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by danps

March 20: Journalistic Day of Atonement

5:21 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

UPDATE: See also Vast Left.

But what was the mission?

Eleven years ago today the United States used false pretenses to launch its war against Iraq. Happily, it has not yet become controversial to write those two things: That it was the US, and not some ridiculous coalition of the willing, that launched the war; and that the architects themselves were (at best) dubious about the given reasons for the invasion. Considering our ability to let the losing side end up with control of our war narratives, that’s no small achievement.

It would be nice if those architects had been summarily drummed out of public life and shunned by decent people. Demonstrating grotesque immorality ought ideally to have consequences, but unfortunately we live in an age of impunity for the powerful. If you are a member of that happy class and are willing to brazen it out, you will remain in good standing.

This explains how Douglas Feith, aka the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth, gets to weigh in on current events in Russia. It also explains how Bill Kristol, to Charles Pierce’s ongoing amazement, remains in good standing among the DC media. (Pierce is one of the few higher profile writers who has arrived at the proper estimation of Kristol. He’s also christened him with the title that ought to follow him to the end of his days: “Butcher’s Bill Kristol, the world’s dumbest political sociopath.”)

When it comes to Iraq there is a willful amnesia in Washington DC. No one in the elite media or political establishment wishes to think about it because it reflects so poorly on them. This explains how Dick Cheney could be invited on a Sunday show recently and not have the word “Iraq” appear once, not once. Months later, this continues to astonish me. It’s like interviewing Orville Redenbacher and not asking about popcorn.

Anniversaries are good occasions to revisit topics. The New York Times understands that, since it marked the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising earlier this week. The Washington Post has done even better, not just marking the occasion but looking at the human cost and taking every opportunity to embed its video of the situation as well.

The US did not engage its armed forces in any substantial way in Syria, though. Therefore there are no real stakes for the foreign policy establishment. Newspapers here are free to lavish attention on it without having to worry about damaging their access to Pentagon sources. On the other hand, Libya is in the process of turning into a basket case, and the US position has gone from “drop bombs to prevent genocide” to “sort it out amongst yourselves.” Don’t look for much coverage on that topic.

Clearly, though, the Times and the Post know how to mark an anniversary. If they did not have so much professional pride on the line with Iraq they could ask about the promises of a flowering democracy there, check that against the overall chaos as well as specific recent developments, and maybe inquire as to what exactly the fuck we are doing still sending arms there. Doing any of that would invite pointed questions about their role though, so better to just let the anniversary pass quietly.

If they really were the steely eyed truth tellers they seem to like fancying themselves as, the magnitude of their failure in Iraq would be a good occasion for some soul searching. Rather than leaving that kind of accounting to outsiders, they could turn that scrutiny on themselves and use it to an even larger purpose: An honest and unflinching examination of their systemic failures. Not just the technical glitches, but the really big picture stuff. A journalistic equivalent of Yom Kippur.

Some mistakes are easily addressed by the typical correction process. (“Ms Smith received a BS degree and not a BA degree as reported. We regret the error.”) Some are not. (“We credulously laundered Bush administration propaganda above the fold of our front page for months before the war, and were instrumental in legitimizing the fraudulent case for it. We regret the error.”)

Journalists have plenty of occasions to pat themselves on the back and give each other awards, but nothing (that I know of) that attempts to prick their collective conscience or remind them of just how wrong they can get it. Perhaps the anniversary of the largest such failure in the last generation would be good for that purpose. Not for self-flagellation or some other indulgence, but to confront uncomfortable truths that are otherwise too tempting to ignore.

Because ignoring those truths can prompt a newspaper to do ridiculous things. Like, for instance, marking the anniversary of protests against a conflict but not the start of the conflict itself.

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by danps

Greenwald, Rosen, Scahill and the price of one’s journalistic soul

2:29 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears

Pierre Omidyar

Is Omidyar a trustworthy founder of new journalistic efforts?

Tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s soon-to-be-launched journalistic venture has been greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response. In an era of shrinking budgets for news operations, the prospect of a benefactor flush with cash jumping in and starting an investigative outlet seems almost impossibly good news.

The reaction among those who write about the press for a living has ranged from palpable relief to gushing and unqualified praise. The prospect of joining some of this era’s most respected investigators like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill along with paragons of journalistic rectitude like Jay Rosen is certainly enough to hope for good things.

Still, it probably isn’t a good idea to leap off the deep end over it. For one, the new outlet might not be a startling and original development as much as the latest nouveau riche status symbol. Keeping up with the Bezos’, as it were. In addition, it should give one pause to see exactly the kind of uncritical adulation heaped on it that Greenwald has feasted on when practiced by establishment media towards the powerful. And make no mistake about it, Omidyar is an extremely powerful individual.

