Saturday, September 29, 2007

This product contains 5% journalism

Media criticism is something I want to do more of. And now that I'm taking a journalism class, I can use my blog posts to double as homework in a stunning violation of ethics.

Our media is often guilty of pure stenography. Rather than providing readers with relevant facts or background information our "journalists" perform jobs that will soon be relegated to robots, writing as though they were transcribing videotape. And when then do stray from a rote just-the-immediate-facts approach it is more often to inject inanity and personal bias than to inform the reader.

The McClatchy take on Bush's UN address: "Bush astounds activists, supports human rights"

Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, the president called for renewed efforts to enforce the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a striking point of emphasis for a leader who's widely accused of violating human rights in waging war against terrorism.

Now the New York Times coverage of the same: "Bush, at U.N., Announces Stricter Burmese Sanctions"

Mr. Bush referred repeatedly to the declaration, citing its first article, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” as well as the 23rd, 25th and 26th articles, which call for access to employment, health care and education.

The declaration, a nonbinding resolution that was negotiated in 1948, calls on countries to protect a wide array of rights, including freedom of speech, assembly and religion, while prohibiting slavery, torture and arbitrary detention.

McClatchy chose to compare what Bush said to his previous actions, while the NYT played the part of credulous observer bereft of independent thought. Perhaps that is merely a difference in journalistic styles, or then again, perhaps not:

He said that there were no homosexuals in Iran — not one — and that the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews should not be treated as fact, but theory, and therefore open to debate and more research.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, aired those and other bewildering thoughts in a two-hour verbal contest at Columbia University yesterday, providing some ammunition to people who said there was no point in inviting him to speak. Yet his appearance also offered evidence of why he is widely admired in the developing world for his defiance toward Western, especially American, power.

These are the first two paragraphs of the Times' coverage of Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University. Here the Times abandons the blank recitation approach, instead injecting the opinions of the piece writer. Later Ahmadinejad is accused of a "dodge" (rather than a "response") and his visit to New York is described as "dramatic theater".

Let's directly compare the Time's coverage of Bush and Ahmadinejad speaking to the UN:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, said Tuesday that he considered the dispute over his country’s nuclear program “closed” and that Iran would disregard the resolutions of the Security Council, which he said was dominated by “arrogant powers.”

In a rambling and defiant 40-minute speech to the opening session of the General Assembly, he said Iran would from now on consider the nuclear issue not a “political” one for the Security Council, but a “technical” one to be decided by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

Once again the Time's piece contains an immediate value judgement by the author, that his speech was "rambling" and "defiant." Note that Bush's speech was not described as "poorly enunciated" or "hypocritical."

These small darts of negative opinion are featured prominently in the Time's coverage of Ahmadinejad, immediately biasing the reader. Thank God the NYT has the "courage" to attack a man widely portrayed as the next Hitler while refusing to issue any judgements about our own country and President.

Had the Times described Bush's speech to the UN as "rambling", "nonsensical", "hypocritical" or "in willful disregard to his own conduct and policies" they would be taken to task, hoisted up as examples as what is wrong with our media. But describing Ahmadinejad as "rambling", "bewildering", "defiant" (as opposed to, say, "brave") and claiming that his remarks provided "ammunition to people who said there was no point in inviting him to speak"? That of course is perfectly acceptable because it exactly parrots the views of Washington insiders and our administration.

Surely Steven Lee Myers, who wrote covering Bush's speech to the UN, is aware of our own human-rights violations. When he wrote that Bush cited the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" it must have occurred to him that the US may itself be violating it. (We violate numerous articles) He cannot be unaware that, as he reports of Bush's complaints with arbitrary detention, that arbitrary detention is a US policy Bush champions.

Journalists who cover specific topics for a living have a much broader understanding of them than casual readers and have a responsibility to convey that knowledge through their writing. Refusing to provide context or address obvious questions is an abdication of that responsibility. Reporting what people say while ignoring their actions, actions the journalists themselves are well-aware of, is a service only to those who speak loudest and most often.

