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by danps

Sponsor independent media or trust the sponsorship of others

1:08 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

A wax figure of Bob Woodward

Is it possible to find a truly independent journalist?

One of the peripheral issues in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the pro-Russia reporting by Russia Today’s news outlet There were many expressions of surprise (with varying sincerity) that RT would have such an unabashedly biased slant. One of its reporters actually quit on the air in protest, which if nothing else allowed DSWright to get off a memorable headline (“Liz Wahl Just Realized The R In RT Stands For Russia”).

Glenn Greenwald responded by pointing out that American reporting has not exactly been adversarial towards American foreign policy, so criticism from US outlets is at best myopic and at worst hypocritical. In fact, the whole episode has produced an abundance of hilarious cluelessness.

The most influential American outlets have a long history of advancing government-friendly narratives, particularly at crucial moments. When the US wanted to launch its war against Iraq the New York Times notoriously let Judith Miller launder Bush administration propaganda on its front pages. The Washington Post put a 100,000 person strong antiwar march on its Metro page.

Wild, unsubstantiated claims were put front and center, dissenting views off to the side (“the Page A18 problem”). Knight-Ridder was the sole exception, and full credit to them for it. The Post and the Times did some nice reporting at times once the war was underway, but in that critical period when the US was debating whether or not to invade Iraq there was a completely government-friendly narrative.

The fact that RT is not a credible outlet on the Ukraine war does not mean it isn’t credible at all though, just not in areas of urgent importance to its sponsor. While US outlets aren’t state sponsored, the heavy emphasis on access journalism amounts to a kind of quasi-sponsorship. (If self-censorship seems too crude a description, substitute this from Noam Chomsky: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”)

For instance, RT did a very nice job covering the protests in Wisconsin over Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation in 2011. And as the linked video shows, it did so at a time when American coverage was scant or non-existent. The corporate sponsors of American media were not interested in coverage of it, so it largely went uncovered. Similarly, Al Jazeera America focuses more on those farther down the economic scale than its upscale competitors have incentive to. You might not want to make Al Jazeera your go-to source for hard hitting news on Qatar, though.

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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.


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.


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.

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.
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by danps

Washington press corps catches up to 2002, discovers surveillance state

5:51 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

We’ve had three big stories this week, each showing how the right plays the scandal game better than the left. Of the three, one is a non-scandal (Benghazi), one is a minor scandal with the potential to turn into more (IRS),1 and one is an honest-to-God scandal right now (AP). Republicans don’t bother with such fine distinctions though, and that’s why they are better at playing it than Democrats: when they get something they can run with, they do.

Fainting couch at Latrobes

Fainting Couch

The targeting of Tea Party groups by the IRS is a good example.2 It was wrong of the IRS to target them, but at the end of the day what it all amounted to was more paperwork and delay. It’s much less onerous – and much less overtly political – than the actual audit the IRS did of the NAACP when it was critical of George Bush.

Yet the Democrats basically sat on their hands for that, and the best they can muster now is a weaksauce “oh yeah? Well why weren’t you outraged back then, GOP?” Republicans stand up for their allies in real time – they don’t sit back and watch them get pummeled. They don’t quietly file those episodes away, holding them as examples to be thrown back as countercharges down the road if need be. They seize the moment and take as many swings as they can.

Similarly, the business with the AP has Republicans once again schooling Democrats on this not-difficult-to-grasp aspect of politics. Any Democrats tempted to decry some Republicans’ newfound concern over the surveillance state should reflect instead on why their own party declined to weigh in as forcefully during the Bush years.3

It isn’t even worth pointing out that all these trips to the fainting couch are hypocrisy because the right was silent on it during the Bush years. They don’t pretend to adhere to a logically consistent set of principles; they just want to go after Obama. He wasn’t president in 2004, so they weren’t concerned then. Now he is, so they are.

