Friday, January 31, 2014

Yo! Former Half-Governor Palin! What Color Is Stupid?

This blog has some advice for the former half-governor of Alaska: "Stop playing the stupid card." The Faux News superstar is the Queen o'Dumb and that's why the Dumbos/Morons lionize her. The Bitch of Wasilla is beneath contempt. So, we close out the month of January with the nearly brain-dead Darling of the Dense. If this is (fair & balanced) mockery of a mental defective, so be it.

[x The Nation]
Friendly Advice
By The Deadline Poet (Calvin Trillin)

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“No more playing the race card.”

—Sarah Palin’s Twitter advice to Barack Obama

One fact that the man can't evade:
The race card should never be played.
If he's to start making the grade,
He'll have to stop being that shade. Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

Copyright © 2014 The Nation

Creative Commons LicenseSapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2014 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Thursday, January 30, 2014

50 Years Later, You Still Should Be Worrying

A few years ago, this blogger made the acquaintance of a small group of historians who grew up together on the Lower East Side of The Big Apple. In that group, was a guy who was the cousin of Stanley Kubrick, one of our greatest filmmakers. The consensus of the group was that Kubrick was weird; when Kubrick was a film student, these men appeared in several of Kubrick's film projects. No matter how many of Kubrick's great films were mentioned, the neighborhood guys were unimpressed. No matter, because Eric Schlosser writes an appreciation of Kubrick as a critic of U.S. command and control of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. If this is (fair & balanced) film criticism, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Almost Everything In “Dr. Strangelove” Was True
By Eric Schlosser

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This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe”—a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet—opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth—and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.

The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?

With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative—allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun—seemed a lot worse. Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret. At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he confessed to being “very fearful of having written papers on this matter.”

President John F. Kennedy was surprised to learn, just a few weeks after taking office, about this secret delegation of power. “A subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action,” Kennedy was told in a top-secret memo, “could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.” Kennedy and his national-security advisers were shocked not only by the wide latitude given to American officers but also by the loose custody of the roughly three thousand American nuclear weapons stored in Europe. Few of the weapons had locks on them. Anyone who got hold of them could detonate them. And there was little to prevent NATO officers from Turkey, Holland, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany from using them without the approval of the United States.

In December, 1960, fifteen members of Congress serving on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had toured NATO bases to investigate how American nuclear weapons were being deployed. They found that the weapons—some of them about a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—were routinely guarded, transported, and handled by foreign military personnel. American control of the weapons was practically nonexistent. Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist who accompanied the group, was especially concerned to see German pilots sitting in German planes that were decorated with Iron Crosses—and carrying American atomic bombs. Agnew, in his own words, “nearly wet his pants” when he realized that a lone American sentry with a rifle was all that prevented someone from taking off in one of those planes and bombing the Soviet Union.

* * *

The Kennedy Administration soon decided to put locking devices inside NATO’s nuclear weapons. The coded electromechanical switches, known as “permissive action links” (PALs), would be placed on the arming lines. The weapons would be inoperable without the proper code—and that code would be shared with NATO allies only when the White House was prepared to fight the Soviets. The American military didn’t like the idea of these coded switches, fearing that mechanical devices installed to improve weapon safety would diminish weapon reliability. A top-secret State Department memo summarized the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961: “all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes.”

After a crash program to develop the new control technology, during the mid-nineteen-sixties, permissive action links were finally placed inside most of the nuclear weapons deployed by NATO forces. But Kennedy’s directive applied only to the NATO arsenal. For years, the Air Force and the Navy blocked attempts to add coded switches to the weapons solely in their custody. During a national emergency, they argued, the consequences of not receiving the proper code from the White House might be disastrous. And locked weapons might play into the hands of Communist saboteurs. “The very existence of the lock capability,” a top Air Force general claimed, “would create a fail-disable potential for knowledgeable agents to ‘dud’ the entire Minuteman [missile] force.” The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike. A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission. And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.

Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, Red Alert (1958), was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of Red Alert to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.

Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies. The Air Force was not pleased, and considered the new security measures to be an insult, a lack of confidence in its personnel. Although the Air Force now denies this claim, according to more than one source I contacted, the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.

* * *

The early permissive action links were rudimentary. Placed in NATO weapons during the nineteen-sixties and known as Category A PALs, the switches relied on a split four-digit code, with ten thousand possible combinations. If the United States went to war, two people would be necessary to unlock a nuclear weapon, each of them provided with half the code. Category A PALs were useful mainly to delay unauthorized use, to buy time after a weapon had been taken or to thwart an individual psychotic hoping to cause a large explosion. A skilled technician could open a stolen weapon and unlock it within a few hours. Today’s Category D PALs, installed in the Air Force’s hydrogen bombs, are more sophisticated. They require a six-digit code, with a million possible combinations, and have a limited-try feature that disables a weapon when the wrong code is repeatedly entered.

The Air Force’s land-based Minuteman III missiles and the Navy’s submarine-based Trident II missiles now require an eight-digit code—which is no longer 00000000—in order to be launched. The Minuteman crews receive the code via underground cables or an aboveground radio antenna. Sending the launch code to submarines deep underwater presents a greater challenge. Trident submarines contain two safes. One holds the keys necessary to launch a missile; the other holds the combination to the safe with the keys; and the combination to the safe holding the combination must be transmitted to the sub by very-low-frequency or extremely-low-frequency radio. In a pinch, if Washington, D.C., has been destroyed and the launch code doesn’t arrive, the sub’s crew can open the safes with a blowtorch.