According to the NYT that Bush spoke in favor of human rights is news; that he didn't mean it, which is not merely a matter of opinion but is evidenced by his own words and actions, is not.

Here is how the Time's reported Ahmadinejad's complaints against the US:

Without mentioning the United States by name, Mr. Ahmadinejad used his speech to carry out a full-scale assault on the country as power-mad and godless. He said its leaders “openly abandon morality” and act with “lewdness, selfishness, enmity and imposition in place of justice, love, affection and honesty.”

“Certain powers,” he said in a thinly veiled reference to Washington, were “setting up secret prisons, abducting persons, trials and secret punishments without any regard to due process, extensive tapping of telephone conversations, intercepting private mail.”

Note again the immediately biasing language, that Ahmadinejad launched a "full scale assault" (a word conveying violence) on the US, calling us "power-mad and godless" -- which is not an actual quote from Ahmadinejad. Let's re-write the above in a way that is unbiased, factually accurate and informative:

Without mentioning the United States by name, Mr. Ahmadinejad used his speech to carry out an accurate attack on the US' numerous human-rights abuses.

“Certain powers,” he said in a thinly veiled reference to Washington, were “setting up secret prisons, abducting persons, trials and secret punishments without any regard to due process, extensive tapping of telephone conversations, intercepting private mail.”

Ahmadinejad said the US runs secret prisons and abducts people, but he didn't merely say it -- the NYT has confirmed it with its own investigations. The original NYT version gives the reader no way to evaluate the veracity of the statements when the NYT knows full well that the statements are accurate.

Read more!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hypothetical questions

What would you do if Tim Russert asked you some incredibly stupid questions? (Purely as a hypothetical, of course.)

Hypothetical questions make sense when the scenarios posed are realistic. In the Democratic debate tonight Russert posed the following:

Imagine the following scenario. We get lucky. We get the number three guy in Al Qaida. We know there's a big bomb going off in America in three days and we know this guy knows where it is.

How do we "know" beyond all doubt that the person is a terrorist? How do we "know" a bomb is about to go off? How do we "know" that they know -- and that they will tell us accurately?

We "knew" that Khalid El-Masri was a terrorist -- until it turned out he had the bad fortune to possess a suspicious-sounding name. (For which he was kidnapped, tortured, then finally released without charge or apology) We "knew" that Jose Padilla was a dirty bomber and we tortured him to find out the nefarious details of his plot -- only to discover that he was not a dirty bomber at all.

Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. -- Dick Cheney August 26, 2002

We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more. -- Colin Powell February 5, 2003

Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. -- George Bush March 18, 2003

There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. As this operation continues, those weapons will be identified, found, along with the people who have produced them and who guard them. --Gen. Tommy Franks March 22, 2003

We know where they [WMDs] are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad. --Donald Rumsfeld March 30, 2003

That's a lot of "we know" and "no doubt" claims that turned out to be totally false.

If I know that torturing a suspected terrorist will reveal the details of an imminent bomb threat then instead of torturing I'll just use my Lasso of Truth to find out the details then race to the scene in my Invisible Jet.

The rest of you should consider the fact that if you can be wrong about who is a terrorist or where bombs are can be wrong about who is a terrorist or where bombs are. The premise of the question is invalid; our government has proven that what it claims to "know" is only marginally related to actual truth.

Read more!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What is your favorite Bible verse?

Posed by Russert in the Democratic debate.

Here's mine: no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States.

Whatever I was originally going to write about tonight, I can't even remember it. What an outrageously inappropriate question to ask. The questions assumes that all the candidates are religious, that questions on religion are appropriate, and that the Christian religion is the only religion worth asking about. It enforces the expectation that anyone even running for office is Christian.

It doesn't matter if all the candidates actually are Christian, the entire premise of the question is inane. It would be one thing to ask "all of you have professed to being Christians -- how do you view other religions such as Islam and how will you deal with the leaders of Islamic nations?" At least that has some political point and is not a question solely for the benefit of the Christians in the audience.

