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December 03, 2011

Stephen Colbert on SOPA

The Colbert Report devoted two segments to SOPA (which I wrote about on Friday) and its potential effects on internet.


December 02, 2011

Hypocrisy on freedom of speech

A new threat to freedom of speech on the internet has appeared in the form of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect-IP Act (PIPA) that enables the Attorney General, in response to complaints from big business, to shut down websites with little notice.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes SOPA as the "blacklist bill" because it would "allow the U.S. government and private corporations to create a blacklist of censored websites, and cut many more off from their ad networks and payment providers."

That means the Attorney General would have the power to cut off select websites from search engines like Google. It could also cut off advertisers and payment processors like Visa from the sites. The Attorney General could essentially kill all of a site's traffic and revenue in a matter of days.

SOPA only allows targeted sites five days to submit an appeal. That doesn't leave much time for them to defend themselves before losing their site and their revenue altogether.

Due to opposition, the SOPA billed seems to have stalled (for now at least). Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is promising a filibuster of PIPA, but it is not clear if he will be successful.

It is this kind of internet censorship that is righteously deplored by the US government when it is practiced by other countries. See for example, Joe Biden in a speech at the recent London Conference on Cyberspace give the kind of ringing endorsement of internet freedom that his own government is seeking to suppress in the form of SOPA and PIPA.

On February 15, 2011 Hillary Clinton gave a stirring speech at George Washington University on the importance of respecting the right of freedom of speech and the free flow of information. During the speech, 71-year old Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and currently a member of Veterans for Peace, stood up and turned his back. For this simple symbolic act of protest, he was forcibly dragged out of the auditorium, resulting in bruising, all while Clinton (like John Kerry in the infamous 2007 taser incident) said absolutely nothing but continued blathering about the importance of the freedom of speech. McGovern was taken to jail and fingerprinted before being released. As is often the case, charges were initially brought against McGovern in order to give a patina of legitimacy to this act of suppression of peaceful protest, and then quietly dropped when the media stopped paying attention. Kevin Zeese describes the events and McGovern was interviewed about it on Democracy Now!.

Clinton also found time to lecture Russia on the need to protect human rights.

"I think all of these issues -imprisonments, detentions, beatings, killings - is something that is hurtful to see from the outside," she told Echo of Moscow radio.

"Every country has its criminal elements, people who try to abuse power. But in the last 18 months... there have been many of these incidents.

"I think we want the government to stand up and say this is wrong." [My italics]

Of course, she could easily have been talking about the Obama administration of which she is a part. Drone killings, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the black sites the CIA operates all over the world, the torture and deaths that occur in all these facilities are things that in the future we will look back with shame. At least I hope we do, unless we have become so desensitized that nothing our government does in our name is worthy of condemnation.

I think that I could if I wanted to spend my entire time on this blog documenting the hypocrisy of the Obama administration on various issues of principle. The fact that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the choices that the Democratic party faced in the 2008 primaries, and that John Kerry was the 2004 nominee, shows how wretched the system is.

November 26, 2011

Concision as a propaganda tool

Here is a clip from the excellent documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) in which Noam Chomsky (who in 1988, with Edward Herman, wrote the classic of media analysis Manufacturing Consent) explains why the political discourse on TV is so awful and consists of only people who speak conventional pieties.

November 25, 2011

Piers Morgan and the Murdoch phone tapping scandal

In the continuing fallout of the scandal involving the Murdoch media empire, Rupert Murdoch's son James has resigned from the boards of the Sun and the Times and shareholders are being urged to not re-elect him as chair of BSkyB.

In an interesting sidelight, it is alleged that phone hacking also occurred at the Daily Mirror (not a Murdoch paper) during the time it was edited by the smarmy Piers Morgan, who had formerly been editor of Murdoch's now defunct News of the World. (Piers Morgan is someone to whom the description 'smarmy' should be treated like his first name.) Although he denies being personally involved in the practice, Morgan said that this kind of phone hacking was going on at almost every newspaper in London, but that it was done by investigators hired by the papers, not the reporters themselves, as if that somehow mitigates the offense.

I recently watched the 2003 BBC TV miniseries State of Play, the story of how investigations into the death of an aide and mistress of a prominent British MP unravels the net of intrigue involving government, big business, and the media. The reporters covering the story routinely record people's conversations and access their phone records, suggesting that even though the story is fictional, this is standard practice. The film version starring Russell Crowe was released in 2009. I have not seen it but reading about it suggests that they have stuck pretty close to the original storyline, except for transplanting it to the US. The one thing they may have done differently is Hollywoodized the ending, which I would have to see the film to know.

But it's not like everyone hates Piers Morgan. Andy Dick has started a fan club.

November 16, 2011

What the Murdoch scandal reveals about oligarchic power

The waters roiled by the Murdoch scandal keep slowly rising higher. Now that the veil that covered the closely knit and secretive workings between government, business, and the media is unraveling, we are getting to see how the oligarchy operates (at least in the UK) in raw, unfiltered detail.

First up, The Guardian reports on how the parent company News International (NI) put pressure on successive British governments to get its way. It ranged from the more usual practices (such as wining and dining and otherwise pampering government officials) to placing their people in government and the police, and in turn hiring people from those organizations into its own ranks (thus creating a tight network of loyalists all committed to serving NI's interests), to crude threats to punish politicians if the soft touch did not work. Opposing lawyers, other media outlets, indeed anyone who stood in the way of what NI wanted, were threatened with ruin. The report of their naked thuggery reads like something out of a gangster film, with Murdoch and son playing the roles of Vito and Sonny Corleone.

It has also been revealed that the publisher of the Wall Street Journal's European edition had made a deal with a company to buy copies of its own paper in order to boost its circulation figures. He has resigned. It has also been revealed that NI had hired investigators to spy on hacking victims' lawyers and their families, including their children. This caused member of parliament Tom Watson (himself the target of the Murdoch goons) to go ballistic and accuse James Murdoch of acting like a Mafia boss and the BBC of covering up for them. The mob references keep piling up.

Rupert Murdoch's son and heir apparent James has been shifty and evasive under questioning, repeatedly denying any knowledge of the serious abuses committed by those working for him. As the story unfolds, you will hear a lot about something called the 'For Neville' email because it is seen as directly harmful to James Murdoch and threatens the entire empire. The Guardian explains the significance of the email. In connection with it, two former News of the World executives have issued a statement that implies that James Murdoch has been lying to the police and parliament. Rupert Murdoch has already sacrificed two of his key cronies (Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks) to protect himself and his tottering empire. Will Papa Murdoch now sacrifice his own son too?

The uproar has caused some British conservatives to think twice about their allegiances. Now that the Murdoch enterprise is in the crosshairs, all those politicians who were once anxious to cozy up to him in return for favorable coverage are trying to create some space. Prime minister David Cameron keeps increasing the distance between himself and his former buddies at News Corp as other heads continue to roll.

Incidentally, if you do not want to soil your mind by reading Murdoch-produced information, there are now plug-ins for some browsers that warn you if you have entered a Murdoch-controlled website.

November 13, 2011

What on Earth is he talking about?

I was reading a newspaper item yesterday about the negotiations between the basketball league and the players and came across this passage:

The union believes the league's proposals to increase luxury tax penalties, and eliminate or reduce some spending options, essentially would prevent the biggest-spending teams from being free agent options. A "repeater tax" would further punish teams that were taxpayers a fourth time in a five-year span, and players fear the penalty that awaits teams who receive money from the tax pool but suddenly take on salary and go into the tax would discourage spending.

When I read it in our local paper, I thought that maybe the typesetting software had got messed up and inserted some random words but the identical passage was on the website of a different newspaper. Can anyone make any sense of it?

It is not as if the earlier parts of the article set the foundation for understanding it. Apart from the incomprehensible content, it seems to violate rules of grammar.

September 11, 2011

That was quick

Reading the Sunday papers was really quick today. I skipped over all the articles that had anything to do with 9/11, which resulted in almost the entire front and the forum sections being eliminated, along with good chunks of the others. Even the comic section, my favorite, took less time because some of them took the occasion to voice some sappy sentiment.

I was interested in seeing how the paper would deal with the first game of the football season for our team but in this one area, they did not let the anniversary get in the way and produced a full sports section and a supplement on the coming season.

The paper may wallow in manufactured grief but it has its priorities. Nothing gets in the way of football.

September 08, 2011

What 'Speechgate' tells us about the media

The inanity of our national media has become impossible to parody.

August 09, 2011

Now that's a worthy ring bearer

People will do the weirdest things for reality TV.

July 18, 2011

Murdoch update

The people involved in the Murdoch phone hacking scandal keep falling faster and harder and, as is often the case in such situations, are turning on each other.

  • As I expected, the head of Scotland Yard Sir Paul Stephenson has resigned because of charges that he accepted gifts from Murdoch's cronies and did not aggressively pursue the hacking case. In his resignation letter he aimed a parting shot at prime minister David Cameron's close association with former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Cameron has hit back.
  • The assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard David Yates, who had effectively shut down the original investigation into the hacking claims, has also resigned.
  • Stephenson and Yates and other senior Scotland Yard officers are to be the subjects of yet another inquiry.
  • One of the other senior police officers to be investigated is another former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman who led the original phone hacking investigation in 2006 and later became a columnist for Murdoch's The Times, another example of the incestuous relationship between the police and News Corp.
  • Sean Hoare, a former News of the World employee who first blew the whistle about rampant phone hacking at that paper and alleged that Andy Coulson, former editor of News of the World and later a close aide and confidante to David Cameron, knew about it all along, has been found dead at his home.
  • News International's former head Rebekah Brooks has been arrested and is out on bail but will apparently still appear with Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.
  • Prime minister David Cameron has cut short a trip to Africa to return home to help plan the judicial inquiry that he was forced to initiate into the phone hacking.
  • Cameron also said that parliament, which had been due to go on a six-week recess at the end of Tuesday, will likely now come back on Wednesday to debate the scandal.
  • Now in major damage control mode, News Corp has initiated its own internal inquiry into what happened at the News of the World. This is one inquiry we can probably safely ignore.
  • Murdoch is 'lawyering up' with some heavy hitters in the US, following reports that the FBI has opened an investigation. The hacking of actor Jude Law's phone in the US could be a key issue but merely the one that gets the ball rolling. As Felix Salmon points out, there are plenty of other odious News Corp practices in the US that will emerge once the spotlight is turned on them.
  • What is going to really hurt Murdoch is that the stock price of News Corp is sliding globally. Ultimately this is what he really cares about since a low price makes him vulnerable to shareholder anger and the possible ouster of him and his family members.

Things are moving really fast.

July 16, 2011

The Murdoch dominos start falling

The loyalists surrounding Rupert Murdoch are getting picked off one by one. Rebekah Brooks, head of his British operations News International, has resigned. It was thought that she and Murdoch sacrificed 168-year old The News of the World, the paper at the center of the scandal, to save her own skin, shutting down the profitable paper and throwing all its employees out of work in the hope that it would quell the scandal. That did not work.

The biggest casualty so far is Les Hinton, Murdoch's long time right hand man who has worked for him for 52 years and who has also resigned as Chief Executive Officer of News Corp's Dow Jones, the parent company of the Wall Street Journal. Hinton and Brooks say they were ignorant of the illegal activities that were going on all around them but that is not credible and both of them are so close to the Murdoch father and son team that it is hard to believe that the latter two did not know too. Murdoch can probably buy the silence of these loyalists until such time as they are staring serious prison time in the face.

Hinton, seen as Murdoch's consiglieri, seems the most vulnerable since he seems to have lied to a British parliamentary inquiry, claiming that a thorough internal investigation into the hacking scandal that he ran while head of News International showed that the phone hacking was done by a single reporter gone rogue, an assertion now seen as laughably false. The departure of Hinton and Brooks now puts son James Murdoch in the crosshairs. Brooks and the two Murdochs are due to testify on Tuesday where I expect them to make groveling apologies along with stout denials that they were aware of what was going on. This is of course highly implausible, given that they all seem to be control freaks working closely.

Jonathan Freedland describes in detail the power that Murdoch exercised over the British political structure. Its extent shocked even someone as cynical as me who has long been aware of the collusion of government, media, and business. It seemed like Murdoch has almost all of the big players (David Cameron, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown) in his pocket, obsequiously toadying to him even as his papers occasionally revealed unpleasant things about them.

What may be the final straw is that the corruption extended well into the police, which tends to bother people more than political corruption. As Freedland writes:

What has shocked more deeply is the extent to which the police force and News International had become intertwined: the wining and dining, the top brass of both organisations apparently separated by a revolving door: ex-cop Andy Hayman moving to NI, ex-editor Neil Wallis moving to Scotland Yard. No wonder the Met was so lethargic in investigating hacking: why look too deeply into the affairs of people who represent either a meal ticket or a future paycheck?

The bribing of police to get information seems to be well established but now The Guardian newspaper (and its reporter Nick Davies), which has been terrier-like in its dogged coverage of the story and breaking scoop after scoop, has revealed that the Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson tried to get the paper to back off on the Murdoch story by saying that it had information that its coverage was "exaggerated and incorrect", while at the same time not informing them that they had hired a senior The News of the World executive Neil Wallis as an advisor. Wallis has also now been arrested. My hope is that the Stephenson also gets fired (and investigated and even arrested) and a new untainted person brought in who will try and repair the image of the police by doing a full investigation.

Now that Murdoch seems weakened, those who formerly were cowed by him are now speaking out more openly, especially in parliament, and The Independent gives a preview of what to expect at the inquiry on Tuesday.

Murdoch has gone into full damage control mode, apologizing to everyone he can get to, including the family of Milly Dowler, and inserting a big apology advertisement in all the British newspapers today, blaming it all on a single newspaper when the corruption seems to have spread to others within the Murdoch empire with actor Jude Law suing The Sun for hacking his phone. But people who condone the tapping of the phone mails of dead schoolchildren are not the kind of people who feel shame and remorse, and this merely seems like the latest attempt to stem the furor.

The pernicious influence of Murdoch on the media and political landscape is captured by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in a parody of It's a Wonderful Life. (Thanks to reader Norm.)

It should be noted that the Fry and Laurie comedy show ran around 1990. Things have got much worse since then.

July 14, 2011

Murdoch scandal update

Rupert Murdoch and his son James have agreed to appear before a British parliamentary committee next Tuesday to answer questions about the phone hacking and bribery scandal, after initially saying they were unavailable. Also appearing will be Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, the parent company of Murdoch's operations in England and former editor of the News of the World. Everyone seems to think she is the key to these practices and are calling for her head but Murdoch seems to be willing to protect her at great cost. It will be interesting to see what price he is willing to pay to save her or buy her silence.

Meanwhile Neil Wallis, another former editor of the News of the World, has been arrested, making nine arrests in all so far in this case.

Interestingly the smarmy Pier Morgan, the replacement for Larry King on CNN, was also a former editor of the News of the World. What is it about that paper that such odious people get to be the head of it?

The Daily Show vs. Fox News

Although a comedy show, The Daily Show is very effective in pushing news items into mainstream discourse. The latest Nielsen report for May shows that its ratings, along with that of The Colbert Report, are soaring while that of Fox News is slumping. What is worse for Fox is that Stewart is beating them handily in the much coveted 18-49 year old demographic, while the average age of a Fox viewer is 65, which is even older than that of the Golf Channel. This is a double whammy for Fox in that not only is its present audience dying off faster than its rivals, but the younger generation is being tutored in how Fox News manipulates the news and are unlikely to become its future audience even when they become old.

Fox News's hysterical propaganda shtick makes it an easy target for a comedian and so it should be no surprise that it is a frequent (but not exclusive) target of The Daily Show's barbs against the media. While Stewart does not disguise his contempt for the Fox's third-raters that use up most of Fox's air time (Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Greta Van Susteren, and their incredibly ignorant and vapid morning trio), there used to be a kind of respectful teasing relationship between Bill O'Reilly, Chris Wallace, and Bret Baier of Fox News and Stewart.

Now that the latest rating are out, that is likely to change. Be prepared for Fox to mount an even greater full-court attack on Stewart in an effort to counter his show's growing influence. What they did recently gives a taste of what to expect, except that I expect it to become even more hysterical, since that is Fox's standard operating procedure.

I have said repeatedly that you should be very wary of picking a fight with a stand-up comedian (a breed of people of whom the good ones know how to think on their feet and respond effectively and ruthlessly with hecklers), especially one who has a large staff of writers at his back and his own highly rated TV show. Below is the kind of thing that Fox News can expect if they up the ante.

If Fox does decide to pursue this, it will be a stupid strategy and they will lose because satirical political humor of The Daily Show variety is always more fun to watch than the bluster of a Fox. Even those media commentators moderately sympathetic to Fox News's ideology will find themselves laughing along The Daily Show's audience.

There is a way for Fox to recover and that is to become a real news network and stop being a propaganda outlet that is almost cartoonish in its style of message delivery that only appeals to the true believers. But that is unlikely to happen unless the Murdoch scandal really blows up in the US and results in the network being sold to a new owner who brings in new management with a new outlook.

July 13, 2011

Murdoch scandal takes hold in the US

The Guardian, which has been relentless in covering the Murdoch story, reports on the first call by a senior US political figure to investigate if Murdoch's minions have been engaging in similar practices over here.

Senate commerce committee chairman Jay Rockefeller has asked the authorities to investigate if any journalists working for Rupert Murdoch had targeted US citizens, and warned of "serious consequences" for the media group if that were the case.

In a written statement, Rockefeller expressed concern that victims of 9/11 and their families could have been targeted by News Corporation journalists, although he did not offer any evidence to suggest that may be the case.

Meanwhile, on The Daily Show, John Oliver comforts Jon Stewart that however messed up the US political system is, it is even worse in England, and he points to all the appalling features of the Murdoch scandal as evidence.

Once the The Daily Show takes on an issue, as it is likely to do with this story, it tends to get into the mainstream.

It looks like the Murdoch scandal is well and truly here.

July 12, 2011

Murdoch's blaggers

The Murdoch story now seems to have arrived in the US with NPR giving regular updates and even my local newspaper the Plain Dealer running a long article today.

The Murdoch scandal has taught me a new, and somewhat ugly, word 'blagging'. It apparently refers to the act of getting information by trickery or deception. In the case of former British prime minister Gordon Brown, people employed by Murdoch's News International apparently pretended to be him to obtain his financial records.

Les Hinton, one of the key executives of Murdoch's UK operations during the phone hacking and blagging periods, now heads the US outfit that runs the Wall Street Journal. Hinton may be charged with lying to the British parliament and it will be interesting to see if any investigations get started here, especially since the UK scandal has spread beyond the tabloids News of the World and The Sun and implicated the so-called 'respectable' broadsheets The Times and the Sunday Times, indicating that the corruption had spread pretty far and was not due to some rogue operatives at a single low-brow scandal sheet.

Murdoch is so powerful that current UK prime minister David Cameron and former prime minister Tony Blair both toady to him (Tony Blair was an all-round toady so this is not surprising) and may still wriggle out of it. But until he does, I must say that I am enjoying the spectacle of a net tightening around him and his cronies.

July 11, 2011

More on the Rupert Murdoch British implosion

The Guardian keeps coming with fresh revelations of the depths to which Rupert Murdoch's minions have sunk in their phone hacking scandal. It has now revealed that people in News International (that run Murdoch's UK newspaper operations) obtained the medical records of then Prime Minister Gordon Browns infant son (who has cystic fibrosis) and The Sun newspaper then published a story about it.

These people obviously have no sense of decency. I am just waiting for the reports to begin emerging that similar practices are occurring here.

July 07, 2011

End of The World

The News of the World, one of England's largest circulation newspapers, will close down after this Sunday's edition, ending a 168-year run. It is the first major casualty of the phone-hacking scandal involving the Rupert Murdoch empire.

It is reported that Andy Coulson, a former editor of the paper who was British prime minister David Cameron's director of communications until January when he resigned over early hacking allegations, will be arrested tomorrow and that other arrests are expected.

News Corp scandal

There is a huge scandal blowing up in the UK involving News Corp, the media empire of Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox Entertainment, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post in the US and several of the biggest newspapers in Britain, including the Sun and News of the World. The Guardian has been providing exhaustive coverage of this story in the UK but it has not caught fire here. In the June issue of Vanity Fair, Sarah Ellison provides some background to the whole sordid affair.

Murdoch's media outlets have been implicated in the widespread hacking of the phones of people. It started with the phones of celebrities and they used the information thus gained to essentially blackmail them, not for money but in exchange for the kinds of exclusive celebrity gossip stories that are the trademark of their tabloids. But they also hacked into the voicemails of politicians, crimes victims' families, families of dead soldiers, and the victims of terror attacks and it is these revelations that have really sparked outrage. Furthermore, these sleazy people had a close symbiotic relationship with the highest levels of people in the government and the police, whereby they provided favorable coverage in exchange for protection for their illegal activities.

What pushed the story over the edge was that they had hacked into the voicemails on the cell phone of a 13-year old girl Milly Dowler who went missing in 2002 and was found murdered about six months later. But when her mailbox filled up, mostly with friends and family pleading with her to contact them, the snoopers deleted some messages to allow new messages, cruelly raising the hopes of the family and police that the girl was alive and monitoring her voice mail.

Readers of this blog know that I do not hold the traditional media in high esteem but even by those low standards, Murdoch's operations represent the absolute dregs. Unprincipled, sleazy, and corrupt are the words that jump to mind when Murdoch's name is associated with anything. So far there have been no allegations that Murdoch's American operations have engaged in similar actions but given the close ties between the UK and US operations I would not be in the least surprised if it had happened.

July 06, 2011

Casey Anthony and Anthony Sowell

Sometimes I am so clueless about current events that it amazes me. What triggered that thought is that I had been almost completely oblivious to the goings on in the murder trial of Casey Anthony. It was only yesterday when she was acquitted of her daughter's murder that I became aware that this case had apparently been gripping the cable news world over many years and that people around the nation had been so obsessed by it that some actually flew to Florida from all over the country and lined up early outside the courthouse in order to get a seat at the trial.

Apparently the cable news world and chattering classes had decided Anthony was guilty and the acquittal seems to have caused some kind of national freak-out. Why are people so quick to dismiss the jury's verdict? After all, they are the ones who followed the trial most closely.

I had not been totally unaware of the trial. I check Google News headlines regularly and had seen mention of the name Casey Anthony accompanied by a photo of her and knew that she was on trial for something but did not see any reason follow it up.

While the death of a two-year old child is undoubtedly tragic and sad, there are many such murder cases and it baffles me why some become the focus of so much attention. Is it due to the fact that the media pays more attention if there is a young, white, reasonably attractive (as far as one can tell from the thumbnail photos), middle class woman at the center of events?

Right now there is a trial going on in Cleveland of Anthony Sowell, a man accused of the serial rape and murder of eleven women and burying their bodies in various parts of his home. It is a macabre and truly sensational case that is a big story locally. But as far as I can tell, it is not receiving much attention nationally. I would not be surprised if even many Clevelanders were following the Casey Anthony story more closely than the Sowell case. Is it because the people involved are all black and the victims were mostly drug addicts, prostitutes, runaways, homeless, or otherwise social outcasts?

June 27, 2011

Separating truth and lies in the Middle East

Veteran Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn warns about taking at face value reports out of Libya (and in that region in general).

Meanwhile cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reflects on the incredible Obama claim that the US is not engaged in hostilities in Libya and hence is not subject to the War Powers Act.

May 17, 2011

Photoshopping images

The ability to change photographs drastically seems to be so easy now that we would be wise to not look on any photograph as providing definitive proof about anything without corroborating evidence.

The article and accompanying video gives the basics of how it is done.

May 13, 2011

Julian Assange awarded Australian peace prize

Glenn Greenwald has the story behind the award, given for championing people's right to know.

May 06, 2011

The WikiLeaks model expands, sort of

WikiLeaks put the mainstream media in a bind. They benefited hugely from all the information that was released but at the same time they were embarrassed by using as a source a news organization that the US government hated.

Now the Wall Street Journal has started its own website aimed at getting whistleblower information in the same way as WIkiLeaks. But since they see themselves as 'good' journalists (i.e., subservient to the US government and oligarchy), they have inserted a clause saying that they will share any information with the government and other authorities. Hence their approach will likely fail.

But what this does reveal is what I have been saying all along, that the WikiLeaks model is the future of journalism.

May 04, 2011

The unreliability of government statements

In a post I wrote six years ago, I warned that we should not believe the reports that government officials release in the immediate aftermath of a major event because they are invariably unreliable, either because full information is not available or more frequently because governments deliberately lie as part of the propaganda process, knowing that the first version of events is the one that sticks in people's minds. As such, I said that we should not believe any of the details that are released until they have been substantiated.

The bin Laden story seems to be another example. The government initially said that he had been armed and using his wife as a shield when he was killed 'in a firefight', resulting in her death as well. It turns out that both these details were false. It would not be surprising if we find out in the days, months, and even years to come that other details are also false. Look how long it took for the true stories about Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch to emerge.

So why gild the lily? Why not simply take credit for what seems like a carefully thought out and well-executed plan? Perhaps the government felt the need to discredit bin Laden. But this is pointless. After all, those who hated him do not need any additional reasons to do so, while those who are inspired by him will not believe such stories. Some may even claim that the reports of his death are a fabrication.

I think governments simply cannot help themselves. They cannot let the facts speak for themselves but feel compelled to embellish in order to either cover up their mistakes or, as seems to be the case here, to make themselves look as good as possible and their enemies as bad as possible.

What is truly surprising is that the members of the media, who should know better by now since they have been burned time and again, seem to fall for government propaganda every single time, and pass on government statements as fact, without even the hint of skepticism.

April 28, 2011

The news media's priorities

The radio program Marketplace reports on the absurdly high level of media attention devoted to the royal wedding.

CNN will have a 125 journalists on the ground. Fox is sending 50. NBC's broadcasting the "Today" show from London. Even Al Jazeera's on it. There are reports the networks are spending up to $10 million each to cover the event. And that's in a year when shrinking news budgets have also been squeezed by the natural disaster in Japan and uprisings in the Middle East.

CNN is sending 125 journalists? It struck me that since the newsworthiness of this highly scripted event is essentially zero, the media might have been well-advised to have pool coverage, where one outfit televises it and everyone uses the same feed.

But what do I know.

March 30, 2011

The servile media

The 'access' model of mainstream media, where journalists seek to get close to powerful people and report what they say as if this is what constitutes news, leads to the kinds of pitiful servile mentality that The Daily Show skewers.

March 19, 2011

How to read the NYT and WSJ for free

The New York Times will start putting some of its content behind a pay wall on March 28, like the Wall Street Journal already does.

But you can still read the articles for free. The newspapers know of this loophole but they keep it open because they need to keep their search engine rankings high and they think that most people are too lazy to go through the steps to get the free articles.

March 11, 2011

US media aids government propaganda

In the case of Ray Davis, the acting head of the CIA in Pakistan now in jail for gunning down two men in a busy street in Lahore, the US government claims that he has diplomatic immunity and thus should not have to face prosecution. There is some controversy over whether the diplomatic status was conferred on Davis only after the killings, which would make it dubious.

A former CIA agent who worked in Laos during the Vietnam war says that the use of diplomatic immunity for spies is quite routine and reveals how this works:

In the Vietnam War the country of Laos held a geo-strategic position, as does Pakistan does to Afghanistan today. As in Pakistan, in Laos our country conducted covert military operations against a sovereign people, using the CIA.

I was a demolitions technician with the Air Force who was reassigned to work with the CIA’s Air America operation in Laos. We turned in our military IDs cards and uniforms and were issued a State Department ID card and dressed in blue jeans. We were told if captured we were to ask for diplomatic immunity, if alive. We carried out military missions on a daily basis all across the countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Davis is in a bad situation now because most of the people of the world, as we see across the Middle East, are now aware of the lies and not going to turn their head anymore.

I say “most” everyone knows, because our own public, the ones suppose to be in control of the military and CIA, is constantly lied to. It is so sad to see President Obama repeating the big lie.

But it is not just the government that is lying to the US public. It turns out that US media outlets like the New York Times and MSNBC both knew that Davis was working for the CIA, as did the Washington Post and the Associated Press but did not reveal this information to their readers at the request of the government. As a result, they deliberately passed on the government's false information, thus adding support to the view that they are becoming an increasingly obvious propaganda arm of the government.

It was only after the British press revealed the CIA connection that the US media followed suit. The New York Times and its ombudsman tried to justify their lying by saying that the government persuaded them that telling the truth about the CIA connection might have put Davis's life at risk. This does not make much sense. Davis is in custody in Pakistan where the media has been reporting the CIA connection widely from the beginning. How could it make matters worse if Americans knew what Pakistanis already knew?

The NYT's excuses were ripped to shreds by Glenn Greenwald:

It's one thing for a newspaper to withhold information because they believe its disclosure would endanger lives. But here, the U.S. Government has spent weeks making public statements that were misleading in the extreme -- Obama's calling Davis "our diplomat in Pakistan" -- while the NYT deliberately concealed facts undermining those government claims because government officials told them to do so. That's called being an active enabler of government propaganda.

Allowing the U.S. Government to run around affirmatively depicting Davis as some sort of Holbrooke-like "diplomat" -- all while the paper uncritically prints those claims and yet conceals highly relevant information about Davis because the Obama administration told it to -- would be humiliating for any outlet devoted to adversarial journalism to have to admit. But it will have no such effect on The New York Times. With some noble exceptions, loyally serving government dictates is, like so many American establishment media outlets, what they do; it's their function: hence the name "establishment media."

It's one thing for a newspaper to withhold information because it genuinely believes its publication will endanger lives (and I'd love to hear the explanation about why this would). But this situation goes far beyond that. The NYT was regularly printing government claims like the one above ("our diplomat in Pakistan") which were at best misleading and likely false, and also including their own misleading claims in these stories ("the mystery about what Mr. Davis was doing with this inventory of gadgets"). But they had information in their possession -- and concealed it -- which undermined (if not entirely negated) the truth of these statements.

There's a big difference between simply withholding information to protect lives and actively enabling and publishing misleading propaganda. More to the point, there is simply no justification -- none -- for a newspaper to allow government officials to run around misleading the public, and to print those misleading statements, all while concealing information (at the Government's request) which reveal those claims to be factually dubious. (My italics)

Amy Davidson of the New Yorker made a point-by-point critique of the excuses made by the government and the US media for misleading the American public.

This latest revelation should come as no surprise, given the willingness of the major US media to carry water for the US government. We have seen them attack even fellow US journalists who are not sufficiently subservient to the government.

David Lindorff, a member of an independent journalist collective, has also been all over the Ray Davis story, monitoring the press in India and Pakistan to come up with new information about the US embassy's failed retroactive effort to get diplomatic status for him and why he might have been in communication with terrorist groups.

Once again, this illustrates why we need alternative media sources like Lindorff's and WikiLeaks.

March 10, 2011

"According to WikiLeaks..."

It is interesting to note how often the phrase "according to cables released by WikiLeaks…" appears in US news reports these days, even as the US media try to portray WikiLeaks as some kind of rogue outfit. This is because WikiLeaks is simultaneously showing up the major US media as being really lousy journalists while providing them with invaluable information that enables them to do their jobs better. It must be really sticking in their craw to have to give WikiLeaks credit.

There is no question in my mind that WikiLeaks has done us all a huge service.

March 06, 2011

Hillary Clinton as media critic

At last she says something I can agree with when she points out that when it comes to news coverage and impact around the world, al Jazeera is eating the US media's lunch.

"Al Jazeera has been the leader in that are literally changing people's minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective," she said.

"In fact viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners," she added.

Who knew that she was such a good media critic? But she should be careful what she wishes for. It is because the US media is so awful that all her hypocrisies (and those of Obama and the rest of the ruling class) do not get exposed.

February 27, 2011

How to save time following the news: Tip #2

Stop reading the moment you come across the names Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen.

February 25, 2011

How to save time following the news: Tip #1

I skip over every single news item that speculates on who is or is not going to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. All this exercise consists of are people trying to get their names in the news by coyly flirting with the idea.

This is the first in an ongoing series. Suggestions from readers are welcomed!

February 05, 2011

What is the internet?

Watch this clip from NBC's Today show where Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, and an unidentified person are puzzled about this new thing called the internet.

Apparently NBC has fired the person who unearthed this old clip and uploaded it to YouTube. Why? If it is because they think it is embarrassing to have their news anchors not know what the internet is, that's absurd. They have nothing to be ashamed of because this took place in early 1994 and their views were typical for that time, which was the early days of the internet, whose origins were around 1989.

Since I worked in universities and national research labs, we used email a long time before the rest of the community although at that time there was a patchwork of communication methods. I remember using Bitnet for email and Telenet for remote access to computers.

The internet really took off with the arrival in 1993 of the first web browser called Mosaic. I remember how in 1993 I had to teach a group of people what the internet was and how it worked and I barely understood it myself. We were all struggling to understand and use it.

We forget how recently this world came into being, so the cluelessness of the NBC team is perfectly understandable.

February 03, 2011

Why Al Jazeera is not found on US cable networks

Al Jazeera has become the go-to source for the current turbulence in the Middle East. Jeremy Scahill explains why it is that despite Al Jazeera being a worldwide news powerhouse, people in the US are not be able to subscribe to it through their cable companies. It is because the US government treated Al Jazeera as an enemy and the media companies here, ever obsequious to the government, duly refused to carry them.

During the Bush administration, nothing contradicted the absurd claim that the United States invaded Iraq to spread democracy throughout the Middle East more decisively than Washington's ceaseless attacks on Al Jazeera, the institution that did more than any other to break the stranglehold over information previously held by authoritarian forces, whether monarchs, military strongmen, occupiers or ayatollahs. Yet, far from calling for its journalists to be respected and freed from imprisonment and unlawful detention, the Bush administration waged war against Al Jazeera and its journalists.

The United States bombed its offices in Afghanistan in 2001. In March 2003, two of its financial correspondents were kicked off the trading floor of NASDAQ and the NY Stock Exchange.

In April 2003, US forces shelled the Basra hotel where Al Jazeera journalists were the only guests and killed Jazeera's Iraq correspondent Tareq Ayoub a few days later in Baghdad. The United States also imprisoned several Al Jazeera reporters (including at Guantánamo), some of whom say they were tortured.

Then in late November 2005 Britain's Daily Mirror reported that during an April 2004 White House meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, George W. Bush floated the idea of bombing Al Jazeera's international headquarters in Qatar.

The Falluja offensive, one of the bloodiest assaults of the US occupation, was a turning point. In two weeks that April, thirty marines were killed as local guerrillas resisted US attempts to capture the city. Some 600 Iraqis died, many of them women and children. Al Jazeera broadcast from inside the besieged city, beaming images to the world. On live TV the network gave graphic documentary evidence disproving US denials that it was killing civilians. It was a public relations disaster, and the United States responded by attacking the messenger.

Just a few days before Bush allegedly proposed bombing the network, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Falluja, Ahmed Mansour, reported live on the air, "Last night we were targeted by some tanks, twice…but we escaped. The US wants us out of Falluja, but we will stay." On April 9 Washington demanded that Al Jazeera leave the city as a condition for a cease-fire. The network refused. Mansour wrote that the next day "American fighter jets fired around our new location, and they bombed the house where we had spent the night before, causing the death of the house owner Mr. Hussein Samir. Due to the serious threats we had to stop broadcasting for few days because every time we tried to broadcast the fighter jets spotted us we became under their fire."

Scahill sums up:

The real threat Al Jazeera poses to authoritarian regimes is in its unembedded journalism. That is why the Bush Administration viewed Al Jazeera as a threat, it is why Mubarak's regime is trying to shut it down and that is why the network is so important to the unfolding revolutions in the Middle East. It is the same role the network plays in reporting on the disastrous US war in Afghanistan. [My italics]

But you can be sure that the US government is closely watching Al Jazeera now in order to get a fix on what is going on in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Where to get news

As I wrote before, my social circle tends to be people who call themselves liberal and vote Democratic. What is interesting is that although these people tend to be avid followers of news, they are often unaware of important information. They watch the 'serious' news programs such as the NewsHour on PBS, they listen to NPR, they watch the Sunday talk shows such as This Week, Meet the Press, and Face the Nation. They disdain Fox News and all its offerings. They subscribe to the New York Times.

How can they devote so much time to learn about the world and yet miss so much? This is an example of Will Rogers' warning that it isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so, so I want to devote this post to point people to better sources of news.

The idea that I am better informed than many of the people I know sounds arrogant. What makes me think I know any better? Why should anyone take my advice on how to keep up with the news? I can only offer a purely subjective reason and that is when I discuss politics with people who are active and try to be knowledgeable, I find that I not only know everything they know, I also know a lot that they don't and can tell them that a lot of what they know is simply wrong. This is despite the fact that I don't think I spend that much more time following the news.

Since I am often asked as to my sources of news, here is my advice on being better informed, for what it is worth.

  • Don't watch the news on broadcast TV or cable. They take up valuable time, the ratio of news to nonsense/gossip/advertisements is tiny, most of it is uniformed and biased commentary focused on the trivial, and they distract your attention from the real news.
  • Don't subscribe to or waste your time reading the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, or any of the so-called national newspapers and newsmagazines.
  • If you want a 24-hour international news channel, you are far better off watching Al Jazeera instead of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. Livestation is a free service that provides live access to a huge array of TV and radio stations from around the world broadcasting in an array of languages and is my source for Al Jazeera. You download the software and can select the sources that you want.
  • Your local paper is useful only for local news.

The problem with all these news outlets is that it takes far too much time and effort to find the tiny nuggets of news buried in the mass of rubbish that they put out. Sometimes the most significant fact is buried at the end of a long story. This is why I value blogs. There are good bloggers out there who do have the time and energy to read and watch these news outlets and flag the few items that are newsworthy. So in the end, I do often read articles from these national news outlets but only the worthwhile bits.

For those of you who watch the NewsHour on PBS, you are far better off switching to Democracy Now! which can be found on the radio dial in large parts of the country and in video form online. It has the same format as the NewsHour with an opening segment of news headlines followed by interviews with commentators. The difference is that whereas the NewsHour has the usual predictable panel of beltway analysts who spout conventional wisdom (as suits its corporate sponsors), Democracy Now! has voices that are informed and provide much sharper analysis from a more progressive perspective. They will have on their show unembedded reporters from the wars and progressive commentators who are not beholden to the government.

The website Antiwar.com is wonderful at linking to news articles from around the world. The Real News is also a very good site for comprehensive coverage of world events.

For mainstream US news, I would recommend the blogs Political Animal and Talking Points Memo as websites that link to news stories in the mainstream media and can point you to key elements. This enables you to get to just the main stories from these mainstream outlets without wasting your time on the huge amounts of rubbish that is there.

The websites Common Dreams and CounterPunch have analyses by people who are knowledgeable but whom you will rarely find on the op-ed pages of your mainstream newspapers.

Over time, people will find sources that suit them in terms of style and content. But the sites I've listed are a good place to start.

January 22, 2011

Media filters at work

Apparently that portion of the press conference where Chinese president Hu Jintao was asked about human rights issues was blacked out in the state-run China media. Damian Grammaticas, the Beijing correspondent of BBC News, says smugly, "Just hearing a Chinese president deal with direct questions on human rights is incredibly rare. In China the heavily state-controlled media doesn't pose them”

But when have you heard anyone in the major US media ask Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton at a press conference how the US can lecture other countries on human rights when it is itself a serious serial violator?

The point is that the filters in the media that weed out independent thinkers works so well that it would never occur to almost all those who rise to the level of being allowed into these press conferences to pose such a question. Any journalist who had the temerity to do so would be frozen out by the government (and even his or her colleagues) and never be called upon again and would have to be replaced by his organization. This would be a bad career move and journalists likely realize this, at least at a gut level.

This is why the US does not have to be so crude as China and censor broadcasts. The media does it itself perfectly well.

January 19, 2011

Ron Paul schools CNN 'journalist' on WikiLeaks and politics

January 18, 2011

Hypocrisy on internet freedom

Glenn Greenwald lists some of the hypocrisies of the US government when it comes to internet freedoms.

He leads off with the one concerning cyberwarfare. While the US government condemns it, it does nothing when Israel openly boasts about using it against Iran.

So as is the usual pattern, it is never the principle that determines what is right and wrong but who is doing it.

January 17, 2011

The media as a model of how a modern oligarchy operates

A well-functioning oligarchic system usually operates smoothly and largely openly and without a hierarchical structure. It achieves its goals by setting up filters that weed out those who do not support its agenda and rarely requires overt intervention to achieve its goals.

I discussed earlier how the major filter was the high cost of entry in the modern media world that meant only rich people or organizations could create a big megaphone for their views. Only someone like Rupert Murdoch, for example, could create a new major network like Fox News. The high cost of entry came into being over a century ago and was a result of market forces and technological advances and the adoption of a business plan that depended largely on advertising for revenues.

Governments were happy to let that process proceed though in the early days some had concerns. It is not well known now until the mid-19th century the US government subsidized the printing and mailing of newspapers in order to enable a wide diversity of voices to be heard. While there are obvious dangers to be faced with government funding, it is possible to construct buffers to insulate the government from having too much influence over editorial content. The BBC and CBC are models that, while flawed, show what can be done. The abandonment of government subsidies to newspapers set in motion a propaganda system that works without any further outside intervention.

A case study of how the media filters work to weed out undesirable elements is the process of embedding mainstream journalists with US troops that was introduced by the US government. Once the news executives agreed to this practice, it further consolidated the links between government and the media. Those journalists who felt that embedding was wrong and undermined their impartiality left the mainstream media and went elsewhere. Only those who did not find it objectionable stayed and they are the ones who report the news and will rise up and become heads of news divisions.

When people like John Burns of the New York Times and Lara Logan of CBS News criticized Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine for publishing the piece that got General Stanley McChrystal fired as head of the Afghanistan war effort, they perfectly symbolized the process at work. What they did by criticizing Hastings was a good career move for them. Whether they were speaking what they really thought or were more cynical and calculating does not matter. If the latter, they will rationalize their actions, create justifications, and internalize the reasons that caused them to act this way and thus become even more dutiful servants of the oligarchy. Meanwhile Hastings, who used to work for Newsweek, left and became an independent journalist because he couldn't stand the role that establishment reporters played within that system.

This example shows how the oligarchy operates in the media. It is not that reporters write stories that are then censored by their bosses who are acting on the orders of politicians, as a crude propaganda model would suggest. It is that the system weeds out the reporters who would write such stories in the first place and only keeps those who would not even consider filing such a story, making overt censorship unnecessary.

It is only under extreme conditions that the commonality of interests between the government and the media breaks down and this is usually due to a split in oligarchic interests. One example in the US was during the later stages in the Vietnam war when the costs of the war became seen as a serious threat to some sections of the US economy and the draft was resulting in the conscription of even people from the ruling classes. This division in the oligarchy allowed much more vocal criticism of the war even in the mainstream media and resulted in the government trying to directly influence them in the form of trying to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers and exerting direct pressure on major newspapers and network news division executives to limit negative coverage of the war. When the hand of the oligarchy becomes visible this way, you know the system has developed cracks.

But the near unanimous support by the US media for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that those earlier cracks have been now sealed because the government did not even need to tell the news organizations to act as cheerleaders. The news executives and reporters by and large agreed with the government's goals because those who might have disagreed had long ago left and gone elsewhere because they just did not 'fit'.

January 13, 2011

Noam Chomsky and Manufacturing Consent

There is a documentary of Manufacturing Consent (the book that I talked about in the previous post) that you can see online for free, although the image quality is not great. Although it is two hours and forty-five minutes long, it is entertaining and provides an excellent overview of the subject and of Chomsky.

December 17, 2010

Cheap news is no news

David Cay Johnson describes how the drive for profits in the newspaper industry is eliminating beat reporting and replacing it with filler material that is of little value.

Beats are fundamental to journalism, but our foundation is crumbling. Whole huge agencies of the federal government and, for many news organizations, the entirety of state government go uncovered. There are school boards and city councils and planning commissions that have not seen a reporter in years. The outrageous salaries that were paid to Bell, California city officials—close to $800,000 to the city manager, for example—would not have happened if just one competent reporter had been covering that city hall in Southern California. But no one was, and it took an accidental set of circumstances for two reporters from the Los Angeles Times to reveal this scandal.

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch. Don’t take my word for it. Instead look at declining circulation figures. People know value and they know when what they’re getting is worth their time or worth the steadily rising cost of a subscription.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution.

What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

December 06, 2010

Why the US mainstream media cannot be trusted

Gareth Porter uses the latest WikiLeaks release to illustrate how the New York Times and the Washington Post lie to their readers by omission, carefully editing their stories to reflect the views of the government.

A diplomatic cable from last February released by Wikileaks provides a detailed account of how Russian specialists on the Iranian ballistic missile program refuted the U.S. suggestion that Iran has missiles that could target European capitals or intends to develop such a capability.

In fact, the Russians challenged the very existence of the mystery missile the U.S. claims Iran acquired from North Korea.

But readers of the two leading U.S. newspapers never learned those key facts about the document.

The New York Times and Washington Post reported only that the United States believed Iran had acquired such missiles - supposedly called the BM-25 - from North Korea. Neither newspaper reported the detailed Russian refutation of the U.S. view on the issue or the lack of hard evidence for the BM-25 from the U.S. side.

The Times, which had obtained the diplomatic cables not from Wikileaks but from The Guardian, according to a Washington Post story Monday, did not publish the text of the cable.

The Times story said the newspaper had made the decision not to publish "at the request of the Obama administration". That meant that its readers could not compare the highly-distorted account of the document in the Times story against the original document without searching the Wikileaks website.

NPR is only marginally less obsequious to US government interests. As Paul Craig Roberts writes,

On November 29, National Public Radio emphasized that the cables showed that Iran was isolated even in the Muslim world, making it easier for the Israelis and Americans to attack. The leaked cables reveal that the president of Egypt, an American puppet, hates Iran, and the Saudi Arabian government has been long urging the US government to attack Iran. In other words, Iran is so dangerous to the world that even its co-religionists want Iran wiped off the face of the earth.

NPR presented several nonobjective "Iranian experts" who denigrated Iran and its leadership and declared that the US government, by resisting its Middle Eastern allies' calls for bombing Iran, was the moderate in the picture. The fact that President George W. Bush declared Iran to be a member of "the axis of evil" and threatened repeatedly to attack Iran, and that President Obama has continued the threats--Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has just reiterated that the US hasn't taken the attack option off the table--are not regarded by American "Iran experts" as indications of anything other than American moderation.

Somehow it did not come across in the NPR newscast that it is not Iran but Israel that routinely slaughters civilians in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, and that it is not Iran but the US and its NATO mercenaries who slaughter civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yeman, and Pakistan.

Iran has not invaded any of its neighbors, but the Americans are invading countries half way around the globe.

Notice that the items in the cables that have received the most publicity is how some Arab leaders want Iran to be bombed. The media spotlight this because this continues the demonizing of Iran, which is a key policy objective of the US and Israel and helps prepare the groundwork for a potential attack on Iran. They also act as if the views of these leaders are also the views of the people in those nations. Noam Chomsky, appearing on Democracy Now!, gives the unreported other side of the story:

[T]he main significance of the cables that have been released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So, Hillary Clinton and Binyamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. And the results are rather striking. They show that Arab opinion does—holds that the major threat in the region is Israel, that’s 80 percent; the second major threat is the United States, that’s 77 percent. Iran is listed as a threat by 10 percent. With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority, in fact, 57 percent, say that the region will be—it would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. Eighty percent, 77 percent say that the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. Ten percent say that Iran is the major threat.

Surely the question of why the dictators of these Arab countries want the US to attack Iran in the face of wide opposition of their own people should be of some interest? But that is a discussion that you will rarely hear. But Roberts gives a possible explanation:

The "Iranian experts" treated the Saudi and Egyptian rulers' hatred of Iran as a vindication of the US and Israeli governments' demonization of Iran. Not a single "Iranian expert" was capable of pointing out that the tyrants who rule Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear Iran because the Iranian government represents the interests of Muslims, and the Saudi and Egyptian governments represent the interests of the Americans.

Think what it must feel like to be a tyrant suppressing the aspirations of your own people in order to serve the hegemony of a foreign country, while a nearby Muslim government strives to protect its people's independence from foreign hegemony.

Undoubtedly, the tyrants become very anxious. What if their oppressed subjects get ideas? Little wonder the Saudis and Egyptian rulers want the Americans to eliminate the independent-minded country that is a bad example for Egyptian and Saudi subjects.

Pause for a moment and reflect. The government of Iran is by no means an admirable one. It has many, many serious defects. But the US and Israel would be very pleased if it were replaced by dictators like those in Saudi Arabia, a proud US ally, but a country whose rulers are far worse than Iran's in almost every respect.

This is why anyone who really seeks to be informed has to find sources beyond the ones that are not mainstream ones. In a future post, I will try and provide a list of the sources I use that some readers might find helpful.

November 29, 2010

The Nation apologizes

The editor Katrina vanden Heuvel steps up and does the right thing by apologizing for her magazine publishing the smear of John Tyner.

November 24, 2010

The Simpsons hits the mark

The opening segment from last week's show nails the media.

November 01, 2010

A morally bankrupt pundit class

David Broder, the so-called 'dean' of the US pundit class, suggests that Barack Obama should go to war with Iran in order to boost the economy and his re-election chances. Stephen Walt provides the required dissection of this insanity.

Jonah Goldberg wonders why Julian Assange of WikiLeaks has not already been murdered by US security forces. He even specifies that Assange should be 'garroted'. Goldberg's barbaric nature is, of course, well documented. It does not matter how many times people like Juan Cole slap him down, he resurfaces.

Our keyboard commandos are always willing to send other people to their deaths to compensate for some weird sense of personal inadequacy. And our major media continue to publish them.

October 29, 2010

Stephen Colbert on the self-indulgence of the rich

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October 27, 2010

The US media's subservience to the government and the Pentagon

I have praised Glenn Greenwald before but today's article on the WikiLeaks releases and the response of the major American media is absolutely brilliant in its analysis. It is an absolute must-read.

Also see a fascinating video of a forum and Q/A with Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg. It is long but engrossing. Assange comes across as a very smart and courageous person who is totally committed to continuing the practice putting out official government documents to the public.

I have just made a donation to WikiLeaks. You can also do so here.

October 26, 2010

More on the WikiLeaks release and US media coverage

In a previous post I described how the US media carefully conforms to meet the needs of the establishment. One sees this on display again with the new WikiLeaks release. Glenn Greenwald compares the worldwide coverage of the explosive nature of the new revelations with the carefully sanitized version given to the US public by the major media outlets here and the focus on the trivial, such as Julian Assange's private life.

Ellen Knickmeyer, former Baghdad bureau chief of the Washington Post, writes about the upbeat press briefings she received from the US government while covering the war and now says that "Thanks to WikiLeaks, though, I now know the extent to which top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world, as the Iraq mission exploded." Of course, it is a safe bet that if she were still at the Post, she would not be allowed to write that.

As I repeatedly said, WikiLeaks is serving the same public service as Daniel Ellsberg did when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, which is why he is such a strong supporter of their actions. If he had tried to leak them to the New York Times today, they probably would not publish them and may even turn him in to the FBI.

October 22, 2010

More on the Juan Williams firing

As I have said before, my delight with the firing of Juan Williams was simple. I thought he was a lousy journalist and I was glad not to have to listen to him anymore. But Jason Linkins captures why the firing was so unusual and it is not because of free speech issues:

Yesterday, NPR cashiered correspondent Juan Williams for doing something that had hitherto never been considered an offense in media circles: defaming Muslims. Up until now, you could lose your job for saying intemperate things about Jews and about Christians and about Matt Drudge. You could even lose a job for failing to defame Muslims. But we seem to be in undiscovered country at the moment.

Glenn Greenwald explains that some are expressing outrage because creating anti-Muslim fear is their goal and the NPR action has threatened their drive towards it by making it seem as if bigotry towards Muslims should be treated the same way as bigotry towards any other group.

