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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 25 July 2005

Topic: The Media

What's The News? What You Want It To Be.
Last weekend in Just Above Sunset there were six paragraphs on how the news is, almost entirely, a commercial venture, and on the implications of what that means about what gets reported, and how it gets reported. That was the opening of Non-Stories, and the argument was that the news folks don't choose the news, the market does, with a few exceptions.

Now Richard A. Posner is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and in a New York Times item they will publish next Sunday - Bad News - the judge makes the authoritative argument for this idea. It's far longer than six paragraphs, and far better than the six in these pages. A friend who has often argued before Posner in Seventh Circuit appeals court tells me the guy is flat-out brilliant, and can be pretty brutal - but fair. (She didn't say the same thing about Scalia after arguing a few times before him down in Washington.)

In the Posner article to be published on 31 July (available early on the web if you know where to look) the judge is addressing how the conventional news media are "embattled." With books attacking them from both the left and the right, and this scandal or that, and being challenged by "upstart bloggers" – and with their audience in decline and "their credibility with the public in shreds" - well, it's a mess. Posner covers the polling data. It's not pretty, and he points out that most everyone sees the problem - thirty years ago news reporting was dominated by newspapers and by television network news, and audiences for these have declined. There's competition - cable television and the web. And things have turned partisan.

Posner points out this may mean the end of newspapers, if not most traditional news media, and this journalism thing:
The audience decline is potentially fatal for newspapers. Not only has their daily readership dropped from 52.6 percent of adults in 1990 to 37.5 percent in 2000, but the drop is much steeper in the 20-to-49-year-old cohort, a generation that is, and as it ages will remain, much more comfortable with electronic media in general and the Web in particular than the current elderly are.

At this point the diagnosis splits along political lines. Liberals, including most journalists (because most journalists are liberals), believe that the decline of the formerly dominant ''mainstream'' media has caused a deterioration in quality. They attribute this decline to the rise of irresponsible journalism on the right, typified by the Fox News Channel (the most-watched cable television news channel), Rush Limbaugh's radio talk show and right-wing blogs by Matt Drudge and others. But they do not spare the mainstream media, which, they contend, provide in the name of balance an echo chamber for the right. To these critics, the deterioration of journalism is exemplified by the attack of the ''Swift boat'' Vietnam veterans on Senator John Kerry during the 2004 election campaign. The critics describe the attack as consisting of lies propagated by the new right-wing media and reported as news by mainstream media made supine by anxiety over their declining fortunes.

Critics on the right applaud the rise of the conservative media as a long-overdue corrective to the liberal bias of the mainstream media, which, according to Jim A. Kuypers, the author of ''Press Bias and Politics,'' are ''a partisan collective which both consciously and unconsciously attempts to persuade the public to accept its interpretation of the world as true.'' ...
Of course Posner is arguing that the media is controlled by liberals, and he doesn't like it much. But the twist is that the news media is full of liberals for reasons having to do with the economics of the marketplace.
The mainstream media are predominantly liberal - in fact, more liberal than they used to be. But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather, because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already liberal media farther left.
No left-wing conspiracy against the patriotic God-fearing real Americans? It seems not.

So what happened? He argues there has been a "vertiginous decline in the cost of electronic communication" and "the relaxation of regulatory barriers to entry." This led to a whole lot more choice. Thirty years ago the average number of television channels that Americans could receive was seven; today, with the rise of cable and satellite television, it is seventy-one, and thirty years ago there was no internet, therefore no web, thus no online newspapers and magazines, and of course no blogs. Things changed.

Posner asks us to consider a town that before television came along, or even before, radio had just two newspapers. Why just two? Economies of scale made it impossible for a newspaper with a small circulation to break even. So the two, to stay in business, played to the middle:
Each of the two, to increase its advertising revenues, would try to maximize circulation by pitching its news to the median reader, for that reader would not be attracted to a newspaper that flaunted extreme political views. There would be the same tendency to political convergence that is characteristic of two-party political systems, and for the same reason - attracting the least committed is the key to obtaining a majority.

One of the two newspapers would probably be liberal and have a loyal readership of liberal readers, and the other conservative and have a loyal conservative readership. That would leave a middle range. To snag readers in that range, the liberal newspaper could not afford to be too liberal or the conservative one too conservative. The former would strive to be just liberal enough to hold its liberal readers, and the latter just conservative enough to hold its conservative readers. If either moved too close to its political extreme, it would lose readers in the middle without gaining readers from the extreme, since it had them already.
Clear enough. That's easy to see.

But then cost conditions change. Imagine what happens as it gets cheaper to publish. The liberal newspaper has to worry that diluting its message, in an effort to attract moderates, could cause it to lose its most liberal readers to a new, more liberal newspaper. They've lost their secure base. And the same thing the other way - by the same process the conservative newspaper more conservative.

Such things happen when it gets cheaper and easier to publish.