The question he posed is simultaneously a softball of no value and an incredible insult to what public office is supposed to be about. If the candidates want to bring up religious beliefs on their own that is one thing, but for a moderator to pose that as if it is a very important and relevant question is crazy.

Why not just turn around and spit on every Jew, Muslim and atheist in the audience? Especially when we are currently saddled with a delusional true-believer who can justify torture, detainment and war with God's will.

Now Chris Matthews is on TV saying that it is "interesting" that some candidates could not quote exact verses. "Interesting" how exactly Chris? Are they somehow defective, lesser candidates because they don't attend weekly Bible study?

The arrogance of that question is astounding. Again, it assumes that the candidates should know the Bible well enough to quote it, as if there is something wrong with them if they can't. Asking questions aimed at testing which candidates are most devoted to Christianity is entirely counter to the no-religious-test spirit of the Constitution.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Hitler on the Brain

Regular updates begin again. Huzzah!

Kids: What's wrong with this picture?

Analogies: they aren't for the painfully stupid. Hitler was directly responsible for the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad was...related to 9/11 in what way exactly? First it was Osama Bin-Laden, then Saddam Hussein, and now most recently Ahmadinejad (who was not even President of Iran at the time) who was somehow intimately involved with the 9/11 attacks in the eyes of conservatives. Reality for them is an inconvenience. Ahmadinejad is Hitler, just as Saddam was, just as whoever is next on the list will be.

According to Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, Ahmadinejad "exhibit[s] all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." Those signs apparently include not being in charge of Iran's armed forces, not having the ability to declare war, and not even being the most powerful man in his own government. There is nothing dictatorial about Ahmadinejad, and it factually accurate to say that President Bush is much closer to being a dictator than Ahmadinejad is.

Conservatives love their Hitler comparisons. Every Big Bad is Hitler and every liberal is Chamberlain. Yet in US politics conservatives play the role of Paul von Hindenburg, the German president who issuedthe Reichstag Fire Decree:

Ordnung des Reichspräsidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat

Auf Grund des Artikels 48 Abs. 2 der Reichsverfassung wird zur Abwehr kommunistischer staatsgefährdender Gewaltakte folgendes verordnet:

§ 1. Die Artikel 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 und 153 der Verfassung des Deutschen Reichs werden bis auf weiteres außer Kraft gesetzt. Es sind daher Beschränkungen der persönlichen Freiheit, des Rechts der freien Meinungsäußerung, einschließlich der Pressefreiheit, des Vereins- und Versammlungsrechts, Eingriffe in das Brief-, Post-, Telegraphen- und Fernsprechgeheimnis, Anordnungen von Haussuchungen und von Beschlagnahmen sowie Beschränkungen des Eigentums auch außerhalb der sonst hierfür bestimmten gesetzlichen Grenzen zulässig.

Loko familiar? Conservative policies read so much better in the original German, but for those of you not German-inclined a translation:

Order of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State

On the basis of Article 48 paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the German Reich, the following is ordered in defense against Communist state-endangering acts of violence:

§ 1. Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom [habeas corpus], freedom of opinion, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

Look familiar now? I handily bolded the parts currently applicable in the US -- nearly all of it.

The incontrovertible fact is that the Reichstag Fire Decree is remarkably similar to current US policies in both motivation and substance. Ahmadinejad-to-Hitler analogies are nonsensical past anything beyond "they are both bad people" -- but it's easy to draw direct, accurate comparisons between pre-WW2 German policy and our own. Our Big Bad is terrorism, not communism, but the rest remains largely the same.