The double standard in our political discourse -- which tolerates and even encourages anti-Muslim bigotry while stigmatizing other forms -- has been as beneficial as it has been glaring. NPR's firing of Juan Williams threatened to change that by rendering this bigotry as toxic and stigmatized as other types. That could not be allowed, which is why the backlash against NPR was so rapid, intense and widespread. I'm not referring here to those who object to viewpoint-based firings of journalists in general and who have applied that belief consistently: that's a perfectly reasonable view to hold (and one I share). I'm referring to those who rail against NPR's actions by invoking free expression principles they plainly do not support and which they eagerly violate whenever the viewpoint in question is one they dislike. For most NPR critics, the real danger from Williams' firing is not to free expression, but to the ongoing fear-mongering campaign of defamation and bigotry against Muslims (both foreign and domestic) that is so indispensable to so many agendas.

That sounds right to me.

James Wolcott has his usual droll but accurate take on the event. He points out that Williams can now fully be the kind of person that Fox News loves, the minority who panders to white resentment by validating their stereotypes about minorities, saying "Well, clearly that day has come and such a relief it must be for Williams, able to capitulate to conservative middle-aged white men without having to fret about whatever flak he might get back home at NPR."

October 21, 2010

Bye, bye, Juan

Juan Williams has been fired by NPR for bigoted remarks he made about Muslims on Fox News.

Good riddance, I say, because Williams was simply awful. I am just waiting for the day when Mara Liasson and Cokie Roberts are also canned.

NPR boasts of its 'driveway moments', stories that allegedly compel people to stay in their cars to listen to the end even if they have completed their journey. For me this triumvirate represented anti-driveway moments, because when they came on I would leave the car as soon as I could or if I did not have that option, turn off the radio.

Here's a hint, Juan. When you start a sentence with "I am not a bigot but…" or "I am not a sexist but…" or "I am not a homophobe but…" and so on, you should realize that you have a problem.

October 19, 2010

The internet as a new media model

An interesting example of the power and utility of the internet was a recent case in England. Simon Singh, in an article in the London Guardian, criticized the British Chiropractic Association "for claiming that its members could treat children for colic, ear infections, asthma, prolonged crying, and sleeping and feeding conditions by manipulating their spines… Singh said that claims were made without sufficient evidence, described the treatments as "bogus", and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them."

The BCA sued Singh personally under Britain's absurdly strict libel laws and he faced the possibility of financial ruin. But what happened was that a volunteer army of bloggers swung into action investigating every single claim of the chiropractors and showing that Singh's charge was true. As Ben Goldacre writes:

Fifteen months after the case began, the BCA finally released the academic evidence it was using to support specific claims. Within 24 hours this was taken apart meticulously by bloggers, referencing primary research papers, and looking in every corner.

Professor David Colquhoun of UCL pointed out, on infant colic, that the BCA cited weak evidence in its favour, while ignoring strong evidence contradicting its claims. He posted the evidence and explained it. LayScience flagged up the BCA selectively quoting a Cochrane review. Every stone was turned by Quackometer, APGaylard, Gimpyblog, EvidenceMatters, Dr Petra Boynton, MinistryofTruth, Holfordwatch, legal blogger Jack of Kent, and many more. At every turn they have taken the opportunity to explain a different principle of evidence based medicine – the sin of cherry-picking results, the ways a clinical trial can be unfair by design – to an engaged lay audience, with clarity as well as swagger.

But more interestingly than that, a ragged band of bloggers from all walks of life has, to my mind, done a better job of subjecting an entire industry's claims to meaningful, public, scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself, and even its own regulator. (my italics)

As a result, the chiropractors dropped their claim against Singh and may now have to pay his legal costs as well. The claims of the chiropractors have been exposed to the whole world.

Legendary journalist I. F. Stone was probably the prototypical blogger before the internet even existed, doing the kind of detailed analysis that good reporting requires and which requires a passion for the work. It cannot be just a job. Victor Navasky says that Stone,

although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

There is still an essential role for journalists to go out and gather first-hand information, questioning people, and obtaining documents. But they are inadequate when it comes to analysis either because they filter the raw information through the establishment lens or they simply do not have the time or knowledge or expertise to do a thorough examination and analysis. It is mostly bloggers who are now doing that kind of thing, picking up Stone's baton and working in the public domain to glean information that the big media journalists cannot or will not do. Of course, there is a huge amount of rubbish on the internet. But as time goes by, bloggers and their readers will become much better at what they do, the former becoming more careful and authoritative, the latter at being able to distinguish good sources of information from the bad.

I. F. Stone's own credo is a inspiration to all independent journalists and bloggers: "To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them."

October 16, 2010

It's all cynical political calculations for our media

Over at Slate, Tim Scocca points out how the affected cynical, world-weary, oh-so-savvy media narrative that drives US political reporting infects even their coverage of foreign news stories like the Chilean mine rescue. (Via Balloon Juice.)

The idea that maybe, just maybe, something should be done and is because it is worth doing for its own sake does not seem to occur to them.

October 15, 2010

The emerging power of new media and blogs

The new media on the internet provides a way to break free of the blinkered view that the traditional media provides. What the new media offers is a vast array of informed people who are willing to do the meticulous and painstaking work to get to the truth. The traditional media cannot or will not do this either because they want to go with the superficial and sensational in their search for ratings or because they are laying off their investigative reporters or because they do not want to offend powerful interests, because they themselves are part of the corporate elite

This year, investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill received the second annual Izzy Award, named after the legendary investigative reporter I. F. "Izzy" Stone, and given for outstanding achievement in independent media. The first winners were Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and Glenn Greenwald. In an interview, Scahill talks about the potential of the new alternative media made possible by the internet.

I believe that the way independent journalists are most effectively able to conduct their work is by maintaining their independence from the powerful. I don't hob-nob with the powerful. I don't count among my friends executives or other powerful people. I think it's important for independent journalists to not be beholden to any special interests whatsoever.

I think we're at a moment where we have a lot of really good independent journalism that's being produced by bloggers and independent journalists, but we also need to not go far away from that tradition of peer review, editing and fact-checking.

We live in a very exciting time in independent media. Corporate journalists are less powerful now than they were 10 years ago, but their owners are much more powerful. Still, the journalists themselves -- they're no longer these sort of regal kings on a hill. Peggy Noonan represents a dying generation of people that pontificate from a golden palace somewhere, hoping the poor will never get through her gates.

The poor are now journalists around the world. The question is: how do we fund it? How do we keep it viable? How do we keep it credible? And that is our challenge right now.

Glenn Greenwald has a nice piece on the value of blogs that was displayed when the traditional media misrepresented Sonia Sotomayor when she was nominated to the US Supreme Court. The media used an original blog report as the source to present a distorted picture of her and it was the blogs that fought back to correct the record.

Another case where blogs forced a reporter to retract was when New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin indulged in some gratuitous union bashing in a TV interview, suggesting that unionized companies were all doomed to failure. The counter-examples came thick and fast and quick on the blogs, forcing him to recant. He is unlikely to make that mistake again. This kind of accountability and correction is unlikely to have happened in the pre-internet, pre-blog days.

October 14, 2010

The cozy relationship between the press and the politicians

The shameless schmoozing of beltway journalists with the politicians they are supposed to be covering critically continues in the Obama administration. I wrote earlier about how Obama started this practice a week before he was even inaugurated. Is anyone even surprised anymore that the media is so lousy and so pro-establishment and only gets worked up over trivialities?

Glenn Greenwald highlights (item #6) the cozy relationship between the media and the politicians they cover that is on display in this article, detailing how influential Mike Allen of Politico is in shaping the media narrative to the liking of powerful people:

On a recent Friday night, a couple hundred influentials gathered for a Mardi Gras-themed birthday party for Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of "Meet the Press." Held at the Washington home of the lobbyist Jack Quinn, the party was a classic Suck-Up City affair in which everyone seemed to be congratulating one another on some recent story, book deal, show or haircut (and, by the way, your boss is doing a swell job, and maybe we could do an interview).

McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, arrived after the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie left. Fox News's Greta Van Susteren had David Axelrod pinned into a corner near a tower of cupcakes. In the basement, a very white, bipartisan Soul Train was getting down to hip-hop. David Gregory, the "Meet the Press" host, and Newsweek’s Jon Meacham gave speeches about Fischer. Over by the jambalaya, Alan Greenspan picked up some Mardi Gras beads and placed them around the neck of his wife, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who bristled and quickly removed them. Allen was there too, of course, but he vanished after a while -- sending an e-mail message later, thanking me for coming.

Or, as Bob Somerby reports, consider the case when Ted Koppel, alleged journalist, drives to Colin Powell's house, a person whom he supposedly covers, to show him his new sports car and to let him take it for a spin. According to Powell, Koppel frequently drops by for coffee and to chat. Somerby also talks about "Bob Schieffer playing golf with George Bush; Gwen Ifill giving home-cooked meals to Condi Rice; and Tim Russert off at Don Rumsfeld’s Christmas party."

Aw, how sweet! Gwen making sure Condi has a hot meal. How nice and cozy!

Somerby also quotes Richard Leiby on a party thrown by John McCain in 2004:

Sen. John McCain tended to his political base Sunday night: the entire national media. The maverick Arizona Republican, once (and future?) presidential aspirant and press secretary's dream, hosted a hyper-exclusive 68th birthday party for himself at La Goulue on Madison Avenue, leaving no media icon behind. Guests included NBC's Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC's Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos, CBS's Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, ABC News chief David Westin, Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, CNN's Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, CNBC's Gloria Borger, PBS's Charlie Rose—pause here to exhale—and U.S. News & World Report publisher Mort Zuckerman, Washington Post Chairman Don Graham, New York Times columnists William Safire and David Brooks, author Michael Lewis and USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. They and others dined on lobster salad, loin of lamb, assorted wines, creme brulee, lemon souffle and French tarts...

Your media, the watchdogs of democracy, at work. (Susan Gardner also weighs in on this topic.)

As for whether such schmoozing violates journalistic ethics, Glenn Greenwald says:

I personally don't think that these types of interactions "violate journalistic ethics" because I don't think such a thing exists for them. Rather, all of this just helpfully reveals what our nation's leading "journalists" really are: desperate worshipers of political power who are far more eager to be part of it and to serve it than to act as adversarial checks against it -- and who, in fact, are Royal Court Spokespeople regardless of which monarch is ruling.

The establishment media defends these practices by arguing that they need to be on good terms with major establishment figures in order to get information. This is not true. You are better off dealing with mid-level or lower-level people who really believe in what they do or remain idealistic or are not really interested in the turf wars being waged at higher levels.

October 08, 2010

Managing the media message

Many people may not realize how carefully scripted talk shows are. When we watch people even yell at each other in seemingly spontaneous ways, we are actually watching a carefully planned show. People are selected to appear on these shows based on positions that they will take. So if you want to have a career as a media commentator, it is best if you have a predictable response to the stock issues that the media covers. It is even better if you can say predictable things in unpredictable ways, like Ann Coulter. But woe to you if you are an original thinker or a thoughtful person who actually responds based on the specifics of the situation. You are of no use to the producers of these shows because you are simply too unpredictable. The best way to understand these shows is to think of them as plays in which the actors are allowed to improvise within the limits of the characters that they play.

John Amato provides a revealing look behind the scenes at how the 'news' shows set up the guests for their programs, selecting guests who will only say what the producers of the shows want them to say. For one show, the producers sent out an email to someone saying, "Wanted to see if you're available today at 4:05 for Neil's show today. The topic is on Obama and his cockiness. We're looking for someone who will say, yes, he's cocky and his cockiness will hurt him." Yes, they can be that specific.

Journalists often 'work the phones', as they like to call it, calling up lots of people on their Rolodexes until they have the quotes they need to flesh out the story that they have already written. I have been interviewed on occasion for some news story. When I read the story later, it is always the case that my comments have been selected to fit into a narrative that the writer seemed to have decided upon even before talking to me. The same is true for the 'person in the street' interviews. They may interview many, many people to get the quotes they need to drive the pre-ordained narrative.

But in order to ensure that the pre-ordained message gets transmitted, truly original or different or dissenting voices have to be marginalized. Glenn Greenwald describes how that is done:

[I]n our political discourse, the two party establishments typically define what is "sane," and anyone outside of those parameters is, by definition, "crazy." "Crazy" is the way that political orthodoxies are enforced and the leadership of the two political parties preserved as the only viable choices for Sane People to embrace. Anyone who tiptoes outside of those establishment parameters -- from Ron Paul on the right to Dennis Kucinich on the left, to say nothing of Further Left advocates -- is, more or less by definition, branded as "crazy" by all Serious, mainstream people.

The converse is even more perverse: the Washington establishment -- which has endorsed countless insane policies, wrought so much destruction on every level, and has provoked the intense hatred of the American citizenry across the ideological spectrum -- is the exclusive determinant for what is "sane."

While all of that is happening, those whom all Serious, Sane people agree are Crazy -- people like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul and Alan Grayson -- vehemently oppose most if not all of that and try to find ways to expand the realm of legitimate debate and political alliances beyond the suffocating stranglehold of those responsible. So who exactly is Crazy?

You can read more by Greenwald on this topic.

The media is at its worst when it is implicated in wrongdoing. Then it closes ranks and stonewalls in exactly the same way that the government or businesses do. A classic case is when it was revealed that the so-called 'military analysts' who gave supposedly 'objective' views on the Iraq war were actually being briefed by the Pentagon and paid for promoting a particular view. The news networks knew this and did not reveal the information to their viewers. Even after their lack of forthrightness was revealed, the media did not cover it.

The US is governed by a corrupt and incestuous business (mostly finance sector)-politicians-media oligarchy that is slowly but surely diving the country into the ditch because of its relentless pursuit of private wealth at the expense of the public good. The only silver lining is that all oligarchs are inherently unstable and eventually collapse under the weight of their own greed, as the groups and individual members within it start attacking each other once the public treasury has been thoroughly looted. But while that is going on the general public will suffer.

October 06, 2010

The establishment media

One of the big propaganda successes of the right wing conservative movement in the US has been the portrayal of the mainstream media as 'liberal'. They have become so good at driving home this message that the media goes out of its way to have conservatives and extreme right wing people over-represented in its ranks. It seems like there is nothing that a right wing crank (like Erick Erickson, Marty Peretz, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, or Glenn Beck) can say that will prevent him or her from securing a perch in the media, while those who lack that protective barrier (like Helen Thomas or Octavia Nasr or David Weigel or Rick Sanchez) can get fired. People who are not right wing usually have to prove themselves to be 'safe' voices (i.e., not say anything remotely insightful, let alone controversial) to get even a toehold.

But whether you are right wing or not, what you have to be is pro-establishment, which means that you never, ever, point out that the US is a one-party state run by an oligarchy.

Edward Herman, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, an astute media analyst, and co-author with Noam Chomsky of the classic work Manufacturing Consent on how the US media functions writes:

The veteran [New York] Times reporter John Hess has said that in all 24 years of his service at the paper he "never saw a foreign intervention that the Times did not support, never saw a fare increase or a rent increase or a utility rate increase that it did not endorse, never saw it take the side of labor in a strike or lockout, or advocate a raise for underpaid workers. And don't let me get started on universal health care and Social Security. So why do people think the Times is liberal?" The paper is an establishment institution and serves establishment ends. As Times historian Harrison Salisbury said about former executive editor Max Frankel, "The last thing that would have entered his mind would be to hassle the American Establishment, of which he was so proud to be a part."

An example of this was recently revealed in a study of the use of the word 'torture'. The New York Times used to routinely used the word to describe acts that we normally think of as deserving of that label (such as waterboarding) and abruptly stopped doing so when the US government simply asserted that those same acts when done by them were not torture. The justifications given by the paper for these reversions were comical and Glenn Greenwald skewers them (see here and here).

This is not a uniquely US phenomenon. John Pilger describes the same process at work in England in which the BBC politely describes the bloody invasion of Iraq as merely a 'conflict'. He highlights a study by the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds on the reporting leading up to and during the invasion of Iraq that showed how biased it was towards British government propaganda.

This concluded that more than 80 per cent of the media unerringly followed "the government line" and less than 12 per cent challenged it. This unusual, and revealing, research is in the tradition of Daniel Hallin at the University of California, San Diego, whose pioneering work on the reporting of Vietnam, The Uncensored War, saw off the myth that the supposedly liberal American media had undermined the war effort.

This myth became the justification for the modern era of government "spin" and the "embedding" (control) of journalists. Devised by the Pentagon, it was enthusiastically adopted by the Blair government. What Hallin showed - and was pretty clear at the time in Vietnam, I must say - was that while "liberal" media organisations such as the New York Times and CBS Television were critical of the war's tactics and "mistakes", even exposing a few of its atrocities, they rarely challenged its proclaimed positive motives - precisely Hermiston's position on Iraq.

What is refreshing about the new British study is its understanding of the corporate media's belief in and protection of the benign reputation of western governments and their "positive motives" in Iraq, regardless of the demonstrable truth. (my italics)

The simplest way to understand how the commercial media operates is that it is meant to provide profits to the shareholders. The way it does that is by providing advertisers with an audience. But advertisers do not want just any old audience. The do not want the poor and others they consider riff-raff. They want affluent people who will buy their products. And that group tends to have establishment values. As soon as you limit your target demographic this way, that skews your coverage of news so that it will appeal to them.

POST SCRIPT: The power of the oligarchy

Once in a while the mask slips and people like Chris Hayes are able to tell it like it is.

September 27, 2010

How to write like a science journalist

Martin Robbins provides a handy template.

September 20, 2010

Hawaii Five-0

They are apparently making a new version of this hit TV show that ran from 1968 to 1980. I don't know if it will reprise the theme music from the original, which was one of the best ever.

Ah, nostalgia! Too bad that the increased demand for commercial time is squeezing out opening theme music.

September 19, 2010

An inside look at election coverage

Labor Day used to be the traditional kick off for political campaigns though we now live in nonstop, year-round campaign mode. But as we approach election day in November, we should steel ourselves for an even increased focus on the trivial and sensational.

If you want to better understand why election coverage is so vapid, see Michael Hastings's excellent GQ article Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter on his experience in the 2008 elections.

Hastings is the reporter whose story in Rolling Stone resulted in General Stanley McChrystal being fired from his job in charge of the war in Afghanistan. In 2007, he was assigned by Newsweek to cover the front runners in the 2008 election and although this was considered a plum high-profile assignment, his increasing disgust with the kind of access politics that was required resulted in him quitting midway through and moving to another beat.

September 08, 2010

An inside look at election coverage

Labor Day used to be the traditional kick off for political campaigns though we now live in nonstop, year-round campaign mode. But as we approach election day in November, we should steel ourselves for an even increased focus on the trivial and sensational. If you want to better understand why election coverage is so vapid, see Michael Hastings's excellent GQ article Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter on his experience in the 2008 elections. (Hastings is the reporter whose story in Rolling Stone resulted in General Stanley McChrystal being fired from his job in charge of the war in Afghanistan.) In 2007, Hastings was assigned by Newsweek to cover the front runners in the 2008 election and his increasing disgust with the kind of access politics that was required resulted in him quitting midway through and moving to another beat.

The attempt to counter WikiLeaks

In order to minimize the impact of the WikiLeaks expose, the government is trying to adopt a 'move along, nothing new to see here' message, hoping that the major media will drop the matter. But Nick Turse lists what he calls five 'jaw-dropping' stories to emerge from WikiLeaks release of documents that he says demand national media attention.

Scott Horton describes how what he calls the 'national-security state' is striking back at this latest threat to its information hegemony. Establishment journalists are tut-tutting about how WikiLeaks is being irresponsible by simply releasing secret documents without 'editing' them (which is just an euphemism for letting the governments decide what should be published) or 'providing context' (which means putting the government's spin on them).

As part of the anti-WikiLeaks propaganda effort, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claims that WikiLeaks may have "blood on its hands" because of the leaks. This is truly rich since it comes from someone whose forces have killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of innocent civilians in their invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maximillian Forte has a good analysis on the benefits of the WikiLeaks release as well as on some of the concerns. The most serious one that is being used to discredit WikiLeaks is the lack of redaction of the names of Afghan informants who may now face reprisals at the hands of the brutal Taliban. It is not clear if the sheer volume of documents overwhelmed the small WikiLeaks staff or they were just careless or whether it was deliberate. But it now turns out that WikiLeaks asked for help from the US government to provide reviewers to tell them what names should be redacted and they were rebuffed. WikiLeaks asked the New York Times reporter to act as an intermediary to convey this request and the reporter did so even as the paper condemned WikiLeaks for not doing the redacting. This is typical New York Times behavior, always seeking to ingratiate itself with the government by dutifully relaying their spin.

WikiLeaks has again offered the US government the opportunity to review the second set of documents before their release to enable them to identify the names of informants that should be redacted. It looks like the government has again chosen to refuse the offer. Thus the US government shares considerable responsibility for any danger that befalls their informants. As Glenn Greenwald says:

In the conflict between the U.S. Government and WikiLeaks, it is true that one of the parties seems steadfastly indifferent to the lives of Afghan civilians. Despite the very valid criticisms that more care should have been exercised before that first set of documents was released, the party most guilty of that indifference is not WikiLeaks.

For whatever reasons -- because it wanted WikiLeaks to release the documents with the names of Afghan sources to damage its credibility, because it was indifferent to the potential harm -- the Pentagon simply failed to pursue that option [of reviewing the documents and suggesting redactions], just as it is doing now with the next 15,000 documents. Are those the actions of officials with any genuine concern for the harm to Afghan civilians, other than to the extent it be can exploited to harm its arch-enemy, WikiLeaks?

It seems pretty clear that the US government is lying (as usual) in its efforts to discredit WikLeaks. But its long history of lying is so great that only the establishment US press takes it seriously or at least pretends to do so.

Will the effort to shut down WikiLeaks succeed? There is always the chance that it might, given the power and ruthlessness of the US government. But WikiLeaks is nothing if not resourceful. They have exploited sophisticated computer encryption technology to elude investigators. Assange has also now become now a columnist for a Swedish newspaper, thus giving him journalist status and enabling him to take advantage of the strong protections that country provides journalists.

But whatever happens to WikiLeaks, they have shown the world that there is another model of journalism that is far more powerful than what we have now, and that does not require journalists to ingratiate and debase themselves towards powerful figures. It is interesting that younger people (those under 50) are more likely to see the WikiLeaks disclosure as serving the public interest than those over 50. I am hopeful that young and idealistic aspiring journalists, people who really care about getting the truth out there, will find Assange and WikiLeaks and even Bradley Manning, with their vaguely outlaw personas, hacker histories, and nose-thumbing at those in power, to be far more romantic and appealing role models than the toadying, well-coiffed crop that follows the Watergate model and are the ones that now show up on TV and in government and military press briefing rooms and spout platitudes in support of the government.

If I was an idealistic young man starting out as a journalist, I know which model I would choose.

September 03, 2010

Wikileaks and the role of the messenger

Needless to say, the emergence of the WikiLeaks model is a danger to those who want to be able to control the message, lie to the public, and make sure that only viewpoints that have been filtered by 'respectable' people should be voiced in the marketplace. There are already signs that the leaks have led to a drop in support for the war in Afghanistan.

Hence there is now an organized campaign to shut down WikiLeaks and discredit it. It should thus not be surprising that the establishment media, upset by WikiLeaks exposing its complicity and undermining its gatekeeper role, is eagerly joining up with the Pentagon and the Obama administration in waging war on it.

As part of its war on WikiLeaks, it seems clear that the Obama administration is seeking to make Bradley Manning, the 22-year old soldier accused of leaking to WikiLeaks the Collateral Murder video, into a warning for other potential leakers and it will not matter if the government believes he is the leaker or not. Based on the allegation of a former hacker who claims that Manning told him he was the leaker, the US arrested Manning on May 26 and took him away to jail in Kuwait where he was kept incommunicado before being transferred recently to Quantico military prison in Virginia. He has been charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with, among other things, "communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source". Attempts to provide him with independent legal representation have been rebuffed by the Obama regime, which should be no surprise to readers of this blog where I have repeatedly described Obama's contempt for due process. Friends of Manning are trying to obtain due process for him.

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent summary of the curious features of the Manning case, the strange, publicity-seeking person Adrian Lamo who turned him in, and Lamo's journalist friend who broke the story. It should be borne in mind that no evidence has been presented for the common assumption that Manning had anything to do with the Afghan documents leak. He has only been charged in connection with the Collateral Murder video. Jeremy Scahill also writes that Manning's reported words to Lamo indicate that Manning strongly felt that this kind of information should be in the public domain. WikiLeaks provides leakers with the kind of outlet that whistleblowers need.

Meanwhile, there have been various rumors spread about Manning's personal life and motives, trying to portray him as someone who a disgruntled loner and about his sexual life and his mental state. All this by way of trying him in the media before he is even proven to have been the leaker.

We also have the strange on-again, off-again, and then on-again investigation of rape against WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange in Sweden. James Fallows at The Atlantic explores the arguments for and against the theory that Assange was set up, possibly by the CIA

I have no idea of the truth of these allegations which will presumably be investigated thoroughly according to Swedish law. If he is guilty of rape, then Assange should be punished because that is an awful crime. But the point of the Pentagon Papers/WikiLeaks model of journalism is that when you have the release of official documents, the identity and motives and character of both leaker and disseminator are independent of the issues raised by the leaked documents. This is unlike the Watergate anonymous source reporting where everything hinges on whether you can trust the reporter and source to be honest and truthful because you have no documentary record to fall back on.

Jeremy Scahill writes about the new things that the WikiLeaks release has revealed and how having concrete evidence changes the nature of the whole discussion from a fog in which some anonymous sources say one thing to a reporter only to be challenged by other anonymous sources, to actual facts.

Time managing editor Richard Stengel drew the contrast with WikiLeaks in an editor's letter accompanying the story, claiming that the WikiLeaks documents, unlike the Time article, fail to provide "insight into the way life is lived" in Afghanistan or to speak to "the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead." Actually, the documents do exactly that. WikiLeaks may not be a media outlet and Assange may not be a journalist, but why does it matter? The documents provide concrete evidence of widespread US killings of Afghan civilians and attempts to cover up killings, and they portray unaccountable Special Operations forces as roaming the country hunting people—literally. They describe incidents of mass outrage sparked by the killing of civilians and confirm that the United States is funding both sides of the war through bribes paid to the Taliban and other resistance forces.

Next: Other attempts to counter WikiLeaks.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the current political dynamic

This was from January of this year but is still accurate.

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September 02, 2010

WikiLeaks expands the Pentagon Papers model

WikiLeaks follows the basic idea of the admirable Pentagon Papers model of releasing official internal documents to the public, and thus undermining the corrupt and sycophantic Watergate model of journalism. But the internet has enabled WikiLeaks to add two important new wrinkles.

The first is that they do not need to find a news organization to agree to publish their material. They can put it on their own servers for the world to see.

The other new and extremely important wrinkle with WikiLeaks is that it is a loosely linked transnational organization made up of volunteers the world over that is not tied to any national interest and thus has much greater freedom to operate. The major media in any country is under pressure to show loyalty to their country, which means being subservient to their governments. WikiLeaks does not have any such constraints.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has dismissed the idea that he has an obligation to protect the interests of the US or any other state. He makes no secret of his own antiwar motivations, saying he "loved crushing bastards" and likes "stopping people who have created victims from creating any more."

"It is not our role to play sides for states. States have national security concerns, we do not have national security concerns," he said.

"You often hear ... that something may be a threat to U.S. national security," he went on.
"This must be shot down whenever this statement is made. A threat to U.S. national security? Is anyone serious? The security of the entire nation of the United States? It is ridiculous!"

He said he wasn't interested in the safety of states, only the safety of individual human beings.

"If we are talking a threat to individual soldiers ... or citizens of the United States, then that is potentially a genuine concern," he said.

He also scorns the mainstream media for pulling their punches, giving the government advance warning of what they intend to publish and withholding important information if the government requests them to do so. Can anyone doubt that the reason the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have managed to continue for so long at such a great cost in terms of lives and money without public outrage is because the coverage has been sanitized?

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has an excellent piece, with good links to source materials and analyses, on the first release by WikiLeaks of the documents on the war in Afghanistan. He points out that we are witnessing a major shift in news with the arrival of big name 'stateless' news organizations like WikiLeaks that are not beholden to any government and hence cannot be pressured or feel the need to self-censor in order to stay in the government's good graces. He adds that WikiLeaks has a shrewd understanding of how news is valued and used that knowledge to give three newspapers in three different countries exclusive looks at the documents three weeks in advance so that they could study them and prepare stories that were embargoed until Monday. This was done to ensure maximum exposure.

WikiLeaks definitely knows how to get publicity. It gives out what are effectively trailers for forthcoming releases, thus whetting the appetite of the public and the media. It has promised the release 'soon', any day now, of even more explosive documents and this is undoubtedly causing some concern to the government about what those documents contain.

In trying to combat WikiLeaks, the Obama administration has been trying to maintain two contradictory positions. On the one hand, it claims that there is nothing new in the dossier and that 'everyone' (by which they mean 'everyone who matters', i.e., the Villagers) already knew it. On the other hand, it claims that WikiLeaks is threatening national security, and is using that charge to whip up public opposition to the organization and seeking to shut it down.

Daniel Ellsberg has for a long time been appealing to government employees to become whistle blowers and leakers. His own personal regret is that he waited too long to do what he did, and that if he had acted earlier, he might have saved a lot of lives. (I am looking forward to seeing the highly praised documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers which has been nominated for a 2010 Academy Award.) Just recently he listed four documents that he would like to see leaked.

In the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern writes a poignant personal account of how he, in the course of his normal duties, came into possession of secret cables that directly contradicted official US government statements on the strength of the Vietnamese forces. Revealing that secret might have shortened the Vietnam war and saved lives but he kept it secret out of a combination of concern for his career and a misplaced sense of loyalty to the government. He now deeply regrets his inaction and wonders if the equivalent of WikiLeaks had been around then, whether he and other professionals who were sick of hearing their government lying might have been more willing to release documents that told the truth.

The idea of obtaining and revealing official documents so that anyone has access to the raw data and engage in informed analysis is a radical break from current practice where the truth is closely guarded, only selected people are allowed to see and analyze raw information, and we are told to simply trust the analyses put out by the inner circle of establishment journalists who are given access to filtered information in return for favorable coverage. The WikiLeaks Afghanistan War Diary provides a rich trove of raw information for honest and independent analysts, the kind of people who would normally be shut out, and many have seized the opportunity. Phillipe Sands has a good analysis on what the revelations say about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. Eric Margolis, who has been trying to expose the lies and propaganda concerning the Afghanistan was since 2001 says that the dossier reveals the alleged duplicitous role that Pakistan is being blasted for in the US is merely the result of acting in its own self-interest. Surely this is information that the public has a right to know?

Next: The effort to counter WikiLeaks

POST SCRIPT: Mitchell and Webb on the greatest invention yet

September 01, 2010

WikiLeaks challenges the Watergate model of journalism

The Watergate model of journalism that I wrote about yesterday is one that depends upon high-level anonymous sources to provide information. But here the person providing the information usually has an agenda other than just truth or public interest, and is often seeking to drive the discussion in directions that serve either political or personal ends. There is also almost always a quid pro quo involved. The journalist provides anonymity and lack of accountability and makes the source look good in exchange for information. The problem is that there is no way for the public to judge for themselves the value of the information and has to trust the journalist and the anonymous source.

Unfortunately the glamorization of the Watergate story, fed by books and films starring major Hollywood actors, made the Woodward and Bernstein method the model for aspiring journalists. This has led to the current awful state in which journalists for major news media essentially spend their lives sucking up to those in power, cultivating high-level sources, hoping for a few crumbs to be tossed their way that they can breathlessly report as 'scoops', when what it mostly consists of is spin or gossip. We now have an epidemic of reporting that cites unnamed sources, leaving the reader at the mercy of the reporter's judgment as to the source's veracity and motives. The mainstream media has come to see itself as the gatekeeper and filterer of news. This reached its apex (or more appropriately the nadir) with the practice of embedding journalists with US troops during wars, a process that trades access to the front lines and to senior military personnel in return for muted or even fawning coverage and a sanitization of the horrors of war.

Reporters and their sources have taken this cozy mutual back-scratching relationship so much for granted that they react with shock when someone like Michael Hastings 'breaks the rules' and reports for Rolling Stone magazine what he actually sees and hears about what is going on in Afghanistan. Lara Logan of CBS News delivered a vitriolic attack on Hastings, implying that he was not worthy to even shine the shoes of her hero General Stanley McChrystal, and John Burns of the New York Times said that Hastings has 'spoiled ' things for other reporters because they had a sort of understanding with the people they cover that they would not report everything they saw or heard. As Burns said, "I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations." See also this article on media response to Hastings

These reactions reveal how immersed these reporters have become in this corrupt practice, that they see it as the new normal.

The emergence of WikiLeaks has given new hope that the current corrupt and sycophantic Watergate model of journalism can be changed and the Pentagon Papers model resurrected. WikiLeaks has been around for a while but it was the release of the Collateral Murder video that showed Iraqi people being gleefully gunned down by helicopter gunships that catapulted them into US consciousness. The subsequent release on Sunday, July 25, 2010 of tens of thousands of internal government documents about the actual state of the war in Afghanistan reveals, as the Guardian newspaper says, "civilian killings by coalition forces, secret efforts to eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, and discuss the involvement of Iran and Pakistan in supporting insurgents."

This release has further enhanced WikiLeaks reputation as a major player in international media. As WikiLeaks' Julian Assange says: "We publish raw materials without analysis or interpretation. Then it's up to journalists, researchers, and the public to review them", which is exactly the Pentagon Papers model. Whatever the motives of the people doing the leaking, releasing official documents allows everyone to judge for themselves what the government is doing in their name. When you have official documents, the identity of the person who leaked them is unimportant.

(You can see the War Diary on the WikiLeaks website. The London Guardian was one the three newspapers that were given prior access to the documents and its own analysis and follow up stories can be seen here and here. Justin Raimondo also provides further analysis.)

All this has cemented the view that Julian Assange and WikLeaks have become the go-to conduit for those mid- and low-level government employees who for whatever reason think that their government is misbehaving, because the potential recipients of the bygone era like the New York Times and the Washington Post are now seen as too solicitous of protecting government interests. If you release important information to those and other mainstream media, there is a good chance that they will share it first with the government and even suppress it if the government demands it. WikiLeaks will not.

Next: WikiLeaks goes even beyond the Pentagon Papers model.

POST SCRIPT: A new version of Time magazine aimed at grownups

The Onion News Network nails it again.


TIME Announces New Version Of Magazine Aimed At Adults

August 31, 2010

Competing journalistic models

The 1970s had two major events that had implications for journalism. One was the publication in June 1971 by the New York Times of a top secret history of the US military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967, now called the Pentagon Papers, that had been leaked to it by a then-unknown mid-level intelligence analyst named Daniel Ellsberg.

As Wikipedia says:

The papers revealed that the U.S. had deliberately expanded its war with bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by media in the US. The most damaging revelations in the papers revealed that four administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had misled the public regarding their intentions.

What was devastating about the Pentagon Papers was not that they revealed great secrets. After all, these 'secret' wars and bombings were not really secret at all. The people in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam knew they were being bombed and this news was well known around the world and even known among the elite circles in US government and the media. The only group for whom it was a secret was the American public.

Doonesbury had a series of cartoon strips ridiculing this state of affairs. Perhaps the one that most people who remember those times will recall immediately is the one in which Phred, a Vietnamese guerilla with the National Liberation Front, is searching for a famous museum in Cambodia and comes across an old couple standing amidst the ruins of a bombed out building. The old couple strongly resembles the pair in Grant Wood's American Gothic painting, except that they are wearing traditional Cambodian clothing. The strip has this sequence:

First panel
PHRED: The museum! What happened to it? It's… It's totally demolished!

Second panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I know, boy, I know! I was the curator.
PHRED: You wretched soul! Did this happen during the secret bombings?

Third panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: Secret bombings? Boy, there wasn't any secret about them! Everyone here knew! I did, and my wife, she knew, too! She was with me, and I remarked on them!

Last panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I said "Look, Martha, here come the bombs!"
OLD WOMAN: It's true, he did.

Ellsberg said he released the documents to expose unconstitutional behavior by a succession of governments of both parties in prosecuting a wrongful war. What shocked and angered the government about Ellsberg's action was not that this leak created any danger for anyone. After all, it was just a history whose timeline ended four years earlier. What caused the consternation was that this information was now in the public domain and people realized how much the government had been lying to it during the critical period when it was escalating the war.

The other major journalistic event of the 1970s was the expose by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the shenanigans of Richard Nixon's administration that eventually led to his resignation in 1973. They had access to a high level and anonymous source within the government nicknamed Deep Throat (revealed in 2004 to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt) whose information was helpful in guiding them in their investigations.

The Pentagon Papers and Watergate represent two very different models of journalism. The former model involves making public the actual documentary record of events, the internal reports and memos that the government produces so that the public could see for themselves (at least partially) what high level government officials saw and make their own judgments. Official government documents almost always have useful and reliable information, as legendary journalist I. F. Stone knew full well. He uncovered the truth about what was going on in the Korean War (revealed in his excellent 1952 book The Hidden History of the Korean War) by reading official documents and communiqués and not paying much attention to press briefings and the like where officials can say one thing one day and another the next, depending on what they want the public to believe.

Victor Navasky says that Stone,

although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

Internal memoranda and other documents are prepared by professionals and people on the ground who know what is actually going on and are obliged to tell it like it is to their superiors. They often have less of an ideological ax to grind or turf battles to fight and in fact are often idealistic people who actually care about truth and honesty in public life. But their reports are often distorted or suppressed by high-level political appointees pursuing a political agenda and the professionals are aghast and outraged by the discrepancy between what they know to be true and what is told to the public. Some of them, like Daniel Ellsberg, are pushed over the edge and become willing to become whistleblowers at great risk to their careers and provide information to journalists without expecting anything in return, except to get the truth out to the public.

Next: The rise of the Watergate model of journalism and the challenge of WikiLeaks

POST SCRIPT: Elizabeth Warren for Sheriff!

It looks like Elizabeth Warren is getting quite a posse in support of her being named as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

July 06, 2010

Anonymity, pseudonymity, and sockpuppetry

The recent article I wrote in The Chronicle Of Higher Education titled The New War Between Science and Religion generated a lot of interest. The editors told me that it was the most viewed, forwarded, and commented on article for some time. The article dealt with the current debate between the new/unapologetic atheists and the accommodationists, with me taking the former side.

There were also some responses on some blogs, including a critical one on a website called You're Not Helping. The site's anonymous author (I'll assume a man) said that he was an atheist and that the goal of his site was to critique fellow atheists whom he felt were harming the cause of atheism by poor arguments, tone, etc. That's fair enough. The internet is a fast-moving place and we could all use watchdogs to monitor what we say so that in our haste we do not say things that are not measured. The commenters here often point out when I am in error or go too far off the rails. The criticisms about me on YNH however, though strongly worded, seemed to me to be somewhat confused and so I did not respond, figuring that readers would figure out for themselves who was more credible.

It was with some surprise that I discovered recently that the site's author had pleaded guilty to the offense of 'sockpuppetry'. This is where one person assumes one or more aliases and then posts articles and comments on the web to support a single individual (usually the sockpuppet himself or herself) or to advance a specific agenda. The different names are used to give the impression that the opinions are widely held.

YNH's sockpuppetry came to light when he slipped up in various ways, such as by praising one sockpuppet's comments while signing with the same name, using similar verbal and punctuation tics for the different authors, etc. An alert website called The Buddha Is Not Serious (where do they get these names?) noted some of these quirks and investigated. When the evidence of YNH's sockpuppetry became too obvious to deny, the author gave a petulant apology and closed the site except to those who register, and then later shut down the site altogether.

In the course of reading about YNH's shenanigans, I discovered that rather than being a disinterested atheist trying to improve the quality of the debate, the site's author seems to have been a 'concern troll' (someone who acts like they are sympathetic to your side of an issue but are giving you advice that is really meant to undermine your position) whose main agenda seems to have been to attack a variety of new atheists. When commenters would try and defend them, the various sockpuppets would be brought in to gang up on them and intimidate them.

This started me thinking about this whole business of anonymity on the web. I am not anonymous. In fact, my name is part of the website's name, not because I am an egotistical maniac, but because when I started this blog, I did not have the imagination to think up a good name nor did I think it worthwhile making the effort to think up one for what I presumed would be a short-lived experiment. Now I am kind of stuck with the name, though I dislike it. When I visit other sites and post comments, I do so under my own name.

But I recognize that being public about my views is a luxury that not everyone can afford and other people being anonymous does not bother me in the least. I can well understand why some people would prefer (for family, social, professional, or even psychological reasons) to keep their true feelings about issues from being widely known. I would prefer that people use one pseudonym consistently (rather than no name at all or multiple names) so that others know they are dealing with a single person, but realize that doing so carries the risk that if you are a prodigious commenter or blogger that people who care enough may be able to piece together clues as to your identity.

What puzzles me is why anonymity seems to bother some people. I do not understand why people sometimes investigate to try and reveal the true identity of a pseudonymous blogger or commenter.

But while I can understand why some want to be anonymous, there are some things an anonymous person should not do, such as make personal attacks on people or spread rumors about them or bring their personal lives into the equation. Such actions are bad in general but doing so behind a shield of anonymity is cowardly and inexcusable.

What I find really pathetic, though, is sockpuppetry. How insecure must one be to create alter egos whose main function is to praise and support your ideas and denigrate those of your opponents? And yet there are cases of people whom you would not think needed to do so indulging in this kind of thing.

Another thing I found is that there seems to be a fairly common practice of site owners banning certain commenters whom they find obnoxious for whatever reason. I am not sure why this is necessary. If someone says something you don't like, why not just ignore them?

Reading through all this, it struck me how calm my own blog is, even though quite a lot of controversial topics are discussed, I often take a strong position on things, and the readership is quite large. Even though people have disagreed strongly with my views and those of other commenters, and some people have posted lengthy rants that have had only marginal relationships to the posting, there really has been no nastiness of any kind, even though anonymity is allowed. I have no idea if sockpuppetry is going on here and frankly don't really care enough to investigate. The thought of banning someone has never even crossed my mind and I do not even know how to do it, frankly. The only comments that I erase are ones that are obviously spam. If I find that a discussion in the comments has started getting repetitive and is not going anywhere, I just stop participating.

I hope it continues this way.

POST SCRIPT: Clint Webb for Senate

At last, an honest political ad.

June 28, 2010

What the McChrystal affair reveals about the media

One initial reaction of the mainstream media to the Rolling Stone article that got Stanley McChrystal fired as commander of US forces in Afghanistan seemed to be "Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone?" They couldn't understand why the person in charge of the war in Afghanistan gave so much access to what they saw as a hippy-dippy magazine that mainly covers rock music and popular culture. The issue with the McChrystal article had Lady Gaga on the cover and, as you can see, the article in question did not even get top billing, suggesting that the magazine itself did not realize what its impact would be.

lady gaga.jpgBut the journalist Michael Hastings is no hippie who had gone to Afghanistan mostly for the high-quality opium and talk to the US top brass in between puffs. He was correspondent for Newsweek in Afghanistan for two years before being transferred to cover the 2008 elections, is very familiar with the people there both among Afghans and the US, and even has a brother serving there now. Furthermore, Rolling Stone has had a long history of covering politics from unusual angles because they hire good reporters who seem to be given much more freedom and time to do their work in unorthodox ways. Hunter S. Thompson used to write for them and Matt Taibbi, one of the best current reporters around, works for them

A second reaction was much more revealing. The mainstream media couldn't understand why Hastings had burned all his bridges by publishing his article containing the explosive quotes by McChrystal and his macho 'Team America' denigrating the civilian leadership. By doing so, Hastings had ensured that he would not be granted future access to other important people and, even worse, may have ruined it for other 'respectable' reporters as well. Why, they wondered, had he not cleaned up his article by sanitizing it and making sure that they all looked good, the way that that nice reporter Bob Woodward does? That way he could ensure, like Woodward, that important people would be eager to talk to reporters, knowing that they would be well portrayed.

David Brooks, someone who, like Woodward, epitomizes the corrosive schmoozing culture of Washington and has also benefited by it, bemoans the effect that the Hastings article, which he dismisses as 'gotcha' journalism, will have on the friendly conversations that currently occur between reporters and the people who cover them. "Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain."

Brooks gets duly taken to the woodshed by his Nemesis, Matt Taibbi, who points out that the explosive quotes were embedded in an important story about the confusion within the administration over the policy to be pursued in Afghanistan. (See Stephen Walt's analysis of this angle.)

Of course Brooks himself almost certainly never even considered the newsworthiness of McChrystal's perhaps-unilateral expansion of the Afghan war; I doubt his thinking about this issue even went that far. I'm almost certain that to him this is a matter of decorum, that what he doesn't like about the Hastings article is that it violates what I'm sure are deeply-held ideas of how a reporter should behave toward a large strapping man with immense political power and a snappy uniform.

Hastings did the opposite of what Brooks would have done in the same situation -- instead of wetting himself in the presence of all those stars and epaulettes and spending long Saleri-esque nights dreaming up new descriptive bon mots for the General… Hastings did his job and let the public decide what sort of news, and on-the-record comments, it is and is not ready to handle.

The media insider flap over the Hastings article illustrates the important difference between beat reporters (assigned by major news outlets to cover on a daily basis a specific area, the White House, Pentagon, business, etc.) and one-off reporters working for magazines. Matt Taibbi reveals why beat reporters and their publications have become so vapid.

For quite a long time political journalism, particularly in Washington, has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability.

This symbiotic dynamic affects not just individual reporters but whole publications and news channels; it's a huge reason why reporters have in general resisted challenging political authorities. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets not only himself but his whole paper shut out of the access game. Since many recent politicians have made good on this implied threat (George Bush's shut-out of the Washington Post's White House reporters is a classic example), what we get is coverage that across the board fails to ask hard questions and in general treats leaders with a reverence they don't always deserve.

Or we get the other thing: partisan coverage in which the right-wing guys hammer the Democrats and the lefties hammer the Bushes and the Cheneys. That's a sort of Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact approach to the access question. You agree to forswear attacks on your own team, then you can get all the access you want from the guys in your locker room. A lot of outlets make this choice and that's why we get the impression that news coverage is negative, because there is in fact a lot of screaming and finger-pointing on the airwaves — but mostly that's partisan entertainment, not a healthy free press challenging authority.

Taibbi points out that it doesn't have to be that way as long as news organizations are willing to call the politicians' bluff.

I do think we'd all be better off if news organizations stopped choosing teams and worrying about access and started doing what Hastings did, which is risk the shut-out. It's hard to write something that you know is going to put you straight into Siberia with your sources five minutes after the piece comes out. I certainly don't do it very often. Most reporters don't. But if we all did this more often, what we'd find in the end is that politicians would come calling and offering access anyway. In the end, they really do need us as much as we need them.

Barrett Brown hopes that the Hastings article is a sign of the future.

[The article] was written by a perfect specimen of the new breed of journalist-commentator that will hopefully come to replace the old breed sooner rather than later, and which has already collectively surpassed the old guard by every measure that counts—for instance, not being forever wrong about matters of life and death.

McChrystal and Co. would have exhibited far better judgment had they looked into Hastings’s career and writings and come to the obvious conclusion that this sort of journalist has nothing to lose in reporting a series of demonstrable facts. Unlike many of this country’s most respected commentators, Hastings did not spend the better part of a decade repeating conventional wisdom about our allegedly unprecedented success in two wars that have already proven to be abject failures, and thus he has no reason to simply take the word of some or another confused presidential administration that everything is under control, or will be after some additional expenditure of blood and treasure.

You cannot be a good journalist if you are working as a beat reporter for any of the major news organizations. They are all, almost by definition, careerist hacks.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show's take on the flap

Of course, you knew that Jon Stewart would be all over the story.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
McChrystal's Balls - Honorable Discharge
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

February 16, 2010

Academic blogging

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

More and more academics are taking to blogging. Here is a sampling, in no particular order: Pharyngula (biology and science politics), Cosmic Variance (physics), Panda's Thumb (biology), Volokh Conspiracy (law), Cliopatria (history), Brad DeLong (economics), Informed Comment (Middle East politics), Geniocity (law), Current Epigraphy (classics). You can see a comprehensive list of academic blogs classified by subject matter here.

Some academics contribute to group blogs, thus relieving themselves of the pressure of being solely responsible for creating new content, while some are individual blogs. As a reader of many blogs, I can testify that they save me an enormous amount of time. Although I never watch TV 'news' shows (the ironic quotes because they have hardly any news), I have a good idea of when something truly newsworthy happens because blogs alert me. Furthermore, blogs provide me with immediate knowledgeable and specialized information on topics, written by people who care enough about the issue to take the time to study it in some depth and develop expertise in that area. This is different from most mass media journalists these days who, because of budgetary cutbacks, are forced to be generalists skipping from topic to topic and unable to devote a lot of time to detailed study of policies and issues. By harnessing the energy of engaged and informed volunteers, blogs also enable the kind of close reading of official texts that an older generation of journalists like I. F. Stone did with his newsletter.

One important function that academic blogs may play is as a trail of the evolution of ideas. In the old days, academics used to write letters to colleagues where new ideas were discussed and refined and these letters have been valuable for understanding how ideas evolved. With the advent of telephones, easier travel to conferences and meetings and email, written records of embryonic ideas are harder to obtain. Blogs may well be the source material for a future generation of scholars. have of blogs

Blogs also quickly focus attention on stories that the major media do not highlight (because it contradicts then ruling class narrative) or follow up or simply get wrong. The plans by the US to bomb the offices of the news organization al-Jazeera or the Downing street memos are good examples. Blogs can also immediately correct the record when there are attempts to mislead (example: NSA wiretapping, the war on Christmas,) and can clarify complicated issues like Valerie Plame, Abramoff scandal, NSA wiretapping, etc. Best of all, it enables more people to follow in the steps of I. F. Stone's Newsletter which at its peak had a weekly circulation was 70,000. Now dailyKos gets a daily hit count of many times that.

The reasons why anyone blogs is probably as varied as the number of bloggers itself but I would like to suggest some reasons why they do:

  1. The discipline of daily or otherwise regular writing helps to both stimulate thought and increase writing output.
  2. The internal dynamic of academia tends to push people into very narrow areas of specialization (i.e., they know more and more about less and less), and thus when it comes to their professional writing output, they tend to stick to their very narrow field of expertise. But most academics are also generalists, having wide interests and interesting opinions on a huge range of topics, which formerly had been restricted to personal conversations. Blogging provides an outlet for such people. I personally enjoy the freedom and opportunity to range far and wide on my blog.
  3. Blogging creates links with others and networks of new communities. Academic conferences serve that role too but are more expensive to attend and limited in the range of people one meets. Blogging can be seen as extensions of conferences.
  4. Writing a blog can be a means for testing out early versions of ideas.
  5. The feedback and comments feature often stimulates new ideas.
  6. It is much easier now to assume the role of a public intellectual. Before one had to publish a book or an article and that took time and there was no guarantee that it would be published at all or be widely read. Blogging has greatly lowered the barrier to becoming a public intellectual, more people are doing it, and the tide is shifting away from disapproval of such a role. Some, like political scientist Juan Cole and biologist P.Z. Myers, have become well-known to the public and the media purely as a result of their blogging.
  7. There is an increasing realization among academics that the general public has no idea what they do, why they do it, and what benefits they provide society. Scientists especially have been surprised at the rise of anti-science movements that oppose the teaching of the theory of evolution and advocate religious alternatives. Blogging is the most efficient way to increase public awareness of science by providing informed commentary on the new scientific advances that emerge each day.
  8. Some academics relish the exchange of ideas but are socially somewhat awkward and inept. It has been suggested that academia maybe has a higher fraction of people with Asperger's syndrome, people who are high functioning intellectuals but are very poor at picking up the everyday interpersonal cues that are so essential to being able to have cordial relations. Blogging enables such people to navigate that minefield better.

While more and more academics are taking to blogging, there are reasons why some are wary of joining the group.

