Monday, March 31, 2008

What We Learned From Iraq: Absolutely Nothing

But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster...
- Andrew Sullivan

To celebrate the five year anniversary of the glorious cakewalk Slate and the NYT asked Iraq War hawks what they got wrong and what they've learned. Their answers? "Understandable mistakes anyone could have made" and "nothing" respectively.

I'm With Stupid

The most common mistake war supporters point to is some variation on "I was wrong to put faith in the Bush Administration" -- a clever transfer of responsibility. It's not that their entire thought process was wrong, that they were easily deceived, that they didn't demand any plans for the post-war occupation, that they let emotion replace reason or that their philosophy of war as a standard policy tool was flawed. Nope, the problem was that Bush and Rumsfeld were incompetent immoral dummies.

The wonderful aspect of that mistake is that whatever lesson can be learned from it expires in 2009. There's no examination of why they trusted an administration full of incompetent ideologues. They'll be happy to place the same faith in whichever not-Bush is elected, even if that not-Bush has the same foreign policy developed by the same foreign-policy advisors.

You Can't Expect Me To Listen to Hippies

Plenty of smart people made good arguments against the Iraq War that went beyond vague platitudes. But for war hawks it's much easier to pretend that only brainless hippies opposed the Iraq War and that the only "serious" voices were hawks. Many of the "What Did I Get Wrong" pieces are prominently devoted to dismissing the people who weren't wrong. Andrew Sullivan is up first:

For most of my adult lifetime, I had heard those on the left decry American military power, constantly warn of quagmires, excuse what I regarded as inexcusable tyrannies, and fail to grasp that the nature of certain regimes makes their removal a moral objective.
When I heard the usual complaints from the left about how we had no right to intervene, how Bush was the real terrorist, how war was always wrong, my trained ears heard the same cries that I had heard in the 1980s. So, I saw the opposition to the war as another example of a faulty Vietnam Syndrome, associated it entirely with the far left—or boomer nostalgia—and was revolted by the anti-war marches I saw in Washington.

To bolster his support for the war Richard Cohen visualized straw men:

I was miserably wrong in my judgment and somewhat emotional, and whenever my resolve weakened, as it did over time, I steadied myself by downing belts of inane criticism from the likes of Michael Moore or "realists" like Brent Scowcroft, who had presided over the slaughter of the Shiites.

There's no indication that Sullivan or Cohen have changed their thinking at all. They still deride those damn Vietnam-obsessed hippies and the "likes of Michael Moore." Neither of them care to deal with the fact that their "inane criticisms" were largely correct. Nor do they acknowledge the existence of Anthony Zinni, Norman Schwarzkopf and vintage Cheney, hardly stereotypical leftists. They saw what they wanted to see and they still do.

I Was Wrong But For All The Right Reasons

Many of the pieces, like the Sullivan one above, are characterized by a refusal to question basic assumptions and the dismissal of those whose do. Few of the authors reject aggressive war as a standard policy tool. Sullivan still believes that "regime change" is a fine goal and that war should be driven by a vague "moral objective." Jacob Weisberg hasn't changed his view on war at all; his main concern is not letting this war sour us on the next one:

This isn't just a matter of fessing up to error. It's incumbent upon those of us who blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade to try to understand our mistake—and to try to learn something from it. By this I don't mean that we should know to reject all proposed American military action in the future. One theme that has emerged in this discussion is the hazard that those who wrongly supported one intervention will flinch too reflexively from another that deserves our support. I share this concern. The tendency to relive the last war is as prevalent among writers as it is among generals.

William Saletan makes it specific. His fear is that the Iraq War will prevent us from engaging in the war on Iran that he's already salivating for, based on the exact same justifications he fell for on Iraq:

The problem with dumb war isn't that it's war. The problem is that it costs you the military, economic, and political resources to fight a smart war. Everything Bush wrongly attributed to Iraq turns out to be true of Iran. But we can't confront Iran with the force it probably requires, because we wasted our resources in Iraq. Americans, having been suckered in Iraq, won't accept evidence of Iran's nuclear program. Countries that might have supported us in a strike on Iran won't do so now, since we led them astray.

In the same sentence that he admits we were suckered on Iraq (on the basis of WMDs) he lobbies for attacking Iran based on the same weak claims that they have a WMD program, claims that come from the exact same sources.

William Saletan has learned nothing. Absolutely zero. He still believes the Michael Gordon stories he reads in the NYT. He still believes Bush and his cronies when they hype up WMD threats. He still believes breathless anonymous sources. Take an argument for war in Iraq from 5 years ago, replace "Iraq" with "Iran", hand it to Saletan and he's all for it, lamenting that we can't immediately enact it. It's truly amazing.

Coming in Part 2

One author bravely suggests we should listen to the people who were right about Iraq. That author is dismissed.

Read more!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Our Fearless Rib Gnawers Part 3 of 700

Parts one and two. Please note, although McCain is a central figure in these posts they have little to do with McCain and everything to do with the press.

Two different reporters at TIME's Swampland today linked to an op-ed in the NYT, The Maverick and the Media. The entire piece is well worth reading (though I think the connection with liberalism is a bit forced) but what is most interesting is the first line:

It is certainly no secret that Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a darling of the news media.