I'll belabor the point a little and make those comparisons explicit:

  1. rights of personal freedom [habeas corpus] - I've covered this here. Habeas Corpus, despite being ensured in the Constitution, is a right we no longer enjoy.
  2. the freedom to organize and assemble - The continuing expansion of the oxymoronic "free speech zones" are an illustration of this, as is the Presidential Advance Manual that instructs event organizers on a variety of ways to suppress the right to assemble.
  3. the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house searches - The PATRIOT and Protect America Act (The FISA "fixes") largely obliterate these, another example of rights specifically granted in the Constitution but no longer functional.
  4. orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property - According to a recent executive order various members of the executive branch can freeze the assets of those who may be planning to impede progress in Iraq, directly or indirectly.

That executive order is a good primer on how our government works. Unlike the Germans we don't explicitly suspend articles in our Constitution -- instead we ignore them:

For those persons whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order who might have a constitutional presence in the United States, I find that, because of the ability to transfer funds or other assets instantaneously, prior notice to such persons of measures to be taken pursuant to this order would render these measures ineffectual. I therefore determine that for these measures to be effective in addressing the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13303 and expanded in Executive Order 13315, there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination made pursuant to section 1(a) of this order.

Translation: pesky Constitutional rights are getting in the way of my ability to (supposedly) fight the Big Bad, so I'll ignore them. In the US these days Constitutional rights, like the rest of our laws, are mere guidelines to be discarded as needed.

Hitler comparisons tend to lose meaning when they are employed on a constant basis without any rationale other than "ooh scary!"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Updates begin again on Monday

The trip that would not end is finally ending. While I've been occupied a lot has happened; a lot of what any reasonable person has grown to expect. The "Petraeus Report" said and meant nothing. Mike McConnell fibbed to Congress in support of warrantless wiretapping. Democrats did their best to play wallflowers. The Bush Administration abuses powers it doesn't have -- the Democrats don't bother to use powers (like the fillibuster) they do have.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

About the lack of updates

As mentioned earlier I'm travelling for work. Regular updates will resume when I get back, hopefully in a week or so.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Quick update

Apologies if this is poorly written, typing on a laptop keyboard is hard.

By way of Raw Story:

Sometime over the weekend, White House computer technicians removed from government Web sites any references to the Office of Administration or its previous compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests.

Luckily, thanks to amazing computer technology we can compare the before and after. The "after" has a familiar disclaimer at the top about a lack of independence and the Office of Administration has shifted into the list of offices that do not respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

This raises a couple of obvious questions: If the Office of Administration used to respond to FOIA requests and now does not, does that mean that the office itself has somehow changed? Did it used to have more independence than it does now? (Answers: no and no) What prevents other offices from becoming immune to FOIA requests at the whim of the President? (Answer: nothing)

The Bush presidency clearly believes that no executive offices possess independence. The same argument that applies to the Justice Department and the Office of Administration applies equally well to every member of the executive branch.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"Restoring" habeas corpus


Restoring habeas corpus is a popular topic among civil libertarians. The conventional wisdom is that the Military Commissions Act suspended the right of habeas corpus for those designated "enemy combatants." The reality is that the right to habeas corpus still exists; it is outside of the power of Congress, the President or the Court to suspend it. (Except in cases of rebellion or invasion)

Chris Dodd gets it. On his site he has proposes the "Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007." It sounds silly -- the Constitution is the ultimate law of the land;, no law passed by Congress can contravene. His title exactly captures the absurdity at the heart of habeas corpus debates: you have the right to habeas corpus, a right that derives directly from the Constitution. "Restoring habeas corpus" makes exactly as much sense as "following the Constitution."

Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution states the following: "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." Any law or executive order that suspends habeas corpus (outside of rebellion or invasion) is meaningless, as meaningless as a law declaring the President the King of America. (Which is also expressly forbidden in Article I, Section 9.) The power of any branch of government to suspend habeas corpus outside narrowly defined lines is imagined.

Your rights still exist, but two branches of government have chosen to ignore them. (And the third, the Court, cannot involve itself at will) If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it it still makes a sound -- those are the laws of physics. If the Constitution grants you a right you have it no matter what Congress and the President pretend -- those are the laws of the United States.

