ABC News Wrongs Tea Party in Coverage of ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Shooting

Published: PolicyMic (July 21, 2012)

Someone at ABC News needs to be fired.

In my article on Mitt Romney’s Bain scandal last week, I chided the media for being “pathetic” in its determination to take sides rather than objectively report the facts and demand answers from those in power. One week later, the irresponsibility of our mainstream news outlets has again reared its ugly head, this time when ABC News anchor Brian Ross wrongly connected The Dark Knight Rises killer to the Tea Party shortly after his network broke the story of the shootings. Here’s his actual quote:

“There’s a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado page on the Colorado Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year. Now we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes, but this is Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”

For the record, I am not a fan of the Tea Party. Even if one ignores the obnoxiously self-aggrandizing nature of their rhetoric, they are responsible for fiscally perilous philosophical rigidity, egregious distortions of American history, and nasty bigotry that has been substantiated both anecdotally and in scholarly studies.

While the media has an undeniable responsibility to draw attention to the unsavory aspects of this movement, however, they have developed an unfortunate habit of reflexively blaming them for any act of domestic violence that seemingly smacks of political extremism. When they did this last year after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, it was at least understandable, given that she had been victimized by right-wing vandalism and death threats during the health care reform debate. This time, however, the assumption is entirely unjustifiable. It is easy to break down the five main reasons for this:

1. The most obvious is that it was shoddy journalism. As Ross himself pointed out in his initial statement, his researchers had no way of knowing whether the Jim Holmes who participated in local Aurora, CO, Tea Party events had any connection to the Jim Holmes responsible for the mass murders. Because ABC News was no doubt worried about being out-scooped by one of its competitors, they rushed to report this “revelation” before anyone else, most likely rationalizing it by thinking that if they were found to be in error, they could retract the story and apologize for it later (which is exactly what they did). This may be a sound business practice, but it makes for lousy reporting. As even a passing student of journalistic ethics will tell you, they had no place mentioning any potential Jim Holmes/Tea Party connection until they had proof that it was valid.

2. It was unfair to the Tea Party. Whatever criticisms one may have of that movement (and, as has already been made clear, I certainly have quite a few), there is no reason to believe that its members would support the kind of savage violence displayed by The Dark Knight Rises shooter. Despite our punditry’s penchant for hyperbole, we are not a nation whose mainstream political discussion regularly devolves into acts of senseless terrorism and violence (at least not in recent history — one can always look, of course, at the days of the antebellum slavery controversy or McCarthy-era red-baiting). It is at best irresponsible, and at worst downright malicious, to imply otherwise, regardless of what one thinks of those who happen to have a different point of view.

3. It has smeared, to say nothing of endangered, the innocent Jim Holmes. Already the wrongly accused man has had to disconnect his phone after receiving death threats as a result of the false association. While that’s bad enough, this is made even worse by the fact that his name will forever be linked with these heinous crimes. As anyone who has been the victim of a vicious rumor can attest, even the most decisive debunking of an erroneous charge will often fade away while fragments of the initial accusation continue to linger. Although Holmes’s name has been cleared, no one can predict how this man’s life will be forever changed by the simple fact that his identity was linked to this atrocity on a worldwide scale in the first place — however briefly. The media does not have the right to make mistakes that can have such serious effects on the quality of an innocent person’s life.

4. It will be used to challenge valid criticisms of the Tea Party in the future. It is not surprising that the Colorado Tea Party Patriots have already used the ABC News gaffe as an opportunity to denounce aspects of this event’s coverage as “shameless and reprehensible.” While their argument is sound on this occasion (most notably when they point out that Holmes was characterized as a Tea Party member by ABC News “without having made any effort to contact our organization”), the Tea Party has a long history of denying reasonable charges against their movement, usually relying on the timeworn stand-by that they’re motivated by the media’s so-called “liberal bias.” Because they have actually been wronged on this occasion, they now have an excuse to feel legitimized when evading accountability in the future.

5. It cheapens national tragedies by politicizing them. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney deserve credit for setting an admirable example after this event by refusing to politicize it in any way. Indeed, the words Obama used in his speech after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting last year apply perfectly to the current situation: “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.” There is no question that ABC News failed that test.

While it may seem harsh to insist that heads roll at ABC News for the slander against the Tea Party, appropriate dismissals would go a long way toward ensuring that media recklessness like this doesn’t happen again. Although the network has apologized for its mistake, that apology has come without any serious consequences for the personnel responsible for the misinformation; as such, no disincentive exists to deter either ABC or other stations from doing this kind of thing again. So long as the price is paid by others — be it blameless bystanders like the innocent Jim Holmes, participants in American political debate like the Tea Party, or those who are just old-fashioned enough to believe in journalistic ethics —  news organizations that are obsessed with the bottom line will have no reason not to gamble with the truth by rushing out stories like the spurious Tea Party connection to the mass shooting. Once their own livelihoods are put on the line, however, I suspect they will develop a new found appreciation for getting the facts right.