The righteous indignation of media outlets, on the other hand, is a bit hard to take. There’s been a great deal of hyperventilating about how this is such a big deal because of its chilling effect on the press, and in case you hadn’t noticed the press is singled out in the First Amendment for protection!. Of course, in that very same clause – and before the press is mentioned, incidentally – the First Amendment prohibits abridging freedom of speech for anyone.4

And there’s certainly been a lot of free speech abridgement going on for the last twelve years! It isn’t hard to find, say, a catalog of sins produced by the Patriot Act (personal favorite), or reports on the wholesale seizure of ordinary citizens’ phone records (and by the way, Congress would have to grant retroactive immunity to the phone companies who cooperated with the AP seizure for the current episode to sink to the lows of the FISA Amendments Act), or the indiscriminate collection of Internet traffic, or the thuggish repression of media outlets that are not the right kind of nice, respectable media outlets.5

These kinds of outrageous abuses have been going on for years, yet the national press corps never bothered to rouse itself to the kind of adversarial pushback we are now seeing.6 It’s one thing to spy on the common rabble or disreputable operations like WikiLeaks, evidently, but when that treatment gets turned on reporters who thought they were comfortably embedded with government officials: First Amendment!

I’ve been reading The Operators by Michael Hastings, and one passage towards the end has a striking relevance in the current situation. He describes the fallout in Washington over his Rolling Stone article on Stanley McChrystal which resulted in McChrystal’s dismissal. He refers to a “schmoozy relationship” between the political and media class and the icy reception he received from journalists in the capitol. Apparently he violated some vague but powerful etiquette that requires journalists to not report anything newsworthy (extended excerpt here.)

The rule of thumb is: don’t make waves. You’ll have a good gig as long as you don’t rock the boat. But that is exactly what the phone record seizure does. It’s a rude awakening for any reporters who thought they were on the same team as the officials they cover. The bureaucratic inertia of an ever-expanding intelligence gathering apparatus has combined with this administration’s maniacal pursuit of leakers to produce a very serious breach of etiquette in the village. It may have been illegal, who knows, but it was unquestionably gauche. It upset some very comfortable relations. That, in the end, may be a greater transgression among media elites than any violation of the Constitution. Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

Making sense of the news in a new media world

1:33 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Years ago there was a criminal case where a crooked cop planted evidence against the suspect even though prosecutors already had a pretty tight case against him. One observer described the police officer’s actions as “framing a guilty man,” and I’ve found that to be a useful phrase from time to time since. Sometimes the case against someone or something is strong enough without embellishment, and piling on can actually have the opposite effect.

I actually thought that was the case back in 2008 when Sarah Palin was unable to name a newspaper she read. Sure it was fun to laugh at her when she answered “all of them,” but my reaction was: Hell, how would I answer that question? Twenty years ago I would have been able to, but the rise of the Internet (and the scaling back of newspaper coverage) has led to a situation where instead of subscribing to one source that aspires to give a full snapshot, I pick and choose individual stories from a multitude of sources.

I bring up Palin’s answer because I was reminded of it yet again last Saturday. I read a long article in the City Journal about California’s pension system, and another on the effects of incarceration in the Chicago Reporter. Both were far, far too long for inclusion in the newspaper I used to subscribe to, and in any event I don’t think any kind of syndication deal exists with either outlet.

The City Journal article showed up in the Naked Capitalism link roundup; the Chicago Reporter article showed up in my Twitter feed. I check in with the Stop Fracking Ohio page on Facebook several times a week for the latest there, I get several daily emails from different sources, RSS feeds that let me skim through headlines and just read the posts I want, and so on. In other words, just like Sarah Palin I would not be able to tell Katie Couric what newspapers I read.

That will only be reinforced if recent stories about newspaper consolidation into the hands of the wealthy represents a trend. I sure as hell won’t pay for a rag put out by the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch, and even if the buyer is someone I have a higher opinion of such as Warren Buffett, the concentration of newspapers into fewer and fewer individuals’ hands strikes me as problematic.

Lest anyone start concern trolling about the specter of epistemic closure, a well chosen group of sources offers just as many opportunities for encountering opposing voices as newspapers do. For instance, the City Journal is run by the Manhattan Institute – a notably right wing group. Just because I want to dodge the propaganda catapulted by a plutocrat’s house organ (or the regurgitated conservative talking points that the right wing in Washington has been disgorging for the last thirty years) doesn’t mean I refuse to consider contrary ideas. It just means I refuse to consider thoroughly debunked bullshit. That’s Paul Krugman’s job.

