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Frank Rich, the War Diaries and the “Fractionalized Media”

2:54 pm in Uncategorized by earlofhuntingdon

Young Afghan Girl and Her Brother

Frank Rich often gets it right, as he does in today’s column on the Afghan War and the comparison between the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan War Diaries. His zingers, however, can derail an entire column. (Unlike, say, David Brooks or Ross Douthat, whose zingers make up their columns.) First, what Rich gets right.

Although written as letters from the front rather than as considered history, the Afghan War diaries are not old news. They confirm through firsthand sources some of what we already knew. In the old days, a story didn’t warrant publication unless it could be confirmed, corroborated, a tradition that Andrew Breitbart and Fox Noise are doing their best to gut. And although often poorly written in jargon, as Rich notes, the diary items have much to say. In common with the Pentagon Papers, they come at a time when the public has given up on the purposes of the war and the president’s running of it.

Most importantly, they disclose sytematic government lies about how well the war has gone. The president and his advisers already know this information, the Afghans already know much of it; our NATO allies already know much of it and are getting out. It’s the American public that either hasn’t seen this material or seen it in context. To the extent these logs correct that, they imperil political will for another losing war in Afghanistan more than they threaten any other interest.

Here’s an example, however, of where Mr. Rich goes off the rails, seemingly on tangential issues and seemingly owing to the Times’ demand that if a commentator finds fault, he must find it on the left and right, and deem those two imposters just the same. In getting this wrong, he illustrates why WikiLeaks’ work and responsible blogs have become so important:

The public’s reaction to the Afghanistan war logs has largely been a shrug — and not just because they shared their Times front page with an article about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. President Obama is, to put it mildly, no Nixon, and his no-drama reaction to the leaks robbed their publication of the constitutional cliffhanger of their historical antecedent.

If the American public’s reaction to the Afghan War diaries is apathy, it is due, in part, to the Times’ choice to play down its coverage. It is due to the Times’ decision largely to ignore evidence that civilian casualties are more brutal, more frequent and more commonplace than the government admits.

If the diaries include elements of "the constitutional cliffhanger," I think they do, that ought to be the Times lede. Failing to cover it because this president shows more restraint than Mr. Nixon is no excuse. The diaries have constitutional import not because Mr. Obama has formed his own White House plumbers – he needn’t, he can achieve the same effect with the Patriot [sic] Act and a few national security letters – but because they disclose serial lying.

As a further aside, Mr. Rich says that Mr. Obama is no Nixon. True, and neither is he George Bush, not in his intelligence, thought, speech, or depth. But he adheres to or expands upon many of George Bush’s worst legal, military and surveillance excesses. Mr. Rich continues with his most pungent mischaracterization:

Another factor in the logs’ shortfall as public spectacle is the fractionalization of the news media, to the point where even a stunt packaged as “news” can trump journalistic enterprise. (Witness how the bogus Shirley Sherrod video upstaged The Washington Post’s blockbuster investigation of the American intelligence bureaucracy two weeks ago.)

One would think that to qualify as news, an event had to be important, not be a spectacle. And the public abuse of Shirley Sherrod did not happen owing to the "fractionalization" of the news media (a euphemism for blogs) or to the anonymous bloggers that CNN screamed about. Mr. Breitbart blogs under his own name; his story took off via Fox and the MSM. No, l’Affaire Sherrod was an outgrowth of the power of the Right to manufacture propaganda and to publish it as if it were news across the MSM. (Fox, despite its claim of being "fair and balanced", is already on record as claiming that it can lie with impunity to pursue its corporate goals.)

The public abuse of Ms. Sherrod did not do more damage because she fought back, as she has her whole life, constructively and with a gusto rarely seen in this administration. Breitbart and his backers’ campaign of abuse also failed to do more harm because of the growing power of responsible blogs to correct the facts, and misinterpretations or lies about them, in the MSM and on other blogs. That’s also true about the Afghan War and about the import of the Afghan War Logs, the latter success helped by how much better the UK Guardian and der Spiegel covered the diaries than did Mr. Rich’s New York Times. Fortunately, that coverage includes commentary by Mr. Rich, who gets the last word:

As the president conducts his scheduled reappraisal of his war policy this December, a re-examination of 1971 might lead him to question his own certitude of what he is fond of calling “the long view.” The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1971 Pentagon Papers coup. But another of the Pulitzers that year went to the columnist Jack Anderson, who also earned Nixon’s ire by mining other leaks to expose the White House’s tilt to Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani War. The one thing no one imagined back then was that four decades later it would be South Asia, not Southeast Asia, that would still be beckoning America into a quagmire.

Agreed, but I’d be careful with that phrase, "No one could have imagined…."

Laura Dadkhah’s Missing Resume

11:09 am in Uncategorized by earlofhuntingdon

Times for Sale?