Mitt Romney Bain Scandal: Everything You Need To Know

For those of you unfamiliar with the emerging scandal involving Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, I have broken down the debacle into five convenient sets of bullet points:

Romney’s Actions:

– In a federal disclosure form filed on August 12, 2011, Mitt Romney wrote that he had retired as CEO of Bain Capital to run the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics on February 11, 1999. Since then, Romney wrote, he had not “had any active role with any Bain Capital entity and has not been involved in the operations of any Bain Capital entity in any way.”

– Last week, the Boston Globe revealed Bain Capital filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as late as 2002 reporting Romney as “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president” of the company. Massachusetts financial disclosure forms also report that he earned at least $100,000 as a Bain “executive” in 2001 and 2002 and owned 100% of the company as of 2002.

– Independent sources are being discovered that also suggest Romney continued his involvement in the company after 1999. These include a Boston Globe article from 2002 in which Romney is referred to multiple times as the “CEO of Bain Capital until 2001” and testimony given by Romney that same year in which he mentions attending board meetings for at least three of Bain’s companies, LifeLike Co., Marriott International, and Staples. At that same hearing, one of Romney’s lawyers even declared that, “Now while all that was going on, very much in the public eye, what happened to his private and public ties to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? And the answer is they continued unabated just as they had.

Romney’s Motives:

– A decade ago, Romney would have had good reason to exaggerate his involvement with Bain Capital. Back when he was running for Governor of Massachusetts, a controversy emerged as to whether Romney still qualified as a state resident, given his extensive work in Salt Lake City. His continued business involvement with Bain Capital was cited as among the pieces of evidence proving that he had maintained sufficient ties with Massachusetts to be eligible for higher office in that state.

– Romney also had a motive for lying on his federal disclosure form last year. It is well-known that Bain Capital was responsible for numerous layoffs between 1999 and 2002, a fact that could work against Romney as he attempts to win over unemployed voters who blame corporate cupidity for their plight. Indeed, even Newt Gingrich briefly broached this subject during his campaign against Romney for the nomination last year.

– Now Romney has a motive to do everything in his power to reconcile the apparent inconsistency between what he said during the 2002 gubernatorial election (that he had been involved with Bain up to that year) and what he is saying during this election (that he left Bain in 1999). That is because, if he lied on any of the key government documents in question, he committed a felony.

The Law:

– If Mitt Romney lied on his SEC forms, it would constitute a violation of Rule 10b-5 of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.

– If Mitt Romney lied on last year’s federal disclosure form, it would constitute a violation of the False Statements Accountability Act of 1996.

The Reactions:

– Obama’s team is missing the point. In a statement made by campaign senior adviser Stephanie Cutter, they claimed that:

“Either Mitt Romney, through his own words and his own signature, was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the SEC, which is a felony, or he was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the American people to avoid responsibility for some of the consequences of his investments.”

This isn’t entirely accurate, since it depicts Romney as being either a criminal (if he lied on his SEC forms) or simply dishonest (if he lied on his his 2011 federal disclosure form). Clearly the Obama people need to read the False Statements Accountability Act of 1996, since if they did, they’d realize that both acts are illegal. If Romney lied on either one of those occasions, he broke the law.

– Romney’s team, naturally, is trying to avoid the issue by blaming Obama for bringing it up. As Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades put it:

“President Obama’s campaign hit a new low today when one of its senior advisers made a reckless and unsubstantiated charge to reporters about Mitt Romney that was so over the top that it calls into question the integrity of their entire campaign. President Obama ought to apologize for the out-of-control behavior of his staff, which demeans the office he holds. Campaigns are supposed to be hard fought, but statements like those made by Stephanie Cutter belittle the process and the candidate on whose behalf she works.”

Regardless of whether you feel Obama’s campaign should have broached the possibility of criminal wrongdoing or allowed the media to explore that on its own, none of those questions have anything to do with whether Romney broke the law.

– The media’s reaction to this can be summed up in one word: pathetic. Instead of simply reporting the relevant information as it comes out and demanding answers from the various parties involved, different outlets have taken sides, with Mother Jones, Talking Points Memo, and MSNBC blasting Romney while Fortune Magazine,, and CNN’s John King defend him. On all of these occasions, in lieu of definitive proof as to Romney’s innocence or guilt, these publications instead rest on their own personal, and entirely subjective, interpretations of the law and existing evidence. Even the fact-checker for ‘The Washington Post,’ Glenn Kessler, had to rest his defense of Romney on the vague wording of the Massachusetts Ballot Law Commission report (even as ignored the testimony Romney had given at the same time) and on his belief that Romney would never have perjured himself on the 2011 financial disclosure form. While this would be appropriate in a political debate or a court of law, it merely serves to muddle the issues in the eyes of voters who depend on these news sources. All the media should do is (a) report the details of the alleged discrepancy in Romney’s accounts of his career at Bain and explain the potential legal consequences of that discrepancy, (b) provide Romney with a fair forum with which to offer his own side of the story, and (c) ask him to defend his position should part or all of it be found wanting. The decision as to who is right and wrong here should be left to the people and, if necessary, the courts.