It can also mean piecing together stories from different sources and reviewing competing narratives. For instance, an outlet that uses a City Hall based model of reporting on a police sweep will highlight the police chief’s characterization:

“We called them in, and we gave them a simple message,” said Oakland Police Department Deputy Chief Eric Breshears. “The message was ‘Stop the violence, change your lives or law enforcement will relentlessly make all efforts to shut down or dismantle your gangs.’ Today was the follow through of that promise.”

Here, on the other hand, is the view from someone in the neighborhood:

Later this morning, a neighbor who lives next door to the raided house came over to help with a blue vacuum cleaner, a broom, and willing hands.

Sweeps of all kinds going on this morning in Oakland. Sweeps of all kinds.

One story leads with the Tough On Crime narrative while the other goes into some detail on what exactly that entails. Residents don’t seem nearly as well served in the latter.

Those of us with a keen interest in a particular issue are now able to assemble a fuller picture by analyzing accounts from different perspectives. For instance, there was a protest at a fracking waste storage site in southeastern Ohio a few weeks ago. There’s a local newspaper’s account of it, a pro fracking post that among other things called it “a terrorist action,” and an account from the group that staged it.1

As new sources for this kind of reporting and analysis multiply, people have the ability to weigh the merit of competing versions and decide for themselves what seems right. Sometimes there will not be a local media outlet to report stories. In cases where there is, the outlet might float above the fray as a kind of neutral arbiter; in others it will have its thumb on the scale.

(Bias is often revealed by how much coverage the outlet gives an issue, how prominent the coverage is, what views get represented in the coverage, and where those views are placed in the coverage. For instance, an industry friendly headline with a dissenting voice ten paragraphs in is not balance.)

In an environment like that a newspaper does not exist as a monolith. Many people who would once have been subscribers will increasingly turn to it only when it carries stories of interest. The rest of the time they will cobble together their information about what’s happening in the world from many new and nontraditional sources. What newspapers do you read? Who can tell anymore?


1. From the News And Sentinel article:

some of the protesters, many wearing masks, stormed the GreenHunter office, on Ohio 7 along the Ohio River, said Chief Deputy Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The facility serves as a storage site for the waste generated during the process of hydraulic fracturing. “They (took) some keys, tried to clog up some of the toilets, scared quite a bit of the employees,” said Warden.

From an activism perspective, wearing masks is a bit too close to black bloc for my comfort. If you aren’t willing to show your face while you protest you may want to think twice about the nature of that protest. Also: entering the office and confronting unsuspecting employees gets filed under Definitely Not Cool. And minor vandalism just discredits the action. That said, the office was soon vacated and apparently no worse for the wear:

Using the GreenHunter office as a sort of command center, GreenHunter employees would use binoculars to identify a culprit from the raid and police would travel across the road to where the group of protesters had eventually congregated in the front lawn of a local resident.

Still, direct action and civil disobedience need to be very well organized and disciplined. It looks like this one could have used quite a bit more of both, and the lack of it is precisely what gave opponents the opportunity to make the activists look like extremists. They could have disrupted business there and drawn attention to the proposed transport of toxic fracking waste via barge without giving the pro-fracking side the opening they did. Sloppiness like that is not helpful.

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by danps

Hollywood, SOPA and the AMC Pacer model

2:57 am in Uncategorized by danps

(photo: Charles01/wikimedia)

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

In the middle of 2010 I wrote a post titled “ACTA and the Overblown Threat of Piracy” that discussed the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. ACTA is basically an attempt by legacy media companies to leverage their hyperbolic rhetoric and wildly inaccurate math into an extralegal framework that would allow them to dictate which web sites are permitted to exist.

It appears to be off the table – at least for the moment – so the existing US framework is largely based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA definitely has its problems, sometimes hilariously so, but contains one important protection: Safe Harbor provisions. Safe harbor means, if you host infringing content unknowingly, and respond in a timely manner to DMCA takedown notices, you cannot be held liable. This makes it possible for a site like YouTube to be a “dumb pipe” and allow users to upload whatever they want. If YouTube had to vet every single clip, the site would be unusable in its current form; few would bother uploading a video and then waiting until it eventually got cleared by the censor (or not).

That, along with the occasional random and specious seizure by the Feds, is the current practice. But when the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) started making its way through Congress I thought I was going to have to write a “SOPA and the Overblown Threat of Piracy” post. In fact, I might just need a “[Insert wrongheaded bill or trade agreement acronym here] and the Overblown Threat of Piracy” template ready to pull out every year and a half or so until the copyright extremists break the Internet or are defeated once and for all.