The discussion of restoration is evidence of how sadly broken our government is, a government that refuses to follow the Constitution itself. The executive branch refuses to enforce the law and Congress provides cover by passing new "laws" that are patently illegal and meaningless. The debate on the right to habeas corpus is merely a debate on whether or not we should follow the Constitution; the answer in government is a resounding "no."

From a Washington Post article "New Book Details Cheney Lawyer's Efforts to Expand Executive Power":

David S. Addington, who is now Cheney's chief of staff, viewed both U.S. lawmakers and overseas allies with "hostility" and repeatedly opposed efforts by other administration lawyers to soften counterterrorism policies or seek outside support, according to Jack L. Goldsmith, who frequently clashed with Addington while serving as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in 2003 and 2004.

"We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop," Addington said at one point, according to Goldsmith.

The quote above perfectly illustrates the primary theme of the Bush Presidency: expansion of executive power without regard for the law. What matters is not if something is legal or proper, but only if it can be gotten away with.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Update schedule

I'll be out of town on business for a couple of weeks. Depending on how busy I am the posting schedule may dramatically change in one direction or the other.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Amnesty for law breakers.

Bush Seeks Legal Immunity for Telecoms

The Bush administration wants the power to grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that are slapped with privacy suits for cooperating with the White House's controversial warrantless eavesdropping program.
Republicans say immunity is necessary to protect the companies that responded to legal presidential orders to thwart terrorists in the years after 9/11.

The only purpose of this proposed legislation is amnesty for lawbreakers; if the presidential orders were legal the defendants will be found not guilty. We don't need immunity for people who didn't rob banks or didn't steal cars or didn't commit murder. Those people are already immune from guilty verdicts by virtue of not having committed an offense. The only possible parsing of the proposed legislation is that the telecom companies in question are guilty -- otherwise immunity is extraneous.

If the presidential orders were legal the telecoms and the Bush Administration should argue that in court -- something they have steadfastly refused to do by hiding behind states secrets privileges to avoid trial altogether. By now this should be a familiar tactic: make "legal" arguments everywhere but in a court of law, the one place where legal arguments are officially judged on their merits.

Bush Administration backers claim that the telecoms were simply following orders -- but following orders is not an excuse for illegal behavior. Neither is ignorance of the law, which is not a defense for average citizens let alone for corporations that employ armies of lawyers. If you take the Bush Administration claims at face value, that the telecoms are blameless because they merely followed orders, then the blame shifts (more) onto those issuing the orders. Yet the Bush Administration claims that those issuing the orders are guiltless as well.

Warrantless spying on US citizens is clearly illegal under the law, something Qwest lawyers understood:

Telecommunications giant Qwest refused to provide the government with access to telephone records of its 15 million customers after deciding the request violated privacy law, a lawyer for a former company executive said yesterday.

In a written statement, the attorney for former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio said the government approached the company in the fall of 2001 seeking access to the phone records of Qwest customers, with neither a warrant nor approval from a special court established to handle surveillance matters. [em. added]

Qwest did not break the law; other telecoms such as AT&T potentially did. The courts should determine guilt -- that is the purpose of the court system. Instead we are asked to accept the fact that while law-breaking occurred nobody is guilty. Not the people who issued illegal orders and not the people who followed them. Somehow, though we know exactly what transpired and who the participants were, the lawbreaking in un-attributable to anyone.

The subtext of the Bush Administration argument is a simple one: the law doesn't matter. Laws are merely inconveniences that get in the way of fighting evil and should be discarded at will. We may have issued illegal orders and AT&T may have followed them but we did it to protect you, or so we claim, so you should be grateful.

If the government can be trusted to work in the best interests of the people at all times then why bother having laws restricting government power in the first place? Of course we all know the answer: power corrupts. The Bush Administration is tacitly arguing that we should throw out this knowledge, the knowledge of our own history, and simply trust the government with unlimited power to use as it sees fit.