The Bottom Line:

The American people have the right to know if they are electing a potential felon before casting their ballots. We can’t afford a repeat of the 1972 presidential election in which, despite the gradual emergence of details about the Watergate scandal, the reticence of journalists to delve deeply into the story (aside from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) deprived Republican Party delegates, and eventually the voters themselves, of the information they needed to avoid electing a man who would be forced to resign less than two years later. As such, it behooves the Obama campaign and the media to do the following:

– They should demand that Mitt Romney release his tax returns tracing back at least to 1999. Not only would this answer other lingering questions about the degree to which his great wealth helped him to pay less in taxes than middle-class and working class Americans, but it would also provide new information that would help us understand his relationship with Bain Capital during the period in question.

– They should demand that all documents which are potentially germane to any role Romney might have played with Bain Capital between 1999 and 2002 be released to the public. This includes not only forms from that company, but those from LifeLike Co. and Staples.

– They should demand that Romney write an editorial, to be printed in the publication of his choice, explaining clearly and unambiguously how he can reconcile the seeming discrepancy between what he said a decade ago and what he is saying today. Rather than expecting the rest of us to parse through the facts and come to our own conclusions, he should step up and provide a thorough explanation of what he claims happened, so that we can compare his story to the facts and see if they match up.

– They should demand that Romney answer all reasonable questions about his career at Bain Capital between 1999 and 2002 and, more important, draw attention to any and all instances in which he evades certain questions or provides inaccurate responses.

Regardless of whether one supports or opposes Romney, there is no doubt that valid questions exist as to whether he broke the law. Until those questions are answered one way or another, we have a responsibility to make sure that America keeps hearing them being asked.

Why Ron Paul Should Denounce Anti-Mormon Pastor

Published: PolicyMic (July 14, 2012)

When I read that a California pastor had declared “God wants Ron Paul to be President,” I wasn’t particularly surprised. For all of the thoughtful and intellectually engaging Paul supporters out there, batches can always be found who believe that the Texas Congressman’s presidential ambitions have been sanctified by an infallible higher doctrine. While the unquestionable authority may be the Bible for some and the works of Austrian economists for others, the underlying sentiment is essentially the same – i.e., that Paul supporters are the select, an enlightened and liberty-loving few. The prevalence of that notion isn’t astonishing anymore.

More jarring, though, was the bigoted comment that accompanied this pastor’s opening remark:

“The right isn’t following God with Mitt Romney. Jesus Christ is the second Person of the Godhead but, as a Mormon, Romney thinks: Jesus is a created being, the spirit brother of Lucifer; that men become Gods and that Christians are inferior people. Christians know Mormonism is Satanic.”

As I wrote in an editorial several months ago, anti-Mormon prejudice against Romney is a powerful undercurrent in this election, one that needs to be opposed even by those who want to thwart his presidential ambitions (a group that definitely includes myself). The comments made by Pastor Steven Andrew, the president of USA Christian Ministries, are a prime example of what I was discussing in that piece. Indeed, given the inflammatory content with which Steven packed his jeremiad – it included the usual denuncations of abortion and secularism, as well as a passing stab at revisionist history through a reference to “our Founding Fathers’ Christian laws” – the inclusion of this statement comes across as not merely distasteful, but also as so hateful as to border on downright incendiary.

The question now is whether Paul will denounce Andrew’s statements.

Obviously this issue has echoes of the racist newsletter controversy that has plagued Paul in the past. As those familiar with his career already know, Paul began publishing a series of libertarian newsletters in the mid-1980s, through his company Ron Paul & Associates, with such titles as Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and the Ron Paul Investment Letter. By 1993, these publications were netting more than $900,000 each year for Paul, his family, right-wing commentator and contributor Lew Rockwell, and seven other employees around the country. Unfortunately, they also contained virulently bigoted statements against African-Americans and homosexuals, from claiming that “95 percent of the black males in that city [Washington DC] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal” to asserting that “homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities” (for examples of similar statements in Paul’s newsletters, check out the two links provided above).

Inevitably, Paul’s detractors have dug up old newspaper articles and television interviews suggesting that he knew about the contents of his newsletters, even as Paul himself has emphatically disavowed them. While there is no point in speculating here as to which side is right (especially since that issue has been explored to death elsewhere), the incident is worth bringing up because it illustrates the importance of keeping an eye on the people who have a platform and claim to speak for your cause. Obviously it would be irrational to blame Paul for the fact that Andrew made those statements in the first place – Paul has no more control over the language of his supporters than anyone else – but once an intolerant comment has been made public, it is entirely reasonable to expect any politician with a moral compass to denounce it. This is especially so when the group being targeted just so happens to have one of its own serving as the presumptive presidential nominee for a major political party for the first time in American history.