The security measures now used to control America’s nuclear weapons are a vast improvement over those of 1964. But, like all human endeavors, they are inherently flawed. The Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program is supposed to keep people with serious emotional or psychological issues away from nuclear weapons—and yet two of the nation’s top nuclear commanders were recently removed from their posts. Neither appears to be the sort of calm, stable person you want with a finger on the button. In fact, their misbehavior seems straight out of “Strangelove.”

Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the second-highest-ranking officer at the U.S. Strategic Command—the organization responsible for all of America’s nuclear forces—-was investigated last summer for allegedly using counterfeit gambling chips at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, “a significant monetary amount” of counterfeit chips was involved. Giardina was relieved of his command on October 3, 2013. A few days later, Major General Michael Carey, the Air Force commander in charge of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, was fired for conduct “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” According to a report by the Inspector General of the Air Force, Carey had consumed too much alcohol during an official trip to Russia, behaved rudely toward Russian officers, spent time with “suspect” young foreign women in Moscow, loudly discussed sensitive information in a public hotel lounge there, and drunkenly pleaded to get onstage and sing with a Beatles cover band at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant near Red Square. Despite his requests, the band wouldn’t let Carey onstage to sing or to play the guitar.

While drinking beer in the executive lounge at Moscow’s Marriott Aurora during that visit, General Carey made an admission with serious public-policy implications. He off-handedly told a delegation of U.S. national-security officials that his missile-launch officers have the “worst morale in the Air Force.” Recent events suggest that may be true. In the spring of 2013, nineteen launch officers at Minot Air Force base in North Dakota were decertified for violating safety rules and poor discipline. In August, 2013, the entire missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana failed its safety inspection. Last week, the Air Force revealed that thirty-four launch officers at Malmstrom had been decertified for cheating on proficiency exams—and that at least three launch officers are being investigated for illegal drug use. The findings of a report by the RAND Corporation, leaked to the A.P., were equally disturbing. The study found that the rates of spousal abuse and court martials among Air Force personnel with nuclear responsibilities are much higher than those among people with other jobs in the Air Force. “We don’t care if things go properly,” a launch officer told RAND. “We just don’t want to get in trouble.”

The most unlikely and absurd plot element in “Strangelove” is the existence of a Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” The device would trigger itself, automatically, if the Soviet Union were attacked with nuclear weapons. It was meant to be the ultimate deterrent, a threat to destroy the world in order to prevent an American nuclear strike. But the failure of the Soviets to tell the United States about the contraption defeats its purpose and, at the end of the film, inadvertently causes a nuclear Armageddon. “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost,” Dr. Strangelove, the President’s science adviser, explains to the Soviet Ambassador, “if you keep it a secret!

A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.

In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.

“This is absolute madness, Ambassador,” President Merkin Muffley says in the film, after being told about the Soviets’ automated retaliatory system. “Why should you build such a thing?” Fifty years later, that question remains unanswered, and “Strangelove” seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark. Ω

[Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation (2001), Reefer Madness (2003), and Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013). His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Nation. Schlosser received a BA (history) from Princeton University and an MA (history) at Oriel College, Oxford University.]

Copyright © 2014 Condé Nast Digital

Creative Commons LicenseSapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2014 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Today's Daily Double: Irrelevant Faux News Versus The Faux News Threat

In the red corner, we have Frank (The Butcher on Broadway) Rich and in the blue corner, we have TNR's Ike Chotiner. Both are flailing at Roger Ailes, the Darth Vader of Faux News. The Butcher proclaims Darth Vader to be a dead man walking and Ike holds that even a dead rattlesnake contains live venom. So that is today's Great Debate. If this is (fair & balanced) media assessment, so be it.

P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point. Thanks be to Vannevar Bush for giving us the idea of hypertext.

[Vannevar Bush HyperlinkBracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] Point — Ignore Faux News: Thanks to The Butcher (Frank Rich)
[2] Counter-Point — Ignoring Faux News Is A Bad Idea: Thanks To Ike (Isaac Chotiner)

[1]Back To Directory
[x NY 'Zine]
Stop Beating A Dead Fox
By Frank Rich

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"There ain’t no sanity clause,” Chico Marx told Groucho. There is also no Santa Claus. And there was no sanity in the Santa fracas that became an embarrassing liberal-media fixation just before Christmas. For those who missed it, what happened was this: A Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, came upon a tongue-in-cheek blog post at Slate in which a black writer, Aisha Harris, proposed that Santa be recast as a penguin for the sake of racial inclusiveness. After tossing this scrap of red meat to her all-white panel of prime-time guests, Kelly reassured any “kids watching” (this was nearing 10 p.m.) that “Santa just is white.” (For good measure, she added, “Jesus was a white man, too.”) Soon and sure enough, Kelly’s sound bites were being masticated in op-ed pieces, online, and especially on cable, where a passing wisecrack best left to the satirical stylings of Stewart and Colbert became a call to arms. At CNN, one anchor brought on Santas of four races to debunk Kelly. BuzzFeed reported that MSNBC ­programs hopped on the story fourteen times in a single week.

Of course what Kelly said was dumb. But the reaction was even dumber. Every year, Fox News whips up some phantom “war on Christmas” plotted by what the network’s blowhard-in-chief Bill O’Reilly calls “secular progressives.” This seasonal stunt has long been old news, yet many in the liberal media still can’t resist the bait. You had to feel for the NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, who was drafted into filing a Kelly-Santa story on the "Today" show for no ­discernible reason other than that she is not white.

