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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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Friday, 7 April 2006
Decisions: All the News That Fits, and Doesn't
Topic: The Media

Decisions: All the News That Fits, and Doesn't

At the end of the week, Friday, April 7th, the news was buzzing with the "big stories" that, in effect, sucked all the air out of the room, or distracted people from all else. For those who follow national affairs there were two big issues that were more than enough to consider. And it's too bad that these two items crowded out some other things that perhaps deserve attention. But there's only so much space available in the media, and you just cannot pay attention to everything. So the two big items were "it."

So first those two, and then some other matters.

The first, obviously, was the news that broke the day before. Had the president actually been involved in some political scheme to trash the reputation of a critic, a scheme that involved his approving selective release of carefully chosen classified information to one influential reporter on the condition she tell no one where she got the scoop? Was he authorizing a secret press operation to counter someone who exposed that the administration had been, at best, a bit misleading about the reason we needed to go to war immediately, to preempt what was clearly going to happen if we didn't? Did he know this "what might happen" was unlikely, that the information he was getting about Iraq working on a nuclear weapon or two was somewhere between ambiguous and just bogus? It more and more looks like this was the case.

The detail of his legal authority to instantly and impulsively have one of his people show a reporter key paragraphs from a classified document probably isn't the issue. He can almost certainly do that. He has the authority.

And no one is saying he authorized his minion to reveal that the pesky critic's wife was a covert CIA agent and set up the whole junket that uncovered the weakness in his evidence for war. That's not being considered, although it's possible. But that would require that you believe the president, to impugn the character of a critic, would expose a secret agent, blow her operation to trace traffic in nuclear material on the black market, and put her informants at risk for their lives. That did happen, and really, no one is suggesting the president would stoop to that to trash someone who noted what the president was saying wasn't exactly so. Some believe the vice president would, as he's the man who told the senator from Maine, on the floor of the senate, to go fuck himself, and who shot his elderly hunting partner in the face. You get a reputation for being a bit blunt and a tad careless and people assume the worst.

No, the issue is whether the president was jerking the nation around, authorizing "special information" be slipped to their plant, the ace reporter at the New York Times. The press is all over this. They don't like to be jerked around. And they assume the American people don't much like it either, save for those who see the president as a clever rascal who knows how to get what he wants and admire him for fooling all the people who think they're so damned smart. Friday's polling shows that group, those who think the president is handling everything just fine, thank you, is now smaller than its ever been. And the polling was done before it came out that the president had authorized this press gambit with their ally at the Times.

In short, the sixty-four percent who now don't exactly think the president can be trusted, the seventy percent who think the country is going in the wrong direction on most everything, see this "show a few secret paragraphs to Judy" plan to "get" Joe Wilson as pretty crappy.

And Friday there was the inevitable press briefing. The president's spokesman, Scott McClelland, took the heat - "The White House tried today to quell the furor over the leaking of sensitive prewar intelligence on Iraq, as President Bush's spokesman insisted that the president had the authority to declassify and release information."

No denial that the president and vice president did tell their man to show a few key paragraphs of a classified document to Judy Miller of the Times. They did. But they were allowed to. And it was for the good of the country. They wanted the truth made public. And of course the questions were why they decided to do it this way instead of just declassifying stuff, as they did ten days later. Why go after this one critic in such a secret way? The response? Can't discuss it. Ongoing investigation. Wouldn't be prudent. But it was legal.

Of course that wasn't the question, but everyone knows the drill, how to handle a difficult question if you're a politician or represent one. You acknowledge the question - "That's a good question, Fred" - and then you answer the question Fred should have asked. That usually works. But this time it was losing its charm.

Trouble. As Andrew Sullivan puts it here - "The bottom line is that the president clearly used his prerogative to classify and declassify intelligence data to leak selectively to the press to give a misleading notion of what his own government believed about Saddam's WMDs before the war. He was personally involved; and he tasked his veep to coordinate it. The most plausible explanation is that the president believes grave national security prerogatives can be used for political purposes and/or that he had something embarrassing to hide. Bottom bottom line: we can't trust him to be fully honest with us on one of the bases on which he led us to war. That matters, doesn't it?"

Maybe. Many don't seem to care. What does it matter now?

But more folks in the middle of the road are sensing they've been jerked around, and we're in a war that cost the lives of a lot of our guys, and maimed ten times as many, and has the world against us, and has cost nearly a half a trillion now, and is going badly, and the deficits are a mile wide and ten deep. Even if they think we must slog on and make the best we can out of it, this sort of dicking around with classified information to "get" a guy who pointed out some problems just seems to stink. It's the kind of thing junior high school girls do, spread rumors the cute new girl is "loose." Those of us who have family who have served in Iraq expect better. It rankles to have spiteful children in charge of things. One expects that those in charge are, at times, straightforward, thoughtful and serious. Oh, and competent too. This sort of things doesn't help.