Since Paul’s critics are a bit unseemly in the glee with which they try to knock him down a peg, it is important that they be fair and give him enough time to do the right thing here. At the same time, if in the end he fails to unequivocally condemn Andrew’s views, no excuses should be made for him by his followers. There can be no talk of Paul’s needing to accept all kinds of supporters because he happens to lead a fledgling movement, or claims that Steven can be ignored because he is just some kook, or attempts to deflect attention away from Paul and toward other politicians who have been guilty of similar lapses, or arguments that the reasons for supporting Paul outweigh the implications of his willingness to silently accept religious intolerance. If libertarians truly believe in their professed ideals, and are not merely mindless hero worshippers at the altar of one charismatic politician, they should have no qualms about abandoning a candidate when he proves himself unwilling to live up to his own values. Appropriately enough, the person who best explained why this is the case was Paul himself:

“Racism is simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals.”

While Paul may have been discussing race in that quote, I doubt he would disagree that the same logic applies to religious discrimination. And make no mistake about it: When Pastor Steven Andrew disseminated those lies against Mormons, he was guilty not only of poor research, but of defining Romney primarily by his religious background. This is collectivist thinking at its worst, and the man Ron Paul’s supporters believe him to be should have no difficulty distancing himself from those views.

The Political Ramifications of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Psychological Disorder

To what extent does the public have the right to know about the mental health of its politicians?

This is what we should be asking ourselves after the revelation that Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. is receiving “intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder.” Although his doctor claims that Jackson is responding positively to his therapy, this hasn’t stopped Jackson’s family from asking the public to not seek too much information. As The Huffington Post puts it, “his wife has said little and Jackson’s civil rights leader father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., has called it a private issue and repeatedly declined to give details.”

Under normal circumstances, this would be a reasonable request. As history has shown, however, the standard rules of etiquette can’t always apply to high-ranking public officials.

This was most famously demonstrated in October 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson fell victim to a debilitating stroke and his wife and staff, instead of relinquish power to Vice President Thomas Marshall, chose to secretly run the government themselves for the last 17 months of his administration. When the public found out about this years later, the ensuing outrage naturally caused politicians to be held to much higher standards, so that by the time President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a more minor stroke in November 1957, the press was thoroughly informed as to the details of his condition. Similarly, when Democratic presidential candidate Senator George McGovern chose a vice presidential running mate who had been treated for manic depression (Senator Thomas Eagleton), the resulting controversy (first from having made that pick in the first place, then from unceremoniously dropping him after publicly declaring his “1000 percent” support) caused irreparable harm to his already-struggling candidacy in the 1972 election.

Of course, because each of these stories involved either presidents or people who could have conceivably inherited the presidency, the need for full mental health disclosure was much more obvious. The question here, however, is whether that same standard applies to others who hold high-ranking political offices. What about former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose lifelong battle with bipolar disorder wasn’t revealed to the public until his involvement in a drunk-driving accident in 2006? Or former Congressman David Wu, who began to display increasingly erratic behavior during the 2010 elections (e.g., photographing himself wearing a tiger suit) and received two interventions from his campaign staff? How about cabinet members like Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, who was ultimately fired by President Harry Truman after his severe depression and general instability resulted in anti-Semitic paranoia, mental breakdowns, and even suicide attempts?

In the end, if an elected official has an extreme mental condition that could compromise his performance, the people have a right to know about it. While the stakes may have been higher for presidents like Woodrow Wilson — whose visionary leadership was needed in the months after World War I to galvanize Americans behind the League of Nations and thus either convince Congress to approve the treaty or elect James Cox over Warren Harding in 1920 — there were still serious consequences in non-presidential cases. For Forrestal, they impaired his ability to be a reliable overseer of America’s defense establishment during the sensitive early years of the Cold War; for Kennedy and Wu, they called into question not only whether they could competently meet the needs of their constituents (in Rhode Island and Oregon, respectively), but also whether they could be trusted to shape policies that were national in scope through their various congressional committee assignments.

This isn’t to say that we should shy away from politicians who struggle with mental health problems. Indeed, there are historians today who believe Abraham Lincoln suffered from manic depression and that Thomas Jefferson had Asperger’s Syndrome, neither of which stopped them from ranking among our most distinguished presidents. Americans need to be more open-minded in how they view psychological disorders, since the vast majority of stigmatized conditions do not impair people’s ability to contribute in meaningful ways to society. Nevertheless, when a condition is especially serious, voters have the right to know about it. While it remains to be seen whether Jesse Jackson Jr.’s mood disorder is severe enough to warrant serious concern, history makes it clear that the public at the very least has the right to learn more about his condition so that it can decide for itself.

Why Mitt Romney Should Not Choose Tim Pawlenty As His Running Mate

Published: PolicyMic (July 11, 2012)

In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign due to revelations that he had accepted bribes as Governor of Maryland. Why is this important nearly forty years later? Simple: If Mitt Romney chooses Tim Pawlenty as his running mate, we may have another Agnew on our hands.