  1. The early image of bloggers as no-life, under-employed losers, living in their parents' basement and merely venting, may cause academics to worry about how they might be perceived by their peers. This view is changing slowly. A colleague of mine used to blog under a pseudonym for fear that being known as a blogger would harm his chances of being taken seriously as a scholar and getting tenure and promoted. He now feels that there is enough acceptance of blogging to do so under his own name.
  2. Blogging takes time, which academics always complain that they have very little of.
  3. It requires you to write, which everyone including academics, hate to do, even though it is an important part of our work.
  4. It is not yet part of the traditional reward structure in academia.
  5. Academics who speak directly to the general public (for example, by writing popular books or magazine or newspaper articles) are often viewed by their peers as not being 'serious' or merely seeking fame. The more successful you are at doing this, and the more famous you become with the general public, the less seriously you might be taken by your peers.

But despite these disadvantages, I expect blogging to become even more popular among academics.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and the Promised Land

February 08, 2010

Media and Democracy: Hopes and Cautions

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

My fundamental interest politics is what it says about the state of democracy and not the fake politics that the media wants us to pay attention to. As should be obvious to any observer, political power in this country has been completely hijacked and now resides in the hands of the oligarchy consisting of big business interests, especially in the financial and military sectors, who determine the policies and control the elected leadership. The fundamental problem that we now face is how create an informed and active general public that will seize control of political life and decision-making in this country away from this oligarchy.

Enabling this subversion of democracy is a relatively small coterie of people, labeled the 'Villagers', consisting of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people informally arrive at a rough consensus of what news we should hear, what range of opinions are acceptable in public discourse, and who is 'worthy' of being elected to high office.

The Villagers may really believe that they are the 'voice of the people'. It is easy to delude yourself that it is so if everyone around you hails you as a sage, and the Villagers are unstinting in their praise of each other. It is also important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily discredited. The secret of the Villagers' success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles. People living in an echo chamber do not realize that the voices they hear are not that of the people at large but merely their own.

But there is hope. The anarchic nature of the internet threatens to undermine the power of the Villagers. There will still be a place for traditional, trained journalists who go out into the field and have the resources and some standing to find out answers to important questions on issues of concern to the public. But the more important development is that the mainstream media are rapidly losing their gate-keeping privilege when it comes to deciding what becomes news and what kind of analyses people can access. This is a very good thing, in my opinion.

The web now provides an easy access point to many people to become public intellectuals. In the past, this privilege was reserved for a few highly eminent people who achieved notable distinction in their fields (like Albert Einstein) or those who spent considerable time and effort to cultivate a public persona, by writing popular books and articles. Now almost anyone with something interesting to say has a platform with which to reach the whole world easily and, most importantly, cheaply. Over time they can build up a large audience. Some good examples are Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias, Markos Moulitsas, and Duncan Black.

I predict that one important component of the Villager network, the syndicated newspaper columnist will be extinct within a few years, and I will shed no tears. They are already rapidly becoming irrelevant as one can find far better analyses on the web than on the op-ed pages of your newspaper. I have stopped reading them because I simply cannot take anymore Maureen Dowd's speculations on the Clintons' marriage written in the tone of a high-school cheerleader, David Broder's drearily predictable conventional wisdom and calls for bipartism, David Brooks' absurd conceit that he knows what Americans want and think, Richard Cohen's smug self-assuredness even though he is almost always wrong, and Charles Krauthammer advocating torture and the killing of more Arabs and Muslims. Who needs that?

The other thing that has changed is the relationship of the journalist to their audience. No longer is the audience impotent at the choices that journalists make on what news to cover. Now journalists and the media get rapid feedback from informed critics.

We are fortunate to be living in time in which the web gives us the ability to create a combination of best of two worlds that existed in the past: the timeliness of the pamphleteering that existed at the time of the American revolution and which proved so valuable to revolutionaries like Tom Paine, and the relatively low cost of gaining access to a large audience that was the early days of radio.

Of course the Villagers would like to protect their role as gatekeepers and limit free and open discussion. The best way to do that is not to directly suppress alternative views but to make the cost of access so high that only the Villagers can pay the admission price, as was done in the past with newspapers and radio. It costs a huge amount now to start a newspaper or a radio and TV station. The latter two options, although they use the public airwaves, have been effectively given over to the multinational corporations, rather than to promote more media egalitarianism.

This is why net neutrality is such an important issue worth fighting to preserve. This is why free and easy community broadband access, of the kind promoted in the Cleveland area by Lev Gonick at Case Western Reserve University and OneCleveland, is so important to spread. If everyone has equal access to broadband access that is free (or at least at minimal cost), there is hope of wresting at least some of the power away from the oligarchy and salvaging democracy.

The danger is that the media monopolies will try to prevent both those things and will succeed unless we fight to preserve them.

POST SCRIPT: The TV 'news' formula

Have you noticed how the TV news segments have a certain similarity? Well, Charlie Brooker reveals the formula that they use. (Language advisory)

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

August 12, 2009

YouTube nostalgia: Barney Miller

I hardly ever watch TV anymore, mainly because I cannot stand the constant commercial interruptions. This used to bother me less in the past and I used to watch a lot more when I was in graduate school and have fond memories of many shows: comedies such as M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Soap, Newhart, Alice and dramas like Lou Grant and Trapper John

Recently I stumbled on another old favorite TV show on YouTube. Someone had posted clips of Barney Miller, and I have been enjoying them online. And the bonus is that there are no commercials, which more than compensates for the poor quality image.

Barney Miller was in many ways an unusual comedy that ran from 1975-1982 and although not a huge hit, it developed a loyal following. It was set in a police precinct in New York's Greenwich Village and featured the precinct captain Barney Miller and his team of around three or four detectives, and one uniformed officer constantly striving to be promoted to detective.

The show was different in that there was no glamour or action at all. Everything took place in the small and grungy squad room and the adjoining private office of Miller. All the main characters were male and there was little or no romantic or sexual comedy, although some of the characters had relationships that were occasionally referred to but remained off-camera. There was no slapstick or broad humor. It was all low-key. It also had an unusually long opening sequence before the credits kicked in.

In most comedies there are quirky characters with exaggerated and easily labeled characteristics (the dumb, the smart, the oblivious, the eccentric, the greedy, the ambitious, etc.), and the rest play the straight roles that the others get laughs off. But in Barney Miller none of the series regulars were particularly weird, although they each had distinctive personalities and were well-developed characters, and the interactions between them provided a lot of the humor. None of the characters had standard tics or mannerisms or tag lines. There were no obvious eccentrics (a la Kramer in Seinfeld) or doofuses (Joey or Phoebe in Friends) or exceptionally dim people (Coach or Woody in Cheers). In Barney Miller, all the regulars were normal and played, in effect, the straight part and were the foil for the oddball characters that wandered into the precinct room in each episode. These people were usually petty criminals, drunks, vagrants, neighborhood residents and shopkeepers, and so on, and how the detectives dealt with them provided the humor.

In many TV comedies, you get cued mirth (either in the form of a laugh track or a live audience) where there is uproarious laughter for even the lamest of jokes or when characters did some standard shtick they have done hundreds of times before. I find that really annoying. In Barney Miller, the show's writers did not insult the audience with exaggerated canned laughter. It was subdued and realistic, corresponding more closely to what was called for, sometimes just a chuckle.

Here is one episode, called "The Psychic", to get a taste of what the show is like.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Most sit-coms periodically fall victim to having a "special" episode where they get preachy about some issue and try to give a "message" full of "meaning", and in the process forget to be funny. Seinfeld was a notable exception. Barney Miller did not fully escape the temptation but when it did try to give a "message", it managed to do so briefly and with a light touch, as in this clip about bigotry.

July 15, 2009

A Friedman Prize?

As a childhood fan of the Peanuts comic strip, I enjoyed the running gag of Snoopy always beginning his novels with the line "It was a dark and stormy night." It was only much later that I learned that this was a actual opening sentence of an 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This overwrought style of writing with run-on sentences is considered so bad that it has become famous and is now the source of the annual Bulwer-Lytton prize, awarded each year by San Jose State University to the writer who can come up with the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. The 2009 prize was won by David McKenzie whose entry was:

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

It struck me that what we need is a Friedman Prize in honor of Tom Friedman, the world's worst pundit. What makes him so bad? Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally exposes not only the vapidity of his thinking but also the shallowness of his research.

This is Friedman's life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee's signs.

Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: "I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, 'We need better headlights for our tri-plane.'" And off he goes. You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don't notice that tri-planes don't have headlights.

Kevin Carey highlights one feature of the Friedman style, as seen above and identified by him in the beginning of a recent Friedman column:

I was at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, a few weeks ago and interviewed Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel, about how America should get out of its current economic crisis. His first proposal was this: Any American kid who wants to get a driver's license has to finish high school. No diploma — no license. Hey, why would we want to put a kid who can barely add, read or write behind the wheel of a car?

As Carey says, "Friedman may not have invented the place-drop/name-drop/facile idea three-step, but he's certainly perfected it." So that is one Friedman quality to be emulated by any prize-winning entrant.

Another is the laughably mangled image, as illustrated by Taibbi:

Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn't make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the "illustrative" figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman's take on Bush's Iraq policy? "It's OK to throw out your steering wheel," he wrote, "as long as you remember you're driving without one." Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman's analysis of America's foreign policy outlook last May:

"The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels."

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f--- is he talking about? If you're supposed to stop digging when you're in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense?

As Taibbi says in another article, these Friedmanisms are a feature of his writing, not aberrations:

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.

So there we have the guidelines for submissions for the Friedman prize. The entrant has to imagine that he or she is like this self-important pundit and write an opening paragraph for an op-ed on any topic.

Now if only we can get some organization to sponsor the contest and award the prize.

POST SCRIPT: Alternative medicine

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on homeopathy and all the other forms of alternative medicine.

April 30, 2009

Possible models for newspapers

As a result of the financial pressures that all papers face, my local newspaper, the Plain Dealer has adopted the cost-saving strategy of cutting back on national and international coverage and op-eds, focusing more on local news and sports. The paper is now a lot thinner with the sports section now the largest, and sports news often dominates even the front page.

Is this a bad thing? Some time ago I would have said yes, especially since I rarely read anything in the sports section beyond the first page. It would have signified the further dumbing down of news. But now I am not sure. The coverage of local news seems to have got better and more interesting, and many people do care passionately about sports and can't seem to get enough of it, so the paper is now perhaps finding a niche. The paper's regular stable of local and syndicated op-ed columnists is unbelievably vapid so the reduction assigned to them is not something I mourn. In fact, I hardly ever read them, unless they publish the occasional new voice.

But are these kinds of changes sufficient to save newspapers? If not, what can they do to survive?

It is almost certain that newspapers will be forced to go exclusively to the web. The hardcopy model is simply too wasteful of resources to justify continuing it, even if it were financially viable. In doing so, they will save a lot of money on the production costs of newsprint, ink, and gas and other distribution costs, although this will also result in many people losing their jobs.

But newspapers cannot simply transfer the existing paper into a web form. They will also have to make other drastic changes to survive. It seems likely that they will have to transform to a much leaner format, using reporters only for hard news, leaving the soft features to the many other outlets that cater to those needs. Newspapers will also have to develop news niches, rather than trying to provide something for every member of the family, from children to retirees.

Newspapers may depend more on free-lancers and 'citizen journalists', people who see their role as seeking and giving the news organizations information to work on. Maybe newspapers will also shift to a not-for-profit model like public radio and TV that manages to provide news of sufficient quality that people are willing to subscribe or donate money to keep it going. By not having to meet the insatiable demands for increased profits, they will be more able to maintain a state of equilibrium.

News gathering organizations can survive in an online journalism format. There are already some models in place, like the excellent Talking Points Memo and the not-so-good Politico. They do a mix of original news reporting along with analysis. TPM has also depended on citizen journalists, regular readers that it deploys to either read through large document releases for information or to get information scattered all over the country that it then pieces together to see patterns. The latter method was what enabled them to break the story about the politicization of the US Attorney's office by the Bush administration

But most online news organizations still depend for their raw material on traditional reporters doing traditional work for traditional organizations. If newspapers disappear altogether, where would we get the basic news? TV and radio may be able to partially fill that void, except that cable news has shown itself to be pathetic, devoting most of its time to pointless blathering, hyping, and scaremongering. But I do not think there is cause for panic. Wherever there is a need and a niche, people will fill it. When it comes to politics, there are enough people who care passionately enough about it that they will do the work that is necessary. In fact, we might actually get better reporting because only those who really care about getting at the truth will be willing to get into the news business, so will have real news reporters rather than the current glut of news personalities.

We will probably have fewer reporters covering formal staged events like press conferences, official trips by the president, etc. Those things rarely generate any actual news but they cost a lot in that they require reporters to just hang around and follow dignitaries on a permanent basis. Reporters might shift to doing things that are cheaper but more likely to produce real news, like carefully reading official reports and statements.

Newspaper reporters have a valuable role to play in a democracy. Trained investigative reporters who can get information, sift through it to get at the kernels of truth, and present that in an understandable form to the public are essential, though in practice their performance in the US has been pretty mediocre. I would prefer to see a system where reporters are able to do a better job than one in which they are eliminated. But the delivery method is not what is important. What is important is that whatever new model of journalism emerges, it breaks free of the current incestuous relationship between news organizations, politicians, and big business, each supporting the interests of the other, while the interests of the general public gets ignored.

The losers in this shift will be those people who do not have internet access, who will be totally dependent on TV and radio for their news.

POST SCRIPT: Alternative news sources

Once you shift to the internet for your news, it becomes imperative that people be able to descriminate between good sources and unreliable sources of news. Paul Craig Roberts gives some recommendations for diversifying your news sources that I largely agree with.

People who have access to television services that provide English language foreign broadcasts, such as Iran’s Press TV, Russia Today, or Al Jazeera, can get get [sic] news and insights from those parts of the world demonized by the US media. [You can get many world TV and radio news services for free by downloading Livestation.]

The BBC World Service still reports facts while covering itself by providing the views of the US, UK, and Israeli governments.

Both the Asia Times and Israeli newspapers, such as Haaretz can be read online in English. There are other such newspapers, and all of them provide information that Americans will never see in their own media. Any American newspaper that was as truthful about the Israeli government as Haaretz would be closed down.

The only US print source with which I am familiar in which some honest reporting can be found on a regular basis is the McClatchy papers.

Whatever model emerges, we all have to become more connoisseurs of a wide range of news and analysis, rather that depend on just one or two sources.

April 28, 2009

Newspapers in crisis

As someone who grew up in Sri Lanka, a country that has a strong newspaper-reading ethos, I feel a sense of regret at what seems to be an irreversible decline in the fortunes of daily newspapers. Growing up, my family subscribed to two morning newspapers and two evening newspapers each weekday, and three papers on Sundays, if you can imagine that. Wherever I have lived I have had a daily subscription to the local paper.

For almost all my life, I used to have a rigid routine in the mornings. I would start the day by getting a cup of coffer and reading the newspaper for national and world news. If for some reason the paper was not delivered, I felt disoriented without my fix of news the first thing in the morning.

But with the arrival of the internet it is usually the case that I already know what national and international news the paper is likely to contain. So lately my habits have shifted to reading the paper in the evening, more as a form of relaxation, and to get mostly local news and the comics. There is no urgency anymore to read the paper as soon as it comes. My attitude to it is more like towards a magazine. In fact, I could probably do quite well without the paper, and I continue to subscribe more out of habit and a vague sense of loyalty to preserve what I used to consider a valuable institution.

The next generation clearly does not have the same habits as I have, for the same reasons that caused me to change my own habit. Neither of my daughters subscribes to their local newspapers although they both live in cities (San Francisco and Philadelphia) that have large metropolitan dailies. They, like their peers, are getting their news from the internet and do not have the sense that if they do not read the daily paper that they are missing important information. Because they are so networked with others, their attitude seems to be that if the news is important enough, it will find them without them having to seek it out. This attitude is a nightmare for newspaper publishers. Editor & Publisher published data yesterday that average daily circulation had dropped severely in the last six months for the top 25 newspapers, except for the Wall Street Journal, which was flat.

This is largely the reason that newspapers are in trouble. Hardly a day passes without a story about some newspaper somewhere in the nation going into bankruptcy or making cutbacks in reporting staff or reducing the number of pages or the number of days they publish. It seems fairly clear that newspapers are finding it difficult to survive, though in some cases this is due not so much to decline in readership as to bad financial decisions or bad management or just the unrealistic profit expectations of their stockholders.

While I used to think that continuing to subscribe to the daily paper was a worthy attempt on my part to preserve an important institution, I became aware of the generational shift in attitudes when my daughter came home for a few days and she noticed me reading the paper. She said, "So, you still support the killing of trees, I see." I had not thought of it like that, but she had a point. In many ways, publishing a newspaper, with its vast daily consumption of paper and ink and gas for transportation, to produce something that is then immediately thrown away, is a huge waste in resources, something that the next generation is more keenly conscious of.

Going completely online would be the environmentally friendly thing to do. On the surface, it might seem that simply putting the paper on the web and charging a subscription might work. But the revenue models are not there yet to support such change. Only part of a newspapers' revenue comes from subscriptions. Newspapers depend heavily on advertising and a big problem for the newspaper is the decline in classified advertising due to people shifting to free outlets on the internet like Craigslist for that purpose. The internet is the perfect vehicle for classified advertising because it strength lies in its ability to link people up with like minded people, buyers with sellers, employers with employees. Newspapers will never regain classified advertising.

Furthermore, people are used to getting information free on the web and are unlikely to pay much for web subscriptions to newspapers. I pay $250 for daily delivery of my paper and definitely would not pay that for online access to the same material. But that does not mean people are not willing to pay for content. For example, I am willing to donate money to websites like Antiwar.com and to my local NPR stations because they provide good quality information. I am also willing to pay subscriptions to get online newsletters. But in each case, it is because these sources provide information that I cannot easily get elsewhere and would be sorry to see disappear. I do not feel that same strong sense of affiliation with my local newspaper. If it went completely online but otherwise remained unchanged, I would likely stop reading it and probably would not subscribe.

Those newspapers that have experimented with charging for online content (like the New York Times putting its columnists behind a pay wall called Times Select) found their readership declining and gave up the practice. I could have predicted that. As I have said before, the old-style columnists are mostly useless and the only reason people read them is because they come bundled up with the rest of the paper. Did the publishers think that many people would actually pay to read the fatuous musings of Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd?

Next: Possible models for newspapers

POST SCRIPT: Comics on the plight of newspapers

The comic strips Pearls before swine and Non sequitur highlight the problems with having both print and online versions, with the latter being free.

March 16, 2009

Jon Stewart takes on Jim Cramer, CNBC, and the financial news industry

Most people would have heard by now of the Daily Show-Jim Cramer face-off, but I want to comment on it anyway.

It all started when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli tried to fan outrage against Obama's plan to rescue some homeowners from their current situation. Santelli went on the floor of the stock exchange and riled up the traders there by implying that their money was being used to bail out reckless homebuyers.

Stewart made fun of this cheap populism by running clip after clip of CNBC reporters touting the virtues of one company after another just before those companies went belly up. Several of those clips featured Jim Cramer, who has a daily show on the CNBC network.

In response, Cramer than went on a series of shows on CNBC and their affiliates MSNBC and NBC where the friendly hosts gave him a chance to dismiss Stewart's criticisms as those of an ignorant comedian who did not understand the complexities of the market and whose whole shtick was to run clips out of context and make faces.

When Santelli backed out of a promise to appear on his show, Stewart then invited Cramer to debate the issue. The result last Thursday was a humiliating experience for Cramer, who had no answer as Stewart grilled him like a prosecutor, showing clip after clip exposing the way that Cramer and his fellow financial reporters essentially knew all the time exactly all the financial games that were being played with ordinary people's money, while they now try to act like innocents taken by surprise at the collapse of that shell game. It seemed to me like at some moments Cramer was about to burst into tears.

In the process, it became clear that Stewart understood perfectly well how the markets operated and the complicity of the media in hiding the impending collapse. As I watched the three-parts of the unedited interview, two things struck me.

One was that this was another example of the problem of access journalism. All these financial reporters desperately want high-profile people like CEOs of the big companies to come on their shows. They think that being a good reporter is getting access to people, with exclusive interviews or off-the-record briefings, instead of doing the hard work of reading financial reports and analyzing the data. This means that they simply let their interviewees say whatever they want and relay it to the public. They never call them out if they lie, because if they did that then those people and their friends would never talk to them again. In fact, our mainstream media news reporters actually recoil from the very idea that they should point out when the people they interview lie to them and the public. So these shows have become merely vehicles for pure propaganda put out by business and political leaders.

The second issue is related to the first. Stewart asks Cramer the important question, which was not answered, as to which group these shows are supposed to serve, the public or business. The shows advertise themselves as serving viewers, trying to give them the information to invest wisely. But Stewart questions that, saying that the shows are really serving the interests of the companies they talk about, by helping them market themselves as being better than they are.

Although we are asked to think of the news as the 'product' and the viewers/listeners as the targeted audience that this product is delivered to, that is not the case. The workings of the current media system makes much more sense if we realize that we, the viewers/listeners, are the product that is delivered to the real audience, the corporate underwriters of these shows. The 'news' is simply the lure to hook us, which is why the line between news and entertainment has become so blurry. The goal of TV news shows is not to create an informed public, it is to deliver a specific demographic to their corporate sponsors.

Here are the three parts of the Stewart –Cramer exchange, all of which are well worth watching.

Part 1



Part 2

Part 3

The kind of sharp questioning that Cramer could not deal with is not because Stewart is smarter but because he does his homework and, more importantly, does not need access to famous people to do his stuff. This is why he can say what he really thinks and ask these kinds of questions. It does not matter to him if Cramer never appears on his show again or if Rick Santelli chickens out and backs out of appearing because of the sharp questioning he will receive. The Daily Show does not need them because they use publicly available material for their humor.

But the so-called 'real' news people not only desperately want to interview famous people, one gets the nauseating sense that they want to be thought of as their friends, and that they would be thrilled to be asked to play golf with them and invited to their country clubs or fly with them on their private jets. That is the basic problem. One sees this instinctive mentality with Cramer as he tries to ingratiate himself to Stewart.

True reporters like the legendary I. F. Stone studiously avoided any personal contact with the people they were covering because this gave them total freedom to call it like they saw it, irrespective of whether it offended them. This independence gave them more power as reporters, not less.

The other lesson to be taken from the Stewart-CNBC episode is that one should not mess with Jon Stewart. Because, like I. F. Stone, he does not need your approval to do his work, he can hit you hard.

POST SCRIPT: Self-parody

The Daily Show introduction to the Cramer interview pokes fun at the controversy itself.


March 10, 2009

The power of the internet

The internet has had one major positive effect and that is that it has reduced the power of the establishment media to control the public discourse. It used to be the case that once you had achieved a position of authority in the media, you could say pretty much what you wanted and, as long as it conformed to the desired narrative of the pro-war/pro-business one party system, you could not be challenged. This enabled the discussion on important topics to be limited to within a very narrow spectrum of views, so that whatever view prevailed within that spectrum, the underlying status quo remained untouched.

It used to be the case that those informed people who read something in the paper or heard on the news that they knew was wrong had very few options, other than (say) writing a letter to the editor, which the paper had the option of refusing and which had only a marginal effect anyway.

Take for example this anecdote from Noam Chomsky's book Understanding Power (2002) about a column George Will wrote in 1982 (thanks to Jonathan Schwarz).

[A] few years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek called "Mideast Truth and Falsehood," about how peace activists are lying about the Middle East, everything they say is a lie. And in the article, there was one statement that had a vague relation to fact: he said that Sadat had refused to deal with Israel until 1977. So I wrote them a letter, the kind of letter you write to Newsweek—you know, four lines—in which I said, "Will has one statement of fact, it's false; Sadat made a peace offer in 1971, and Israel and the United States turned it down." Well, a couple days later I got a call from a research editor who checks facts for the Newsweek "Letters" column. She said: "We're kind of interested in your letter, where did you get those facts?" So I told her, "Well, they're published in Newsweek, on February 8, 1971"—which is true, because it was a big proposal, it just happened to go down the memory hole in the United States because it was the wrong story. So she looked it up and called me back, and said, "Yeah, you're right, we found it there; okay, we'll run your letter." An hour later she called again and said, "Gee, I'm sorry, but we can't run the letter." I said, "What's the problem?" She said, "Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he's having a tantrum; they decided they can't run it." Well, okay.

Mind you, in 1982, Chomsky was already a very eminent and well-known figure, both as a linguist and political analyst who was, outside the United States, one of the most famous and admired intellectuals. It will probably surprise many Americans that in the rest of the world Noam Chomsky is a household name in intellectual circles whose writings are regularly published in mainstream newspapers and magazines. And yet even that was not enough clout to enable him correct a direct falsehood by Will. That was the end of that.

Now fast-forward to 2009. Zachary Roth at Talking Points Memo tells the story in which the still-deceptive Will writes a column on February 15 in which he denies global warming, and as evidence says "According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

The Arctic Climate Research Center immediately issued a contradiction on its website, saying:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

This denial was picked up by bloggers who gave the ACRC statement wide publicity. Many bloggers wrote to the editor of the WP asking for a retraction. Will and the editor of the WP editorial page, the awful Fred Hiatt, went into their traditional mode of operation when their narrative is contradicted, which is to either stonewall and ignore the critics, or stick to their guns and act as if they are immune from error and that no one should dare challenge their oracular wisdom. After all, that policy worked so well back in 1982 when even the efforts of people like Chomsky to point out their errors could be thwarted.

But the world has changed. The blogs kept hammering at the story, and the WP and Will got blasted with thousands of people writing to the paper and their website and to their new ombudsman demanding that the paper issue a correction. The paper's ombudsman Andrew Alexander initially replied saying that he had questioned the editorial page editors about this and they had said they had checked the facts in Will's column and were satisfied that they were valid. But this bland self-serving assertion drew an even greater negative response.

The ombudsman then investigated the matter personally and wrote a column on March 1, 2009 in which he tried to find reasons to excuse their famous columnist but had to conclude that Will and the WP editors had at best been very sloppy in their checking of the facts. He said, "Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them."

Will this new experience of prompt and widespread public reaction make people like Will more cautious about making ungrounded assertions? Unlikely. People like Will have got so used to being venerated as sages that he will find it hard to change his attitude that what he says cannot be challenged. But the editors who are responsible for vetting his writings might now exercise more diligence and that is a good thing.

Welcome to the world of the internet, George Will and Fred Hiatt. You cannot get away with distortions that easily anymore.

POST SCRIPT: Great card trick by Ricky Jay

I love magic tricks. They are the best evidence against the claims of charlatans who say they have paranormal powers. (Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)


January 29, 2009

Why journalists should not schmooze with politicians

A week before his inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of conservative columnist George Will (aka "the man who confuses pomposity with profundity"). Also in attendance were conservative and neo-conservative columnists Bill Kristol (aka, "the man who is almost always wrong"), David Brooks (aka, "the man who can be depended upon to say the most obvious things in the most banal way"), and Charles Krauthammer (aka, "the man who loves torture").

This caused a stir in the pundit world. A few liberals worried whether Obama would be swayed by this group and abandon his policies and suddenly declare that more tax cuts for the rich, more torture, and more wars was the way to go. Conservatives worried that 'their' pundits would be charmed and won over by Obama and put away their knives and become lapdogs.

The very next day, Obama put these alarmed pundits mind at ease by meeting with a group of supposedly 'liberal' columnists (Andrew Sullivan, Roland Martin, Rachel Maddow, the Gene Robinson, the Boston Globe's Derrick Z. Jackson, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Jerry Seib, Ron Brownstein, DeWayne Wickham and E.J. Dionne Jr.)

So in the world of politicians and elite media, everything was ok. That desirable quality of 'balance' had been restored. Rarely did you find the sentiment expressed that both events should never have happened.

I find the whole idea of journalists schmoozing with politicians distasteful. I don't blame Obama or other politicians for doing it. Shrewd politicians love to cultivate social interactions with journalists because they know that they can use that access to reward and punish journalists and thus control them. John McCain was very good at this, even calling the media 'his base', and used them to advance his career before the relationship turned sour towards the end of his last campaign.

The people I fault are the journalists. They have no business having off-the-record, friendly, social meetings with the politicians they are supposed to be covering. The ideological labels attached to the participants are irrelevant. Journalists and politicians should never be friends.

I. F. Stone, one of the greatest journalists America has produced, refused to meet socially with politicians for very good reasons. This is what Stone said:

It's just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, 'Izzy, why don't you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.' Well, you know, you're not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won't pay any attention to you anyway. He'll hold your hand, he'll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you're brighter than anybody else is -- or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they've got you!

Victor Navasky writes of Stone that "although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world." How? Because as Stone said, "if you didn't attend background briefings you weren't bound by the ground rules; you could debrief correspondents who did, check out what they had been told, and as often as not reveal the lies for what they were."

Contrast Stone's attitude with that of the late Tim Russert, a truly awful journalist, who said at the trial of Scooter Libby, "When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission." As Dan Froomkin points out:

According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That's not reporting, that's enabling.

That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.

Glenn Greenwald describes how Richard Cohen excuses the actions of those politicians whom he considers friends, and adds:

Reflecting the vast diversity of our national media, Richard Cohen now joins fellow Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus, David Ignatius, David Broder and Fred Hiatt -- as well as virtually every other Beltway journalist -- in demanding that Bush officials not be prosecuted even if they committed felonies.

Why? Because they are all friends, the politicians, the journalists, and the powerful business interests, and they look out for each other.

Stone's journalistic credo was summed up this way:

To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.

It is hard to fight for those things if you socially hobnob with those who commit the very injustices you are against.

This is why journalists should refuse all invitations to socialize with politicians.

POST SCRIPT: Asian stereotypes

The Daily Show takes the opportunity of the rumor that the awful Sajay Gandhi Sanjay Gupta (Thanks to Kural for the correction) may be appointed Surgeon General by Obama to let Asif Mandvi do a hilarious riff on Asian-American ambitions.


January 26, 2009

Why bloggers are more interesting than newspaper columnists

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog and as is my custom I want to reflect on the nature of blogging and, briefly, my own blog.

When I began, I never thought that I would write so much. I have written over a thousand posts and a million words. I also did not anticipate the form that it would eventually take, which was a cross between op-ed type essays and long form articles that I broke up into multi-part series with each episode an op-ed sized chunk. One such series of posts formed the basis of a book The Case of God v. Darwin: Evolution, Religion, and the Establishment Clause that will be published later this year and some others will form the basis of future books and articles.

But enough about me. I want to talk more about blogging and bloggers in general and their influence on the national political scene. There is no question that they are here to stay and are going to play increasingly important roles.

About three years ago I was on a local PBS TV talk show called Feagler and Friends, along with the then editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The topic was the role of blogs and the future of newspapers. I predicted on the show that while there would always be a need for old-fashioned reporters and reporting, newspaper columnists like Dick Feagler himself were an endangered species because there was absolutely nothing that they offered that was not available, in superior form, on blogs.

I think it is already apparent that that prediction is coming true. Bloggers provide far more varied, interesting, and incisive commentary than traditional media columnists.

It is not hard to understand why. Newspaper columnists are usually former reporters who are 'rewarded' for their long service by being given regular space on the editorial pages. They are people who have 'paid their dues' to the industry. But paying their dues means more than merely learning their craft. It also means that they have internalized the one party pro-war/pro-business mindset that characterizes the mainstream media. They have either learned to think within the narrow spectrum of respectable opinion that requires not questioning that basic assumption or they have left the business. But bloggers are freed from going through that filtering system.

Take for example, Glenn Greenwald's take on how the Democratic leadership colluded with the administration to approve the warrantless wiretap program. The kind of analysis he makes and the conclusions he draws is not the kind that would be commonly found amongst the standard columnists because they have internalized the need to maintain a façade of fierce partisanship between the two parties, and the thought that they collude to deceive the public would not even occur to them or if it does they would keep silent. Greenwald would never have risen through the ranks of newspapers with his willingness to express such views.

This is why there is such dreary uniformity in the ranks of newspaper columnists, with hardly any original thinking or sharp critiques. This is why we have the dreary predictability and pablum put out by people like George Will, David Broder, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, etc. What protects them is that nobody buys those newspapers just for the opinion columnists. They are packaged together with news, sports, and entertainment, and hence these writers have an audience delivered to them.

But bloggers are not packaged together with other material. They have to find their own audience. And because they stand alone, people will only read them if they are saying interesting things in an interesting way. It takes a certain kind of brashness to start out on your own, relying purely on your own ability to garner an audience one reader at a time. Since there is no percentage in repeating the same ideas that can be found elsewhere, bloggers tend to develop specialized niches where they can provide quick, informed, incisive commentary. And sometimes they become so good at it, and draw such a large readership that they get hired as columnists for bigger operations, like Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Steve Benen at Atlantic Monthly, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, etc.

But the free-wheeling, shoot-from-the-hip style of bloggers can sometimes clash with the buttoned-down ethos of traditional media. Some of the people in the bigger operations that have blogs do not quite understand this new form of commentary or the benefit that accrues from giving bloggers their full freedom to say what they think. When they try to apply some 'editorial oversight', they receive feedback that can only be described as brutal. This is what happened recently when some muckymuck at ThinkProgress, concerned about criticisms that their resident blogger Matt Yglesias had made about a group they were affiliated with, tried to soften Yglesias's message by preempting space on his own blog. Read the comments made to the intruder's post. A kind of bond develops between a blogger and his or her readership and woe on anyone who tries to get in between.

Most of the blogs I read are written by people much younger than me, some young enough that I could be their father. They write with an energy and attitude that is refreshing because it has not been beaten out of them. They have not been filtered out in the way reporters are filtered before they can rise to be columnists. Sure they sometimes use profanity. They are also sometimes wrong, of course, and their readers are quick to correct them.

But compare the errors of the better blogs with some of the columnists and you will see why those bloggers are better. I have never seen anyone as consistently wrong as Bill Kristol who has a regular column at the New York Times, and yet he continues blithely along. [UPDATE: The paper announces that today's (as usual) inane column will be Kristol's last.] Roger Cohen and Maureen Dowd have to be two of the most inane commentators, and yet they too are fixtures. They would never last as bloggers.

But the king of mindless punditry is, of course, Tom Friedman. I must admit that I am completely baffled by the admiration that many people I know, so-called 'liberals', have for Friedman. I recall a faculty member who deplored the lack of awareness of current students, using as an argument that many of them did not even read Tom Friedman's columns. He was startled when I said that I thought Friedman was a high-functioning idiot and that our students were showing admirable good sense in steering clear of him.

Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally dissects Friedman, exposing not only the vapidity of his thinking and the shallowness of his research ("This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs."), but also his appalling writing style.

I've been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn't make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the "illustrative" figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman's take on Bush's Iraq policy? "It's OK to throw out your steering wheel," he wrote, "as long as you remember you're driving without one." Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman's analysis of America's foreign policy outlook last May:

The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels."

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f--- is he talking about? If you're supposed to stop digging when you're in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It's stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.

The last election saw bloggers provide most of the analysis and commentary and drive a lot of news stories. After initially sneering at bloggers as ignorant and profane shouters who should be ignored, every mainstream media outlet now has its own blogs although, oddly, the sneering can still be heard.

Steve Benen argues that although the 'conservative' wing of the one-party political spectrum has a lot of well-funded outlets, they do not seem to have the people with the skills to be interesting bloggers which is why the 'liberal' end of the spectrum is largely dominating the blogosphere.

POST SCRIPT: Jason Jones goes to pundit school

The Daily Show explains why TV talk shows are the way they are.


January 16, 2009

Journalistic courage

(On January 8, 2009 Lasantha Wickramatunga, the outspoken editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Leader was brutally murdered on his way to work in the heart of the capital city Colombo. It was the work of a so-called 'death squad', those shadowy armed and violent groups that act with impunity in many countries.

Anyone who follows these things closely knows that the reason such 'death squads' can act so brazenly and are almost never captured and tried is because they are almost always a paramilitary arm of the government itself, often consisting of security forces out of uniform, and thus enjoy immunity. Their role is to intimidate and terrorize and eliminate all those whom the government dislikes. See this report on the murder and the events leading up to it to see how these death squads operate in Sri Lanka, but it is similar in many countries.

Wickramatunga knew that he was incurring the enmity of the government and that as a consequence his life was in danger. So he wrote an editorial before his death that was to be published in the event of his murder explaining why he was taking the risk of speaking out. It appeared on January 11, 2009. I am reproducing it in its entirety because it is an eloquent testimony to what true journalism is, and it also provides a window into the thinking and motivation of an extraordinarily courageous person.

His article shames us all about our own timidity to speak the truth, even though the risks we run are trivial in comparison to those he faced. It should especially shame our Washington beltway journalists, for whom the mere threat of not being invited to cocktail parties is enough to keep them from reporting anything even mildly embarrassing to the members of the pro-war, pro-business one party elite.

Explanatory notes: The 'Mahinda' he refers to is the president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse, who is also the leader of the current governing party, the SLFP. The main opposition party is the UNP. LTTE refers to the Tamil Tigers, an ethnic group that has been fighting with successive governments for a separate state for nearly three decades.)

And Then They Came For Me
Lasantha Wickramatunga

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader's 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning.

Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... Well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let's face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka's ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that - pray excuse cricketing argot - there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposes we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President's House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I - and my family - have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am - and have always been - ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be - and will be - killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niemoller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

December 19, 2008

Beware of the 'tortured liberal'

The reason I usually disdain labels like liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican that are bestowed on people by the media is that their main purpose is to establish the author's bona fides with specific segments of the population as a means of influencing them on what to think about a particular issue. For example, many people who consider themselves liberals take their cues from what prominently labeled 'liberals' say. So if you can get a 'liberal' spokesperson to advocate a policy, many liberals will take it seriously even if the policy is antithetical to their values. This was on prominent display during the lead up to the Iraq war, when many so-called media liberals were swept along by the hysteria of that time.

Media analyst Edward Herman writing in 2002 astutely identifies the value of people like the allegedly 'leftist' Christopher Hitchens to furthering the aims of the pro-war one party state.

Christopher Hitchens is a real asset to the war party, because he is a facile writer and covers over by vigorous assertion and imagery his new reactionary politics and the feeble intellectual defenses he musters for it. His value is enhanced by the fact that he is a "straddler," that is, a man in transition from an earlier left politics to apologetics for imperial wars, but with a foot still in The Nation's door and a harsh critic of Kissinger and Pinochet. He is therefore presentable as a member of the "rational left" or left that has "seen the light." Such folks are much honored by the mainstream media.

I have noticed that in the lead up to wars, National Public Radio (frequently labeled as 'liberal') becomes effectively National Pentagon Radio, so enamored do they become of military strategy and hardware. In 2003, I could barely listen to their Pentagon correspondent Tom Gjelten, so pro-war was his coverage, so admiring of the technical prowess of the US military, that he seemed to forget about the devastating toll on ordinary people at the receiving end of all the so-called 'smart bombs' that he rhapsodized about.

Or take another allegedly 'liberal' commentator, the Washington Post's columnist Richard Cohen. His relentless navel-gazing and total self-absorption is on display in his column on Tuesday, November 21, 2006 (Page A27), where he talks about how he was for the Vietnam war before he turned against it, then describes how he was similarly for the Iraq war before he turned against that too. Despite his fascination with himself, he does not even see the clear pattern that he himself describes: That he always supports the wars the pro-war party wants, bleating his timid opposition only when it is too late and public opinion has turned conclusively against it.

Things are precisely the same with Iraq, and here, too, I … originally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat -- and not just a theoretical one -- to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war -- silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. (my italics)

It is incredible that Cohen thought that violence against other people was justified because it would make us feel better. Also he says his support for the Iraq invasion increased because he was annoyed by what antiwar activists were saying. For such people it is always about them and their feelings, and not about others. We should kill people in other countries because it will make us feel good. Of course, we should use violence in a 'prudent' manner, whatever the hell that means, because we are (of course) good people.

Do not be surprised when people like Cohen (like Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon) use their belated critiques of the management of the Iraq war to re-brand themselves as being 'war critics' in order to promote the next war. They will wave their 'liberal' flag as a cover to hide their past and disguise their true role. This mindset is endemic in the ruling class.

David Edwards of Media Lens writing in February 2003 warned us to be careful of the ‘tortured liberal’ in the media: "There is nothing tortured about it - media fortunes have long been made by mastering the 'liberal' art of appearing to care while doing nothing to oppose those who clearly do not give a damn. This is what earns the nod from the powers that be."

The role of these 'tortured liberals' is not to demand that governments abide by the constitution, international law, and accepted legal and moral principles, but instead to persuade the public to go along with whatever geopolitical policies the one party ruling class determines is necessary. They do this by creating a fake consensus by excluding those who disagree. Right now the goal is to get people to believe that before the war 'everyone' thought that invading Iraq was either a good thing to do or unavoidable. This is manifestly false. In fact, the opposition to the war worldwide was overwhelming.

On February 11, 2003, prior to the Iraq war, we had a forum at Case where many speakers (including me) exposed the fraudulent case being made for war and its immorality and illegality, let alone the absence of credible evidence. None of us were full-time journalists or analysts, merely ordinary people with day jobs. If we, simply by not limiting ourselves to the US mainstream media, could see through all the lies being spread, why could not these so-called liberals in the media? Because they are 'tortured liberals' who, as Edwards points out, know exactly what role they must play to keep their privileged positions.

Media analysts Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon just released their annual list of The Stinkiest Media Performances of the Year and the "WHO WOULD HAVE PREDICTED?" award goes to the New York Times:

The Times op-ed page marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion in March by choosing "nine experts on military and foreign affairs" to write on "the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wish they had considered in the prewar debate." None of the experts selected had opposed the invasion. That kind of exclusion made possible a bizarre claim by Times correspondent John Burns in the same day's paper: "Only the most prescient could have guessed ... that the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well as nearly 4,000 American troops; or that America's financial costs by some recent estimates, would rise above $650 billion by 2008." Those who'd warned of such disastrous results were not only prescient, but were routinely excluded from mainstream coverage.

Note that the people I have criticized are considered 'moderate' commentators, so-called 'reasonable' people, 'centrists', 'liberals', and even 'leftists'. I am not even bothering to analyze the ravings of people like Michael Ledeen and William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer or third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the like.

Given the drubbing that the Republicans have received in the last two elections we should not be surprised to see even the neoconservatives trying to disguise their past and move into key positions in the Democratic party, in order to continue to give their views some clout. They will be aided in their transition by the mainstream 'liberals' in the media who will not be so rude as to dig up their past statements.

Because they all benefit from a mutually convenient agreement to forget the sordid roles they have played in the past.

POST SCRIPT: Requiem for a campaign

Matt Taibbi, one of the best gonzo journalists around, sums up the McCain campaign:

It sounds strange to say, but this election season may have done to the word "Republican" what 1972 did for the word "liberal": turned it into a poisonous sobriquet that no politician with bipartisan aspirations will ever again welcome. The Republicans didn't just break the party — they left it smashed into space dust. They weren't just beaten; the very idea of Republican conservatism was massively rejected in virtually every state where large chunks of the population do not believe in the literal existence of a horned devil, and even in some that do.

The ironic thing is that the destruction of the Republican Party was a two-part process. Their president, George W. Bush, did most of the work by making virtually every mistake possible in his two terms, reducing the mightiest economy on Earth to the status of a beggar-debtor nation like Pakistan or Zambia. … But John McCain and Sarah Palin made their own unique contribution to the disaster by running perhaps the most incompetent presidential campaign in modern times. … Instead of a plan, they had an endless succession of dumb ideas scrapped at the 11th hour in favor of even dumber ones.

You should read the whole thing.

December 17, 2008

Examples of political chameleons

In Monday's post, I spoke about how we can expect to see the political chameleons of the one-party ruling class try to camouflage their past in order to blend in with their new political environment. Glenn Greenwald, easily one of the best political analysts around, sees right through this strategy. He reveals the truth about people like Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who use their home in the allegedly 'liberal' Brookings Institution to help pursue this goal.

To lavish themselves with credibility -- as though they are war skeptics whom you can trust -- they identify themselves at the beginning "as two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq." In reality, they were not only among the biggest cheerleaders for the war, but repeatedly praised the Pentagon's strategy in Iraq and continuously assured Americans things were going well. They are among the primary authors and principal deceivers responsible for this disaster.

But as always, Tom Friedman provides the clearest example of such shameless self-serving revisionism. Greenwald points to what the so-called 'liberal' New York Times columnist was saying in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq on PBS's Charlie Rose show:

We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? …

Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could [my italics]. That's the real truth.

And guess what? People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, "You will now be held accountable."

What does Friedman say now (November 29, 2008) was the reason for the Iraq war?

It’s a reminder of the most important reason for the Iraq war: to try to collaborate with Iraqis to build progressive politics and rule of law in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, a region that stands out for its lack of consensual politics and independent judiciaries.

Really? That is what you thought all along? He seems to have replaced those revenge-filled early words with pompous platitudes. Observe how he has conveniently forgotten the sordid past and his own role in it, switching from insane bellicosity (what he called 'the real truth') about teaching those dastardly Muslims a lesson by hitting Iraqis on the head with blunt objects (just because they are the most convenient target), to noble goals of collaborating to create a model civil society. He can make such a switch effortlessly because he has had so much practice at it.

Friedman, like many mainstream commentators both 'liberal' and 'conservative', has no compunction about people in other countries getting killed in wars to satisfy his own lust for destruction or some weird private geopolitical theory. Here he is writing in 1999 (New York Times, April 23) about the need for heavier attacks on Serb civilians during the conflict over Kosovo:

Let's at least have a real air war.... It should be lights out in Belgrade: Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road, and war-related factory has to be targeted. Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set back your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.

Bill O'Reilly (whom most people would consider to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Friedman) said something very similar six days later, showing how united the pro-war one party ruling elite is.

I believe that we have to go in there and drop leaflets on Belgrade and other cities and say, 'Listen, you guys have got to move because we're now going to come in and we’re going to just level your country. The whole infrastructure is going.'... Any target is OK. I'd warn the people, just as we did with Japan, that it’s coming, you’ve got to get out of there, OK, but I would level that country so that there would be nothing moving—no cars, no trains, nothing.

Notice again the smug arrogance of power, writing with the confidence that no other country can make similar threats against their own country. Would they approve of their own neighborhoods being flattened by bombs because another country did not like some US policy? Do none of these people know or care that what they are advocating, the destruction of civilian infrastructure like water, electricity, and sewage systems that have no direct military value, is a war crime?

The Geneva Conventions (Protocol 1, Part IV, Chapter III, Article 54) says quite clearly:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

The examples I've given above can be multiplied. Chris Floyd chronicles Friedman's relentless bloodlust while media critic Edward Herman similarly calls out 'leftist' Christopher Hitchens as another pro-war demagogue who vociferously supported the wars started by Clinton and Bush despite the heavy toll they inflicted on civilians, and even gleefully joked about Afghanistan being "the first country in history to be bombed out of the stone age."

This is why the labels liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, have such little value in most discussions. They are merely the veneer to disguise one party rule and the desire to impose American will and power on the rest of the world, whatever the cost on ordinary people.

POST SCRIPT: Media complicity with the one-party state

Why is it that members of the war party get so much air time in the media while anyone who critiques the policies of the one-party state gets shut out? Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman clearly laid out how it works in their classic 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. A documentary of the same name was made in 1992 that presents the key arguments in a very entertaining manner. It is well-worth viewing.

Here is a short clip from that documentary that explains how the very organizational structure of the programs on TV prevents any real discussion of important issues, to be replaced by the uttering of conventional wisdom platitudes.

This is why only extended commercial-free discussions that allow for in-depth analysis, such as Bill Moyers's program Buying the War on PBS, are the only things worth watching on TV.

December 15, 2008

Political chameleons

In analyzing politics in this country, the key to unlocking its underlying structure is to realize that what we have is essentially a single pro-war/pro-business party and that the Democratic and Republican 'parties' are merely factions of that one party, differing mostly on some social issues or on tactical matters. This underlying unity ensures that there is continuity in the overarching attempt to create an economic and political empire, using the military to achieve that goal when other means fail.

But ordinary people do not like not having choices in their leaders so we need to have a two party façade and this means requiring people to think of themselves as Democrats and Republicans, even strongly partisan ones. But only the middle class takes these labels seriously. The poor suspect that the entire system is rigged against them and in favor of the rich, while the very rich know this for a fact.

Servicing this system is an entire class of people who do not really care about party labels or even political philosophy as such but have very narrow agendas that can be advanced whichever party is in power. This is why they can so easily shift back and forth between the two. Because the Democrats are now in control and in a position to dispense favors, look for media institutions like Fox News to shift its views and change its programming to be more favorable to Democrats. Its owner Rupert Murdoch cares mostly about making money and in other countries has shown himself quite capable of shifting his political allegiances depending on who can do him the most good. We already hear stories that Murdoch dislikes the way Fox News operates and despises Bill O'Reilly.

We can also expect to see a lot of people who once enthusiastically supported Bush and Cheney start maneuvering to portray themselves as critics in order to wheedle their way into the new administration. They will be aided in this by the media, which likes to see the permanent establishment class run things. Some of the agendas of these political chameleons are personal. For example, there is a whole industry of political commentators, analysts, and think-tankers whose main goal is to stay in the media eye, to be highly visible. That is how they earn their living. Such people will now shift their views, tacking to the prevailing winds.

During the heyday of the Bush-Cheney fiasco, these people found all kinds of reasons to justify the concentration of executive power, the Iraq war, torture, extraordinary renditions, lack of oversight of the financial and environmental sectors, and the undermining of responsible government by the placing of party hacks and ideological loyalists in important positions, especially in the Departments of Justice and Environment. Now they talk about the 'excesses' of the Bush-Cheney administration, that 'mistakes were made', that some people were 'overzealous', and so on. Very rarely will you see any acknowledgement that they were accomplices in, and enablers of, all of it.

You already saw this happening with attitudes towards the Iraq war because that fiasco became plain to see much earlier. The fundamental problem that the single pro-war/pro-business party faces is that the general population is not unthinkingly pro-war (or pro business) so the one party leadership has to keep finding new ways to convince them that although past wars were usually disasters, the next war is a good and noble cause that must be fought.

One strategy is to make people think that even those who opposed the previous wars support the new proposed war. This process has already started. The way the warmongers do this is to now advertise themselves as having been either against the Iraq war or critical of it. They then try to extrapolate this tenuous claim to make it seem like they always took a principled stand against the war. They will then be described in the media with the preamble "Even fierce critics of the Iraq war such as …" This puts them in the position of supporting the next war from the position of being 'antiwar activists' and thus allow the warmongers to suggest that the next war must be a good one if it has persuaded even such 'principled opponents' of previous wars.

The neoconservatives will be among those who try to make this shift. In my series on the future of the Republican party, I foresaw a bleak time ahead for Republicans because of the intramural battle for the leadership by the old-style conservatives, the neoconservatives, and the Christianists. One thing that might save that party is if the neoconservatives see little likelihood of it getting back in power soon and abandon it. Their departure will enable the old style conservatives a better chance of regaining their former leadership role since religion by itself does not really provide a governing political philosophy.

The neoconservatives will then try to re-enter the Democratic party which was their original home anyway, because the old-style Republican conservatives who once dominated that party were always a little leery of the kinds of reckless foreign adventures favored by the neoconservatives. They will try to do this by rewriting history. They will shift positions and start to claim that they had reservations about the war all along. The more brazen will say that they opposed some or all of the Bush-Cheney policies. They will be aided in their makeovers by the Obama administration's centrist let's-get-along mindset, which will prevent them from taking a too critical look at the past of those people.

But if you look back at the actual record, you will see that these so-called opponents were initially strong supporters of the Iraq war, shifting to merely tactical criticism of how the war was conducted by the Bush administration when it became clear that it was going badly.

Next: Examples of such political chameleons

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert chimes in on the 'War on Christmas'


November 04, 2008

The internet election

Today the seemingly interminable campaign comes to an end. My feeling is that this was the first real internet election, where this medium dominated the process. The internet has been at the forefront of organizing, fundraising, news gathering and dissemination, and analysis. It has profoundly changed the dynamics of campaigning for good and bad, but mostly for the good.

The speed and unfiltered nature of the internet can lead to the propagation of wild stories about candidates that have no basis in fact, and this election had them in plenty. It had been both disturbing and amusing to read the wild stories that have circulated. But at the same time, the investigation of these stories and their debunking also took place rapidly.