The second big story was this - "A carefully constructed compromise on immigration reform apparently fell apart in the Senate today after Democrats fended off conservative Republican efforts to amend the agreement and an effort to cut off debate failed by a lopsided vote."

As discussed elsewhere, this was dead in the water Wednesday night, Thursday morning there was a miraculous bipartisan compromise and lots of backslapping, and then it fell apart. The compromise was pretty strange - immediately departing those who had been here less than two year, those who been here more than two years and less than five have to play fines, learn English and pay back taxes, and those who have been here longer get to apply for citizenship, and pay back taxes if any. And there's no way to tell who's who. But the compromise didn't fail because it was wacky. The senators with angry constituents held that it wasn't punitive enough, and really amounted to amnesty, and these folks had to be punished and sent away, all of them. If they want to come back in, follow the damned rules. The argument that we need these folks for the economy to work - no one wants lettuce to cost three hundred dollars a head - didn't survive the righteous.

This is going nowhere, and it was other big story at the end of the week, probably for two reasons. The first is that congress Friday stared their two week Easter recess, and this confirms that congress is useless. The second is there will be more demonstrations now, with everyone angry. Nothing was resolved. Thus this story is a classic "big trouble because nothing happened" story. What didn't happen is the story, not what did.

What items were pushed for the main pages by all this sneaky stuff and discord?

Well, there was this -
A U.S. Marine was shot and killed allegedly by an Iraqi soldier at a base near the Syrian border, the U.S. said Friday. The Iraqi soldier was then wounded by another American Marine.

... "An Iraqi army soldier allegedly shot and killed the U.S. Marine on a coalition base" near Qaim, the statement said. "The Iraqi soldier was shot by another U.S. Marine."

The incident is under investigation and no further details were released, the statement said.

"Just as we as American military men and women trust one another with our lives, we also trust our Iraqi counterparts, and that trust has not wavered," the statement added. "We will not let this isolated incident deter us in our mission to train and mentor the Iraqi security forces as they progress toward independent operations to ensure the security of their nation."

The U.S. command also reported three other deaths among American troops.
That puts us at 2,349 members of our military dead, and this one is not a good sign, particularly since the president the day before said this, again -
On the security side, our goal, our mission is to let the Iraqis take the fight. And as I - I've always been saying, they stand up, we stand down. That means, we train the Iraqis to take the fight to those who want to disrupt their country.
It seems in this case one of them did. Perhaps it was just one crazy guy. Let's hope it's not a trend.

But this didn't get much play, save here on the web.

Nor did this on the State Department falling apart. "The US is sending diplomats into Iraq, but refusing to give them military protection. No wonder Foreign Service morale is collapsing." This is an investigative piece that's pretty amazing. We'll win hearts and mind if we pull troops out of really hot spots and send in low-level guys from State - the experts and career folks just won't do it - unarmed and unprotected. They'll make nice and everything will be cool. One more theory. And those who don't quit at the State Department may burn Condoleezza Rice in effigy. But it's not in the news. Makes you kind of miss Colin Powell, as much as he messed up. But the crew in charge is full of theories about how things should work and what will happen if you just try. They're optimists.

Theoretical idealism, assuming the best, is fine. It's fine for bull sessions in the college dorm. In the real world, if you're young and new to the State Department, it's a bit scary.

What about the older, more experienced diplomats?

Well, Friday there was this in a minor Associated Press story -
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned in an interview broadcast Friday that Iraq faces the possibility of sectarian civil war if efforts to build a national unity government do not succeed. He said such a conflict could affect the entire Middle East.

Khalilzad told the British Broadcasting Corp. that political contacts among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders were improving, but that within the general population, "polarization along sectarian lines" was intensifying - in part due to the role of armed militias.

Khalilzad warned that "a sectarian war in Iraq" could draw in neighboring countries, "affecting the entire region."
Will Condoleezza Rice call him on the carpet and rip him a new one for being so negative?

Why would he be so negative?

Maybe it's things like this - "Three suicide bombers blew themselves up in a coordinated attack against worshippers at an influential Shiite mosque in the Iraqi capital Friday, killing at least 78 people and injuring 154."

This is the most deadly of such bombings so far, and the worst day in Iraq in a year. But then, there was the leak story. And the immigration issues. An incipient regional war in the Middle East, involving all the major nations in the area? That could be a bit of a problem. But then if you assume the "best case" really will happen, this ambassador is just undercutting the administration. Why does he still have his job? (Look hard at the daily commentary on the right and you see that question, his loyalty, has come up.)

