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Profile: Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter was a participant or observer in the following events:

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter listens with horrified fascination as Oliver North testifies to the Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee (see July 7-10, 1987) about the 1985 apprehension of the Arab terrorists who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro. North accuses unnamed members of Congress of being untrustworthy by leaking the military details of the hijackers’ capture to the press. Alter is fully aware that North is lying—in fact, North himself leaked the information about the capture to reporters. Alter is sure that North believes he will not be exposed because reporters do not, as a rule, reveal their sources. Though North did not speak to Alter himself about the Achille Lauro capture operation, Alter exposes North as the leaker. Alter will later write: “This didn’t exactly make me Mr. Popularity with my colleagues or with North, who threatened to sue. But I would do it all over again.” [Newsweek, 10/13/2003]

Entity Tags: Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Jonathan Alter, Oliver North

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair, Domestic Propaganda

1996 Dole presidential campaign button.1996 Dole presidential campaign button. [Source: Dole Institute]Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter uses the occasion of former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s death (see September 17, 1996) to condemn the “wedge politics” of Agnew’s heyday (see 1969-1971). “Agnew led Richard Nixon’s campaign to win suburbia for Republicanism by exploiting white middle class anger at the poor, college antiwar activists, and the ‘liberal Eastern media’,” Alter writes. But “Spiro Agnew is gone, and the wedge politics he honed aren’t cutting for the GOP this year.” Agnew’s “politics of polarization” do not work anymore, Alter observes, but adds that Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole is still trying to use Agnew-like tactics in his own campaign to defeat incumbent Bill Clinton. Dole echoes Agnew’s language (see 1969-1971) in calling Clinton’s White House “a corps of elite who never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered.” Dole, writes Alter, is “still working from the 1968 playbook.” [Newsweek, 9/30/1996]

Entity Tags: Robert J. (“Bob”) Dole, Jonathan Alter, Spiro T. Agnew, Clinton administration, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter writes: “We can’t legalize physical torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.” [Newsweek, 11/5/2001]

Entity Tags: Jonathan Alter

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus testifies before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see December 30, 2003 and August 9, 2004). Pincus refuses to divulge confidential sources, and refuses to divulge the name of the White House official who told him of Plame Wilson’s identity as a CIA agent. He does, however, recount the substance of that conversation. [Associated Press, 9/17/2004; New York Times, 2006] In his deposition, Pincus says he agreed to be questioned by prosecutors only with his source’s approval. “I understand that my source has already spoken to the special prosecutor about our conversation on July 12, and that the special prosecutor has dropped his demand that I reveal my source,” Pincus says. “Even so, I will not testify about his or her identity.” [Washington Post, 9/16/2004; Associated Press, 9/17/2004] “The source has not discharged us from the confidentiality pledge,” says the Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr. [Washington Post, 9/16/2004] Pincus will later describe why he agreed to testify instead of go to jail to protect his sources. “I believed firmly that the sources controlled the privilege,” he will say. One of his sources had told Pincus, through lawyers, that since he had revealed his own identity, Pincus could testify but not name him publicly. Pincus will later say, “If their identity was known to [special prosecutor] Patrick Fitzgerald, what confidence was I breaking?” He agreed to testify if he could name his source in court, but protect the source’s identity publicly. Fellow reporter Lowell Bergman will later call it “a cute deal.” When Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter asks Bergman, “Can’t you make an argument that this was the pragmatic tactic to take?” Bergman will respond, “It is until you are the next reporter subpoenaed and you have no protection.” [Vanity Fair, 4/2006] Pincus’s source will later be revealed as former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (see 1:26 p.m. July 12, 2003).

Entity Tags: Leonard Downie, Jr., Bush administration (43), Lowell Bergman, Ari Fleischer, Washington Post, Jonathan Alter, Walter Pincus

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Jonathan Alter.Jonathan Alter. [Source: Publicity photo via Greater Talent Network]Reporter and political pundit Jonathan Alter writes that President Bush’s attempt to kill the New York Times domestic wiretapping story (see December 15, 2005 and December 6, 2005), which the Times delayed for over a year at the White House’s request, is not an attempt to protect national security, as Bush will say in his response to the article (see December 17, 2005), but “because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker.” Alter continues, “He insists he had ‘legal authority derived from the Constitution and Congressional resolution authorizing force.’ But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law. And the post-9/11 congressional resolution authorizing ‘all necessary force’ in fighting terrorism was made in clear reference to military intervention. It did not scrap the Constitution and allow the president to do whatever he pleased in any area in the name of fighting terrorism.” Alter is puzzled that Bush felt the need for the program when the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978) “allows the government to eavesdrop on its own, then retroactively justify it to the court, essentially obtaining a warrant after the fact.” Alter says that only four of “tens of thousands” of FISA requests have ever been rejected, and, “There was no indication the existing system was slow—as the president seemed to claim in his press conference—or in any way required extra-constitutional action.” He concludes: “[Bush] knew publication would cause him great embarrassment and trouble for the rest of his presidency. It was for that reason—and less out of genuine concern about national security—that George W. Bush tried so hard to kill the New York Times story. …We’re seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator, or in his own mind, no doubt, like Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.” [Newsweek, 12/21/2005]