That isn't the point of the piece. It's a given, treated as established fact. We're past the point of debating whether or not the press loves McCain and to the dissecting of exactly why. What's so sad about the press relationship with McCain is that nearly everyone in the press agrees that the press treats him very favorably but few see it as a problem and fewer still take any action to correct it.

Anna Marie Cox and Howard Kurtz vapidly agree that McCain reporters, including Cox herself, are "part of the bubble, part of the team." I've transcribed some of this before but the full transcript is available so I'll quote it at length:

COX: Well, you just saw it. It's true that he can -- especially -- it's almost always someone who has not -- who hasn't been with the campaign, you know, through it all that's going to make a call that makes him look bad.

I remember the lightsaber moment from 2000. That was from someone -- when he said he was going to be -- you know, fight Darth Vader.

KURTZ: But that suggests that the people who have been traveling with him regularly...

COX: Yes.

KURTZ: ... become part of the bubble, part of the team?

COX: Become part of the bubble, and also, I mean, I think what happens is that you -- if you've been covering him for a long time, there's a sense that, well, he does that all the time, it's not worth reporting, because he does -- he's a cranky old man. I mean, to be quite frank.

You know, like, and also, I've gotten much tougher terseness than Bumiller got just there. And...

KURTZ: But the cameras weren't rolling.

COX: But the cameras weren't rolling. And also, we wrote it off to, like, you know, he hadn't had his fifth cup of Starbucks today.

KURTZ: But is there a tendency for journalists to cut more slack for candidates who they have a lot of opportunity to talk, not necessarily because they like them, but because they're not just getting one crack at that person for eight minutes every three days?

TAPPER: Yes. And that's the exchange that the McCain people make now, and we'll see if it lasts until November. But, you know, they have this constant access.

I spent a couple weeks ago -- I did a couple days with each of the candidates, Obama, Clinton, McCain. And I got more time with McCain -- not just me, all of the press corps -- in one day than I had gotten with the other two candidates the entire time.

And that's the exchange. And from 80 percent of the time it's to McCain's benefit and 20 percent it's not. But two points to make about that exchange.

One is "The New York Times" is not currently his favorite newspaper. And the other point is Elizabeth Bumiller was catching him in a lie that he told in 2004. He had been lying. He said no, he hadn't had that conversation. So it was, by definition, a "gotcha" question, and he doesn't like that, but he especially doesn't like "The New York Times."

KURTZ: And McCain did hold a barbecue for the press at his ranch in Sedona, where some people were in attendance.

COX: Yes. Delicious dry-rub barbecued ribs, actually, baby back ribs.

KURTZ: Firsthand report.

Oh Cox and Kurtz you wonderful comedians. First discuss, without any remorse or introspection, how you cut McCain a break then joke about it just for good measure, a giant middle finger to the audience. It's important to note a few things here:

1. Cox is not attacking other members of the media for giving McCain a free pass. This is not criticism. She is the one giving the free pass.

2. Parse through Tapper's comments carefully. Catching McCain in a lie is somehow a "gotcha" and "he doesn't like that." Put that together with what Cox said above, that only newbies ask those "gotcha" questions; only people outside the bubble bother to point out when McCain is lying, because people who are part of the team don't want to rile up McCain -- and they don't report on it anyway because they know he's just a grump.

It appears that cozy relationships lead to poor reporting but reporters defend those relationships to death. I spoke to a reporter who attended the McCain BBQ and he/she stressed the importance of getting to know the subject of coverage. (The reporter refused to be quoted on the record, of course) Responding to reader comments at Swampland Michael Scherer makes a similar point:

Rather, in these settings, on the bus or in a press conference, the competition among the reporters is not to suck up, but to come up with the question that actually produces new information or catches the candidate off guard. There are also other times, after hours and often off the record, when relations between press and campaign staff can be more informal, but even there I think the ultimate goal is almost always professional. We build relationships with people so that they can trust that we will not unfairly treat them, which facilitates the flow of information.

The first half of that obviously contradicts what Kurtz, Cox and Tapper amiably blathered about above. The second half is the killer: even schmoozing off the record is supposedly professional as it builds relationships, engenders trust and facilitates the flow of PR. Hey, did you know that McCain is an all-American dad who shops at Cosco and makes a mean lemon rub?

In an earlier part of the transcript above Cox defends close relationships as well, speaking about the reporting of Samantha Power's comments and echoing Tucker Carlson:

Like, she doesn't have -- she's probably never going to interview Samantha Power ever again. And she probably isn't going to cover the Obama White House should there be one.

I think that a journalist who wants to continue working, I mean, you can call it a sad truth, but it is a truth that you need to keep -- you need to maintain relationships with your sources. And part of maintaining a relationship means having some kind of contract with them that you're not going to do anything unfair. And...

Remember that the "unfair" part here was reporting what Samantha Power actually said in an on the record interview.