And of course, with all this news there's no room for thinking about Iran.

As mentioned before in these pages, there was that thing in Foreign Policy, Joseph Cirincione, the nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment, saying this -
For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran. In the last few weeks, I have changed my view. In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran.
And Friday in the Financial Times of London we see this -
Iran has prepared a high-level delegation to hold wide-ranging talks with the US, but the Bush administration is resisting the agenda suggested by Tehran despite pressure from European allies to engage the Islamic republic, Iranian politicians have told the Financial Times.

A senior Iranian official, Mohammad Nahavandian, has flown to Washington to "lobby" over the issue, according to a top Iranian adviser outside the US. However, the Iranian mission to the United Nations insisted he was in Washington on private business.

Iran's willingness to engage the US on Iraq, regional security and the nuclear issue, is believed to have the approval of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It represents the most serious attempt by the Islamic republic to reach out to the US since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But the White House insisted on Thursday that its own offer of talks with Iran, extended several months ago by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, was limited to the subject of Iraq.

... The Bush administration is resisting pressure from its European allies to engage Iran directly over its alleged nuclear weapons programme rather than leave negotiations to the EU3 of France, Germany and the UK. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, raised this issue with Mr Hadley this week, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is understood to have spoken about it with President George W. Bush.
We don't talk. We threaten. As in this -
... Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state, yesterday accused Iran of being "expansionist", "a central banker of terrorism" and directing attacks on US citizens.

Last week, the UN Security Council issued a mildly worded presidential statement calling on Iran to resume its suspension of fuel cycle development. Russia blocked tougher language. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, told reporters yesterday the next diplomatic step was to pass a legally binding "chapter seven" resolution requiring Iran to suspend its nuclear programme.
This is not looking good, but not exactly in the news, or at least not getting top billing. We've just talking nuclear war here.

Fred Kaplan here in Slate, in a detail analysis, calls it "A Global Game of Chicken."

The central idea -
The growling and brandishing have grown intense lately, in part because of the U.N. Security Council statement, passed by consensus on March 29, giving Iran 30 days to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Or else what? It's unclear. Sanctions would ordinarily be the sequel to such a declaration; but Russia and China have said, for now, that they won't support sanctions.

So, the Bush administration is sending signals - to the Iranians but also to the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans - that it might enforce the deadline in its own, more forceful manner if the Security Council goes wobbly. And the Iranians are sending signals back that they have their own array of options and therefore won't succumb to pressure.

That's the game of chicken. Two cars speed toward each other, head-on, late at night. There are three possible outcomes. One driver gets nervous and veers away at the last second; he loses. Both drivers veer away; the game's a draw. They both keep zooming straight ahead; everybody dies. Back in the early '60s, the flamboyant nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote that one way to win at chicken was to detach the steering wheel and wave it out of the window; the other driver, seeing you can't pull off the road, will be forced to do so himself. The dreadful thing about the current showdown between America and Iran is that both drivers seem to be unscrewing their steering wheels; they're girding themselves so firmly in their positions - the Americans saying Iran's enrichment is an intolerable threat to security, the Iranians saying it's an absolute ingredient of national integrity - that backing down is a course neither is willing to take.

There's another dangerous thing about chicken. One or both drivers might intend to veer off, but they know they don't have to until the last second. They might accelerate, to step up the pressure, as the cars approach each other; miscalculations - of time, distance, and intentions - could ensue; a collision could happen by accident.
That's about it.

Is there a way out of this?

Maybe -
Christopher Hitchens has suggested in these pages that Bush go to Tehran, with a full package of inducements to join the world, in the same spirit that Nixon went to China. In the long run, this may have a better chance than military strikes of turning the country in the right direction.

It's unpleasant, but is there any choice? It's worth emphasizing that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon now, nor is it likely to for at least three years. A U.S. military attack would unleash a wider war - which might be acceptable if it snuffed out Iran's nuclear program, but by most estimates it would merely set the program back a few years. Meanwhile, it would only stiffen popular support for Iran's fundamentalist leadership and alienate the vast majority of Iran's population, which for now holds a favorable view of America.

Would a diplomatic initiative be productive? Maybe not. But a military strike might be completely counterproductive: It would probably impede, but not halt, Iran's nuclear program; it would enflame anti-American terrorism; and it would strengthen Iran's regime.
A surprise "come join the world" Bush trip to Iran? Fat chance. He doesn't think that way. And it seems we don't want him to. That's why we reelected him.

So what else got short shrift in the news?

