Topic: The Media
Press Notes: Hazards Regarding Selecting What to Report
The hottest nonfiction book at the moment is the one from James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which is the "long form" version of his late December, big scoop New York Times story revealing the president had instructed the National Security Agency to disregard existing law and listen in on, or at least track the contents of, millions of phone calls each day, and scan millions of emails, to see what's up.
That's created an uproar, reviewed here, but that's not all that Risen was up to.
As he has said in interviews, there's more, as in it was more than twelve government officials who "blew the whistle" on the NSA program - they thought something was really wrong. But there are other interesting items - the president may have suggested that pain medication be withheld from our detainees - the ones we hold around the world who have been declared to have no rights - and this may have been the beginning of the brainstorming sessions which eventually led to what looks like torture to everyone but the administration's in-house attorneys, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. There's some evidence that the president's "what ifs" got out of hand, but then there are all those stories about how, when the president was just a lad, he was fond of jamming firecrackers down live squirrels and blowing them up. Maybe he was just being playful.
What else? The CIA asked about thirty Iraqi-Americans to go to Iraq before the war - the idea was they'd use their contacts there, either family or friends, and ask questions, and then we could really "determine the state" of those WMD programs. We had only one agent on the ground there, so that wasn't a bad idea. The bad guys would talk to family, and tell the truth. But every single one of them came back and said that all of WMD programs had stopped in the early nineties - or been destroyed in the first Gulf war. Our precision bombs actually flattened the building where they worked on all the nuclear stuff. There was no way to even restart the program. So? The CIA decided the reports of those thirty folks must really be planted propaganda from that clever Saddam Hussein. Risen also hints in the book that since this "send the thirty" idea came from an old hand at the agency, the new guys thought he was grandstanding and decided to slap him down. So we have evidence of either the Bush Administration ignoring intelligence that did not help its goal of starting a preemptive war over there, or we have office politics screwing things up again.
Overall, however, Risen says that "the checks and balances on the Executive Branch broke down." Foreign policy "was radicalized at the hands of Rumsfeld, Tenet, Cheney, Rice and a few others who would not allow career professionals in the State Department to participate." Yeah, yeah. So it seems.
As for the NSA program and all the controversy surrounding the question of why the Times sat on the story for a year, and has yet to comment on the other scoops in the Risen book, there's a new explanation from Jonathan Swartz here - Risen tried but failed to get it into the newspaper, so he went ahead and wrote a book, and then, when the book was going to "break the story," the Times had no choice. They had to run it - they didn't want to be scooped by a book by one of their own reporters. Whatever.
As the UCLA professor Mark Kleiman comments - "... the right criticizes the press for doing its job, while the left criticizes the press for not doing its job. The wingnuts are throwing around the word "treason" because the Times told its readers something that was about to come out in a book, while Schwarz complains that the Times has not told its readers other facts that came out in the same book."
Sometimes you just can't win.
And the voices on the right keep up that drumbeat - the Times has committed treason (a review of that argument here). Are the nuttier of those on the right-wing (the wingnuts) just venting, or are they serious?
There's this from the Associated Press, Monday, January 9 - Police Investigate Journalist's Killing - "Police on Monday appealed to the public for help in finding two men sought for questioning in the death of a retired New York Times journalist."
No, no - this seems to be just another Washington DC street crime. And the fellow may have been head of the Times' DC bureau at one time, but he was retired. He seldom wrote anything for the Times after he retired. This is not a message for James Risen and Bill Keller. Judy Miller didn't hire these "two men sought for questioning." It's just a coincidence, and a sad business.
If you're going to send a message, you don't mess with ambiguity, unless you're subtle and want to keep people on their toes. You do what Bill O'Reilly did on Fox News, for his massive national audience - he promised he'd go after specific New York Times people, personally, and dig up dirt on their private lives, and broadcast it (see this) - Bill is issuing what he calls a "secular fatwa." Unless they stop saying bad things about the president, what he calls their "personal attacks," well, they'll pay the price. He'll do the same to them, with the full force of the Fox News empire.
That's not subtle, nor is this from The Guardian UK, concerning one of their reporters in Iraq.