In past elections, the last two weeks of a campaign were when all the really dirty tricks were pulled and laws bent or broken. Voters would get pamphlets and phone calls conveying scurrilous and false information about opposing candidates or there would be efforts at intimidating and otherwise suppressing the votes of supporters of opponents. Such things would start out largely local and small scale and by the time it became significant enough to reach the attention of the major media, it would be too late to investigate and debunk before the election, and after the election people were too tired and dispirited to care as much about things that were now moot.

But in the age of the internet, last minute smears are not as effective. Word quickly gets out as to what is happening locally and people can compare notes and do their own investigation and combat the smears almost in real time. So the window during which you can launch an unrebutted smear has become much smaller, down to just one or two days before the election.

To some extent, the major media has been complicit in its own demise by not realizing that they could still fill a vital niche by providing time for genuinely knowledgeable people to speak about topics. While the internet does allow for people to get direct unfiltered news, there is definitely a role for some filtering system that can bestow a seal of credibility to otherwise unknown people who have nevertheless important information to share. For example, when Terry Gross interviews people on her NPR radio show Fresh Air, I listen even if I don't know the person simply because I assume that she would not put a total crackpot on the air. I have reasonable confidence that the interviewees have been screened and do have something useful to say, even if I disagree with them.

But much of the mainstream media has instead devoted far too much time to people and things that properly belong on the internet, namely trivial news and instant commentary and opinion by people who don't know much more than you or me.

For example, in my hotel room when I was staying in Las Vegas, after being driven from the casinos by its noise and garishness, I decided to do what I only do when I am staying at a hotel, and turned on the cable TV news channels. I do this periodically to confirm to myself what a waste of time such programming is and it did not disappoint.

I watched CNN for about an hour or so. Both Anderson Cooper and Larry King spent an inordinate amount of time on the sad story of Ashley Todd, the young Republican campaign volunteer who made up a story about being assaulted by a black Obama supporter who carved the letter B on her cheek.

In that one hour of TV I must have seen her 'perp walk' (where an accused person is escorted by police from a building to a car with hands handcuffed behind her back) at least half a dozen times. What is the point? True, to make up a story of a black man assaulting a young white woman because of her politics during an election campaign in which race is bubbling to the surface was a terrible thing to do. But once it was clear that the whole thing was a hoax concocted by a seriously disturbed woman, the news element of the story was over. What remained was only of interest to psychologists. Why was it necessary to repeatedly humiliate her by showing the perp walk? Even though she did an awful thing, as a result of this repeated showing, my sympathies were with her. These perp walks are a form of voyeurism that we can do without.

The rest of the time on CNN was spent with a panel of four people (two Obama supporters and two McCain supporters) discussing (actually talking over and through each other) about the Todd case and its implications for the election, Joe Biden's statement about the danger of a crisis and its implications for the election, the infighting in the McCain camp and its implications for the election, and Sarah Palin's shopping spree and dismissal of fruit fly research and (you guessed it) its implications for the election.

In other words, it was a total waste of time. There was not a single substantive issue discussed in any way that would have enlightened the viewer or provided a deeper understanding of anything, not even historical context. Everything was discussed in terms of the political process here and now and what effect it would have on the voting. These 'analysts' love to pontificate on how 'the voters' would react to some trivial news when they have no better idea than you or me. The time would have been far better spent having someone knowledgeable talk about why people study fruit flies.

After watching for a little over an hour, I had had enough. What amazes me is that these talk shows continue to have an audience day after day! What do people watch them for? Any actual new information can be gleaned within the first few minutes introducing the topic. There seems to be hardly any time when a genuinely knowledgeable person on some issue is brought in and allowed to explain it in depth. And of course, one is forced to endure the repeated commercial breaks.

In the days before the internet I would be forced to watch such shows in the hope that between these gabfests they would have some actual news. But now I can find news about any topic with just a few clicks in a few minutes.

Which brings me back to the mystery of why people still watch these so-called 'news' shows now that the internet can satisfy their news needs. Is it for the gladiatorial nature of the verbal jousting, seeing it as an alternative form of competitive sports? Do people get pleasure in seeing 'their' team get the better of a verbal duel with the opposing team?

Is it to actually see what semi-famous people look like? I must admit that it is marginally interesting to see and hear people whose names were familiar to me only from reading things by them or about them. For example, I now know what Bay Buchanan looks like, for whatever that is worth. But that has only a fleeting novelty value.

There must be something about these shows that I am missing, that keeps viewers returning. But what is it? I am truly baffled.

POST SCRIPT: Christianity as crazy as Scientology?

Bill Maher discusses politics and religion with Jon Stewart.

Part 1:

Part 2:


October 31, 2008

Obama's infomercial

I watched the 30-minute program on Wednesday that was produced by the Obama campaign. I watched out of curiosity more than anything else. Since I can't stand even 30-second advertising spots, I was expecting to be bored by what would essentially be a really long commercial. I even feared that it might be Obama giving one long speech. Although he gives good speeches, I am pretty much speeched out at this point.

It was not too bad though, not too cheesy, more along the lines of a PBS documentary, and had good production values. The cutting between the stories of families and his policy prescriptions was a good idea.

The ratings seem to indicate that it was a big success:

An infomercial on behalf of Mr. Obama was a smashing ratings success on Wednesday night, proving to be more popular than even the final game of the World Series — and last season's finale of "American Idol." The audience for Mr. Obama's program far exceeded the expectations of television executives — and many political pundits who questioned whether Mr. Obama was engaging in overkill in buying a half hour on so many networks.

Mr. Obama's 30-minute commercial, which played on seven networks, broadcast and cable, was seen by 33.55 million viewers, according to figures released by Nielsen Media Research.

"I was shocked by the number Obama was able to draw," said Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS. "It's just a stunning number."

The early part was bit choppy and lacked continuity. I expected each family's story to be followed up by his solution for the specific problem they faced but the first two stories did not quite do that. For example, the second vignette featured an old couple who thought that had enough money to retire but the husband had to go back to work at Wal-Mart in order to pay his wife's medical bills. But Obama's plans to deal with health care did not immediately follow but came later in the program.

The second half of the program seemed to be much better. The segue at the end to the live rally in Florida was a bit gimmicky but smoothly done and showed that the campaign is capable of tight scripting and scheduling, right down to the very second.

Would the program have changed any voter's minds? I doubt it, and I expect the Obama camp does not expect to either. I suspect that the goal was to reassure those who have already decided to vote for him that they had made the right choice, to show Obama as a calm and thoughtful person, looking presidential. I think they succeeded in doing that.

One noteworthy feature of the program was that Obama did not mention John McCain even once. It was focused entirely on the problems faced by people and what he would do to address them. This quite a contrast with what the McCain-Palin duo has been doing recently. Their message has been highly Obama-focused, almost a non-stop attempt to portray Obama as a dangerous and mysterious and unknown and untested socialist-terrorist-radical, to which their supporters have added other weird things like saying he is a Muslim or even not an American. The complete nutcases have been trying to propagate even more bizarre stories, not worth retelling here.

McCain-Palin have even sunk to the character assassination of a respected Columbia University scholar Rashid Khalidi, using merely the fact that Khalidi is Palestinian to insinuate that he is a neo-Nazi. Josh Marshall and John Judis make the convincing case that the McCain-Palin campaign has to be the sleaziest and most despicable in modern American political history, which is saying a lot considering past campaigns run by the likes of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater.

It is also kind of a bizarre message at this late stage to try and raise such outlandish stories, considering that Obama has been running for president for about twenty months and has been under constant scrutiny. Will this strategy sway voters? I have no idea. I think it will energize the faithful and maybe cause some undecided people to perhaps vote for McCain.

I notice though that when McCain-Palin supporters are interviewed, after saying all these crazy things, they often end up saying that they could never vote for someone who was pro-choice. So ultimately, that is what is driving these people. They do not want a pro-choice president and are willing to say whatever is necessary to achieve their goal, even if it means lying. It is ironic that these people often call themselves 'Christian values voters'.

The infomercial was narrated by Obama himself, and it struck me that he has a very good radio voice, smooth and modulated. When he retires from politics, he could have a successful second career doing voice-over narration for documentaries or as an interviewer on NPR.

POST SCRIPT: The Great Schlep

Sarah Silverman urges young Jewish people to go to Florida and canvass their grandparents to support Obama. (Language advisory)


October 10, 2008

Unbalanced coverage-2: More examples

(I wrote the first post in this two-part series some time ago. I got distracted by the bailout and political coverage.)

There are a few journalists in the US who push the boundaries of the propaganda envelope to the extent that they can to try to get at the facts. What they report is not pretty, which is why the government tries very hard to suppress such efforts.

Seymour Hersh in a speech in 2006 describes how civilian deaths in Iraq get mysteriously transformed into enemy combatants.

[Hersh] described one video in which American soldiers massacre a group of people playing soccer. 


"Three U.S. armed vehicles, eight soldiers in each, are driving through a village, passing candy out to kids," he began. "Suddenly the first vehicle explodes, and there are soldiers screaming. Sixteen soldiers come out of the other vehicles, and they do what they're told to do, which is look for running people." 



"Never mind that the bomb was detonated by remote control," Hersh continued. "[The soldiers] open up fire; [the] cameras show it was a soccer game." 



"About ten minutes later, [the soldiers] begin dragging bodies together, and they drop weapons there. It was reported as 20 or 30 insurgents killed that day," he said. 



If Americans knew the full extent of U.S. criminal conduct, they would receive returning Iraqi veterans as they did Vietnam veterans, Hersh said. 



"In Vietnam, our soldiers came back and they were reviled as baby killers, in shame and humiliation," he said. "It isn't happening now, but I will tell you – there has never been an [American] army as violent and murderous as our army has been in Iraq."

As far as I can tell, this horrific incident did not get much coverage in the major media.

Meanwhile in the other conflict, Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move condemned by the US and western Europe. This has caused predictable outrage from the administration and the media about Russia seeking to forcibly change national boundaries, but don't hold your breath expecting any reporter to ask Bush (or Obama or McCain) how this differs from US recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, which took place in February of this year, following the earlier breakup of Yugoslavia and the forcible separation of Kosovo from Serbia by NATO.

One can multiply such examples over and over. NPR on August 26, 2008 reported that the people of South Ossetia, who want to secede from Georgia and join up with Russia, justified their case by reporting all kinds of atrocities by Georgian troops, such as ripping open the bellies of pregnant Ossetian women, that justified the Russian response. The reporter rightly said that there had been no evidence produced that such things had actually occurred.

But that reporter's skepticism in this case made me recall the similar lurid allegations made about Iraqi troops after they invaded Kuwait in 1990, saying that they were taking incubators away from hospitals and taking them back to Iraq, leaving babies to die.

A young woman named Nayirah appeared in front of a congressional committee. She told the committee, "I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.

These reports were uncritically accepted as true by reporters and used to inflame public opinion against Iraq. Human rights groups like Amnesty International reported that 312 babies had died as a result of this atrocity.

Reporters did not seek independent confirmation of this sensational report. They did not even seek to find out who this mysterious young woman was who gave such dramatic testimony. It was only much later that it was revealed that this entire incubator story had been concocted by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton which was working for the Kuwaiti government and was friendly with then president George H. W. Bush, and that the "eyewitness" Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US and had not seen any of the things she claimed she had.

Similar unsubstantiated stories appeared at the UN a few weeks later, where a team of "witnesses," coached by Hill & Knowlton, gave "testimony" (although no oath was ever taken) about atrocities in Iraq. It was later learned that the seven witnesses used false names and even identities in one case. In an unprecedented move, the US was allowed to present a video created by Hill & Knowlton to the entire security council.

(For some other examples of the media uncritically passing on government lies, see here.)

This is why I always suspend judgment and never believe the lurid stories that come out during times of crisis, especially if they reflect badly on 'them'. The media simply cannot be trusted to provide balanced coverage and until I hear of real evidence my presumption is that they are uncritically passing on government propaganda.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Puddles, where are you?

The Daily Show manages to make the boring debate absolutely hilarious.


September 22, 2008

Unbalanced coverage-1

I follow news on two levels. The first level is trying to get actual information about what happened. The second meta-level is observing how events are covered and what and whose agenda is being served by the news media.

I cannot remember when I first started following the news in this dualistic way but I do know that by 1989 I had already fallen into this habit. Two things happened simultaneously in December of that year that drove home to me forcefully the need to do this.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there was a revolt in Romania against its despotic leader Nikolai Ceausescu that began around December 17, 1989 that resulted in the government firing on demonstrators. This increased the protests and eventually led to the overthrow of the government and the later execution of Ceausescu.

Meanwhile on December 20, the US invaded Panama to overthrow its leader Manuel Noriega, massively bombing whole areas of the capital city, in the process destroying the densely populated El Chorrillo neighborhood in downtown Panama, which contained mostly poor people.

In those pre-internet days I had no recourse other than US TV to keep up with breaking news and I recall watching the news coverage as it switched back and forth between events in these two countries.

When it came to Romania, the US TV news reporters expressed deep skepticism about the Romanian government's official claims about everything being fine and actually went to investigate the reported killings of civilians by the forces loyal to Ceausescu. They relayed stories of the dead and displaced that contradicted the official accounts. They acted as journalists should, being skeptical of official claims and seeking independent verification of the facts by going to the scene of the events and talking with eyewitnesses.

When the news switched to coverage of the events in Panama, however, it was quite different. The US reporters exhibited a remarkable lack of curiosity about civilian casualties caused by the US bombing and showed a cheerful willingness to accept at face value the official US government and military version of events. Once in a while the network news anchor would ask the reporter if he had heard of any civilian casualties as a result of the US invasion and the answer was always the same, that the US government and the military had 'no information' about the number of civilian dead. That was it. There was no attempt at all to independently find out the truth as they had done in Romania, although they had far more reporters on the ground in Panama. The news media acted as pure propaganda agents, passing on the US government and military story.

Those who think the media are better now are deceiving themselves. This kind of unbalanced reporting is still alive and well in the way that the media covers civilian casualties in the current conflicts around the world. How it is reported depends on whether the civilians are killed by 'us' and 'our' friends or by 'them', where the categories of 'us' and 'them' are defined by the US government.

Consider the conflict currently going on in Afghanistan.

On August 26, 2008 the BBC reported deaths by US bombing of about 90 people, 60 of them children, in the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan. But in the US such reports are treated as merely rumors not worth sending a reporter to, unless confirmed by the US military. And in order to prevent US reporters going there, the US authority has a standard procedure it follows whenever such a tragedy happens: first deny that any civilians died at all and assert that all the people killed were the enemy (which on its face is highly unlikely in any guerilla war), then when the prima facie case becomes too strong (as in this case when even UN observers confirm the deaths) say that they will themselves investigate, and ask the reporters to hold off on any judgment until the investigation is completed at some indefinite date.

Pentagon officials say they are concerned about the conflicting reports and are continuing their own investigation. Spokesman Bryan Whitman said he did not know when the investigation would end and its results released.

All this is stalling for time, with the military either staying silent and hoping people will forget the incident or conceding at a much later time that a very small number of civilians were killed in the midst of a large number of enemy, thus becoming 'collateral damage' and thus supposedly excusable.

The US media is happy to play along in this game. The blog left I on the news describes the reporting by the New York Times of this particular incident, and follows up with a description of the classic non-denial denial by a US government spokesperson when the evidence gets too strong.

It now turns out that there is credible evidence that the original report of large numbers of civilian deaths (including the huge number of children) is correct. But this report in a major US newspaper came on September 7, about two weeks later, and is still being denied and stonewalled by the US military, who still claim that they were responding to Taliban attacks. Meanwhile, to pacify the furious Afghan people, the Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a vague and general apology for any civilian casualties, without acknowledging specific culpability in this case, and promised to take more care in the future.

This pattern is then repeated the next time civilians are killed. The US military has still not acknowledged civilian deaths.

Glenn Greenwald follows up the story, providing more details of the original incident as well as the attempted cover-up.

Next: Other examples of unbalanced coverage

POST SCRIPT: The elitists

An odd feature of this campaign is the attempt by the McCain campaign to try and paint Obama as an 'elitist'. But Newsweek ran a story that looked into how many cars each candidate owns. The scorecard? The McCains: 13, the Obamas: 1, and that too a modest Ford Escape Hybrid.

August 19, 2008

The South Ossetia/Kosovo parallel

The more accurate parallel for what is happening in South Ossetia is not Iraq but Kosovo.

But mention of Kosovo is largely absent from the current discussions because the parallel between what happened there and what is happening in South Ossetia undercuts the basis for the west's anger at Russia. So Kosovo must be made to disappear. As Aldous Huxley said, "Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects... totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have by the most eloquent denunciations." Justin Raimondo, in an essay that traces the origins and resurgence of Russophobia says that "Official censorship simply isn't necessary in the West, because everyone knows what to say – and, more importantly, what not to say.

John Pilger looks back at the propaganda that was used to justify the military action against Serbia by NATO forces.

Yugoslavia was a uniquely independent and multi-ethnic, if imperfect, federation that stood as a political and economic bridge in the Cold War. This was not acceptable to the expanding European Community, especially newly united Germany, which had begun a drive east to dominate its "natural market" in the Yugoslav provinces of Croatia and Slovenia. By the time the Europeans met at Maastricht in 1991, a secret deal had been struck; Germany recognized Croatia, and Yugoslavia was doomed. In Washington, the U.S. ensured that the struggling Yugoslav economy was denied World Bank loans and the defunct NATO was reinvented as an enforcer. At a 1999 Kosovo "peace" conference in France, the Serbs were told to accept occupation by NATO forces and a market economy, or be bombed into submission. It was the perfect precursor to the bloodbaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The warmongers in the Clinton administration (many of whom are now resurfacing in the Obama campaign and Democratic leadership and trying to pretend they are antiwar) were the ones who, along with NATO and the European Union, destroyed Yugoslavia with a merciless bombing campaign that killed and displaced thousands of people and led to the carving out of Kosovo as a separate state.

George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, a private intelligence company, explains on NPR why Russia's use of force to separate South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia can be justified by them using the same arguments used by NATO to separate the province of Kosovo from Serbia, which was trumpeted by then President Clinton and the western media as the moral thing to do.

In February 2008 George Szamuely described in detail the way that Kosovo was carved out as a separate state, and said that Russia had warned where this was leading.

Unlike 2003, however, the Russians this time have a card up their sleeves. If Kosovo is to be permitted to secede, the Russians have argued, then why not other nationalities or ethnic groups living as minorities within someone else's state? As examples, President Vladimir Putin pointed to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. But he could have mentioned innumerable others: the Hungarians in Slovakia and Rumania, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, Corsicans in France, the Flemish in Belgium, Russians in Estonia and Latvia, the Turkish Cypriots.
. . .
The West's entire approach to Kosovo has been marked by sordid dishonesty and bad faith, supporting national self-determination and the right to secession in one place and territorial integrity in another, cheering on ethnic cleansing by one ethnic group and demanding war crimes trials for another, trumpeting the virtues of majority rule when it's convenient to do so and threatening to impose sanctions and penalties on majorities when that's convenient.

Paul Craig Roberts argues that the warmongers in the US are urging that the US make a strong response to Russia's actions (i.e., use force) although it is obvious to the rest of the world that the US simply no longer has the military, diplomatic, economic, or moral power to do any such thing. All it can do is bluster.

(As a digression, I came across the truly excellent news website Antiwar.com, an indispensable source for world news and analysis, during the campaign for the NATO war against Serbia. I was disgusted with the cheerleading for that war and tried to find more balanced news sources and came across the site which was started in 1995 to oppose that Clinton war. Since then, Antiwar.com has been consistently trying to expose the propaganda of both Democratic and Republican warmongers. The people behind the site can briefly be described as principled libertarian-paleoconservatives and they are refreshingly open to a spectrum of views across the ideological spectrum. The site is currently holding a fundraiser. Please donate something if you can.)

POST SCRIPT: Escape clauses

It is left to the comedy shows to highlight the verbal contortions currently on display in the US response to the conflict in South Ossetia as a result of trying to find an argument that condemns the Russian action while not automatically condemning similar US actions.

The Daily Show has a clip of US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad trying to dance the dance. He says that "The days of overthrowing leaders by military means in Europe, those days are gone."

So that's why the invasion of Iraq by the US is good and the invasion of Georgia by Russia is bad. It depends on where it happens.

But then what about Kosovo? That was in Europe. But since that was in the 1990s, a formula has been found: What is wrong is invading other countries in Europe in the 21st century. Yes, that it.

But John McCain, gung-ho supporter of the Iraq invasion, tends to get confused and forgot to add the vital in Europe clause, saying stupidly that "In the 21st century nations don't invade other nations."

The fact that Bush, Rice, McCain, and the neoconservative and other warmongers are not ridiculed for these obviously contradictory and self-serving justifications is a telling indication of the subservience of the mainstream media to the government line.

August 18, 2008

The conflict in South Ossetia

The coverage of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the region known as South Ossetia reveals once again the reflexive adoption by the US media of the perspective of the US government and its pro-war supporters in its reporting of the events.

Having completely abandoned any semblance of allegiance to principles of international law and morality in its invasion of Iraq, the US government is now scrambling to find a basis to condemn Russia's military actions while excusing its own similar actions. In this they are aided by the collective and convenient amnesia of reporters who obligingly don't ask awkward questions about obvious historic parallels.

It is not necessarily the case that journalists are deliberately and knowingly distorting the facts, although some do. What is the case is that they have internalized the tacit understanding that all foreign policy issues have to be understood in such a way that the US government's actions are viewed as good and those of the enemy country are bad. Once you have accepted that framing, it requires you to view the US government as at most guilty of 'mistakes' or 'bad tactics' or even incompetence, but never of bad intentions. Bad intentions are the exclusive domain of whoever the enemy du jour is. To think and say otherwise is to commit career suicide, as far as the mainstream media goes. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

The task of exposing this hypocrisy is left largely to the alternative media and comedians. As Robert Parry points out:

Apparently, context is everything. So, the United States attacking Grenada or Nicaragua or Panama or Iraq or Serbia is justified even if the reasons sometimes don't hold water or don't hold up before the United Nations, The Hague or other institutions of international law.

However, when Russia attacks Georgia in a border dispute over Georgia's determination to throttle secession movements in two semi-autonomous regions, everyone must agree that Georgia's sovereignty is sacrosanct and Russia must be condemned.

U.S. newspapers, such as the New York Times, see nothing risible about publishing a statement from President George W. Bush declaring that "Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected."

No one points out that Bush should have zero standing enunciating such a principle. Iraq also was a sovereign nation, but Bush invaded it under false pretenses, demolished its army, overthrew its government and then conducted a lengthy military occupation resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
. . .
On Monday, the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial writers published their own editorial excoriating Russia, along with two op-eds, one by neocon theorist Robert Kagan and another co-authored by Bill Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke.

All three – the Post editorial board, Kagan and Holbrooke – were gung-ho for invading Iraq, but now find the idea of Russia attacking the sovereign nation of Georgia inexcusable, even if Georgia's leaders in Tblisi may have provoked the conflict with an offensive against separatists in South Ossetia along the Russian border.

"Whatever mistakes Tblisi has made, they cannot justify Russia's actions," Holbrooke and his co-author Ronald D. Asmus wrote. "Moscow has invaded a neighbor, an illegal act of aggression that violates the U.N. Charter and fundamental principles of cooperation and security in Europe."

As far as most of the world is concerned, the US has lost all credibility when it comes to appealing to international law. They have not forgotten all the lies that have justified past US military invasions. In fact, those policies have encouraged the emergence of a lawless world in which any regional power can feel comfortable asserting its will militarily over its neighbors.

This article that appeared in the Russian newspaper Pravda illustrates the contempt in which Bush is held. It repeatedly tells Bush to 'shut up', language which the US media gleefully approved of when Spain's King Juan Carlos used it against current US enemy Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. The article justifies the Russian actions in South Ossetia using almost the exact words used to justify the US invasion of Iraq:

Do you really think anyone gives any importance whatsoever to your words after 8 years of your criminal and murderous regime and policies? Do you really believe you have any moral ground whatsoever and do you really imagine there is a single human being anywhere on this planet who does not stick up his middle finger every time you appear on a TV screen?
. . .
Do you really believe you have the right to give any opinion or advice after Abu Ghraib? After Guantanamo? After the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens? After the torture by CIA operatives?
. . .
Suppose Russia for instance declares that Georgia has weapons of mass destruction? And that Russia knows where these WMD are, namely in Tblisi and Poti and north, south, east and west of there? And that it must be true because there is "magnificent foreign intelligence" such as satellite photos of milk powder factories and baby cereals producing chemical weapons and which are currently being "driven around the country in vehicles"? Suppose Russia declares for instance that "Saakashvili stiffed the world" and it is "time for regime change"?

This is what we can expect to see in the future – the US government's own words and actions flung back at it by every country that decides to take military action against another or abuses its prisoners or kills civilians.

Next: The South Ossetia/Kosovo parallel

POST SCRIPT: Al Jazeera coverage of South Ossetia

Al Jazeera has a interview with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvli that lasts for 15 minutes followed by four minutes of good analysis by their correspondent in Tblisi


August 05, 2008

The anthrax case-2: The scandalous behavior of ABC News

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later.)

The way the anthrax scare was used to panic the public in the wake of 9/11 and create a rush to war was one of the many low points in recent media history.

The way they did that was by presenting totally false information that the anthrax contained traces of materials that could only come from Iraq, charges that were widely disseminated by, among others, the notorious neoconservative Laurie Mylroie, one of the major cheerleaders for invading Iraq.

Who is this Mylroie? Peter Bergen wrote a profile of her in the Washington Monthly in December 2003:

In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the '93 Trade Center attack, but also every antiAmerican terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she were merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche. But her neocon friends who went on to run the war in Iraq believed her theories, bringing her on as a consultant at the Pentagon, and they seem to continue to entertain her eccentric belief that Saddam is the fount of the entire shadow war against America.

Glenn Greenwald describes the disgraceful role played by the media, especially ABC News, in using this false information to shift the focus away from a domestic criminal probe of the anthrax attacks to one that excited public terror and drove the mad rush to war with Iraq.

During the last week of October, 2001, ABC News, led by Brian Ross, continuously trumpeted the claim as their top news story that government tests conducted on the anthrax – tests conducted at Ft. Detrick -- revealed that the anthrax sent to Daschele contained the chemical additive known as bentonite. ABC News, including Peter Jennings, repeatedly claimed that the presence of bentonite in the anthrax was compelling evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attacks, since -- as ABC variously claimed -- bentonite "is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program" and "only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons."

ABC News' claim -- which they said came at first from "three well-placed but separate sources," followed by "four well-placed and separate sources" -- was completely false from the beginning. There never was any bentonite detected in the anthrax (a fact ABC News acknowledged for the first time in 2007 only as a result of my badgering them about this issue). It's critical to note that it isn't the case that preliminary tests really did detect bentonite and then subsequent tests found there was none. No tests ever found or even suggested the presence of bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.

We are now told that right from the beginning, the FBI was convinced that the anthrax came from the Fort Detrick facility. So who was lying then?

Greenwald continues:

Surely the question of who generated those false Iraq-anthrax reports is one of the most significant and explosive stories of the last decade. The motive to fabricate reports of bentonite and a link to Saddam is glaring. Those fabrications played some significant role -- I'd argue a very major role -- in propagandizing the American public to perceive of Saddam as a threat, and further, propagandized the public to believe that our country was sufficiently threatened by foreign elements that a whole series of radical policies that the neoconservatives both within and outside of the Bush administration wanted to pursue -- including an attack an Iraq and a whole array of assaults on our basic constitutional framework -- were justified and even necessary in order to survive.

ABC News already knows the answers to these questions. They know who concocted the false bentonite story and who passed it on to them with the specific intent of having them broadcast those false claims to the world, in order to link Saddam to the anthrax attacks and -- as importantly -- to conceal the real culprit(s) (apparently within the U.S. government) who were behind the attacks. And yet, unbelievably, they are keeping the story to themselves, refusing to disclose who did all of this. They're allegedly a news organization, in possession of one of the most significant news stories of the last decade, and they are concealing it from the public, even years later.

They're not protecting "sources." The people who fed them the bentonite story aren't "sources." They're fabricators and liars who purposely used ABC News to disseminate to the American public an extremely consequential and damaging falsehood. But by protecting the wrongdoers, ABC News has made itself complicit in this fraud perpetrated on the public, rather than a news organization uncovering such frauds. That is why this is one of the most extreme journalistic scandals that exists, and it deserves a lot more debate and attention than it has received thus far.

The willingness of the media to accept at face value the claims of the government is the real problem. On NPR yesterday, Renee Montagne, the host of Morning Edition, said things like the FBI is due to release this week some the evidence it has "amassed" against Ivins, giving the impression that the FBI actually has huge amounts of such evidence. She said that the evidence seems "compelling" and referred to the "genetic fingerprints" of the anthrax (based on apparently 'new science 'developed by the FBI) that somehow pointed to Ivins' lab, and a psychologist's description of him as a "threat". It is important to realize that she had no idea if any of these statement were true. She just passed them on as fact because the government had told her, and thus they become part of the official story.

It is a very dangerous thing when the news media and the government collude to disseminate false information. ABC News has a lot of explaining to do. It should start by revealing who were these four "well placed" people who were spreading the dangerously false information that helped drive the country to war with Iraq.

Justin Raimondo has been tracking the anthrax story from the very beginning and his most recent analysis is well worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald has a follow-up posting that asks some very important questions.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect country and western song

Listen to the last verse, which puts it over the top.


August 04, 2008

The anthrax case-1: The collusion of the FBI and the media

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later this week.)

The death of Bruce E. Ivins, an anthrax researcher at Fort Detrick, Md has suddenly thrust the ignored anthrax story back into the news.

The fact that Ivins apparently killed himself just when he was about to be indicted by the FBI is being taken as a tacit admission of his guilt. I am not convinced that the case has been made. After all, the FBI previously relentlessly hounded another scientist Steven J. Hatfill with leaks to the media for the same case, so that he lost his job and could not get others. Hatfill fought back and sued the government and they were forced to settle with him in June for $5.8 million. It seems strange that the attention shifted to Ivins just after the collapse of their case against Hatfill.

The FBI and the media (especially NBC, CNN, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution) also hounded another innocent person Richard Jewell for the Olympic bombing, again based on FBI and Justice Department leaks. Eventually NBC and CNN were forced to settle with him.

A similar situation occurred with Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee where a series of FBI leaks passed through the New York Times and Washington Post destroyed his career. He also sued and eventually the government and the media were forced to pay him $1.8 million.

When the government sets its mind to it, it can use its powers to torment people indefinitely to try and break them. As Alexander Cockburn says in the similar persecution of Sami al-Arian, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida.

There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims, drive them into bankruptcy, despair and even suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world.

This is why the deep politicization of the US Justice Department by the Bush Administration, placing partisan political hacks in positions that should be staffed by career professionals, is so disturbing. Unlike most other government agencies, the Justice Department has the power to target individuals and make their lives hell even if they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Since Ivins knew that the focus had shifted to him and that he would receive the same trial-and-conviction-in-the-public-eye-by-leaks-to-the-media method favored by the government that had destroyed the lives and careers of so many before him, he may well have decided that he did not have the stomach to deal with it, even if he was innocent. The indications are that he was a nerdy, nervous type, not someone with the kind of determination that Hatfill had for being under constant surveillance.

It is reported that cars with detectives were ostentatiously parked in front of his house, thus letting the whole neighborhood know that they had a suspicious person in their midst. Colleagues and friends were repeatedly questioned about him in ways that suggested that the authorities were trying to alienate them from him . He and his whole family were questioned by the FBI, and his family was told that Ivins was the anthrax murderer.

Over the past two years, many who knew him saw the effects of accumulating pressure as the anthrax investigation veered toward him. "He would tell stories about how he would come home and everything he owned would be in piles," said a Fort Detrick employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because workers there had been instructed not to talk with reporters. The employee said his files, lab samples and equipment were frequently seized by authorities.

Within the last few months, Ivins seemed to have gone into a mental tailspin that required psychiatric treatment. He could well have decided that he could not take it anymore. The main charges that he might be dangerous come from his estranged brother who had not spoken to him since 1985, and a social worker who said he had threatened her while she was treating him during his recent illness. His brother clearly hated him, telling NPR that he could not think of a single nice thing about him and that he was glad that he was dead.

But while Ivins seems to have been somewhat unorthodox in his work habits and a little eccentric in his personal behavior, they were not in ways that indicated that he was a cold-blooded killer who would also write letters seeking to lay the blame for the anthrax attacks on Muslims. They seemed to be the kinds of idiosyncracies that one often finds amongst researchers, especially scientists. Take this description:

Ivins could frequently be seen walking around his neighborhood for exercise. He volunteered with the American Red Cross of Frederick County, and he played keyboard and helped clean up after Masses at St. John's the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, where a dozen parishioners gathered Friday after morning Mass to pray for him.

The Rev. Richard Murphy called Ivins "a quiet man ... always very helpful and pleasant."

An avid juggler, Ivins gave juggling demonstrations around Frederick in the 1980s.

"One time, he demonstrated his juggling skills by lying on his back in the department and juggling with his hands," said Byrne, who described Ivins as "eccentric."

Whenever a colleague would leave the bacteriology division, Ivins would write a song or poem for that person and perform it, accompanying himself on keyboard, Byrne said.

Ivins had several letters to the editor published in The Frederick News-Post over the last decade. He denounced taxpayer funding for assisted suicide, pointed readers to a study that suggested a genetic component for homosexuality and said he had stopped listening to local radio station WFMD because he was offended by the language and racially charged commentary of its hosts.

He also commented on the growing political influence of conservative Christians, and he was willing to criticize his church.

"The Roman Catholic Church should learn from other equally worthy Christian denominations and eagerly welcome female clergy as well as married clergy," Ivins wrote.

Byrne said Ivins appeared to be at peace and that he expressed no interest in the anthrax mailings, even after some letters were sent to Fort Detrick for analysis.

"There are people who you just know are ticking bombs," Byrne said. "He was not one of them."

Maybe Ivins was very good at maintaining a façade of normalcy and is the person behind the anthrax attacks. But we should be careful of maligning a man now incapable of defending himself. Now that he is dead one can expect a barrage of unsubstantiated allegations from the FBI, passed on uncritically by the media, aimed at painting him as some kind of homicidal maniac.

While the guilt of Ivins is by no means clear as yet, the media is undoubtedly guilty of misdirecting the public about the anthrax scare and using it to whip up war hysteria against Iraq. The case against the media will be examined tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Teach your children

One of the best songs to emerge from the 1960s, sung by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.


April 29, 2008

The emptiness of TV news shows

As I have repeatedly said, I rarely watch TV anymore, and don't have cable at home, still using rabbit antennas to receive a few broadcast stations on the rare occasions when I want to watch. The one exception is when I am traveling. Since I initially feel disoriented and lack access to the books, magazines, and normal activities I have at home, and since I initially find it hard to read or write in the unfamiliar surroundings, I tend to turn on the TV and flip through the vast number of stations. And each time, I am amazed that despite the large numbers of channels that there is so little I want to see.

A few months ago, the day after the 'Super Tuesday' primaries, I flew to San Francisco for a conference. Arriving at the hotel, I turned on the TV to CNN to find out what had happened in the elections. Wolf Blitzer was on in The Situation Room and the 'news' consisted of the endless repetition of half-baked analysis and idiotic speculation about what it all means and what might happen in the future, mixed in with advice on strategy for the candidates. It essentially consisted of one pair of commentators after another coming on to say essentially the same things. The commentators were carefully paired as 'liberal' and 'conservative' or 'Republican' and 'Democrat'. The reason for this careful labeling is that it is not what these so-called Villager commentators and analysts actually say that is important (in fact it is mostly inane speculation, pollspeak, and gratuitous dispensing of advice to candidates), but these labels give the viewer guidance on what the allowable range of 'respectable' opinion is and discourages them from thinking outside those boundaries. I think that the more you listen to such shows, the less likely you are to think independently.

Glenn Greenwald picks up on one of the most infuriating aspects of the Villager media that I have also noticed. "The single most dishonest and propagandistic tactic of establishment journalists is to take their own opinion and assert as a fact that "most Americans" agree with them, even when that assertion is indisputably false. David Brooks [of the New York Times] is probably the single most frequent purveyor of this deceit, but the bulk of establishment pundits regularly deploy the same method -- simultaneously holding themselves out as Spokesmen for the Regular People while showing complete contempt for what they actually think by lying about their views."

Greenwald goes on to describe the Villager mentality:

What the Beltway Establishment believes more than it believes anything else is that the U.S. should continue to intervene in other countries, dominate the Middle East, and rule the world by superior military force. Thus, no matter how many Americans come to reject that mindset, affirming that mentality will remain a prerequisite for Seriousness and for being approved of by the Beltway class. Any politician, Democratic or Republican, who rejects these basic orthodoxies, no matter how unpopular the orthodoxies become, will be relegated to "cuckoo land."

The real goal of the Beltway class is to eliminate all real differences, all meaningful debate, on these central questions. The Beltway class demands bipartisan agreement on the most important issues. Along with the belief that crimes committed by the revered Beltway elite should never be investigated and especially not prosecuted, they venerate this harmony above all else.

What amazes me, apart from the inability to of the hosts of these pundit programs ask these people on what basis they claim to know what "most Americans" think, is the vacuous nature of the commentary. Can people actually watch this stuff for more than, say, 15 minutes without throwing something at the TV? Thank goodness for the internet where I can get just the information I want without also having to listen to the drivel of the so-called political analysts.

POST SCRIPT: Torture

Tom Tomorrow's cartoon captures the vacuity of the news programs in the way they have ignored the big story: that officials at the highest levels of this government knew and approved of the torture program.

April 23, 2008

The propaganda machine-15: The armies of the right

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in the series, I want to look at the big picture.

If you think of the ideological wars as being fought by armies, then to understand the role of the third tier pundit class one has to see them as non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the sergeants if you will, the ones who actually lead the ordinary soldiers, which in this case is that segment of the public that agrees with them. The pseudo-scholars who occupy the think tanks are the middle level officers. The very top brass, the generals, are the corporate owners, other big business interests, and the extremely rich people who create and underwrite the think tanks and create the media outlets. One key difference between real armies and those involved in the propaganda wars is that in the real armies the very top brass are highly visible in the media while the NCOs are invisible. In the propaganda army, however, it is the NCOs who are visible with the top brass being invisible.

The third tier pundits are part of the public face of the propaganda machine, the ones who are constantly rallying the troops with incendiary language and ideas. They play important roles in the tactical day–to-day battles but they are also dispensable once they have served their purpose. The think tankers play more strategic roles, formulating the plans that the third tier pundits carry out.

But I think that, financially rewarding as it must be to sing the song that your corporate paymasters pay you to sing, there is a price paid by these hired guns. The think tank 'scholars' and third tier pundits are clearly academic wannabees who could not make the grade in academia, and it must eventually chafe them to not have the freedom that genuine academics have to freely go wherever their investigations take them. This is not to say that these people are saying things that are contrary to their beliefs. I think they are perfectly sincere, at least most of them for most of the time. The way the filtering system works is that it draws in people who already think the way that these right-wing funders want them to think, so initially at least there is compatibility.

But in general as people grow more mature and have more experience of life, they tend to realize that the world is a complex place and that the Manichaean worldview of good and evil and the simplistic sloganeering of their youth is rather childish. There surely must come a moment when even the most obtuse third tier pundits or think tank hacks realize that they are trapped in an intellectual prison. They cannot change their views or even take more nuanced positions because that would get them summarily ousted from their sinecures.

This must cause them to look longingly at academics who have much greater intellectual freedom and can modify or even switch positions without risking getting tossed out on their ear. If I am convinced otherwise, I can change my mind about any issue at all and say so. But the think tankers and third tier pundits can't. They are pretty much stuck in their one role, singing the same tune forever and ever. This must rankle the third tier pundits and think tank 'scholars' at some level, however much they may try to rationalize it, which may explain why they attack academia so much.

I think Michael Berube got it just right about third tier pundits when he analyzed the potential source of David Horowitz's unhinged ranting against universities. He said that it must be because Horowitz, someone who fancies himself as an intellectual, envies academics because he himself is not free to say what he wants the way that university academics can.

I think we're finally getting to the real reason David hates professors so much. It has nothing to do with our salaries or our working hours: he hates our freedom. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I can criticize the Cockburns and Churchills to my left and the Beinarts and Elshtains to my right any old time I choose, and that at the end of the day I'll still have a job - whereas he has to answer to all his many masters, fetching and rolling over whenever they blow that special wingnut whistle that only far-right lackeys can hear. It's not a very dignified way to live, and surely it takes its toll on a person's sense of self-respect.

I think that this same phenomenon must eventually drive all the hired-gun third-tier pundits and think tank ideological hacks to great frustration. It is really somewhat sad and pathetic, but it is the path they have chosen.

The world of academia is by no means idyllic. It has its own petty politics and its own ambitious people who seek to subvert its ideals for personal gain. But it is important to realize that the core value around which universities and academia is built is that of the disinterested search for truth, and all its structures (such as tenure and peer review) are designed to foster that goal. Anyone who wants to do otherwise has to willfully work to subvert the system. The core values of think tanks and their third tier pundit hangers-on is exactly the opposite. It is to produce propaganda and anyone who wants to do good research has to find ways to work around that system.

And that is a world of difference.

POST SCRIPT: The state of the economy

Paul Craig Roberts paints a rather gloomy picture of the fading US economy.

April 22, 2008

The propaganda machine-14: The role of the third-tier pundits

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

This fairly long series on how the propaganda machine was created and operates was necessary in order to understand the original question of how the phenomenon of third-tier pundits arose. The machine provides the soil that nurtures them and allows them to ply their trade. This is why there seems to be almost nothing that the third-tier pundits can say, however idiotic or offensive, that gets them booted off the media, as long as they faithfully advance the values of their sponsors.

The role of third-tier pundits like Goldberg, Coulter, D'Souza, and Malkin is to entertain and create noise and move the boundaries of the discussion to the right by saying the most outlandish things. Their arguments do not even have to make sense as long as they are out there fanning the flames on behalf of their paymasters. The crackpot ideas of the third tier pundits make other right-wing pundits who hold views similar to the third-tier pundits but express them in more sober voices (people like William Kristol, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Bennett, etc.) seem reasonable.

It is also interesting that nepotism and cronyism run rampant in these circles. Jonah Goldberg's road was paved by his mother Lucianne Goldberg, who rose to fame as a gossip peddler in the Monica Lewinsky case, William Kristol rode the coattails of his famous father, the neoconservative icon Irving Kristol. John Podhoretz benefited from being the son of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, and was recently appointed to the editorship of Commentary, the same journal his father edited. In fact, there seems to be a kind of entitlement welfare system at work for these people.

In the right-wing media world, third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D'Souza, Frank Gaffney, and David Horowitz play the role of 'useful idiots'. By that I don't mean that they are stupid. Most of them have considerable formal education and some have advanced degrees. They are usually glib and have at least the intelligence to realize that if they are willing to play a particular role, they can secure well-paid employment. But they are essentially hired guns, disposable cogs in the machine, people who realized at a fairly early age that with their ideological bent, they could make a good living by using their rhetorical talents to sign on as low-level soldiers in the ideological wars.

Another advantage (to the pro-business/pro-war elite) of having a class of third tier pundits is that they are disposable because they are pretty much interchangeable. If any of them should become a liability for whatever reason or cease to be effective, they can be got rid of and easily replaced with fresh faces who have little baggage. There are recent signs that Coulter has outlived her usefulness and is falling out of favor, but she can and will be easily replaced.

As Juan Cole says about Goldberg (although his comments apply to all of the third tier pundits):

Goldberg is just a dime a dozen pundit. Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies.

Previously, Goldberg with the arrogance of someone who lacks self-reflection, actually had the temerity to assert that he was a more credible analyst of Middle Eastern politics than Juan Cole, who is a political science professor whose field is the history of that region, who has lived for many years in the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, none of which Goldberg can boast of. This was too much for the usually mild-mannered Juan Cole who then proceeded to slap Goldberg silly, saying:

I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can't read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq's neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg's opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.

Goldberg then tried to backtrack, saying that he did not claim to have more knowledge than Cole, just better judgment. This alone shows just how vapid and disconnected with reality these people are, and how their minds work, as Cole immediately pointed out:

Goldberg is now saying that he did not challenge my knowledge of the Middle East, but my judgment. I take it he is saying that his judgment is superior to mine. But how would you tell whose judgment is superior? Of course, all this talk of "judgment" is code for "political agreement." Progressives think that other progressives have good judgment, Conservatives think that other conservatives have good judgment. This is a tautology in reality. Goldberg believes that I am wrong because I disagree with him about X, and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong, and ipso facto lacks good judgment.

An argument that judgment matters but knowledge does not is profoundly anti-intellectual. It implies that we do not need ever to learn anything in order make mature decisions. We can just proceed off some simple ideological template and apply it to everything. This sort of thinking is part of what is wrong with this country. We wouldn't call a man in to fix our plumbing who knew nothing about plumbing, but we call pundits to address millions of people on subjects about which they know nothing of substance.

Cole is exactly right. The know-nothing pundit class is a menace to society, distorting public policy and advancing truly harmful actions. The sooner they get the ridicule they deserve and are laughed off the stage, the better.

POST SCRIPT: Wall Street gamblers

Recently I ran a series of posts titled The brave new world of finance about the financial mess caused by the subprime housing loan practices and how it exposed the rampant recklessness with which the big Wall Street financial interests were operating. In the following Terry Gross interview with Michael Greenberger, he provides one of the clearest explanations I have heard about the complex transactions that were going on. Essentially, all these people were gambling with other people's money.

I must warn you that the very clarity of Greenberger's explanations makes his prediction that things are even worse than we think somewhat depressing.

April 21, 2008

The propaganda machine-13: Why journalists perpetuate the myth of a liberal media

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Even a casual glance at the ownership structure of the media should be enough to dispel the notion that the media are 'liberal' in any meaningful sense. As for the owners, Robert McChesney writes in The Problem of the Media (2003):

Many prominent media moguls are rock-ribbed conservatives such as Rupert Murdoch, John Malone, former GE CEO Jack Welch, and Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays. Although some media executives and owners donate money to Democrats, none of the major news media owners is anything close to a left-winger. Journalists who praise corporations and commercialism will obviously be held in higher regard (and given more slack) by owners and advertisers than journalists who are routinely critical of them. Media owners do not want their own economic interests or policies criticized. (p. 115)

The true colors of the media were on open display during the run up to the war in Iraq. The progressive Phil Donahue had his show cancelled by MSNBC in February 2003 despite being their highest rated show at that time. Even before that, Donahue had been tightly controlled by his bosses and told that he had to have two conservative guests for every liberal one.

Of course MSNBC is owned by General Electric, and since wars are always good for GE, they were not anxious to have a war critic like Donahue given too visible a platform. Similarly ABC is owned by Disney, CBS by Viacom, and Fox by NewsCorp. The main news program on PBS, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is also underwritten by big corporations. Can we really expect any serious unbiased reporting on the power of corporations by such institutions?

Meanwhile, infantile right wing talk show hosts like Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, and John Gibson continued to have their shows on TV for long periods despite their low ratings. The last two only recently were cancelled.

One also has to distinguish to some extent between the real powers, which are the owners of the media and are behind the scenes, and the public faces of the media that consists of the journalists whose faces and bylines we are familiar with. Since the major media is located in urban centers, even though their employees are an integral part of the pro-business/pro-war Villager group, they also tend to be urban sophisticates and thus may be liberal on a few social issues such as gay rights and abortion, and are not likely to be rapture-ready fundamentalist Christians. These features are enough to make the right-wing charge of a 'liberal' media plausible in the public's eye.

Of course, it is not possible for the journalists employed by the corporate media to completely ignore the fundamental nature of corporate control of the media. But that situation is finessed by channeling the discussion away from issue of ownership, class, and privilege to a fake populism that panders to and fans the flames of division that do not impinge on the privileges of big business. Hence topics such as race, religion, and sexuality are readily seized on as they appeal to visceral feelings. When people are all fired up about these side issues, they have little energy left to ponder why the gap between the extremely wealthy and them is getting larger by the day, and why the media dwells obsessively on the health of the stock market and other Wall Street interests at the expense of covering (say) labor issues or the lack of access to adequate health care.

McChesney discusses this sleight of hand that diverts people's attention away from the real issues:

At its most effective, the conservative critique plays off the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the populist airs of the conservative criticism are strictly for show, as they tend to collapse as soon as class – the one unmentionable term in the conservative lexicon – is introduced. In fact, many right-wingers who swear allegiance to the working class hark from well-to-do families and oppose traditional policies to improve the conditions of the working class, even trade unions. The same conservative pundits and politicians who wrap themselves in the military and fire the starting gun at NASCAR races typically dodged the draft themselves, like most other upper-middle class and rich folk. And the same upper-class conservative pundits who galvanize working-class Christians to support right-wing politics with thunderous moral pronouncements sometimes turn out to be liars, philanderers, drug users, and chronic gamblers. (p. 113)

Why are these obvious contradictions not pointed out by journalists? Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (who once worked within mainstream media and has seen how it operates from the inside) made the interesting observation about the how media censors itself to produce mainly a right wing viewpoint.

So much of the imbalance and shallowness of press coverage today stems from a simple fact: reporters know they'll catch hell from the right if they say or write anything that can even remotely be construed as representing 'liberal bias'. (Often even that's not required.) Indeed, when you actually watch -- from the inside -- how mainstream newsrooms work, it is really not too much to say that they operate on two guiding principles: reporting the facts and avoiding impressions of 'liberal bias'.

Marshall says that the arrival of the internet and of bloggers has enabled a better sense of balance, because now there is an avenue for a wider group of people to make their displeasure known when the media acts in a way that is seen as biased or partisan. It is now possible for people without deep pockets to provide at least some countervailing pressure on the Villagers.

On the left or center-left, until very recently, there's simply never been an organized chorus of people ready to take the Howells of the press biz to task and mau-mau them when they get a key fact wrong. Without that, the world of political news was like an NBA game where one side played the refs hard and had roaring seats of fans while the other never made a peep. With that sort of structural imbalance, shoddy scorekeeping and cowed, and eventually compliant, refs are inevitable.

You would think that the journalists themselves would loudly defend their independence and assert that they are just doing journalism, not bending to ideological winds. But interestingly, the journalists seem to be some of the perpetuators of the myth that the media has a liberal bias. Why is this? McChesney points out the interesting fact that that it is to the advantage of journalists to propagate the myth of a liberal media, because it actually puts them in a good light.

In fact, it is hardly surprising that the conservative critique of the media is so prominent – given that this myth is cultivated to some extent by the so-called liberal media themselves. The conservative critique is in some respects the "official opposition" cultivated by professional journalism itself because in a sense journalists have to be viewed as "liberals," fiercely independent and out of step with their corporate owners, for the system to have any credibility. Were journalists seen as cravenly bowing before wealth and privilege, journalism would lose credibility as an autonomous democratic force. After all, the quest for autonomy played a significant role in the development of professional journalism in the first place. The conservative critique is also rather flattering to journalists; it says to them: you have all the power but you use the power to advance the interests of the poor and minorities and environmentalists (or government bureaucrats and liberal elitists) rather than the interests of corporations and the military (or Middle America). A political economic critique, which suggests that journalists have much less power and are too often the pawns of forces that make them agents of the status quo, is much less flattering and almost invisible. (When the "left" critique is on rare occasion presented in mainstream media, one suspects it is included so journalists can claim they are being attacked from both sides and therefore must be neutral, nonpartisan, and straight down the middle.) (p. 114)

Next: Back to the third tier pundits.

February 28, 2008

The rise of Tim Russert and the decline of journalism

I watched the Democratic primary debate held in Cleveland on Tuesday. It was the first debate I had watched live so far during the primary season. Who do I think won? I think such questions are meaningless. These kinds of debates are not meant to provide that kind of result.

But the losers of these debates are quite easy to pick: they are usually the moderators. What I hate about these debates is not the candidates' performance (they actually come off quite well) but the moderators, who come across as preening and vain and self-important, and who seem to think that the debates are all about them.