Before he became Governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty spent two years on the board of directors for NewTel Holdings, a telecommunications corporation owned by his longtime friend Elam Baer. In addition to this work, Pawlenty also earned $4,500 a month as a consultant and legal adviser to a pay-phone company called New Access, a NewTel subsidiary accused of defrauding thousands of customers in seven states by signing them up for local and long-distance service without their permission. Although Pawlenty has been happy to talk about other aspects of his business career, he has stayed remarkably mum on the exact nature of what he did for New Access.

His relationship with Baer did not end there. In his first year as governor, Pawlenty was discovered to have accepted $54,000 in cash from Baer, despite being unable to document any work done in exchange for this payment. To make this transaction legal under Minnesota state law, Pawlenty classified it as compensation for his purported performance as an “independent contractor.” Even this ostensible legality could be questionable, however, since Pawlenty has been unable to describe his independent contracting position in any meaningful detail or even prove that it existed in the first place. While these activities would be unquestionably illegal in most other states, Pawlenty benefited from the weakness of Minnesota’s campaign finance laws and the meager attention paid to this scandal by the local media. Even so, there is little doubt that it would come under further scrutiny if he became Romney’s running mate … scrutiny that seems, upon first glance, like it would not be very flattering.

It is important to remember that, when Richard Nixon chose Agnew to be his running mate in 1968, there were hints of the presence of fiscal impropriety in the Maryland Governor’s past. Although none of them had been proven at the time, the fact that subsequent revelations eventually compelled his resignation shows that it’s not enough for a future vice president to simply be free of verified criminality; he or she must also be free of any dark clouds that could lead a reasonable person to even suspect such criminality exists. While this standard may seem unfairly rigid, it is a small price to pay to make sure that our nation is spared the ordeal of scandal at the highest levels of power. Indeed, had Agnew’s exposure occurred only a year or so later, it would have been after he had replaced Richard Nixon in the presidency post-Watergate, thus forcing America through two consecutive prospective impeachments.

The media will thus have a responsibility to ask five questions of Mitt Romney, should he select Tim Pawlenty:

1) Does he agree that the integrity of potential vice presidents should be above all reasonable suspicion?
2) Did he know about these aspects of Pawlenty’s past before picking him?
3) Will he believe that Pawlenty should be required to fully explain his background with New Access?
4) Will he believe that Pawlenty should provide adequate detail about the nature of the payment he received from Elam Baer, as well as proof substantiating his version of the story?
5) Should voters interpret Romney’s selection of Pawlenty as an implicit endorsement of Minnesota’s extremely permissive campaign finance reform laws?

If Romney answers yes to these questions, then the burden will fall on him to (a) explain why he selected Pawlenty despite his past and (b) guarantee that Pawlenty fully and satisfactorily responds to the third and fourth queries. On the other hand, if Romney answers any of these question in the negative – or if, even worse, he tries to evade them – then his leadership skills will need to be called into serious question.

The Top Ten Political ‘Twilight Zone’ Episodes

Published: PolicyMic (July 3, 2012)

The Stephanie Meyers of the world may come and go, but as fans of classic television will happily remind you, only one franchise will ever be truly deserving of the word “Twilight.” I refer, of course, to “The Twilight Zone,” that timeless anthology of the supernatural that premiered in 1959 and remained on the air for five seasons (156 episodes) before CBS unceremoniously yanked the plug. During that time, “The Twilight Zone” transformed television by dramatically increasing the quality of writing associated with the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres. Led by Rod Serling – who, along with writing more than half of the show’s scripts, delivered the iconic deadpan narrations that accompanied each episode – the series provided an outlet for premiere writing talents of the time, including Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Montgomery Pittman, and Earl Hamner, Jr.

“The Twilight Zone” is also notable for managing to inject insightful political and social commentary into many of its stories. As producer Dick Berg later explained, one of the main reasons science fiction had such an appeal for Serling was that “he had much on his mind politically and in terms of social condition, and science fiction – and ‘Twilight Zone’ specifically – gave him as much flexibility in developing those themes as he might have had anywhere else at that time.” Although suppressed substantive political discussion was discouraged in most genres, televised science fiction was disregarded by censors as frivolous, enabling Serling to “do anything he wanted. He could do a story about Nazis, about racism in general, about economic plight, about whatever, and fit in within the [science fiction] framework.”

A lot of those stories hold up surprisingly well today. That is why, in honor of the SyFy Channel’s Fourth of July “Twilight Zone” marathon, I have listed what I believe to be the 10 best episodes for political and social commentary.