And that's what's happening now:
The current tendency to political polarization in news reporting is thus a consequence of changes not in underlying political opinions but in costs, specifically the falling costs of new entrants. The rise of the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left. CNN was going to lose many of its conservative viewers to Fox anyway, so it made sense to increase its appeal to its remaining viewers by catering more assiduously to their political preferences.
But wait! There's more! This change in the cost of doing business creates more crap - the endless coverage of Michael Jackson or the missing lass in Aruba and that sort of thing - and all the talk shows with pundits shouting at each other -
The tendency to greater sensationalism in reporting is a parallel phenomenon. The more news sources there are, the more intense the struggle for an audience. One tactic is to occupy an overlooked niche - peeling away from the broad-based media a segment of the consuming public whose interests were not catered to previously. That is the tactic that produces polarization. Another is to ''shout louder'' than the competitors, where shouting takes the form of a sensational, attention-grabbing discovery, accusation, claim or photograph. According to James T. Hamilton in his valuable book ''All the News That's Fit to Sell,'' this even explains why the salaries paid news anchors have soared: the more competition there is for an audience, the more valuable is a celebrity newscaster.
Be that as it may, Posner's main thesis - competition increases polarization - is interesting in that it assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones.

Lots of people say that we consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Yeah, right. Posner points out that if that were true -
? liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don't like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They're also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.
So folks want the news equivalent of comfort food. The world is a scary place.

So why do people "consume" news and opinion?
In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives - hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ''a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.''

Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it.
As Rick, our News Guy in Atlanta, says, it's always a balance - between what should be reported in a democracy (people really need to know this), and what people want to hear about (people really want to know that). Our columnist Bob Patterson call she former "Broccoli News" - as in "Eat your broccoli, it's good for you - and stop making faces!"

How to disguise the awful taste of broccoli? Make a contest of everything - seeing this or that as something like a sports competition. That how we cover almost all political matters - news coverage of a political campaign is designed for a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded. Civic-minded stuff is so boring.

So we have a media that is increasingly, and inevitably, polarized, and pumping of sensational tabloid silliness. And no one is now talking about raising people's consciousness and elevating public discourse.

A problem? Maybe not.
Does this mean that the news media were better before competition polarized them? Not at all. A market gives people what they want, whether they want the same thing or different things. Challenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus, is largely off limits for the media, because it wins no friends among the general public. The mainstream media do not kick sacred cows like religion and patriotism.

Not that the media lie about the news they report; in fact, they have strong incentives not to lie. Instead, there is selection, slanting, decisions as to how much or how little prominence to give a particular news item.
It's a "market" thing.

But what about those journalists fighting for truth, justice and the American way - willing to go to jail to protect their sources and all the rest?

They need to get real -
Journalists are reluctant to confess to pandering to their customers' biases; it challenges their self-image as servants of the general interest, unsullied by commerce. They want to think they inform the public, rather than just satisfying a consumer demand no more elevated or consequential than the demand for cosmetic surgery in Brazil or bullfights in Spain. They believe in ''deliberative democracy'' - democracy as the system in which the people determine policy through deliberation on the issues. In his preface to ''The Future of Media'' (a collection of articles edited by Robert W. McChesney, Russell Newman and Ben Scott), Bill Moyers writes that ''democracy can't exist without an informed public.'' If this is true, the United States is not a democracy (which may be Moyers' dyspeptic view). Only members of the intelligentsia, a tiny slice of the population, deliberate on public issues.
Yep, that civic-minded hard-news policy-wonk stuff is so elitist, isn't it?

As for the facts of what's happening in the world, the idea here is "the public's interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition's errors." Who needs facts?
The limited consumer interest in the truth is the key to understanding why both left and right can plausibly denounce the same media for being biased in favor of the other. Journalists are writing to meet a consumer demand that is not a demand for uncomfortable truths.
It's a business, after all, and no business wants to offend a customer.

Bu the business is in trouble, from "the latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment." The BLOG!

Note this:
Journalists accuse bloggers of having lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded - it is the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to professional journalists and their principal employers, the conventional news media. A serious newspaper, like The Times, is a large, hierarchical commercial enterprise that interposes layers of review, revision and correction between the reporter and the published report and that to finance its large staff depends on advertising revenues and hence on the good will of advertisers and (because advertising revenues depend to a great extent on circulation) readers. These dependences constrain a newspaper in a variety of ways. But in addition, with its reputation heavily invested in accuracy, so that every serious error is a potential scandal, a newspaper not only has to delay publication of many stories to permit adequate checking but also has to institute rules for avoiding error - like requiring more than a single source for a story or limiting its reporters' reliance on anonymous sources - that cost it many scoops.

Blogs don't have these worries. Their only cost is the time of the blogger?. Having no staff, the blogger is not expected to be accurate. Having no advertisers (though this is changing), he has no reason to pull his punches. And not needing a large circulation to cover costs, he can target a segment of the reading public much narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could aim for. He may even be able to pry that segment away from the conventional media. Blogs pick off the mainstream media's customers one by one, as it were.

And bloggers thus can specialize in particular topics to an extent that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have to hire in order to be able to cover all bases. A newspaper will not hire a journalist for his knowledge of old typewriters, but plenty of people in the blogosphere have that esoteric knowledge, and it was they who brought down Dan Rather. Similarly, not being commercially constrained, a blogger can stick with and dig into a story longer and deeper than the conventional media dare to, lest their readers become bored. It was the bloggers' dogged persistence in pursuing a story that the conventional media had tired of that forced Trent Lott to resign as Senate majority leader.

What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission.
Oh my! Posner says that, in effect, blogosphere is a collective enterprise - not twelve million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with twelve million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It's as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.

How can the conventional news media hope to compete? It's not even fair.
The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend.
Oh drat, now I feel so? dirty?

But, Posner asks, are the people less well served than in the old days?