And of that breed, there is no doubt that Tim Russert is the most obnoxious. No one epitomizes all the problems of modern journalism better than him. His shtick is really wearing thin. He often makes it a point to refer to himself as just a 'blue-collar boy from Buffalo', as if that makes him an outsider, just like you and me, a regular, working class guy like his daddy, so that we will overlook the fact that he is a well-connected Washington insider, a consummate Villager, someone who is completely at home with the moneyed-classes that rule the country.

Russert also practices a really tedious form of 'gotcha' questioning by trying to find some contradiction between a politician's past statement on some issue and their current position. He usually frames this by saying, "On June 14, 1987, you said . . . but then last week you said . . ." and then sits there with a smug expression, as if proud of himself for having done all that research into the candidates speeches and writings.

Of course politicians change their positions, as do we all. Sometimes that is the most reasonable thing to do. As economist John Maynard Keynes responded when questioned about his own change of position on some issue, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Russert does not seem to really care if the alleged switch is on a major issue or a minor one, or whether the switch was justified because of a change in circumstances, or what the full context of the quote was. His entire goal seems to be to take the candidate by surprise and make them look awkward.

As Josh Marshall over at the excellent Talking Points Memo (which should be a must read for any serious follower of politics) says: "The standout performance of last night was Tim Russert's repeated tirades at the candidates for not answering his clownish questions. So we thought we'd string all of Tim's gonzo moments into one tight reel. Let's all repeat together, "I'm rough enough, I'm tough enough, and doggone it, people like me!"

Being the target of an interview ambush by Russert is like being attacked by an angry chicken: it is alarming at first before you realize how ridiculous he is.

In general, Russert seemed to be ruder to Clinton than he was to Obama, interrupting her repeatedly, but Russert's lowest point was when he had to resort to really tortuous logic to link Obama to Louis Farrakhan and demanded to know what he ws going to do about it. Sadly, Hillary Clinton used that question to do reinforce Russert's absurd line of questioning and it then devolved into a contest to see who could pander more to Israel and the Jewish vote.

Again, Josh Marshall in a post titled Russert's Lowest Moment (and that's saying a lot) says it all:

I discussed this in the live debate blog. But I think it's worth going back and watching Russert's run of shame here. I would say it was borderline to bring up the issue of Farrakhan at all. But perhaps since it's getting some media play you bring it up just for the record, for Obama to address.

That's not what Russert did. He launches into it, gets into a parsing issue over word choices, then tries to find reasons to read into the record some of Farrakhan's vilest quotes after Obama has just said he denounces all of them. Then he launches into a bizarre series of logical fallacies that had Obama needing to assure Jews that he didn't believe that Farrakhan "epitomizes greatness".

As a Jew and perhaps more importantly simply as a sentient being I found it disgusting.

What was the point of Russert's line of questioning? Why such questions make no sense is that if you look in the weeds hard enough, you will find all kinds of people supporting each and every candidate. What does that prove about a candidate? Nothing really, because people support candidates for a variety of reasons, some substantial and some trivial, some positive and some negative. If you as a reporter find an unusual source of support, that say a serial murderer has said he really likes McCain or that anti-Muslim Christian bigots are supporting Huckabee or that some KKK members are supporting Clinton, those things by themselves do not reflect on McCain or Huckabee or Clinton and they should not feel obliged to renounce each and every instance of such support. If that was a requirement, then people opposed to a candidate could create all kinds of mischief and distraction by getting people to say they support the candidate they actually oppose, and then watch the candidate be forced to waste time and energy renouncing such support.

When you see candidates receiving statements of support from any person or group whom you think is beyond the pale, what you have to do as a reporter is to see whether the candidate has, by word or action, suggested that they share the values of those professing support for them. If you can't find any such instances, then that is the end of the story.

But simply picking out someone you dislike and using their statement of support for a candidate to demand that they formally reject such support seems to be aimed at casting negative aspersions on a candidate. It is lazy and shoddy journalism, but exactly the kind that Russert practices.

Another of Russert's grandstanding tactics is posing the absurd hypothetical in order to catch candidates off-balance. In the debate, Russert asked Clinton and Obama what they would do if they withdrew US troops from Iraq and then found that al Qaeda had come roaring back in that country and taken over. Would they send troops back in? Clinton, to her credit, slapped Russert down and said the question was one that was hypothetical and not worth answering.

But why stop there, little Timmy? Why not ask the candidates what they would do if Russia and China form an alliance with al Qaeda to try take over the entire Middle East, and use that as a base to invade Pakistan? Or what they would do if an alien spaceship suddenly appeared and asked them to take the aliens to their leader? I am sure that you can get your crack research staff to think of something even more fantastical.

These kinds of hypotheticals are just plain silly because they are so far removed from reality. Candidates should not have to spend time thinking about what they would do in all the possible situations, and they should refuse to answer such questions. Presidents, of course, have entire teams of people whose job it is to study hypothetical scenarios and review the various options available to them. But leaders keep those hypotheticals under wraps because to discuss them in public is as self-defeating as thinking out loud about your future moves while playing a chess game.

The only time to publicly discuss a hypothetical is when you want to use it to influence the other party's actions, to exert some kind of pressure. The president can say, for example, that if the Iraqi government were to take action A, then the US would have to seriously consider doing action B. The point of such a hypothetical is clear: it is to signal to the Iraqi government that it should seriously consider not taking action A.

To me, people like Tim Russert represent the decline of journalism. He may not be the worst example (it is hard to beat Fox News for really bad journalism) but the fact that he is considered by many to be one of the best is a sign of how bad things are. Such people have turned me off watching TV news altogether. I seriously considered not watching the debate because I knew in advance that I would get irritated by Russert

I often think we would have much better candidate debates if they were moderated by college students who are policy debaters or Model United Nations participants. They usually are more serious and better informed and less smugly self-important.

POST SCRIPT: Interview on radio

I will be interviewed on a call-in program on radio on Saturday, March 1 from 10:00-10:30am (Eastern time). The program is called Situation Awareness and the host is Hans Meyer. This program is a FreeWorldRadioNetwork.net production, part of Blog Talk Radio.

I was contacted because the host had seen some very early blog posts of mine that dealt with those people I called Third-Tier Pundits (i.e., people like Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Malkin) who are very silly people who have little useful to say but spend a lot of time saying it. The topic will be expanded to a general look at how the media (especially punditry) operates these days.

I will be interviewed for the first 15 minutes and the next 15 minutes will be Q&A with listeners. The call-in number is (646) 478-4821. You can listen-in and download the podcast of this and other shows here.

July 24, 2007

CNN, Michael Moore, Sicko, and fact-checking as propaganda tool

(For previous posts on the topic of health care, see here.)

All Michael Moore's films deal with very serious topics in ways that are both informative and entertaining. His films have dealt with corporate greed, violence in society, the Iraq war, and now the health industry. Along with Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, he provides a perspective and viewpoint that is almost completely absent from the mainstream media.

What is curious is the response to his films. People seem to find it hard to accept that his critiques are largely accurate and desperately seek to find something, however trivial or immaterial to his main point, that is wrong so that they can discredit his entire case. They seem to be eager to characterize Moore as not being a "serious" person.

The so-called "fact-checking" by CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, for example, has to be seen to be believed. He accused Moore of "fudging facts" but got his own facts wrong, and the only "expert" his report showed was an academic who did business with the medical industry, although this fact was not pointed out. Gupta accused Moore of cherry-picking data, when the same charge could be leveled at CNN, and the differences in any case were small and immaterial to the case Moore was making.

I am all for fact-checking statements made by public figures, and Moore should not be exempted. But the point is that while CNN enthusiastically "fact-checks" anti-establishment figures like Moore, they almost never do similar things for the statements by government and industry personnel. This is characteristic of the media propaganda model that was pointed out by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in the classic work Manufacturing Consent. Moore rightly chastised Blitzer for the fact that the mainstream media uncritically passed on all the outrageous statements by Iraq war advocates leading up to the 2003 invasion. They are doing a similar thing now with respect to Iran. Where is their vaunted "fact-checking" on those important issues? To find any serious fact-checking of statements by Bush or Cheney or any administration spokespersons, one needs to read blogs.

There is no question that big media outlets are completely beholden to the medical and drug industries because of the extensive advertising revenue they receive from them, and thus avoid taking a hard line against them. If Gupta or Blitzer did a really serious comparison of the US and (say) French health care systems and concluded that the French were better, the CNN top brass would get stern calls from the health-related industry and they would feel the heat. The point is not that Blitzer and Gupta are deliberately hiding the truth (though that might be the case), it is that the way the media filters operate is that only people who think like them, who are already sympathetic to the US health care industry and will bend over backwards to show them in a good light, will get to the position they currently occupy. So the fact that they effectively act as shills for the health industry should not come as a surprise. (See my previous post and here for more on how the media works.)

It seems that if you are well-dressed, articulate person from a so-called "respectable" institution like a think-tank or government or academia or the media (I am thinking of people like William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Mitt Romney, Alan Dershowitz, Rudy Giuliani, Joe Lieberman, and the innumerable loyal Bushies and Cheneyites), you can say the most outrageous, even borderline insane, things (such as advocate torture and indefinite detention without trial or access to lawyers, undermine the Bill or Rights, attack Iran, link Iraq to al Qaeda and 9/11, and not even rule out the use of nuclear weapons) without being challenged and fact-checked, as long as you are promoting the pro-establishment or pro-war or pro-business point of view. Running fact-checks on what these people say, especially George Bush during his public speeches and press conferences, would be very helpful but is rarely done.

But when it comes to Michael Moore, the mainstream media are eager to trot out their "fact-checking" teams to scrutinize him, because he is challenging the joint war/business establishment of which they are an integral part. The news media tends to assume that when Moore (a big fat guy in an open-neck shirt and unkempt hair stuffed under a baseball cap and looking like a trucker) comes ambling along, he must be simply shooting from the hip, as sloppy with the facts as he is with his appearance.

The reality is that Moore is a sharp guy who has a research team in place to back up the statements in his films. He is not a just-off-the-boat bumpkin that his cinematic persona projects and he knows that all the big establishment guns are just waiting for him to make a mistake so that they can pounce and use that single slip to discredit his whole thesis, a common tactic used by big corporations. It is not an accident that he can provide immediate refutations of Gupta's allegations. His research team has probably anticipated every possible challenge to his film and prepared a counter-offensive before even releasing the film. (CNN has now responded to Moore's charges against them.) See also Moore's website on the detailed documentation behind his film.

This is why CNN was reduced to desperately looking for something, anything, to support their contention that he "fudged the facts," and resorted to distortions when they couldn't find anything substantive. But people who condescend to Moore and take him lightly because he does not talk or look or act like a sophisticated intellectual are falling into a trap because they tend to underestimate him, and then are taken by surprise when he slaps them down with facts and reason, as Blitzer and Gupta experienced. When directly challenged, Gupta could not provide even a single example of how Moore "fudged the facts," and was reduced to whining about Moore using different sources for his data (even though all the sources used were authoritative) and how Moore described the health care systems of other nations as "free" when they were funded by taxes. This alone shows how far Gupta is stretching to try to discredit Moore. Does Gupta think we are so stupid that we believe that all the services we all commonly describe as "free" (libraries, parks, public schools etc.) magically appear as gifts from Santa Claus and are not funded by our taxes? The point is that "free" in those contexts is commonly understood as meaning that we can access those services at any time without having to produce cash or prove that we can pay.

And most importantly, in the other countries which have universal, single-payer health care systems, not a single person goes bankrupt or loses their home or has to forego other of life's essentials because of their health care needs. That is what "free" means, as Gupta must know but chooses to obfuscate.

In his report, Gupta also seemed to act like he had made a big journalistic scoop by 'discovering' that Cuba was at rank #39 (behind the US at rank #37) in the overall health care quality ranking. In fact, Moore's film clearly showed the two rankings. It was Gupta's CNN report that implied that Moore's film hid this fact by themselves hiding Cuba's on-screen ranking in the film behind a caption, as can be seen below where the left is from the film and the right is what was shown by CNN. This was a truly outrageous thing for a so-called journalist to do. So it was Gupta and CNN who were "fudging the facts."

sicko_facts_up_front_th.jpg cnn_covers_up_cuba_th.jpg

(Pam Martens points out that Gupta co-hosts a TV show called AccentHealth that is sponsored by drug companies likeMerck, whose products Gupta has been praising. And here is some background on Sanjay Gupta that suggests that he is a Deepak Chopra wannabe, using the same kind of medical-related, feel-good, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that seems to appeal to a lot of people.)

What I find odd is that even some people who share Moore's politics tend to try and distance themselves from him and treat him as a gadfly. One of the best analyses of the responses to Moore and his film was done by James Clay Fuller and it is well worth reading in its entirety. As Fuller says: "Apparently there is a rule in corporate journalism that every mention of Moore and his films, or Moore without his films, must contain at least two snide observations about his biases, his ever so naughty attacks on rich and powerful but somehow –- in the eyes of the corporate journalists -- defenseless people such as the chairman of General Motors, and, if you can slide it in, Moore's physical appearance." Another good analysis of the facts in Moore's film can be heard in this Fresh Air interview with Jonathan Oberlander.

You should really see Sicko if you have not already done so.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore with Stephen Colbert

It was a great interview. See the clip.

April 06, 2007

How I almost changed the face of TV

Recently I received a letter from a company called Television Preview. In big block caps, it said the following:

DEAR TELEVIEWER:

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO PARTICIPATE IN A SURVEY WHOSE FINDINGS WILL DIRECTLY INFLUENCE WHAT YOU SEE ON TELEVISION IN THE FUTURE.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO EVALUATE NOT-YET RELEASED TELEVISION MATERIAL THAT IS BEING CONSIDERED FOR NATIONWIDE BROADCAST.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO HELP REPRESENT TELEVISION VIEWING PREFERENCES OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

The letter went on to say that they were not trying to sell anything (which addressed my first fear, that this was a ruse in which I would be stuck in a room and asked to buy a timeshare in some resort condo) but that the enclosed printed tickets to a private screening at a local hotel would be to view pilot episodes of TV shows to help determine which ones should be given a full run. The audience would watch them and then rate the shows.

This is not the first time my family have been asked to help set the nation's TV viewing agenda but the previous two occasions were from the well-known Nielsen ratings company that asks people to keep diaries at home to be used to calculate ratings for shows already on TV. The first time was when my children were very young and so the diary entries were mainly for PBS children's shows such as Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers', Reading Rainbow, and Square One. The second time was very recently and now that our children are away, the diary was pretty much blank.

This new offer I received, though, was going to decide what was going to be put on in the future, an awesome power and responsibility As the letter said, I was going to help determine what the ENTIRE COUNTRY would watch.

Of course, I was flattered to have been chosen. At last, word had got around that I was a man of taste and polish, who should be listened to when it came to the arts. Even though I rarely watch TV, I like to think of myself (who doesn't?) as a discerning viewer, and the chance to have a positive effect on TV programming was tempting.

Even though I could not see any obvious catch, doing this still involved a few hours of my time and I am always skeptical of offers that come unsolicited, especially from outfits that I had never heard of before. So I decided to Google the text of the letter and the name of the company to see what I could find. And sure enough it was a scam, aimed at people like me who are gullible enough to fall for appeals to our vanity.

The point of the whole exercise turns out to be not that TV executives are anxious to hear my considered opinions on the supposed pilots (some of which were of shows that had already appeared on TV over 10 years ago) but to get my views on the advertisements for the products that were shown during the commercial breaks in the shows. In other words, the audience was really a focus group to get responses to the products and the advertisements in an atmosphere that simulates real TV viewing at home.

Zach Dubinsky describes in detail what happens at such screenings. He says the bait and switch is done so well ("To better simulate a "natural environment," the host tells us how the kindly folks at Television Preview have inserted commercials into the screenings -- but only to make everyone feel more at home") that none of the half dozen people he interviewed after the program caught on to the fact that they had been lured to test the ads and products, not the shows. This report describes who and what is behind the project. This is another amusing report from someone who attended a screening.

So there you are. If you get such a letter in the mail, you now know what to expect if you go. Unless you want to experience the surreal as some did, throw the invitation in the trash, along with the pre-approved credit card offers.

POST SCRIPT: Radio show podcast

The podcast of the radio interview/call in show on atheism that I did on Wednesday is available for listening via audiostream or you can have a downloadable podcast. (Click on the iTunes icon in the The Sound of Ideas.) The program is about 50 minutes long.

March 15, 2007

How the media patronizes us

The presidential election campaign for 2008 has already started with a whole host of declared and undeclared candidates running. George Bush's performance seem to have persuaded people that anyone can do a better job than him.

On the Democratic side, we have Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson. (Tom Vilsack has already dropped out.)

On the Republican side, there is Rudy Giuliani, Duncan Hunter, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo, and possibly Newt Gingrich, Chuck Hagel, and Fred Thompson.

All the candidates face stiff hurdles in getting their respective nominations. But the reality is that almost all of them have no chance. It is not because they are not good candidates or are incapable of being president or have unsavory histories but because they have two inter-related issues that work against them right form the start.

One of those issues is the ability to raise money. It requires a lot of money to run a presidential campaign. This is something that everyone is aware of. The less obvious but related issue is that the media has already made a judgment about who is 'worthy' and capable of being president and some of the candidates have already been written off. The coverage of their campaigns will reflect this bias against them and this will adversely affect those candidates' ability to raise money and gain name recognition.

It is clear that the media has already chosen the following as the 'viable' candidates based on nothing more than their own preferences. For Democrats they are Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. For the Republicans, they are Giuliani, McCain, and Romney.

The media will be either dismissive of the others, or treat them as distractions, or use them as fodder to provide 'color' to the campaigns. For example, Michael McIntyre says Kucinich's in his 'Tipoff' column in the Plain Dealer on January 20, 2007 described Kucinich's campaign as 'futile.' On what basis? He does not say. The fact is that Kucinich and Paul are the only Congresspeople running for president who had the foresight to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, the disastrous law that George Bush used to wage his illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq. But that seems to count for nothing in the minds of the media who continue to give prominence to the politicians and pundits who have been consistently wrong on everything concerning this war. (Obama was also against the war but not in Congress at that time.)

This is not a new phenomenon. The pack of media journalists that follow campaigns as a group has long tended to decide early on which candidates 'deserve' serious consideration, or even are worthy of being president and slant their coverage accordingly. Jonathan Schwarz describes an experience he had many years ago that illustrated to him that "the government and corporate media self-consciously see themselves as a governing elite that runs things hand in hand."

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen came to talk at Yale in 1988, just after I arrived. Following schmancy Yale tradition, he had tea with a small group of students and then ate dinner with an even smaller group. I weaseled my way into attending.

Gary Hart had recently flamed out in the '88 presidential race because of Donna Rice. And at dinner Cohen told all us fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty youths this:

The Washington press corps had specifically tried to push Hart out of the race. It wasn't because Hart had had extramarital affairs—everyone knew this was the norm rather than the exception among politicians. So Hart wasn't at all unusual in this respect. Instead, Cohen said, it was because the press corps felt that Hart was "weird" and "flaky" and shouldn't be president. And when the Donna Rice stuff happened, they saw their opening and went after him.

(I wish I remembered more about what Cohen said about the specific gripe of the press corps with Hart, but I don't think he revealed many details.)

At the time, I remember thinking this:

1. How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it's appropriate.

2. How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America; ie, rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn't be trusted to make the correct evaluation.

3. How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.
. . .
If you're not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you're stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can't be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you'd go nuts and break America.

CBS News's Dick Meyer confirms the fact that the media often decides to not tell the public the truth about political leaders:

This is a story I should have written 12 years ago when the "Contract with America" Republicans captured the House in 1994. I apologize.

Really, it's just a simple thesis: The men who ran the Republican Party in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years were a group of weirdos. Together, they comprised one of the oddest legislative power cliques in our history. And for 12 years, the media didn't call a duck a duck, because that's not something we're supposed to do.

The situation now is not unlike that which existed earlier when Thomas Jefferson said:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

It seems clear to me that the members of the mainstream media and the political classes today tends to fall into the first group. But for a healthy democracy, it is important that we advocate belonging to the second group. This is why I think that citizenship means that we do not accept what is given to us by the media but be active seekers of knowledge.

March 02, 2007

The creeping immorality in public discourse

Sometimes I wonder what passes for brains and morals among some of our so-called 'respected' journalists. Take Ted Koppel, former host of ABC's Nightline and now an analyst for NPR. In a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, he starts by taking a fairly sensible stand, that any sanctions imposed against Iran can be easily subverted and that the US does not have a realistic chance of preventing that country from obtaining nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so. Koppel says "What, then, can the United States do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology? Little or nothing. Washington should instead bow to the inevitable." He continues: "If Iran is bound and determined to have nuclear weapons, let it."

But it turns out that this seemingly reasonable acknowledgment of reality is merely the foundation for suggesting something truly outrageous:

But this should also be made clear to Tehran: If a dirty bomb explodes in Milwaukee, or some other nuclear device detonates in Baltimore or Wichita, if Israel or Egypt or Saudi Arabia should fall victim to a nuclear "accident," Iran should understand that the U.S. government will not search around for the perpetrator. The return address will be predetermined, and it will be somewhere in Iran.

Pause for a moment and consider the horror of what he is proposing. If a nuclear weapon explodes anywhere in the US or a country that is considered an ally of the US, then the US should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran, without any attempt to find out who the guilty party is. Evidence doesn't matter. Actual guilt doesn't matter. All that matters to him is that hundreds of thousands of people be killed and maimed, and residual radiation effects lasting for generations be released in order to satisfy his desire to lash out.

Apart from the blatant immorality of the suggestion, surely the adverse implications of such a stated US policy are obvious? It gives a free hand to anyone to carry out an attack, knowing that they will get off scot-free since Iran will bear the retaliation. Such a policy, rather than deterring an attack, actually encourages one.

To see the implications, suppose that someone who feels threatened by an opponent hires a private security team. Suppose that this team announces that if the person they are protecting is killed, they will shoot and kill the pre-identified opponent without bothering to do any investigation. The result of this policy is that rather than reducing the danger to the protected person, it is actually increased because every other person who wishes to see him or her dead now has a free hand to act, knowing that retribution will be delivered elsewhere.

So from where did Koppel get this brilliant brainwave, that sounds like something out of a gangster film? From an actual gangster film, The Godfather! He says that this is the message the US should give the leaders of Iran:

"You [i.e. the Iranians] insist on having nuclear weapons," we should say. "Go ahead. It's a terrible idea, but we can't stop you. We would, however, like your leaders to view the enclosed DVD of 'The Godfather.' Please pay particular attention to the scene in which Don Corleone makes grudging peace with a man - the head of a rival crime family - who ordered the killing of his oldest son."

In that scene, Don Corleone says, "I forgo my vengeance for my dead son, for the common good. But I have selfish reasons." The welfare of his youngest son, Michael, is on his mind.

"I am a superstitious man," he continues. "And so if some unlucky accident should befall my youngest son, if some police officer should accidentally shoot him, or if he should hang himself in his cell, or if my son is struck by a bolt of lightening, then I will blame some of the people here. That I could never forgive."

That is by no means the only example of establishment types seemingly becoming unhinged by how badly their various wars are going. Recently Glenn Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and a popular blogger known as Instapundit, made another outrageous suggestion that the US should not invade Iran or try diplomacy with that country and instead "We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and iranian atomic scientists."

Imagine that, a professor of law casually advocating the murder of civilians in another country.

Paul C. Campos, another professor of law at the University of Colorado, wrote an op-ed pointing out the enormity of this suggestion, and that what was being suggested was unequivocally a war crime.

How does a law professor, of all people, justify advocating murder? “I think it’s perfectly fine to kill people who are working on atomic bombs for countries - like Iran - that have already said that they want to use those bombs against America and its allies, and I think that those who feel otherwise are idiots, and in absolutely no position to strike moral poses,” Reynolds says.

Now this kind of statement involves certain time-tested rhetorical techniques. First, make a provocative claim that happens to be false. In fact, no Iranian government official has ever said Iran wants to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Then use this claim to defend actions, such as murdering civilians, which would remain immoral and illegal even if the claim happened to be true. Finally, condemn those who object to using lies to justify murder as “idiots,” who don’t understand the need to take strong and ruthless action when defending the fatherland from its enemies.

Upon being called to account, Reynolds, in trying to defend himself, managed to dig himself even deeper into a hole. The fascinating back and forth can be read here and some good commentary can also be seen here.

In a long and detailed essay, Norman Finkelstein takes another academic Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to task for his willingness to provide rationales for actions that would be considered horrendous crimes if done by people he disapproves of. Finkelstein says at the end:

After all the hard-won gains of civilization, who would want to live in a world that once again legally sanctioned torture, collective punishment, assassinations and mass murder? As Dershowitz descends into barbarism, it remains a hopeful sign that few seem inclined to join him.

I have written many times before, but it bears repeating again, that war does not simply bring death and destruction to those immediately involved. It also makes barbarians of us all. It makes people think of the immoral as necessary and evil acts as desirable.

February 13, 2007

Taking the baton from Molly Ivins

Journalist Molly Ivins died of cancer last week at the age of 62. I was a regular reader of her monthly columns in The Progressive magazine. There have been many marvelous remembrances of her all over the media. Paul Krugman had a good article on Molly's ability to see right through bogus arguments, and nowhere was this skill more visible than in her columns about the Iraq war. As Krugman says:

Molly never lost sight of two eternal truths: rulers lie, and the times when people are most afraid to challenge authority are also the times when it's most important to do just that. And the fact that she remembered these truths explains something I haven't seen pointed out in any of the tributes: her extraordinary prescience on the central political issue of our time.

I've been going through Molly's columns from 2002 and 2003, the period when most of the wise men of the press cheered as Our Leader took us to war on false pretenses, then dismissed as "Bush haters" anyone who complained about the absence of W.M.D. or warned that the victory celebrations were premature. Here are a few selections:

Nov. 19, 2002: "The greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win? … There is a batty degree of triumphalism loose in this country right now."

Jan. 16, 2003: "I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 percent Kurd, 20 percent Sunni and 60 percent Shiite. Can you say, 'Horrible three-way civil war?' "

July 14, 2003: "I opposed the war in Iraq because I thought it would lead to the peace from hell, but I'd rather not see my prediction come true and I don't think we have much time left to avert it. That the occupation is not going well is apparent to everyone but Donald Rumsfeld. … We don't need people with credentials as right-wing ideologues and corporate privatizers — we need people who know how to fix water and power plants."

Oct. 7, 2003: "Good thing we won the war, because the peace sure looks like a quagmire.

"I've got an even-money bet out that says more Americans will be killed in the peace than in the war, and more Iraqis will be killed by Americans in the peace than in the war. Not the first time I've had a bet out that I hoped I'd lose."

So Molly Ivins — who didn't mingle with the great and famous, didn't have sources high in the administration, and never claimed special expertise on national security or the Middle East — got almost everything right. Meanwhile, how did those who did have all those credentials do?

With very few exceptions, they got everything wrong.
. . .
Was Molly smarter than all the experts? No, she was just braver. The administration's exploitation of 9/11 created an environment in which it took a lot of courage to see and say the obvious.

This is a very important point. Now that Iraq is a mess, all the government officials, journalists, and pundits who egged the country on to war have been proven disastrously wrong on almost everything. There is no reason to take anything they say seriously anymore. But in order to maintain their positions as 'respectable authorities' and continue to pontificate, they are now rewriting the history leading up to the war.

Some, like the infamous Michael Ledeen and Time magazine's Joe Klein, adopt the tactic of shamelessly claiming now that they were always against the war. But in this age of the internet, those lies have been exposed. (See here for Klein and here for Ledeen.)

Others have taken the tack that everyone at that time believed all the lies that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice were peddling then (about how Iraq and Saddam Hussein were on the verge of unleashing nuclear weapons, that Iraq had links with al-Qaeda, that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks, etc.). This enables them to look on themselves as being the serious people who were trying to avoid a catastrophe, while those of us who opposed the war were know-nothings, pusillanimous peaceniks, or appeasing Chamberlains, who were not serious people then and thus should not be taken seriously now.

But there were plenty of people like Molly who correctly judged the situation, both with regards to the 'threat' posed by Iraq and the possibilities of disaster afterwards. When I go back and read the notes of the talk that I gave at the anti-war teach-in at Case Western Reserve University on February 11, 2003 just before the invasion, I find that even I, as a complete outsider with no special inside information, was totally skeptical about the case being made for war. All my information was based on public sources. My talk was given just three days after Colin Powell's infamous speech to the UN that caused the entire media establishment to swoon in admiration. Read Norman Solomon's round up of the fawning coverage Powell's dishonest speech received. And yet, again from purely public sources in the international media, I was able to show why many of his allegations were suspect.

And there were millions of equally skeptical people around the world. So this idea that 'we' all were misled by the wrong intelligence is a canard that Molly Ivins' column exposes. What is amazing is that just a few years later, the same kinds of arguments are being used to ratchet up for attacks against Iran. Various anonymous sources are being put forward to make another fraudulent case for war. (I will write more about this later.)

But what really put Molly Ivins into the very top rank of columnists, apart from her courage and insight, was her way with words. She had the ability to routinely turn a phrase that left you smiling with admiration because she could make it look so easy and you knew that you would never come up with something like that in a million years. Like this one:

I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

"Gummed by a newt." Priceless. And vintage Ivins.

When people whom we have looked up to die, there is always a sense of loss. We think they cannot be replaced and feel that the world will never be the same. We want things to continue as they always were. It is good to remember what John Lennon is supposed to have said to someone who wanted the Beatles to get back together to continue the music they loved to hear. "It's your turn now."

If there is any lesson to be learned from Molly it is that we cannot expect others to do all the work for us forever. As she said in her last column on January 11, 2007: "We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders."

We have to learn from people like her and pick up the baton they offered to us. Although we are going to miss Molly Ivins and should offer grateful thanks to her for everything she has done, there is one thing we should never forget.

It's our turn now.

POST SCRIPT: The Trial of Tony Blair

Channel 4 TV in England has produced a brilliant political satire. It is set in 2010 and Tony Blair, just stepping down from his position as Prime Minister, finds himself at risk of being tried for war crimes at the Hague.

The satire captures his vanity, self-importance, insecurity, neediness, obliviousness to his changed circumstances, his fawning obsequiousness to the US, as well as his hidden sense of guilt at the death and destruction he has wrought. The actor playing Blair does a remarkable job of capturing his smug self-righteousness.

You can see the film here.

February 05, 2007

Fear and panic in Boston

Since I never watch TV news, my contact with mainstream news is fairly limited. It starts in the morning with listening to Morning Edition on NPR, a little more NPR on the drive home, and reading the local paper The Plain Dealer in the evening. At various times during the day, I occasionally check up on some news sites on the web but these sites deal more with world news. So it possible for me to sometimes completely miss those stories that come and go within one news cycle or less, such as the 'terrorist scares' that seem to sporadically break out in the US.

blogimage_mnite.jpg Such was the case with the Boston scare last week. It was only after it was over that I realized that the city of Boston had been scared out of its wits for a day by a campaign of lighted objects (which look like a children's toy called Lite-Brites) used as advertisements for a TV program called Aqua Team Hunger Force that had been placed around the city. Apparently the authorities had treated these objects (shown here being removed by a policeman) as if they were IEDs, the infamous 'improvised explosive devices' that have been used extensively in Iraq.

I must say that even though I am not by any means an explosives expert, merely from reading the news I got the impression that real IEDs are small and discreet objects, usually hidden by trash or other camouflage, such that only the tip of a wire (the antenna presumably) were visible. It takes training and very close observation to detect their presence. They are not brightly lit flashing objects, drawing attention to their presence. If I had seen one of these Lite-Brites by the street it would have hardly caused me more than a mild interest as to what it was. But the Mayor of Boston and the police department went on full alert, sparking panic in the city, until they discovered their error.

In this climate of deliberately created fear and paranoia, government officials are fearful of seeming to be oblivious to the safety of their community, so their initial reaction to these cartoon-like objects may be understandable given this hyperventilating atmosphere. What is not excusable is what the main players did after the error was discovered.

Instead of sheepishly conceding their error and explaining that they had perhaps over-reacted out of excessive caution (for which few would have blamed them), the authorities are using the power of the government to exact punishment on the most minor and powerless characters in the whole episode

Why they chose to prosecute the two hapless people who distributed the items is hard to understand since there is enough blame to go around elsewhere. It appears that the companies behind the advertisement gimmick, even after they realized that the Boston city authorities had gone over the top, stalled for several hours on letting them know the truth, presumably because they realized that this was a free advertising bonanza.

What is inexcusable is for Boston to arrest the two performance artists (Peter Berdovsky, 27 and Sean Stevens, 28) who were hired by the advertising company for $300 each to hang the devices around the city to do the promotion, even though there is no reason to think that the two had any intention of creating panic.

This is a disgraceful abuse of government power. These two men were arraigned, pleaded not guilty, and were then released on bail. The advertising company that had hired them did not have the grace to post their bail either, and they had to get the money from family and friends. The two men seemed to take this in their stride and afterwards at a press conference proceeded to mock the journalists by talking about hairstyles in the 70s.

The two seemed like they were doing performance art at the expense of the media and the whole ridiculous hoopla.

Needless to say, this episode has provided a field day for comedy. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert did a quick parody. August J. Pollak recalled a cartoon poking fun at the extent to which we seem to be willing to give up our rights because of our fears, as did Tom Tomorrow (here and here).

I think Pollak had the best take on the behavior of the Boston and Massachusetts authorities.

[Boston Mayor Tom] Menino is going on TV and insisting he's going to send a 27-year old artist to jail for not breaking any law, because his police department overreacted and wasted a million dollars feeding a media frenzy and terrorizing the population of his own city. That's a cowardly act of self-preservation, and were he not threatening the life of an innocent young man it would be laughable.

Let's get a few facts straight on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force sign fiasco:

1. Attorney General Martha Coakley needs to shut up and stop using the word "hoax." There was no hoax. Hoax implies Turner Networks and the ATHF people were trying to defraud or confuse people as to what they were doing. Hoax implies they were trying to make their signs look like bombs. They weren't. They made Lite-Brite signs of a cartoon character giving the finger.

2. It bears repeating again that Turner, and especially Berdovsky, did absolutely nothing illegal. The devices were not bombs. They did not look like bombs. They were all placed in public spaces and caused no obstruction to traffic or commerce. At most, Berdovsky is guilty of littering or illegal flyering.

3. The "devices" were placed in ten cities, and have been there for over two weeks. No other city managed to freak out and commit an entire platoon of police officers to scaring their own city claiming they might be bombs. No other mayor agreed to talk to Fox News with any statement beyond "no comment" when spending the day asking if this was a "terrorist dry run."

4. There is nothing, not a single thing, remotely suggesting that Turner or the guerilla marketing firm they hired intended to cause a public disturbance. Many have claimed the signs were "like saying 'fire' in a crowded theater." Wrong. This was like taping a picture of a fire to the wall of a theater and someone freaked out and called the fire department.

Fear and paranoia will cause people to behave bizarrely, and even foolishly. That's understandable. What is not excusable is to blame and punish others for your behavior.

We should all regularly remind ourselves that the goal of terrorists is not necessarily to kill people. It is to cause terror and make people suspicious and to turn on each other out of fear and anger. Their work becomes much easier when we terrorize ourselves. I bet that terrorist groups around the world are giving themselves high fives over the Boston event.

POST SCRIPT: Political preferences and computer choice

I have noticed that the proportion of people who use Macs in academia seem to be greater than their market share of 5% or so. Now a blogger has found that about 15-25% of visitors to 'liberal' sites like DailyKos use the OS X operating system while only about 2-3% of visitors to 'conservative' sites like Instapundit use them. He has some theories as to why this might be so. It is amusing, not to be taken seriously.

I checked my own site out of curiosity for this year and found that 8% use Macs, 69% Windows, 4% Linux, and 19% are unknown.

January 16, 2007

Rudeness on the web

The mass media tends not to probe too deeply into sacred cows (like religion and patriotism) and when it does so, seems to carefully select only those targets which will not alienate the majority of its customers. People writing on the internet, however, are much more likely to skewer a broader range of ideas, which is something that I welcome.

While public figures have long been fair game for ridicule even in the traditional mass media, a trickier issue arises with the internet, which has created a whole new class of what might be called semi-private individuals. We now have people who are not public figures in the traditional sense of the word writing in personal web pages and blogs which are, in effect, public but often the material is intended for a limited audience. When people write about the minutiae of their lives, their meetings with friends, their children's achievements, etc., they are in a different class from a politician who makes a speech that is reported in the newspapers or broadcast on TV. While the politician is clearly a justifiable target for close scrutiny and their ideas are open to ridicule, should the same hold true for the average poster on Facebook or the obscure blogger?

In my wanderings around the internet, it seems as if a consensus has emerged that the answer is 'yes', that anyone who posts on the internet is seen as being fair game for the kind of treatment that was once reserved for public figures.

But while the people in the mainstream media (apart from the silly talk shows) tend not to use ad hominem attacks, people on the internet will resort to name-calling and obscenities at the slightest provocation. I am often amused at how quickly people get angry and resort to abuse on the web. If one reads the comments sections on many blogs, they rapidly degenerate into name-calling. (This is not true of this blog where commenters are generally very polite and thoughtful.) It is interesting to see why this is so.

I think this may be because before the web people had few options for being part of the public discourse. If one wrote to the papers or called in to a radio show about some issue, there were filters that prevented people from using language likely to offend or from saying outrageous things. That left only private conversation where the rules of language were fairly clear and where people generally instinctively knew how to express themselves in each situation. In private conversation, people generally feel free to use much coarser language than in public, if they are with people whom they know will not be offended.

With the web, one suddenly has the ability to address the whole world while still having the anonymity that provides an illusion of privacy, and this may explain why discussions can degenerate so rapidly into mudslinging and obscenities.

I personally do not get offended by the kind of language one finds on the web. After all, it surely cannot be a secret that people at all levels of society know and use expletives. It surely is no secret that journalists and politicians and even people who act like pillars of rectitude use coarse language in private.

Although I do not use expletives on a routine basis, I am no innocent and know the words. And yet in 2005, when I reproduced an important article about hurricane Katrina, I felt obliged to do some cleaning up of the language. In the article, one person was quoted as saying "Get off the f------- freeway." Now the original report did not have the dashes, which were inserted by me. I am certain that all readers of this blog know what letters they stand for. In doing this, I was following newspaper conventions of using euphemisms and dashes to replace words that are considered offensive by some, and thus practicing a form of self-censorship.

But my doing so really made no sense. Both reader and writer know what the word is so why does inserting dashes make it less offensive and more acceptable? What exactly was gained by me replacing the last letters of the word with dashes? The only reason I can come up with is so as to avoid offending someone who had led a very sheltered life and did not know the word (and these days that would probably mean a child who has barely learned to talk) and who happened to come across my blog, read the uncensored word and had to ask someone else what it meant, thus causing me to be the cause of that person's loss of innocence. This scenario is unlikely, to say the least. Such a person is also likely to ask why there was a sudden outbreak of dashes, creating a similar problem. Any reader of my blog is almost certain to know the kinds of words I know, so there really was no reason for my self-censorship, except that by abiding by this quaint convention, I had used a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card to escape censure by some language prude out there in cyberland.

It is hard to explain why I felt obliged to do this kind of editing. It was not because this blog is hosted by a university website and therefore I felt a sense of obligation to act with some propriety. I would have done the same thing on a commercially hosted site. The only reason I can think of is that this is a relic of my upbringing, the sense that using words like that is not appropriate in polite company or in public. I just feel a vague sense of discomfort in writing those words, which is why my blog entries do not use them.

But my sensibilities can only control my own writing and not what I read or watch or hear. I am not offended by, and have no problems with, people who use expletives freely and I have little sympathy for those who reach for their smelling salts and tut-tut about civility when what they seem to be really objecting to is criticism of their cherished ideas or policies. As I said before, I agree totally with Salman Rushdie that no ideas should be immune from scrutiny and what words one uses should be left as a choice for the user. For example, the Rude Pundit writes political commentary that is very incisive but his language is often very rude!

Ultimately it is the quality of the argument and the ideas that matter, not how one says it. But how one says it has an effect on one's ability to influence others. If used judiciously vulgarities and profanities and expletives can be very effective in making a point, but used indiscriminately or routinely, they can lose their punch. Just as good actors do not use gestures unthinkingly but carefully select their movements to enhance what they are trying to convey, so should writers view language.

October 23, 2006

Fighting words

When the dismal history of the Iraq war is finally written, a special chapter of shame should be prepared for the those pro-war columnists and bloggers who, sitting comfortably in their homes and offices in the US, cheerfully egged on this administration to greater and greater heights of folly, cheering the deaths of innocent Iraq and Afghan civilians, downplaying the losses of US troops, attacking all those who opposed the war as terrorist sympathizers, and acting as if they themselves were courageous fighters instead of merely being vocal spectators. Not for nothing have these people been dubbed by blogger Tbogg as the "101st Fighting Keyboarders." The 101st Fighting Keyboarders (also known as 'chickenhawks' or 'Keyboard Kommandos') have an overwhelming sense to constantly reiterate that the fact that they are urging other people to fight is a sign of their own bravery.

The chapter will be long because there is a long list of such people, such as Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, John Hinderaker, Charles Krauthammer, and the list goes on.

As an example of the kind of delusion at work here, take Jonathan Miller writes about Hugh Hewitt who was interviewing Time magazine's Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware on his radio show. I think most people would concede that Baghdad is a very dangerous place to be for anyone, and reporters who are assigned that beat are showing considerable personal courage. Many of them get irritated with people back in the US who insinuate that they are living it up in comfort there while failing to report the "good" news, thus undermining support for the war. When Ware tries to remind Hewitt that the people in the US have little idea of what life is really like in Iraq, Hewitt takes offense.

The third-tier talk show host [Hugh Hewitt] strapped on his kevlar helmet and bravely reported from the front lines of the terror war while interviewing Michael Ware, a Time Baghdad correspondent:

MW: Let's look at it this way. I mean, you're sitting back in a comfortable radio studio, far from the realities of this war.

HH: Actually, Michael, let me interrupt you.

MW: If anyone has a right...

HH: Michael, one second.

MW: If anyone has a right to complain, that's what...

HH: I'm sitting in the Empire State Building. Michael, I'm sitting in the Empire State Building, which has been in the past, and could be again, a target. Because in downtown Manhattan, it's not comfortable, although it's a lot safer than where you are, people always are three miles away from where the jihadis last spoke in America. So that's...civilians have a stake in this. Although you are on the front line, this was the front line four and a half years ago.

I can just imagine how stunned Ware must have been to hear that someone in the Empire State building in Manhattan thinks that he too is bravely facing the war on terror, because a few years ago this was three miles away from what was once the front lines. Jonathan Miller continues:

I am in awe of Mr. Hewitt's bravery. And just a few days ago, we hear, Hugh actually got on a PATH train that went RIGHT THROUGH Ground Zero. Somehow, some way, he survived.

As funny as the above exchange is ("I'm on the front lines, too!") it opens a useful window onto the soul of the Keyboard Kommandos. See, when Hugh Hewitt is ensconced in a cushy office in the Empire State building, he actually imagines himself as a brave soldier on the front lines in the Universal Conflict Against the Evildoers. When he is on the airplane, he is an intelligence officer against fanatical Islamofascists.

These war-loving bloggers are constantly seeking a vicarious thrill. Having committed themselves to an immoral, illegal, and ultimately foolish and disastrous war, they now have to act as if they are also bearing some of its consequences. This is why they are the first to publicize and exaggerate, with an almost palpable shiver of delighted dread, any sign of anything that could be construed as a potential terrorist attack in the US. This enables them to swagger as if they are on the front lines of the war on terrorism while knowing full well that the odds of them personally being hurt or killed by a terrorist attack are minuscule. None of us really loses sleep at night worrying about whether a bomb is going to blow us up. None of us goes to work or school each day worrying if we will be killed by a bomb or sniper before the evening comes. And yet, this is how the people in Iraq live.

These Keyboard Kommandos were wrong about practically everything concerning the Iraq war but are still spewing out nonsense today. It is amazing that anyone still listens to them, let alone gives them prominent public platforms to spread their nonsense.

Paul H. Henry has created a beautiful piece of work that can form the basis of the future chapter to be written on the 101st Fighting Keyboarders. His War of the Words is a five-part series (each about 6 minutes long), with a new part to appear every Thursday. It takes the format of a Ken Burns-type PBS documentary and is very well done. The first three parts are up and can be seen here.

September 18, 2006

Propaganda for war against Iran begins

It should be plain to everyone that the Bush White House and its neoconservative inner clique are pushing hard for a war with Iran. They have gone on a relentless offensive, trying to convince the American people that Iran is a rogue state, secretly pushing a nuclear weapons program and that their leader is some kind of mad man who seeks world domination. Predictably, comparisons with Hitler are being invoked again, just as he was with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Once again, the media has gone along with the White House, allowing its propaganda to either pass unchallenged, or to bury the facts in the back pages of the papers or deep in related stories. As a result, the warmongers' efforts have had some success. Polls indicate that 77% of Americans believe that Iran can make nuclear weapons soon.

Physicist Gordon Prather, who has extensive knowledge of both the weapons area and international treaties regarding nuclear weapons, tries to clarify the situation:

Three years ago, in deciding to adhere to an Additional Protocol to their Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in advance of its ratification, the Iranians voluntarily "declared" certain activities many months before they were obligated to do so under their existing Safeguards Agreement.

And, on 27 April, 2006, the Iranians informed the IAEA that it was "fully prepared" to continue voluntarily adhering to the Additional Protocol in advance of its ratification "provided" Iran’s IAEA "dossier" remained "within the framework" of the IAEA.

The IAEA Board ignored the Iranian warning, and directed IAEA’s Director-General, Mohamed ElBaradei, to report the entire Iranian dossier to the UN Security Council, with the expectation that the Council would "determine" under Article 39 of the UN Charter that Iran’s Safeguarded programs somehow constituted "a threat to peace in the region."

Of course, the Security Council has thus far declined to make such a ridiculous determination.

But, as threatened, the Iranians promptly reduced their cooperation with the IAEA to levels not much greater than required by their existing Safeguards Agreement.

It is to that Agreement and nothing more that the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons requires Iran to adhere and looks to the IAEA to verify compliance!

If you carefully read ElBaradei’s quarterly reports to the IAEA Board, you can determine for yourself that for at least the past three years the IAEA has verified total compliance by Iran with that Safeguards Agreement.

And according to the IAEA's latest quarterly report:

ElBaradei once again confirmed that Iran remained in total compliance with its original NPT-required Safeguards Agreement. And that Iran continues to provide cooperation on certain matters beyond that required.

It is beyond doubt that the level of uranium enrichment that Iraq has achieved (close to 4%) is consistent with its use for energy production and is nowhere near the almost 90% needed for weapons grade use, and yet this fact has been consistently under-reported in the media.

The lies put out by the administration and its congressional supporters about Iran's program have become so blatant that according to news reports:

U.N. inspectors investigating Iran's nuclear program angrily complained to the Bush administration and to a Republican congressman yesterday about a recent House committee report on Iran's capabilities, calling parts of the document "outrageous and dishonest" and offering evidence to refute its central claims."
. . .
Privately, several intelligence officials said the committee report included at least a dozen claims that were either demonstrably wrong or impossible to substantiate. Hoekstra's office said the report was reviewed by the office of John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.

Negroponte's spokesman, John Callahan, said in a statement that his office "reviewed the report and provided its response to the committee on July 24, '06." He did not say whether it had approved or challenged any of the claims about Iran's capabilities.

"This is like prewar Iraq all over again," said David Albright, a former nuclear inspector who is president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is spun up, using bad information that's cherry-picked and a report that trashes the inspectors."

In fact, Iran is a victim of double standards, that despite its adherence to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is receiving sustained threats against it based on dubious assertions about its nuclear capabilities and intentions, while countries known to have nuclear weapons and who have refused to sign the NPT (Israel, India, and Pakistan) are left alone. It should be remembered that Iran can detach itself from the NPT any time it wants to, just by giving three months notice.

When pressed, the US government admits that it is using a double standard with Iran.

In fact, it is amazing how similar the current campaign against Iraq is to the earlier campaign against Iraq. The fact that that case was shown to be fraudulent does not seem to have prevented the warmongers from recycling that same plan. The fact that they are able to do this is, of course, because of the nature of the media that was discussed in a series of earlier posts.

The occupants of the influential think tanks funded by the pro-war/pro-business party always have access to the editorial pages of the newspapers and this sets the terms of the debate, so the same wrong-headed arguments get repeated airings, even though events have gone counter to them.. It does not matter if these opinion-makers were wrong about practically everything in Iraq, such as the state of Iraq's weapons, its intentions, the response of the Iraq people to the invasion, the ease of conquering that country.

Those same people (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Rich Lowry, the list goes on) who were so wrong are still treated as "serious" and "responsible" and "thoughtful" analysts of policy, while those who were right that the Iraq war would be a disaster are treated as frivolous gadflies.

Take a look at Gordon Prather's resume:

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

This does not make Prather infallible or even correct, of course. But it surely makes him a more knowledgeable analyst than many of the talking heads who endlessly blather on this issue on TV and in newspaper op-ed pages. Prather is someone who should be taken seriously at least. But you will search vainly for him, or people with similar credentials in the mainstream people. They are not "serious" people.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

But as always with Iraq and terrorism debates, being endlessly wrong is a sign of profound seriousness, and cheering on wars -- no matter how misguided and misinformed the cheering is -- renders one a serious foreign policy expert who recognizes the serious threats we face in these very serious times. That's why, when The Washington Post wants to find someone to counsel us on its Op-Ed page as to what to do in Iraq, it turns to two of the Wrongest People in America.

If we had determined our Iraq policy over the last three years by picking proposals out of a hat, we would have been way more right than we were by listening to Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry. But they favor wars and more wars and put on a grave, serious face when they talk about The Terrorists, so they are Serious Foreign Policy Experts and need to be listened to.

If you want a good example the Chomsky-Herman media propaganda model (see here, here and here) in action, one needs to go no further than in studying how the US was urged into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now slowly but surely being dragged into war with Iran.

September 15, 2006

Combating media propaganda

In an early posting on the media, I argued that there are some benefits to having a partisan media, where different media outlets pursue competing agendas in addition to covering the news, and where they abandon the notion of practicing "neutral", "unbiased", and "objective" journalism. I suggested that this kind of partisan journalism is common in other countries and that there is reason to think that the public is better served by them than by the kind of journalism practiced in the US.

There is an example in the US of the kind of partisan journalism that I am advocating and that is Fox News. The thought that I am promoting Fox News as a model to be followed may surprise readers of this blog who would know that Fox News's politics are quite different from mine.

The problem is not that Fox news is so obviously biased, but that it operates in a climate where the ideal is that of so-called "neutral objectivity" which enables it to pretend to be something it is not. Even Fox's slogans that it is "Fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide" signal its genuflection at the altar of what journalism should be, even as it practices a form of it that is counter to those stated goals. The problem with Fox is that in the US we have an unbalanced partisan media. There is no major media representing the political and economic interests of the working and middle class and pro-peace groups. All we have are Fox, which is openly partisan, and the other major news outlets trying to be "neutral", but all of whom effectively serve the pro-war/pro-business elites.

In previous postings (see here, here and here), I described the filters that act to produce the kind of unbalanced journalism that we have in the US today. They are:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation
2. The advertising license to do business
3. Sourcing mass media news
4. Flak and the enforcers
5. Anticommunism/terrorism as a control mechanism
6. Class nature of the journalistic profession

To create a truly objective media is impossible under the current system since it requires us to be able to create a system that bypasses all these filters. Some alternative media models have tried to eliminate some of them. The BBC for example, tries to remove at least the first two filters. It does this by the British government levying a tax on all owners of radios and TV and this provides a steady revenue stream for the BBC which can operate commercial free. The existence of a Board of Governors can shield the journalists from the more obvious and direct forms of governmental control. In the US, a variation on this model is found on public radio and TV, where there is a mix of governmental subsidy and private individual membership, coupled with corporate underwriting.

This kind of funding mechanism gives a slightly greater degree of independence to the journalists and produces a slightly different form of journalism, although the other four filters still remain and prevent public broadcasting from straying too far off the reservation. The BBC and NPR are careful to not deviate too far from the pro-war/pro-business framework, and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is remarkable for how subservient it is to the official line, even more so than the commercial networks. So public funding does not eliminate all the problems of the media, just a few of its more obvious and obnoxious features.

