In this far-ranging interview on KPFK’s “Beneath the Surface” radio show, Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer talks with host Suzi Weissman about the coming presidential election, the consolidation of mass media and Truthdig’s May 22 debate between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris on the roles of religion and politics.
While Hedges and Harris might agree about some of the effects of religious excess, Scheer predicts the debate will expose profound differences between their respective takes on whether—and how—religion will endure in modern society.
Follow this link to hear the show.
Suzi Weissman: Welcome to Beneath the Surface, I’m Suzi Weissman. We begin tonight with an extended conversation with Robert Scheer about religion and politics, the war in Iraq, the presidential campaign and much more. Robert Scheer’s website Truthdig is sponsoring a debate that he is moderating about Religion and Politics at UCLA coming up. Robert Scheer is a journalist, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, Ramparts and almost every other important outlet in the country, he’s got 40 years experience and he’s the author of eight books. He is the editor in chief of Truthdig. He can be heard weekly on “Left, Right and Center” at KCRW - something I never miss - and his most recent book is called “Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton - and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush.”
In addition, Robert Scheer is in this week’s LA Weekly’s 100 most important people; he’s called “a man of steel”. I would say he’s a man of discovery: he’s the one that brought us so many stories, not just simply that Jimmy Carter had lust in his heart, but he uncovered the slave labor here in Los Angeles of Thai workers who were bound to the factory and to the bed, forced to pay back their passage here, and so many other stories. It’s a great pleasure, welcome to Beneath The Surface.
Robert Scheer: Thank you
Weissman: OK. So let’s start with Truthdig because you just won the Webby Award and the People’s Voice Award for the best political blog. It is the best website for politics. Tell us a little bit about this newest venture and I have to ask one question: Did you guys invent the term “dig this story”?
Scheer: No. (Laughs). No but let me say, you know the whole idea of Truthdig is that there is a truth: you have to dig for it, it’s an archeological model, you have to go beneath the surface, sometimes there are false starts, but if you turn to people who’ve done this before and are serious and have good intentions you might get to the truth. The great thing about the Internet is you can do all the hyperlinks and everything else so people can get up to speed. I know this from teaching; I have 600 or 550 students a year and I know they may never have heard of the Korean War but you get them interested in it and they can become quite expert in a matter of hours really…
Weissman: Remember the way they used to say “painstaking research”? It’s not painful anymore.
Scheer: No, you don’t have to find some major library, like I.F. Stone did, and go through dusty volumes and find these things…
Weissman: and micro-fiche…
Scheer: ... but there is a lot of garbage and a lot of errors on the Internet and what we’ve tried to do with Truthdig is -and I’m going to be tooting our own horn here, but what the heck- it seems to me what was unique about our own model is we said we can serve up a kind of ‘eat your vegetables’ menu, I mean we don’t have false stories and we’re not hyping every conspiracy theory that ever came around. We think that stuff is important, people are being killed in our name, societies have been destroyed in our name, these issues of how you have a free society are very real issues, issues of justice are very real, and that if we can get people interested and empower them to learn more about it and turn to a group of writers who really know something, you know there’s an educational model here. And it’s absolutely thrilling because we don’t have to cut down more trees when we have a good thing, word spreads: we’ve had now I think 12 million unique visitors, and now that we won the Webby award for best political site -we won both the popular vote and the vote of the jurors- they’re saying “we want content, we want substance” and we consider ourselves a progressive site, we don’t hide that but within that rubric we have a very broad range of opinions.