Last Friday Mark Ames and Yasha Levine published a story at NSFWCORP about Omidyar’s nonprofit group, the Omidyar Network. (The article has been intermittently unlocked for nonsubscribers. If you do not subscribe you may hit a paywall.) This venture has focused in part on privatized microfinance initiatives, and its results there have been grotesque and obscene. One group it supported, SKS Microfinance, engaged in practices that would have had to improve by orders of magnitude to qualify as Dickensian:

In 2012, it emerged that while the SKS IPO was making millions for its wealthy investors,1 hundreds of heavily indebted residents of India’s Andhra Pradesh state were driven to despair and suicide by the company’s cruel and aggressive debt-collection practices. The rash of suicides soared right at the peak of a large micro-lending bubble in Andhra Pradesh, in which many of the poor were taking out multiple micro-loans to cover previous loans that they could no longer pay. It was subprime lending fraud taken to the poorest regions of the world, stripping them of what little they had to live on. It got to the point where the Chief Minister of Andrah Pradesh publicly appealed to the state’s youth and young women not to commit suicide, telling them, “Your lives are valuable.”2

Ames and Levine also cover the foundation’s funding of DonorsChoose in America and Bridge International abroad, both of which focus on privatizing (for profit, of course) public education. Then there’s the debt peddling to the impoverished in Peru. Simply put, Omidyar is a hard core radical libertarian, a triple distilled true believer in laissez-faire capitalism. And as an obvious corollary, someone hostile to government.

That is who the new journalistic hires are lending out their good names to. It surely is no coincidence that they are known for their antagonistic stances towards government: Greenwald for his intelligence reporting,3 Scahill for his unsparing critiques of US foreign policy, and so on. I won’t hold my breath looking for an Occupy Wall Street bureau, though.

I’ve long admired Greenwald, Rosen, Scahill and the other journalists being brought on, and by all indications they will be free to pursue issues they feel passionate about. That is a good thing, but a limited thing as well.

For as promising as the new outlet is, it may in the end serve a much less noble purpose. Someone with a relentlessly antagonistic stance towards government who starts a project that is relentlessly antagonistic towards government will not be broken hearted to see popular trust in government wane. Or as Ames and Levine put it: “In other words: look out Government, you’re about to be pummeled by a crusading, righteous billionaire! And corporate America? Ah, don’t worry.”

The principals may pledge to be on guard against any signs of hedging or self-censorship, but let’s not be naive about this: It will only be acceptable to challenge certain kinds of power over there. The employees will know who is signing their paychecks, and they will be no more immune to the imperceptible erosion of their standards over time than have been the servile members of the courtier press they have so often criticized.

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by danps

A brief review of bad reporting

4:54 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Ever since Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s first story on NSA surveillance back in June there have been various attempts to discredit him. Most has been garden variety stuff, the kind of thing it’s usually better to ignore lest it get more oxygen. A post by BooMan earlier this week jumped out at me though, one point in particular.

In response to criticism from Charles Pierce, he writes “Glenn Greenwald can be filled with shit as far as [Pierce] is concerned so long as it keeps pumping out revelations from the Snowden files.” Now, being full of shit can mean being pompous, self-righteous, egotistical, or otherwise having too much self-regard. I could see that as a fair criticism of Greenwald, though I don’t agree with it.

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Surveillance Camera

But being full of shit can also mean being wrong, and that is what BooMan appears to mean as he makes an eye-popping comparison:

When I hear people argue that talking about Greenwald is a distraction from the real scandal, I feel like asking if talking about Judith Miller was a distraction from the real scandal. Shitty reporting is shitty reporting, and if you are going to tolerate it when it suits your purpose then you lose the right to complain about it when it doesn’t suit your purpose.

Since we may be on the verge of another war it could be helpful to look at just what made Miller’s prewar reporting so terrible. First of all, journalists are generally expected to be adversarial. If they don’t show a certain amount of skepticism – if they believe exactly what they are told – then papers might as well just republish press releases. Second, journalists should have an almost antagonistic stance towards those calling the shots. Yet Miller let Dick Cheney whisper in her ear, printed what he said unchallenged, and he promptly went on the Sunday shows citing the new York Times in support of his case for war.

Those two characteristics are important not because they conform to some ideal of crusading, muckraking journalism but because they help reporters keep from getting things wrong. And Miller was a shitty reporter because she got lots of really important things wrong. For instance, she reported on “a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never been independently verified.” See the link for more details of journalistic malfeasance, and see a follow up article (which notes of the first: “Five of the six articles called into question were written or co-written by Ms. Miller”) the next year for even more.