It is interesting that even this slight deviation from the standard line by the BBC and NPR is enough to raise the hackles of government and corporations and thus one has the periodic calls for cutting the public subsidy. The people who call for this kind of 'reform' always cloak their arguments in terms of the marketplace. They always urge that public broadcasting get more money from the private sector because they know that depending on advertising revenue has a strong inhibiting effect on how the news is covered. This has already has an effect as public broadcasting has increased its dependence on corporate underwriters, thus bringing filter two back in to a greater extent.

It seems unrealistic to expect that we can create a traditional new media outlet that is free of the six biasing filters. That would require legislative action and could well produce a system that is even worse than what currently exists, one closer to the kind of direct governmental control that is found in some totalitarian societies.

This is why I recommend that the better way might be to create a media system where the biases that are already there are made manifest. If the requirement to be neutral and objective were removed, then people would be soon realize that what differentiates Fox News from CBS or CNN or any other mainstream media outlet is not that one is biased and the others are not, but that each merely serves a different faction of the ruling classes and the pro-war/pro-business party. People would then be able to shop around for other perspectives.

The advent of satellite TV now allows people to get a much wider array of news that has more diverse biases. For example, al-Jazeera provides a counter to the bias of the mainstream US media and satellite TV enables people to see it and other alternative sources from around the world. The catch is that this is expensive and out of reach of most people.

It is a success of the propaganda model that most people in the US will immediately characterize al-Jazeera as 'biased' compared to the American media, when the reality is that what distinguishes al-Jazeera from CNN is not that the former is biased and the latter is not, but that they each have different biases. Knowing this enables one to start reading between the lines. But because of the cost of producing and distributing television programs, even al-Jazeera is constrained by the filters that reflect the sheer economics of the business.

The internet provides a great opportunity for providing alternative news perspectives and agendas that are relatively free (at least for now) from the financial barriers to entry. The internet has many features that enable it to overcome the six filters. The cost of entry is low and one can reach vast numbers of people with very little investment. That means that almost anyone can start a media outlet and can avoid having to depend on advertising (at least somewhat) to generate revenue. That also makes one less sensitive to flak, although that still exists.

As an example, take the website Antiwar.com. This is an excellent site for news. It has a clear agenda and is unabashed about it, as its name suggests, and yet it does not spread falsehoods. It does not depend on advertising, being dependent largely on voluntary contributions of individuals like myself. In my opinion, it is one of the best sources of news and information, culling it from a wide range of primary sources from around the world and drawing in knowledgeable commentators of various political stripes, far superior to the dreary and predictable meanderings of the op-ed writers in the mainstream press. The people behind the site are not shy about revealing their libertarian/paleo-conservative political orientation, so you know what you are getting.

Cursor is another good source for information and commentary, this time from a progressive political perspective.

And of course, there are the blogs, which allow for greater participation and networking among political activists, who no longer need to depend on the big media or expensive mailings to network and inform and organize.

The danger that the low-entry cost of the internet poses to the dominance of the cozy media-business-government filtered system has not gone unrecognized. This is why there are increasing calls for regulation of the internet that would effectively limit access, or for elimination of 'net neutrality', i.e. for measures that would privilege groups that can pay more for access to the internet. The more the internet goes under private corporate control, the easier it would become for the filters to be brought to bear in this sector of the media too. Again, the control is unlikely to take the form of direct editorial control. It will come in the form of economics, by making the medium expensive to access so that the economic and advertising filters kick in.

Recall that in the early days of newspapers and radio, it was the low cost of entry that led to diverse and vibrant media, and in the case of newspapers, quite partisan forms of it. Newspapers in those days were not shy about pushing their agendas. That cost has now risen for newspapers, squeezing out all but the big corporations. Setting up a radio station is still cheap, oddly enough, but in that sector alternative voices they have been squeezed out by the government creating a licensing system that enables it to dole out portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to those who have the resources and clout to lobby them for it, and threatening low-power so-called 'pirate' stations with heavy fines and confiscation if they dare to make use of what are the public airwaves. The restrictions on ownership have now been relaxed to allow a few giants like Clear Channel to control large numbers of radio stations nationwide, thus having a strong control on the message.

So as I see it, the solution to the problem of the media lies in maintaining the low-cost entry to the internet, exposing the hidden partisan nature of the current media system, and extolling the creation of competing partisan news outlets who are free to have an overt agenda.

POST SCRIPT: Is Fox News being paid by the White House?

I have written earlier about the journalistic tactic of posing things as questions in order to avoid taking responsibility for stating the same idea as an assertion. Jon Stewart gives more examples. . .

. . . and for Jon Stewart's and Little Richard's reactions to Bush's speech on Monday, see here.

September 14, 2006

How institutional filters operate

Many people have criticisms of the media. They hold the media responsible for the sorry state of civic discourse and the fact that, for example, about half the population still believes that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. Their plaintive cry "If only the media would do its proper job, then people would be better informed and we would have better government" is often heard. They wonder why the media highlights some stories and ignores others, and suspect dark motives.

In this series on the way the media operates, I have tried to steer the discussion away from issues of human motivation and bias in understanding the media. What we have is not a system of individuals consciously and deliberately steering news coverage in a particular direction which they know to be false or misleading. Only a few people at the very top of the institutions are likely to be like that.

Instead we have a system in place that has the effect of weeding out all but those individuals who view the news in a particular way. Most of the journalists who remain and prosper in the system are those who have internalized the values of the corporate media system and its rules of operation. Rather than thinking of themselves as doing something that is less than good journalism, they actually think that they are upholding its finest traditions, of maintaining "objectivity" and "neutrality". So by and large they will be able to work with a clear conscience. That is the sign of a really good propaganda model. People cannot fake things on a consistent basis for a long time. If individual journalists were writing and saying things that they did not themselves believe in, it would soon become obvious and they would not be effective.

All large institutions have such filters that weed out people with ideas that oppose its basic interests. For example, the advertising industry is unlikely to be congenial to those who feel that telling the truth about products, both good and bad, is important in creating an informed consumer. Those people, even if for some reason they chose to enter that profession, are likely to be weeded out quite early. The people who remain and succeed are not necessarily intellectually dishonest. They are people who think that it is better to dwell on the positive rather than the negative, and that the marketplace as a whole will be the best judge of what is good and bad, not individuals, and that it is not their job to make such judgments on behalf of others. They see their job as to present their product in the best possible light.

Universities are also not immune from this kind of filtering. They tend to filter out those people who do not value knowledge, however esoteric, for its own sake. People who think that the only knowledge of any value is that which has a practical and immediate payoff are not likely to find universities to be congenial places for them, except in a few departments like engineering or business. The converse is true for manufacturing industries. Those places have little use for people who like to think about ideas in the abstract and are unable to translate those ideas into actual products.

The problem with the media is not that it has such filters in place that result in producing "news" that suits the needs of the pro-war/pro-business one party state. The problem is that the media is not perceived by the public as having any kind of bias at all. And it is this that makes it dangerous.

Most people are savvy enough to realize that the advertisements they see for products are not produced by impartial people. They are aware that consumers of print and video media are the targets of a careful campaign to persuade them to adopt a particular point of view, which is that the product being advertised is something they need (which may not be the case) and that it is the best among the options available to satisfy that manufactured need (which may not be true).

Despite this self-awareness, it is a dubious tribute to Madison Avenue that advertising is so successful in persuading people to purchase products. But even advertisers know that advertising is even more successful when people are not consciously aware that they are being marketed to. Hence we have the more recent innovations of product placement in films and TV shows, and having seemingly ordinary people in places like bars praise the virtues of products to other patrons, thus creating what seems to be a spontaneous "buzz" for a product. 'Word of mouth' praise from friends and acquaintances is more effective than being pitched something by people who are paid to do so.

The success of the propaganda media is likewise dependent on most people not realizing that they are being sold a product, in this case a particular slant on "the news." For example, I was sitting in a restaurant one day and a person at another table was recommending The O'Reilly Factor to his companions as a show that "tells it like it is" with "no spin." This person had clearly bought into the slogans that are carefully marketed by news organizations, that they are fair and balanced. Such people are for more susceptible to propaganda than those who understand the invisible drivers at work in creating the news.

Next in the series: How this knowledge can be used to build a better news system.

POST SCRIPT: Happy first birthday, Baxter!

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September 13, 2006

The class nature of journalists

There is one final filter that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman do not include in their in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent that I think is worthy of addition, and that is the changing class nature of journalists and the professional paths that have developed.

Journalists in the past could enter the profession with little formal education. They could join a newspaper after high school as copy boys (and be essentially gofers), and then work their way up the ladder to become full-fledged reporters. They pretty much learned their profession on the job, by observing the reporters in the newspaper and being mentored by them.

An important consequence of this kind of career path is that the profession was open to a wide array of people. In particular, there was little in the way of barriers, especially income and wealth barriers, to entry in the profession. Furthermore, the very fact that journalism was so open made the profession less desirable to the members of the professional classes and people in the upper income brackets. Such people were more likely to steer their children to the prestigious professions of medicine and law and the corporate world.

In other words, the class background of journalists tended to be working or lower-middle class. Even when they rose in the profession, their background and families and haunts were those of the less privileged groups in society and one could expect them to view the government and its policies through the eyes of the people who were affected by them, rather than from the point of view of those deciding and implementing the policies. Issues such as unemployment rates and business layoffs and welfare and neighborhood decay were likely to affect people they knew personally, either as family members or friends and acquaintances. They were likely to even know petty criminals personally and socially, so the impact of issues of law and order and the state of prisons were things that they were familiar with on a personal level, and were not merely statistics or stuff they read about in think-tank reports.

But the rise of journalism as a profession has changed that dynamic. Oddly enough, Watergate played a role, making reporters seem glamorous, and journalism an appealing career for those who in earlier times would have disdained it. Having a college degree, preferably in journalism, became the new entry point and the cost of obtaining this entrance ticket naturally acted as a barrier to lower-income people entering the profession. As a result, over time, the class background of journalists has changed. Furthermore, the range of interpretations of what journalism should be became restricted, constrained by the views of the elite schools of journalism. The rough edges of the working class journalist had become eliminated, and we now produce journalism graduates who fit smoothly into the corporate media structure.

Reporters now are likely to have little in common with the poorer segments of societies. They are more likely to have stock portfolios, good health care and retirement plans, and to live in nice neighborhoods and hob-nob with the well-to-do. Their class interests mirror those of the elites in society. It is not a secret, for example, that the Washington press corps socialize with the very people they are supposed to cover, attending the same parties and hosting and being guests at each others' homes.

When dealing with issues such as unemployment, such reporters' instincts now are likely to be with the interests of Wall Street rather than the impact on the people without jobs. They are more likely to be concerned with the state of the Dow Jones index than on how families survive without a wage earner. If workers go on strike, journalists are more likely to view this from the point of view of the effect on the consumer or management rather than that of the strikers. When reporting on issues like raising the minimum wage, they are more likely to focus on the impact such an act would have on business profits, rather than the impact on workers' families and lives. When companies go bankrupt, they are likely to view this from the viewpoint of its stockholders rather than the workers who are now suddenly abandoned.

Since journalists are now members of the same demographic that advertisers consider as desirable (people with disposable income), they are much more at home with the idea of the media as serving the needs of advertisers, with its great focus on providing 'soft' feature coverage of sports and entertainment and lifestyle issues rather than the gritty aspects of hard news, because those are the things that they themselves are interested in.

As a result of all six filters, we finally have a fully functioning propaganda model that works smoothly. The profit motive and the economics of publishing push reporting towards coverage that is sympathetic to government and corporate interests. The pro-war/pro-business one party state ensures that contrary voices to the governing consensus are marginalized. And the barriers to entry into the profession means that the resulting class nature of journalists make them find the atmosphere created by these two forces very congenial.

Should we then be surprised that the media functions the way it does?

POST SCRIPT: Safe/Not safe

As usual, it is up to a comedy show to expose the fatuousness of Bush trying to simultaneously argue that he has made the country safer while trying to terrify people with the dangers out there.

Daily Show commentator John Oliver sums up the Administration message, "George W. Bush is the right man to lead us in the era post to whatever horrible calamity he leads us into next."

After all, as Will Rogers once said, "If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?"

September 12, 2006

The final two filters

In the previous posting in this series, I wrote about how Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists in the US is a system of five filters that has the effect of steadily weeding out of the system those who do not serve the needs of the dominant interests. In the previous post, I described three of the filters. Today, I will discuss the other two.

4. Flak and the enforcers

Chomsky and Herman define flak as "negative response to a media statement or program." They point out that "If flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media. Positions have to be defended within the organization and without, sometimes before legislatures and possibly even the courts. Advertisers may withdraw their patronage." (p. 26)

They point out that there are many groups that have been created with the specific aim of creating flak to keep the media in line. Those that have the most resources tend to be the ones most able to maintain a sustained barrage of flak and it should be no surprise that the best funded are those who advance the interests of the big corporations or wealthy individuals. It is also no accident that the charge of a "liberal media" is so incessantly repeated, despite any evidence to the contrary. Doing so ensures that the media will internalize that critique and reflexively try and make sure that nothing they do could be so interpreted.

The treatment that Tom Ricks experienced when he spoke about some of Israel's actions during the invasion of Lebanon is a good example of this kind of flak. Whenever a mainstream media outlet suggests that the motives of 'our' governments (US or Israel) is anything less than perfectly pure, or that the motives of 'them' (currently Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Syria, or North Korea) is anything other than evil, you can be sure that they will encounter flak from all the agencies and lobbying groups with a vested interest in maintaining the standard narrative.

After awhile, journalists and their editors realize that life is a lot simpler if some things are simply left unsaid, irrespective of whether they are true or not. This is why comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and late night comics have a little more freedom to say what is actually on their minds. They can deflect some flak by invoking comedic privilege.

So while avoiding topics or statements that might generate flak becomes a decision that can be explained and even justified on business principles, the net result is that media coverage becomes hugely sympathetic and favorable to the interests of the government, corporate interests, and the think tanks that are funded by them, because they are the ones who can generate and sustain huge amounts of flak.

This also explains why the very people who are always trashing the media are the very ones who are always given plenty of time by that same media to air their views. As Chomsky and Herman point out, "Although the flak machines steadily attack the mass media, the media treat them well. They receive respectful attention, and their propagandistic role and links to a larger corporate program are rarely mentioned or analyzed. . .This reflects the power of the sponsors, including the well-entrenched position of the right wing in the mass media themselves." (p. 28)

Chomsky and Herman wrote those words in 1988 but they still apply. I am told that new CBS evening news anchor Katie Couric interviewed Rush Limbaugh on the news program on Thursday, September 7, even though Limbaugh's shtick is to routinely berate the "liberal media."

Take, for another example, Ann Coulter (please!). Media Matters reports:

Republican hatemonger Ann Coulter has continued her attack on the media, including making a recent statement where she reaffirmed her wish that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had bombed The New York Times' building.

There seems to be no low to which Coulter won't sink in her pursuit of airtime. She recently apparently endorsed the murder of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) and suggested that Democratic support of a recent Supreme Court decision is "siding with Al Qaeda." Coulter's musings about violence against her perceived enemies are nothing new; she once suggested that former President Clinton be assassinated.

You might think that the media would distance themselves from such advocacy of political murder. But you'd be wrong: Coulter continues to be invited on a wide range of television programs, including on MSNBC and NBC.

Media Matters poses the question: "Is there nothing she could say they would find inappropriate?" The answer is no, not as long as she advances the interests of her sponsors, whereas someone who thoughtfully and carefully and (most importantly) competently argues against the powerful interests will find it hard to get even a fraction of the airtime she does.

5. Anticommunism as a control mechanism

This final filter is interesting. Chomsky and Herman wrote their book in 1988 when the Soviet Union was still in existence and Cold War anti-communistic ideology and rhetoric was still dominant. They write:

"This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating property rights or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. . .Liberals at home, often accused of being pro-Communist or insufficiently anti-Communist, are kept constantly on the defensive in a cultural milieu in which anticommunism is the dominant religion. . .Many of them have internalized the religion anyway, but they are all under great pressure to demonstrate their anti-Communist credentials. This causes them to behave very much like reactionaries." (p. 29)

While anti-Communism ideology is still there as an important controlling mechanism (for example, those who advocate single-payer health insurance policies are routinely charged with advocating "socialized medicine"), one could replace "communism" with "terrorism" and "property rights" with "human rights" in the above passage and have an almost perfect description of the current political climate. This lends support for my long-held view that fear is the dominant controlling factor that authoritarian governments use in controlling their populations, and they will always find something to keep the public's knees shaking, as long as we let them.

Before the terrorist threat conveniently came along, the decline of the Soviet Union in 1991 as an existential threat to the US resulted in a need for a replacement threat to maintain fear. For a while it was alleged that drugs and crack cocaine that was threatening the very fabric of American life and the "drug cartels" were the new global enemy and the "war on drugs" was the grand crusade in which the country was engaged. Remember the much-hyped Medellin cartel, that fearsome South American group that was supposedly threatening to destroy life and civilization as we know it? For a while back in the 1990s, people were constantly being alarmed by suggestions that drug dealers were lurking everywhere, even behind the bushes in our elementary schools, trying to coax our children into becoming addicts so that the US would be turned into a nation of drug-crazed addicts.

While the drug war served as a stop-gap fear generator, it was really not a good long-term candidate since much drug use takes place among the elites in the US, and it is hard to see the rich and famous being given the 'perp walk' and put in jails and tortured.

"Terrorism" is more serviceable as a fear device since its threats are vague and indiscriminate. Linking it to Islam makes it seems deliciously alien and exotic and dangerous, just like Communism was, although in actual fact there is little to distinguish Islam from Christianity or Judaism since they are all merely variations of the same superstition.

Next in the series: How the media filters work and how they can be combated.

September 11, 2006

Picking at the scab of 9/11

As I write this (on Saturday, September 9, 2006) the media is gearing up for a full orgy of commemorating the events of five years ago. We see retrospectives, we see TV specials, we hear stories from survivors and from the loved ones of those who perished.

Why all this fuss? Who really benefits from all this?

All this attention seems to me to be unseemly, as if people relish wallowing in past tragedies. I can't imagine that this is of any help to those people who actually suffered from the event. Like most people affected by tragedy, they are probably trying to get on with their lives and having this massive rehash of events cannot be helping. This huge media circus is picking at the scab of 9/11, making sure that that particular wound never heals. As James Wolcott says: "How many times and how many ways must the adrenaline be pumped, the tragedy replayed, and the suffering exploited? The fall of the towers has become a ritual fetish, an annual haunting, that doesn't exorcise fear, but replenishes it."

Some people and groups obviously benefit from these kinds of commemorations.

The media clearly love this kind of thing. It is like state funerals or the funerals of police officers who are killed. The media is skilful at milking these events for emotion, exploiting the stock images such as the crying spouse, the bewildered children, the grieving parents, and the supportive friend. Media commentators can dwell on the topics of heroism and sacrifice, and speak in somber tones and describe the Lessons We Should Learn From The Tragedy.

This kind of thing is not really news but it has the feel of news. It has a standard script, is easy to cover, can be planned and written well in advance, has access to archival material, and can be packaged slickly.

The Bush administration also clearly feels they benefit from this coverage. They undoubtedly think it aids them in their War to Keep the American People in a State of Perpetual Fear. Bush has been going around the country this past week making speech after speech, making two contradictory points and hoping no one will notice. One is how dangerous the world is with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda still at large and thus why people should shelter under his protective wing. The other point is how the actions of his administration (which have violated norms of law and human and civil rights enshrined in the US constitution and international treaties) have made the country safer.

Is it only me who feels that there is something embarrassing about the US, undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world, cowering in fear because of a rag-tag group of people roaming around in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian seems to think so as he imagines the interview he might have with bin Laden:

[bin Laden] would agree, as did the CIA's al-Qaida analyst in Peter Taylor's recent documentary, that the Americans have done his job for him. They panicked. They drove the Taliban back into the mountains, restoring the latter's credibility in the Arab street and turning al-Qaida into heroes. They persecuted Muslims across America. They occupied Iraq and declared Iran a sworn enemy. They backed an Israeli war against Lebanon's Shias. Soon every tinpot Muslim malcontent was citing al-Qaida as his inspiration. Bin Laden's tiny organisation, which might have been starved of funds and friends in 2001, had become a worldwide jihadist phenomenon.

I would ask Bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve for the fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western media were obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning the base metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapes and rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesome power. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last. In a Transatlantic Trends survey, the number of them describing international terrorism as an 'extremely important threat' went up from 72% to 79%. As for European support for America's world leadership, that has plummeted from 64% in 2002 to 37% this year.

Bin Laden might boast that he had achieved terrorism's equivalent of an atomic chain reaction: a self-regenerating cycle of outrage and foreign-policy overkill, aided by anniversary journalism and fuelled by the grim scenarios of security lobbyists. He now had only to drop an occasional CD into the offices of al-Jazeera, and Washington and London quaked with fear. The authorities could be reduced to million-dollar hysterics by a phial of nail varnish, a copy of the Qur'an, or a dark-skinned person displaying a watch and a mobile phone."

All this wallowing on the events of 9/11 is meant to make us feel obliged to feel some emotion, a phony grief, so that we will feel obliged to take part in the commemoration events all over again, to spend a few moments in silence at the exact moment when the first tower was hit, to fly flags at half mast, to attend church services and similar meetings, to mouth pious sentiments.

Frankly, all this strikes me as bogus sentimentality and I refuse to play along. I do not plan to do any commemorating on Monday and I avoid reading all the news articles that tell me How Sad I Should Feel on September 11. I cannot see why I should feel any more sad for the people affected by that day than for the people whose deaths are recorded on the obituary pages of my newspaper every day, many of whom have also died suddenly and prematurely, to the great sorrow of their loved ones.

We are all going to die some day. Some of us will die sudden deaths at the hands of criminals or because of accidents. Those who know the people who died or know their loved ones will naturally feel sorrow and that honest grief should be respected.

But when it comes to the deaths of those whom we do not know, there is no measure by which we can conclude that some deaths are worse than others and call for more grief and sympathy. The death of a child who is killed by a drunk driver should have the same significance as the death of someone in the collapse of the twin towers, and the families of both deserve the same compassion and assistance. But that is not what happens. Some are clearly singled out for preferential treatment.

I see the attacks on the World Trade Center as a criminal act of mass murder with political motives, just like the Oklahoma City bombing. We should be treating it as a police matter, not as a war of civilizations. But instead, what we repeatedly hear is the hype about how the events of 9/11 "changed everything." But has it really? The same paper quotes a recent Quinnipiac poll that suggests that almost three-quarters of Americans have not changed their lives as a result of the events of that day. This shows a hearty good sense.

But some things have changed, as Simon Jenkins points out, and this change is not good.

What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear.

The Plain Dealer of Saturday, September 9, 2006 dutifully plays its role in following the pack journalism and ratcheting up the fear. A front-page article says:

Forget the perception that Cleveland is a poor and undesirable city, a place terrorists would never attack. Remember that Oklahoma City was devastated by terrorism.

Accept the fact that Northeast Ohio can be attacked.

Are we ready?

Yes, Cleveland could be attacked and we could all die!!!! Oh my God, what should we do?

We can let Simon Jenkins have the last word:

The gruelling re-enactment of the London bombings in July and this weekend's 9/11 horror-fest are not news. They exploit grief and horror, and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Those personally affected by these outrages may have their own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitious publicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly revitalised political act. It grants the jihadists what they most crave, warrior status. It more than validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.

The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence. Instead, Bin Laden must be laughing.

September 08, 2006

The media filters

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model, such as that which exists in the US, works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists is a system of filters that has the effect of steadily and almost invisibly weeding out of the system those individuals and media businesses that do not serve the interests of the ruling elites.

They point to five filters at work:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation

They point out that in the nineteenth century in Britain "a radical press emerged that reached a national working-class audience. This alternative press was effective in reinforcing class consciousness: it unified the workers because it fostered an alternative value system and framework for looking at the world." (p. 3) Of course such a press was seen as a major threat to the elites and they sought to suppress it using punitive measures, by "using libel laws and prosecutions, by requiring an expensive security bond as a condition for publication, and by imposing various taxes designed to drive out radical media by raising their costs."

Those punitive measures were not successful in driving out the working class press. What was successful in both England and the US in driving out the popular working class press was the rapid increase in the costs of running a newspaper due to technological improvements, along with the need to reach larger audiences. The cost of printing machinery alone now runs into hundreds of thousand of dollars even for small publications. This results in newspapers having to have large amounts of startup capital and an ability to suffer losses for a long time before they start to become profitable. This means that ownership of a media outlet is only possible to those with deep pockets, which effectively rules out all but those with wealth. So a class bias is built into the system from the beginning. Furthermore, only those with access to high levels of government can obtain the lucrative broadcast licenses for radio and TV, thus further cementing the links between government and the wealthy classes and the media.

2. The advertising license to do business

In the early days of newspaper publishing, the price of the newspaper had to cover the cost of publishing. But the growth of advertising has resulted in those publications that can generate a lot of advertising being able to set a selling price well below cost. This results in those publications that do not attract advertisers being at a huge price disadvantage. Actually, this is a double whammy. Advertisers are not be interested in the size of the circulation per se, but in the demographics of those numbers. They tend to target their advertising at those publications which succeed at attracting upscale readers with disposable income, the very people who can afford to pay a higher subscription price, while those publications that target the lower-income market are likely to get less advertising and thus have higher newsstand prices, even though their readership can afford it less.

Advertising distorts in other ways too. In order to attract advertisers and corporate sponsors, the media have to make sure not to offend them. "The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that that they buy and pay for the programs (p. 16). . .[A]dvertisers also choose selectively among programs on the basis of their own principles. With rare exceptions these are culturally and politically conservative. Large corporate advertisers on television will rarely sponsor programs that engage in serious criticism of corporate activities, such as the problem of environmental degradation, the workings of the military-industrial complex, or corporate support of and benefits from Third World tyrannies." (p. 17)

The auto industry is a good example. Newspapers in general tend to treat the auto industry and dealers very gently because they spend so much on advertising. The auto sections of the paper are usually just puff pieces sprinkled into the advertisements for auto dealers and cars.

One is far more likely to see analyses of welfare fraud than auto dealer fraud because poor people 'don't count' and if they are offended and stop reading, the advertisers don't really care. But they do care if the Gap-shopping, Benz-driving, golf-playing readership drops.

3. Sourcing mass media news

The media, being a business interested in enhancing profits for their owners and shareholders, naturally seek to cut costs. They cannot have reporters everywhere where news may break because that is too expensive. So they tend to focus on predictable, set-piece news events, "manufactured" news, which essentially means covering the press conferences of government and business sources. "These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows." (p. 19)

"Another reason for the heavy weight given to official sources is that the mass media claim to be "objective" dispensers of the news. Partly to maintain the image of objectivity, but to also protect themselves from criticisms of bias and the threat of libel suits, they need material that can be portrayed as presumptively accurate. This is also partly a matter of cost: taking information from sources that may be presumed credible reduces investigative expense, whereas material from sources that are not prima facie credible, or that will elicit criticism and threats, requires careful checking and costly research." (p. 19)

It thus costs the media little extra to report the words of the powerful in government or business or those who spout the conventional wisdom. "In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media's costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news." (p. 22) Government leaders know this, which is why they are so eager to go on the air and repeat the same things over and over again, such as their fraudulent case for invading Iraq and their claims that things there are going just fine and that those who criticize the war are appeasers and terrorist sympathizers. In fact, just this week, George Bush has been making pretty much the same speech over and over and the media covers it. All the administration officials have to do is simply make assertions without producing any evidence, and they can be sure it will be reported.

But even well-informed private citizens who go against the official line will have to provide detailed arguments and evidence in order to be taken seriously and even then, television would eliminate them because that medium requires very short sound bites and you do not have the luxury of building a case. If I say "Saddam Hussein is a war criminal" on TV, I do not have to produce any evidence in support because that is the official line. If, instead, I say "George Bush is a war criminal", I cannot expect that statement to be accepted uncritically, and to make a strong case for it requires time, and that is a luxury that TV does not provide, let alone the flak the media will get for allowing me to say it. So for purely business, and not ideological, reasons it makes sense for the media to keep out those who would make the latter charge, unless the person making it has prima facie credibility by also belonging to the government and business elite.

This is where the lack of division among the two parties on major issues of war and the economy comes into play. As long as we have effectively a one-party state on such matters, there will be correspondingly little careful examination of these issues. This is where the Democratic Party leadership shares some responsibility for the mess the US has got into in Iraq. By not providing a strong critical stance on the case for war early on, it failed to provide the cover the media needed to be able to investigate all the lies and deceptions that the Bush administration foisted on the public in the run up to the war and even since then.

In the case of the Vietnam war, the media only started reporting critically about the war when it began to be a serious drain on the economy and the business elites feared that the massive war expenditures were hurting the general economy, although the weapons industry still benefited. Furthermore, the draft was causing unrest even among the middle and upper classes, an important demographic for the media, and political leaders started facing angry constituents that forced them to question that war's rationale and implementation. We see the same thing beginning to happen with the Iraq war. Political leaders are now starting to question the war, although at this stage they are focusing on the safer question of poor implementation rather than the more fundamental questions of the war's immorality and illegality. The sudden upsurge in the attacks of Donald Rumsfeld and the calls for his resignation are the first signs that the elite consensus is breaking down.

The same thing happened with Watergate, which is always brought up as an example of how the media in the US is an antagonist of big government, rather than the cozy partner it really is. What happened there was an intra-party dispute within the ruling one-party system, where one faction (the Republicans) was seen by the other faction (the Democrats) as violating the unwritten rules by which they shared power. They don't care if yours or my phone is tapped, but tapping each other's phones is breaking the rules of the game. Since each faction has support in the government and corporate bureaucracies, reporting on Nixon's shenanigans was not the media attacking the system itself, but just reporting on a factional power struggle within the one-party consensus.

Next in the series: Two more filters

September 07, 2006

The media propaganda model in action

In the previous post, I quoted a former Fox News staffer who revealed in 2003 how the senior management at Fox News carefully monitored and directed what news would be covered and, more importantly, how it should be covered. This was done by means of "The Memo" that was sent out by top management every day to all the news staff. For example, the staffer said:

[J]ust after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be "whining" about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent's report on the day's fighting - simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital.

These are not isolated incidents at Fox News Channel, where virtually no one of authority in the newsroom makes a move unmeasured against management's politics, actual or perceived. At the Fair and Balanced network, everyone knows management's point of view, and, in case they're not sure how to get it on air, The Memo is there to remind them.

When the existence of The Memo was revealed, there was some criticism of this practice. Most people took this as a sign of how biased Fox News is. But what distinguishes Fox News's propaganda model is just the crudity of its methods, reminiscent of the amateurishness of totalitarian governments. A really good propaganda model designs a system where journalists think they are acting autonomously as independent seekers of truth. So to examine such a good system, we should move away from Fox and look at how the rest of the media operates and the same staffer who revealed the existence of The Memo demonstrates this when he compares his experience at Fox with that at other news outlets.

Not once in the 20+ years I had worked in broadcast journalism prior to Fox - including lengthy stays at The Associated Press, CBS Radio and ABC/Good Morning America - did I feel any pressure to toe a management line. But at Fox, if my boss wasn't warning me to "be careful" how I handled the writing of a special about Ronald Reagan ("You know how Roger [Fox News Chairman Ailes] feels about him."), he was telling me how the environmental special I was to produce should lean ("You can give both sides, but make sure the pro-environmentalists don't get the last word.")

This is quite a compliment to the other news outlets. But the real compliment to them is not that they are unbiased seekers and revealers of the truth but that the propaganda model works so invisibly there that even someone who worked within the system for so long was oblivious to its operation.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me emphasize that I am not doubting the writer's sincerity. I am sure that he and other journalists at these other places very rarely encounter any direct political interference in their work. But that does not mean that their news does not have an agenda. It is just that the agenda is not overtly enforced.

Another misunderstanding I wish to avoid is that the agendas I am talking about is not the "liberal" or "conservative" agenda that gets much discussed. The whole debate over whether the media is "liberal" is a bogus one, whose roots and purposes will be examined in a later posting. As I said in an earlier post, what we have in the US is a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions, and the media reflects this. The two factions are divided over social and moral issues such a church-state separation, abortion, affirmative action, flag burning, pledge of allegiance, sex education in schools, evolution, sex, etc. The existence of heated debates over these issues can easily give one the impression that there are deep divisions in the country that are reflected in the media and in government.

Some deep divisions do exist. But it is noteworthy that they usually involve issues that do not affect the entrenched economic interests of the country. Behind the smokescreen provided by these angry debates over social and cultural issues is a smoothly operating one-party system that serves the interests of an elite group. But most people do not care to delve too deeply into the kinds of arcane governmental actions that are of most interest to the business industries. Those decisions, and the rules interpreting them, are made by small congressional committees that operate in closed committee rooms in close collaboration with industry lobbyists and well outside the glare of the media lights.

As I wrote about a year ago:

If you are in the mood for being disgusted about how unbelievably corrupted the democratic process has become in Congress in general, see this article titled Four Amendments & a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and posted on August 10, 2005. The article describes how the legislative process has become far removed from what you might have idealized in your government classes or in Schoolhouse Rock. As Rep. Bernie Sanders says "Nobody knows how this place is run. If they did, they'd go nuts."

The whole system operates in a manner similar to that used by magicians and conjurors and three-card Monte tricksters. They usually have a line of patter and lots of motion to distract you from the fact that the actual action is elsewhere. All the high profile, high energy, heated rhetoric over social and cultural issues serve as essentially entertainment, as patter, to distract you from what is really going on. In fact, a useful rule of thumb for political and media observers is to not pay a lot of attention to what politicians disagree about but instead look at what they agree on. That is where all the scandals are. When someone calls for bipartisanship on some issue, that is when you should be most on your guard.

For an example of how successful the propaganda system is, in a recent poll, 46% of the public and 65% of Republicans agree with the proposition that "there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terror attacks" despite the fact that this was always known to be a falsehood and that even George Bush himself on occasion has explicitly denied that there was a connection, and even claims that no one in his administration claimed such a connection.

Such a result, so convenient to this administration in persuading the public to support its illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, could only come about due to a highly sophisticated propaganda operation where people were misled and lied to without realizing how they were being led by the nose.

Understanding that this is how the government operates is important in understanding how the media works. The media is designed to cover those areas that create disturbance and is not well suited to explore those areas where there is no public disagreement among high officials. This is why they almost always miss the big issues.

In the next posting on this topic, I will look at the filters that operate in the media that produces the kinds of journalists and journalism that allows this subversion of Lincoln's ideal of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

POST SCRIPT: Surrendering freedoms

The same survey I referred to above also seems to indicate that a disturbingly large percentage of people (and a majority of Republicans) are willing to freely give up the rights enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the constitution for what they think is security.

Benjamin Franklin said that "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security." And that is exactly the kind of state where we are moving towards, where there is neither security nor liberty.

September 05, 2006

Media self-censorship

When we talk of a 'controlled' media, we tend to think of editors and political leaders telling reporters what they should write about and how. That does happen in some countries and newspapers, and we rightly call those things 'propaganda'. But that kind of overt control is rarely effective over the long term because when people know that journalists take their instructions from people with openly political agendas, they tend to factor that in and discount the credibility of those news sources.

Propaganda is far more effective when there is no overt control or censorship of journalists but where they can be persuaded to self-censor, because then everyone, reporters and reading public alike, think that what they are getting is 'objective' news and are thus more likely to believe it. Implementing such a sophisticated propaganda model requires some overt pressure initially, but reporters and editors quickly learn what they can and cannot say if they want to advance their careers.

Take for example the case of Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks. I wrote earlier that Ricks reported that US military analysts had told him that Israel was allowing the Hezbollah to keep some rockets that killed Israeli civilians because that helped them deflect criticism when they killed Lebanese civilians. This, of course, goes against the accepted official line that 'our' (i.e. the Israel and US government's) motives are always pure and that it is only 'they' (whoever the current enemy happens to be) who would do evil things.

It is interesting to see what happened to him after that. Howard Kurtz, on whose show Ricks made these comments, says:

One other note. On Reliable Sources two weeks ago, "Washington Post" Pentagon reporter Tom Ricks said he'd been told by U.S. military analysts that Israel was leaving some Hezbollah rocket launchers intact because the killing of Israeli civilians provided an image of moral equivalency in the war. "Post" editor Len Downie, responding to a letter from former New York mayor, Ed Koch, says he told Ricks he should not have made those statements.

Ricks told the New York Sun that he accurately reported the comments from analysts but that, quote, "I wish I hadn't said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it."

Notice that Ricks was not denying the accuracy of what he had said or the fact that it was a relevant and important piece of information about the nature of modern warfare. He was saying that he had learned not to offend powerful people and groups, people who have the ears of his bosses. He and his editors have learned that they cannot step outside certain boundaries of thought. You can be sure that every reported has heard this story and taken its lesson to heart.

That is one example of how self-censorship is created. Here's another.

Chris Mooney described how Scott Gold, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote a "hard-hitting but accurate" piece which reported that the scientific consensus was firm that "abortion does not cause breast cancer" and that those who claimed it did had dubious credentials.

Mooney says that "In an internal memo exposed by the Web site LAobserved.com, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias." Carroll said that Gold should have sought out a credible scientist to defend the breast cancer-abortion link. In other words, Gold should have done a 'he said/she said' story.

Mooney says that this criticism might have had the desired effect. In a subsequent article on intelligent design creationism, Gold went out of his way to highlight the views of the IDC movement and make it seem to have much more credibility among scientists than it did.

Mooney concludes, "Scott Gold had it exactly right on abortion and breast cancer. Then he produced an article on “intelligent design” so artificially “balanced” it was downright inaccurate and misleading."

These examples can be multiplied over and over. Those journalists who cannot stomach this self-censorship and want to simply call it like it is have to leave the profession. Those who remain either have already accepted this ethic or internalize it so that eventually they don't even realize that they are doing so. It just becomes 'natural' for them to practice journalism this way, and thus it becomes the culture of reporting, the 'correct' way to do things.

It would be wrong to assume that this kind of self-censorship occurs because of the actions of a few people here or there. That would not be effective. It would also be wrong to assume that it occurs because of a deliberate and planned conspiracy among powerful people. That would be too crude and obvious. That is not how such systems come about. The kind of self-censorship we see occurs as a natural consequence of certain kinds of systemic forces operating in invisible ways to create the 'objective' media that we now have. How that system operates will be the topic of the next few postings in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Bad news from Antarctica about CO2 levels

The most recent results from examining ice cores from Antarctica show that current carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than they have ever been in 800,000 years and rising faster than ever before. (See my earlier posting on this.)

The picture is the same: carbon dioxide and temperature rise and fall in step.

"Ice cores reveal the Earth's natural climate rhythm over the last 800,000 years. When carbon dioxide changed there was always an accompanying climate change. Over the last 200 years human activity has increased carbon dioxide to well outside the natural range," explained Dr Wolff.

The "scary thing", he added, was the rate of change now occurring in CO2 concentrations. In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years.

"The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don't have an analogue in our records," he said.

September 01, 2006

The consequences of having media monopolies

Understanding the US media is an important part of political education and two of the best analysts are Ben Bagdikian who wrote the classic The Media Monopoly (updated recently to The New Media Monopoly) and Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and other books.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (published in 1988) remains a powerful read in describing how the media, both wittingly and unwittingly, colludes with powerful interests in creating a public consensus that actually goes against the interests of the people they supposedly represent. If they updated their book, they would undoubtedly use as one of their examples how the media effectively aided the administration to persuade the American public to go along with the disastrous policy of invading Iraq and linking that hapless country to the events of September 11, 2001, even though there was no evidence linking those two events and there was no justifiable case for attacking Iraq at all.

All these authors present sophisticated analyses and it is not my intention to summarize them because I would surely do them an injustice. So what follows is my own informal gleaning of the key messages.

One key point to understand is the one Bagdikian's book title indicates, and that is that there is a major qualitative shift how the media operates when it becomes a monopoly in a market. It is undoubtedly true that in almost all American cities, there is only one major daily newspaper. And this results in a different type of journalism from the early days when many competing newspapers existed in each major market.

Any business needs to produce a product that the consumer wants to buy. So the basic model assumes a product and a target market. In the newspaper business, we tend to think of the news and features in the paper as the product and the newspaper reader as the market that is being targeted. In this model, it makes sense that the newspapers would try and produce the best product so as to attract the most readers and thus make the most money. If one has this model in mind, then it really should not matter if there is only one paper or more than one in any given market. Each newspaper will strive to produce the most useful and desirable paper for its readers.

But that is not the model that best reflects reality. A better model is that we (the readers) are the product and advertisers are the market that is being targeted. In other words, newspapers seek to 'sell' the readers to the advertisers. American papers depend more for their revenue on advertising that on subscriber sales. Subscriber sales figures are important in selling advertising space. The news becomes the lure by which we, the readers, are drawn in.

In this model, just like in the other model, the more readers a newspaper has, the better, especially those in the desirable demographic groups sought by the advertisers. So newspapers broaden their appeal with sports, features, comics, lifestyle and entertainment pages, all in an effort to draw more readers. And in fact, American newspapers are pretty good in this regard when compared to other countries. The 'soft' feature coverage is usually a lot more comprehensive and occupies a greater percentage of the papers in the US than I have seen in any other country I have visited.

The difference between the two models becomes important when it comes to 'hard' news coverage, which is essentially political.

Take a simple situation in a city in which the population is roughly split between two political viewpoints. We can label the splits 'liberal/conservative' or 'Democratic/Republican' or whatever, it does not matter. If you have two newspapers, each can hope to maximize its readership to half the population by tailoring its news emphasis to appeal one side of the spectrum while the other newspaper will do the same for the other, and thus one has the kind of partisan journalism I wrote about earlier that is common in other countries.

But as soon as you are down to just one newspaper in a market, that paper now has the potential to double its readership (and thus be much more attractive to advertisers) by trying to appeal to the entire population. This means that they have to make sure they do not offend anyone. Thus one ends up with monopoly newspapers carefully cultivating this 'neutrality' which essentially means treating all major stories as 'he said/she said.' To aggressively investigate stories that might go against the interests of one political segment might result in antagonizing half the paper's potential readership. But of course newspapers cannot say that they are not publishing their conclusions because of fear that they might lose readers and the corresponding advertising revenue. So they have developed the cloak of 'objectivity' to avoid the charge of 'pushing an agenda' that favors one side or the other.

Those reporters who want to pursue a major story that adversely affects one segment can usually only do so if a major public figure consistently speaks out about it, because then the reporter can report that person's words and not be accused of pushing an agenda.

For example, I feel sure that there must have been reporters who doubted the case being made for invading Iraq. But they were hindered by the fact that the craven leadership of the Democratic Party largely went along with the fictions of the administration about Iraq being a threat to the US. If those leaders had spoken out more strongly, that would have provided cover for those journalists to dig deeper into the facts since there would have been a controversy that required attention. But when political leaders don't vociferously raise an issue, the media finds it hard to do so because they run the risk, in the US at least, of being accused of 'pushing an agenda' being 'partisan' and so forth, and that has come to be seen as a big no-no.

We see the same thing with science reporting on (say) global warming or evolution. The scientific consensus on both these issues is clear. But reporters cannot say so without fear of antagonizing the sizeable segment of the general public who question that consensus. In order to keep them as readers, reporters will do their 'on the one hand, on the other hand' soft-shoe routine.

So the real question that needs to be examined is, that given the economic driving forces of monopoly media in the US, why there was not greater political skepticism that can provide the window for journalists to truly investigate and report. And this illustrates an interesting, but disturbing, parallelism between monopoly journalism and monopolistic political systems.

Next in this series: Monopoly media and monopoly politics.

August 30, 2006

The benefits of "unbalanced" media coverage

Since I am interested in how the media operates, I regularly go to the annual Susie Gharib Distinguished Lectureship series sponsored by the English Department at Case where they invite journalists to talk about their work.

It is always interesting to listen to journalists from the big newspapers such as the Washington Post describe how they work. One thing that always strikes me is how confident they are that the media and journalism in the US is far superior to that in other countries. They seem to accept this as an unquestioned truth.

Two years ago, two journalists from the Washington Post (a husband and wife team) described how they were in Iraq just prior to the US attack on that country, and he somewhat disdainfully spoke of the practices of their British journalistic counterparts. During the questions, I asked them why they thought they were superior. The husband replied that the US editors seemed to exercise much more oversight to make sure about getting the facts just right than the British newspapers. But if that was so, I said, how was it that the US media completely failed to discover the fact that the case being made at that time for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction was totally bogus. The US mainstream media pretty much accepted the administration's arguments largely uncritically, whereas the supposedly inferior media in many other parts of the world were very skeptical.

He became very defensive and said that this was just one case where the US media dropped the ball but that in general it was much better than the rest of the world. He said unlike much of the world's press, the US media was "objective" and "unbiased" in its coverage. My response was that this massive failure in what was the biggest story that any of them was likely to ever cover, and one that had momentous consequences, could not be dismissed as a mere aberration but pointed to a fundamental problem in the way that the media operates here.

Last year, Pulitzer prize winningWashington Post journalist Dana Priest (who won for her story on the secret prisons operated by the CIA to hold prisoners in foreign countries) was here and during the question time someone else brought up the deficiencies of the coverage leading up to the Iraq war, and brought up some examples of what he felt were stories that the US media missed.

Priest replied that the media did cover them. But the questioner persisted saying that saying something once was not enough in the face of repeated false assertions to the contrary by the Bush administration. He asked why the journalists did not periodically (say every week or month or so) keep raising the same issues again so as to act as an effective counter to the misleading propaganda pushed by the White House. She replied that they could not do so because that would imply that the journalists were pushing an agenda. She said that they had to be "objective" and "impartial."

This exchange clearly highlights the fundamental problem. Priest was right that if you look carefully in the US media, you can probably find some journalist somewhere who did ask the right questions and did report on the facts of almost any issue. She is also right that many US reporters, especially those in the quality media, think that they should strive for some kind of impartiality and objectivity in their reporting.

But the key question is not the validity of some abstract ideal of journalism. The real question is what kind of system will end up with the general public having a good sense of the truth. And I think that a strong case can be made that partisan journalism is more likely to deliver the goods.

I grew up in Sri Lanka with partisan journalism. My father subscribed to three daily morning papers and two evening papers. These papers were much slimmer than the papers in the US, with far fewer ads and feature articles, and a greater percentage devoted to news and political commentary. The political affiliations of the papers were quite clear. There were the government-controlled papers, those that were sympathetic to each of the main political parties, plus those that were run by private entrepreneurs (kind of like Rupert Murdoch) who had their own agenda of using their newspapers as clout to further their business or political interests. There were also smaller circulation papers that had their own political leanings, representing trade unions and smaller political parties.

Everyone knew the partisan leanings of each paper. These were not secrets and readers factored them in when reading the news. So what kind of journalism was produced by this system?

What happened is that the newspapers, whatever the leanings, could not publish outright falsehoods. Newspapers rarely made flat out untrue statements because those are easily refuted by the other newspapers and there existed libel laws to prevent that, as well as a Press Council which could investigate charges of serious distortions What the newspapers did do was downplay the negative news about the people they favored and highlight their successes, while doing the opposite for the people they opposed. They would give wide coverage to political events of their side and to the speeches of the people they favored while downplaying those of their opponents.

They also used biased language. It was not unusual to see a photo of someone they disliked in an unflattering pose accompanied by a snide caption. You would never see such things in the US press and whenever I go back to Sri Lanka, it is always a bit of a jolt initially to see such blatant editorializing mixed in with the "hard" news.

As a reader, it was not hard to figure out what was going on. If one paper made a major allegation, and the other paper did not deny it but tried to ignore it or downplay it, the chances are that the story was credible. If a story was serious, a paper could keep harping on it day after day, making sure that it was not forgotten or buried, and forcing the people concerned to respond to it in one way or another.

Since it was clear to everyone what each paper's agenda was, there was no point in really trying to hide it under cover of neutrality.

Of course this kind of media required the reader to do some of the intellectual heavy lifting, to read multiple sources, factor in their biases, and infer the real facts of the case. If you read only one newspaper, you were definitely missing important information. So people became adept at news interpretation and filtering.

This kind of partisan journalism is, I think, the norm in most countries. England's newspapers are like this to some extent and so are the French. The US is unusual in its big media feeling that they have to be "neutral" and "objective" and "unbiased."

Next: Is the US media actually unbiased? And how did it get to value "neutrality"?

August 23, 2006

Why "balanced coverage" does not always lead to good science journalism

In a previous post, I showed how George Monbiot of the Guardian newspaper provided an example of good science reporting, distinguishing the credible from those who indulge in wishful thinking. But unfortunately, he is an exception. And Chris Mooney writing in 2004 in the Columbia Journalism Review describes how the more common journalistic practice of attempting to provide "balanced coverage" of a scientific issue tends to allow the scientific fringe elements to distort reality.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who's actually right.
. . .
Energy interests wishing to stave off action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a documented history of supporting the small group of scientists who question the human role in causing climate change — as well as consciously strategizing about how to sow confusion on the issue and sway journalists.

In 1998, for instance, John H. Cushman, Jr., of The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences." Perhaps most startling, the memo cited a need to "recruit and train" scientists "who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate" to participate in media outreach and counter the mainstream scientific view. This seems to signal an awareness that after a while, journalists catch on to the connections between contrarian scientists and industry.
. . .
In a recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, the scholars Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff analyzed coverage of the issue in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times between 1988 and 2002. During this fourteen-year period, climate scientists successfully forged a powerful consensus on human-caused climate change. But reporting in these four major papers did not at all reflect this consensus.

The Boykoffs analyzed a random sample of 636 articles. They found that a majority — 52.7 percent — gave "roughly equal attention" to the scientific consensus view that humans contribute to climate change and to the energy-industry-supported view that natural fluctuations suffice to explain the observed warming. By comparison, just 35.3 percent of articles emphasized the scientific consensus view while still presenting the other side in a subordinate fashion. Finally, 6.2 percent emphasized the industry-supported view, and a mere 5.9 percent focused on the consensus view without bothering to provide the industry/skeptic counterpoint.

Most intriguing, the Boykoffs' study found a shift in coverage between 1988 — when climate change first garnered wide media coverage — and 1990. During that period, journalists broadly moved from focusing on scientists' views of climate change to providing "balanced" accounts. During this same period, the Boykoffs noted, climate change became highly politicized and a "small group of influential spokespeople and scientists emerged in the news" to question the mainstream view that industrial emissions are warming the planet. The authors conclude that the U.S. "prestige-press" has produced "informationally biased coverage of global warming . . . hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance."
. . .
Some major op-ed pages also appear to think that to fulfill their duty of providing a range of views, they should publish dubious contrarian opinion pieces on climate change even when those pieces are written by nonscientists. For instance, on July 7, 2003, The Washington Post published a revisionist op-ed on climate science by James Schlesinger, a former secretary of both energy and defense, and a former director of Central Intelligence. "In recent years the inclination has been to attribute the warming we have lately experienced to a single dominant cause — the increase in greenhouse gases," wrote Schlesinger. "Yet climate has always been changing — and sometimes the swings have been rapid." The clear implication was that scientists don't know enough about the causes of climate change to justify strong pollution controls.

That's not how most climatologists feel, but then Schlesinger is an economist by training, not a climatologist. Moreover, his Washington Post byline failed to note that he sits on the board of directors of Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, and has since 2001.

Eldan Goldenberg, who has long been concerned with the way science is reported, kindly sent to me a report put out by the Stratfor group about a conference of journalists and scientists convened last month to discuss this very issue. Some excerpts:

Panels of journalists and scientists gathered July 25 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington to discuss the mainstream media's reporting on climate change. The consensus was that the media have not covered the issue well.

According to both panels, the greatest shortcoming has been in persistent portrayals of the issue as one of contentious scientific debate: In reality, the assembled scientists said, man-made climate change is generally accepted throughout the scientific community as a reality.

Most of the time at the conference was dedicated to examining the media's portrayal of the issue and explaining how it came into being. The root of the problem, most participants agreed, is that climate change has been covered primarily as a political rather than a scientific issue -- and thus, the media have focused on the political debate rather than the science behind it.