This debate we’re sponsoring, some people say, “You have Chris Hedges and Sam Harris, they both agree.” Well, they don’t agree at all! They are fierce opponents: Sam is very critical of the Muslim religion, Hedges thinks that’s wrong and misplaced and he has written that and so I expect a pretty interesting debate but we turn to both of them not because they agree, or I agree with them as editor, or Zuade Kaufman our Publisher agrees; we’ve turned to people that we don’t agree with. The first dig we turned to Orville Schell, the Dean of the journalism school at Berkeley, to do a dig on China, “How to think about China?” I don’t agree with Orville on many things, I think he’s far too pessimistic about China and more focused on Tibet to the exclusion of some other things about China. I’ve talked to Orville over the years about this, but he’s the first person I turned to about this because I think he knows a great deal, I think he’s an honest observer and he could lead us into an inquiry about what is this thing called China. And so that’s been the spirit of our site. We don’t print homophobic opinions, and aren’t misogynist and we’re not right-wingers but within a very broad concept of progressive. We think this is an opportunity to use the Internet to educate and we’ve been acknowledged for that so that’s great.
Something by the way, like the history of Pacifica, I might add, because people listening to the show may know KPFK and may know it this year and not last year. I’ve been a student of Pacifica ever since I went to Berkeley as a graduate student back in 1959-60. I owe a lot of my education to those early years of Pacifica—not to take anything away from the late years- but Pacifica’s been an amazing institution at a time when most people didn’t have FM; you had to go pay $29 and buy a little funny box to listen. I used to hear people like Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and scholars from UC Berkeley and everywhere else, debating issues—this was the silent 50’s, with McCarthyism and everything. You mentioned Ramparts before, which was a hot magazine I edited in the 60’s, I say Truthdig is Ramparts on speed. I won’t say it’s Pacifica on speed but it’s kind of that early Pacifica spirit on the Internet.
Weissman: Thank you for all of that and I was just thinking as you were speaking, because as an undergraduate at Berkeley I stumbled onto Pacifica as well and thought it was amazing -although it was more sort of the poetry and Alan Watts and that sort of thing- and when I came back from graduate school, which I did in Britain, to Los Angeles and sat listening while nursing my babies essentially to Pacifica, I thought what an anomaly that this even exists in Reagan’s America! In any case, I want you to reflect a little bit, because you’ve talked about what Truthdig is, and Truthdig is really a great read, but you came out of the LA Times and were fired over the Tribune’s let’s call it “reorganization of the Times” and went straight over to Truthdig. I don’t know if you regret, you know, the experience that you lost but maybe you could, just for our listeners, reflect on the future of newspapers versus what you see on news and opinion sites like Truthdig, Huffington Post, individual blogs. Is this what we’re going to see more of in the future and less of the old style newspapers?
Scheer: Yeah. Let me say by the way whatever my complaints about the LA Times, Zuade Kaufman worked with me at the LA Times, on my local columns, and we’d decided to do this website before I was pushed out of the LA Times so I was going to do it in addition to writing my columns. Zuade agreed with me that the future is with the Internet, you can get in with a lot lower capital involvement, you are a lot less dependent upon advertising - we do have advertising but you can keep the cost down - you’re not delivering the stuff in trucks, you’re not cutting down trees, you’re not paying for ink. And the great thing, we had a marvelous piece by Kevin Tillman, certainly our most successful piece, by the brother of Pat Tillman, he offered it to us and he wouldn’t take any money for it and we ran it and you can track we had 40 million people around the world read that piece, you can see where it appeared in old media as well as new media and we gave it for free to anybody who wanted it, so it was on the Huffington Post, it was on The Nation, it was on AlterNet, it was everywhere. But not just progressive media: it went out all over the world and you can trace the traffic. So there’s no question that the Internet - which includes Internet radio, Internet video and everything else - that the Internet is where it’s going to be in the future. And old media I don’t think will adapt.
The problem is how do you get reporting? Who pays reporters? How do you send people? And our model, modest as it is at Truthdig, is actually we spend very little money on anything except the writers. Our budget is basically to pay writers; we can’t pay enormous fees, I think most of them we pay more than the LA Times, that’s for freelance writers. And we send people; we have to pay for a plane ticket and we have to put them up, but we’ve had people go to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Africa. So we are committed, we are not a non-profit, we hope to be able to attract advertising, but we want to keep our cost down, and then to the degree that we get more money -and having this debate at UCLA we hope we won’t lose money, we hope we’ll make some money, the tickets are modestly priced as UCLA charges a lot of money for the room. But you know, we want to get more money but we’ll put it back into the product and the writers and the reason for that is we think old media’s ability to support writing and journalism is going to be increasingly undermined by the economics of the thing, and they are more and more susceptible to the pressure of advertisers and of their investors and wall street and that’s what happened with the LA Times, you know. So the real challenge for the Internet is coming up with a model where we can pay people to go out and do journalism.