On one hand these people tell us that they cultivate sources for the sake of accurate reporting, while at the same time informing us that they'll suppress the truth in favor of cultivating those sources. They tell us that personal relationships lead to better reporting, then admit their own relationships with McCain color their coverage of him. It can't be both.

Here is a novel suggestion for our intrepid press corps: instead of being jovial about your McCain love affair recognize it as a problem. It's not funny. Stop defending behavior at the root of the problem.

Put down the champagne glass, get out of the tire swing and put your shoe back on. Pass on the lobster or, gasp, the party entirely. Get off the bus and find your own ride. Reacquaint yourself with your duty to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. The next time you think about catching McCain in a lie do it and then report it, whether he likes it or not. Instead of maintaining access by producing fluff pieces about your personal ride on the wonderful tour bus or about McCain's totally hip and awesome daughter take a chance at real reporting.

It's called "journalism."

And no, it's not balance if you ride around in the Obamamobile and the Clintoncopter as well.

I'll finish with a quote from Walter Lippmann.

A long life in journalism convinced me many presidents ago that there should be a large air space between a journalist and the head of a state.


I just visited and saw Putting McCain to the Ethics Test by Michael Scherer. I was ready to give credit where credit was due but his (metaphorical) place on the bus is safe. It's a wonderful example of timid reporting. The first negative words about McCain's ethics come in the fourth paragraph (talk about burying the lede) and come from the mouth of Howard Dean, a source readers will ignore as obviously biased. The rest of it is standard he-said/he-said "balanced" fair with any exciting details buried beneath masses of trivia. It's not until literally the very last sentence of the piece that readers are given a clear reason to care at all. It's almost as if Scherer was dared to produce the most benign piece possible given the facts. It also curiously leaves out the very contemporary ethical and legal questions surrounding McCain's FEC shenanigans.

Simply by copying and pasting it's easy to change the entire tone of the piece into something with teeth:

In the upcoming election McCain will be in the awkward position of hoping voters will give him the benefit of the doubt that he has denied to others. He is the one who regularly breaks the Senate's code of silence by alleging corruption by his peers. But high standards are a double-edged sword. Even as McCain has railed against the system, he's worked it, sometimes creating unseemly appearances of his own.

Bam, I just turned a snoozer into a must-read. (This is why they pay me the big bucks.) But a story that began that way might mean one less scoop of potato salad at the next shindig.

Read more!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Big Serious War Experts Admit It's Time to Leave Iraq?

Our number one Iraq expert: Little Orphan Annie.
"Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow, you're always a day away."

In August of last year I made two posts back to back about our Iraq War "experts." Time to revisit these self-styled experts and compare what they said then to what they are saying now.

In their WBUR interview both O'Hanlon and Cordesman agreed that late winter/early spring would be the time to leave Iraq if there was minimal political conciliation. Cordesman:

If this central government cannot achieve real progress towards conciliation no later than the late winter or early spring of 2008, I frankly do not see it being able to survive.
If we don't get political conciliation by the end of this winter or next spring, then we have almost no rationale for staying, because there gets to be a point at which you simply cannot wait out the Iraqi political process forever.

(Checks watch) It appears that "late winter or early spring" is also known as "now." So how is that political conciliation coming along? Petraeus: Iraqi Leaders Not Making 'Sufficient Progress'

Iraqi leaders have failed to take advantage of a reduction in violence to make adequate progress toward resolving their political differences, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday.

Petraeus, who is preparing to testify to Congress next month on the Iraq war, said in an interview that "no one" in the U.S. and Iraqi governments "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation," or in the provision of basic public services.

Cordesman's recent glorified PowerPoints say next to nothing about reconciliation at all, instead focusing almost entirely on the military situation. Cordesman, who previously produced "The Need For Strategic Patience", has now cleverly produced "The Continuing Need For Strategy Patience."

As we saw previously, O'Hanlon's main expertise on the Iraq War is lecturing those who disagree with him about what they are and aren't allowed to say. He's at it again, castigating Democrats in his best Karl Rove voice and warning that opposition to the Iraq War is a political liability. His recent writing is much less policy than politics:

To be sure, it is understandably hard for Democrats and other administration critics to believe that a war fought so badly at first could take a turn for the better.
That said, if Democrats cannot get beyond their viewpoint, they could suffer badly in the fall as a result.
Democrats can provide such a melded approach. If Iraqis do their part, we help; if not, we leave.
As such, Iraqi leaders need to feel pressure to deliver. That is where a more conditional Democratic approach comes in. The United States stays only if Iraqis accelerate their own political efforts at reconciliation.

Do those bolded parts look familiar to anyone else? He's repeating the exact same thing he said in August. He gave an ultimatum, it was not met, and here he is again giving another one while ostensibly arguing against an open-ended commitment. That of course comes on the heels of the Congressional benchmarks ultimatum that Iraq also failed miserably.

When O'Hanlon isn't busy telling people who have been right on Iraq from the start that they should listen more to those who are constantly wrong he's observing that people have lost interest in his opinion. Is that surprising? Just open up your calendar, flip ahead six months and write "wait another six months" and you've replicated his message. He and Cordesman and all the Iraq War "experts" have been repeating that exact same message since he war began.