When this supposed “national firestorm” (as Al Sharpton inflated it on his MSNBC show) finally died down, only two things had been accomplished beyond the waste of everyone’s time. Liberals had played right into Fox’s stereotype of them—as killjoy p.c. police. And Fox News could once again brag about its power to set an agenda for its adversaries even as it also played the woebegone ­victim. “Because they can’t defeat us on the media battlefield, the far left seeks to demonize Fox News as a right-wing propaganda machine and a racist enterprise,” said O’Reilly when sermonizing about the episode on his show. “That’s why Miss Megyn got headlines about a Santa Claus remark that was totally harmless.” Fox News is a right-wing propaganda machine and at times (if not this one) a racist enterprise (witness, among other examples, its fruitless effort to drum up a “New Black Panther Party” scandal over some 95 segments in the summer of 2010). But O’Reilly was half-right. Kelly’s inane remark was harmless and unworthy of headlines. Without the left’s overreaction, there wouldn’t have been any pseudo “national firestorm.”

Still, O’Reilly’s summation was predicated on an erroneous underlying assumption that few bother to question: In truth, Fox News has been defeated on the media battlefield—and on the political battlefield as well. Even the 73-year-old wizard of Fox, Roger Ailes, now in full Lear-raging-on-the-heath mode as ­portrayed in my colleague Gabriel ­Sherman’s definitive new biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room (2014), seems to sense the waning of his power. The only people who seem not to know or accept Fox’s decline, besides its own audience, are ­liberals, including Barack Obama, whose White House mounted a short-lived, pointless freeze-out of Fox News in 2009, and who convinced himself that the network has shaved five points off his approval rating.

Ailes would like the president and everyone else to keep believing he has that clout. But these days Fox News is the loudest voice in the room only in the sense that a bawling baby is the loudest voice in the room. In being so easily bullied by Fox’s childish provocations, the left gives the network the attention on which it thrives and hands it power that it otherwise has lost. As the post-Obama era approaches, the energy spent combating Ailes might be better devoted to real political battles against more powerful adversaries—not to mention questioning the ideological slant of legitimate news operations like, say, "60 Minutes," which has recently given airtime to a fraudulent account of the murders at Benghazi and to a credulous puff piece on the NSA’s domestic surveillance.

The most interesting news about Fox News is that for some years now it has been damaging the right far more than the left. As a pair of political analysts wrote at Reuters last year, “When the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the ten presidential elections,” but since 1992, when “conservative media began to flourish” (first with Rush Limbaugh’s ascendancy, then with Fox), Democrats have won the popular vote five out of six times. You’d think they’d be well advised to leave Fox News to its own devices so that it can continue to shoot its own party in the foot.

The notion that Fox News has been defeated would seem absurd if you judge solely by the numbers. The year just ended was the network’s twelfth in a row as the most-watched cable-news network. Its number of total viewers surpasses CNN and MSNBC combined. As the longtime Rupert Murdoch–Fox News watcher Michael Wolff wrote of the cumulative 2013 ratings, “Nobody has come close to competing” with Ailes. “He gets larger, everybody else gets lesser.” But as Wolff also observed, “The cable audience, for all the attention heaped on it for its theoretical political sway, is not that large.” To put it mildly. As the overwhelming leader in its field, Fox draws just over a million viewers in prime time—a ­pittance and a niche next to even the ever-declining network newscasts, of which the lowest rated (CBS Evening News) still can attract a nightly audience as large as 8 million.

Fox News’s political sway in the real world, as opposed to its power to drive MSNBC viewers and their fellow travelers nuts and to generate ridicule from late-night comics, is also on the wane. Speaking to the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles in January, Jeff Zucker, the former NBC chief executive now trying to revive CNN (averaging a mere 568,000 prime-time viewers in 2013), complained like countless before him that Fox is an arm of the GOP “masquerading as a cable-news channel.” It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that out: No fewer than five Republican presidential hopefuls, not to mention Karl Rove and Glenn Beck, were on-camera as paid Fox personalities at the start of the 2012 election season; Murdoch is a GOP donor; and Ailes is a former Republican political operative whose partisan record extends back to his big break as Richard Nixon’s media guru in 1968. But there’s nothing in Fox’s viewership numbers, either in magnitude or in demographic hue, to suggest that there’s a significant number of voting-age Americans who at this point do not already know that Fox News is a GOP auxiliary and view it, hate-watch it, or avoid it accordingly. The masquerade that Zucker seems to find a revelation was unmasked years ago.

Back at its creation, in 1996, Fox News was a true stealth threat to the body politic. The network was assumed by many viewers to be as advertised: a good-faith competitor to CNN, which then was in its sixteenth year of dominating the still-developing genre of 24/7 television news. (MSNBC also would arrive in 1996.) Fox’s guise of impartiality would start to erode with its prurient overkill on the Lewinsky scandal, but still, its Clinton coverage wasn’t all that more sensational than the competition’s. It wasn’t until Fox threatened to dethrone CNN in the ratings after the Bush-Gore debacle of 2000 that the left started to take serious notice and decry what Fox was peddling under its Orwellian rubrics of “We Report. You Decide” and “Fair & Balanced.” By 2004, when Fox lent its growing might to the Swift Boat smears of John Kerry, a concerted opposition started to crystallize. It took the form of a revelatory documentary ("Outfoxed") by the television producer Robert Greenwald, the advent of the ill-fated liberal radio network Air America, the creation of an explicit "O’Reilly Factor" parody in "The Colbert Report," and the formation of Media Matters, an aggressive and well-financed watchdog operation conceived by the right-wing journalistic hit man turned Clinton acolyte David Brock. Media Matters also policed MSNBC, which had yet to adopt an ideological identity and was still fielding prime-time shows like "Scarborough Country," in which the former Gingrich revolutionary Joe Scarborough compared lesbians to “barnyard animals” and cheered on a Dixie Chicks boycott after Natalie Maines opposed the Iraq War. MSNBC’s marketing strategy would start to evolve (as would Scarborough’s) once Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” and “Special Comment” monologues attacking the Bush White House and its Fox shills struck pay dirt in 2006. But it was too late to overtake Fox News in the Nielsens. The tidal wave of mass liberal rage aimed at Bush-Cheney would start to recede with the 2008 election, and once Obama entered the White House, MSNBC no longer could draw on the fierce anger that might have pushed its viewership numbers into Fox territory.