Weissman: Just on what you can do on Truthdig and the others can do on their blogs and on the other sites, do you have to pay the same attention to so-called “balance and objectivity”- which I know you reject - that say, newspapers do or pretend to do?
Scheer: You know I don’t really object to balance and objectivity if what you’re talking about is accuracy and fairness and getting the story right. I object to the pretense of a kind of neutrality. I remember my first day working at the Los Angeles Times 31 years ago and going in to the Red Wood bar across the street, and thinking “My god, here I am coming from Ramparts and I’m supposed to have political views and so forth” and everyone in this bar has got everything figured out. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it best “keep an open mind but not so open so that your brains fall out”. So yes, we want to get the facts rights, we want to care about being logical, if that’s what you mean about objective, yes we want to do it, but I’m not going to deny my history. I’m the son of two immigrant garment workers, I see you have signs here at KPFK “Support Latino workers”; well the struggle of these Latino workers is the struggle of my mother. My mother worked in a garment factory until she was 65 years old and when I went to graduate school I tried to get her to come out and stay with me, because my father was dead, and my mother couldn’t find a union shop in California to work in. So I know something about this issue and the conditions of workers. Am I going to deny that? Am I going to tell you “oh yes when I evaluate the situation of garment workers - whether it’s the Thai slave shop or the so-called legal situation - that I don’t bring something to it? Nonsense. Of course I bring a perspective to it. But I try to be honest. I try to have to listening ears open whether I’m interviewing Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, I try to actually listen to what they are saying, I hope I can even have the idea that maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. What’s so annoying about all this to me is that progressive journalists like myself have been punished for getting it right, not for getting it wrong. For god’s sake, I was pushed out of the LA Times after having one of the clearest perspectives on what was going on in Iraq and opposing the war before there was a war, and the lies about it. The journalists and the columnists at that paper who accepted the lies about the war and perpetuated them get to keep their jobs. So I’m opposed to these phony objectivity standards.
Weissman: Not to mention that you broke the story about Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, Wen Ho Lee, these are stories that made the LA Times world famous.
Scheer: Well, there’s been plenty of good reporting done by lots of people at the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers but my point is that this false sense of objectivity seems to apply only to people who are progressive. It doesn’t seem to apply to people who accept the lies of the administration who are mainstream liars; they become the conveyor belt for the lies of established government. And I take my standard, you know the role of the media, that famous old quote, is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. So is that a bias? Yes, it’s a bias. I think a guy with a lot of money who is building a big project somewhere, might be hustling. However, I’ll try to hear what he’s saying, I’ll attempt as hard as I can to be honest. I never had a problem in my 30 years at the LA Times, libeling anyone or getting any major thing wrong. So that was never an issue. The issue was I got the Iraq war right! And that offended some people in the Bush administration that maybe have to give the Tribune their waivers to have a television station and a newspaper in the same market. It upset Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly who were attacking me and getting people to cancel and everything else, and that’s what seems to have been what the Tribune Company listened to, not anything to do with my work not being accurate.
Weissman: Robert Scheer is going to be moderating a Truthdig panel at UCLA’s Royce Hall on the 22nd of May, on “Religion and Politics”, and it features Chris Hedges who also does a regular column on Truthdig…
Scheer: Right. He was the New York Times bureau chief in the Middle East for eight years and he now appears on Truthdig every other week.