10. The Brain Center at Whipple’s (Season Five, May 15, 1964; Directed by Richard Donner, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Richard Deacon and Paul Newlan)

Helmed by Richard Donner – who, along with directing six “Twilight Zone” episodes (including the legendary “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner saw a gremlin on the wing of his airplane), would later go on to direct The Omen, Superman, and the Lethal Weapon movies – “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” takes aim at the human toll of excessive industrialization. It tells the story of Wallace Whipple, a smug business executive who proudly introduces new technologies to his factory that lay off thousands of workers in the name of the proverbial bottom line. An obvious commentary on the impact of automation on blue collar professionals throughout America, “Whipple” works mainly because it doesn’t succumb to the temptation to preach a downright Luddite point-of-view (something that always strikes me as disingenuous when coming from electronic media, which after all are only possible as a result of technological advances). Instead, it focuses on the need to make sure that technological innovations don’t place such an emphasis on profitability and efficiency that they sacrifice the dignity and welfare of human beings in the process. In light of the recent renaissance of interest in the works of Ayn Rand, this pro-working class message is more urgently required today than ever. Science fiction nerds will also appreciate an amusing cameo from Robby the Robot, of “Forbidden Planet” fame, at the end of the episode.

9. The Shelter (Season Three, September 29, 1961; Directed by Lamont Johnson, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Larry Gates and Jack Albertson)

In “The Shelter,” a boisterous birthday party for a beloved town doctor is suddenly interrupted by a radio announcement that informs the partygoers of an unidentified object heading toward their area and urges them to retreat as soon as possible to their bomb shelters. Because only the doctor had the foresight to actually build a shelter in advance, his neighbors naturally demand to be allowed inside so they can survive, ignoring his repeated assertions that his shelter was only built to sustain three people (himself, his wife, and his son) and violently disregarding their friendships both with him and each other in their mindless desire to protect themselves and their families. This episode contains Serling’s writing at its most unrelentingly cynical, bearing with it the unmistakable message that people who seem to care for each other on the surface can quickly disregard the bonds of loyalty and friendship once the impetus to remain civilized is stripped away. What makes the episode work so well is that Serling’s characterizations are so frighteningly convincing. It is easy to imagine people who are scared not only for their lives, but for the lives of their spouses and children behaving pretty much as depicted here. What’s worse, it is hard to imagine what we ourselves would do if confronted with the similar certainty of our impending demise. While we’d like to believe that we’d handle the situation at least a little better than the characters in “The Shelter,” it’s impossible to know for certain until we actually face their predicament. Our best bet, of course, is to simply hope that we never have to find out.

8. The Big Tall Wish (Season One, April 8, 1960; Directed by Ron Winston, Written
by Rod Serling, Starring Ivan Dixon and Steven Perry)

While the other episodes on this list are politically and/or socially conscious because of their stories, “The Big Tall Wish” is distinguished not by what it says, but by what it does. The tale itself is straightforward fantasy material – a little boy attempts to use magic to win a boxing match for an over-the-hill fighter he idolizes, but in order for his “big tall wish” to work, his hero also needs to believe in it. What makes this episode groundbreaking, however, is that Serling insisted on casting African Americans for all of the major parts, something that was practically unheard of for a dramatic show that didn’t deal explicitly with racial issues. As he explained at the time, “television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of a sin of omission … it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor.” This gesture would have made this episode special even if it had only been mediocre, but fortunately Ivan Dixon (as the boxer), Steven Perry (as the little boy), and Kim Hamilton (as the little boy’s mother) are absolutely wonderful in their roles, elevating an already strong script in the process. If you combined the story of “Rocky” with the childlike wonder of a Spielberg opus, it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t wind up with something an awful lot like “The Big Tall Wish.” That, combined with the historic decision to cast African American actors in roles that ignored their racial background instead of being defined by it, earns “The Big Tall Wish” a spot on this list.

7. He’s Alive (Season Four, January 24, 1963; Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Dennis Hopper and Curt Conway)

At first glance, “He’s Alive” seems like the godchild of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui,” a 1941 play that identified the fundamental thuggishness of Nazism by using the rise of a Chicago gangster as an analogy for the ascent of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich regime. To accomplish a similar goal, “He’s Alive” tells the story of an up-and-coming neo-Nazi in an unidentified American city, one who is greeted with contempt and widespread rejection until a mysterious admirer starts offering him pointers on the art of demagoguery (no prizes if you can guess the twist ending here). Unlike “Arturo Ui,” however, “He’s Alive” directly confronts the bigotry inherent in extreme right-wing ideology, a feat it accomplished so skillfully that it wound up on the receiving end of thousands of angry letters. “Serling and company were addressed as ‘commie bastards’ by some, while other literary wits characterized the Twilight Zone people as ‘kike lovers’ and ‘nigger lovers,'” an article in “The Twilight Zone Magazine” explains. “An  organization called ‘Geo Politics’ offered the novel suggestion that ‘Jews should be put in gas ovens and niggers shipped back to Africa.'” It is easy to see why this episode provoked such rage – along with skewering direct racism, the episode bravely drew attention to the tendency of extreme right-wingers in America to win converts both by red-baiting and by conflating the idea of “liberty” with the vilification of specific ethnic minorities. Considering that it aired on the same day as George Wallace’s infamous “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech, “He’s Alive” couldn’t have been more timely.