Catering to the powerful is a leading indicator of bad journalism. This is not to say reporters should reflexively assume high ranking officials are lying or never have a sympathetic tone towards them, but it does mean journalists should be vigilant about the possibility of being misled when dealing with them. Miller was not.

She was the primary source for (fictional) reporting on the provocations of a nation we were about to launch a war of aggression against, and she did so in a way that burnished the credibility of the very officials who were acting in such bad faith. That’s some really shitty reporting!

How does Greenwald stack up? On the “getting things wrong” front, BooMan links to one piece that claims Greenwald exaggerated. “Nothing to see here” is a rhetorical device, though, not proof of inaccuracy. He also links to a post that points out Greenwald initially claimed his partner was not able to consult a lawyer for his entire nine hours of detention, when it actually was eight. I don’t think that rises to the level of erroneously reporting on renovations to secret Iraqi nuclear weapons facilities.

BooMan also links to some previous non-NSA related blogfights that will continue for as long as there is an Internet. Nothing else on the surveillance programs though. On the “getting things wrong” scale Greenwald is a pygmy compared to Miller.

Moreover, if Greenwald was a Miller-scale shitty reporter, his reporting would not be getting corroborated. Yet other outlets are chiming in left and right with new details. There are additional reports by McClatchy (which mark those who believe it’s a “matter of policy that warrants are required” for spying as having truly special levels of credulity), AP, Spiegel, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times (now with less Miller!), the Washington Post, Reuters…the list goes on. Everyone is getting in on the act.

If it was just Greenwald out there, well, maybe some skepticism is in order. He could still be right then – journalists have often stood alone in the face of huge pushback and been vindicated – but at the moment every outlet with a Washington bureau is publishing new revelations. Even if we stipulate Greenwald is a shitty reporter, doesn’t the cascade of details elsewhere count for anything? Focusing on him suggests a greater interest in personality-driven soap operas than a candid examination of policy.
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by danps

Online news stories, corrections, and keeping up to date

3:00 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

One of the interesting wrinkles of journalism in the online age is the ease of accessing archives. It used to be that back issues were at best scanned to microfiche and stored in some musty, stale vault somewhere. Now, though, anyone with an Internet connection can get to them.

Online News

Online News

This is not exactly an original observation, but there is an implication to it that doesn’t seem to have been discussed very much: News sites can, if they want, issue corrections long after publication. Back when everything was a mass produced hard copy, something that went out wrong was staying wrong forever. A correction could be run in a subsequent edition, but the mistakes that had been printed and shipped were out there for good. There’s a certain messiness implied in that, and I think everyone from publishers to readers made allowance for it.

While that dynamic remains for physical editions, the online counterpart of a story is printed in exactly one place – and updates to it are effective immediately. News organizations can (and do) make revisions to electronic versions fairly quickly. From my own observation though, they seem to make corrections using the same model as print: when errors surface fairly quickly.

Once a week or so passes, the chances of a correction being run appear to be very small; after about a month almost zero. On the face of it that’s understandable. A news organization could devote all its resources to correcting every last little thing brought to its attention, no matter how far back. Going down that rabbit hole would be crazy.

On the other hand, the ease of retrieving and correcting Web pages makes them something other than the “first rough draft of history.” They aren’t (or don’t have to be) fleeting, indelible first impressions. For issues of great and ongoing importance, a newspaper’s site can – and maybe should – reflect changes to the story as it evolves. Subsequent drafts of history can easily be incorporated. Not only would that reflect a decent journalistic ethic of getting things right, it would also be a service to readers who take the time to research these newly liberated archives.

All this began to rattle around my brain as I’ve been making my way through Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill. He extensively covers our secret war against Yemen (which passes the ongoing relevance test), and chapter 32 covers a particularly horrific episode.

On December 17, 2009 the village al Majalah was bombed, killing dozens of people. Scahill notes how the New York Times reported incorrectly on the bombing, often by relying on anonymous quotes. The Yemeni government claimed credit for the attack, and the Times reported that Yemen’s forces had (among other targets) “struck militant bases in Abyan, a lawless area in the south of the country.”

The next day the paper ran an article that consisted almost entirely of unsourced and unverified allegations. In less than 400 words it refers to generic officials four times; American officials twice; Pentagon, military and intelligence officials; officials in Washington; administration officials; and Yemeni officials. And it has precisely one named source: Bryan G. Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. There is literally a 10:1 ratio of anonymous to on the record sourcing.