In the background of this discussion loomed a larger issue: The mainstream media, recognizing that there is more to the story, now are struggling with ways to change their portrayal of the climate change issue. Arguments are emerging that the scientific debate ha now been concluded, "industry" has lost and the new debate is about policy options. Though this line of thinking is nearer to the truth, it does not entirely close the gap. The fact is that industry all but stopped contesting the premise of man-made climate change two years ago, but the media's preoccupation with the traditional battle lines -- industry versus environmentalists -- continues to obscure the complexity of the issue and the positions of various players.
. . .
Because the media continue to write about these matters as political issues -- debates between two interested parties – the scientific questions at the center of campaigns on climate change, the relative risk of various chemicals and substances and the risks posed by genetically modified organisms have been relegated to the backburner. Rather than being the focus in the policy debates, the science is used as a tactic in a communications and public relations battle.

The proposed solution to this problem is that journalists should eschew the goal of "balanced coverage" when it comes to science. This, I believe, is unworkable in practice because it would be singling out science for different kind of treatment than other topics. Journalists are generalists, sometimes doing science, sometimes shifted to other beats. It is unreasonable to expect them to radically shift their mode of operation depending on the topic.

In fact, I believe that this problem is not limited to global warming or to scientific issues generally. Instead, I feel that this idea of "balanced coverage," that has become the journalistic ideal in the US, produces lower quality of journalism in general.

But that is a topic for another day.

August 22, 2006

How science reporters should do their job

About a year ago, Eldan Goldenberg had a post complaining about the lousy job that reporters do when covering science. (They do an even worse job when covering the government's fraudulent case for going to war, but that's a post for another day.)

The way that they cover global warming is a good example of the problem. But before we get to the bad news, let's first look at how a good science reporter should do the job, and for this there is an excellent example in George Monbiot of the London Guardian newspaper.

The story begins with a letter that was published in the New Scientist magazine on April 16, 2005 by a well known botanist David Bellamy in which he said that many of the world's glaciers "are not shrinking but in fact are growing . . . 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980". His letter was instantly taken up by climate change deniers and used to argue that global warming was not happening.

That this letter received such wide circulation was not surprising. After all, as Monbiot says "Because Bellamy is president of the Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife International and the British Naturalists' Association, his statements carry a great deal of weight. When, for example, I challenged the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders over climate change, its spokesman cited Bellamy's position as a reason for remaining sceptical."

But something about the numbers cited by Bellamy bothered Monbiot and he tried to find out more. So he contacted the World Glacier Monitoring Service and asked them about Bellamy's claim. The response was unequivocal: "This is complete b---s---." They went on that "Despite his scientific reputation, he makes all the mistakes that are possible." Bellamy had, they said,

"cited data that was simply false, he had failed to provide references, he had completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world's glaciers are retreating."

So Bellamy was directly contradicted by the very people he was quoting. But where had he got his numbers? After all, scientists rarely make up stuff out of whole cloth. Monbiot contacted Bellamy and asked him for his sources. After several requests, Bellamy replied that he had got the information from the website THE NEXT ICE AGE - NOW! constructed by someone called Robert W. Felix to promote his book about the coming ice age.

The catch was that Felix is an architect, not anyone with any kind of background in climate studies. But in his site was this item: "Since 1980, there has been an advance of more than 55% of the 625 mountain glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring group in Zurich." Bellamy told Monbiot that the source for this information was the latest issue of 21st Century Science and Technology.

What is this impressive sounding publication? Monbiot looked it up and found that it is published by none other than Lyndon LaRouche. This alone should have immediately sent up warning flags to anybody that the information may not be reliable. But from where did they get their numbers? The publication (whose website seems to be pushing the case for a coming ice age) does not specify but Monbiot says that the same information was first published by Professor Fred Singer (an actual environmental scientist) on his website, SCIENCE & ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY PROJECT and is constantly quoted all over the web as evidence that man-made climate change is not happening.

So where did Singer get his information? Singer only says that it is from a paper published in the journal Science in 1989. So finally Monbiot had arrived at a source that is a peer-reviewed science journal, and a highly prestigious one at that. But there is a catch. Monbiot combed "through every edition of Science published in 1989, both manually and electronically. Not only did it contain nothing resembling those figures, throughout that year there was no paper published in this journal about glacial advance or retreat."

(I too searched on the SEPP website using the keyword "55%" but the link that was returned to the relevant article leads nowhere, perhaps as a result of Monbiot's questioning. But I found it in Google cache and it says "The World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, in a paper published in Science in 1989, noted that between 1926 and 1960 more than 70 percent of 625 mountain glaciers in the [mid-latitude] United States, Soviet Union, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy were retreating. After 1980, however, 55 percent of these same glaciers were advancing." But as Monbiot says, the cited Science article does not exist and the World Glacier Monitoring Service spokesperson flatly (and profanely) contradicts this statement.)

The alert reader would have noticed that Bellamy said 555 of 625 glaciers (or 89%), while the sources he cites said 55% of 625 glaciers. Where did that final discrepancy come from? Monbiot wondered whether, since % and 5 are on the same key, Bellamy may not have made a simple error by missing the shift key while typing.

He went back to Bellamy with this hypothesis and the latter admitted that there had been "a glitch in electronics." But interestingly enough, Bellamy has not requested New Scientist magazine to publish a correction, seemingly content to let that error, which suits his own agenda, remain in currency.

The magazine Mother Jones pithily sums up the situation: "So there you have it – a 16 year old article that was never written, fraudulently cited by a climate skeptic, re-printed in a publication owned by Lyndon Larouche which was cited by a former architect, and finally misrepresented by a credible scientist."

And yet, as Monbiot says, the "555 figure is now being cited as definitive evidence that global warming is a "fraud", a "scam", a "lie"."

Monbiot sums up the state of affairs this way:

It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in the palm of your hand. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world's most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals.

This was a nice piece of reporting by Monbiot showing why the "controversy" keeps getting fuel for its continuation. But how many reporters are like him, willing to peel back the layers of a story to get to the core, to reveal the actual data, or in this case, the lack of data?

The eagerness with which global warming skeptics picked up and passed around this highly dubious claim by Bellamy is a good example of what Bertrand Russell said in his book Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndication. (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.)

"What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires - desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence."

Russell's admonition applies equally to those of us who believe that global warming is a serious issue. We should not be too eager to seize on any piece of data that seems to support those claims either, but need to look the credibility of the claim, the nature of the evidence supporting it, and corroborating evidence.

Next: Why reporters like Monbiot are, sadly, the exception.

June 09, 2006

Saving the internet: The importance of net neutrality

[UPDATE: Read this Democracy Now transcript for clarifications on the net neutrality issue.]

After singing the praises of the internet in the last three posts, it is now time to sound the alarm. There are serious threats underway to undermine the very features of the internet that have made it the democratizing force it has been so far, and these efforts should be resisted strongly. Last night, the House of Representatives voted down (268-152) an amendment that would have placed into law a provision that would ensure something called 'net neutrality.' The issue now goes before the Senate. Founders of the web like Tim Berners-Lee argue that we could be entering a 'dark period' in which a few suppliers would be able to determine what users could do and see on the web.

Here's the issue. Currently, you (the end user) can use any browser you like and go to any site that you want and the speed and ease with which you can access them is largely determined by the content creators and consumers: i.e., the server at the other end and your own computer. The general features of the connecting medium (whether cable, phone line, or wireless) play a neutral role in this process. Think of the medium like the role that roads play in transport. Everyone can use them equally, although each user may use a different kind of vehicle.

But the big telecommunication companies (telcos) that own that connecting medium (AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth) are arguing that since they are the ones who own that infrastructure, they should be able to use that control to generate additional revenue by providing different levels of service (affecting speed and quality) depending on how much people pay. It is as if all roads become toll roads and how much access you get to them, how quickly you could get on them, and how fast you can go on them is determined by how much you pay the road owners.

As the Washington Post reported on December 1, 2005:

A senior telecommunications executive said yesterday that Internet service providers should be allowed to strike deals to give certain Web sites or services priority in reaching computer users, a controversial system that would significantly change how the Internet operates.

William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.

Or, Smith said, his company should be allowed to charge a rival voice-over-Internet firm so that its service can operate with the same quality as BellSouth's offering.

This has huge ramifications for the internet, as the website SaveTheInternet.com points out. Here's a sample of the threats (more complete list here):

Google users - Another search engine could pay dominant Internet providers like AT&T to guarantee the competing search engine opens faster than Google on your computer.
Ipod listeners -A company like Comcast could slow access to iTunes, steering you to a higher-priced music service that it owned.
Political groups - Political organizing could be slowed by a handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups to pay "protection money" for their websites and online features to work correctly.
Online purchasers - Companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee their online sales process faster than competitors with lower prices - distorting your choice as a consumer.
Bloggers - Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips - silencing citizen journalists and putting more power in the hands of a few corporate-owned media outlets.

The telcos are using their money (and correspondingly huge lobbying muscle) to try and get legislation through Congress to enable them to do this, and are being fought by grassroots groups. It is speculated that one reason that phone companies so easily (and secretly) gave phone records over to the government in its NSA phone monitoring program was because they were trying to curry favor with the administration concerning this legislation, hoping for this big payoff in return.

This is an important issue and could determine whether the internet remains an egalitarian force or goes down the road of big corporation control that way that newspapers, radio and TV did. In the early days of each of those media forms, it was relatively easy for people to enter into it. It did not cost a lot of money to start a newspaper or radio station, although TVs were more expensive. But then big companies aided by a friendly Congress started dominating the field and nowadays one has to have enormous wealth to start up. In the case of radio and TV, the government has colluded with the big companies by taking the public airways (the broadcast spectrum) and giving it away free to private companies to make exorbitant profits. If you or I were to start a radio and TV station and broadcast it over the public airways, we would be prosecuted.

Newspapers, radio, and TV have ceased to be representative of the interests of ordinary people because they are not owned by them. They now represent the interests of their owners and shareholders. It is the internet, still an embryo medium, that still has the ease of entry to make it a democratizing force because, at least in principle, anyone can gain access to it to spread ideas. It is this that is threatened by the attacks on net neutrality. History has shown that once we let the big companies muscle in and dominate a media system, we cannot get it back.

Considering how much we all use the internet, this issue has been surprisingly below the radar. People seem to assume that the internet will always be the way it is now. But just as the democratic aspects of the internet were not an accident but deliberately designed to be so by its pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee, keeping it that way will also require deliberate efforts by us. We cannot take it for granted.

Case has many tech-savvy people who have a much better idea of the implications of surrendering net neutrality to the big telcos. Lev Gonick, Case's Vice President for Information Technology as early as last year had a very detailed and informative post on this topic. We need to build more awareness on this important issue. Perhaps we should have a concerted effort, with more bloggers expressing their views on this issue.

For more information on this topic, see the very helpful FAQ put out by the Save The Internet coalition.

June 08, 2006

Why I love the internet-3: How blogs have changed the pundit game.

In the previous post, I discussed that the main role of columnists and pundits was to act as sheepdogs for us, herding us into pens that limit the range of opinions we are allowed to express and be taken 'seriously.' To be frank, I rarely read any of the newspaper columnists anymore. However, since they do appear regularly in the Plain Dealer, I occasionally glance at them while reading the paper. I can usually predict what they are going to say on any given issue and the first paragraph usually confirms my prediction. There is almost never any new information or data or perspective that I find enlightening, whether it be from the 'liberal' or 'conservative' columnists. But what those columns do give me one useful piece of information and that is to tell me is what the acceptable range of conventional wisdom is, what I am supposed to think.

Blogs have changed this world of news commentary and analysis. What the internet has revealed is two important things. The first is that there exists a whole host of knowledgeable and astute analysts of the news out there in cyberspace, people who care passionately about specific issues and are willing to put in the time and effort to really study things in detail. The second is that those of us whose views are outside the 'acceptable' range of opinions defined by the traditional newspaper columnists are not alone. In fact, there are quite a lot of us, and with internet we can discover one another's existence, talk with each other, share information, and build alliances that transcend the conventional political labels.

Take for example, blogger Glenn Greenwald. Unknown a year ago, he burst on the scene with his sharp and critical analyses if the Bush administration's electronic surveillance programs. I read his blog if I want to analysis by someone who understands constitutional law and who reads legislation and other documents carefully. He has become so influential so quickly that he has even been invited to give commentary on TV shows and his book How Would a Patriot Act: Defending American Values From a President Run Amok debuted last week at #11 on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, powered in part by the enthusiastic support he received from fellow bloggers.

Similarly, I read Juan Cole if I want to understand what is really going on in Iraq, how events are being viewed in the Arab media and backgrounds on the people involved. I read Justin Raimondo for generally astute and informed analysis on issues of war and peace, coupled with a sharp, no-nonsense writing style. Daily Kos and Atrios are good for alerting me to news items that I would otherwise miss. And there are always Joshus Micah Marshall and Kevin Drum for commentary that is similar to that of traditional columnists and pundits but is usually much better informed and perceptive. All these bloggers link to other bloggers on specific issues.

Almost none of these people have editors checking on them to make sure that what they write is accurate. I don't know any of them personally either. So how do I know they are any good? How do I know they are reliable? The answer is their record. Blogs are mercilessly quick to point out when a fellow blogger makes an error and you quickly learn to distinguish between the people who are careful about what they write and the people who are merely glib. Of course, blogging is a fast-paced activity and errors are bound to creep in. But good bloggers respond well to having errors pointed out and you can easily tell the difference between those who make the occasional error and those who are trying to mislead readers in order to push an agenda. The deliberate misleaders, or those whose message is purely driven by ideology and undeterred by contradictory facts, end up with only partisan supporters (although there may be many of these).

While bloggers have no editors or other external quality control mechanisms like newspaper and TV and radio columnists do, they do have a far more powerful internal quality control mechanism. This is because bloggers know that the only thing they have to offer is the content they provide. People do not stumble across them while were looking for sports news, or department store sales, or comics. People have to actually seek them out. If bloggers do not provide good content, they are out of business.

I first realized the sheepherding or thought control role of newspaper columnists in the US soon after I first came here for graduate studies. In Sri Lanka as a student, I had read the sharp and incisive analyses of global politics of Noam Chomsky. Any person interested in politics there had heard of Chomsky, who is a distinguished professor of linguistics at MIT and became well known as a political analyst during the Vietnam war.

Chomsky is widely read everywhere in the world. He has been ranked in the top ten of the most cited scholars who have ever lived and recently was voted (by a landslide) the world's top public intellectual in a poll conducted by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. (See Robin Blackburn's article for why he deserves this recognition.)

But when I came to the US for graduate studies in the late 1970s, I found him to be completely absent from the mainstream media here. In order to read his take on current events, I had to go to the library and read newspapers and magazines from other countries. What was even more surprising to me was that many people in the US had not even heard of Chomsky.

I now know why. Chomsky had made the cardinal 'error' of going outside the boundaries of acceptable thought. He had argued that the Vietnam war was an act of aggression by the US against that country, with the aim of making sure that that country's economy was destroyed along with its socialist program of trying to provide education and housing and health to all its citizens. Such a good example, he argued, would be tempting for other developing nations to follow and thus dangerous to US business interests. This view went against the conventional view that Vietnam was a well-intentioned attempt to prevent the spread of Communism, taken on behalf of the Vietnamese people with their best interests in mind.

Chomsky has proceeded to elaborate on his analyses, arguing that the mainstream consensus idea of US foreign policy being benevolent in intent but undermined by incompetent execution or events beyond its control is a myth, and that its foreign policy is governed by ruthless self-interest on the part of a small group of US elites, carried out mercilessly, and dependent for its success on keeping the vast majority of American people in the dark about their true intentions. Controlling the range of debate and opinions in the mainstream media is an important tool towards achieving this goal. For stepping outside the mainstream consensus, and showing how that fraudulent mainstream consensus is created, he was banished from the op-ed pages of US newspapers and his articles could not be found in US mainstream magazines. (See the book Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Edward Herman (professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania) for a sharp analysis of how the media functions.)

Whether you agree with Chomsky or not, there is no denying the fact that he does his research and can back up his claims with historical facts, actual data, and clear, logical reasoning. And yet Chomsky cannot be found anywhere in the mainstream media in the US while fact-free ranters of the Ann Coulter variety seem to be all over the place. If that is not in itself a good reason to celebrate the death on establishment punditry, I don't know what is. (See here for the kinds of things that Coulter says.)

Despite this shunning by the mainstream US media, Chomsky's prolific output and seemingly unlimited energy enabled him to become one of the world's most influential intellectuals. But in pre-internet days, he was a rare exception, like I. F. Stone. But with the internet, it will not be as hard for people with similar ideas to reach an audience. The internet no longer allows for the kind of thought policing that Chomsky experienced and that is why I think blogs will drive traditional media columnists out of business. They have become redundant.

I for one will not miss them.

POST SCRIPT: Man mauled by lioness

Here's a disturbing story:

A man shouting that God would keep him safe was mauled to death by a lioness in Kiev zoo after he crept into the animal's enclosure, a zoo official said on Monday.

"The man shouted 'God will save me, if he exists', lowered himself by a rope into the enclosure, took his shoes off and went up to the lions," the official said.

"A lioness went straight for him, knocked him down and severed his carotid artery."

This is the kind of tragedy that happens when people take the Bible and god too seriously. This unfortunate person probably had read the story in the Book of Daniel (chapter 6) where some enemies of the god-worshipping Daniel trick the king into throwing him overnight into the lion's den. The Bible says that god closed the mouths of the lions to prevent harm coming to Daniel. The next morning, the king finds Daniel unharmed and, on discovering that he has been tricked into endangering him, is enraged at the people who had tried to use him to destroy Daniel:

At the king's command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions' den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.

This story is one of the many Biblical stories that, although the ostensible point of it is to show god in a good light by demonstrating his power and responsiveness to those who worship him, actually creates even more problems for those who believe in a benevolent god. Why didn't god (like he did with Daniel) protect the wives and children who, after all, were not accused of any wrongdoing (even assuming that you like the idea of a god who approves of wrongdoers being torn apart by lions)?

June 07, 2006

Why I love the internet-2: Bypassing the official pundits

Yesterday I discussed how blogs and other forms of alternative media on the internet prevented Stephen Colbert's speech to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner from being ignored. But that is not the only benefit of the internet. The more important innovation may be the rise of blogs as alternative and better sources of news analysis and commentary.

Some time ago, I was on the Cleveland PBS show Feagler and Friends along with Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton discussing the future of newspapers in the age of the internet and blogs. Neither Clifton nor Feagler seemed very knowledgeable about blogs (for example, they seemed to think that Wikipedia was a blog), which surprised me, since blogs are rapidly becoming a major force in, for want of a better name, the alternative media.

Clearly these two people with long histories in traditional newspapers were worried that the internet would speed the demise of newspapers, which are already suffering declines in readership, especially among younger readers. But their criticisms of blogs were somewhat ill-informed and seemed to be based on a stereotype of bloggers as ignorant ranters. They did (correctly) point out that any one can create a website and self-publish, even anonymously, and that there was no quality control as to whether what was said on a blog was reliable or not, whereas newspaper reports and columns had to pass through several editorial layers before seeing the light of day. But their inference that hence blogs should not be taken seriously and might even be harmful was not justified.

In my response, I said that there would always be room for the traditional journalist, the person who gets the primary information. We need people with trained reporting skills to be out there interviewing people, witnessing events, asking questions, obtaining documents, etc. So this role of the traditional media will likely remain, although even here there are independent people who are taking advantage of the access that the internet provides to become independent journalists providing first-hand reports. (I am thinking of people like Dahr Jamail who has been doing some good original reporting from Iraq.) Of course, such freelancers are more limited in their access to official figures because of their lack of credentials and uncertain financial support, but this might conversely work in their favor since they are more likely to go off the beaten track and report non-official news.

But I think that where the internet and blogs are really going to change things is with the traditional national newspaper columnists. People like George Will, Maureen Dowd, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Richard Cohen are rapidly becoming dinosaurs whose days are numbered.

To see why this is so, we need to understand why the media hire and support these pundits. The standard reason is that columnists are expected to provide perspective and insights on the news, and be able to translate complex policy issues into more readily understandable form. It is assumed that these are people with broad experience who study news events, have access to background information on them, and thus can tell the rest of us (who are presumably too busy with out lives to study the issues) what the news means and what should be done.

In actual practice, none of the above-named columnists have any more expertise on the news than you or me. It is not obvious to me that they even study the issues more than the rest of us. There are rare exceptions. Paul Krugman is a professional economist and thus is in a good position to analyze complex budgetary and fiscal issues and reports. But most columnists do not have that kind of expert and detailed knowledge. They just glibly pontificate.

Maureen Dowd's snarky humor quickly wears thin and is downright irritating. Has David Broder, the supposed dean of newspaper columnists and a so-called 'liberal,' said anything of real interest in the last twenty years? Can anyone follow David Brook's leaps of logic? Isn't it obvious that Charles Krauthammer's extremely partisan ideology colors everything he says? For how long can George Will's bow tie and pompous phrasings hide the vacuousness of his thought? And what on earth are Thomas Friedman's banalities supposed to mean?

Listen to such people closely as they discuss things like tax cuts. They give only a quick nod to the actual details of the policy or its impact. They rarely talk hard numbers or work through detailed implications of actual policies, They quickly shift the debate to personnel, politics, and style, addressing such questions as: Will the new policy (whatever it is) help the President/Republican/Democrat fortunes? Will the public support it? How should they sell it? How will it affect the next elections? What do the polls say and what does it mean? And so on.

But the real purpose served by such columnists is to serve as guardians of the boundaries of acceptable debate, and thus thought. Think of them as like sheepdogs with us, the public, as sheep. Their job is to make sure that all our articulated opinions stay within a certain range. So people like Cohen and Dowd and Broder, by being identified as liberals, serve as the 'liberal' goal posts and Will, Krauthammer, and Brooks similarly serve as the 'conservative' goal posts. (Friedman occupies his own weird space.) They are the people who define 'mainstream' or 'moderate' opinion. So liberals are supposed to take their cues from liberal commentators and conservatives from their standard bearers. As long as we stay within the boundaries of thought defined by these people, we are allowed to participate in the discussion. But step outside these defined boundaries, and you are labeled an extremist and kicked out of the game.

Take for example, Iraq. Before the war began, the acceptable range of opinion was that Iraq and its leaders were undoubtedly evil and needed to be replaced, the motives of the Bush administration were good and honorable, and the only issues up for debate was whether more diplomacy and time should be allowed for Hussein's overthrow or an immediate attack launched. Cohen and William Raspberry (another so-called 'liberal' columnist) both swooned with admiration over Colin Powell's disgraceful and now thoroughly discredited speech to the UN and announced that they were now convinced that attacking Iraq was the right thing to do, thus serving notice to all people who considered themselves liberals that they should get on the war-wagon or be considered 'outside the mainstream.'

Now that the Iraq debacle has occurred, the range of allowed opinion has shifted slightly to say that the information on which the war was based was flawed and the implementation was bad, but what we should debate now is how to solve the problem that has been created.

It was not allowed at any time to make a more fundamental case and argue that the attack on Iraq was an act of unprovoked aggression on a country that had never attacked, or even threatened, the US, that the motives of the Bush administration were never honorable, that they repeatedly and deliberately lied and misled the public about the evidence, and that the key perpetrators should be impeached and tried for war crimes. Such talk was, and still is, not allowed in polite company. Say things like that and you are shunned and outside the game.

Thus the role of the columnists is to keep the discussion within 'safe' boundaries. As a result people who had sharper criticisms of policies tended to keep quiet about them for fear of being labeled an extremist or worse. And before the days of the internet, such people were completely isolated and thus it was easy to keep them quiet.

But not anymore.

Next: How blogs have dramatically changed the pundit game

POST SCRIPT: And now, the Rapture video game!

About a year ago, I posted a series of items (here, here, and here) about the blood and gore aspects of the rapture based on the Left Behind series of books and suggested in a comment on Mark Wilson's blog that it contained all the elements necessary to make a violent video game. Mark subsequently reported that such a game was actually in the works.

Well, it turns out that the game Left Behind: Eternal Forces has been created and is going to be marketed for the coming Christmas season. This website reviews the game and its creators and describes the goals of the game:

Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission - both a religious mission and a military mission -- to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state - especially moderate, mainstream Christians.

Ah, yes, there's nothing that captures the spirit of Christmas more than murdering all those who disagree with your own extreme vision of it. I don't know about the wisdom of their choice of city, though. In real life, Christian warriors might be hopelessly outnumbered by their enemies in New York City. I'm guessing that the number of gays alone would be enough to rout the rapturites. They should perhaps start with a more realistic location (say Topeka, Kansas) and hone their killing skills before taking on the core of the Big Apple.

Here's the official website for the game. Its creators are apparently connected to Rick Warren, author of the book The Purpose Driven Life.

June 06, 2006

Why I love the internet

Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, where he ripped into the President and the assembled insider media right to their faces, was broadcast only on C-Span and initially buried by the offended media. When it became clear that many people were talking about it, the elite commentators sniffed and said that they had not thought much of the speech.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who can invariably be counted on for conventional wisdom, parroted the standard line in an unintentionally hilarious piece where he said that Colbert wasn’t funny and was in fact rude and a bully to say mean things to that nice Mr. President. In writing this, Cohen was demonstrating again how craven the mainstream press is, so anxious to curry favor with the powerful.

What made Cohen's column so humorous was that he started out by asserting that he was an expert on comedy, saying: "First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to "say something funny"- as if the deed could be done on demand."

It is well known in every circle that anyone who actually has to say that he is funny is already pretty pathetic, and to appeal to one's reputation in elementary school as evidence is to enter the world of self-parody and to practically beg to be made fun of. And few do ridicule better than Penn State professor Michael Berube, who has been having fun at Cohen's expense for some time now, at one time issuing an appeal to his readers to come to the aid of Cohen because he was in danger of running out of ways to be wrong. You simply must read Berube's brutally funny takedown of Cohen's Colbert column.

What added to the general merriment in the blog world was that Cohen then wrote a subsequent column complaining about how so many nasty people were now being mean to him by ridiculing his original Colbert column. This brought on another round of ridicule, this time aiming at his whiny self-pitying. Ah, the fun never ends with young Richard! I do not doubt Cohen's claim that the other children in his elementary school were in stitches when he was around, but I think he misinterprets the reasons why.

In days gone by, very few of us (especially people like me with no cable) would have heard about Colbert's speech and even then would only have had the opinions of gatekeepers like Cohen to enlighten us. Those of us who disagreed with Cohen's supercilious tone and suspected that there was more to the story would have seethed but would have had no recourse. He would have remained secure in his media bubble, blissfully thinking that people actually took his pontificating seriously. But with the internet, Cohen received his comeuppance swiftly and widely, and there is no doubt that he is aware that there is a different world out there. He cannot simply say ridiculous stuff and think that having an august perch in one of the major news outlets will protect him. He may not like this new state of affairs, but he has to deal with it.

In the pre-internet days, Colbert's actual speech would have disappeared, leaving behind barely a ripple. But thanks to the internet, the story of that dinner speech spread like wildfire thanks to blogs and millions have seen it online (start at about the 51:30 mark), read the transcript, commented on the speech, and passed it on. The ignoring of the speech by most of the traditional media only made the story even more interesting in the world of blog-driven political readership.

Read Arianna Huffington's summary of the impact the speech has had. See here for my take on it.

This is why I love the internet and the blogs. They have broken the stranglehold of elite opinion makers who can pontificate without content and close ranks around each other and the political establishment. People can now get news and information from many more sources and have access to people who can analyze the news critically and piercingly, people who have no interest in ingratiating themselves to those in power, and thus can say what they mean, even if they become pariahs.

I.F. Stone would have loved it.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting website

I have been introduced to a fascinating new website called MachinesLikeUs. The site's welcome message pretty clearly lays out its premises, all of which I enthusiastically agree with.

MachinesLikeUs.com is a resource for those interested in evolutionary thought, cognitive science, artificial life and artificial intelligence. It encourages relevant scientific research and analysis, posts current news and disseminates articles that promote the following concepts: 1) Evolution is the guiding principle behind life on earth; 2) Religions and their gods are human constructs, and subject to human foibles; 3) Life and intelligence are emergent properties based upon fundamental mechanics, and, as such, are reproducible; 4) Living organisms are magnificent machines - robust, dynamic, self-sufficient, precisely tuned to their environment - and deserving our respect and study. You are invited to participate in the venerable quest.

The site provides a great set of links to recent news items about scientific findings in these areas and articles that deal with the above issues. The editor has generously included some of my own blog entries on his site.

March 30, 2006

Internet sleuthing

I am a firm believer in cooperative learning. The combined efforts of many people can produce results that would be impossible for a single person. And the internet is a wonderful mechanism for enabling collective action.

What follows is a modern-day detective story that illustrates what is possible when the collective strength of people working together, sharing information and ideas, and building on each others' ideas, combined with the speed of communication and resources available on the internet.

Howard Kaloogian is a Republican candidate in San Diego's special congressional election to replace disgraced Republican Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to bribery, resigned his seat, and is now in jail. In his campaign, Kaloogian tried to propagate the White House meme that things are just peachy in Iraq and that the media is deliberately sabotaging the war effort, painting a dark picture by reporting only the daily bombings, beheadings, kidnappings, extortions, etc.

To bolster his claim and to counteract this alleged deliberate negativity, he posted on his website on March 17 a photo (scroll down) that he said he took on his recent trip to Baghdad showing a peaceful street intersection with people strolling around casually in what seems to be a commercial area. [UPDATE: Kaloogian has removed this photo from the website. But nothing really ever disappears on the internet and you can see the photo here.]

The caption to the photo said: "Downtown Baghdad 
We took this photo of dowtown [sic] Baghdad while we were in Iraq. Iraq (including Baghdad) is much more calm and stable than what many people believe it to be. But, each day the news media finds any violence occurring in the country and screams and shouts about it - in part because many journalists are opposed to the U.S. effort to fight terrorism."

Before reading further, I'd like you to take a look at this picture and see if you notice anything about it.

Ok, done? Now read on. . .

At about 4:30pm (EDT) on March 28th, an alert observer noticed something a little strange about the picture and raised suspicions as to its authenticity. The main thing that was puzzling was that none of the street and shop signs had Arabic lettering on them. Also, the people were dressed in ways not consistent with the increasingly restrictive cleric-dominated Iraqi society. The poster mentioned these oddities on the blog site.

Once that bugle blew, the hunt was on, with many people looking over the photo carefully for clues, finding more and more discrepancies, and using their diverse knowledge to find answers. Some suggested, after blowing up the photo and examining carefully some of the lettering in the signs and the words and products advertised, that the location depicted was actually in Turkey, not Iraq.

At about 7:00pm on that same day, an Operation Desert Storm vet, who had been alerted to the strange photo and who had been to Iraq, met Kaloogian and told him that the photo did not look at all like the Baghdad he knew. Kaloogian was directly asked for an explanation and replied that they had a lot of pictures with Arabic script in them but that they picked one with no Arabic in it so that the location of the photo could not be identified (which seems an unnecessary precaution if things are going so swimmingly in Iraq).

But soon after, another investigator found a photo online (taken by a commercial photographer) that showed the very same intersection, which was identified as being in Bakirkoy, a suburb of Istanbul, Turkey. Josh Marshall compares the two photos and finds a convincing four point match.

The amazing thing was that this final denouement occurred at about noon on the 29th, which meant that the fake was convincingly exposed within twenty-four hours of the initial suspicion being raised, a remarkable feat of collaborative journalism, made possible by the networking capability of the internet.

Later that same day, when he was faced with the overwhelming evidence that the photo on his website was a lie, Kaloogian did the honorable thing: he promptly blamed a low-level staffer for the embarassment.

Fortunately for Kaloogian, Jesus' General has come to his rescue and offers him a much better photo poster for him to use in his campaign, one that shows Baghdad looking even more peaceful.

[UPDATE: Scrambling to recover, Kaloogian has replaced his original photo of "peaceful Baghdad" with another one that looks like an aerial shot of distant buildings where you cannot even see any people!

Other investigators suggests that it looks like this new photo was taken from the rooftop of the Rashid Hotel within the heavily fortified Green Zone, and that one of the buildings on that photo (a police station) had been bombed even before Kaloogian's visit about nice months ago.

Kaloogian should give up his laughable efforts to show how peaceful Iraq is. If this is the best that he can do, then things are even worse than I thought.]

POST SCRIPT: Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers is one of the greatest comic actors I have seen. His films are part of the select few that I watch more than once. Hence it was sad to learn that as a person, he was an awful man, cruel to his wives and children and friends and co-workers.

The film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers captures the complexity and sadness behind the life of one of the funniest actors of all time.

Peter Sellers himself felt that he had no character, no personality, other than the ones he adopted for his roles. He once said "If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am." And thus he was able to blend, chameleon-like, into the many characters he played on screen.

Geoffrey Rush gives an amazing performance in the title role. I had doubts about seeing any actor playing Peter Seller, especially in his signature role of Inspector Clousseau. How could anyone capture that idiotic solemnity and self-importance? But right from the opening scene, Rush dispelled my concerns. Rush was Peter Sellers

The scene that best captures this is on the plane when Sellers is on his way to Italy to work on the first Pink Panther film. He goes into the bathroom as Peter Sellers and comes out dressed as Inspector Clousseau and starts arguing, in character, with the flight attendant. Rush is channeling priceless, vintage Sellers.

But the film is not a comedy, although it has funny bits. It is a portrayal of a hugely gifted yet tragically flawed man.

January 27, 2006

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-2

Blogs are highly idiosyncratic and so hard to talk about except in terms of our own personal response to them. Clearly there are different types of blogs: those that dwell on the personal lives of the authors, those that highlight particular issues (e.g., evolution and intelligent design), those that seek to provide perspective and commentary on current events, those that provide longer, more analytical pieces, those that just provide an avenue for venting, those that provide an outlet for creative talents, such as fiction, poetry, and art, and other reasons to numerous to mention.

Why do people blog? What is the benefit? Again it is hard to generalize but here are my reasons. (I should note that I did not start a blog with these benefits in mind. I started it simply out of curiosity and the challenge of trying something new. I discovered these benefits only after the fact.)

The main benefit for me personally is that writing regularly forces me to sort out my ideas and clarifies my thinking The truth of E. M. Forster's remark “How can I know what I am thinking until I see what I say?” becomes more and more apparent to me the more I write.

The blog also provides me with practice for improving my writing. I have been focusing in the past on clarity and logical thinking, but more recently I have been trying to see if I can write with better style, with more wit and humor, with better choice of words and structure. If readers have not detected any improvement in these areas, it just shows how far I have to go!

The blog also acts for me as a repository for ideas and sources that may be otherwise forgotten or misplaced. When I want to recall some fact that I have written about, the blog is the first place for me to look and it provides me with a place to direct people to look. In my TV appearance (see below), I spoke about the accuracy comparison between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica. When asked for the source of the study, I could not recall it immediately but it took only a few seconds to find that post on my blog with the relevant link, and send that information to the other panelists.

The blog also provides me with the first draft of writing for many topics. When the Dover trial verdict was announced, I was able to cobble together an op-ed piece from my blog entries in just a little over an hour because I had been writing about it already. The information was there, all I had to do was work on editing it for appropriateness. Because of the speed of the writing, it enabled me to get it published in a timely manner. I am planning on writing a few other pieces for publication, using the blog entries as initial drafts.

But perhaps the biggest benefit for me as a blog author is that I have been able to connect (and reconnect) with people whom I would have never met otherwise.

One obvious advantage of blogs in general is that it provides a much larger potential readership for people with ideas. I now read a much wider range of writers and cartoonists than I ever did before.

In my role as a reader of other people's blogs, the advantages are huge. It saves time in reading newspapers and watching TV. I almost never watch TV news or the talk shows, but thanks to sites like Crooks and Liars and onegoodmove I get pointed to just the bits (both serious and funny) that interest me.

The blog provides me with access to knowledgeable people who write well on important topics. The mainstream columnists like David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or most of the other people who are published in the op-ed pages of the Plain Dealer hardly ever have anything interesting or new to say. I can read the first paragraph and guess the rest. But blogs like Informed Comment, Unclaimed Territory, Talking Points Memo, and Justin Raimondo mix sharp and perceptive commentary with useful information. And they write well too.

Finally the blogs provides knowledgeable and specialized information on topics that I am interested in and alerts me to news I might have missed, often gleaned from the foreign press or less well known sources.

In my appearance on Feagler and friends, we had a cordial discussion about blogs but I sensed some skepticism about the value of blogs from the editor of the Plain Dealer and the host Dick Feagler, who is a traditional newspaper columnist. I don't if I managed to persuade them otherwise, but we did have some follow up email communication after the show and I think Dick Feagler started to become more open to the potential benefits of blogs.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

January 26, 2006

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-1

Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I had no idea when I started it with a very tentative posting on January 26, 2005 where it would go or that it would take the shape it currently has. I had no idea, though, that it would be as much fun, as useful (to me at least), or require as much time and effort as has turned out to be the case. One thing that it has done that surprised me is that it has made me almost addicted to reading, researching, and writing about the things that I care about and that, I believe, is a good thing.

(Sandy Piderit and Vincenzo Liberatore gave me some welcome encouragement on my first feeble attempt. Jeremy Smith's comments on my first posting had some excellent advice which I have followed and would recommend to others thinking about blogging.)

This personal anniversary coincides with some local media attention on the role of blogs in the new media age. Two weeks ago I appeared on the Cleveland NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 to discuss this question and then last week I taped a show for the local PBS affiliate WVIZ channel 25 program Feagler and friends with Doug Clifton (editor of the Plain Dealer) and Denise Polverine (editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com). (See below for details about its broadcast on Friday and Sunday.)

In preparing for both these shows, I started thinking about the role of blogs. What role are they likely to play in the media of the future and what uses do they serve for the authors of blogs and the readers of blogs? It seems a bit strange to be pontificating about blogging after doing it for just one year. But blogging is one of those fields where the cliché "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" applies. Most people are surprisingly unaware of what blogs are so even someone with relatively slight experience (like me) is perceived as an "expert." So in this two-part series, here are my opinions on the topic, for what it is worth.

Some of the more obvious benefits of blogs are the following:

  • They can focus and maintain attention of stories that the major media do not highlight or follow up (Like the plan to bomb al-Jazeera during the attack on Falluja in April 2004, or the Downing street memos of July 23, 2002 of the meetings between the US and UK governments to fix the intelligence in order to support the attack on Iraq, or the story of US and UK complicity in Uzbekistan torture.)
  • They can immediately correct the record when there are attempts by interested parties to mislead the public about important facts and the mainstream media does not act (example: NSA wiretapping, who benefited from the Jack Abramoff payoffs, the war on Christmas)
  • Can clarify complicated issues like the Valerie Plame leak.
  • It can be a rich source of material for future historians. In the past, people wrote a lot of long letters to each other and historian have used these to get an idea of what people really thought, as opposed to what they formally published. Such voluminous letter writing is rare now, but blogs probably will give historians a good idea of how ideas germinate and propagate.

But there are other benefits as well. It enables many more people to resurrect an older model of news and commentary, that of political pamphleteers and political newsletters like the one created by iconic journalist I. F. (Izzy) Stone. Victor Navasky writes that although Stone

"never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world. His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

"But Izzy also got and made news by reading the dailies, the wire services and such, and then following up where others had not thought to tread. He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read "because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story."

Most modern day newspapers and journalists don't do that kind of close reading of documents, focusing instead on reporting on what people say at news conferences. Perhaps they lack the resources or it isn't glamorous enough for them to do this kind of painstaking work. It requires a certain kind of passion and attention to detail to do that and bloggers are the people who are filling that niche, with individual bloggers specializing in their chosen areas of expertise. The internet enables such people to access an audience without going through all the hassle of printing and circulation, and we, the general public, can easily benefit from their research, quickly and efficiently.

For example, in its heyday, the weekly circulation of Stone's newsletter IF Stone's Weekly was 70,000. The top blogs, like daily Kos now get a half million visits a day! If I. F. Stone were alive today, I think he'd be the top-rated blogger too. It would have been a perfect fit for him.

This success of blogging has ruffled a lot of feathers in the mainstream media. As Glenn Greenwald comments:

The principal benefit from the emergence of the blogosphere is that it has opened up our political discourse to a much wider and more diverse group of participants. Previously, establishment journalists and their hand-picked commentators were the sole vehicle for the dissemination of political opinions. The only commentators and opinions which received any real attention were the ones which establishment journalists deemed worthy of attention. Those who were outside of the club of established journalists were ignored and unable to have their opinions heard.

All of that has changed with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a hard-core and pure meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your pedigree is. You either produce persuasive arguments and do so with credibility, or you don’t. Whether someone has influence in the blogosphere has nothing to do with their institutionalized credentials and everything to do with the substance of what they produce. That is why even those who maintain their anonymity can be among the most popular, entertaining and influential voices. The blogosphere has exploded open the gates of influence which were previously guarded so jealously by the establishment journalists.

For precisely that reason, many establishment journalists have raging contempt for the blogosphere. It is a contempt grounded in the fallacy of credentialism and a pseudo-elitist belief that only the approved and admitted members of their little elite journalist club can be trusted to enlighten the masses. Many of them see blogs as a distasteful and anarchic sewer, where uncredentialed and irresponsible people who are totally unqualified to articulate opinions are running around spewing all sorts of uninformed trash. And these journalistic gate-keepers become especially angry when blogospheric criticism is directed towards other establishment journalists, who previously were immune from any real public accountability.

As I said on the TV show on the relationship of blogs to newspapers in the new media age, there will always be a place for traditional journalists who actually go out into the field and collect the primary information. Most bloggers cannot do that. Although an increasing number are attempting to do this kind of journalistic function, they lack the financial resources and official credentials that can get them in the door of official functions.

The people who are endangered are the columnists and the writers of op-ed opinion pieces. Because what blogs have revealed is that there are a very large number of articulate, literary, informed, clever, and sharp-witted writers out there who are worth seeking out, much better than the ones delivered to my doorstep every morning.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

January 25, 2006

David Horowitz busted again

Most people are by now aware of David Horowitz's publicity-seeking gimmicks, where he runs around the country trying to scare everyone with lurid tales of left wing academics gone wild, abusing their power by terrorizing conservative students. As long-time readers of this blog know, I became part of this story when I wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the March 4, 2005 issue of Plain Dealer about one such tale that I looked into and could not substantiate. This story was picked up by Media Matters and went national, and Horowitz supporters (and he has some supporters who seem to verge on the fanatical that seem almost cult-like) posted nasty comments, even threatening legal action against me, which was rather funny. I think Horowitz's supporters are hoping I'd be eaten by bears, the fate of the children who made mock of the Prophet Elisha.

(For those of you not familiar with the Elisha story, you can read it in the Bible in 2 Kings, Chapter 2, verses 23 and 24. Elisha was on his way somewhere when "there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head." You might think that merely being called "baldy" by little children is hardly something that would faze a prophet of god, but Elisha, showing the same kind of peevishness as Horowitz, gets mad, murderously so. "And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them." This act of horrific vengefulness against forty two little children for their childish insensitivity is attributed by the Bible to God, which should give pause (but won't) to those who argue that the Bible is the source of all morality.)

As a result of my op-ed, the publication Inside Higher Ed investigated the charges I made and found that the facts of the story were far from what Horowitz had alleged. Horowitz acknowledged that he had not checked the facts of his story before making it public. For all the details of this somewhat bizarre episode, see my earlier posting The strange story of David Horowitz and the "Bush-as-war-criminal" essay.

You would think that after that episode, Horowitz would be careful to carefully check his stories in the future before going public. That would be the path taken by a prudent person. But you would be wrong. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed finds him being, if possible, even more cavalier with facts. (Thanks to commenter George for alerting me to this.)

On Tuesday, January 11, Horowitz testified at a Pennsylvania legislative committee in favor of his pet project, the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, and told another two stories of academic abuse. But as Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik writes:

David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has led the push for the hearings in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, admitted that he had no evidence to back up two of the stories he has told multiple times to back up his charges that political bias is rampant in higher education.

For example, Horowitz has said several times that a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he didn't have any proof that this took place.

In a phone interview, Horowitz said that he had heard about the alleged incident from a legislative staffer and that there was no evidence to back up the claim.
...
The other example Horowitz was forced to back down on Tuesday is from the opposite end of the political spectrum. He has several times cited the example of a student in California who supports abortion rights and who said that he was punished with a low grade by a professor who opposed abortion. Asked about this example, Horowitz said that he had no evidence to back up the student's claim.

In the interview, he said that he didn't have the resources to look into all the complaints that he publicizes. "I can't investigate every story," he said.

Fair enough. None of us have the resources to investigate every story either. That is why one should only write and speak about the stories that one can investigate, or for which one has at least some documentation. Or, failing even that, to at the very least say that what you are saying is based on a rumor. Most people assume that people have some basis for whatever they say and one has to respect that trust and make it clear when one is merely guessing or passing along a rumor. What is inexcusable is to do what Horowitz did, and go round making wild charges and acting as if you have supporting evidence, all the while knowing that you do not have anything to back it up.

But Horowitz's reasoning is so bizarre one has to really wonder as to the level of his contact with reality. Here's his defense:

Horowitz noted that when he publicizes such stories, he does not print the names of the professors involved, and that he has stated many times that a professor involved in such an incident would be welcome to write a rebuttal that he would post on his Web site. "I have protected professors. I have not posted their names and pilloried them. My Web site is open to them," he said.

So he publicizes stories of doubtful veracity about anonymous people and then expects those people to rebut them! And when no rebuttals appear, he assumes that the stories must be true?

That's a great journalistic innovation. Let me try it: I have heard that there is a professor in Ohio who forced a student to kneel on the ground and hit his head on the floor repeatedly, at the same time singing the Beach Boys hit song "Good Vibrations." Okay, the story is on my website. If I don't get any rebuttals, I'll assume that it is true and will thus have a terrific scoop. See how easy it is?

But Horowitz has one last defense, the one that is always resorted to by those caught in such embarrassing retractions: that although the stories may be fake, they represent "deep" or "essential" truths.

Even if these examples aren't correct, [Horowitz] said, they represent the reality of academic life. "Is there anybody out there who will say that professors don't attack Bush in biology classrooms?" he said.

This was also the defense adopted by James Frey whose life story in his memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed by the website The Smoking Gun to be to be filled with fabrications and falsehoods. In an interview with Larry King, Frey accepted that he had altered details of his life, but defended its "essential truth."

It won't work for Frey and it won't work for Horowitz. If academic abuse is so rampant, then it should not be hard to find documented cases of it. You cannot make up stories, unless you are a writer of fiction and label it as such. To do so and claim it as reality is simply wrong.

Okay, all you Horowitz fans out there who prowl the internet seeking to defend your dear leader from people who question his veracity, it's your turn. I have seriously dissed your leader again. Show your fealty to him. Let's hear some more legal threats!

Or at least unleash the bears.

POST SCRIPT: Capote

I recently saw the film Capote and it was excellent. It was a fine portrayal of how author Truman Capote essentially sacrificed his soul in order to get the right ending for his groundbreaking "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. It is a sobering reminder of what I read sometime ago, that writers will often be driven to sell even their grandmothers for the sake of their craft.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the case were terrific. I have yet to see a performance by Hoffman that is not first-rate. Although he usually plays a supporting role in films, the first film I saw in which he had a major role was Flawless in which he plays a female impersonator lounge singer saving up for a sex-change operation who ends up having to give voice lessons to a hard-bitten, macho policeman played by Robert De Niro. There's a film premise you are not likely to see every day. Although this film did not get much publicity, it is well worth seeing on video.

Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be like John Cusack, having the ability to select scripts that are complex, interesting, and original.

December 02, 2005

Ads, ads, everywhere...

One reason I rarely watch any programs on commercial TV, and even find commercial radio irritating, is because of the constant interruptions with commercials that disrupt the flow of the narrative. There are very few occasions when I do watch commercial TV, and it is for the occasional sporting event or The Simpsons and then the commercials fit more naturally into the breaks in the action. Actually, since I rarely watch TV, many of the commercials are novel and quite clever and enjoyable when I see them for the first time. But even during a single game, one tends to see the same commercial repeated many times and however amusing they are at first, by the time the third viewing comes around, they are tiresome.

Advertisers are aware of this viewer irritation and with the arrival of technology that enables viewers to skip commercials altogether have sought to find other ways to draw attention to their products. By now, even the most naïve viewer is aware of product placement. When characters place their sodas on the table with the logo facing the camera, when characters get into a car with its badge visible, most viewers know that money has changed hands to achieve this result.

But apparently even this is not enough. Advertisers are now requesting that the scriptwriters for TV shows actually insert dialogue into their scripts to reinforce the placement. In other words, in addition to showing the box of cereal, you can expect characters to start commenting on how good the cereal tastes or how nutritious it is. Or when the heroes take off in their car after the villains, they might comment on how lucky they are that the car can go from zero to sixty in 4.7 seconds or whatever. The program On The Media reports that scriptwriters are so concerned about being co-opted into being adwriters as well that they are asking for protection in their contracts. Bob Harris reports on seeing one of these script placements already in a program.

One does not find this kind of product placement in books, perhaps because authors of fiction are not usually writing under contract for others. Also actually naming a product, as opposed to simply making it visible, is much harder to do discreetly.

But have you considered the possibility that an entire novel's plot might be an advertising pitch? My mind is not diabolical enough to have conceived of such a scheme but that idea had occurred to devious minds at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. On The Media reports that this group was concerned that the increasing efforts by consumers to buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada would eat into the profits of drug companies in the US. Their previous strategy of placing full page advertisements in newspapers warning of some vague danger to consumers was seen as being of limited value.

So Mark Barondess, a consultant to PhRMA, commissioned a novel to be written by first time novelists Julie Chrystyn and Kenin Spivak. Spivak says he was told that the plot was to consist of a group of Bosnian Muslims who, unhappy with the fact that the United States was not supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serbs, launch an attack using tainted drugs on Americans through the Canadian website pharmacies. And many, many thousands of Americans would have to die in the story.

Clever, huh? If the book becomes a bestseller of the kind written by Michael Crichton, then you could see what an effect it might have on public attitudes towards Canadian drugs.

But the plan fell apart. According to Brooke Gladstone, the host of On The Media "Spivak said he chafed under the demand that they dumb down the book to appeal to women, who buy more drugs than men, and that all the terrorists be religious fanatics."

But writers Spivak and Chrystyn still complied with these requirements only to find their novel being rejected by Barondess and the PhRMA employee on the ground that it was transparent drivel with the potential to backfire.

In fact, PhRMA tried to wash its hands completely of this fiasco, saying that the consultant was acting on his own and that the money paid to the writers, both for writing the book and for killing the commission, was out of the consultant's own pockets. Meanwhile, the writers have rewritten their work to make it, at least in their own eyes, a better novel. No word yet on when, or if, it will be released.

I see this is an alarming trend. Although PhRMA saw this as an embarrassment and withdrew its participation (or so they say), other industries might not. We should also not assume that only unknown writers will be tempted to write a novel to meet the needs of an industry. The fact that extremely rich actors and celebrities are willing to act in commercials should alert us to the fact that it may only be a matter of time before even best-selling authors start writing made-to-order novels.

It seems unlikely that such novel will promote a particular product. That would be too obvious. It is more likely that it will promote the agenda of a particular industry and be funded by its trade group, like PhRMA. So one can imagine made-to-order novels that denigrate Canadian-style universal health care plans or promote genetically engineered foods.

So the next time some blockbuster novel seems to have a plot that advances the agenda of some industry, it might be a good thing to ask whether it was only the artistic muse that influenced its author. The big industries have the budgets and clout to advertise books heavily and get good reviews placed in influential sources, and turn even the most mediocre novel into a talked-about book.

Best selling author Michael Crichton, who published a book called State of Fear that pooh-poohs global warming does not need to be paid by a specific industry to make money off his books but if some new blockbuster by an unknown author appears that seems to promote some agenda favored by a trade group, it might be good to start asking some questions.

POST SCRIPT 1: Somber milestone

The US today recorded the 1,000th person to be executed since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1977. That the death penalty still exists anywhere in the world boggles my mind. It seems like such a barbaric relic of medieval times.