Surveys show that serious magazines have held their own and that serious broadcast outlets, "including that bane of the right, National Public Radio," are attracting ever larger audiences. And there's that tiny, tiny group that invites challenges to its biases - reading The New York Times along with The Wall Street Journal, watching CNN and Fox, that reads Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman and everything in between. For them, Posner suggests, the increased polarization of the media "provides a richer fare" than ever before.

Yeah, it does. But who has the time?

Posner ends with "maybe there isn't much to fret about."

He took a lot of words to tell us not to worry.

By the way, Eric Alterman - that fellow who wrote the book What Liberal Media - provided the link to this Posner article (here) commenting he is in the middle of writing a six hundred word reply to Posner for the Sunday Times. Alterman has opposed Posner before, as in this.

And ironically, Richard Posner has a blog, written the Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker, The Becker-Posner Blog.

Posted by Alan at 21:14 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005 21:17 PDT home

Sunday, 24 July 2005

Topic: Couldn't be so...

News of What Didn't Happen, and of What Won't Happen


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) long ago filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request - joined by the Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense, Veterans for Peace and the Center for Constitutional Rights - to force release of the remaining eighty-seven photographs and four videos from Abu Ghraib prison thing. The photos were among thousands turned over by the key "whistleblower" in the scandal, Specialist Joseph M. Darby - and only a few were released to the press previously. Those set off the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal last year. It has been said the video images are even more dreadful than anything seen so far.

This may be a classic case pitting "we need to know what's being done in our name" against "we'd rather not know what's being done in our name" - with the outlying position that some folks think whatever happened (apparently child rape, casual murder, gleeful but fruitless torture) was necessary and justified, if only to let the rest of the world know we can do this sort of thing and no one can stop us, so the rest of the world had better watch out. This last position is that these sorts of thing keeps us safe.

Needless to say, the Pentagon has resisted releasing the material - claiming this problem or that each time they received a judicial ruling that they had to release the stuff. One Pentagon lawyer previously argued that the material should not be released because it would only add to the humiliation of the prisoners. The ACLU countered saying the faces of the victims can easily be "redacted." Whatever.

Anyway, early last Friday news surfaced that lawyers for the Pentagon had this time flat-out refused to cooperate with a federal judge's order to release these unseen photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib. They had until Saturday. They said no. They came up with a new one, and filed a motion to oppose the release of the photos and videos, based on an entirely different argument than any they had used before: they are now requesting a 7(F) exemption from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act "to withhold law enforcement-related information in order to protect the physical safety of individuals."

So nothing was released.

Whose safety is at risk? One cannot tell as their 7(F) exemption motion is sealed. One could presume the material is so inflammatory that the risk is to the domestic population. The "bad guys" are going to be ticked off.

Greg Mitchell over at Editor and Publisher (July 23) takes up the story:
So what is shown on the 87 photographs and four videos from Abu Ghraib prison that the Pentagon, in an eleventh hour move, blocked from release this weekend? One clue: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Congress last year, after viewing a large cache of unreleased images: "I mean, I looked at them last night, and they're hard to believe." They show acts "that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhumane," he added.

A Republican Senator suggested the same day they contained scenes of "rape and murder." No wonder Rumsfeld commented then, "If these are released to the public, obviously it's going to make matters worse."
You've already got your detainees being threatened, sodomized with a chemical light and forced into sexually humiliating poses, of course. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has seen what more is there: "... we're talking about rape and murder here. We're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience. We're talking about rape and murder - and some very serious charges."

From the Boston Herald, May 8th, 2004, this:
The unreleased images show American soldiers beating one prisoner almost to death, apparently raping a female prisoner, acting inappropriately with a dead body, and taping Iraqi guards raping young boys, according to NBC News.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the scandal is "going to get worse" and warned that the most "disturbing" revelations haven't yet been made public.
From the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, this:
The women were passing messages saying "Please come and kill me, because of what's happened". Basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys/children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. The worst about all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking.
You get the idea.

Simultaneously, Vice President Cheney is leading the effort to have Bush veto the bill for next year's defense programs - all 442 billion of it - if a bunch of "weak" Republicans add provisions to the bill to regulate what might be considered torture or abuse, and to investigate allegations of that sort of thing. The provisions "on the standard of treatment of prisoners" are sponsored by John McCain, who himself, as we all recall, spent years as a prisoner of war. He might know something. Or he might not. As you also recall, Karl Rove successfully painted McCain as mentally unbalanced because of that, and also suggested McCain had fathered a black "love child" with a crack addict - and that won Bush the South Carolina primary back in the run-up to the 2000 election. Bush later apologized and told McCain it was "just politics." What does Dick Cheney think of McCain?

Reuters covers the current issue this way:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Thursday threatened to veto a massive Senate bill for $442 billion in next year's defense programs if it moves to regulate the Pentagon's treatment of detainees or sets up a commission to investigate operations at Guantanamo Bay prison and elsewhere.

The Bush administration, under fire for the indefinite detention of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and questions over whether its policies led to horrendous abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, put lawmakers on notice it did not want them legislating on the matter.

... "If legislation is presented that would restrict the president's authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bring terrorists to justice," the bill could be vetoed, the statement said.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who endured torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said after meeting at the Capitol with Vice President Dick Cheney that he still intended to offer amendments next week "on the standard of treatment of prisoners."

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was working on legislation defining the legal status of enemy combatants being held in Guantanamo, also said he would offer an amendment.
According to this in the Washington Post last week the Bush administration was lobbying to block legislation supported by Republican senators that would bar our military from engaging in "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees, and from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross, and from using interrogation methods not authorized by a new Army field manual. The Post also reports that Cheney met last Thursday night with three senior Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee "to press the administration's case," and this was the second time that Cheney had met with Senate members to "tamp down" this incipient Republican rebellion.