Weissman: ...And he’s been on this show too and he’s absolutely excellent. I wanted to ask you…because religion is hotly debated these days…in some ways you can look at almost all of the administrations post-Reagan as a concerted attack on the Enlightenment and we’re seeing some of that even reflected in the latest Supreme Court decision, which takes women backwards. And Christopher Hitchens has a new book out called “God is not Great,” Sam Harris has “Letter to a Christian Nation” and “The End of Faith” and he published on Truthdig “The Atheist Manifesto” and then Chris Hedges has written his great new book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” You’re moderating this debate and I wonder if you think that this is a defining debate of our time or something that is going to disappear once the Bush administration leaves.
Scheer: Well, it’s not going to disappear because the Bush administration did not create religious fanaticism, it may have exploited it, certainly for domestic advantage. People move to certainty, whether they do it as alternative cultural things and find some guru who they can give up their freedom to or they do it with organized mainstream religion or they do it with some fundamentalist far out version of it. You know the life of the free thinker is not always comforting. Erich Fromm once wrote a very important book called “The Escape from Freedom” to explain fascism and these people -including Sam - who are very harsh on the Muslim religion…for god’s sake, the most egregious assaults on freedom did not come from the Muslims, they came from Christians and secularists, Germany is a perfect example. But in the drive for certainty - whether it’s in the name of nationalism or religion - German values, race or whatever, they’re all sorts of bases for a mindless belief in certainty…
Weissman: And religious nationalism, which in fact is the biggest enemy of our time.
Scheer: ...And so what happened in Germany, the greatest crimes committed by the best educated people, with the highest level of culture in every respect, the highest level of science, music and everything and they went bananas, why? Because of the flight from freedom, fear of freedom, and uncertainty and hard economic times and so forth. We have to recognize that instability and the search for easy answers always will be with us. The irony of the current situation is that we messed up Afghanistan and created the basis for the 9/11 attacks because we wanted to play - we being the US government, not me and not you, - wanted to play with religious fanaticism - and this is quite detailed in my “Playing President” book - to go into Afghanistan and call the Mujahadeen ‘freedom fighters’, and to give, as Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, “the Soviets their Vietnam”; and we are the ones who recruited Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and all these other lunatics. There weren’t enough lunatics in Afghanistan, it had been a fairly secular country under the king, women had gone to college and become surgeons and everything, so we had to bring them from the rest of the world, our CIA recruited them, and then we had the blowback of 9/11, and then we blamed it on Iraq, which had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Weissman: And now we have a budding civil war throughout the region between Sunni and Shia. I just want to let people know once again that this debate about “Religion and Politics” is going to take place at UCLA’s Royce Hall on the 22nd of May at 8pm; a debate between atheist Sam Harris and theologian, or at least graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Chris Hedges who’s been writing about the Christian right, moderated by Robert Scheer, who is with us in studio today.
Scheer: Do you have a minute for me to say something about this debate?
Suzi Weissman. Sure.
Scheer: Because people say “What kind of debate is this?” It’s a very serious debate. Chris Hedges is a person who does treat religion as a positive force; he’s just opposed to the fundamentalist variation of it, the literal interpretation of scripture. But he’s a man who went to the seminary, and he defends religion in a way that Hitchens and Sam Harris don’t. And Sam Harris-we were very proud of to have him publish his “Atheist Manifesto” on our site, doesn’t mean we all agree with every word of his, or Hedges’s, but the fact is it was a very brave piece for him to write and it brought a lot of people to our site. But they have a very serious disagreement; they particularly disagree about the role of the Muslim religion, which has been singled out with this crazy thing that Hitchens has also endorsed, this Islamo-fascism as if Muslims, because they didn’t have certain events occur in their religion, are more primitive…nonsense! Rabin in Israel was killed by a Jewish terrorist. Everybody forgets that. Christians and Protestants fought for well over a hundred years in Northern Ireland killing in the name of Jesus and citing the same passages. So we’ve had no shortage of fanatics from other religions and we certainly know there are very large numbers of Muslims in Indonesia, in Egypt and everywhere, who don’t subscribe to the fundamentalist extremist view. We also know the extremist view among the Muslims has been fed by attacks on nationalism by the western imperialism, attempts to grab their oil, attempts to deny their own culture, their known integrity, so personally I’ll try to be very objective and fair as a moderator, but I do think the Muslims have gotten a raw deal in all this, and that there’s a lot of simplistic Muslim baiting; the islamo-fascism idea of the neo-conservatives is a particularly dangerous idea because once you dehumanize people in that way, then you have the excuse to go blow up Iran and every other place. Because you could say, well they are just Musliims…
Weissman: And maybe Chris Hedges will bring out that similar aspect about the Christian theocrats in this country who are very similar.