Well, as Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly reminds us, President Bush believes he has the right to eavesdrop on calls between the United States and foreign countries at his sole discretion - without a warrant, without probable cause, and regardless of the requirements of federal law.

Can he do the same for domestics calls? Drum reminds us the head of the NSA, General Michael Hayden, said yes they could, any calls at all, but they decided, themselves, "that's where we've decided to draw that balance between security and liberty." Nothing could stop them from listening to every call from everyone to anyone, no law, not the useless fourth amendment or any of that stuff, but being the good guys they are, the felt that would be wrong. (The discussion is here.)

But they seem to be rethinking that -
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales left open the possibility yesterday that President Bush could order warrantless wiretaps on telephone calls occurring solely within the United States - a move that would dramatically expand the reach of a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program.

... "I'm not going to rule it out," Gonzales said.

... Gonzales previously testified in the Senate that Bush had considered including purely domestic communications in the NSA spying program, but he said the idea was rejected in part because of fears of a public outcry.
Now they feel things have changed? There'd be no outcry now if they admitted they have been listening to everyone's calls and reading their email and all the rest? Maybe so. There so much other news that the idea that they're be "no outcry" could be spot on. This became a minor story this week.

It's amazing what slips by when there's only so much room for the news, and only so many things one can deal with simultaneously. And there's a political advantage in that.


A Footnote on Editorial Decisions

Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, wondered why this item was never mentioned in these pages, what he calls the story of "Miss American Horseface's reportedly being accused of voter fraud in Florida."

Yes, the acerbic banshee of the right, Ann Coulter, who calls liberals traitors, calls for the assassination of certain Supreme Court Justices, for the New York Times building in Manhattan to be blown up (her way of kidding around) allegedly faked her address and voted in the wrong precinct for some reason, and is in big trouble.

Rick asks - "Is this a case of me missing the item, or of you not knowing about it, or of you just taking the high road?"

The reply -
Is it taking the high road when you have been following the story since it first surfaced last week and just don't find it that interesting or important? March 27th she was out here and spoke in a two-way thing, sort of a debate, with Al Franken, up on Mulholland at that big Jewish University just east of the 405, and from everything I've read on that (didn't pop for the fifty bucks to drive up and watch) she was her usual appalling self, and no one much cared. She just doesn't matter anymore. The Time Magazine cover last year was when she peaked, and since then no one much cares about what she thinks, and she's slid from anyone's consideration. She's dropped to a third-string sub on the right side of things. Time Magazine helped her jump the shark? Something like that.

Discussing this would be like writing something on Pete Rose's current thoughts on off-track betting. So she screwed up - and is still a self-righteous voice for outrageous but silly crap. Yeah, yeah. Who cares? She's on Fox News less and less, actually almost never now. The right has moved on. And Al Franken now knows she's not a draw and cannot be used as a foil for pulling in a ticket-buying audience.

Fame is short in America. She had her run. This story is now a mere curiosity.

Harriet-the-Cat and I had an editorial meeting or two. This item got spiked. No room for it. Low priority.
Rick -
This is indeed good news! I've been so overwhelmed recently, I hadn't even noticed her fall, even as I was never quite sure what was propping her up in the first place. In fact, I only heard about her election problems early this week, I think on Franken's show when he held a lackluster contest that invited suggestions on what her community service should be.

In conclusion, I must commend you both on your sound editorial judgment - assuming, that is, that Harriet wasn't urging that the decision go the other way.
Nope. Harriet agreed. There's only room for so much news.

Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006 06:42 PDT home

Friday, 31 March 2006
Press Notes: Objective Reporting and the Immigration Crisis
Topic: The Media

Press Notes: Objective Reporting and the Immigration Crisis

The Set-Up

Since Just Above Sunset went online in May 2003 the topic of the press has come up again and again. Is the press biased one way or the other, and can the press really be objective - or is that unrealistic? Just what is "fair and balanced" and do you report both sides of a dispute even if one side bases their argument on what is just not so? Should national leaders be excused for saying things that just aren't true, on the record, out of respect or because, well, that was what they said and you should just report it without comment? Do you report on the actual facts that makes the public figure look bad - as if the speaker is cynically lying to make some point, or delusional, or just tired, confused or not that good with words? Would that make you look like you have an axe to grind? There is, it seems, the issue of the fine line between reporting an obvious contradiction and being seen as clearly out to nail some public figure - so you need to be careful. (Joe Conason deals with that issue here at in Salon, Friday, March 31, 2006, saying you really should report the president saying something that is just not so, and is vital, particularly when he's saying it repeatedly.)

