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Salt talks

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; 11:09 AM

Barack Obama has to worry about Afghanistan, Iraq, a Supreme Court vacancy, mining safety, unemployment, Wall Street regulation, making his health-care law work and a few dozen other things.

So how does he have time to declare war on salt?

Let me be clear: I try to eat healthy. I'd like less salt in my diet. I like nutrition labels on supermarket goods and restaurant menus. Some people will cut down on excessive fat and sodium if they're presented with the facts, mindful of the impact on high blood pressure and heart disease. Others won't care, and that's their choice.

But I was stunned to read in The Washington Post that the FDA was considering a move to force food manufacturers to reduce salt content. And that Tom Harkin and Rosa DeLauro think it's a great idea.

A worthy goal, but do we want Uncle Sam in charge of our diets?

Isn't it all too easy for Obama opponents to caricature this move as the triumph of the nanny state? To paint the president as the salt czar, dispatching his bureaucrats to micromanage your life?

The Wall Street Journal headline: "Will Low-Salt Pretzels Taste Just as Good?"

I don't mind jawboning the industry, which seems to favor some level of voluntary reduction. I don't mind banning sugary sodas in public schools, because kids are involved (not that they can't get their Coke fix elsewhere). But should the government be telling adults they can't have salty foods if they want them? And why salt? Fat and sugar are arguably bigger problems in terms of Michelle's anti-obesity drive.

Are french fries next? Will there be a National Cupcake Consumption Act? What about that KFC sandwich of bacon squished between two slabs of fried chicken? Should those people be sent to jail? (Actually, I might go along with that.)

Maybe I'm overreacting. But the president just gave ammunition to those who are angry at the reach of Big Government.

The Mikey factor

Washington has been obsessed lately with word that the NYT's Mark Leibovich was profiling Politico's Mike Allen, which gives you some feel for the capital's weird obsessions.

The piece hit the Web yesterday, and there is a hall-of-mirrors quality to it: Leibovich cops to being a friend of (and even a source for) Allen; they both worked together at the WP, along with Politico founders John Harris and Jim VandeHei. Allen has always been a somewhat eccentric workaholic.

Allen has broken some good stories at Politico, but Leibovich portrays his morning digest, Playbook, as having biblical importance to the Beltway culture. I think that overplays its importance, but hey, Katie Couric says she reads it in bed, so what do I know?

Leibovich describes his subject as "a never-married 45-year-old grind known as Mikey," calling him "the oddball king of a changing political and media order."

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer is his chief point of contact. "Allen also communes a lot with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; Robert Gibbs, the press secretary; David Axelrod, President Obama's senior adviser; and about two dozen other White House officials. But Pfeiffer is likely Allen's main point of contact, the one who most often helps him arrive at a "West Wing Mindmeld," as Playbook calls it, which is essentially a pro-Obama take on that day's news. (Allen gets a similar fill from Republicans, which he also disseminates in Playbook.)

"Pfeiffer tells Allen the message that the Obama administration is trying to 'drive' that morning -- 'drive' being the action verb of choice around the male-dominated culture of Politico. . . .

"He bursts in and out of parties, at once manic and serene, chronically toting gifts, cards and flower arrangements that seem to consume much of an annual income that is believed to exceed $250,000. Allen -- who is childless and owns no cars or real estate -- perpetually picks up meal and beverage tabs for his friend-sources (the dominant hybrid around Mikey). He kisses women's hands and thanks you so much for coming, even though the party is never at his home, which not even his closest friends have seen. . . .

"Politico today remains a White House shorthand for everything the administration claims to dislike about Washington -- Beltway myopia, politics as daily sport. Yet most of the president's top aides are as steeped in this culture as anyone else -- and work hard to manipulate it."

That part is definitely true. And there's a certain instant gratification to leaking a tidbit and having it show up online almost immediately -- though such transactions are hardly limited to Politico.

Former McCain aide Mark Salter: "They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel." Oh, and former Politico guy Ryan Grim accuses it of "sweatshoppery."

Now we have other journalists reacting to the profile of one journalist by another, and Mediaite rounding up the fallout. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones says:

"For years I've avoided reading Playbook (and The Note and First Read) solely because everyone else does read them. . . .

"Groupthink is hard enough to avoid already. Deliberately immersing yourself in it just seems absurd."

And to make it even more meta, Politico's Patrick Gavin writes:

"The piece, to some extent, will be viewed positively by POLITICO management, if I had to guess, as it reinforces how central the publication is to Washington's blood stream, a goal for any politically-oriented publication. But, let's focus on the criticisms lodged by some in the piece for a second. . . . The standard critiques of POLITICO are well-worn and not terribly newsy: Reporters are expected to work hard. POLITICO reports at a hyper-pace. The newsroom could be more diverse."

Sounds like he's declaring victory.

The Goldman culture

Tina Brown weighs in on the elephant in the room, that such things as synthetic collateralized debt obligations serve no conceivable social purpose beyond making some people very rich:

"It looks like the American epidemic of testosterone poisoning is in the process of claiming yet another victim: the reputation of Goldman Sachs.