It seems our troops raided the home of an award-winning Iraqi journalist named Ali Fadhil, who was working for The Guardian, and British Channel 4. He had a hot story. And Fadhil requested an interview concerning claims that "tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi funds held by the Americans and British have been misused or misappropriated." Bad move. They raided his home, shot up the place, scared the heck out of his wife and two young children, and confiscated all his videotapes for the story. Crude, but effective.
They just told him to shut up. Ah, that's a real Bill O'Reilly line. There's a lot of that going around.
Of note, one of Ali Fadhil's awards is noted here, with a photograph of him. A previous article of his for The Guardian is here - Fallujah, City of Ghosts. Not that any of that matters now.
Comments? When asking a question can get you killed, War on the Press, and How Soon In The States? - Are these guys practicing for their return home? - and so on and so forth.
Do we have a war on the press? One has not been declared, officially. But even the pro-war, hyper-intellectual apologist for President Bush and all his efforts, Christopher Hitchens, notes something is heating up, as in The Bush Bombshell - Did the president propose to take out Al Jazeera?, posted on the eve of this -
Ah yes, this is all about that item in the Daily Mirror last November (that's here and was discussed in these pages here at the time) - George Bush was talked out of bombing Arab television station al-Jazeera by Tony Blair. Hitchens reminds us that in 2001, the Al Jazeera office in Afghanistan was destroyed by "smart" bombs, and, in 2003, an Al Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad was killed in an American missile strike. Is this Bush whim so far-fetched?
There are problems Blair and Powell might have noted -
Who knows? But it was a stunningly bad idea, even if emotionally gratifying. Bill O'Reilly would have loved it, as would his boss, Roger Ailes, as would have Ailes' boss, Rupert Murdoch. Report the wrong things and you die. That'd make those guys smile.
In any event, Hitchens reviews the evidence that this discussion actually happened (convincing), and that Bush wasn't kidding at all (also convincing).
He comments that Al Jazeera "is not describable, perhaps, as a strictly objective station, but it is the main source of news in the Arab world because it is not the property of any state or party, and it has given live and unedited coverage of things like the elections in Iraq."
And there's another problem - "If it becomes widely believed that it has been or is being targeted, the consequences in the region will be rather more than Karen Hughes' 'public diplomacy' can handle."
He also notes Colin Powell is neither confirming or denying anything about this meeting, and that's curious.
Something is up.
But then there are safe things to report, like Monday's opening day of the Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, but was that news? All of it was opening statements from the members of the Senate judiciary committee - the "interrogatory" (questions and answers) is Tuesday. This was a non-event. But it was all over the news, but who wants to watch posturing?
There was lots of spin - Robert Kuttner in the Boston Globe with this - "At this moment in American history it would be hard to find a worse Supreme Court nominee than Samuel A. Alito Jr." The confirmation "would give Bush effective control of all three branches of government."
Rick Moran at Right Wing Nut House (really, honest) with this, calling the nomination confirmation a shoe-in - "It's the mismatch of the century!" Why? Because of "Judge Samuel Alito; scary smart, learned judge, judicially tempered, unflappable, and given the highest rating by the American Bar Association for competence." Those who oppose the nomination? That would be "the Democrats; piddle brained, highly emotional, tending toward hysterics, and character assassins extraordinaire."
Yale law professor Robert Gordon here - "Bush cannot get the legislative votes to repeal the New Deal and Great Society social safety nets, or legislative protections of labor, work safety and the environment and regulation of corporate frauds and torts. But he can appoint people in the executive and judicial branches who will work toward these aims covertly, gradually, and under the radar, while feigning otherwise. ... If [Alito] is unwilling firmly and forthrightly to declare his independence from the ideologies and executive authorities he has served his entire career, the Democrats should try to keep him off the Court by filibuster."
But nothing happened Monday. The story is the spin. So you report that. It's safe.
Do you report on this stringer for The Guardian being roughed up, or events in the UK where we may learn all about our president's plan to blow up foreign news service in the middle of an ally's capital city? Do you report on the pretty American reporter for the Christian Science Monitor kidnapped in Baghdad over the weekend? No you don't - Abduction of American Reporter in Iraq Blacked Out By US News Outlets. You report what you can.
It's rough out there.