"Just another six months" and empty threats to pull out if certain goals are unment are tired jokes. At this point you'd figure that, if for no other reason than to avoid continued embarrassment, people like O'Hanlon would come clean and admit that they will never under any circumstances support a withdrawal from Iraq until they say we've "won."

Read more!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

One American Who Cares About Big Brother: Barack Obama

Update: Looks like I should have called this "Three Americans Who Care About Big Brother: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain."

This could not be more timely. I write a post about TIME Magazine's dismissal of privacy concerns, go to bed and wake up to news that multiple people accessed Barack Obama's passport file without authorization.

This is what TIME wrote:

In all the examples of diminished civil liberties, there are few, if any, where the motivating factor was something other than law and order or national security.

And here is what we heard today:

On three occasions since January, Sen. Barack Obama's passport file was looked at by three different contract workers, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The contractors accessed information in the file in an unauthorized way, he said.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this anauthorized snooping was not motivated by law and order or national security.

Time continued:

For now, however, civil libertarians will have to continue to argue that the danger lies not in how the government's expanded powers are being used now, but how they might be used in the future.

Or maybe we can point out how even narrower, unexpanded powers are currently being abused.

The FBI spied on Coretta Scott King out of fear that in her widow grief she would attempt "to tie the anti-Vietnam movement to the civil rights movement" -- as if that were illegal. MI5 spied on George Orwell for a decade because "This man has advanced communist views ... He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours." (Not the US but seems appropriate) We know these powers have been and will continue to be abused.

Do American Care About Big Brother? Well, we know that one fairly prominent one does for good reason.

Update: Sorry, did I say one? But seriously folks, somehow this just proves TIME Magazine's point that the pure-hearted thousands of civil servants and private contractors with access to our personal data are simply incapable of abuse. Somehow.

Read more!

You Say News, I Say Potato

Click for larger version. And check ABC for tomorrow's followup: "New Revelations Could Hurt Socks with Vital 'Feline Values' Voters"

Note that the comments on the right are unaltered from the original story.

On Tuesday morning I made the mistake of watching morning news. CNN (or perhaps MSNBC) was trumpeting a "major bombshell." The bombshell? That a man slept with someone other than his wife. This man was not a moral crusader and therefore a hypocrite. He as not sleeping with a prostitute. He was not currently running for office or up for reelection. The entire news value of the story was "man has affair": a "major bombshell" according to our breathless media.

Here is some more hot-breaking "news": a woman was in the vague physical proximity of an event that was itself of dubious news value. Great work "Investigative Team." The "Investigative Team" site is a tawdry bad joke: not much investigation but a lot of hit jobs. My favorite:

The released documents also bring back reminders of scandal, as was previously reported on the Blotter on earlier today.
On the day she testified before a federal grand jury investigating the Whitewater land deal, in January 1996, her official calendar says simply, "No Public Schedules."

I don't know about you but when I see a calendar entry that says "No Public Schedules" I'm instantly reminded of Whitewater.

Thank heavens our media has its priorities straight and focuses on the truly important.

Read more!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

TIME: Do Americans Care When We Tell Them Not To?

Original Ending to Se7en, rejected by test audiences:
Mills: "What's in the box?!?"
Somerset: "I don't know, I didn't open it."
Mills: "Oh -- probably a gift basket. Let's get lunch."

In an absolutely terrible thing TIME poses the question Do Americans Care About Big Brother? When I saw this thing I immediately sent an email to TIME pointing out a factual error. No response, no correction. When I woke up the next morning I saw commenters at TIME's Swampland discussing it and that Glenn Greenwald had already taken it to the woodshed. (Scooped!) I'm not going to repeat his complaints but I will call out the most important ones and take a slightly different angle on the thing in question.

What is this thing I'm reading?

What is this? It's not news; it doesn't contain any timely information. It's not labelled as opinion and is not written in a standard opinion style. I suppose it's "analysis" -- except that it contains no actual analysis.

The primary point of the "analysis" is that Americans don't care about Big Brother. But the article doesn't include a single verifiable fact or any data to support that conclusion. There are no polls cited, no anecdotal interview with a man on the street. Nothing. This is a standard ploy that many pundits have made a career of: speak for "Americans" when the author is really speaking only for themselves.

Regardless of ideology it's just bad journalism.

The conclusion is an example of self-fulfilling prophecy

Even if we grant the dubious conclusion that Americans are eager to trade away privacy for promises of security, that in itself is not surprising or meaningful. The media influences public opinion and media outlets including TIME have spent years excusing privacy violations while dramatizing the threat of the evil terrorists. In the pages of TIME Joe Klein has repeatedly lauded the NSA spying programs, calling them essential to national security even though he knows little about them.

The mainstream media has spent years telling us that 9/11 changed everything, including apparently the Constitution. Mike McConnell, who was caught lying to Congress about these "essential" programs, is still routinely quoted unquestioningly by the media and treated as a reliable source.

For some time after 9/11 most Americans believed that Saddam was personally connected to the attacks. If that's proof of anything it's proof that the government is good at propagandizing and that the media is a credulous enabler.