On the eve of Obama’s reelection campaign, in early 2012, Brock co-authored a book cataloguing Media Matters’ long-running brief against Fox News’s transgressions, The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine. But by that point, it was more a valedictory than an exposé. The world knew Fox was a propaganda machine. At the end of 2013, a Media Matters executive, Angelo Carusone, acknowledged as much, declaring that “the war on Fox is over.” His organization devised a three-year strategic plan to devote more resources to monitoring the fast-growing sectors of online, social, and Hispanic media.

It was the right call. For all its ratings prowess and fat profits, Fox, like the GOP itself, is under existential threat in a fast-changing 21st-century America. Indeed, Megyn Kelly, the latest blonde star in an Ailes stable that seems to emulate Hitchcock’s leading-lady predilections in looks and inchoate malevolence, was promoted to her prime-time perch last year precisely to bring in a younger, less monochromatic audience. It’s a mission that neither she nor any other on-camera talent can accomplish. All three cable-news networks are hemorrhaging young viewers (as are their network-news counterparts) in an era when television is hardly the news medium of choice for Americans raised online and on smartphones. But Fox News is losing younger viewers at an even faster rate than its competitors. With a median viewer age now at 68 according to Nielsen data through mid-January (compared with 60 for MSNBC and CNN, and 62 to 64 for the broadcast networks), Fox is in essence a retirement community.

The million or so viewers who remain fiercely loyal to the network are not, for the most part, and as some liberals still imagine, naïve swing voters who stumble onto Fox News under the delusion it’s a bona fide news channel and then are brainwashed by Ailes’s talking points into becoming climate-change deniers. They arrive at the channel as proud, self-selected citizens of Fox Nation and are unlikely to defect from the channel or its politics until death do them part. (As Sherman writes, “Ailes’s audience seldom watches anything” on television but Fox News.) Hard as it may be to fathom, Fox Nation is even more monochromatically white than the GOP is, let alone the American nation. Two percent of Mitt Romney’s voters were black. According to new Nielsen data, only 1.1 percent of Fox News’s prime-time viewership is (as opposed to 25 percent for MSNBC, 14 percent for CNN, and an average of roughly 12 percent for the three broadcast networks’ evening news programs).

The Fox News membership is more than happy to be cocooned in an echo chamber where its own hopes and fears will be reinforced by other old white “people like us.” This Stockholm syndrome applies even to its more upscale members. On Election Day 2012, to take a representative example, Kelly interviewed Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal pundit, about the likely results that night. Noonan, citing “all the data that I get,” concluded that “something is going on there” and that “the dynamism” is on “the Romney side.” The “data” that persuaded her of victory was Fox News data: The only pollster she cited was a network favorite, Scott Rasmussen. Nate Silver could have told her that Rasmussen’s polls were untrustworthy, having shown a four-point pro-GOP bias in 2010 (as would also prove roughly the case in 2012), but why would she or any other Fox talking head or viewer listen to the likes of that rank outsider? Clearly few if any of them did. When the reality-based data of actual votes came in on Election Night, it only followed that Fox Nation would be shocked, as most dramatically revealed by Karl Rove’s famous on-camera meltdown. Anyone who had spent the entire year in the Fox News cocoon—repeatedly hearing happy-news polls from Rasmussen and the even more egregious Dick Morris, repeatedly being assured that Benghazi was the silver bullet certain to take out Obama—knew the election was in the bag. Even Romney was blindsided by defeat, as befit a candidate whose campaign did its best to shield him from any non-Fox press. “We’d much rather go on a Fox program where we know the question is going to come up and Mitt can give his answer and it’s not going to a frenzy of questioning,” was how a Romney senior adviser, Eric Fehrn­strom, explained this self-immolating all-Fox strategy.

Rather than waste time bemoaning Fox’s bogus journalism, liberals should encourage it. The more that Fox News viewers are duped into believing that the misinformation they are fed by Ailes is fair and balanced, the more easily they can be ambushed by reality as they were on Election Night 2012. We are all fond of quoting the Daniel Patrick Moynihan dictum that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But we should start considering the possibility that it now works to the Democrats’ advantage that Fox News does manufacture its own facts. Much as it lulled its audience in 2012 into believing that Romney’s “47 percent” tape was just a passing storm, so it is now peddling similar assurances about Chris Christie’s travails.