A week and a half later the story was still roughly the same: “Yemen escalated its campaign against Al Qaeda with major airstrikes on Dec. 17 and last Thursday that killed more than 60 militants. American officials have been coy about the role of the United States in the strikes, saying that they have provided intelligence and ‘firepower’ for the efforts.” In early January the Times still reported it was a Yemeni operation, but now noted many innocents were killed in addition to (or instead of) the 34 militants reported the prior month:

Yemeni officials, in two major strikes against Qaeda targets in December, first said that they had killed Mr. Awlaki, but he later spoke to Mr. Shaea to prove that he was alive, as other key leaders seem to be. But dozens of Qaeda family members and local residents were killed, increasing antigovernment sentiment.1

Then in August the paper quoted an anonymous (natch) Yemeni official reporting no militants and forty four civilians killed in the attack, now attributed to cluster bombs launched by an offshore Navy ship.

So in just under eight months the story from the paper went, with no explanation, from a Yemeni air and ground attack that killed 34 militants2 to an American cluster bomb that killed dozens of civilians (which, in the Times’ sedate language, increased antigovernment sentiment). Yet the original articles do not reflect that jarring reversal – as of this writing they remain uncorrected, available to misinform those who come across them.

It would be nice to know how the story traveled so far so quickly, or at least that it had. Maybe some of the many anonymous sources who got the story wrong could be named in an update as well. Unlike a generation ago, articles that are a few years old are not destined to be interred in some journalistic catacomb to only rarely be visited by the odd archaeologist. Books and other projects with broader scope, produced over months or years, will continue to drive traffic to them.

Readers may not take those stories to be an initial snapshot of the event but a living document; not a first draft but a primary source. Accuracy should matter not just on initial publication but after it as well. Perhaps for a handful of the biggest issues, newspapers could spare some resources to make sure their electronic reporting reflects the truth as our understanding of it changes.


NOTES

1. The wording here is really awkward: “Yemeni officials, in two major strikes against Qaeda targets in December, first said that they had killed Mr. Awlaki, but he later spoke” etc. The “two major strikes” part doesn’t assign responsibility for either strike. Mentioning Yemeni officials first would seem to lead the casual reader to the conclusion that it was a Yemeni operation, though.
(Back)

2. News stories that present a version of events without challenge are functionally endorsing that narrative. The initial report that the attack “kill[ed] at least 34 militants in the broadest attack on the terrorist group here in years, Yemeni officials said.” With no counter claim about who was killed, the Times is implicitly crediting that version. Also, there is something more authoritative about printing the allegation first and the attribution second: The attack killed 34 militants, officials said. And your mother is a cheap slut, an insider added.
(Back)
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by danps

James Rosen, irresponsible journalism and untrustworthy governance

6:45 am in Uncategorized by danps

UPDATED

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Earlier this week I had a brief and unproductive Twitter exchange with Libby Spencer over leaks, whistleblowers and journalists. It was prompted by this from BooMan:

We need to get our heads around the distinction between a whistleblower, who observes criminal or unethical behavior by government officials, and a criminal who leaks highly sensitive classified intelligence that burns sources and endangers our national security. Sometimes these two things can overlap, as when we learned that the NSA was conducting warrantless wiretaps in violation of current law. Bradley Manning revealed official wrongdoing, too, but he also did so with no discrimination.

Libby supported this point of view, I disagreed, and it quickly became obvious we wouldn’t get anything productive done 140 characters at a time. So here is the post-length treatment. The summarized version of her position (correct me if I’m wrong Libby!) is to side with the government in cases where, as BooMan writes, a leaker provides information without discrimination, or when outlets engage in irresponsible journalism.

I think the distinction between a “whistleblower” and “a criminal who leaks highly sensitive classified intelligence that burns sources and endangers our national security” is specious (though he allows that “these two things can overlap”). My whistleblower may be your criminal who leaks etc. It largely depends on whether you support the leak in question.

BooMan’s post starts out looking at the recently revealed Justice Department (JD) investigation of James Rosen. Coming on the heels of the AP phone records seizure, it immediately became linked to that scandal. (That’s very fortunate timing! I wonder how the WaPo managed to unearth that “newly obtained court affidavit” at such a critical moment.)

There seem to be two big differences between them, though. The first is that Rosen was more narrowly targeted than the AP was, the second is that Rosen appeared to want to force a change in US policy as part of his reporting. So at least some the details on this particular case seem to support the JD’s actions.

The problem is that BooMan is not content to stay with the details of that one particular case. He moves on to some pretty troubling generalizations instead – his condemnation of indiscriminate leaking, for example.

Whistleblowers typically approach journalists in part because they want an organization with experience and resources to comb through the documents and figure out what to publish. Daniel Ellsberg indiscriminately leaked 7,000 pages to The New York Times. Do Libby and BooMan consider him a criminal?

We can debate whether WikiLeaks is a media outlet (I think it is, or at least it was at the time of its Afghan war diary coverage), but Manning’s smuggled documents were published simultaneously – and with the cooperation of – The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel. Did those outlets engage in irresponsible journalism?