Well, these off-the-reservation Republican troublemakers have "publicly expressed frustration" about what they consider to be the administration's "failure to hold any senior military officials responsible" for detainee abuse in Iraq and elsewhere.

But this in the Post item is cute:
The Republican effort is intended partly to cut off an effort by Senate Democrats to attach more stringent demands to the defense bill regarding detainees. One group, led by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), has proposed an amendment calling for an independent commission - similar to the Sept. 11 commission - to look into administration policies on interrogation and detainee abuse.
So the rebels were just trying to be good Republicans, and get the jump on the Democrats who might call for even more - like a commission!

But still, Cheney is on the warpath. He wants this all stopped!

As Hunter, over at Daily Kos puts it -
So on one hand, the Bush administration is frantically blocking the release of the photographic proof of the most horrific war crimes committed in U.S. military-run prisons.

On the other hand, the Bush administration is simultaneously threatening to veto any attempts by McCain, Graham or others to establish even rudimentary rules banning such torture - or even investigating the torture already documented.

I think it's time to invent some new swearing, because there isn't anything currently in the language that fully encompasses the White House's unapologetic attempts to ensure the Bush administration's own crafted and approved "interrogation" policies be allowed to continue unhindered. Yes, according to the Bush administration, any attempts by Republican senators to legislate against, say, the sodomizing of detained children are unduly infringing on the president's fight against terrorists.

Truly, there is no sunken depth to which this White House does not feel comfortable indulging itself in.
Overheated? Perhaps, but some of it all has been surfacing all along, like this from Scotland's Sunday Herald way back in August last year.
It was early last October that Kasim Mehaddi Hilas says he witnessed the rape of a boy prisoner aged about 15 in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. "The kid was hurting very bad and they covered all the doors with sheets," he said in a statement given to investigators probing prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib. "Then, when I heard the screaming I climbed the door ? and I saw [the soldier's name is deleted] who was wearing a military uniform."

In another witness statement, passed to the Sunday Herald, former prisoner Thaar Salman Dawod said: "[I saw] two boys naked and they were cuffed together face to face and [a US soldier] was beating them and a group of guards were watching and taking pictures and there was three female soldiers laughing at the prisoners. The prisoners, two of them, were young."

Proof of the widespread arrest and detention of children in Iraq by US and UK forces is contained in an internal UNICEF report written in June.
Well, we'd never let such things be reported in our press. Where do they get such stuff? From our own government, in the The Taguba Report (PDF) from last year.

Andrew Sullivan:
A few weeks ago, I predicted on the Chris Matthews Show that more photographs of the Abu Ghraib abuses and torture would be released by the end of last month. After all, a judge had ruled in favor of the ACLU's request for the materials. The government obeys the law of the land, doesn't it? Not in this administration, which has, by presidential memo, declared the president above the law in fighting the war on terror.

Now they have deployed one last, desperate tactic to keep the real truth about Abu Ghraib from reaching the public.

The Bush administration first argued that dissemination of the photos would violate the Geneva Conventions. Ahem.

When that failed, they argued in a sealed brief to the court that the photos "could result in harm to individuals." Like the soldiers and commanders responsible for abusing prisoners? Or the political masters who made such abuse legal?

Look: I know we are at war and these photographs could inflame passions further. But they could also give the lie to the administration's claim that the prison was only the site for a handful of rogue soldiers making up rules on the night shift. They could give the lie to the notion that what happened at Abu Ghraib was merely "frat-house rough-housing." They could show rape and murder and torture - with legal cover sanctioned by White House memos. They could finally force someone to take responsibility for what happened, and for the policies that are still in place allowing for abusive treatment of prisoners.

We can fight a war and remain a humane, law-abiding culture as well. We'll soon see if we still live in a country in which the president is subject to the law.
Yeah, dream on.

And Sullivan also quotes some detail from the Post item about these proposed amendments to military appropriations bill. It seems the amendments would -
... set uniform standards for interrogating anyone detained by the Defense Department and would limit interrogation techniques to those listed in the Army field manual on interrogation, now being revised. Any changes to procedures would require the defense secretary to appear before Congress.

It would further require that all foreign nationals in the custody or effective control of the U.S. military must be registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross - a provision specifically meant to block the holding of "ghost detainees" in Iraq, in Afghanistan or elsewhere...
Yeah, another McCain amendment prohibits the "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of anyone in the custody of the U.S. government. And this provision is modeled after wording in the UN Convention Against Torture - which the United States has already ratified. But that would overturn an administration position that the convention does not apply to foreigners outside the United States.

McCain and these guys are making trouble, and Sullivan points out the administration's difficult position now -
Why would the Bush administration want to retain the option to use "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of detainees? They don't support torture, do they? The amendment would simply bring order and law to what has been a free-wheeling and disastrously inept detention policy, made up by Bush officials as they went along. It beggars belief that, after Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Gitmo and the dozens of deaths in interrogation that the administration wouldn't want some way out of its own impasse.

But no: as so often, it sticks its heels in, and refuses to acknowledge an obvious and terrible mistake in the war. I look forward to the hard right describing McCain as a leftist or unpatriotic because he wants to restore America's reputation as a country that acts ferociously but always humanely in its own defense.
Well, calling McCain leftist or unpatriotic may come soon, or they'll trot out the "mentally unbalanced" thing again, or go back to the illicit interracial sex thing.