Happily, though, this time around there were a number of really thoughtful posts covering the deeply problematic technical, legal and commercial problems with SOPA. So instead of just echoing points made better and with more detail elsewhere, I’d like to address something raised somewhat tangentially in several places: The viability of existing legal music and video services, in particular Hulu.

Chris Hayes raised this on his January 15th show. Perhaps channeling just a bit of his inner grumpy old man, he compares today’s file sharers to those of a more innocent time (i.e. when he was in college): Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

State-Run Iranian Media Beats the NY Times on WikiLeaks Reporting

7:00 am in Uncategorized by danps

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

The latest document dump from WikiLeaks would seem to be one of those massive, stop the presses, drop everything and throw all available resources at it stories that dominates news cycles for weeks on end. One of the first revelations was of Frago 242 (a Guardian story describes a frago as “a ‘fragmentary order’ which summarises a complex requirement”), which directed soldiers not to investigate war crimes that did not directly involve members of the coalition. There are reports that US soldiers may have engaged in war crimes themselves. There are hundreds of thousands of documents and they will take a long time to digest.

The New York Times featured it Saturday. On Sunday it did so again; this time with an accompanying character assassination of Julian Assange, which Glenn Greenwald promptly took apart. While Greenwald focuses on the author of the smear – London Bureau Chief John Burns – in a sense it is a somewhat narrow critique.

It seems similar to how some activists focused their ire on Rahm Emanuel when initiatives appeared to get frustrated by the White House. After all, the hard charging, abrasive chief of staff who draws fire (conveniently) away from the president is a stock character in Washington. Emanuel was hardly novel. More importantly, he was not calling the shots. Anyone put off by him should focus at least as much on his employer.

The same goes for Burns. Whatever journalistic sins and malfeasance can be hung on him (and Greenwald catalogs them brilliantly) the fact is, his employers give him the platform. We should spare some scrutiny for them. For instance, look at the front pages of the Times on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There is nothing about the new documents at all.

One of the reasons Watergate became huge was because there was a drip, drip, drip of revelations splashed on the front page over an extended period of time. It kept the issue before the public, allowed it to get knowledgeable and engaged, and gave the story enough momentum to survive the hostile reaction of the political establishment.

Obviously there are differences with WikiLeaks, the most salient of which may be professional jealousy. Media outlets love to get the scoop and hate being scooped. The Washington Post had its own reporters digging away at Watergate, so it reflected well on the paper to have their work played up. Times editors may not be as fired up about trumpeting someone else’s revelations.

Still, it takes some kid of extraordinary lapse in editorial judgment to allow such a phenomenally important story to be given such short shrift. Iran’s state media outlet, PressTV, has shown how to cover a story like this without letting institutional vanity get in the way.

It has simply assigned people (identified only by initials – apparently no one gets the star treatment there) to go through the documents and write up what they find. And what they are finding is jaw dropping: assassination, torture, a variety of abuse (some of it stunning), rape, the list goes on. It is news – relevant, compelling news because it paints a far grimmer picture of what is happening there than the government has been willing to acknowledge. The Times fancies itself the newspaper of record; if its editors believe that, why can’t they swallow their pride, have a couple reporters roll up their sleeves and dig in?

Even if it is considered common drudgery (though it is also the sort of thing newsrooms used to romanticize as shoe leather reporting) why not try to connect some dots? See what implications there for what we already know, or how it might change what had previously been reported. That kind of deep analytic work is ideally suited for a company with deep resources and archives. The Times could advance the story and put their imprint on it.

For whatever reason, they have decided not to pursue it. The front page scans above give a reasonably good picture of what they currently consider most newsworthy, and there is a gigantic hole right in the middle. Since they also help set the tone for American news coverage, a horrible deficiency like this does not exist in a vacuum.

