Topic: Couldn't be so...
Perspective: Making Much of Little, Perhaps
Wednesday, January 4th, midweek, the national dialog was filled with the voices of those trying to figure out just what was going on. This took place on several fronts. The most immediate was discussion of how the media manage to collectively get a major story completely wrong, with some effort to put that story into a larger context, trying to connect it, somehow or other, to the big story of the week, the one of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleading guilty to multiple crimes and, in return for reduced sentences, revealing payoffs to congressmen that will end the career of those congressmen, and pretty much expose how the Republican Party actually works as an arm of special interests with no particular interest in "the people's business," as they say. (The Democrats work this way too, or have in the past, but they now have no power, control nothing, and are generally irrelevant - in fact, one columnist, Howard Fineman, here suggests that the Republicans are in such deep trouble we may see a third party arise, making no mention of the Democrats at all. That they might do well now doesn't seem to occur to him at all.) The less immediate puzzling over things regards, of course, the NSA "spying on Americas outside the clear law about that." Mid-afternoon, Chris Matthews on his MSNBC talk show, Hardball, said he had been out for a few days when this all broke and was amazed the story was still going strong - but then he has been trying hard to say this is not a partisan story, that Jack Abramoff is one bad apple (like Duke Cunningham) and most every congressman is really honest. He says this perhaps because he himself personally helped Jack Abramoff raise money for a sham charity (one percent of donations go to any charity work.) But it's not going away, and now its seems a CNN reporter, whose husband worked on the John Kerry campaign staff, may have been a target - all of her telephone conversations and those of her husband since 2001 may have been recorded by the NSA. That throws a new light on the last presidential election.
So let's get to it.
The story that was mishandled was the mine disaster - "Sago, West Virginia, Wednesday, January 4, 2006 - Great joy turned suddenly to deep sorrow Wednesday morning when stunned family members were told that 12 of the 13 miners trapped 13,000 feet into a mountainside since early Monday were dead rather than alive, as they, and the world, had been told hours earlier."
Out here on the west coast those of us who crashed for some sleep just before midnight saw the late news - a miracle, all but one of the miners found alive - Anderson Cooper doing his earnest but sympathetic interviews on CNN, waiting for the miners to stumble or be carried out, thumbs up and all that, and on MSNBC the odd Rita Crosby with her even odder voice gushing about the wonder of it all. When dawn came out here, it just wasn't so. All but one of the miners was dead. The Los Angeles Times on the doorstep got the story right. The papers on the east coast, with earlier deadlines, got caught - the Boston Globe had to dump 30,000 copies and reprint with the real story.
What happened? Well, CNN got this explanation from Ben Hatfield (not McCoy), the head of the mining company -
And this was the press scandal of the week. There was a lot of scrambling to explain what when wrong, best summarized here by Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher -
Yes, it was "Dewey Defeats Truman" all over again. Who to blame - officials, including the governor, for misleading reporters?
Mitchell notes an Associated Press dispatch first carried the news at 11:52 pm (EST): "Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members said. Bells at a church where relatives had been gathering rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation."
But he notes many newspapers, and all of cable news, "reported the rescue as fact, not merely based on family claims."
The lesson here?
He quotes Sherry Chisenhall, editor of the Wichita Eagle - "If you saw today's printed edition of The Eagle, you saw a front page headline and story that are flat wrong. I'll explain why we (and newspapers across the country) went to press last night with the information we had at the time. But it won't excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it."
And there's Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute - "This case reminds us of a lesson we learned, at least in part, from Hurricane Katrina: Even when plausibly reliably sources such as officials pass along information, journalists should press for key details.... If we believe that when your mama says she loves you, you should check it out, surely what the mayor or police chief or governor says deserves at least some healthy skepticism and verification. I understand how emotion and adrenaline and deadlines affect performance. That does not excuse us from trying to do better."
Keith Olbermann on "Countdown" interviewed Mitchell late in the day - and Mitchell said much of this, and added every reporter should learn the value of the word "unconfirmed."
But everyone likes feel-good stories and this was a big one, and one where, on cable television, you could showcase your "emotionally warm" and devastatingly empathic new generation of anchors - Cooper on CNN, Crosby on MSNBC, and Bill Hemmer on Fox. So you go for the heart in the story. But here the facts mattered more.
It sort of makes you miss the days of Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, when the assumed persona was that of "reporter-journalist" - the person with the plain, basic facts, and little emotion. Yes, they were dry, or, sometimes, but rarely - at their very most emotive - a tad ironic. They wanted to work on your head, not your heart. Too, one thinks of the UK where they don't have "anchors" on the news shows, with these charming and engaging personalities - they have "news readers." That's the job.
But the product here and now is different. And it sells. We'll see more and more of it - and more and more of these problems with the basic facts. (A note to my friend at CNN, there since it started - get out now.)
As for tying this mine disaster to other current events, well, that may be a stretch, but maybe not. Officials with the company that had just bought this West Virginia mine - the International Coal Group - here said this was pretty much in the category of "an act of God," as the say in insurance policies when explaining what isn't covered. It was a "horrible freak accident."