We'll see how this plays out.

Somehow it seems a morality play. On one side, the pragmatists and realists, who seem to claim common decency is just stupid these days, if not dangerous, and maybe it always was. On the other side, the idealists who remember what this country once was, or tried to be - and think it should still be.


Will this story have legs? Over the weekend Frank Rich, is his weekly make-those-in-power-uncomfortable column in the New York Times recalled something many had forgotten about this CIA leak story - Wilson blows the White House WMD tall tales sky high and folks at the White House, maybe Bush's Brain, Rove, orchestrate a way to get back at him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent working undercover to help control the spread of WMD and such. The issue Rich raises has to do with the day the investigation of this all started:
As White House counsel, [Alberto Gonzales] was the one first notified that the Justice Department, at the request of the C.I.A., had opened an investigation into the outing of Joseph Wilson's wife. That notification came at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2003, but it took Mr. Gonzales 12 more hours to inform the White House staff that it must "preserve all materials" relevant to the investigation.
Ah, think Rosemary Wood and the missing eighteen and a half minutes of Nixon talk that mysteriously got erased way back when.

Yep, as this came up on the Sunday talk shows:
On CBS's Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer noted that this time gap would have "give[n] people time to shred documents and do any number of things." Gonzales argued that he asked for and received permission from the Justice Department to wait until the next morning to order White House staff to preserve all documents regarding their contacts with journalists about Valerie Plame. But he did tell one person the night before?

SCHIEFFER: Let me just ask you the obvious question, Mr. Attorney General. Did you tell anybody at the White House, get ready for this, here it comes?

GONZALES: I, I told one person, ah, in, in the White House of, of the notification, and, and ?


GONZALES: and immediately - ah, I told the chief of staff. And immediately the next morning, I told the President and, shortly thereafter, there was a notification sent out to all the members of the White House staff.
What that means?

This: "So the one person who knew that an investigation was underway was Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who also happened to be aboard Air Force One in July 2003 with Ari Fleischer, Colin Powell, and the top secret State Department document that contained the identity of Valerie Wilson. So, did Card tell Rove or Libby or anyone for that matter the night before Alberto Gonzales sent out the email to staff that they would soon be asked to preserve all documents?"

Ah, there's probably nothing to it all. Would these guys use the twelve hour gap to shred embarrassing evidence? That would be wrong.

Steven Brant does offer one interesting detail: "I wish you could have seen Bob Schieffer's face as he came back from commercial break to his next guest, Senator Joe Biden, who he then took up this issue with. Bob Schieffer said to Joe Biden (I'm paraphrasing here... I'll post the transcript when it's available) 'You know, everyone in The White House has these Blackberries. And you have to wonder what sort of message Andrew Card emailed at 8 pm to the other people in The White House... what sort of documents could have been shredded in those twelve hours.'"

Democratic senator Biden is not a trusting fellow, is he?

Nothing may come of this all, but Rich also adds another gem, his theory on why Bush's life-long friend Alberto Gonzales did not get that Supreme Court nomination:
When the president decided not to replace Sandra Day O'Connor with a woman, why did he pick a white guy and not nominate the first Hispanic justice, his friend Alberto Gonzales? Mr. Bush was surely not scared off by Gonzales critics on the right (who find him soft on abortion) or left (who find him soft on the Geneva Conventions). It's Mr. Gonzales's proximity to this scandal that inspires real fear.

... A new Gonzales confirmation process now would have quickly devolved into a neo-Watergate hearing. Mr. Gonzales was in the thick of the Plame investigation, all told, for 16 months.
Yeah, it would have been messy.

Posted by Alan at 22:11 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 24 July 2005 22:31 PDT home

Topic: Photos

Baghdad Exclusive: New Photo from the Green Zone

The palaces Saddam Hussein built in central Baghdad were elaborate, and we occupy them now in an area called the Green Zone. Now they are administrative offices of various sorts. And of course they are on the water, as the Euphrates winds through the area. We received this shot from a Major in the Army stationed there. The wars of man rage on, but there is more than that - life just moving along, as with these ducks.

The Major says: "The ducks that hang out in the pond that surrounds the palace. They come to the guards twice a day like clockwork to be fed bread."

What do they know about wars?

Oh yes, just after midnight, Pacific Time, the new issue of Just Above Sunset, the parent site to this web log, went online. That would be Volume 3, Number 30 for the week of Sunday, July 24, 2005.

What's new?

This week's issue offers unusual exclusive features. Our Man in Tel-Aviv, Sylvain Ubersfeld, meditates on the madness there (first posted here), and Phillip Raines brings back the Treehouse Chronicles after a long hiatus. And there's an atypical item on life out here, specific to some big local changes, and what it means to be hip in Hollywood, that first appeared here, as did the current events items: the new bungled London bombings - the CIA leak scandal metastasizing - the matter of the new guy nominated to the Supreme Court - and items that really are news, but really aren't. These have been modified from what first appeared here. And Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, provides commentary from the other side of the ocean on these matters. And by the end of the week ? in that item - one can't help thinking of a key scene from The Wizard of Oz.

There are five pages of new photography, two extraordinary pages from Don Smith in Paris, and three from local events: our own Los Angeles Bastille Day party (with a link to a new photo album), a so-very-California surfer extravaganza in Malibu, and an art event that was a bit controversial as the artist is mighty strange.