Happily, we live in an era when news sources from around the world are available. It is now possible to consult faraway outlets, even those that are derided as government propaganda organs. As in cases like this, sometimes they will be superior to American media. Engaged citizens can usefully mix in a few minutes with a Press TV or an al Jazeera on a regular basis. Perhaps they can improve their understanding of the world by catching up on the news that US outlets have concluded is not fit to print.

by danps

The Problem Isn’t Fast News, It’s Dumb News

1:39 am in Uncategorized by danps

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

Walter Shapiro picked this week to lament the sorry state of the media. He believes we have become ignorant and easily distracted by an Internet-bred culture that cultivates short attention spans. There have always been good and bad news sources, though, and that continues to be true on the Internet (which after all is just a technology). Shapiro, however, seems to believe we should trust – or at least privilege – the institutions that have been around longest; presumably they will have the best practices.

He characterizes NPR and PBS’ NewsHour as "laudable enterprises," but let me tell you: When the Justice Department was melting down under Alberto Gonzales’ disastrous tenure, I listened in vain to NPR for ongoing, in depth coverage of the slow motion train wreck. Instead there were brief recitations of conventional wisdom at the top of the news followed by unending doses of human interest pabulum. I stopped listening entirely in the summer of 2007 out of sheer disgust with how poorly it was covering one of the biggest stories of the time. Know who was prioritizing it? Marcy Wheeler, Raw Story and other Internet outlets. Does Shapiro recommend checking with them before NPR? They certainly did a better job prioritizing on that issue.

Also consider NPR’s shameful coverage of torture, the New York Times’ failures on Iraq, or the Washington Post’s repackaging of’s scoops as their own. There are valid reasons for being deeply skeptical of the biggest outlets. They have misled their audience on some of the most important issues of the last decade, and more often than not never correct themselves. (They will do so in a smug, self satisfied no-error-is-too-small kind of way: "Ms. Smith received a Bachelor of Science degree and not a Bachelor of Arts as reported," but not on fundamental failures: "We repeatedly hyped a non-existent link between Iraq and the anthrax attacks, thus playing a vital role in advancing the Bush administration’s relentless march to war. ABC News regrets the error.")

Most astonishing is this:

We have lost sight of so many significant aspects of our age because they cannot be boiled down to bite-sized news nuggets. It is more than combat fatigue that produces the bizarre reality that — military families aside — most Americans appear to have almost forgotten that we are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are wars that defy easy answers, and the latest updates from the ever-shifting battlefields cannot be encapsulated in 140-character tweets.

He published this two days after the biggest wartime document dump ever! He had just had laid out before him a trove of papers that might have allowed him to make sense of some of that complexity for his readers. Instead he wrote about the media equivalent of a carny barker. (Let’s not even go into the perversity of bemoaning the rise of such a creature while devoting a column to him, or launching a withering attack on the culture that glamorizes such a scumbag while approvingly linking to an interview of him in Shapiro’s own publication.)

The Wikileaks memos were immediately declared old news (sound familiar?) but you know what? There’s a lot of data there! Perhaps a reporter could look into that and see if such a vast store of data really is as mundane as is claimed by those with a vested interest in not talking about it! I downloaded it myself (did Shapiro?) and picked a random document from the "sectarian violence" section:

Organization(s) Involved: HEZB E ISLAMI GULBUDDIN
21 NOV 2006- CJ2X INTSUM- N/I S
DOI: 21 Nov 06; OHR: IT CI FHT/1074
(N/I C) At the end of October, the following insurgents moved to KABUL from the village of QARIA TABLAH, PAKTIA province, near the village of ALI KHEYL (GRID: 42S YD 109 838) IOT carry out suicide attacks:
They have been trained in the area of CHORAT (PAKISTAN) adjacent to PESHAWAR and at this time, they might live in the vicinity of the bazaar of POL-E CHARKHI (around 20 km to the east of KABUL). They are receiving information about the targets from the following insurgents belonging to HIG:
- SAME, native of QARIA BAND NAGHLO (KABUL province, SUROBI district);
- ZANULDEN, native of ANIF KHIL JORJE (SUROBI district),
Currently, SAME and ZANULDEN are living in the SHINAH area (GRID: 42s WD 272 203).
This information MAY NOT be released to any portion of the Afghan Government

How does anyone know that is old news, or that it represents a situation that has vastly changed since president Obama claimed to have switched tactics? "INSURGENTS IN KABUL"? I thought they were in the tribal areas. Are there lots in the capitol as well? And what is that "HEZB" listed in the Organization(s) Involved? As in, Hezbollah – the political/paramilitary organization funded by Iran? Sounds like news to me!

