media executives for being “a beat behind.”

It isn’t that they missed the beginning of a story that “ended with a White House resignation,” then, that makes establishment journalists fault themselves so strongly; it’s hard to escape the depressing conclusion that they feel they were wrong simply not to have assiduously matched the concerns of the likes of Glenn Beck. This is amply clear for Kurtz, who has also complained about mainstream journalists’ insufficient zeal for stories about the low-income housing assistance group ACORN (Washington Post, 9/25/09) and the anti-Obama tea partiers (Washington Post, 4/15/09).

Corporate media chiding themselves for inadequate attention to right-wing hobby horses is nothing new. If the Post and the Times are serious, though, they should get busy: Beck and his ilk are working on hot, new tales of how Rockefeller Center secretly promotes Communism (Glenn Beck, 9/2/09) and how Obama’s complaints about Fox News resemble Hitler’s treatment of the Jews (Media Matters, 10/13/09). They wouldn’t want to miss the boat again.


Name That Heresy

To hear establishment pundits tell it, Van Jones was clearly unfit to serve as a White House aide. What his exact thoughtcrime was, however, is in some dispute.

New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz (Spine, 9/10/09), for example, went for the old fashioned red-baiting: “The fact is that Jones is a communist.” Actually, Jones was a self-described communist—in 1992 (East Bay Express, 11/2/05). In 2000, he sold out or grew up, depending on your point of view, and became a green capitalist (Huffington Post, 8/28/09). Here’s the kind of revolutionary rhetoric he espouses today, from his 2008 book The Green Collar Economy (quoted in PolitiFact, 9/8/09):

We are entering an era during which our very survival will demand invention and innovation on a scale never before seen in the history of human civilization. Only the business community has the requisite skills, experience and capital to meet that need.

But then, distinguishing between “are you now” and “have you ever been” wasn’t a real strong suit of the original Joe McCarthy, either. What was perhaps more surprising was Peretz’s proposed remedy for ideological deviationism: “If he thinks that the American people are eager, or even willing to take a revolutionary road to their future, he might, for his own better sake, be placed in a funny farm.” Yes, as a cure for Jones’ former radicalism, Peretz prescribed political psychiatry—one of the most notorious abuses of the old Soviet Union.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (9/11/09) dismissed Jones’ left-wing past, arguing that “in today’s America, to be a communist is a pose, not a conviction,” and declaring that “every administration is allowed a couple of wingnuts among its 8,000 appointees.”

Where Jones crossed the line, in Krauthammer’s view, was signing a petition that called for an investigation of the Bush administration’s possible role in the September 11 attacks. This “takes us into the realm of political psychosis, a malignant paranoia that, unlike the Marxist posturing, is not amusing. It’s dangerous.” Krauthammer likened a “truther”—a believer in the “truth” that Bush was behind 9/11—to “a Holocaust denier—a person who creates a hallucinatory alternative reality in the service of a fathomless malice.”

Strong words. In the September 2009 issue of GQ, investigative journalist Scott Anderson laid out a case that a series of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens and led to Russia’s second, more successful war with Chechnya, were in fact carried out by the KGB’s successors on behalf of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to create a pretext for invasion—and ensure Putin’s election as Russian president.

Now, Anderson’s piece presented more compelling evidence and a far more plausible scenario than 9/11 truthers have put forth. But Krauthammer’s complaint is about morality, not credibility: What kind of monster would suspect such a horrible thing…of an American president?