This debate doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Those who have been on the receiving end of the surveillance state’s attention tend to look at a story like Rosen’s in the broader context of the government attacks on the First Amendment. If national security reporting is now fair game for government attack, there’s no reason to think it will remain confined to sketchy characters like Rosen. Scoops like those from Charlie Savage and the New York Times will also presumably receive more scrutiny as well.

The American government’s sordid history of deception with highly classified intelligence goes back a long way. It’s somewhat astonishing to read someone uncritically pass along government claims that something endangers what BooMan calls “our” precious bodily fluids national security given its track record. One of the most visible tools used to keep information from the public has been the state secrets privilege (SSP), which was literally founded on a lie:

Although the state secrets privilege has existed in some form since the early 19th century, its modern use, and the rules governing its invocation, derive from the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953). In Reynolds, the widows of three civilians who died in the crash of a military plane in Georgia filed a wrongful death action against the government. In response to their request for the accident report, the government insisted that the report could not be disclosed because it contained information about secret military equipment that was being tested aboard the aircraft during the fatal flight. When the accident report was finally declassified in 2004, it contained no details whatsoever about secret equipment. The government’s true motivation in asserting the state secrets privilege was to cover up its own negligence.

Of course, we didn’t find that out until fifty years later. When the government engages in objectionable and secretive behavior we only find out haphazardly. There is no mechanism that allows this stuff to make its way to the public domain. For the instances we are fortunate enough to discover, taking national security claims at face value has not been a good bet. For instance, even the judicial review in Reynolds was crucially dependent not on evidence but on earnest assurances from the executive branch (emph. added):

In the majority opinion, the court, having not seen the documents in question, relied on the Air Force affidavit to conclude that certainly there was a reasonable danger that the accident investigation report would contain references to the secret electronic equipment which was the primary concern of the mission.

The SSP has remained a popular way for presidents – previous and current included – to cloak dubious activities in secrecy. Given that decades-long pattern (and the aggressive post-9/11 buildout of the surveillance state), it requires a pretty ahistoircal outlook to swallow whole the charge that James Rosen is “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.” We should expect more than government-furnished email excerpts, at least.

Those who defend the status quo deserve similar scrutiny. For instance, BooMan’s claim that “[t]he report relied on sources in the North Korean government” is sloppy. The story cites “sources inside North Korea,” not inside its government. I haven’t seen any reporting that the source was an actual government official, but those who are defending the JD’s actions (BooMan and see also the Mediaite story) have made that claim. Maybe that is a trivial distinction, but maybe it is something the JD is willing to have people infer.

The problem with all this cloak and dagger stuff is that ordinary citizens cannot reliably inform themselves on the issue. The quick way to choose whom to believe is to pick the side you like better. But after that first snap decision, it helps to look at the various parties’ credibility. This may be where Libby and I part company, because I have become so distrustful of government snooping and deception that I no longer believe its national security claims without some sort of independent corroboration. She still seems willing to. Maybe that makes me cynical or her gullible; who knows.

What I do know is that we are now in the twelfth year of a war that we are told encompasses the entire globe and that by definition will never end. And war corrupts democracy: It prevents citizens from becoming educated on one of the most important issues a nation can engage in. It turns political opponents into traitors and adversarial reporting into treason. Those who push back on a wartime president are endangering (our) national security. Those who question the wisdom of our policies are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. War does not, to put it mildly, promote a culture of free and open inquiry in the country that wages it. In an environment like that, I’ll err on the side of skepticism.

UPDATE: Libby responds here.

by danps

In praise of local TV news

5:29 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

I will admit to having had a snobbish view towards local TV news for most of my adult life. I think it is at least somewhat justified; local TV news frequently has a disreputable whiff. Whether it’s the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, sweeps week stunts (this item is in almost all American households AND IT COULD KILL YOUR CHILDREN), large doses of pabulum delivered as News You Can Use, and so on – there is a lot to look down on.

(I won’t even go into the disturbing tendency of weather forecasters to insist to viewers that the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists are charlatans.)

That perception seems to be fairly common. Maybe it’s a demographics issue; this study (PDF) from Pew shows (p. 37) daily newspaper readers with higher aggregate educational levels than local TV news viewers. It also shows (p. 38) newspaper readers having higher incomes. So to put it crudely, newspaper readers are smarter and richer than TV news viewers.

Without even seeing such statistics I definitely internalized a sense of newspapers’ superiority over the years. That bias is silly though; TV, like newspaper, is a medium. It’s what you do with it that matters. The New York Times is printed on newsprint, and so is The Onion.