"Your normal Wall Street big swinging Richard has enough of a lingering moral compass to at least tell himself that his wizardry benefits somebody or something besides himself. You know, his cleverness makes capital markets more efficient. It provides credit to productive enterprise. Whatever.

"Not these guys. No pretense of any kind of social usefulness from the likes of hedge-fund manager John Paulson, who sat glued to a computer screen making billion-dollar bets on everyone else's future calamity. No such fig leaf for Goldman vice president Fabrice Tourre, the baitfish chosen by the SEC to lead them to the big sharks, a guy who spent his life's precious hours devising ways to stuff his own clients' loans with Paulson's handpicked securities dross. . . .

"And it's always guys, isn't it? Periodically The New York Times runs a business news story lamenting how few women still make it to the top in the Wall Street boys' club. Could it be that women are choosing to be conscientious objectors in these wars of one against all?"

Meanwhile, "President Obama heads to the nation's financial center today to try to capitalize on what may be the Democrats' most popular policy proposal: regulating Wall Street. . . .

"The White House says Republicans are on the wrong side of the issue, given the topic's popularity in public opinion polls. For the first time on major legislation, Obama may win broad bipartisan support," says USA Today.

Or not. Though the White House basically needs one GOP senator to avoid a filibuster.

As the WSJ puts it: "President Barack Obama will return to Manhattan's Cooper Union on Thursday, two years after a campaign speech that laid out his vision for Wall Street, to castigate a financial industry that he will say has too often forgotten the ordinary Americans who have suffered from its reckless irresponsibility."

Pushback on Pulitzer

Richard Deitsch looks at why a certain genre of reporting fails to put points on the Pulitzer board:

"Once again, sports was shut out of newspaper journalism's most prestigious prize this year, which means Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann, whose work with the St. Paul Pioneer Press uncovering academic fraud in the men's basketball program at the University of Minnesota won him the award for beat reporting in 2000, remains the last sportswriter to earn the honor.

"I've tackled this subject before: Is there a Pulitzer bias against sports? Perhaps not overtly, but the current Pulitzer Board lacks anyone with a background in sports, and some remarkable sports journalism (e.g. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' work on BALCO in the San Francisco Chronicle) failed to get the honor.. . . .'People will say that there is a bias against sports journalism, but I think the reason is far simpler: Our best work rarely has the impact of the work of the winners,' [Dohrmann] said."

Plug pulled at MSNBC

Exactly what happened remains unclear, but this NYT report suggests that criticizing Keith Olbermann on MSNBC can be risky business:

"A weeklong anchoring stint on MSNBC by Donny Deutsch ended abruptly on Wednesday, and four people briefed on the decision said the cancellation stemmed from an unflattering mention of that channel's No. 1 anchor, Keith Olbermann, a day earlier.

"Mr. Deutsch had labeled his hour on MSNBC 'America the Angry,' and Mr. Olbermann was shown briefly in a series of clips of media figures during a segment that pondered what role the media plays in fomenting the public's anger.

"An MSNBC executive privately denied the claim that Mr. Olbermann, who is not a part of the channel's management, influenced the decision to bench Mr. Deutsch, but would not say so publicly.

"In a reply to an e-mail message from The New York Times, Mr. Olbermann said: 'Your account is entirely untrue. Your e-mail is the first I am hearing of any of this. What I know of what happened is this: Phil Griffin phoned me yesterday enraged at what was on that show and I didn't disagree with him.' Mr. Griffin is the president of MSNBC."

"Olbermann ripped the author on Twitter for writing that he had something to do with the decision, despite his denial."

Sweet Tweets

And speaking of Twitter, Salon's Farhad Manjoo says its marketing message is all wrong:

"For Twitter's own good, though, I wish its founders and acolytes would tone down the revolutionary language. All the talk about Twitter as an aid to mass activism, a trusty friend during earthquakes, makes Twitter sound like the broccoli of social-networks. The high-minded rhetoric exacerbates Twitter's main problem -- that people are confused about what to use it for -- and obscures its main selling point, which is that it's a lot of fun. Twitter has become the best way to find interesting things or people online at any given instant. Everyone who's interested in news ought to be on it, and even people who aren't should give it a try. That's because it's great entertainment--following a good group of tweeters, like hanging out a well-attended party, is a terrific way to spend part of your day. That's enough of a reason to join it, even if you aren't helping to bring down Iran's dictatorship. . . .

"You don't need to tell anybody what you've eaten for breakfast in order to get something out of Twitter. (And now that I think about it, in my years on Twitter I don't think I've ever seen a tweet about people eating breakfast, getting coffee, or going to the store). Lurking is one perfectly valid way to use Twitter. Chances are that some of the journalists, bloggers, actors, comedians, writers, and other personalities whom you love in real life are also on Twitter. You can go to the site, sign up to follow these people, and then just read what they write -- all while playing the wallflower."

It's like dropping in on a great, rolling dinner party without an invitation -- and you can do it in your pajamas. Plus, even the big-shot guests are prohibited from going on and on and on.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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