6. The Obsolete Man (Season Two, June 2, 1961; Directed by Elliot Silverstein, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Burgess Meredith and Fritz Weaver)

Starring the inimitable Burgess Meredith, “The Obsolete Man” is a gripping dystopian nailbiter about a fascist state in which those whose professions have been deemed “obsolete” are systematically executed, often during live televised broadcasts. Serling incorporates elements of both the Hitler and Stalin varieties of tyranny into his fictional authoritarian nation, then extends their attributes to logical extremes. This episode is also notable for its distinctive aesthetic, which emphasized sharp corners, dramatic contrasts in shadowing, and Spartan set design similar to the German expressionist films of the twenties. What makes it really work, however, is the clever plotting. Serling throws not one but two major twists into his story, even while keeping his eye squarely planted on the main drama involving the effort of Meredith’s protagonist – a librarian who has been sentenced to death – to strike a symbolic blow for individual dignity and liberty against the overwhelming might of the state, as represented by Weaver’s bombastic Chancellor. All of this results in an exceptionally moving story. Television history buffs, meanwhile, might take note of the episode’s unique role in the development of that institution. After director Elliot Silverstein found himself in the midst of an unwanted power struggle with his editor over how to cut a climactic scene – one in which he, as the less powerful man within the network hierarchy, was ultimately forced to make significant compromises – he galvanized other writers and directors to “form a committee to assist the Guild to start taking positions with Management” that protected their rights as artists. Their efforts still help filmmakers maintain necessary creative control to this day.

5. Deaths-Head Revisited (Season Three, November 10, 1961; Directed by Don Medford, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Joseph Schildkraut and Oscar Beregi)

When “Deaths-Head Revisited” was first aired in the autumn of 1961, Holocaust awareness was beginning to increase in earnest throughout America. Although history textbooks still chose to either skim over the subject or ignore it completely, movies like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Exodus,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg” had been garnering critical acclaim and Academy Awards over the previous couple of years. “Deaths-Head Revisited” was part of this larger wave, using veteran actors Oscar Beregi and Joseph Schildkraut (who starred in “The Diary of Anne Frank” as the father of the titular character) to tell the story of a sadistic Nazi who returns to the Dachau concentration camp to reminisce about the good ol’ days, only to be haunted by his victims when he does so. What really stands out about this episode is the writing; although Serling, who was Jewish, was well-known to be passionate about this issue, the anger in his prose is quiet and mournful instead of explosive. During its memorable condemnation of the antagonist, it simply lists the atrocities to which he contributed: “Ten million human beings were tortured to death in camps like this. Men. Women. Children. Infants. Tired old men. You burned them in furances. You tore up their bodies in rage. And now you come back to your scenes of horror, and you wonder that the misery that you planted has lived after you?” While those who died during the Holocaust may not have been able to hold their oppressors to account, “Deaths-Head Revisited” contributed in its own small but important way to making sure that the memory of the injustice they suffered would never be forgotten.

4. Two (Season Three, September 15, 1961; Directed by Montgomery Pittman, Written by Montgomery Pittman, Starring Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery)

Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a global war has wiped out most of humanity, “Two” tells the story of a man and a woman, neither of them ever named, who wander through the streets of a devastated city seeking the means of survival. Although they represent different sides in the erstwhile armed conflict (while the man is American and the woman is Russian, one senses they could represent any pair of warring nationalities), they find themselves as starved for companionship as they are for sustenance, forcing them to either learn how to trust each other or else continue their nations’ rivalries long after any rational cause for animosity has ceased. Told with minimal dialogue, the story here works exceptionally well because of the phenomenal performances by Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, the latter of whom played against type by appearing disheveled and brooding instead of glamorous and bubbly (although writer and director Montgomery Pittman was worried that she’d be unwilling to break her image, she was so dedicated to her craft that he ultimately had to discourage her from making herself too ugly in her part). Although obviously political with its message about the Cold War, “Two” is also something deeper. In the end, as it roots for our two protagonists to overcome their differences and establish a friendship (the possibility of romance, though hinted at, is wisely avoided), “Two” becomes less about geopolitics and more about the basic importance of empathy. More than anything else, this is a story about understanding how the other person feels.

3. Number Twelve Looks Just Like You (Season Five, January 24, 1964; Directed by Charles Beaumont, Written by Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin, Based on the short story “The Beautiful People” by Charles Beaumont, Starring Collin Wilcox and Suzy Parker)

In “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” a cerebral teenager named Marilyn Cuberle finds herself riddled with apprehension as she prepares to undergo her “transformation.” According to this future as conceived by Charles Beaumont, each person’s consciousness is transplanted into a “beautiful” body at the age of nineteen, ones that make them especially attractive, energetic, healthy … and disturbingly similar to everyone else around them. As Marilyn rebels against what she perceives as a loss of her individuality and identity (she is repeatedly reassured that the procedure is voluntary but intuits that this isn’t really the case), “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” makes several astute observations about American social trends that exist as prevalently today as they did in 1964, if not more so. Most prominent among them is the increasing objectification of human beings, with more and more of our perceived self-worth being tied into our physical appearance. Beneath that, however, there coils a sobering insight into the implications of our obsession not only with beauty, but with conformity on all levels. When Marilyn begins to buck the system, her depression and anxiety are viewed not as indicators of genuine discontent, but rather as signs of mental illness, to be treated with psychiatric help or a cup of Instant Smile. Likewise, when she suggests that she might prefer her “plain” features over beautiful ones because at least the former are uniquely her own, the paternalistic state laughs and assures her that it knows what’s in her own best interest – that she needs to undergo the procedure immediately because she can’t receive the surgery after the age of nineteen and, while she may be happy with her current body now, the state needs to make sure she doesn’t box herself in should she change her mind later. The message of “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” has only grown more relevant with the passage of time.

2. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street (Season One, March 4, 1960; Directed by Ron Winston, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Claude Akins and Jack Weston)

“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is similar to “The Shelter” in that both stories center around suburbanites who transform into a violent mob after an unidentified flying object is spotted over their community. Whereas the UFO in “The Shelter” was believed to be some sort of missile and the degeneration of the neighborhood occurred rapidly, however, the process of de-civilizing is much more gradual in “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” The inhabitants of Maple Street are at first merely curious about the UFO; it isn’t until their technology starts failing and they find themselves cut off from the rest of the world that their emotions become fearful, then panicked. More significant, however, is the fact that they are never entirely sure of what is attacking them. This volatile combination of uncertainty and anxiety breeds paranoid accusations, especially after a child unhelpfully suggests that the UFO might have been an alien spaceship and that one of the Maple Streeters could be an extraterrestrial disguised as a human. Soon everyone has a reason to suspect everyone else, with each neighbor’s past idiosyncrasies being used to raise eyebrows and recriminations piling upon recriminations.

If this seems like an allegory for McCarthyism, that’s because that’s exactly what “Maple Street”‘s creators intended. As Serling explains in his closing narration, “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout of its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn.” At a time when the Tea Party and other radical libertarian/right-wing groups are hysterically discovering sinister socialist designs in a thousand places, the final words of this episode remain as prescient as ever – i.e., that “the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

1. On Thursday We Leave For Home (Season Four, May 2, 1963; Directed by Buzz Kulik, Written by Rod Serling, Starring James Whitmore and Tim O’Conner)

Although one of the more obscure episodes in the franchise, “On Thursday We Leave For Home” contains not only some of the best writing in “The Twilight Zone,” but also some of the most profound political commentary ever aired on television. It tells the story of a colony of space explorers who have been stranded for thirty years on a desert planet with two suns, where life is grim, conditions are bleak, and the only thing keeping people from devolving into savagery or perishing altogether is the strong and wise leadership of Captain William Benteen. He is shown making sure that everyone pulls their weight, offering comfort during crises by waxing poetic about the beauty of earth, and inspiring hope by reiterating as often as necessary that a rescue ship must be on its way. When that ship does arrive, however, and Benteen’s leadership role is gradually diminished, he begins to feel that his very sense of purpose in life is under attack, ultimately responding in ways that threaten both his own welfare and that of his former wards.

What makes this episode work so well is the nuanced approach it takes toward the issue of political power. While it would have been easy to depict Benteen’s early leadership as flawed or his later corruption as somehow justifiable, Serling does neither of these things; his script makes it brutally clear that the survivors would have either died or been reduced to animals without Benteen’s guidance, and just as recognizable that the power which Benteen used to save them has morphed into an evil in its own right. It doesn’t offer the audience any convenient “lessons” from its story, but instead functions primarily as a character study that happens to be fraught with political meaning. James Whitmore’s performance is key here, as he seamlessly transitions from benevolent ruler to Machiavellian power-seeker, making it easy for the audience to perceive how quickly one can become the other. If you can only see one “Twilight Zone” in your lifetime, make sure it is this one.

There were plenty of episodes that I would have liked to have included on this list but which, for one reason or another, didn’t make the cut. Some weren’t explicitly political enough for me to feel they qualified (“In Praise of Pip” was the first televised program to criticize the Vietnam War, but only did so casually and not in a manner central to the plot); a few had their messages
marred by the racism of the time (such as the caricatures of Hispanics in “The Mirror” and “The Gift” or a reference to anti-Japanese Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories in “The Encounter”); and some, though very good, just didn’t quite stand out enough for me to feel they ranked among the top ten (including “A Quality of Mercy,” “Four O’Clock,” “I Am The Night – Color Me Black,” “The Little People,” and “The Old Man and the Cave”). Nevertheless, even the lesser “Twilight Zone” episodes leave enough of an impact to make one acutely appreciate the legacy of that program. By intelligently weaving political messages within fantastical genres, it paved the way for everything from the “Star Trek” series to the work of Joss Whedon. They are must-see viewing for anyone who likes good television … as well as for anyone who appreciates entertainment that has a social conscience.

Sources used for this article include “All the Little Hitlers,” a piece written by Hal Erikson for “The Twilight Zone Magazine” (October 1986), and “The Twilight Zone Companion: Second Edition” by Marc Scott Zicree.