The degree to which my assumptions about print and TV are faulty has been brought home over the last year or so as I’ve become more involved fracking-related activism. For instance, Youngstown NBC affiliate WFMJ has done a very thorough job covering the issue. When a company illegally dumped toxic fracking waste in a waterway, reporter Michelle Nicks filled her report with detail: Not just the event itself, but the response (such as it was) from regulators, from state political leaders and national ones as well.

Even more impressively, CBS affiliate WKBN filed public records requests and discovered the company in question has received dozens of citations, violations and injection well suspensions stretching back to the eighties. WKBN is doing exactly the kind of investigative journalism we normally associate with newspapers – not just reporting the news but really digging into it in order to give viewers a better understanding.

In Cleveland, NBC affiliate WKYC has set up an entire section of its web site for fracking and done a great deal of reporting on it. Multiple reporters there, including Monica Robins, Dick Russ and Lynna Lai, have reported on the issue from a variety of angles. While you could say that flaming water from a tap is the kind of arresting visual that conforms to the worst stereotypes of local TV news, there’s nothing especially dramatic about a cracked foundation or a politician’s legislative proposal. If it was all about sensation they wouldn’t have run most of those reports.

Newspapers have a spotty record on this issue. Some reporters cover it well. In northeast Ohio, Bob Downing of the Akron Beacon Journal has been on it for a while now (recent reports here, here and here). In other fracking-intensive regions I’ve found reporters like Bruce Finley at the Denver Post doing similarly admirable work (here, here and here for example).

But the largest newspaper in our area – the Cleveland Plain Dealer – has been considerably less thorough. There is less coverage overall, and the stories tend to center around fracking initiatives or headlining industry propaganda. While they occasionally look at the political fight over the issue, they rarely look at the effect it is having on local communities. (Perhaps the publishers don’t feel the concerns of blue collar-skewing populations in rural or semi-rural areas are of interest to their more (sub)urban and upscale readership.)

This is especially striking because the paper has repeatedly touched on an issue that seems ready made for a little Truth To Power type initiative. Jimmy Haslam, the new owner of the Cleveland Browns (and brother of the Tennessee governor, incidentally), owns a trucking company that stands to handsomely profit from fracking. Shortly after buying the Browns he stepped down as CEO of the company. Or didn’t. (“I’m still going to be CEO of Pilot Flying J.”) That detail was never ironed out exactly.

He’s definitely back in the saddle now though – which raises the same question his heading the company originally raised: Should the owner of such a high profile and beloved franchise be profiting by visiting environmental hazard on a significant portion of his fan base? There are lots of Browns fans in Youngstown. Maybe they wouldn’t be too crazy about knowing the team’s owner is a key part of the industrial chain that just befouled their community.

The PD is not going there, though. For whatever reason the community impact of fracking has been of zero interest. Again, this lack of coverage is not characteristic of all newspapers; some are doing a really good job. My point is that on this urgent, substantive issue, newspapers have been a mixed bag – as have local TV stations. (In Cleveland, WKYC is head and shoulders above its on-air competition at the moment.) In general the reporting matrix doesn’t break along expected lines. Sometimes papers provide better coverage. But in some cases the supposedly low-rent local TV stations have left their ostensibly more respectable print counterparts in the dust.

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by danps

Bloggers, shield laws and the journalists who don’t get it

4:38 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Last week an Oregon blogger named Crystal Cox had a $2.5 million defamation judgment issued against her. It was for posts she had written about investment firm Obsidian Finance Group and its co-founder Kevin Padrick; the case hinged on whether her allegations were factual or not. Padrick said they were defamatory, while Cox said they were factual but that because said facts had been leaked to her by an inside source she could not provide details. She then claimed she was protected by journalism shield laws allowing her to not name the source.

There are some extremely interesting and complex details to hash through in this case. The big one is the nature of shield laws in the Internet era. It is now possible for an individual to write anything at all, true or not, about anyone, and for that to be visible to the whole world. If that individual is sufficiently knowledgeable and persistent it’s also possible to manipulate search engine optimization to put those posts right at the top of the results page for the target. Cox was knowledgeable and persistent.

The underlying assumption of shield laws seems to be that organizations are unlikely to pursue vendettas and also unlikely to go to the mattresses to defend a spurious piece of reporting. In other words, the circumstances that create a full blown defamation lawsuit will be rare, and the defendant will have incentive to settle. But in our new world it’s possible for there to be a proliferation of defamatory content as well as a legion of single minded fanatics willing to take the full legal journey out of pure spite.