One commentator, Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged (great name) here suggests some other things to consider. The new nominee to the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, is on record holding that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act should protect miners less than it does. And not only did the Bush administration cut funds for mine safety in real dollars, they also, 1.) Fired a whistleblower, put a mining company executive in charge, 2.) Reduced staff by 170, 3.) Tried to slash funding even more, and 4.) Exempted the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act from the Freedom of Information Act. She provides links to each of these news items that may have seemed unimportant before. And she provides links to two other items discussing how the mine in question had (among other issues) a full 273 safety violations in the past two years.
Is this matter of neglect, something akin to the New Orleans levees that were too unimportant to consider before Hurricane Katrina? Maybe so.
William Bunch, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and its former political writer offers this - Mine Tragedy, Abramoff Scandal - Their Roots Connect Them.
The idea is this - "The roots of the horrific events underneath the earth in timeworn West Virginia, and the scandal on the tony sidewalks of Washington's K Street, are as deeply intertwined as those aspens out west, maybe more so. It's a connection that can be summed up in three simple words: Republicans gone wild."
He's talking about this -
And he goes on to document that - naming names and citing facts. It's worth a read. It's pretty damning, and really depressing. The K Street lobbyists spent a lot of money. The industry was deregulated and closed to prying eyes. Quid Pro Quo.
The final paragraphs -
Yes, that seems over the top. But read the whole long item and you may agree.
Folks like Jack Abramoff, and those who took his money to do his bidding, are not doing anyone any good.
The media may have been foolish here. But they're not the problem.
As for the other matter everyone was still gnawing on in the middle of the week - even if Chris Matthews wonders why - Glenn Greenwald provided the clearest statement of what the problem seems to be with his seminal article, What Happened To Conservative Legal Theories?
There he discusses the extra-legal NSA data-mining (spying) issue, pointing out there really is no logical defense for it, and how "the defenses being dredged up to justify Bush's law-breaking certainly are notable for the liberties they take with 'conservative' principles of legal argument, as well as with how sharply they contradict the legal views which the Administration itself previously claimed it believed in."
Yeah well, so it seems.
Illegal? That's easy. He quotes the law, the FISA Act, specifically Section 1809 of FISA - "A person is guilty of an offense if he intentionally - (1) engages in electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute."
The administration admits it has broken this law - they did not seek warrants, they instructed the NSA to do this without those, and say they will continue. And, of course, that does present the administration with obvious difficulties in defending George Bush.
Glenn Greenwald puts it clearly -
So the problem, as Greenwald sees it, is the "conservative principles of legal argument" - look as the plain language and original intent - is now so much silliness, and we're supposed to consider "implied, hidden amendments to laws which are silently buried in other laws which don't even reference the law which it supposedly amended." Add to that the claim that President Bush really does have certain Executive powers which the Constitution doesn't exactly mention, but seem to be "lurking quietly somewhere in Article II of the Constitution, maybe hiding behind some penumbras or sprouting from the evolving, breathing document."
Greenwald cites other case law where the administration argued in the old manner. Things have changed.
And the issue is not going away because, any way you cut it, the man has said he's above the law. And he's dared anyone to challenge that. And he's pretty much said anyone who challenges him on this undermines the war effort and hates America and is some sort of treasonous subversive. And we'll all be in great danger if he is not allowed to disregard any law or any limits the other branches of government have previously set. That's what he thinks the congress agreed to, and what he thinks the constitution says.
This is a big deal.
But then, maybe he's only doing this out of self-sacrificing generosity, to protect us all. His supporters say so. And he has several times said this is very limited, only tracking incoming telephone calls to this country from suspicious places (although his own staff had to issue a correction there, as sometimes Dick Cheney doesn't explain everything to the lad).
How limited is this? That brings us to the midweek mystery.
There's this from NBC News, Wednesday, January 4th -
Andrea Mitchell's sources tell her the CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour has been monitored? You could go to the transcript, but NBC removed Mitchell's question later in the day.
What's up with that?
Here's some paranoid speculation -
Ah, maybe Andrea Mitchell was having a bad day and was just pulling a specific name out of here hat, any old name. But why did she ask that so specifically, and why was it removed?
This is very curious, and NBC actually explains - "Unfortunately this transcript was released prematurely. It was a topic on which we had not completed our reporting, and it was not broadcast on 'NBC Nightly News' nor on any other NBC News program. We removed that section of the transcript so that we may further continue our inquiry."
What inquiry? NBC confirms it's investigating whether Bush spied on CNN's Christiane Amanpour?
Here's more paranoid speculation -
One of our sometime contributors to these pages, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, knows Christiane Amanpour (see this from June 2004 - "Christiane Amanpour herself is one of these bullets-whizzing-by reporters, or at least was when she worked next to me over on the CNN foreign desk..."). Perhaps he should give her a call and ask what's up with all this.
As noted at the top, a lot of people are just trying to figure out what's going on.