The problem Shapiro is attempting to describe is not one of unprincipled propagandists driving coverage, or a shallow populace dumbly mesmerized by sensationalists, or a chaotic and incomprehensible media environment in which a cacophony of bursts and links prevent the development of thoughtful understanding. The problem is with media outlets so terrified of being accused of liberal bias that they reflexively blurt "how high?" whenever a sufficiently well placed wingnut starts shrieking for them to jump. That, and reporters and commentators more concerned with lazy, rote jeremiads on our sadly fallen state than on challenging received talking points or breaking a sweat trying to make sense of complex issues. Fix those and you’ll be amazed at how the discourse elevates.

by danps

You Can’t Miss What You’ve Never Had

3:31 am in Uncategorized by danps

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

On Wednesday Yves Smith fretted that bloggers may be doing more harm than good, and wrote "the hollowing out of news organizations can only go so far before information delivery becomes impaired." In Smith’s formulation, news organizations are the cornerstone of our understanding of the wider world; their diminution necessarily means the quality of our available information is diminished. What kind of original reporting we would be missing out on, though?

The most damning indictment of traditional outlets is that they missed the two biggest issues of the last decade. On Iraq and the financial crisis you would have been better off not consuming any media at all, with the highly important exception of McClatchy. Between the twisted model of access reporting, where the goal is to cozy up to senior officials by promiscuously granting anonymity and uncritically passing along spin, to the claustrophobic embed model of reporting from combat zones, Americans were consistently fed administration propaganda and shielded from the horrific effects of its policies.

Investigative journalism has atrophied, too. As Rupert Wright wrote last year, "Wikileaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years." (And before you say "Walter Reed" see this.) Instead of being adversarial the posture has become increasingly accommodating.

Even beat reporting has been spotty; the tendency is for conformity and a settled, conventional outlook to dictate priorities. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the financial world. One of Joe Nocera’s friends in the business gets into hot water, and instead of refraining from comment or (God forbid) looking into the matter, Nocera attacks the one alleging fraud. He then crows when one of the resulting lawsuits comes to an indeterminate conclusion and completely ignores when another vindicates the whistleblower.

Nocera, along with a handful of reporters at the Times, the Wall Street Journal, a few magazines like Forbes and Barron’s, and some of the personalities at CNBC, are capable of shaping day-to-day business narratives. If they downplay significant stories or trumpet marginal ones who does that serve? Wouldn’t we be better off if more people got their news from Shahien Nasiripour, who has been going through years of meeting minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee to check the credibility of recent claims?

How about if we were deprived of saturation coverage of Harold Ford’s political masturbation, or feature reporting that treats the lives of the lower class like anthropological curiosities? Or international coverage fueled by fits of pique among privileged reporters? James Fallows exhaustively detailed just such a recent failure, and one of his posts highlights this from Tish Durkin: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama’s visit than the US media did."

Lambert at Corrente frequently compares our two Newspapers of Record to state media, and via email wrote "I tend to cite to WaPo or the Times when they’re doing real journalism, and otherwise, that is, most of the time, to Pravda or Izvestia." At first blush it is hyperbole, since neither is even partially owned by the state. But in practice how would a state run outlet have covered the stories above any differently? If they serve the powerful instead of challenging them does it matter who the owner is, and is it such a grave insult to suggest Soviet counterparts?

Two enormous stories broke this week. The first was the Wikileaks video, the second was the the president acting like a mafia don and ordering hits on citizens. One was from a new, independent source and the other from traditional ones. Good on the Post and the Times for breaking the second. I know it’s easy to pick instances of bad behavior, and it is not fair to use those examples to indict all journalism. Still, there is a lot of garbage in the more "respectable" outlets and some invaluable stuff in the alternative ones. If traditional organizations continue to slim down then some important stories will undoubtedly not get reported, and that will be a loss – but not a net loss. A proliferation of smaller, independent sources are already giving oxygen to otherwise neglected coverage.

Causal readers may bristle at this new, fragmented world, and long for the days when a single source could provide all the relevant news. Even in that golden age, though, there were advertisers to keep happy, sides of the tracks that were more lucrative (and therefore more deserving of coverage), and the inevitable bias that comes with trying to please the widest possible audience. The old canard about objectivity was nothing more than a well maintained illusion. This era is better, and I’m glad we’re living in it.