And there's the whole issue of war reporting. Should you be objective and not take sides, or should you be what you are, which in our press is being an American who doesn't want to do the nation any harm? How do you deal with that? Just how do report bad stuff, and how much of it, and in what way? How do you report the good stuff when bad stuff is happening - one story from each category, even if there are nine big negative stories and two positive stories that day?

And how do you deal with the commercial aspect of the news? You have an audience that wants to know what's going on, but that includes news of the missing white woman of the month, some fetching sweet kid now missing, and some celebrity news like last year's Michael Jackson trial, and news of murder, mayhem and perverts on the prowl. Add shark attacks, and a long car chase covered live, and all the rest. Add those stories about racial matters, and immigration. Add the economic news for those worried about their jobs, or their portfolios. Add the health and medical news stories. Add the "lifestyle" stories. In the broadcast and cable media you have only so much airtime available between the blocks of advertising, and in print only so many column-inches amid the display ads. Do you give people what's important, when you see it developing, or give people what they want, even if the other stuff is seemingly vital? Often you can do both. Sometimes you cannot. And your audience can change channels, or read some other newspaper or magazine. There go the advertising revenues as your market share drops and you have to lower your rates. What do you tell the corporate shareholders when profits drop? And who is among the survivors in the newsroom when the staff cuts come?

It's a puzzle. And in these pages much of the discussion of the puzzle has included comments, and an occasional column, from Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta. He's been there.

Rick's involvement in the start-up of CNN can be found in Hank Whittemore's CNN: The Inside Story, a book from 1990, on the tenth anniversary of CNN and the transformation of the news business. See the index under Rick Brown, and the photos, even if he doesn't look much like that any longer (he looks better). Rick finished working for CNN in 1985, although he did publish his TV News Journal after that, until 1988. We've known each other since the mid-sixties and I consider him an "old school" journalist sort - one of the guys who actually knows what fair and balanced really means. There are not many of them left.

Of course, he did note this last week in the column where more was said about the press puzzle - "I must confess my role in the creation of the new medium had little to do with editorial matters, but specifically had me inventing the 'satellite desk,' which dealt with how to get all those reports, both live and on tape, back to headquarters so they could be sent back out to the world."

But he knows the players - "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" - and a bit of web searching will show that his wife is a person of some consequence at CNN now. She didn't leave.

That quote from Rick was from What journalism is and what it is not. A dialog. - posted June 27, 2004 - on war coverage and balance. In this, 'Maybe a little less of the pervert of the day...' (June 5, 2005), Rick has some things to say on Ted Turner, who didn't think much of the sort of news people were demanding. That was in the news at the time, and it was in the news again this week - Ted Turner blasts the media, Bush - and himself - "There's an awful lot of superfluous news, the pervert of the day and someone that shot seven people at a fraternity party. Who needs it all?"

Rick also had a few things to say on Anderson Cooper, CNN and disaster coverage here, from September 4, 2005, and you know what was happening then in New Orleans. That touched CNN management and their choices. In fact, in The news media wakes up and starts doing its job?, back in July 2004, Rick was saying things like this - "I just so wish we could go back to the days when delivering news was considered a sacred public trust, instead of an opportunity to 'enhance shareholder value' by being the most popular kid in school."

The Issue, One More Time

The whole business comes up again, but this time with one of Rick's friends for decades, CNN's Lou Dobbs.

See this:

The Twilight of Objectivity
How opinion journalism could change the face of the news.
Michael Kinsley - Posted Friday, March 31, 2006, at 6:08 AM ET SLATE.COM

It opens with the "inside baseball" stuff -
CNN says it is just thrilled by the transformation of Lou Dobbs - formerly a mild-mannered news anchor noted for his palsy-walsy interviews with corporate CEOs - into a raving populist xenophobe. Ratings are up. It's like watching one of those "makeover" shows that turn nerds into fops or bathrooms into ballrooms. According to the New York Times, this demonstrates "that what works in cable television news is not an objective analysis of the day's events," but "a specific point of view on a sizzling-hot topic." Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia Journalism School, made the same point in a recent New Yorker profile of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. Cable, Lemann wrote, "is increasingly a medium of outsize, super-opinionated franchise personalities."

The head of CNN/US, Jonathan Klein, told the Times that Lou Dobbs' license to emote is "sui generis" among CNN anchors, but that is obviously not true. Consider Anderson Cooper, CNN's rising star. His career was made when he exploded in self-righteous anger while interviewing Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu after Hurricane Katrina and gave her an emotional tongue-lashing over the inadequacy of the relief effort. Klein said Cooper has "that magical something ... a refreshing way of being the anti-anchor ... getting involved the way you might." In short, he's acting like a human being, albeit a somewhat overwrought one. And now on CNN and elsewhere you can see other anchors struggling to act like human beings, with varying degrees of success.