Scheer: Which he does. To Chris Hedges’s credit he has taken on the right-wing Christians in this country, they are not a joke, they’re serious, they would destroy our freedom and he has had the courage to do that. Both of these guys have great courage, Sam Harris and Chris Hedges, and I think they’re both brilliant. And I certainly don’t want to get in the way of their expressing their viewpoint, but I just want to make it clear to people who should come that this is truly a major debate by two very serious people.
Weissman: On May 22nd, UCLA’s Royce Hall, 8pm. Don’t miss this debate—“Religion and Politics”—moderated by Robert Scheer. I want to move on in our remaining minutes to the present because we’re in a Presidential campaign. We’ve been treated to two giant debates, the last one was a ‘debate on speed’ with these Republicans around the room just basically all trying to revere Ronald Reagan and not mention Bush, but Iraq is clearly the defining issue and it’s not just the defining issue in this country, it is in Britain as well. I don’t know if you noticed in the recent elections in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party won because they were opposed to the war in Iraq. And that more than almost anything else: they took a strong stand against Blair’s Labor Party, which was wiped out in that election. And we’re looking at one here where we’ve seen last week, the Democrats come up with this watered down opposition to the war that doesn’t cut off funding and allows for benchmarks but doesn’t really define withdrawal. As you look at all the hopefuls on both sides, Republican and Democrat, do you see any hope? And I would say, there are certainly Kucinich and Edwards and Hagel. But what do you see in this campaign?
Scheer: Well, first of all I want to disagree with you. I think the Pelosi/Reid resolution is a significant victory for the anti-war movement; it wouldn’t have happened were it not for the pressure of anti-war voters, which was first of all demonstrated by the mid-term elections and their strength. And that the Democratic leadership had to deliver something of substance and I think the benchmarks are important; and it’s exposed Bush as a person who is not interested in being accountable for his action: the question now is whether the Democrats collapse or cave-in or will they stick to their guns we have to keep the pressure up that they stick ...well, guns is a bad metaphor.
Weissman: I mean the issue is will they settle for a compromise.
Scheer: Well, OK. I’m just saying getting that resolution through was a significant achievement and I applaud it.
Weissman: OK, agreed.
Scheer: And I applaud the people in the anti-war movement for keeping the pressure up. And not being marginalized with other extreme issues and so forth, sticking to it. I don’t think you can have a progressive candidate who will not take on the Iraq war; if for no other reasons than for the funding issues - you will not do anything about education, about employment, anything else in this society
Weissman: ...Health care ...
Scheer: Yeah. If you’re sinking—what (Joseph) Stiglitz, the guy who won the Nobel Prize in economics estimates is already over one trillion dollars of obligation. You look at the tragedy of people going into - you know, Ron Kovic was in a Veterans Hospital for 45 days, he’s a guy who was three-quarters paralyzed from being shot in the Vietnam War - and he tells me the place was full of returning Iraqi veterans with the same kind of injuries, and worse than he has, because now with the body armor they have these terrible head injuries. These people require care for the rest of their lives. And so the costs are enormous; and the cost of whatever you’re going to do in the future in the Mid-East is going to be enormous. And so you can’t go on with this war and talk about any kind of domestic progressive agenda, it’s just absurd. And also, the war challenges civil liberties, and it requires lying and it just destroys our politics. So, it’s nonsense to say I’ll support a progressive candidate, who is wrong on the war. (laughs) And, right on the war has to begin with at least what Edwards has done and saying that your vote for the war was wrong, you were lied to. If Kerry had said this, he would be the President now.