Fox News’s theoretical political power is further compromised by the internal crisis it shares with the GOP: its inability to navigate the conflict between the party Establishment and the radical base that is dividing the conservative ranks. The network has veered all over the place to try to placate both camps, only to end up wounded in the crossfire. In the early stages, the tea party was a heavily promoted Fox News cause, with Glenn Beck, then in residence, leading the charge. “It’s tea-party time, from sea to shining sea!” was how Kelly kicked off wall-to-wall coverage of the various Tax Day rallies held around the country on April 15, 2009. The network gave ample promotion to every flaky tea-party novelty act, from Michele Bachmann to the Delaware senatorial candidate Christine (“I’m not a witch”) O’Donnell, and promoted any and all tea-party fantasy presidents, from Sarah Palin to Herman Cain. When, finally, there was no choice for Fox but to fall in behind Romney—a last-ditch option for Ailes after his own preferred standard-bearers, Christie and David Petraeus, rebuffed his recruitment efforts—the anyone-but-Mitt GOP base disdained Fox much as it did the nominee himself. Popular talk-radio hosts like Mark Levin and Michael Savage belittled Mitt, Rove, and his Fox cheerleaders during the campaign, as at times did Rush Limbaugh. That schism has only widened since Romney’s defeat. When Fox regulars like Rove, O’Reilly, Brit Hume, Dana Perino, and Greg Gutfeld agreed with John Boehner that shutting down the government to defund Obama­care had proved a self-destructive strategy for the GOP, the base was having none of it. “Karl Rove, your record sucks!” ranted Levin in September. “Why would we listen to you?” On the other side of the right’s spectrum, the few surviving moderate conservative commentators favored by liberal outlets, from David Frum to Michael Gerson, disdain Ailes’s operation as well: “More people own ferrets than watch Fox News,” said David Brooks.

As long as Ailes is around, Fox News is likely to grow ever more isolated from the country beyond its “Nation.” If it is actuarially possible, its median viewer age will keep creeping upward. (It rose by two years over the course of 2013.) The network’s chauvinistic Christianity, whatever Santa’s race, is hardly an inducement to a younger America that is eschewing religious affiliation in numbers larger than any in the history of Pew polling. Fox News’s unreconstructed knee-jerk homophobia, most recently dramatized by its almost unanimous defense of the "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson’s likening of gay sex to bestiality, drives away viewers of all ages but especially the young. O’Reilly’s latest moralistic crusade (“Is America Going to Pot?”)—best encapsulated by a scare piece about a 2-year-old in Colorado eating “a marijuana-laced cookie”—seems almost calculated to alienate conservatives who subscribe to Rand Paul’s ever-more-popular style of libertarianism.

Many have mined Sherman’s Loudest Voice in the Room for its portrait of Ailes’s grim childhood and its account of the adult Ailes’s paranoia, his bitchy remarks about his own stars, and his alleged anti-Semitic verbal assault on a once-prized executive. Ailes was driven so berserk by the mere fact of a thorough book on his life and career that he gave exclusive interviews to another, hagiographic biography intended to preempt it and countenanced a reported $8 million settlement to a recently discharged Fox News flack who might have gone public with his own inner-office tales. But the more damning aspects of Sherman’s portrait are not what Ailes apparently most feared: the scandalous personal anecdotes, the incidents of bigotry and sexism, or even the full accounting of his darkest partisan activities. It’s through far more mundane details that the portrait of Ailes’s decline and Fox News’s obsolescence emerges.

More than in any political credo, Ailes believes most of all in the power of television, the medium he grew up in and mastered as a political tool well before many of his competitors. But as his viewers were gobsmacked by the reelection of Obama, so he has been blindsided by the fading of television as the dominant news medium. About new media Ailes knows very little and has never wanted to learn much. When MSNBC emerged in 1996, he mocked it not because of its political identity (it hadn’t chosen one yet) but because of its connection to Microsoft; he wisecracked that Fox News was not in business to “tell people to turn off their television set and go to their computer to get more information.” He failed to invest in new technology in the years that followed, and by his own account he doesn’t “do a lot of web at Fox News.” As the McCain and Romney campaigns were successively confounded by the Obama forces’ technological prowess, so Ailes has been repeatedly ambushed and frustrated by new media, from Gawker, which tortured him with gossipy revelations from a “Fox Mole,” to Google, which earned his ire by refusing to accede to his demand that it rejigger its search algorithms to smite an anti-Ailes blog. Even the success of a one-man website challenging the local newspaper Ailes owns near his home in Putnam County has taken him by surprise and brought him to apoplectic fury. He doesn’t have a clue that his great cable-news innovation at Fox, The Crawl, is aging as fast in the day of Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr as ticker tape did with the advent of computer terminals. He is so tech-phobic that when Glenn Beck left Fox to start his own empire online, he pronounced him “crazy” because “no one walks away from television.”

But even as Ailes is aging out of the media business, he is making no plans for succession. Ever more isolated from other Murdoch executives and the younger generation of Murdochs—if still protected by Rupert—he may not care that much if the ship goes down with him. His irreplaceability will only add to his legend. “Roger is Fox News,” the editor-in-chief of the right-wing website Newsmax, Christopher Ruddy, told Sherman. “Without him you don’t have it.”