Bob Patterson is back with the Book Wrangler, on where books come from, and as the World's Laziest Journalist, turning entrepreneurial on us, and on the scene hanging with the big guns in Hollywood at a film event.

And of course there's the usual collection of sardonic quotes you can use to stop your opponent cold in any discussion.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ________________

News Notes: Non-Stories
London Again: The Second-String Executes Badly
SCOTUS: Let the fun begin! ('Here come da judge, here come da judge!')
Rush to Judge: Reactions to the US Issues from Our Man in Paris
Enough: The Week Ends in Turmoil (the Wizard of Oz meme catches hold)

Features ________________

Our Man in Tel-Aviv: Armed Brothers
Treehouse Chronicles: July 2005, After the Hurricane
Big Doings in Los Angeles: Hip is Out, Atheism In, and the Media is in Turmoil

Bob Patterson ________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - CaféPress to the columnist's rescue? Becoming a millionaire the existentialist way?
Book Wrangler: Columnist = Good and Blogger = Not So Good?
On The Scene: Academy Salute To Don Siegel

Local Photography - Amazing Public Events ________________

Malibu Calling: The Call to the Wall
LA and Paris: A Late Bastille Day
Robert Williams: Through Prehensile Eyes

Paris Photography ________________

Left Bank Lens (1): Bastille Day
Left Bank Lens (2): Unexpected Paris

The Usual ________________

Quotes for the week of July 24, 2005 - Originality and Such
Links and Recommendations: New Photo Album (and tons of other links)


Oh yes, via Google Earth here's the heart of the Green Zone in Baghdad - the presidential palace in the middle.

Posted by Alan at 16:39 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 24 July 2005 16:43 PDT home

Topic: World View

Our Man in Paris: Under the Sand, the City
Our Man in Paris is Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis. His weekly columns appear in Just Above Sunset and often in a slightly different version the next day on his site from Paris, with photographs. Received Sunday the 24th - news that Paris Plage opened on Thursday.
PARIS, Sunday, July 24, 2005

The aftermath of war lasted a long time, until Parisians began to think it was time to banish the dirt by tearing down the central market of Les Halles and get rid of the crabbed traffic by putting a speedway right through the center along the Seine. For good measure the ugly tower at Montparnasse was tossed up but then Georges Pompidou died and the speedway named after him stayed half finished, being speedy only along the right bank from west to east.

When I lived out in a western suburb I could take the autoroute to the edge of town and then catch the speedway and ride along the river past the Eiffel tower. I could roll non-stop from my village to the center of Paris and park near Notre Dame. It's a bit like living in Nassau county and parking within a block of Times Square. It worked like a charm on Sundays, about twice as fast as the train and much cheaper.

If you live in Paris you probably won't use the speedway because you can take the Métro and not worry about parking. If you live in Paris you might not care that the speedway is a convenience for drivers with a good view for them. You might be annoyed that this same good view is full of their metal and glass and rubber, exhaust fumes, and sometimes bad tempers.

In 2001 the new city government decided to turn three kilometres of the speedway into a temporary beach. Paris has long had a notion that the beach was just under its paving stones, as in, 'it could be the Mediterranean here if we dream hard enough.' Graffiti in east Paris has long insisted that the beach is underfoot.

In 2001 they laughed at the beach called Paris-Plage. Motorists, who had been looking forward to fast summertime runs through the city, were furious. The beach had a few potted palms, a little sand and no swimming. If you could overlook the drabness, and the lingering stench of rubber and gas, it was beside the river and it had those views - Pont Neuf, the Ile de la Cité, the Conciergerie, Notre Dame and the Ile Saint Louis - and it was free.

People who can afford to become sardines and grill on the Riviera probably still laugh. Other cities have done theirs, such as Brussels les Bains, Berlin by the Spree, and Rome along the Tiber. Elsewhere in France there are urban beaches in Toulouse, Dijon and Saint-Quentin. This year Tokyo opens its version in Shibuya.

Is it fake, is it phony? As much as Paris likes to think that it is Mediterranean in character, the weather is usually against it. There can be days of brilliant blue skies and sunshine but these are usually random and are just as likely in February as in July, which means not very. Even cities with beaches seldom have them in the center of town.

In Europe it is not exactly normal to put on a Hawaiian shirt, grab a towel and go downtown on the Métro to catch the sun. But the city, this crazy place, has laid out 1500 tons of fine sand, hundreds of deckchairs and hammocks, stuck in a lot of nifty palms, put up a real swimming pool, installed fog machines and showers and added solar-powered fairy lights for the evenings.
The formula of past years stays the same with additions, such as a touch of Brazil for color, music and samba, more beach sports, a floating restaurant, outdoor movies on Tuesdays, a beach area just for little kids, and expanded ferry services, reaching out to Boulogne in the west and Charenton to the east.

Returned to the summer rendez-vous are the pétanque and peteca areas, the sand sports in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the Fnac concert stage, bike rentals, gymnastics, five beach cafés, the snack and ice cream stands, and the services like information, first-aid, postal, and security, all open from 7 am to midnight.

For the third edition last year the city estimated that 3.8 million beach fans were attracted to the 3.5-kilometre site, which was a near saturation level. This year the city was involved with its - failed - Olympic bid but is planning for expansion next year when a full-sized floating pool is expected to be situated near the Biblilothèque Nationale on the Left Bank.