The Onion might describe this Op-Ed piece by Laura M. Dadkhah, which Glenn Greenwald described as "monstrous", as The New York Times having secretly hired Fred Hiatt to find more rightwing commentators, because it needs to fill the gap left by the defunct Washington Times. If so, Fred is doing a bang up job. Yesterday, Glenn returned to the story of the mysteriously little-known Ms. Dadkhah, which he first mentioned here, because as it turns out, the story is about the Times more than their Op-Ed writer.

Ms. Dadkhah’s argument, simply put, is that we need more civilian deaths and destruction. More appalling than the policy she advocates is that the Times omitted essential information about her background and how it came to publish her, information an intelligent reader would need to know in order to weigh her judgment.

Ms. Dadkhah is a newly-minted post-grad from Georgetown and an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton. Ensconced in CIA-like corporate offices, which, like the CIA’s, are in suburban northern Virginia, Booz Allen is the Pentagon’s principal global adviser. It has a finger and a billing statement in the most expensive pies the Pentagon bakes. Glenn reprints the Times’ explanation for why it failed to mention that her new employer profits so handsomely from perpetual war: The Times’ "policy" is not to mention employers. Except that as Glenn demonstrates, its policy is routinely to mention them.

The gem hidden in the Times’ foolish and false explanation is that it sought her out in order to publish her views. Although she and the Times make clear that her bureaucratically dry and nearly sociopathic views are her own, they accord remarkably well with Booz Allen’s business plan.

I can’t tell which would be more reprehensible. That the Times agrees with Ms. Dadkhah’s views or imagines that it enhances legitimate debate by giving a neophyte (or her hard-boiled, extremely profitable employer) a national platform from which to sell them.

It also seems possible, though the Times’ explanation impliedly refutes it, that the Times’ claim to own this process – we sought her out – hides what the Times is really doing: selling or exchanging Op-Ed space to war profiteers, which sought out space in the Times rather than the other way round. It’s much easier than taking dictation from Rahm Emanuel, because the contributions literally write themselves.

Inside Peter Baker’s Profile of John Brennan

12:03 pm in Uncategorized by earlofhuntingdon
Peter Baker adoringly profiles President Obama’s (and Bush’s) national security guru, John Brennan, in a nine page article in The New York Times Magazine: Inside Obama’s War on Terror. Matt Yglesias highlights the conventional Republican hypocrisy and Cheney Fear that Baker articulates (emphasis Matt’s):

A half-dozen former senior Bush officials involved in counterterrorism told me before the Christmas Day incident that for the most part, they were comfortable with Obama’s policies, although they were reluctant to say so on the record. Some worried they would draw the ire of Cheney’s circle if they did, while others calculated that calling attention to the similarities to Bush would only make it harder for Obama to stay the course. And they generally resent Obama’s anti-Bush rhetoric and are unwilling to give him political cover by defending him.

Adam Serwer points out a more substantive issue, that Obama has accepted and institutionalized many of Bush’s extreme views of his own power and government secrecy, and his "pragmatic" disdain for the rule of law when he finds it inconvenient (emphasis Adam’s):

Obama’s approach has been either a dangerous reversal of the Bush years or a consolidation of the Bush years, depending on who is talking. In fact, the new president, during his first year, has adopted the bulk of the counterterrorism strategy he found on his desk when he arrived in the Oval Office, a strategy already moderated from the earliest days after Sept. 11, 2001. He did, however, shave back some of the harsher edges of the remaining Bush policies and in the process of his recalibrations drew simultaneous fire from former Vice President Dick Cheney and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Glenn Greenwald goes further. He elaborates on Serwer’s point and mocks Democratic supporters who defend Obama for doing what they spent eight years criticizing Bush for doing. He points out how much more harmful Obama is, in that he is making Bush’s radical, but ad hoc actions, a permanent feature of our political and legal landscape (emphasis mine):

[T]he most significant consequence of [Obama's] first year in office, in the area of civil liberties, is that — with a few exceptions (most notably torture) — he has transformed what were once highly controversial Republican "assaults on the Constitution" into bipartisan consensus which both parties now embrace, thus ensuring — as Baker put it — "that much of the Bush security architecture is almost certain to remain part of the national fabric for some time to come, thanks to Obama."

The big wet kiss Baker gives Brennan seems meant to reinforce our acceptance of Obama’s radical actions. Mr. Baker completes his Beltway reporter’s hat trick by simultaneously giving Team Bush a lingering goodbye, while giving Team Obama his best Bob Woodward "come hither" look. That parallels the gymnastics Brennan performed in moving from Bush’s national security team to the de facto top spot on Obama’s national security team.