Without Ailes and his Fox News to kick around anymore, the left may feel a bit disoriented—much as the right most certainly will once its unifying bête noire (literal and figurative), Obama, is gone from the White House. But while the right remains obsessed with fighting its unending war against a nearly lame-duck president, it behooves liberals to move on and start transitioning out of their Fox fixation. Paradoxically enough, the most powerful right-wing movement in the country, the insurgency in the Republican grassroots, loathes the Boehner-Christie-Rove-centric Fox News nearly as much as the left does. The more liberals keep fighting the last war against the more and more irrelevant Ailes, the less prepared they’ll be for the political war to come. Ω

[Frank Rich joined New York magazine in June 2011 as Writer-at-Large, writing monthly on politics and culture, and editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. Rich joined the magazine following a distinguished career at the New York Times, where he had been an op-ed columnist since 1994. He was previously the paper's chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993. As a theater critic, he was known as "The Butcher On Broadway." Before joining The Times, Rich was a film critic at Time magazine, the New York Post, and New Times magazine. He was a founding editor of the Richmond (Va.) Mercury, a weekly newspaper, in the early 1970s. Rich is the author of a childhood memoir, Ghost Light (2000), a collection of drama reviews, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (with Lisa Aronson, 1987), and The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006). Rich is a graduate of the Washington, DC public schools. He earned a BA degree in American History and Literature from Harvard College in 1971.]

Copyright © 2014 New York Media

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Ignoring Fox News' Racism Is Good For Democrats But Bad For The Country
By Isaac Chotiner

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The release of Gabriel Sherman's book about Fox News chief Roger Ailes has led to a number of reviews and articles about the conservative channel. Is Ailes a diabolical genius in control of the Republican Party or merely a man who presides over a network with aging viewers and dimished political clout? Meanwhile, several liberal columnists have essentially urged other liberals to ignore Fox News altogether. But just because Fox can't elect a president or steer the Republican Party in whatever direction it pleases does not mean that it should be ignored. Fox News is still dangerous, even if it cannot decide elections.

Some commentators have restricted themselves to the argument that liberals should simply not fret about Fox's electoral power. Jill Lepore implied as much in her New Yorker review of Sherman's book, and Michael Wolff wrote that, "Ailes hasn't divided the country. He's chipped off his own profitable piece of it." In my own review of Sherman's book, I argued that an otherwise excellent biography was slightly marred by the author's tendency to overstate Ailes's power and influence. Television networks do not decide elections, or even choose Democratic or Republican nominees.

But it requires a leap of logic to say that because Fox is not omnipotent it should be ignored. And yet that is the argument that Frank Rich makes in a long piece for New York magazine, titled "Stop Beating a Dead Fox." [See above] Rich runs through all the familiar arguments about Ailes's large yet not limitless political influence, but Rich has a larger point to make: that Fox's insanity should essentially be treated by liberals as if it were not occurring.

Rich begins with the "White Santa" story of several weeks ago, in which Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, whose obsession with skin color should really be addressed by someone with more psychological training than I possess, declared on her program that "Santa just is white." Rich uses this example to scold liberals for getting angry about Kelly's comments:

Of course what Kelly said was dumb. But the reaction was even dumber...When this supposed “national firestorm” (as Al Sharpton inflated it on his MSNBC show) finally died down, only two things had been accomplished beyond the waste of everyone’s time. Liberals had played right into Fox’s stereotype of them—as killjoy p.c. police. And Fox News could once again brag about its power to set an agenda for its adversaries even as it also played the woebegone ­victim.

For Rich to claim that outrage over this remark was "dumber" than the actual remark is absurd. As is the notion that outrage over Fox's racial games makes liberals seem like the "killjoy P.C. police." (Because racism is so fun!) But Rich's underlying reasoning is even more flawed:

In truth, Fox News has been defeated on the media battlefield—and on the political battlefield as well. Even the 73-year-old wizard of Fox, Roger Ailes, now in full Lear-raging-on-the-heath mode as ­portrayed in my colleague Gabriel ­Sherman’s definitive new biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room, seems to sense the waning of his power. The only people who seem not to know or accept Fox’s decline, besides its own audience, are ­liberals....

Rich's point here, as far as I can tell, is that because the channel is fading in importance, and has an aging viewership, its racism, Islamophobia, and disgusting fear-mongering should be ignored by liberals. This conflates two entirely separate things, as if a channel that cannot elect presidents should therefore be given a pass on anything and everything.

Rich takes this argument even further, however, writing near the end of his piece that, "Rather than waste time bemoaning Fox’s bogus journalism, liberals should encourage it. The more that Fox News viewers are duped into believing that the misinformation they are fed by Ailes is fair and balanced, the more easily they can be ambushed by reality as they were on Election Night 2012."

This is partisan in the crudest sense, and also irresponsible. Fox still has, as far as cable news is concerned, a giant audience among all Americans—especially Republicans, conservatives, and influential businessmen and businesswomen. It still has major power within the Republican Party. To say that Fox's bigotry should just be discounted is therefore odd. I am sure Rich has spent some time watching Fox News, so he must be aware of how toxic it is. Putting aside its top-down class warfare, segment after segment is meant to scare its white audience into believing that African Americans, or Muslims, are out to get them. This is not some random nut on Twitter: no, this is real bigotry transmitted to a large audience, and it must be combatted. Rich seems to think Kelly's Santa comment was merely dumb and frivolous; it wasn't. The subject may have been both, but that's not the point. Kelly's remark was another attempt to rile up a white audience about a multicultural America. The actual subject is nearly irrelevant.

Moreover, for someone who is intent on scolding liberals for being too uptight, Rich himself is awfully humorless. At one point, he tells liberals to stop obsessing about the "War on Christmas," but as far as I can tell, the liberals who do bring it up constantly, such as Jon Stewart, are doing so with comic intent. (Rich also seems to err in his understanding of who watches the channel when he writes, "Paradoxically enough, the most powerful right-wing movement in the country, the insurgency in the Republican grassroots, loathes the Boehner-Christie-Rove-centric Fox News nearly as much as the left does." Really?)