Klein is a man who goes with the flow. Only five months before anointing Cooper CNN's new messiah (nothing human is alien to Anderson Cooper; nothing alien is human to Lou Dobbs), he killed CNN's long-running debate show Crossfire, on the grounds that viewers wanted information and not opinions. He said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with Jon Stewart's widely discussed and uncharacteristically stuffy remark that Crossfire and similar shows were "hurting America" with their occasionally raucous displays of emotional commitment to a political point of view.

But that's just a personal gripe (I worked at Crossfire for six years), easily resolved by a slavish apology. More important is that Klein is right in sensing, on second thought, that objectivity is not a horse to bet the network on. Or the newspaper, either.
This followed by a discussion the problem - the Internet, as "no one seriously doubts anymore that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business." Who is going to pay for "a collection of articles, written by professional journalists from a detached and purportedly objective point of view?"

No one seems to want that now. Boring. And everyone gets the same thing. And people now want something "more personalized, more interactive, more opinionated, more communal, less objective."

Perhaps so.

And there's this on objectivity -
Objectivity - the faith professed by American journalism and by its critics - is less an ideal than a conceit. It's not that all journalists are secretly biased, or even that perfect objectivity is an admirable but unachievable goal. In fact, most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close. The trouble is that objectivity is a muddled concept. Many of the world's most highly opinionated people believe with a passion that it is wrong for reporters to have any opinions at all about what they cover. These critics are people who could shed their own skins more easily than they could shed their opinions. But they expect it of journalists. It can't be done. Journalists who claim to have developed no opinions about what they cover are either lying or deeply incurious and unreflective about the world around them. In either case, they might be happier in another line of work.

Or perhaps objectivity is supposed to be a shimmering, unreachable destination, but the journey itself is purifying, as you mentally pick up your biases and put them aside, one-by-one. Is that the idea? It has a pleasing, Buddhist flavor. But that's no substitute for sense. Nobody believes in objectivity, if that means neutrality on any question about which two people somewhere on the planet might disagree. May a reporter take as a given that two plus two is four? Should a newspaper strive to be open-minded about Osama Bin Laden? To reveal - to have! - no preference between the United States and Iran? Is it permissible for a news story to take as a given that the Holocaust not only happened, but was a bad thing - or is that an expression of opinion that belongs on the op-ed page? Even those who think objectivity can be turned on and off like a light switch don't want it switched on all the time. But short of that, there is no objective answer to when the switch needs to be on and when it can safely be turned off.
That is followed by an argument for a post-objective press modeled on the Guardian (UK) and other such papers. Don't hide your point of view. Don't "follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion and then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity." Why not go there? Just be "factual accurate," as the truth does matter. People disagree with you? So what? The idea is the reporting is now lively, and the facts are there too. Lou Dobbs, without distorting the facts, makes the issues come alive. Not a bad thing.

Our News Guy Responds

Rick view, via email, Friday, March 31st -
This "objectivity" discussion, taken up here from a fellow ex-CNNer (but one I didn't know; I think I was gone before he started there), can get boringly arcane for people both inside and outside the business, but it seems to be headed for a conclusion that I came to years ago - that journalistic objectivity, long thought to be a cardinal principle handed down by God, comes down to merely a question of marketing.

If your object is to reach the most people with what you think they want and they think they need, is it best to do it by playing to the louts in the cheap seats, as Fox News Channel is often accused of doing, or to play to those folks who want to become familiar with a story without the filter of a reporter's point of view, which is what NPR listeners think they're getting?

Hey, it's your network to program the way you think you should. I can't tell you what to do, so have at it!

Personally, although I think Lou Dobbs has a right to take the approach he takes, and I find his experiment interesting, I also think he's dug himself into a bit of a hole. For one thing, his show seems to have become the "Illegal Immigration Show," as if that's the only issue worth talking about. For another, there's so much investment on the show in Lou's point of view on this story - which, by the way, I largely disagree with - that I suspect any and all others will get short shrift. But finally, will Lou be sharing his personal views on just this story, or will he soon be telling us which party he wants to win the midterm elections this fall?

(I should say, by the way - just in case Lou Googles himself and maybe ends up reading this - that he is a very nice guy who has been very good to me in the past and that I don't mean any of this as a personal attack, but that we're just noodling here about issues and stuff, if you know what I mean. That said, I'll continue.)

Is being objective just exhibiting bad sense, as Kinsley suggests? I mean, must a reporter be forced to choose sides between Bin Laden and Bush?