It is easy to envision courts getting clogged up with this kind of case, where one pissed off individual with an axe to grind comes up with an imaginary source to justify any kind of claim, then hides behind shield laws to get away with it. It’s a real problem. We need a way to evaluate claims of inside sources made by bloggers in a way that allows a defamation claim to be evaluated without potentially compromising the identity of a whistleblower.

There’s a lot to chew through, and Judge Marco Hernandez failed to even take a bite: “the record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, she is not entitled to the protections of the law[.]” In other words, she is not employed by a respectable outlet so to hell with her.

David Carr then took to the Paper of Record to write a nasty, snide little piece that also completely missed the issues at play. He piously begins by claiming to have come to the case on the blogger’s side: “I went to work on a blog post, filled with filial umbrage, saddened that the Man once again had used a boot heel to crush truth and free speech.” (“Filial umbrage” reeks of insincerity, just in case the ironic mention of the Man was not enough to clue you in on the joke.)

His entire post drips with contempt for the unwashed rabble who dare to practice journalism outside the high temples designated for it. “In the pre-Web days,” he sneers “someone like Ms. Cox might have been one more obsessive in the lobby of a newspaper, waiting to show a reporter a stack of documents that proved the biggest story never told.” Yes of course, Mr. Carr, because the New York Times has never missed an important piece of news, does not have blind spots and always prioritizes stories strictly according to their importance! Why should anyone ever attempt to bring anything to anyone’s attention outside of that which arrives via the comprehensive and infallible process used by newspapers?

Articles like his are a great example of exactly the kind of flawed reporting that creates such deep skepticism towards traditional outlets. There is a real issue here that Carr’s arrogant, smug and superficial (he doesn’t even mention shield laws!) gloss completely misses. Whether he misses it out of laziness, a simple lack of intelligence or some compelling need to demonstrate he’s not like them doesn’t matter.

The plain fact is, anyone who got their information on the case from David Carr’s writing at the New York Times would be substantially less informed than those who read Curtis Cartier’s piece at the Seattle Weekly blog. That is why we need bloggers, lots of them, in lots of places. And we need to find a place for their journalism – yes, David Carr, journalism – within the legal system. Because even the Times cannot cover all the news that’s fit to print.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

by danps

D.C. Conventional Wisdom Being Dismantled – From the Outside

3:06 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Washington’s view on ethics seems to be schizophrenic. Lawbreaking that is done for immediate personal gratification – primarily sexual or financial – is lavished with attention. Political opponents call for investigations and resignations, news outlets provide saturation coverage, vehement denunciations are issued and defenses raised, and generally speaking a high old time is had by all. Since Republicans like to appeal to voters as the party of values and morality there is usually a credible charge of hypocrisy coming from the left when it’s a GOP perpetrator. But the capitol is entirely unequipped to grapple with illegality that happens for less obvious reasons, and elites tend to bend over backwards to rationalize it when they are forced to confront it.

The templates for both approaches were nicely illustrated by two Washington Post writers in the 90′s. The high dudgeon/fainting couch approach to sexual mores was sketched out in a now-legendary 1998 article by Sally Quinn, wherein leading lights recoiled in the horror of Bill Clinton getting a blow job from an intern and then lying about it in a civil suit. "He came in here and he trashed the place and it’s not his place" huffed David Broder, while Joe Lieberman thundered "Before this is over the truth must be told." It even includes a quote from a socialite named Muffie, foreshadowing of the impending death of parody.

The model for rationalizing lawlessness may have been created by Richard Cohen in 1992. Looking at the pardon of Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran Contra scandal, Cohen ponders the issue from the perspective of having seen Weinberger at the supermarket and concludes, "Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me." His actions in the Iran Contra scandal – which, remember, was an entire shadow foreign policy being run out of the White House that involved selling weapons to the very regime that took our people hostage in order to secretly and illegally fund a civil war in a country of zero strategic importance – did not trouble Cohen. Cap was his Safeway buddy, a salt of the earth guy who never fooled around with anyone. Therefore, anything that he did in his official capacity as Defense Secretary was just fine.

Echoes from that can be heard by Chuck Todd when he says, "There was no doubt the White House, the previous White House was trying to play politics with US attorney selections. That has been proven. Except what did we also find out – it was perfectly legal…they serve at the pleasure of the president" (a phrase he uses twice in the Greenwald interview even though it long ago passed into ridicule). The idea that US Attorneys serve at will but still enjoy protections against certain kinds of termination literally does not occur to him. Since there were no favors or money exchanged it could not be illegal. Thus with looking glass logic the firing of US Attorneys for refusing to launch bogus investigations of Democrats right before an election is not the politicization of policy differences; an investigation of it is, however. Which incidentally means there is a functional statute of limitations on presidential criminality: the last day of that president’s term. Beyond that we are on a witch hunt and litigating the past.