As a summer visitor you can stand on the Pont de Notre Dame, on the trace of the Roman road to Soissons, and dither over whether to see Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, the Conciergerie - or further afield, the Louvre, the Opéra, the Eiffel tower or the Champs-Elysées. Or you can see this color, these blue sails in the breeze, all along the Right Bank.

This is Paris-Plage. Narrow, fake but less fake than it was, a beach of the imagination with real sand and European service. Even without swimming it has lifeguards, without pedalos it has a floating restaurant, and you can get to it by Métro or ferryboat. It's enough to set you dancing and Paris-Plage provides the music until Sunday, August 21.

Photos and Text Copyright © 2005 ? Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

Posted by Alan at 07:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 24 July 2005 07:59 PDT home

Friday, 22 July 2005

Topic: Couldn't be so...

The Week Ends in Turmoil

Whist taking the day off Friday to do a photo shoot in Malibu - the annual "Call to the Wall" surfing competition (first photos posted here) - it seems current events swirl on. The four who botched the second series of bombings in London have been identified and their photos posted for anyone who might have seen them, and there have been two arrests. And a fellow was shot dead in one of the tube stations - perhaps a bomber or perhaps a frightened fool in a large overcoat. The London undercover police were not taking any chances. Strange doings. As Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis and "Our Man in Paris" emailed me at dawn here - "Somebody must be putting bad stuff in the curry."

How to make sense of all this? Polly Toynbee in The Guardian (UK) argues that this all has something to do with absolutists and their view of truth, based on their sense that their religion is the only true one. It really is a form of insanity. Think of it this way:
"How could those who preach the absolute revealed truth of every word of a primitive book not be prone to insanity? Extreme superstition breeds extreme action. Those who believe they alone know the only way, truth and life will always feel justified in doing anything in its name."
Yes, Toynbee is including the "one way" Christians here. It is a war of religions.

On in this side of the pond, in the New York Times Olivier Roy says no, it's something else entirely, and not even the nasty young fellows being mad about our little war. He argues that Britain is not being "punished" for fighting alongside us in Iraq. Global jihadists in their "preferred battlegrounds outside the Middle East" are fighting against "a global phenomenon of cultural domination."

Well, what is going on? Christopher Dickey in a commentary in Newsweek on fanaticism in general says just who is a fanatic and who isn't depends on where you stand, as "it has come to be portrayed as fundamentally different if they are Muslims than it is if they are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Aryan or animal-rights zealots willing to kill innocents to defend their beliefs."

Monday our friend the high-powered Wall Street attorney, from his office next door to and thirty-two floors above the hole in lower Manhattan that used to be the World Trade Center, where a good number of his friends died, comments - "Some would say that this is the problem with organized religion; it has everyone killing everyone in the name of god or the generic equivalent."

Yeah, and Monday this hit the wires:
A Colorado congressman told a radio show host that the U.S. could "take out" Islamic holy sites if Muslim fundamentalist terrorists attacked the country with nuclear weapons.

Rep. Tom Tancredo made his remarks Friday on WFLA-AM in Orlando, Florida. His spokesman stressed he was only speaking hypothetically.

Talk show host Pat Campbell asked the Littleton Republican how the country should respond if terrorists struck several U.S. cities with nuclear weapons.

"Well, what if you said something like - if this happens in the United States, and we determine that it is the result of extremist, fundamentalist Muslims, you know, you could take out their holy sites," Tancredo answered.

"You're talking about bombing Mecca," Campbell said.

"Yeah," Tancredo responded. ?

Is he a fanatic? He's defending his remarks now - "Yes, I'm a fanatic."

Oh well. Our fanatics versus their fanatics. We have the big military and the smart bombs, and the nukes, and they're sneaky and very resourceful.

But we're more sensible and humane and all that. Tancredo is the exception. Except that Justin Logan finds this in the print edition of the new issue of The American Conservative:
The Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office, has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States. The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons. Within Iran there are more than 450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program development sites. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option. As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States. Several senior Air Force officers involved in the planning are reportedly appalled at the implications of what they are doing - that Iran is being set up for an unprovoked nuclear attack - but no one is prepared to damage his career by posing any objections.
No need to prove Iran had anything to do with it, should it happen. It would be a gesture, demonstrating our resolve. Or of our position that we have no need for evidence or that sort of thing - never have had and never will have - or of something. Will the world admire us for our blind display of power? (For the literary-minded think of Milton describing the powerless strongman, Samson - "Eyeless in Gaza.") Most curious. Well, we elected these guys because we wanted the grownups to be calling the shots.

It is also curious that these "senior Air Force officers involved in the planning" are appalled, but know well what happens to those who disagree with Dick or Rummy. Generals have lost their careers for saying this war would take more than just a few troops and cost lots of money. What do generals know?

As for putting the hurt on those who raise questions and bring inconvenient facts to the table, the week ended with the who-finked-out-the-CIA-agent thing getting even more Byzantine. Wilson and his wife got screwed, and what's up with that?

Hunter over at Daily Kos has a useful end-of-week summary:
It's only been a few days since the Supreme Court nominee was hurriedly announced in an attempt to get Karl Rove off the front pages. Since then, all hell has broken loose.

Bloomberg is reporting that Rove and Libby both gave testimony to the grand jury that flatly conflicts with the testimony given by those they said they talked to.

We now know that the Top Secret memo most consistent with the talking points that Rove and Libby told reporters was seen in the hands of Press Secretary Ari Fleischer in the days before the leak occurred. And that Fleischer told the grand jury he never saw it.