I must admit, I would have much preferred that the American networks, including the one I once worked for, not seem to take sides in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I realize the difficulty of imbedding reporters in the Iraqi military in the way it was done on the U.S. side, but even as the people back home may have wanted all the flag-waving, what they really needed was the unvarnished truth.

I would have liked to have seen, for example, any of the CNN execs, just before hostilities got underway, lead a meeting of anchors and reporters and producers and assignment editors and writers, and ask for a show of hands of those who thought the network should recommend that viewers vote for the Republican candidate in the presidential elections the following year! Okay, now how many of you think CNN should back the Democratic candidate? (I doubt any hands would go up for either of those.) Okay, how many of you think CNN should be cheering on the Iraqis in the upcoming war? And how many think we should be cheerleaders for the American side?

I suppose you might get a few hands on that last one, but merely asking the question might have driven home the point that the most trustworthy reporters are just that - "reporters", not "supporters." But then again, sometimes, just to do your job, it takes more courage than you can possibly muster.

Not that opinion has no place at the networks. Very early in CNN's history, Ted Turner decided to go on his own network's air and give his opinion about something - as I remember, it was against media promoting violence the way it does - and shortly after that, Dan Schorr (he worked for us back then) came on with a rebuttal - an editorial that top producers somehow found a way of allowing very little airplay. Well, the whole thing caused such a fuss that Ted decided to cancel all opinion shows on the network. (This was reminiscent of an incident in early Hollywood history in which studio boss Irving Thalberg sent out a memo banning all minor chords from movie sound tracks because he had heard one in a song he didn't like. Irving's dictum didn't last any better than Ted's did.)

But in fact, I myself find it helpful to hear other people's opinions about issues in the world, and a network with all news and no thinking is even more boring than ... well, than the discussion we're having here!

Is objectivity a rhetorical trick? I find Kinsley's note, that "most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close," good enough for me. Having a report presented AS IF it were being delivered by some detached Martian may be the best we can hope for when we go looking for the truth of a matter. And hey, marketing trick or not, even a failed attempt at objectivity works for me better than relying on Rush Limbaugh or the Daily Show to tell me what's happening in the world.

Okay, I may be part of an incredibly shrinking demographic, but I'm pretty sure I will always be seeking out whatever news medium (in my opinion) does the right thing.
So there!

But then, Rick is part of a shrinking demographic - "folks who want to become familiar with a story without the filter of a reporter's point of view."

What demographic has Joe Klein set out to capture, unleashing Lou Dobbs?

As Tim Grieve points out here, a March 28 Public Opinion Strategies poll says we're split just about evenly - half of Americans think immigration is an economic benefit and half think it is an economic threat. Republicans poll about the same as Democrats on seeing immigration and immigrants as a danger. Is it a "serious problem?" Another poll shifts there to Republicans.

Grieve thinks the issue is split on class lines - "Working-class Americans, who find their factory wages or their service sector jobs undercut by new arrivals to the country, see a problem. White-collar Americans, who benefit from the illegal immigrants who accept minimum wages to build their houses, clean their cars and wash their dishes, see immigration as a boon."

If so, CNN is fanning class warfare, of a sort. Unless they're playing with the Tom Tancredo take on it all, which sounds a lot like white supremacy crap - "You have to understand there is a bigger issue here. Who are we? Do we have an understanding of what it means to be an American, even if we are Hispanic or Italian or Jewish or black or white or Hungarian by ancestry? Is there something we can all hang on to? Are there things that will bind us together as Americans?" Well, that what he said to Grieve.

Dobbs and his enabler Klein may be digging a deeper hole than Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, sets out here.

But what is the press supposed to do? And for whom?

Posted by Alan at 21:45 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006 21:47 PST home

Wednesday, 15 February 2006
What's Important: You Don't Know Dick
Topic: The Media

What's Important: You Don't Know Dick

The intention of these "current events" reviews, trying to sift the real news from the sham news - stuff that doesn't matter much to anyone (news for the nosy and easily amused) - with commentary. It's an attempt to find out what's going on that may make a difference in this sorry world. Of course, secondarily it's always amazing to see what matters to people - last year the Michael Jackson trial and the missing girl in Aruba, this year the gay cowboys and, at present, the fellow who seems to have murdered his wife and child and fled to England (he's on his way back to face charges). Thus it's a sort of anti-journalism, as mainstream American corporate journalism has settled into a joust for market share and a guessing game - what will keep the "news consumer reading, listening or watching long enough for them to tolerate the advertising that pays for it all? There is a niche market for "serious news" - those big stories about who we are and where the country is heading. But it really is a niche market. For the most part those who market the news know what big swaths of the public what to know, and the sensational is not "sham" to that massive demographic. One big story Wednesday, February 15, was this - Willie Nelson Releases A Song About Gay Cowboys. It's what people want to know. That's the service they provide. This is a service to the elitist niche market.