Such a resolute effort to keep high officials above the law may make everyone much more comfortable at the grocery store but it is not proving very satisfactory outside of the hothouse. Physicians for Human Rights is calling for investigations into doctors at international detention sites, and wants their licenses revoked if it turns out they assisted in torture. Similarly, the American Psychological Association is embroiled in controversy over its past and current support of torture. Great Britain has successfully prosecuted a group plotting attacks there, and it was done with traditional FISA-compliant surveillance. Spain appears to be ready to proceed with torture prosecutions for the Bush Six.

The momentum just about everywhere but the capitol is for investigations to begin and any necessary accounting made. Only in Washington do people continue to insist we keep walking and ignore all evidence of serious wrongdoing. Would, say, a war crimes trial for a former vice president be political? Yes – because his defenders would insist that it was entirely driven by score settling. Would it bring DC to a standstill? Of course it would. I tend to think everything should stand still for a war crimes trial. And even if our elites want to keep walking, the rest of the world has decided to linger a bit. The more the distance between the two grows, the worse the current ruling class will look to history.

by danps

Joe Klein: Still Haunted By His Shoddy FISA Reporting

2:46 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Awhile back aimai posted about an encounter with Joe Klein at a beach party. It was an amusing first person account written with bloggy flair and attitude, and it raised a number of important points as well. One of the main ones was, in the internet era it is possible to search archives and keep close track of both good and bad journalism. Someone who gets something wrong is less able to ignore it and have it recede into the past than it was, say, fifteen years ago. Aimai’s post was by all appearances an interesting but minor story – the political junkie’s equivalent of celebrity snapshots of a famous actress taken at the grocery store.

It clearly was much more than that to Klein, because on Monday Glenn Greenwald posted (on his personal blog) several of Klein’s messages attacking him on Journolist, a site described by Greenwald as "a secret club composed of several hundred journalists, editors, bloggers and other peers and colleagues." The encounter got to him so much that he went out and started attacking someone else in front of not just hundreds of people, but hundreds of journalists. In response to Greenwald’s post Klein went completely round the bend, publishing an unhinged diatribe against him and claiming his writing on Journolist was private. (His myopic attack on the wrong target helps explain his support of the Iraq war as a response to 9/11, though.)

Let’s take a step back and remember the reason the enmity began to build in the first place: Greenwald accurately accused Klein of incorrectly reporting details of the FISA debate in a November 2007 Time magazine article. At the time Scott Horton somewhat regretfully wrote, "Not only was the substance of this description factually inaccurate in almost every respect, it was the very core of the piece." Klein then updated with a correction that, Horton noted in his own update, did not actually correct anything. Then Crazy Pete Hoekstra announced that he was the source for Klein’s story, which really undermined Klein’s credibility. (Klein memorably challenged critics the following May, "Tell me where I’ve been misled by my sources." See aimai’s criticism of columnists expecting their readers not to remember anything. Also, Hoekstra’s revelation led to my favorite Photoshop ever.)

Klein then took another stab at getting it right and failed. Tried again, failed again. And that’s pretty much where the episode ended – with Klein uncritically passing along the incorrect talking points of a right wing extremist, then issuing a couple of intellectually dishonest rationalizations masquerading as corrections. The official record of Joe Klein’s reporting on this issue is somewhere between egregiously misleading and outright falsehood. Clearly this gnaws at him: Nearly two years later he goes into a frenzy when a moderately prominent blogger reports on her challenging him on it.

Digby refers to the Washington DC media and political elite as the Village in order to give a sense of its insular and provincial outlook. Klein could be the most interesting journalist there because he seems to occasionally be aware of the world beyond it. That creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance you don’t see in, for instance, David Gregory. For instance, he took on the still-ascendant (in the Village) neoconservative outlook last year. By virtue of his good standing there he was able to confront the neocons in a way few others could, and he took a beating from them over it. From a professional standpoint it was at least a little risky. No matter how obvious his points seemed to those of us out here in the hinterlands, in the circles he runs in they were very provocative.

Klein appears to at least dimly understand that this isn’t all a game, that what happens on the streets near his home can have a profound effect on hundreds of millions of his fellow citizens. But he also seems to have fundamentally bought the conventional wisdom on journalism and politics as practiced by his peers. So he veers between lazy repetition of what passes for centrism in the capitol and spirited critiques of such bland assumptions elsewhere. He can’t seem to muster the majestic contempt of a George Will or Bill Kristol towards the unwashed masses, but can’t dismiss the importance of those same people’s opinions for fear of diminishing his standing in the Beltway. When he’s fought the good fight he’s come across to me as a somewhat sympathetic (and maybe even slightly tragic) figure, but weeks like this he just seems like another soulless hack.