Sherman's book has done a real service in bringing about this conversation, and the constant fretting from the left that Fox or Rush Limbaugh is going to determine the next president has—thank God—died down. But the ideas that Fox's peddles remain gross and dangerous, and as long as they are in circulation, they should be criticized, debunked, and scorned. Ω

[Isaac Chotiner serves as Executive Editor of The New Republic. Chotiner also served as an assistant editor and reporter-researcher at the magazine. Prior to his time at TNR, he worked as an editorial assistant at, and interned at The Washington Monthly. He has written reviews and articles for The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. Chotiner holds a Bachelor's Degree in political science from the University of California at Davis.]

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Copyright © 2014 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, RIP

Pete Seeger was a folk singer sui generis. This blogger was a college freshman when he first heard The Weavers. A few years later, he attended a Pete Seeger concert in a hgih school auditorium with John Birch Society pickets outside. The last sighting/hearing of a Pete Seeger appearance was at the first Obama inaugural celebration in 2009. Now, Pete Seeger is gone (but not forgotten). To avoid sentimentality, here is a bracing view of "The Folk Song Army" by Tom Lehrer.

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"The Folk Song Army" (1965)
By Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer notwithstanding, Pete Seeger was a giant of a man. If this is (fair & balanced) admiration, so be it.

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Pete Seeger, Songwriter And Champion Of Folk Music, Dies At 94
By Jon Pareles

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"This Land Is Your Land"
Obama Inaugural, 2009
By (L) Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (C) Pete Seeger (R) Bruce Springsteen

Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died Monday. He was 94 and lived in Beacon, NY.

His death was confirmed by his grandson, Kitama Cahill Jackson, who said he died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Mr. Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10 to college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.

For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.

In his hearty tenor, Mr. Seeger, a beanpole of a man who most often played 12-string guitar or five-string banjo, sang topical songs and children’s songs, humorous tunes and earnest anthems, always encouraging listeners to join in. His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

Mr. Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” — which reached No. 1 — and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays. Another of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Mr. Seeger was a mentor to younger folk and topical singers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock. Decades later, Bruce Springsteen drew the songs on his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” from Mr. Seeger’s repertoire of traditional music about a turbulent American experience, and in 2009 he performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Mr. Seeger at the Obama inaugural [See above]. At a Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday, Mr. Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”

Although he recorded more than 100 albums, Mr. Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He invariably tried to use his celebrity to bring attention and contributions to the causes that moved him, or to the traditional songs he wanted to preserve.

Mr. Seeger saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.

During the McCarthy era Mr. Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress. The pressure broke up the Weavers, and Mr. Seeger disappeared from television until the late 1960s. But he never stopped recording, performing and listening to songs from ordinary people. Through the decades, his songs have become part of America’s folklore.

“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Peter Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, to Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a concert violinist. His parents later divorced.

He began playing the ukulele while attending Avon Old Farms, a private boarding school in Connecticut. His father and his stepmother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, were collecting and transcribing rural American folk music, as were folklorists like John and Alan Lomax. He heard the five-string banjo, which would become his main instrument, when his father took him to a square-dance festival in North Carolina.

Young Pete became enthralled by rural traditions. “I liked the strident vocal tone of the singers, the vigorous dancing,” he is quoted in How Can I Keep From Singing? (2008), a biography by David Dunaway. “The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humor had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.”

Planning to be a journalist, Mr. Seeger attended Harvard, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. After two years, he dropped out and came to New York City, where Mr. Lomax introduced him to the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly. Mr. Lomax also helped Mr. Seeger find a job cataloging and transcribing music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

Mr. Seeger met Mr. Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions, in 1940, when they performed at a benefit concert for migrant California workers. Traveling across the United States with Mr. Guthrie, Mr. Seeger picked up some of his style and repertory. He also hitchhiked and hopped freight trains by himself, trading and learning songs.

When he returned to New York later in 1940, Mr. Seeger made his first albums. He, Millard Lampell and Mr. Hays founded the Almanac Singers, who performed union songs and, until Germany invaded the Soviet Union, antiwar songs, following the Communist Party line. Mr. Guthrie soon joined the group.

During World War II the Almanac Singers’s repertory turned to patriotic, antifascist songs, bringing them a broad audience, including a prime-time national radio spot. But the group’s earlier antiwar songs, the target of an F.B.I. investigation, came to light, and the group’s career plummeted.

Before the group completely dissolved, however, Mr. Seeger was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a unit of performers. He married Toshi-Aline Ohta while on furlough in 1943.

When he returned from the war he founded People’s Songs Inc., which published political songs and presented concerts for several years before going bankrupt. He also started his nightclub career, performing at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. Mr. Seeger and Paul Robeson toured with the campaign of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, in 1948.

Mr. Seeger invested $1,700 in 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon and began building a log cabin there in the late 1940s. In 1949, Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman started working together as the Weavers. They were signed to Decca Records by Gordon Jenkins, the company’s music director and an arranger for Frank Sinatra. With Mr. Jenkins’s elaborate orchestral arrangements, the group recorded a repertoire that stretched from “If I Had a Hammer” to a South African song, “Wimoweh” (the title was Mr. Seeger’s mishearing of “Mbube,” the name of a South African hit by Solomon Linda), to an Israeli soldiers’ song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” to a cleaned-up version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Onstage, they also sang more pointed topical songs.