This TIME article itself makes arguments that Americans should be willing to trade away privacy for promises of security. Is it some sort of revelation if Americans exhibit an attitude that has been beaten into them for years? The article is a trend story that itself perpetuates the trend.

What's inside the box is probably not a gift basket

I won't belabor this point as Glenn covered in depth but without visibility into these programs it's pointless to say that they haven't been abused (which is still false anyway) as that observation is grounded in willful ignorance. The administration has argued that executive actions should remain secret to the point that not even Congress and the Court can know their details. Our information on these programs comes almost entirely from leaks and whistle blowers, which are rare in an administration that has elevated loyalty above competence and ethics.

Before the Walter Reed reporting we as a nation were unaware of the abuse and neglect of our veterans. Before Charles Savage wrote about signing statements few realized that the President was using them to legislate. Investigations into CIA black sites and Abu Ghraib disturbed our theretofore blissful ignorance.

There's one way to know what's inside the box: open it. There's one way to know the extent of abuse in these programs: investigate them. Relying on the administration to voluntarily disclose abuses is inane, especially given that investigators in the executive branch are "emanations of a President's will" with assumedly "no substantial authority independent of President Bush."

Read more!

Monday, March 17, 2008

The WSJ Briefly Remembers the Role of Journalism

The March 12 edition of the Wall Street Journal filled the entire op-ed page with two columns on Spitzer: Spitzer's Media Enablers and Eliot the 'Enforcer', critical looks at both Spitzer and his media coverage. The op-eds make some great points and are well-argued, leaving one has to wonder: why don't these same arguments get made the other 364 days a year when someone other than Spitzer is the subject? The former in particular raises many points that are mainstays of this blog:

Journalism has many functions, but perhaps the most important is keeping tabs on public officials.
Mr. Spitzer portrayed himself as the moral avenger. He was the slayer of the big guy, the fat cat, the Wall Street titan -- all allegedly on behalf of the little guy. The press ate it up, and came back for more.

Time magazine bestowed upon Mr. Spitzer the title "Crusader of the Year," and likened him to Moses. Fortune dubbed him the "Enforcer." A fawning article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2004 explained he was "a rock star," and "the Democratic Party's future." In an uncritical 2006 biography, then Washington Post reporter Brooke Masters compared the attorney general to no less than Teddy Roosevelt.

What makes this more embarrassing for any self-respecting journalist is that Mr. Spitzer knew all this, and played the media like a Stradivarius. He knew what sort of storyline they'd be sympathetic to, and spun it. He knew, too, that as financial journalism has become more competitive, breaking news can make a career. He doled out scoops to favored reporters, who repaid him with allegiance. News organizations that dared to criticize him were cut off. After a time, few criticized anymore.
The press would do well to meditate on that, and consider how many violations they winked at and validated over the years. Politicians don't exist to be idolized by the press, at least not by any press corps doing its job.

And speaking of the press eating it up and coming back for more: Back in Arizona, McCain Tends the Grill.

John McCain portrays himself as an independent maverick and the press eats it up. Fawning articles and uncritical biographies have been written about McCain, Obama, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and a host of other political figures. (I purposely didn't list Hillary Clinton, I've yet to see a fawning article about her) Doling out scoops to favored reporters in exchange for allegiance is what got us Judith Miller's reports on Iraqi WMDs and anthrax and Joe Klein's body of work. Cutting off news organizations that criticize too strongly is standard procedure for most politicians and occurs regularly at White House press briefings and on the campaign trail. Validating and winking at violations is something the WSJ does every week regarding the Bush Administration.

"He knew what sort of storyline they'd be sympathetic to, and spun it." The "he" here could be one of hundreds of figures, from Kenneth Star to Ahmed Chalabi to "an anonymous high-ranking official." So much of our news is based on a source whispering into the ear of a reporter who then passes that on in print, gossip columns masquerading as journalism.

In one sense it's nice for someone at the WSJ to demonstrate an awareness of what proper journalism looks like. But there's nothing about these complaints that are specific to Spitzer's coverage. Shouldn't the WSJ apply their journalism standards across the board rather than only to the reporting on a Democratic corporation-busting governor?

That was the WSJ on March 12. It's now March 17 and the message of that op-ed has been quickly forgotten. Here is Peggy Noonan, a regular columnist at the WSJ, writing about McCain, a prime example of assigning lofty titles and reporting based on the subject's own preferred narrative:

He's gentleman Johnny McCain, hero, maverick. He has more knowledge on national defense in his pinky than the others will have, after four years in the White House
McCain, to McCain, is defined by his maverickness. That's who he is. (It's the theme of his strikingly good memoir, "Worth the Fighting For.") He stands up to power. He faces them down. It's not only a self image, it's a self obsession.

Noonan is also the author of "When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan", an "elegiac tribute to one of America's most beloved leaders." What was that about fawning, uncritical biographies?

The lesson appears to be that bad journalism is ok unless it favors a guy you don't like. Bad journalism that enables Spitzer should be excoriated but bad journalism that enables Republicans is something you pay a regular columnist to produce.