Baker describes the political stance Obama has taken as the middle ground between Dick Cheney and the ACLU, as if that were the full or legitimate spectrum of choices. Baker gives Dick Cheney a pass, but is less subtle in undermining rule-of-law advocates. In this quote from the ACLU’s Anthony Romero, Romero reacts to his pain at seeing the promise of "constitutional lawyer" candidate Obama become the pragmatic President Obama:

When I was a gay Puerto Rican growing up in New York, I never thought I could identify with a political leader the way I identify with you. [sotto voce] But this stuff really pains me.”

For a Daily Show regular, that first phrase would be a routine introduction. In Baker’s hands, it describes a sexual and political other, a Hispanic immigrant from the big city, a lawyer and an intellectual. The effect is to marginalize the left, while acknowledging their criticisms, thus marginalizing them, too.

Baker succeeds in bolstering the establishment’s center – rather, Obama’s chosen position – and the right, which he praises by omission and comission. Two quotes illustrate that. The first relates to whose voice Baker uses to counter the argument that Obama is making Bush’s radicalism permanent. It isn’t from someone inside Team Obama. It is from the GOP’s Susan Collins, a so-called centrist whose party has the biggest stake in defending Bush and, hence, Obama’s position:

“but in fact [Obama] is finding that many of those [Bush era] policies were better-thought-out than they realized — or that doing away with them is a far more complex task.”

Collins’ statement is, in fact, double-pronged. It allows that Bush’s policies could be all wrong, but viciously hard to disentangle, thereby forcing their continuation. But Baker implies its other meaning, that the policies were well chosen and worthy of being continued.

The second quote deals with widespread criticism about the number of innocent lives lost when Obama orders drone air strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen (emphasis mine):

Critics complain that such “targeted assassinations” are morally suspect and strategically dangerous because of the reaction among Pakistanis when civilians are killed. Obama had a searching conversation with Brennan and Denis McDonough, Catholics who oppose the death penalty, about whether to keep the program. “He was wrestling with it,” says one adviser. But in the end, there was no serious disagreement with the decision to continue the program….

Over the course of Obama’s first year in office, his drones have taken out a number of “high-value targets,”…. At the same time, according to estimates by Bergen and Tiedemann, the civilian death rate of those killed by drone strikes has fallen to about 24 percent in 2009 from about 40 percent from 2006 to 2008. Government officials insist that the civilian casualty rate is even lower. “I don’t hear anyone inside the government, including people like me who came from outside, who thinks the Predator program is anything but essential,” says a senior Obama counterterrorism official. “There are a lot of negatives, but it is completely essential.”

Let’s break that apart. Drone strikes of this kind are targeted assassinations. There’s no need to put that description in quotes. Baker also knows the numbers of people killed and wounded, but uses percentages, because it makes it harder for the reader to focus on the dead and maimed. The trend seems favorable to Obama, a lower percentage of "collateral damage" in 2009 than earlier. Except that Baker uses a three year-base, making year on year comparisons harder. The number may have been high in 2006, dropped in 2007, and went up again in 2008 and 2009. Whatever the facts, Baker’s use of percentages obscures them. Lastly, that quote includes this gem, which could have been lifted from any government press release before or since the Vietnam war:

Government officials insist that the civilian casualty rate is even lower.

Baker gives voice to an anonymous spokesperson who is part of the program, someone who has reason to defend the unmanned aerial bombing of individual houses and cars. He omits comments from independent critics, from government spokespersons from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen, and from the friends and family of the victims.

It will be hard to undo what the Senate wants to do for health insurers. Imagine how much harder it will be for a future president or Congress to take back the institutional imprimatur Obama has given to George Bush’s radical policies. With glowing profiles like this from the newspaper of record, it will be harder still.

Molly Ivins

10:26 pm in Uncategorized by earlofhuntingdon

Molly Ivins (1944-2007)

“I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.” (Molly Ivins)

Digby reminds us of Molly Ivins’ passing, three years next month. We could use her voice and her wit in disentangling liberalism from Barack Obama’s, the neocons’ and neoliberals’ claims to it. She links to this review by Lloyd Grove in the New York Times of a recent biography, Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith.

What comes through in Lloyd Grove’s review, however, is less Molly Ivins and more Ross Douthat, lacquered with short-nailed Maureen Dowd spite. It is as if Abe Rosenthal were taking a last stab at a reporter he considered a populist bull stomping on the eggshells of his Times. He never knew what to do with her combination of theatricality, her Ivy League talent, and her irreverent, leveling wit.

Grove seems confused by Molly’s theatricality, common nowadays among pundits, but less so thirty years ago, – she "perfected [a] persona that was equal parts cracker-barrel and belletristic" – and concludes that she was a poseur. Grove mistakes, I think, her public veneer for substance. His reasons are pure Pat Buchanan and could have come from a D.A.R. critique of FDR and his Socialist Security.