In 1950 and 1951 the Weavers were national stars, with hit singles and engagements at major nightclubs. Their hits included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Mr. Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” and they sold an estimated four million singles and albums.

But Red Channels, an influential pamphlet listing performers with suspected Communist ties, appeared in June 1950 and listed Mr. Seeger, although by then he had quit the Communist Party. He would later criticize himself for having not left the party sooner, though he continued to describe himself as a “communist with a small ‘c.’ ”

Despite the Weavers’ commercial success, by the summer of 1951 the Red Channels citation and leaks from F.B.I. files had led to the cancellation of television appearances. In 1951, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated the Weavers for sedition. And in February 1952, a former member of People’s Songs testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that three of the four Weavers were members of the Communist Party.

As engagements dried up the Weavers disbanded, though they reunited periodically in the mid-1950s. After the group recorded an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Mr. Seeger left, citing his objection to promoting tobacco use.

Shut out of national exposure, Mr. Seeger returned primarily to solo concerts, touring college coffeehouses, churches, schools and summer camps, building an audience for folk music among young people. He started to write a long-running column for the folk-song magazine Sing Out! And he recorded prolifically for the independent Folkways label, singing everything from children’s songs to Spanish Civil War anthems.

In 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature.” He also stated: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

Mr. Seeger offered to sing the songs mentioned by the congressmen who questioned him. The committee declined.

Mr. Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty. After the indictment, Mr. Seeger’s concerts were often picketed by the John Birch Society and other rightist groups. “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity,” he later said. “The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”

By then, the folk revival was prospering. In 1959, Mr. Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio’s version of Mr. Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reached the Top 40 in 1962, soon followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which rose to the Top 10.

Mr. Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television. “Hootenanny,” an early-1960s show on ABC that capitalized on the folk revival, refused to book Mr. Seeger, causing other performers (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) to boycott it. “Hootenanny” eventually offered to present Mr. Seeger if he would sign a loyalty oath. He refused.

He toured the world, performing and collecting folk songs, in 1963, and returned to serenade civil rights advocates, who had made a rallying song of his “We Shall Overcome.”

Like many of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “We Shall Overcome” had convoluted traditional roots. It was based on old gospel songs, primarily “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina. A slower version, “We Will Overcome,” was collected from one of the workers, Lucille Simmons, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN, which trained union organizers.

Ms. Horton taught it to Mr. Seeger, and her version of “We Will Overcome” was published in the People’s Songs newsletter. Mr. Seeger changed “We will” to “We shall” and added verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). He taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton, who would join the Weavers in 1962, and Guy Carawan, who became musical director at Highlander in the ‘50s. Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention.

The song was copyrighted by Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Carawan and Ms. Horton. “At that time we didn’t know Lucille Simmons’s name,” Mr. Seeger wrote in his 1993 autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” All of the song’s royalties go to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.

Along with many elders of the protest-song movement, Mr. Seeger felt betrayed when Bob Dylan appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a loud electric blues band. Reports emerged that Mr. Seeger had tried to cut the power cable with an ax, but witnesses including the producer George Wein and the festival’s production manager, Joe Boyd (later a leading folk-rock record producer), said he did not go that far. (An ax was available, however. A group of prisoners had used it while singing a logging song.)

As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Mr. Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar song with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” He performed the song during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, his return to network television, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Mr. Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.

During the late 1960s Mr. Seeger started an improbable project: a sailing ship that would crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson River. Between other benefit concerts he raised money to build the Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop that was launched in June 1969 with a crew of musicians. The ship became a symbol and a rallying point for antipollution efforts and education.

In May 2009, after decades of litigation and environmental activism led by Mr. Seeger’s nonprofit environmental organization, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, General Electric began dredging sediment containing PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson. Mr. Seeger and his wife also helped organize a yearly summer folk festival named after the Clearwater.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s Mr. Seeger toured regularly with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, and continued to lead singalongs and perform benefit concerts. Recognition and awards arrived. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1993 he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. In 1994, President Bill Clinton handed him the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest arts honor, given by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999, he traveled to Cuba to receive the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award, for his “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”

In 1996, Mr. Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Arlo Guthrie, who paid tribute at the ceremony, mentioned that the Weavers’ hit “Goodnight, Irene” reached No. 1, only to add, “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him.” Mr. Seeger made no acceptance speech, but he did lead a singalong of “Goodnight, Irene,” flanked by Stevie Wonder, David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane.

Mr. Seeger won Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album in 1997, for the album “Pete,” and in 2009, for the album “At 89.” He also won a Grammy in the children’s music category in 2011 for “Tomorrow’s Children.”

Mr. Seeger kept performing into the 21st century, despite a flagging voice; audiences happily sang along more loudly. He celebrated his 90th birthday, on May 3, 2009, at a Madison Square Garden concert — a benefit for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater — with Mr. Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other musicians paying tribute. In August he was back in Newport for the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival.

Mr. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. Survivors include his son, Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; a half-sister, Peggy; and six grandchildren, including the musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who performed with him at the Obama inaugural. His half-brother Mike Seeger, a folklorist and performer who founded the New Lost City Ramblers, died in 2009.

Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. “The key to the future of the world,” he said in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” Ω

[Jo Pareles is the chief popular-music critic in the arts section of The New York Times. In the 1970s, he was an associate editor of Crawdaddy!; and in the 1980s, an associate editor at Rolling Stone and the music editor at The Village Voice. He started contributing to The Times in 1982. Pareles received a BA (music) from Yale University.]

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