Read more!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Guilty, Not Guilty, and Now Introducing: Totally Not Guilty

Or: Why Arguments for Telecom Innocence are Irrelevant and Boring.

Proponents of telecom amnesty use the justification that telecoms are innocent. Typically I don't argue back; why should I? It's irrelevant.

These proponents have apparently invented the bold new "totally not guilty" determination. It works as follows: there are no rules of evidence and no evidence is presented. No testimony is given by any of the parties involved and there are no perjury laws in effect. The specific charges are not considered. There is no judge, no jury and no prosecutor -- only a defense advocate. This advocate may or may not have any relevant knowledge, legal background or familiarty with the case. They simply write that the defendant is totally not guilty and then they totally are, just like that. Of course, thanks to double jeopardy laws, once a defendant is declared totally not guilty they are immune from retrial in traditional court.

Sarcasm? Hardly. This is exactly what proponents of telecom amnesty believe: that it's possible to determine, without any sort of process, that a defendant is not guilty to the point where they don't have to show up in court and defend themselves to begin with.

Telecom amnesty proponents want the discussion to devolve into a confusing debate over selectively quoted and purposely misinterpreted court rulings and legal theories. These legal arguments are presented in non-legal settings to convince us that a proper legal setting is unessecary. Like the guy who's so good at crushing a whiffle ball off a tee with a little plastic bat that a major league tryout is a formality best avoided these amnesty proponents make such convincing arguments in press releases, blogs and and op-eds that they render court proceedings extraneous.

Maybe some day the totally not guilty determination will exist someplace other than in the minds of inventive authoritarians. I'll humbly suggest that until that day comes legal disputes should be resolved using a standard legal process rather than a convenient newly-invented one that amounts to trial by Wall Street Journal columnists.

Read more!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Press Criticism: Process and Outcome Complaints

Answering the age-old question: what if Darth Vader worked at a newspaper?
This is a good movie, you can buy it at Amazon here. Doing so will contribute exactly zero dollars to this site to help offset our operational costs.

Glenn Greenwald noted that his posting on the media devotion to access was one of his most popular recent entries. Similarly my McCain BBQ postings appear to be more popular than many others. (In the same way that liver and onions is more popular than plain liver) A reasonable explanation for this is that these posts represent complaints about a process rather than complaints about an outcome.

Many political blogs are highly partisan and offer mostly complaints about objectionable outcomes. These complaints are not necessarily invalid but they do tend to appeal only to true believers with similarly aligned objectives. Complaints about process tend to attract a more ideologically diverse crowd because they are divorced from specific outcomes.

The issue Glenn highlighted with Tucker Carlson is not that Tucker is biased or a conservative, it's that he's advocating and excusing poor journalism. Similarly the issue with the McCain BBQ is not that McCain attempted to influence reporters (something all candidates try to do) or that the press is biased towards McCain, it's that the mainstream media's standard operating procedures do not serve the public interest. That the press should avoid conflicts of interest is not a partisan complaint about outcomes, nor is that the press should report stories with real news value and operate independently.

Charlotte Allen brought down a lot of outrage for her recent Washington Post column bashing women, but the fundamental problem with her piece was not that it was "anti-feminist" or mean-spirited, it's that it was poorly researched and supported to the point of being unworthy of publication; the scant facts she used were either irrelevant or contradicted her thesis. Yes, it was "just opinion", but uninformed ill-reasoned opinion has no place in a newspaper. No matter where you stand on FISA issues any honest person should agree that writing misleading or outright false columns about them is not proper journalism. How can it possibly be appropriate to make false claims then defend them with "I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right"?

Here at Common Nonsense we obviously object to certain political outcomes, but more importantly we object to certain political and media processes. Poor processes almost invariably lead to poor results.

When reporters blithely chatter without repercussion about how they are part of a certain candidate's team it exposes the rotten core of modern journalism. Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair were rightly fired for fabrication but the effects of their transgressions were localized and minor. Reports about Wen Ho Lee, Jessica Lynch, Saddam's WMDs and anthrax, Iranian IEDs and foriegn fighters, Richard Jewell and others all had major ramifications. These stories were the result of poor processes that continue today unabated.

We aren't going to get better coverage until the press fundamentally changes the way it approaches reporting. That's something we should all be able to get behind. Too many critics complain about the "Clinton News Network" or "Faux News" while ignoring the far more fundamental point that bad practices result in bad journalism.

Jon Stewart on Crossfire. Seemed appropriate.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

McCain BBQ and Our Insipid Press Redux

Members of the press working hard on the job.
(This picture comes from Meghan McCain's blog and is copyright Heather Brand. I'm claiming fair use -- sue me.)

More on Ethics

In the first part of this two-part series I covered the ethics of the situation, but there are a few more things to say on the subject before I move on. The Columbia Journalism Review has a good piece on the subject, Hold the Sauce:

There was this just-wait-til-Wednesday warning at the end of Michael D. Shear’s Post piece: “The lighthearted mood is likely to fade quickly if [McCain] gets enough delegates to lay claim to his party’s nomination in contests in Texas and Ohio on Tuesday. As the nominee, he will almost certainly be on, rather than overseeing, the grill.