POST SCRIPT 2: Holiday CircleFest

So as not to end the week on a down note, I thought I would remind everyone that this Sunday, December 4 features Holiday CircleFest, which has a lot of free events including a program of music by the Case University Singers at 7:00pm in the Church of the Covenant, sponsored by the University Protestant Campus Ministries (UPCaM). UPCaM is a terrific organization that I am a member of and support.

Thanks to Paul who brought this to my attention in a comment to a previous post.

October 04, 2005

When rumors kill

In a series of previous posts (see here and here), I suggested that we should all be very skeptical of news reports that immediately follow any major news event because those early versions can turn out to be very wrong on the facts but succeed in leaving a highly misleading imprint on the minds of people.

In particular, I pointed out that governments and official sources often lie to reporters so that they can initially get favorable reactions and support for their actions, knowing that people tend to be reluctant to change their views later, even if the facts change. I gave as examples of such lies Reagan's comments on the aftermath of the shooting of the Iranian Airbus airliner, Clinton's justification for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, and the British authorities' initial version of the killing of the innocent Brazilian in the wake of the London bombings in July. And of course, we have the whole series of lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which turns out to be one of the biggest and most reprehensible causes of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent debacle that is currently occurring in that country.

So we should be highly skeptical when high level government officials are the main or only sources of information on a big story. My belief is that low-level officials are much more likely to tell the truth for several reasons, all of which are precisely because they are low-level: (a) they know that they can easily get into trouble for lying unless they have powerful patrons to protect them, and even then they know they can be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency; (b) they are not aware of the big picture purposes the lie is designed to serve; (c) they have not, or do not wish to, become expert at the kinds of lying that is required to rise in the ranks to become a high level official.

But there is another situation when we should be highly skeptical about initial news reports and that is when those reports feed into our existing stereotypes about people and behavior. And nowhere is this kind of danger better exemplified than what happened to the people of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

I watched in horror as, within the space of just one or two days after the hurricane struck, the displaced people of that city became transformed from desperate victims deserving of immediate help, to the ranks of the undeserving, with descriptions of them ranging from incompetent and selfish helpless whiners and complainers, to thugs and looters and rapists and murderers descending into 'animalistic' behavior. As a result, the emphasis seemed to shift from helping them to suppressing and controlling them.

As reports begin to emerge (and I will write about them later), it is clear that the kinds of criminality that received such huge coverage were vastly overblown. What was so harmful about this was that this hugely negative portrayal resulted in delays in rescue operations that undoubtedly led to unnecessary and avoidable deaths and misery.

Almost a month after the hurricane, the New York Times offered this sober reappraisal:

After the storm came the siege. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters. Edwin P. Compass III, the police superintendent, said that tourists - the core of the city's economy - were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city's two unlit and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

A month later, a review of the available evidence now shows that some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations, the product of chaotic circumstances that included no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the longstanding raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

The question is why these stories took hold so quickly and were seemingly believed and propagated by people in positions of authority even when they had no evidence that they were true. How could it be that the New Orleans superintendent of police (who resigned without explanation last week) could have himself believed those erroneous reports and how could it be that the Mayor could describe the people of the city as 'animalistic'? These statements were passed on by reporters, and coupled with all the other rumors of vile behavior passed on as fact, became the reality for people all over the world. The nation and the world seemed to find it easy to believe them even though what they were describing was shocking.

Why was this? As I will argue in subsequent postings, what we tend to believe and not believe in the aftermath of such events is largely determined by our prior conceptions of people and our prejudices, and New Orleans opened a window into what we believe poor (and people of color) are like, and the picture is not pretty.

August 18, 2005

How governments lie-2: The London killing

In a previous post titled How governments lie, I warned about how early accounts that official sources put out in the wake of some major event often have only the remotest connection to the facts and are usually designed to imprint in the public mind what the governments want the public to believe.

It looks like the killing on July 22 of an innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes man in a London subway station is following the same pattern. If you recall, in that case the official story put out was that the man was directly linked to a terrorist investigation and had been under surveillance, was wearing a bulky jacket on a very hot day, refused to obey a police order to stop, ran away from the police, vaulted over the ticket barrier, and was shot when he tripped and fell. His highly suspicious behavior seemed to make the shooting excusable.

Now on August 14 the London Observer newspaper has a long story that says that all these assertions were false. Here are items from the story:

Initial claims that de Menezes was targeted because he was wearing a bulky coat, refused to stop when challenged and then vaulted the ticket barriers have all turned out to be false. He was wearing a denim jacket, used a standard Oyster electronic card to get into the station and simply walked towards the platform unchallenged.….

One witness, Chris Wells, 28, a company manager, said he saw about 20 police officers, some armed, rushing into the station before a man jumped over the barriers with police giving chase.

In fact, by the time the armed officers arrived de Menezes was already heading down towards the train. It now seems certain that the man seen vaulting the barrier was one of the armed officers in hot pursuit. (my emphasis)

Some events in de Menezes' life shed further light on his behavior.

For de Menezes life in London was for the most part uneventful. He had been stopped by police a few times as part of routine stop and search inquiries, once having his bag examined by officers outside Brixton tube station.

On each occasion the police had asked him to stop and he did so. However, on each occasion the officers concerned were in full uniform.

Two weeks before he was killed, de Menezes had been attacked by a gang of white youths, seemingly at random. According to friends this experience left him shaken and nervous.…

No one knows what went through the young man's mind in the last moments of his life. Having been attacked just weeks earlier, he may have believed the casually dressed white men chasing him were part of the same gang. He may have been thinking of the experience of his cousin who was caught by immigration officers in America and deported before he had the chance to finish saving for his dream home. Now de Menezes is dead and no one will ever know.

A subsequent Guardian story on August 17 says that secret leaked reports say that he had been seated in the train and was not even running when he was shot, and had been overpowered by the security forces and in their grip when he was shot.

The young Brazilian shot dead by police on a London tube train in mistake for a suicide bomber had already been overpowered by a surveillance officer before he was killed, according to secret documents revealed last night.

It also emerged in the leaked documents that early allegations that he was running away from police at the time of the shooting were untrue and that he appeared unaware that he was being followed.…

CCTV footage shows Mr de Menezes was not wearing a padded jacket, as originally claimed, and that he walked calmly through the barriers at Stockwell station, collecting a free newspaper before going down the escalator. Only then did he run to catch the train.

A man sitting opposite him is quoted as saying: "Within a few seconds I saw a man coming into the double doors to my left. He was pointing a small black handgun towards a person sitting opposite me. He pointed the gun at the right hand side of the man's head. The gun was within 12 inches of the man's head when the first shot was fired.".…

The documents reveal that a member of the surveillance team, who sat nearby, grabbed Mr de Menezes before he was shot: "I heard shouting which included the word 'police' and turned to face the male in the denim jacket. He immediately stood up and advanced towards me and the CO19 [firearms squad] officers ... I grabbed the male in the denim jacket by wrapping both my arms around his torso, pinning his arms to his side. I then pushed him back on to the seat where he had been previously sitting ... I then heard a gun shot very close to my left ear and was dragged away on to the floor of the carriage."

There is an interesting sidelight about the closed circuit televisions (CCTV) that are everywhere on the London underground system and would have provided footage from dozens of cameras covering the Stockwell ticket hall, escalators, platforms and train carriages. Pictures from those cameras were widely shown by the police in their investigation of the earlier (July 7) bombings.

But in the initial report, police said most of the cameras were not working. The secret report revealed, however, that it was the CCTV that showed de Menezes walking slowly and not vaulting the turnstile. It is always interesting how evidence seems to "disappear" when the information it could provide might be embarrassing for the government. Could it be possible that the official authorities put out the story that the CCTV was not working hoping that they thus would not have to show them to the public and reveal that they contradicted the official story?

I ended my earlier post by saying that this is why I always take initial news reports of such events with a grain of salt. I believe that all governments, without exception, lie to their people, routinely and without shame. This event only confirms my view.

POST SCRIPT

If "Intelligent Design" is to be put on a par with evolution, surely the theory of "Intelligent Falling" (IF) as a competitor to gravity must be close behind? The editors of The Onion think so. (Thanks to Nicole for the link.)

The article quotes IF spokespersons who say: "Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down….Gravity - which is taught to our children as a law - is founded on great gaps in understanding. The laws predict the mutual force between all bodies of mass, but they cannot explain that force."

IF advocates "insist they are not asking that the theory of gravity be banned from schools, but only that students be offered both sides of the issue so they can make an informed decision."

The article also points out that scientists admit that "Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis."

Sounds convincing to me. I never liked gravity anyway. It was always bringing me down.

August 05, 2005

Foreign news and foreign correspondents

In July 1983, I lived through a major upheaval in Sri Lanka where rampaging mobs raged through the streets looking for the homes and businesses and members of the minority Tamil community, killing and destroying everything in their path, with the government and the police just standing by doing little or nothing. There was strong speculation that the government had actually instigated and guided the events to serve their own political agenda, but since the government itself was doing the subsequent investigation, one should not be surprised that nothing came of it.

The scale of the events attracted worldwide media attention and huge coverage. After I arrived in the US in October of that year, I visited the libraries to read the newspapers and newsmagazines of that period and was appalled at how the events had been reported here. I was shocked to find that the reporting by nearly all the major newspapers and newsmagazines in the US were incredibly narrow, shallow, biased, and misleading. The sole exception was Mark Fineman, then with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The reports were wrong, however, in an interesting way and with an interesting pattern. It seemed as if the reporters had relied on a combination of just three sources: US (and other western) embassy sources, official Sri Lankan government sources, and members of the upper and middle-class English speaking minority, the kinds of people who populate the cocktail lounges of the major hotels. All these groups had a vested interest in giving just one side of the story. (This was the beginning of my interest in how the media works and how its has agendas other than just giving the facts.)

To understand why this is so, one has to know that the Sri Lankan government at that time was extremely closely allied to the US government, and was adopting very pro-Western policies, strongly favored by the English speaking elites. So all these groups were anxious to disassociate the mobs from the government and to pin the blame for the upheaval on whatever convenient and mysterious elements that they could conjure up.

If the reporters had got translators, gone outside the capital city Colombo and beyond the confines of their luxury hotels and official briefing rooms in the capital, and actually spoken to more representative groups of people and local journalists and academics (which is what Mark Fineman seemed to have done) they were more likely to have obtained an accurate version of events.

This problem is endemic to coverage of fast-breaking news events in foreign countries. Journalists are flown in who know nothing of the local languages, history, and culture, and thus are dependent of little more than official sources and the few English-speaking people who happen to be around.

This is why I am skeptical of foreign news coverage of such events, unless they are by journalists who have a long history of working in the region, have knowledge of its history and culture, preferably know the language as well, and have over the years developed knowledgeable sources. So in the case of Iraq, I take seriously the reporting of Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and people like them from Iraq. I do not bother to watch the "reporting" of US TV news anchors and journalists who fly in one day, do a report, and fly out the next day.

People like Juan Cole, who is not even a reporter but is a US-based academic, has more to offer than a lot of these foreign correspondents because he has studied the language and history of the middle east, lived in that region for an extended period, can read the newspapers and listen to the broadcasts of the region which feature the writings of the local journalists who are much better informed, and has a good sense of which reports are credible and which are not.

So when you read the news reports of some event from some foreign country, be alert that what you might be reading could be just the version of events put out by the US embassy there, the government of that country (if it happens to be friendly to the US), and a few members of the English speaking elite who have access to the foreign press and like to hang out with them at upscale bars and hotels in the capital city of that country. All of them have a particular agenda, a particular story to tell, and that agenda might have very little to do with the truth.

POST SCRIPT 1

Historian and Middle East scholar Juan Cole has given excellent capsule history of the way that the US government, along with Saudi Arabia, starting with Ronald Reagan in 1980, helped to create what is now Al-Qaeda by supporting Usama Bin Laden, the Afghan mujahideen, and Afghan warlords as a way to undermine the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Cole provides an interesting sidelight:

In the US, the Christian Right adopted the Mujahideen as their favorite project. They even sent around a "biblical checklist" for grading US congressman as to how close they were to the "Christian" political line. If a congressman didn't support the radical Muslim Muj, he or she was downgraded by the evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The whole sordid story of how that strategy, which you will rarely see publicized in the mass media, backfired can be read here.

POST SCRIPT 2

Under the category of news reports that make you shake your head comes this study that suggests that "if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq war more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle." Women did not show similar correlations.

August 03, 2005

Harry Potter, Karl Rove, and the allure of puzzles (safe to read - no spoilers!)

Those of you who have followed the series know that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book. There are clearly many ways in which the saga can proceed to its conclusion and there are heated discussions as to the various ways that the story could end. I myself have had a series of discussions with people where we compared our various predictions of where the stories would go. The people I was arguing with had carefully read all the books and had noted all kinds of details, which they insisted were hints at the author's intention. Since I am told that J. K. Rowling had mapped out the entire plot line in advance, these hints had to be taken seriously.

Since I had read only two of the six books (but have seen all three films) I was at a bit of a disadvantage arguing with these Potter mavens, and they were clearly amused by my temerity in advancing theories without having all the facts. Nevertheless I had my own strong views of how I thought the story would end and I stuck to my guns in the face of their clearly better-informed arguments.

But I started wondering why so many of us are so absorbed in trying to predict the end of the Potter story. It is after all, a work of fiction that has no real importance. But it captivates people. Even in one of the serious political websites that I read, the author of a posting, just in passing, posed a simple question about the ending of book six and what it implied for the future, and immediately there were a huge number of comments with people passionately advancing all kinds of theories and explanations.

Clearly many people are attracted to puzzles such as these and it struck me as a possible explanation for why the Karl Rove-Valerie Plame story has achieved such staying power in the media.

(A detailed time line of the events can be found here but here is a quick recap for those of you who have somehow managed to avoid this story. On July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed saying that in February 2002 he had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate the claim that Saddam Hussein's government had tried to purchase 'yellowcake' uranium, presumably as part of a weapons program. He could find no evidence of such efforts and had reported this. He said he had then been surprised by the famous 'sixteen words' in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address ("“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.") which he felt implied something that was opposite to what he had found and reported. As a result, he wrote the op-ed. The very next week, newspaper columnist Robert Novak wrote that he had been informed by unidentified administration sources that Wilson had been suggested for this mission by his wife Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA. That was when events escalated because revealing the identity of a covert CIA employee is a crime. There is now a full-scale investigation before a grand jury empanelled by a special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald who has been working since December 2003 on the case, and much of the speculation about the sources of this leak centers on the President's close advisor Karl Rove and the Vice President's chief of staff 'Scooter' Libby.)

The media have been all over this story and their doggedness bemuses me a little when I think of all the far more serious stories that they glossed over. After all, the attack on Iraq was from the beginning based on false premises that could have been uncovered and exposed if the media had approached that task with anything close to the thoroughness with which they are acting in the Valerie Plame case. The war has resulted in the deaths of about a hundred thousand Iraqis, untold numbers injured, nearly two thousand US soldiers dead and about ten thousand injured, Iraq in ruins with its infrastructure shattered, the US undermining its own armed forces, spending money it cannot afford, and still there is no good solution or end in sight. All this might have been avoided if the media had not given this administration a free pass in selling this war by letting all kinds of misleading statements to be made and left unchallenged, and allowed the country to be raised to a fever pitch of fear. (See this week's Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World cartoon here.)

So why this media doggedness with respect to the relatively minor Plame revelations? (I am not saying that revealing the identity of a CIA agent is not important, just making a comparison with all the other shenanigans going on right now.) Reporters are examining documents closely, parsing words and sentences, creating timelines, comparing different statements for possible contradictions, poring over evidence, questioning motives, digging for information, not taking things at face value, aggressively challenging the White House Press Secretary's statements, and so on. Very little of this was done when the significantly more important question of war was involved. Then the press dutifully repeated what the administration told them, acting like stenographers and mouthpieces and cheerleaders rather than reporters. No one was more guilty of this kind of behavior than Judith Miller of the New York Times who has been jailed by the special prosecutor for contempt, possibly because she is protecting the administration sources that fed her false information about Iraq and its purported weapons of mass destruction, and which she dutifully 'reported' as part of the effort to create war frenzy. Sam Smith in an essay titled How Journalism Went Bad on his website Progressive Review traces some reasons for the decline in journalism.

I think the reason for the interest in the Valerie Plame-Karl Rove story is the same as that causing the Harry Potter interest. People like puzzles that clearly have a solution, where there are tantalizing clues, where there is a paper trail, and, most importantly, where the consequences are not that serious. After all, in the Plame affair, nobody is going to die and the government is not going to collapse. At the worst, some minor official will resign or go to prison for a short time for perjury or revealing classified information. This makes the whole exercise a game, like playing Clue, and it becomes a race to see who first solves the puzzle correctly. Reporters love this kind of thing.

Serious matters like starting an unprovoked war against another country on false pretences, however, involve high crimes and misdemeanors and are grounds for impeachment and the basis for trials of war crimes. Reporters are not going to go anywhere near that kind of thing out of fear for what they might uncover.

It sometimes does happen, like in the case of Watergate, that what starts out as a simple and small and intriguing puzzle (which was what the initial Watergate investigation was) could end up unraveling the whole fabric of the government. But I think that there is no chance of that happening in this case. The really big scandal associated with the Plame affair, that the country was taken into a catastrophic war on false pretences, is by now well established and there seems to be no huge public outcry. So the Plame affair is likely to stay an intriguing puzzle that can be enjoyed by everyone who is not too preoccupied with speculating about the end of the Harry Potter saga.

POST SCRIPT

The London bombings have raised again the issue of whether security forces should randomly search people or use profiles for targeted searches. Tim Wise argues in The Faulty Logic of "Terrorist" Profiling why profiling will not help.

July 29, 2005

How governments lie

I am sure all the readers of this blog would be aware of the shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician by British police in the wake of the second attempt at bombing the British underground.

The question of how police should deal appropriately with fast moving events is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this posting. But this incident does provide a good example of how governments use the media to get their version of events into the public consciousness first, knowing that this is what most people remember.

The New York Times of Saturday, July 23, 2005 had a report that said that immediately after the shooting:

Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the dead man had been "directly linked" to the continuing terrorism investigation, but he would not say how or why or identify him by name or nationality.

The Plain Dealer of that same day added that the Washington Post was reporting that the man had been "under surveillance." Both these items seemed to provide evidence that there was a good reason for the police to decide to shoot.

But the very next day comes another report that said:

Scotland Yard admitted Saturday that a man police officers gunned down at point-blank range in front of horrified subway passengers on Friday had nothing to do with the investigation into the bombing attacks here.

How could someone go from being "under surveillance" and "directly linked" to a terrorism investigation on one day, to having "nothing to do" with it the next?

The reason most likely is that after the man had been shot the police immediately wanted to give the public the impression that the shooting was completely justified and said whatever was necessary to achieve that goal, whether they knew it was true or not.

This is one more reason why I always try and suspend judgment and never believe the initial reports that emerge from official spokespersons immediately after some major event. Those initial official reports often have only the remotest connection to the facts and are usually designed to imprint in the public mind what the governments want the public to believe. Newspaper reporters usually have no choice but to report these statements without question since they have not had time too do any independent checking.

My skepticism has been developed over many years due to the things like the following two examples.

On July 3, 1988, during the gulf war between Iraq and Iran, the American cruiser USS Vincennes, which was in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian civilian passenger aircraft, killing all 290 passengers aboard. The American President at that time (Ronald Reagan) and his Chief of Staff (Admiral William Crowe) immediately went on TV (I vividly remember watching them) and said that the shooting had been completely justified. They gave four reasons: (1) that the Iranian plane had been diving towards the USS cruiser and gaining speed, typical of an attack aircraft; (2) the plane had been transmitting of a military frequency instead of a civilian one; (3) there were no scheduled commercial Iranian airways flights at that time; (4) the flight path of the plane was outside the corridor that commercial airlines use.

So the image we were given repeatedly in the days immediately following the disaster was that this huge Airbus A300 civilian passenger plane was essentially dive-bombing the US cruiser, possibly on a kamikaze-type mission, which meant that the commander of the cruiser had no choice but to shoot it down.

At that time I thought that it was unbelievable that the Iranians would sacrifice nearly 300 of their own people on such an insane mission, but the media did not dwell much on this implausibility. After all, memories of the US embassy hostage crisis (which ended in 1981) were still fresh in people's minds and Iranians, portrayed as fanatical Muslims, were thought to be capable of anything.

Months later, the news slowly eked out in dribs and drabs, buried on the inside pages of newspapers, that every single one of the four justifications were false. (See this site for a history of the incident and the coverup.) The plane was on a regularly scheduled flight on a regular route, traveling at a steady altitude and speed, and transmitting on the civilian frequencies. Three years after the incident, Admiral Crowe admitted that the US cruiser Vincennes had actually been in Iranian territorial waters. Five years after the incident, the International Court of Justice concluded that the US actions had been unlawful.

But no one apologized for the lies, no one was punished, and the matter was quietly forgotten, except by the Iranians. The lies had served their purpose, which was to rally this country around their government in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.

A similar situation arose when President Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan on August 20, 1998, claiming that it was manufacturing biological weapons (particularly VX nerve gas), and killing at least one person. (News of this bombing, and the simultaneous bombing of Afghanistan, shoved the Monica Lewinsky scandal off the front pages just at the time she was to give her much anticipated grand jury testimony.) The US government insisted that it had firm evidence of biological weapons but that they could not reveal it for security reasons. They also blocked a UN investigation into the bombing. No evidence was ever produced to support its case. It was much later that the US government very quietly conceded that it had been wrong. In the meantime the loss of the only pharmaceutical factory in a poor country like Sudan resulted in a huge loss of medicines to a very needy population, resulting in serious health problems and deaths. Again, the government lies had served their purpose.

The retraction by the British police in the latest incident was unusual in that it was quick. The usual policy (at least in the US) is for officials to keep stonewalling and throwing up one smokescreen after another until the public gets bored or another big story consumes the media. Then a quiet admission is made of the error, which gets buried at the bottom of page 20.

On Wednesday, I went to see the excellent film Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire (see the postscript to this posting for details) which showed the propaganda process at work following the events of 9/11.

This is why I always take initial news reports of such events with a grain of salt. I believe that all governments, without exception, lie to their people. They do this routinely and without shame. But most people are uncomfortable accepting this fact and want to believe that their government is trustworthy. And at the early stages of the events, governments and official spokespersons take advantage of people's trust and use their dominance of the media to make sure that people's early impressions are favorable. The only reason that governments will hesitate to lie is if the media quickly investigates the original story and gives the subsequently revealed facts as much publicity as the original stories. But as we have see, the present media have largely abdicated that role, playing it safe by simply reporting what the government says.

It will be interesting too see if the alternative press, via the internet, can help to bring more honesty into political life by quickly exposing lies. But what we can do is to treat the initial stories with a healthy skepticism until we have been convinced that there is a basis for believing them.

July 11, 2005

Public and private grief

One of the things that strikes me is America seems to have a fascination with memorials and ceremonies honoring the dead.

There are memorials for the various major wars, there is a memorial built for the Oklahoma City bombing, for the Lockerbie disaster, and there is the present bitter argument over the proposed memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. But there is more to it than physical memorials. There are also memorial ceremonies held on the anniversaries of these events, complete with flags, prayers, political leaders, speeches, and media coverage.

Has it always been like this or is this a relatively new phenomenon? I ask because this extended public and organized brooding on tragedy seems strange to me. In my experience growing up in Sri Lanka, after a major disaster, people tend to quickly clear up the mess and move on. There are some memorials, but they tend to be for dead political figures and are built by their immediate families or their political supporters. The idea of public memorializing is not widespread.

Of course, the family and friends of people lost to tragedies feel grief, and this is a universal phenomenon, transcending national and cultural boundaries. It is perfectly natural for such people to feel a sense of sadness and loss when an anniversary date comes around, reminding them of those who are no longer part of their lives. The personal columns of newspaper in Sri Lanka are filled, like they are here, with the sad stories of loss, some from many, many years ago.

But I wonder how much of this memorializing and solemnity is widespread among people who do not suffer a direct personal loss. At each anniversary of 9/11, for example, the media solemnly report that the whole nation 'paused in grief' or something like that. But among the people I know and work with, no one talks about the events on the anniversaries. Are we a particularly callous group of people, or is my experience shared by others? Of course, people may reflect on the events on those days but how much of that is media inspired, because the newspapers and radio and TV keep talking about it? If the media ignored these anniversaries, would ordinary people give these anniversaries more than a passing thought? How many people feel a sense of grief or sorrow on the anniversaries of disasters that did not affect them personally?

In Sri Lanka, the recent tsunami killed about 40,000 people in a matter of minutes. It is the worst single disaster in country that has known a lot of tragedies, both natural and human-caused. Like disasters everywhere, it brought out the best in people as they overlooked ethnic, religious, and linguistic barriers and joined in the massive relief efforts, helping total strangers using whatever means at their disposal.

And yet, on my recent visit, I did not hear of any plans for a public tsunami memorial. I am fairly certain that if anyone proposed it, people would (I think rightly) argue that the money would be better spent on relief for the victims of the disaster rather than on something symbolic.

This made me wonder about the following: while private grief is a universal emotion, I wonder if public grief is a luxury that only the developed world can afford to indulge in. In countries where the struggle of day-to-day living takes most of one's energy, is grief a precious commodity that people can expend only on the loss of their nearest and dearest, except in the immediate aftermath of a major tragedy?

May 06, 2005

The changing media face of Christianity

I grew up in Sri Lanka in a family that worshipped in the Methodist Church. I was strongly influenced by my family and also by the minister in my church and the chaplain in the private Anglican (aka Episcopalian) school I attended. These priests had such an influence on me that I became quite religious and studied to become a lay minister in the Methodist church, and was ordained soon after I graduated from college.

In that capacity I would be sent to various churches on Sundays to conduct services. As a lay minister, I was authorized to run every aspect of the service except the communion. I was even invited me to go to theological college and become a full minister and I briefly, but seriously, considered the offer. But in the end, I decided that I really wanted to be a physicist and declined.

But after I came to the US (first time as a graduate student to do my PhD in physics, then the second time to work here) my religious devotion waned considerably and I eventually became an atheist.

The story of what prompted that particular personal transition is not relevant here. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Christianity that I see in the US now is quite different from the kind that strongly attracted me as an adolescent and young adult. The priests who taught me were people who focused on the Jesus of the Gospels, and reminded us that belief in God carried with it responsibilities as well, the primary ones being to help bring about a better world, especially for those less fortunate than ourselves. While the idea of eternal salvation was not ignored, what was emphasized was that just professing our belief, and only worrying about the well-being of ourselves, our families, and our immediate community or nation, was not enough. We were supposed to live our beliefs by working for the betterment of everyone. These clergy preached tolerance for those who were different and believed different things, and an inclusiveness that sought to find ways to welcome all people. I was brought up to believe that it was more important to be good and kind than to be devout.

The social justice consequences of religious beliefs were what attracted me to religion then and I still support those religious groups (Christian and other) that seek to build a better world and fight injustices. There is no question that the quest for justice based on religious beliefs can lead people to make immense sacrifices for the collective good. The martyrdom of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Ursuline nuns in El Salvador (who were killed for speaking out against brutal dictatorships that were oppressing the people there) and the humiliations suffered with dignity by civil rights marchers in the US, are inspiring. It is clear that for such people, it was their religious beliefs gave them the courage to do what they did.

But that view of religion as an agent of social justice, although still present in many churches and other groups in the US, is being pushed aside in the public sphere by those who have quite a different view. Think of the people who appear repeatedly on TV as spokespersons for religion. The names that immediately come to my mind are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. The emergent Dominionist group that was highlighted by Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlett in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, is close to them in their view of what Christianity means.

Issues of social justice seem not to be a major concern for members of this Dominionist Christianity. In fact, Hedges points out that "They are picture-perfect members of a new Christian elite, showy, proud of how God has blessed them with material wealth and privilege, and hooked them into the culture of power and celebrity."

If being materially successful is taken as a sign of God's blessings, then the corollary is that being poor and deprived must imply that you have somehow found disfavor in the eyes of God. If that is the case, why should one concern oneself excessively with poor people, since their wretched condition must be largely their own fault, due to their own sinfulness or faults of character? This may explain why this form of Christianity is so closely aligned with capitalist ideology and why Pastor Ted Haggard (profiled by Sharlett as the head of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and also head of the National Association of Evangelicals which, with over 30 million believers, makes up the nation's most powerful religious lobbying group) says that they "like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of the free market" (Jeff Sharlett).

This would also explain why such churches like to stay in the suburbs and rural areas and see the cities (especially inner cities) as dens of sin to be avoided because of their "homosexuality, atheistic school teaching and ungodly imagery" and humanism. Also, if you think that material success equates with God's favor, it makes sense to oppose (or at least not support) social security, social welfare programs, public schooling, and all other programs that have egalitarian goals, since the distribution of society's material goods is a measure of ones spirituality, and not every one is equally good. So the alignment of these religious groups with political parties that advocate anti-egalitarian policies makes sense.

Needless to say, this particular form of Christianity is not at all appealing to me, and is totally in opposition to the message that was taught by the inclusive and tolerant priests of my youth. But tolerance and inclusivity are out, replaced by Manichaean thinking that sees everything in good-evil/we-they terms.

In a later posting, we will see that there is more to be concerned about than the seeming lack of concern about social justice and the absence of empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.

There is also the knotty problem of how, if you believe in being tolerant and accepting of diverse views and beliefs, you deal with people who not only think that they are right and you are wrong, but that their religious views alone should be given pride of place by the government and used as a basis for state policies.

March 11, 2005

The questions not asked II - UN resolutions

It's time to play another game of The questions not asked. This is where we examine the reporting of some news event and try and identify the obvious questions that should have been posed by the media, or the context that should have been provided to better understand the event, but wasn't.

Today's example is taken from a speech given by George W. Bush on March 8, 2005 and reported in the Houston Chronicle.

"The time has come for Syria to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1559," Bush told a largely military audience at the National Defense University. "All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair."
...
Bush, in a speech touting progress toward democracy in the broader Middle East, did not say what might follow failure to comply.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan also left the question open. "If they don't follow through on their international obligations, then, obviously, you have to look at what the next steps are," McClellan said.

So what questions were not posed? What context was not provided?

One immediate answer is to compare the situations in Lebanon and Iraq. How can Bush say that the Lebanese elections cannot be free and fair because of the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops there, when ten times that many US troops were present in Iraq during that election in January, but those elections were praised?

But that question was not asked, the context not provided.

But there is another obvious angle to this particular case that was also overlooked, and that is the way in which UN resolutions are used selectively to justify US policy decisions.

UN resolutions routinely call, among other things, for the withdrawal of foreign troops from other countries. And given that the UN is, for want of anything better, the closest thing we have to providing a global consensus, such resolutions should be taken seriously.

But this is not the first time that UN resolutions calling for the withdrawal of occupying troops to be withdrawn have been defied. For example, Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco in his article US Double Standards in the October 22, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine says that more than ninety UN resolutions are currently being violated, and the vast majority of the violations are by countries closely allied with the US. He says:

For example, in 1975, after Morocco's invasion of Western Sahara and Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. However, then-US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged that "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success." East Timor finally won its freedom in 1999. Moroccan forces still occupy Western Sahara. Meanwhile, Turkey remains in violation of Security Council Resolution 353 and more than a score of resolutions calling for its withdrawal from northern Cyprus, which Turkey, a NATO ally, invaded in 1974.
The most extensive violator of Security Council resolutions is Israel. Israel's refusal to respond positively to the formal acceptance this past March by the Arab League of the land-for-peace formula put forward in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 arguably puts Israel in violation of these resolutions, long seen as the basis for Middle East peace. More clearly, Israel has defied Resolutions 267, 271 and 298, which demand that it rescind its annexation of greater East Jerusalem, as well as dozens of other resolutions insisting that Israel cease its violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, such as deportations, demolition of homes, collective punishment and seizure of private property. Unlike some of the hypocritical and meanspirited resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly, like the now-rescinded 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism, these Security Council resolutions are well grounded in international law and were passed with US support or abstention. Security Council Resolutions 446, 452 and 465 require that Israel evacuate all its illegal settlements on occupied Arab lands.

All the UN resolution pointed to be Zunes are very serious and are much older that the resolution 1559 being used against Syria, so that these violations are long standing. All this information is in the public record. Any reasonably competent journalist should know it and, when the administration (and this is done by both Republican and Democratic administrations) cynically invokes UN resolutions selectively to achieve narrow political ends, should be able to pose the relevant question of why only some UN resolutions have to be followed while others ignored.

But the mainstream journalists don't do this. One question is why. But the more important question is, since they don't do their job, what can we do to make up for it?

March 01, 2005

Living in a reality-free world

Here is some news to curl your hair.

The Harris Poll® #14 of February 18, 2005 reports that:

- 47 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001;
- 44 percent believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis; and
- 36 percent believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded that country.

Virtually no one who has followed these stories believes any of the above to be true. And this poll was released just last week, long after the David Kay and Charles Duelfer reports were made public, putting to rest all the overblown claims that were used to justify the attack on Iraq.

Also something that experts do believe to be true, that Saddam Hussein was prevented from developing weapons of mass destruction by the U.N. weapons inspectors, is supported by only 46 percent.

How is it that so many Americans seem to be living in a reality-free world?

The reason is that such falsehood as the ones listed above are strongly implied by influential people and uncritically reported in the media, or influential people stay silent when such falsehoods are propagated.

Take for example a speech made just last week (on February 17, 2005) by California congressman Christopher Cox at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Michelle Goldberg of Salon was at the conference and reports his exact words: “We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and the facilities to make them inside of Iraq, and even more about their intended use, including that a plan to distribute sarin, and the lethal poison ricin -- in the United States and Europe -- was actively being pursued as late as March 2003.�

And who were the members of the audience who did not contradict Cox as this nonsense was being spouted? Michelle Goldberg reports that among those “seated at the long presidential table at the head of the room were Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Missouri Senator Norm Coleman, Dore Gold, foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and NRA president Kayne Robinson.� Cox’s comments were made while introducing Vice President Dick Cheney, who gave the keynote address.

Now it is possible to carefully deconstruct the congressman’s words so that some semblance of truth can be salvaged. But that would involve re-defining words like ‘discovered’ and ‘weapons’ and ‘facilities’ and ‘plan’ in ways that would make Clinton’s parsing of the word ‘is’ seem like a model of transparency.

So what are we to make of political leaders who can say such deliberately misleading things? What are we to make of other politicians who know the facts but choose to remain silent while the public is led astray? And what are we to make of the national media who spend enormous amounts of time and space on issues like Michael Jackson’s trial but do not provide the kind of scrutiny, factual information, and context that would make politicians more cautious about what they say?

Politicians who mislead the public may be just cynical in that they know the truth and are just saying things for the sake of political expediency. But the danger with allowing this kind of talk to go unchallenged is that it creates an echo-chamber in which people hear the same false things from different directions and start to think it must be true. When people start believing their own propaganda, then they have entered a reality-free zone and this can lead to disastrous consequences.

George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) wrote “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.� The sad truth is that Cox’s speech is by no means the only, or even the worst, example of this kind of linguistic chicanery. One has only to go back to the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq to see even more egregious examples of deception by the highest ranking members of the government, and timidity and silence from the supposed watch-dogs in the Congress and media.

Is it any wonder that so many people live in a world that does not exist?

February 18, 2005

The questions not asked

You can tell more about the sorry state of the mainstream news media by the kinds of questions that are not asked as by the questions that are.

Take for example the news this week that North Korea publicly acknowledged having nuclear weapons and withdrew from the six-nation talks, saying that it wanted bilateral discussion with the US. The news communiqué from the North Korean government said that the reason it had developed nuclear weapons was to defend itself from possible attack by the US.

In response to this announcement, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that “The North Koreans have no reason to believe that anyone wants to attack them,�

Really? Let’s see now. The Bush administration famously created the ‘axis of evil’ that consisted of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The first country (Iraq) has since been invaded by the US, and the second country (Iran) now has US forces on two of its borders (Iraq and Afghanistan), with the bellicose language and arguments that preceded the attack on Iraq being now reprised against Iran

Then there is the fact that there are nearly 40,000 US troops in South Korea, along the border with the North.

Also, Rice identified North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny� at her confirmation hearings just last month. And Bush earlier called the North Korean leader a loathsome "pygmy.�

Given all this, I think a person might reasonably conclude that the North Koreans have grounds for being concerned about an attack.

So when Rice pooh-pooh’s North Korea’s fears about an impending strike, you might think that a reporter might question her about these past statements and ask her why she expects the North Koreans to believe her. But as far as I can tell, it did not happen.

Or as another example, take the case of the recent horrific bombing in Beirut that killed the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. In response to this event White House spokesman Scott McClellan is quoted as saying that the United States will consult with other members of the U.N. Security Council about how to restore Lebanon's independence by ending what he termed foreign occupation.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher went further and said that the killing undercuts Syria’s stated reason for keeping 14,000 troops in Lebanon which was to maintain the multiethnic country’s stability.

Mr. Boucher also said that this “shows the distortions of Lebanese politics that are created by the Syrian presence that shows that the excuse, the reason, the rationale, that's given for the security -- for the Syrian presence really doesn't work. It has not provided internal security for Lebanon, and therefore, in light of that kind of event, we need to look at the whole range of issues that we've had, including Syrian presence in Lebanon.�

Now when statements like this are made, the adage about glass houses immediately jumps to mind. How can these spokespersons say that one bombing in Lebanon, however major, underscores the need for the removal of 14,000 foreign troops there since no security has been created by them, when just down the street in Iraq there are more that ten times that many US troops present, yet civil war seems a possibility, bombings on the scale of what happened in Lebanon are almost routine daily occurrences, and lawlessness is so rampant that even the road to the Baghdad airport is now a no-go zone?

The reason that these spokespersons can make these statements is that they know they will not be pressed on the awkward contradictions.

The point is not that there may not be good reasons that explain away the contradictions. The interesting question is why these people are not even expected to make the case.

These are not isolated instances, and in future postings we will look at further examples and pose the question of why it is that reporters who have access to these spokespeople do not seem to ask the obvious questions.

February 16, 2005

Beware the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade

In a previous post, I seemed to be taking two contradictory positions. On the one hand, I argued that Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ (of the Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin variety) contribute almost nothing valuable to the public discourse. On the other hand, I argued that they should be countered. So why should we waste time on people who have little to say?

The answer is that though they add nothing to the public debates, they do subtract a lot. To understand this point, let’s start with historian Juan Cole, author of the invaluable blog Informed Comment. He says:

“Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies. One of their jobs is to marginalize progressives by smearing them as unreliable.�

Cole nails it. The main purpose of these people seems to be to fill the airways and print media with noise and confusion. Because they swarm through the media in such large numbers, they convey the misleading impression that they represent the mainstream, and their style of argumentation (shouting, sarcasm, ridicule, quips, and barbs) is such that the lack of actual evidence and reasoned arguments is not immediately apparent.

There are a host of well-funded foundations and think tanks and media outlets which are willing to hire telegenic young people who are facile with words and let them loose as front line troops in the media war to persuade the public that policies that in reality will harm them are good for them. These people get repeated media exposure and soon, like Paris Hilton, are famous for just being famous, although they really have little of substance to contribute.

The antennae of the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ brigade are carefully tuned to pick up the cues about what their patrons want. Want the public to support an attack on a country like Iraq that never threatened the US? Want to privatize social security and cut back on Medicare? Want to undermine public education? Want to take away even the little support that poor people get from the government? In a flash, the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ Brigade come storming out of their luxury penthouse barracks, laptops blazing, occupying all the vantage points in the media so that more thoughtful voices are squeezed out, leaving little room for reasoned discussion. They can do this confidently knowing that they will rarely encounter a knowledgeable interviewer or host who will hold them accountable or ask them to back up their statements with anything resembling a useful fact or a line of coherent reasoning.

Another ‘benefit’ of having the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade™ around is that they enable other extreme voices who voice much the same policies but in a more sophisticated manner (people like Charles Krauthammer and William Safire) to acquire that much-sought-after media label of ‘moderate’. These pundits are anything but moderate in their proposals. They only manage to appear so because they lack the shrillness of the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade™, the shock troops whose function is to soften up the ‘enemy� (i.e. public opinion) so that they will be more easily taken captive by the smoother-talkers and their pro-administration sponsors.

This is no trivial matter. The consequences are serious because this kind of know-nothing punditry lays the foundation for bad policies that go unchallenged. Again, as Juan Cole continues:

“The thing that really annoyed me about Goldberg's sniping was it reminded me of how our country got into this mess in Iraq. It was because a lot of ignorant but very powerful and visible people told the American people things that were not true. In some instances I believe that they lied. In other instances, they were simply too ignorant of the facts to know when an argument put forward about, say, Iraq, was ridiculous. … They were never contradicted when they said this on television, though.
…
“The corporate media failed the United States in 2002-2003. The US government failed the American people in 2002-2003. That empty, and often empty-headed punditry, which Jon Stewart destroyed so skillfully, played a big role in dragooning the American people into a wasteful and destructive elective war that threatens to warp American society and very possibly to end the free Republic we have managed to maintain for over 200 years.�

To be a member of the Third-Tier Pundit Brigadeâ„¢ requires you to have no sense of shame because you will have to urge policies for others while exempting yourself from its consequences. For example, Jonah Goldberg was one of the most vociferous voices urging an attack on Iraq. When asked why he did not enlist himself if he felt so strongly that Iraq was such a menace to the US, he replied that it was because he was 35 years old, a new father, and enlisting would require him to take a cut in income.

Really? The fact that this war has resulted in the deaths and dismemberment of many American soldiers in similar or more dire need of exemption, and left many, many young children fatherless and motherless and in serious financial trouble, not to mention the deaths and devastation in Iraq, does not seem to cause him any unease as long as he personally does not have to bear the sacrifices he is urging on others. And chickenhawk Jonah is by no means alone in this kind of behavior.

He also said that “one of the most important and vital things the United States could do after 9/11 was to kill people.� Not “bring the guilty to justice.� Not “try to prevent such future occurrences.� Not “find out what made people commit this mass murder.� No, what is most important is to satiate his desire for death.

One wonders about the moral sensibility of a person who can so fervently wish for the death of anyone, let alone innocent people. Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire has tracked that over three thousand Afghan civilians, more than the number of those who died on September 11, none of them complicit in the attack on the World Trade Center, died as a result of the US bombing of that country.

Afghanistan is a country with a wretched history, abused and kicked around repeatedly by great powers playing their global games. Its inhabitants are among the poorest of the world’s poor. Yet Goldberg is comfortable calling for their deaths because he and his friends feel the need to lash out.

This is the time of year when soon-to-be college graduates are looking for jobs. Are you bright, articulate, photogenic, able to write glibly, have a highly developed sense of sarcasm, and are willing to sacrifice your integrity and say anything in order to advance the agenda of your patrons? Join the Third-Tier Pundit Brigadeâ„¢ and be all you can be!

February 14, 2005

The Unbearable Lightness of Third-Tier Pundits

In the educational system that existed in Sri Lanka when I was growing up, students had to decide in the eighth grade what direction their future education would take, Since I knew I wanted to do physics, I chose to go in that direction and the rest of my education consisted of heavy doses of physics and mathematics with absolutely nothing in history, geography, literature, and social studies.

Naturally, this created huge gaps in my own knowledge base that later in life I have had to fill in as best as I can on my own.

This is not entirely a bad thing. One benefit is that I have not developed a hatred for the omitted subjects that those who have had heavy doses of formal education sometimes get. I actually like history and read about historical events for fun. And as I get older, I find that I know a lot of recent history by default, as I have actually lived through events that my children must learn about from history texts.

But the benefit that I value most is that this awareness of my gaps in knowledge has made me cautious about cavalierly challenging those people who have devoted their lives to studying these subjects. It is not that I accept their knowledge and conclusions unquestioningly. It is that I realize that the burden of responsibility is on me to study the issue carefully and be reasonably sure of my facts before I challenge these authorities.

But no such concerns seem to exist in the mind of Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ in the media who think that they can voice any opinion on the flimsiest of knowledge and escape unchallenged. But they do not always get away with this. We saw in a previous posting how Jonah Goldberg went a little too far is asserting his superior knowledge and judgment about the middle east and got slapped silly by University of Michigan professor of history Juan Cole, someone who has devoted his life to studying that region.

But unfortunately Goldberg is far from alone in over-reaching in this way. Ann Coulter, another distinguished member of the Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ Hall of Fame, recently made some typically inane comment on an American talk show about how Canada is an ungrateful neighbor and should be very careful about annoying the US by not always siding with the US in its foreign policy, since the US could squash it like a bug, or words to that effect.

Coulter’s comments were noted in Canada where, needless to say, they did not go over well. She was interviewed by Bob McKeown of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s news show The Fifth Estate, in the course of which she condescendingly scolded Canada for not sending troops to Iraq.

And it was at this point that Coulter, like Goldberg, got stopped cold because she had come up against an interviewer who knew the facts of the case and was not going to let her escape unchallenged, the way she gets away in the US media. The transcript below of the exchange comes from Direland. The actual video clip is well worth seeing, especially the part where Coulter looks desperate and flails around trying to salvage her point. (Thanks to commenter Cathi for the tip.)

*******
Coulter: "Canada used to be one of our most loyal friends and vice-versa. I mean Canada sent troops to Vietnam - was Vietnam less containable and more of a threat than Saddam Hussein?"

McKeown interrupts: "Canada didn't send troops to Vietnam."

Coulter: "I don't think that's right."

McKeown: "Canada did not send troops to Vietnam."

Coulter (looking desperate): "Indochina?"

McKeown: "Uh no. Canada ...second World War of course. Korea. Yes. Vietnam No."

Coulter: "I think you're wrong."

McKeown: "No, took a pass on Vietnam."

Coulter: "I think you're wrong."

McKeown: "No, Australia was there, not Canada."

Coulter: "I think Canada sent troops."

McKeown: "No."

Coulter: "Well. I'll get back to you on that."

McKeown tags out in script:

"Coulter never got back to us -- but for the record, like Iraq, Canada sent no troops to Vietnam."

*********

Being wrong on the facts is sometimes excusable. We all make mistakes from time to time. What is interesting is that people like Coulter and Goldberg are brazen in their utterances, take extreme positions, are unapologetic about their ignorance (note that Coulter does not have the grace to later apologize to McKeown for wrongly challenging him repeatedly on the facts), and seem to have no internal sense that warns them that they are dealing with someone who might know more than them.

I saw the interview clip. McKeown is a Canadian. He is a man in late middle age. He would have been in the exact age range to be eligible to be sent to Vietnam, if Canada had sent troops. He would have been acutely aware if fellow Canadians his age, including his friends and relatives, were fighting and dying in Vietnam. Surely warning bells should have rung in Coulter’s mind that this man might know more than her about this particular topic?

But clearly she had no sense of caution and it is interesting to speculate as to why. I think it is because her kind of vacuous hit-and-run punditry has become commonplace in the US. People say absurd things on TV or in print, are not challenged by the interviewers in the conventional media, and then go on to make some new charge the next day. After doing this for years, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one is untouchable.

Should we be concerned about this phenomenon? After all, who cares what Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ like Coulter and Goldberg and Michelle Malkin think, since there is no evidence to suggest that they have anything useful to contribute on any important topic? How do they get such access to the airways anyway?

In a later posting I will discuss why we should care.

POST SCRIPT

Yesterday I saw a fine production by the MFA ensemble of Case Western Reserve University of Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing and directed by Jerrold Scott the Cleveland Play House. The way Stoppard uses words is enviable. The play runs until February 19. Details here.

If you have a Case ID, tickets are only $5 and parking is only $2, both real bargains.

February 08, 2005

How I keep up with the news

I hardly ever watch TV news and talk shows or spend much time with other elements of the mainstream media. I don’t read the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or other so-called national papers unless someone directs me to a specific article. I also don’t read the popular news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report.

It seems to me to be a waste of time to try to follow all these so-called news outlets, since they all parrot the same establishment interests, with a narrow range of news and voices, all serving the interests of the elites.

However, I am a news and politics junkie and try to be fairly well informed, and I thought I’d share with you those sources of news and opinion that I find helpful in keeping up with events. I have permanent links to these sites on my blog home page.

For news sites, antiwar.com is a site that I have been reading since the time of the US involvement in the former Yugoslavia. It has had a consistent antiwar stance, while providing useful links to news and commentary you might not see elsewhere. The people behind the site are old-style libertarians and paleoconservatives who see US foreign policy being taken into dangerous interventionist and imperial directions by both Republican and Democratic parties.

The site provides links to a lot of news reports and is refreshingly open to opinions from all elements of the conventional political spectrum (defined by virtually meaningless distinctions such as Democratic/Republican and liberal/conservative), yet maintains a consistent antiwar perspective. It gives space to articles from the world’s press and to a range of analysts from Noam Chomsky to Lew Rockwell to Pat Buchanan to Alexander Cockburn to Charley Reese.

It was as hard on Clinton’s interventions in Yugoslavia as it is now on Bush’s policies in the Middle East. The editorial director Justin Raimondo’s columns (which appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, see top right of the antiwar.com home page for the link) are well worth reading

Another establishment voice is the BBC, but this site at least has a world-wide perspective, something that is sorely lacking in the major US media outlets.

Cursor is a very readable guide to current events with links to important news of the day.

I also read quite a few blogs. Some of them I read daily, some of them occasionally. Here are those that I particularly admire and recommend and the reasons why I consider them well worth bookmarking..

James Wolcott, columnist at Vanity Fair, can deliver a smackdown to sacred cows and pompous fools with a wit and venom that I can only envy, since I have neither the skill nor the temperament to match him. “I wish I could write like that� is the thought that keeps popping into my mind whenever I read him.

There are few around to match the knowledge and expertise on the Middle East that Juan Cole has. Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, is a scholar of the region who has published widely and extensively. He also knows the languages of the region and thus can keep up with the media there to provide truly Informed Comment, which is the title of his blog.

The nice thing about Cole’s site is that it combines scholarliness with lively and up-to-date commentary. And when the need arises, he can deliver a rebuke to the ignorant warmongers in the pundit class that leaves them reeling. Take for example his recent comeuppance of Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, a third-tier TV, web, and print pundit, who had the temerity to disparage Cole’s knowledge of Iraqi and Iranian politics.

Cole said:

“I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can't read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq's neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg's opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.�

Cole ends up issuing this challenge to Goldberg:

“So let me propose to him that we debate Middle East issues, anywhere, any time, he and I. Otherwise he should please shut up and go back to selling Linda Tripp tapes on Ebay.�

I wouldn’t bother packing my bags, Juan. Chickenhawk Jonah is probably cowering behind his mother Lucianne (who along with her son rose to dubious fame as the peddlers of the Linda Tripp tapes from the Monica Lewinsky era), peering around and wondering if it is safe to show his face in public again.

(Update: Apparently Jonah rose up briefly from the canvas only to get knocked down again by Cole.)

Incidentally, Justin Raimondo also dissected Jonah in 2002, showing that not only is Jonah is way out of his depth, he is a slow learner to boot. One feels almost sorry for him, getting publicly humiliated in this way, although he keeps asking for it.

Atrios (aka Duncan Black) is well known in the blog world as the creator of the site Eschaton. I like his site because he monitors the news media and other blogs and finds interesting items and perspectives that I would otherwise have missed.

Joshua Micah Marshall, who maintains the website Talking Points Memo, is a knowledgeable Washington-based journalist who has access to informed sources inside the beltway and writes well on important topics.

And if you are not aware of the daily syndicated comic strip The Boondocks, you are missing a treat. Those of you who think Doonesbury tests the limits of edgy political and social comic strip satire will be surprised by how much further Aaron McGruder’s strip takes that form. He speaks truths and provides a level of sharp political commentary that is missing in the news and editorial pages.

Establishment papers such as the Washington Post are so spineless that they occasionally refuse to run The Boondocks, such as the two-week series where Huey and Caesar decide that the reason that Condoleeza Rice is such a warmonger is because she has no love life and decide, in order to save the world from her disastrous actions, to run personal ads seeking a mate on her behalf. To maintain on a daily level such a high level of political incisiveness and still be funny takes real skill.

Huey for President!