They include that Molly was born to Republican upper middle class oil business parents and lived in a Houston suburb along with George Bush the Younger. (To say Shrub "grew up" there would be inaccurate). Molly also enjoyed the "pricey pastime" of sailing with her dad. She graduated from Smith, "just like her ditzily genteel mother and grandmother", and Columbia’s journalism school. She spoke fluent French (which ought to make her a raving Democrat). Worst of all, from the perspective of being a true liberal, Molly explored Ayn Rand briefly while in college (like millions who read and discarded her) because the love of her life, Hank Holland, who died young, did the same.

For Grove, only a conservative could come from that background, which makes her iconoclastic liberalism a pose. He must have found Shrub’s "compassionate conservatism", his horseless and cattle-less faux ranch, and his slipping from a Connecticut whine to Texas twang and back again as natural as could be.

His characterization reveals more about Grove’s enduring pique than it does about Molly Ivins. He repeats a personal anecdote, for example, about the Clinton’s inviting Ivins onto their Texas campaign bus in 1992. She grabbed at the chance for a scoop, temporarily leaving Grove and the press bus. How dare she put reporting over class solidarity? Like most biographers, he notes her "ill-conceived" (he doesn’t say on whose part) stint at the New York Times, but fails to put it in the context of her longer journalistic career:

That job ended shortly after the legendary editor Abe Rosenthal gave Ivins a dressing-down for her suggestive phrasing in a story about chickens. Rosenthal chided her for trying to make Times readers think dirty thoughts. “Damn if I could fool you, Mr. Rosenthal,” Ivins quoted herself as replying.

Grove is too Times-genteel to quote the phrase Abe Rosenthal once deemed too tawdry for his paper. While working in the Times’ Denver office, Molly proposed calling an annual chicken slaughter in New Mexico a "gang-pluck". That was it for Abe, notwithstanding the plucking, real and virtual, genteel and tawdry, taking place all over Abe’s Manhattan.

Molly Ivins deserves better. She gets it here, here, here, here and here. SusanG at DailyKos has a more complex and challenging review of A Rebel Life here. As in life, she doesn’t seem to get it from Mr. Grove, he doesn’t think she gets it from Minutaglio and Smith, and I don’t think she gets it from the New York bloody Times.

Hunting Headlines

12:11 pm in Uncategorized by earlofhuntingdon

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

In The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll describes "with infinite humor the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature". That’s how I feel sometimes reading the New York Times, looking for unspun news. Two mild examples, one ironic, one supplicatory.

Lean Machine
Bill Vlasic covers General Motors – a former world class car manufacturer that the American public now owns 60% of. His generally well-written article, favorable to GM, is about its emergence from bankruptcy at the speed of Tim Geithner approving another bail-out for Goldman Sachs.

Vlasic’s headline touts one of the leaner, meaner manufacturer’s yet-to-be-achieved goals: letting go 400 of its top 1300 bosses. He notes that that 30% cut pales in comparison to GM’s cuts in its hourly and salaried workforce. (Or their knock-on effects at its suppliers around the world.) He does not mention how sweet a deal those 400 are likely to get compared to their former colleagues. But he does mention that Bob Lutz, at 77, will not be one of those let go with a golden "thank you". Which suggests that CEO Fritz Henderson’s dream of remaking GM’s culture may remain a dream.

More interesting than the news that GM’s regional teams in Asia, Europe and Latin America will be integrated into global product teams run out of Detroit (most of Europe was sold, Asia remains mostly "China", and Latin American contributions are relatively small), was Vlasic’s throwaway line about what kind of management GM needs:

G.M., at this point, doesn’t need executives who are counting on long careers to change its direction.

That represents investment Read the rest of this entry →

Marginalizing Unhappy Families and Unhappy News: The NY Times

7:43 pm in Uncategorized by earlofhuntingdon

Unhappy in their own way.

Chanted to the sweet sound of a gunny’s baritone at 0400 hours, while your boots are still cold and crinkly: "Right-Left-Right. Sound Off, 1-2, Sound Off, 3-4." The New York Times continues marching its liberal OpEd columnists between two neocons. Today, it’s David Brooks and Ross Douthat’s turn to keep a lone Bob Herbert from inflicting his unadorned liberalness on an unsuspecting Times readership.

To cap it off, the Times pointedly ignores yesterday’s criticism and continues to condemn Iranian treatment of Roxana Saberi, while remaining dumb about the worse treatment meted out to reporters by the US Government. Glenn Greenwald and Scott Horton document the Times’ hypocrisy and the US mistreatment of reporters, which puts the US on the list of usual suspects: China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.

The US imprisoned cameraman Sami al-Haj for six years, interrogating him not about al Qaeda so much as about Al Jazeera. "[T]here was never any real evidence that Sami was anything but a journalist." In Iraq, US authorities imprisoned Bilal Hussein for two years, with no charges being brought. Read the rest of this entry →