And who will be “overseeing” that “grill?” These same rib-stained reporters?

McCainBlogette has a video of the event up. And now so do I.

This should further disabuse readers of the notion that there was any real journalistic purpose to the event.

Press Servility and the All Powerful Access

Stephen Colbert, speaking at the White House Correspondent Dinner:

Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know--fiction.

We like to imagine that our press is fiercely independent but "cowed" and "servile" are usually much better descriptors. At the McCain BBQ the press was not allowed to record video or audio or to take pictures. And by "not allowed" I mean they were asked and meekly acquiesced. The BBQ was an "on the record" event yet all of the media (images, video) to come out of the event has come out on McCainBlogette. The press write ups of the event are nearly indistinguishable from the official PR as well. In essence the reporters served as rented PR people, reporting what McCain wanted them to and not reporting what he didn't want them to.

There is something fundamentally wrong when members of the press, in order to gain supposedly all-important access, agree to not use the tools of their trade or even to do their jobs at all. That's exactly the opposite of fiercely independent, our political press is fiercely dependent on access and will do anything to maintain it.

More on the Church of Access

I caught Tucker Carlson bleating about the importance of access in the context of the Samantha Powers' "monster" comment regarding Clinton and the audacity of the British press to report the truth. So did Glenn Greenwald, who provides a transcript and analysis.

Tucker Carlson: Right. But I mean, since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here, it's a little much being lectured on journalistic ethics by a reporter from the "Scotsman," but I wonder if you could just explain what you think the effect is on the relationship between the press and the powerful. People don't talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did in this piece.

Don't you think that hurts the rest of us in our effort to get to the truth from the principals in these campaigns?
[...later segment...]

Lanny Davis: Most reporters in the U.S. would give you a break. That reporter...didn't seem to understand that you lose sources if you burn someone like that.

This is a very ordinary attitude made explicit by Carlson and Davis: that preserving sources is more important than reporting the truth. The more sources you cultivate the more stuff you can report -- except of course for stuff the sources don't want you to report. You mustn't report that!

Maintaining contacts is a part of journalism, but its status has been elevated to godhood because it appeals to laziness. Maintain a wide net of sources and reporting is no different from writing a gossip column. Talk to one of your sources (or have them talk to you), write down what they said (often attributing them anonymously), and voila, there's your next article on Iranian IEDs or Saddam's anthrax.

McCain's "straight talk express" is a tour bus and the press his groupies. They know if they ask the wrong thing, press too hard or whip out cameras they might stop riding on the bus and stop getting called on and stop attending picnics. So their solution is to play by the rules set out for them by the person they are supposed to be covering.

Freedom of the press is one of our most cherished rights. Yet our press could not care less, eagerly trading that freedom away in return for chumminess and rides on a tire swing. (Watch the video)

Next Time

This post was getting too long, next time I'll get into the press coverage of "character" issues. That should conclude the series on the McCain BBQ and press behavior, at least for now.

Hastily Added Addendum

Crooks and Liars has more on access and McCain reporting. Anna Marie Cox, Howard Kurtz and others discuss how reporters covering McCain get so much wonderful access that they become "part of the bubble, part of the [McCain] team." Everyone agrees that because of their access the press treats McCain better, does not report on some of his negative behavior, and that it's only people outside of "the bubble" that confront him on falsehoods. According to Cox:

It's almost always someone who's not -- who, hasn't been with the campaign, you know, through it all, that is going to make a call that makes him look bad.

That appears to be a damning indictment but everyone is all smiles, as if entirely oblivious to the words coming out of their mouths and what their role as journalists is supposed to be. For them becoming part of "the team" and going easy on McCain is perfectly acceptable; it's the campaign outsiders like Bumiller who mistakenly believe that reporting is different from public relations.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

McCain BBQ and Our Insipid Press Corps

Members of the press at the McCain BBQ. No, I'm not kidding.
(This picture comes from Meghan McCain's blog and is copyright Heather Brand. I'm claiming fair use -- sue me.)

This subject makes me positively apoplectic. Few events in recent memory illustrate so many poor qualities of our press corps like the BBQ Sen. McCain held over the weekend and the subsequent coverage of it. Our mainstream press is a cruel joke on all of us. There is so much wrong here it's nearly impossible to approach. But I'll try to break it down from different angles in a series of blog posts. There is no way one can cover it all.

It's Not News

There is absolutely nothing newsworthy about the McCain BBQ. (What is newsworthy is the press corps reaction to it) Every piece on it reads like pure public relations from the pen of McCain's own people.

Ribs, to be specific. He gets 'em at Costco -- the big slabs of pork ribs. And he slaps them on the grill at the lowest possible temperature. Any hotter, he says, and the meat cooks too fast.
His secret recipe is a dry-rub concoction that consists of one-third salt, one-third pepper and one-third garlic powder -- and he pours it on. But the real trick, he says, is the fresh lemon juice that he squeezes onto the ribs repeatedly. Keeps 'em juicy.

@#*$ING FASCINATING! I can hardly wait for the followup story on what he puts in the potato salad.