Scheer: He didn’t say this. Do you regret your vote? And he (Edwards) said, “Yeah, the administration lied to us,” and they lied about the one thing that the Constitution should protect us from, which is lying about national security and the most important life-and-death issues of declaring war, which after all is the power of Congress - and so, I would say bottom line is there are a number of candidates out there who have taken a clear position on the war, not just Dennis Kucinich, who I respect and know well, but Edwards has certainly. Barak Obama and Clinton have not; they move in that direction with some of their statements, but the pressure has to be intensified and what voters have to say is that we will not vote for someone who wants to put this war issue to the side. And we have to remember that Democrats gave us the Vietnam War. Democrats know how to lie us into war. And I’m very worried; you know personally I like Hillary Clinton. I defended her and her husband when they were attacked in my LA Times columns, but we’ve been down this road with Democrats who want to sound like warmongers or sound tough on war, and I could see, if Hillary Clinton cannot come out very really clearly now against this war and what it represents, and maybe her move recently to de-authorize the war, I thought that was a good step, but unless she can strike a consistent theme about the lying that got us into Iraq and the need to get out, she shouldn’t be supported even on the lesser evil argument.
Let me just say finally people forget we are now in the situation in Iraq that we were in Vietnam. We have proportionally more troops, as a proportion of the population, than we ever did in Vietnam; the casualty figures are actually much higher than when I first went to Vietnam, which was in ‘64, but people who think “Oh well, the war’s going to end”. No! This could go on for another ten to fifteen years with absolutely disastrous consequences for the world’s politics and for our own democracy.
Weissman: And for the Armed Services too, there are not many more soldiers to call up.
Scheer: Well, the problem is they’ve learned their lesson of Vietnam, not the humane lesson. Their lesson of Vietnam was not: don’t meddle in a country where you don’t know what’s going on, who the people are and you don’t respect them and everything else. What they learned was how can we have a war that they thought was going to be on the cheap, that no one would notice because we wouldn’t have a draft, and we would make this a career opportunity for people who don’t have good career opportunities in this society. And that was the lie that’s come a cropper because, as you say, people aren’t signing up and the war is a disaster.
Weissman: I have a final question, Robert Scheer, and I’m really pleased that you took all this time to be with us on Beneath the Surface today. You just finished a book called “Playing President” and it goes through all of you discussions and your ideas about the presidents. What do you think is going to be the legacy of George W. Bush? And, by that, do you think the kind of cronyism, corruption, and even incompetence that has been the hallmark of his administration will take root - and, maybe, within that who else do you think is going to be forced to resign in the next 18 months?
Scheer: I will tell you the legacy, thirty years from now someone will kill, blow up some building, kill some president, kill someone, do something to avenge his grandfather who was humiliated by George W. Bush in Iraq. And this hatred that he’s sowing, this confusion that he’s created will haunt this nation for the rest of this century. Unfortunately, unfortunately. And that will be his legacy. His mixing up - battle for oil, attempt to conquer oil, which is a crop, if you look at the price of oil now, pushing to $4 a gallon - mixing it up with the problems of how do you deal with terror, which should be treated as a pathology, not in war terms, it should be treated seriously. That’s the legacy of George W. Bush, it’s a horrible legacy, he is unquestionably the worst President we’ve ever had. And he will be noted in even more dismal terms in the future.
Weissman: Thank you Robert Scheer for joining us on Beneath the Surface. Robert Scheer is the Editor in Chief of Truthdig, you can see it at Truthdig.com. They just won the juried Webby award, and the People’s Voice award. He will be moderating the debate “Religion and Politics” on May 22nd at UCLA’s Royce hall at 8pm with Chris Hedges and Sam Harris. You don’t want to miss that. You can get information at the Truthdig website on how you can get tickets to that event. Thank you for all your work and for joining us on Beneath the Surface.
Scheer: And thank you for having a great show, which I listen to all the time.
Weissman: Thank You.
Special thanks to Alexandra Kravetz for transcribing the interview.