And Steve Clemons has verified that John Bolton was one of Judith Miller's regular sources on WMD issues, and that MSNBC stands by its story that Bolton gave testimony to the grand jury about the State Department memo in question. Bolton, you may recall, has previously been identified to have been involved in the Niger uranium claims that Wilson's trip helped disprove - just to add even more gunpowder to this mix.
Damn, that's a lot of stuff, and the Hunter item contains links to all the sources. He's not making it up.

Yep, looks bad for the administration. Hunter says it shows the broad outlines not just of multiple perjury charges, but of linked conspiracy charges against a number of administration officials.
We know that there are members of the administration familiar with the attack against Plame/Wilson who have been talking to prosecutors. At least, we can assume they've been telling prosecutors at least as much as they've been telling the press, or we'd have a whole passel of reporters likely joining Judith Miller in her Fortress of Suddenly Discovered Integrity. The fact that other administration officials have been giving their side of the story perhaps poses the most serious risk of all for Rove and others - because it wouldn't be very difficult, for people in the right places, to shatter what little plausible deniability Rove, Libby, Fleischer, and others have been clinging to.

That branch may already be broken, in fact. I don't think it's possible to exaggerate the amount of legal danger here for Rove in particular, and Fleischer and Libby as well. The special counsel is likely trying to solidify how, exactly, Rove learned the information in the memo, since it's looking increasingly implausible that reporters told him, and looking more probable that Rove and Novak "agreed" on a storyline after the fact (reports are now saying that Rove's and Novak's stories don't quite match, too, further raising the stakes.) Note, however, that it may not matter whether the grand jury can fully identify how he came by the information. Rove has now been identified as confirming the classified info to both Novak and Cooper; that in and of itself represents a likely crime under the Espionage Act.
Hunter has much more to say, but how much can you stand?

He does make the point that what poses the greatest threat for the Bush administration is that, as each news agency puts the story in the hands of some of the best investigative reporters, the various threads of the story are being woven into a compelling - and disastrous - storyline. The White House is losing control of the narrative.
A Bush administration crime, carried out by Watergate-era and Iran-Contra figures that this administration has embraced wholeheartedly, done in the service of shoring up "fixed" evidence used to justify a preemptive war. And news services are tying the Plame outing to the "fixed" nuclear intelligence cited by Bush in his pre-war declarations to the nation. Those links are, finally, being made, and it's beginning to make the Nixon White House look like a Norman Rockwell painting in comparison.
Oh my! Poor Norman Rockwell.

So what happens when you lose control of the narrative? Digby over at Hullabaloo says what seems to be happening is the general population - or at least those who follow this stuff even vaguely - is latching onto a new narrative, one that taps into their "highly developed instinctive understanding of human character." In short, the story develops its own theme -
Just as a third rate burglary was a perfect window into an abusive and paranoid Nixon administration, Rovegate is a perfect illustration of the intimidation and arrogance that characterizes Bush. The Lewinsky matter could be said to show the indiscipline that characterized Bill Clinton; Iran-Contra the disconnectedness of an aging, disengaged president.

I'm not saying all those things are the only lessons to be taken from these scandals; far from it. But they engaged the public and the press because they spoke to bigger issues by using people's highly developed instinctive understanding of human character. I don't necessarily think it has to be this way, but it usually is. People seem to need to see and feel the human dimension in order to understand the big picture.

Rovegate is quite interesting in this way, not because it centers around the president but because it centers around the one person who most personifies the modern conservative movement's strategy. And he is the one person who is feared and respected for his effectiveness by people on both sides - almost to the point of being gifted with magical abilities to tell the future and shape events.

He serves a purpose for both sides in this way, explaining for Democrats their sense of impotence and justifying for Republicans their excesses. None of this is really their doing, you see, and there is nothing they can do to change it; it the product of a brilliant political alchemist who is beyond the scope of normal human behavior or understanding. Fear him or follow him but do not question him.

So, Rove being exposed in a petty, unnecessary act of revenge and overreach, pathetically reaching for Clintonian legalisms and falling back on infantile excuses is a bit of a jolt. Whether by hubris or error, Rove's naked vulnerability is a very useful parable with which to explode the myth of Republican omniscience and explain something that is vastly complex and difficult for average people, much less the compromised kewl kidz, to get their arms around.

Bush's Brain is not omnipotent. The administration that sold itself on simple homespun values and manly virtues has been caught in an act of waspish backstabbing to cover its dishonesty. The war was based on lies and now we are losing it. How could this masterful White House screw this up so badly? These questions can now be asked outside the context of the simple narrative that's been constructed about Bush's honor and Rove's supernatural talents. The scandal opens it up. What has, up to now, been hailed by both sides and in the press as unassailable political mastery is exposed as gross arrogance combined with gross incompetence. That's the story?.
Works for me. Once it becomes a narrative - a "story" - then it seems all bets are off. The Wizard of Oz was just an arrogant old blowhard behind a curtain trying to scare people - even the wide-eyed innocent Dorothy and even her cute little dog, Toto. If that becomes the narrative structure folks find comfortable, this will go south real fast for the White House. Dorothy got mad and told the wizard he was a bad man for trying to frighten her hapless friends (no brain, no heart, no courage), and Toto took the curtain in his teeth and pulled it back to reveal the sham.

If that's the shape of the narrative at work now, well, things will get real interesting, real fast.

Posted by Alan at 21:36 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 July 2005 21:41 PDT home

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