Entity Tags: Abraham Lincoln, Bush administration (43), National Security Agency, New York Times, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Jonathan Alter

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly denies there were ever any racial connotations to the “birther” controversy surrounding President Obama’s US citizenship. On his show The O’Reilly Factor, O’Reilly notes that many “defenders of Obama labeled the whole thing racist,” and plays clips from MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, CBS’s Bob Schieffer, The View’s Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg (see April 27, 2011), MSNBC analyst Jonathan Alter, and BET host Tavis Smiley, many of them focusing on billionaire entrepeneur and television host Donald Trump and his pronouncements (see April 26, 2011, April 27, 2011, and April 27, 2011). O’Reilly’s guests, Fox analyst Alicia Menendez and Republican strategist Margaret Hoover, join in denouncing what Hoover calls “the most predictable” reactions imaginable from “the entire left.” Hoover says that liberals always cry “racist” when they want to criticize conservatives. Hoover does admit that Trump’s claims that Obama got into Ivy League schools due to affirmative action, and the “widespread movement to delegitimize the president to say he’s not American enough (see April 27, 2011), I think it’s not unrelated to race.” O’Reilly disagrees, saying that questions about Obama’s college career are different from “calling him out because of his skin color.” Trump may be “stoking the discomfort that some people have with [Obama’s] skin color,” Hoover says, a remark that draws a snort of derision from O’Reilly, who says he knows Trump well and does not believe he is a racist. Menendez, described by an on-screen chyron as a member of a “center-left think tank,” agrees with Hoover that some of the comments and charges leveled by “birthers” may aggravate the racial tensions that exist in America today. O’Reilly cuts her off and says he does not see “any of these racial confrontations in this country, and I do this every day.” He demands proof of her contention. “I’m not saying it’s just about Barack Obama,” Menendez says, “I’m saying it’s generally about people trying to figure out what to do with this change in America.” Menendez says that there is “some intertwining” between the birther controversy and racist attitudes, but calls the comments by Schulz and others “very radical and obscure the conversation we should be having.” O’Reilly calls the charges of racism “vicious,” and presses for agreement from both Hoover and Menendez. Menendez attempts to qualify, calling the charges a response to “a vicious and hateful thing coming out of the right. And there were very few people like you who were being honest and calling it what it was.” O’Reilly says that the “bad behavior” from the right does not justify “bad behavior” from the left. He says the charges that “the birth certificate was phony” had no connection to racism at all, and continues to lambast “the left” for trying to tie racism into the controversy. Menendez asks if O’Reilly believes that “it was just coincidental” that Obama, the first African-American president, was targeted as not “being a real American” by right-wing opponents. “That’s just a weird coincidence,” she says. O’Reilly says the entire controversy was “borne out of hatred for the man.… The people who hate Barack Obama will latch on to anything. It’s not because of his skin color.” O’Reilly concludes that the “far left” did not act “in a responsible way” in challenging the controversy “as we did [presumably referring to his show]. We just took it apart” (see July 29, 2009). [Media Matters, 4/28/2011] An Associated Press analysis has found that the “birther” controversy was fueled in large part by racism (see April 27, 2011), and liberals (see April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 28, 2011, and April 28, 2011), moderates (see April 27, 2011), and conservatives (see April 27, 2011) alike have decried the racism at the heart of “birtherism.” Author John Avlon has said that “birthers” will never give up their conspiracy theories because even Republicans who disbelieve the claims and do not themselves harbor racist beliefs will not denounce the claims and the racism behind them (see April 28, 2011). Some conservative media outlets, including Fox News, are launching a new series of attacks on Obama through his father, vilifying the senior Obama because of his alleged “penchant” for “white women” (see April 28, 2011, April 29, 2011, and April 29, 2011). And conservative radio host Laura Ingraham says the release of the “long form” certificate “proves” Obama intends to make his re-election bid about race (see April 28, 2011).

Entity Tags: Edward Andrew (“Ed”) Schultz, Bill O’Reilly, Barack Obama, Associated Press, Alicia Menendez, Donald Trump, Whoopi Goldberg, Fox News, Margaret Hoover, Bob Schieffer, John Avlon, Jonathan Alter, Joy Behar, Laura Ingraham, Tavis Smiley

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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