These are the actual headlines (with attached stories) describing this non-event:
At McCain's Ariz. Retreat, Ribs With a Side of Chi?
Chicken hawk: McCain meets grill
For McCain, a Different Kind of Grilling
Grillmaster McCain plays host in Sedona
McCain Shows Off His BBQ Skills
No news, just ribs at McCain barbecue
John McCain, grill master supreme
Back in Arizona, McCain Tends the Grill

Yes, CNN ran a story headlined "No News." But in case you didn't believe them, how about this transcript (emph. added) detailing the lack of newsworthiness?

It was definitely a news-free zone. There were no TV cameras there so we can't show you any pictures of it.
But you know, he made it very clear from the beginning. He wasn't interested in making any news. He wanted this to be a social gathering, a chance to thank the press for trudging along after him for the past however many months.
It was a lot of show and tell for the press corps. But a news-free zone, definitely. But it was very nice and very gracious, Candy.

Here's a thought: how about covering some actual news.

There is less actual news content in these reports than in an episode of Cribs. These puff pieces are something you might expect out of an MTV lifestyle show, but here they are in the Washington Post, CNN, Politico, The Boston Globe, et al. "McCain Shows Off His BBQ Skills." Oh really, CBS news?

There is an Obvious Conflict of Interest

The press is often referred to as McCain's "base." This is a clear illustration of why. One account:

The campaign booked the senator's aides and reporters into one of the only big hotels in town: the Enchantment Resort, a five-star hotel nestled so far back in the picturesque red rock canyons of Sedona that most in the group found that their cell phones were out of range. To cope with the stress of being incommunicado, people booked massages at the hotel spa and went on hikes, including one on which an instructor sought to help participants unblock their "inner chi."

A second account:

The idea, McCain said, was to allow reporters to get to know him and his staff under less stressful circumstances. (The fact that the press spent the weekend at a resort called Enchantment where many sipped wine and enjoyed lengthy deep-tissue massages probably contributed to that feeling.)

It looks like McCain paid for not only the food but for accomodations. But beyond that the real issue is that the people who are supposed to cover McCain the candidate are the same people cavorting with McCain the friendly BBQer. Does the term "professional distance" mean anything to our press corps? They are literally drinking and partying with the guy they are supposed to be reporting on.

Reading the various accounts it's clear the event was purely social, with only a thin pretense of seriousness to make it appear above-water. Reporters agreed to not videotape, photograph or record, they were discouraged from taking notes or asking political questions. The event was originally off-the-record entirely.

The goal from McCain's perspective was clear: try to present a likeable, human side in order to win friends and influence people. Here is TIME's Anna Marie Cox explaining:

I think of socializing as part of the larger project: I get to know people and then can then write about them with more depth, and it means that when I do write something critical about them, I take EXTRA care to get it right... I'm willing to lose a friend over something I write but I'd like to know it was worth it.

The whole point of the event was to help McCain turn reporters into friends, or at least friendlies, who then like Anna Marie Cox become less likely to write critically of him.

I started to write "it's not as simple as McCain grills someone a chicken sandwhich and in return they write a fawning piece about him" but that's exactly what happened: people wrote fawning stories based on McCain entertaining them. It's not that the food was literal payment for the following coverage but it did predictably result in multiple stories lauding McCain's softer side. Beyond the short term production of PR-style descriptions of the event itself is the long-term impact of cultivating friendly social relationships with press corps members.

From the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:

Journalists should:
—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

The fact that this has to be explained at all is a terrible indictment of our press corps. If you want to fairly cover a candidate you don't go to parties at his house. This is not difficult.

Next Time

In part two I'll look at two more aspects of the BBQ coverage: journalist's insistence on (badly) covering the "character" of candidates and the embarrassing servility of the press corps.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Wiretap "Compromise" in Works - Huzzah!

Ooh a compromise. Who can predict where this is heading?

The Washington Post reports that a wiretap compromise in forthcoming -- but for the life of me I can't figure out what the compromise actually is. Democrats are preparing to go along with the administration and grant amensty to telecoms while Republicans don't move an inch. That's compromise folks.

It's not hyperbole to say that for much of the beltway media words like "compromise" and "bipartisanship" have become entirely divorced from their commonly understood meanings. As David Broder made clear compromise and bipartsanship occur when and only when Democrats drop all pretense of opposition and do exactly what the least popular President in history asks.

The specific absurdity here is that the conflict is between people who seek to uphold the law and those who seek to undermine it, and the "compromise" is to wholly excuse law breaking.

A key congressional aide said that the issue is one that must be reviewed carefully, and a balance must be struck between appropriate court review and avoiding "protracted litigation."

Don't do the crime if you can't do the crime? This "key congressional aide" is arguing that a balance must be struck between enforcing the law and the rights of criminals to not be inconvenienced, let alone found guilty.

One has to wonder where else we can apply this brilliant logic. On one hand tax evasion is illegal but on the other hand fining tax evaders makes them frowny. Murder is illegal but that should be carefully balanced against the pain and suffering caused by jail time criminal prosecution.

It's amazing how few Democrats are willing to stand up and say "why are we comprising on following the law? Let's just follow it, end of discussion."

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