Of sometimes the "serious" melds with the mainstream news. Constitution law and international law, the issues underlying the NSA spying business and most everything to do with the war and how we conduct it - torture or enhanced interrogation for example - may be arcane and dreary to "big target" demographic, and New Orleans wiped out and the Muslim furor over the Dutch cartoons maybe be just old news now. But when perhaps the prime architect of the Iraq war, and the driving force behind all administration policy, the Vice President, shoots a man with a shotgun, the two join in an odd way.

Mid-week, Wednesday, February 15th, that was the news, most all of it, in the domestic media. That was the day, four full days after the hunting accident, the Vice President broke his silence and decided to explain himself, to one reporter, Brit Hume, on one network, Fox. Otherwise he's saying nothing.

That's juicy - the man is strange in so many ways - but not exactly "serious" policy stuff that will get us in or out of this war or those to come in Iran and Syria and wherever else, and it doesn't have a whit to do with the current claim the administration has the inherent right to ignore quite explicit laws and disregard court decisions, and can conduct warrantless wire taps on citizens, ignore treaties and recent statutes regarding torture and that sort of thing, and disregard court decisions about arresting citizen without charges and holding them incommunicado for years on end without any right to challenge the arrest in any way. But for the nosy and easily amused the man had a beer (just one he says) and shot an old guy, then said nothing for four days. Good stuff. Great story.

Important? The Just Above Sunset email group wrestled with that.

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, from Paris, said this -
If you ask me I would say the United States has gotten hysterical.

Guy out hunting shoots another hunter. It's a really stupid thing to do, either shoot or get shot, but it happens all the time. Ask the NRA.

So the shooter is the Vice President of the United States, Nothing sinister in it.

If there was they could have said the other guy got shot cleaning his gun. If Cheney wanted the guy offed he could have made a phone call.

This is another Michael Jackson story. It is part of the 'stuff' of the United States; the 'stuff' that doesn't mean much, except to the 'news' industry and all of its satellites. It's this week's missing bride story.

Isn't there some other more serious, urgent business? Lies, robbery, bribes, corruption, deception, torture, kidnapping, war, death.

What's a cure for hysteria?
Well, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, disagrees, and he was one of the folks who started CNN twenty-five years ago - back when CNN did news and didn't dump "news guys" for "warm personalities: like Anderson Cooper. Rick sees this as "serious" news -
Okay, yeah, it's hysteria, just like all the other "stuff" in this country - American "stuff" like leftist hysteria about the Iraqi war, and right-wing hysteria about 9/11, loud complaints about huge budget deficits fueled by huge tax cuts that benefit rich Republicans and the cutting of Democratic programs most Americans think we need, public hysteria about the government acting like a hurricane that wipes out New Orleans is just a local problem, state and local school boards chipping away at the wall between church and state, conservatives railroading justices onto the highest court in hopes they will eventually do what most Americans want them not to do, and worries from both sides of the aisle that our president truly believes he can ignore the Constitution he swore an oath to uphold and defend.

So other than the obligatory jokes, why does anyone have reason to care about this veep shooting thing?

First of all, it does say something about the way these people mishandle our public business. Rather than feeling a responsibility to keep the American public informed, they had meetings and decided to leave getting the word out up to the property owner (a lobbyist, by the way - isn't it always the case that these people turn over their responsibilities to lobbyists?) - so if this Armstrong woman had decided to keep this whole thing to herself, would any of us ever even have heard about it? And doesn't that matter?

Maybe in Europe, this is played as Americans thinking Cheney might really have been trying to off the guy, but that's not what people here think. In this country, a large number of citizens think they have a right to know what the political leadership is up to, and right now, they're wondering why the leadership seems to think it's none of our business.

Second of all, imagine if Al Gore had done this ten years ago, and the White House trying to keep it quiet. With the Republicans holding Congress? No question about it, he would have been impeached! Not that that matters so much, but it does help put this all in perspective.

This whole thing is about feeling helpless within a democracy. The group in power is so arrogant that it doesn't care what the opposition thinks, knowing full well that the people who voted them into power are too stupid to care about anything other than Michael Jackson and runaway brides.

Although folks living in Europe never can be convinced of this, their perspective about what goes on over here is always a bit out of kilter. I remember vacationing in the UK during the early days of Watergate and reading in the tabloids that it was just a matter of days before mobs would be invading White House grounds to eject Nixon from office, something that dismayed them because they couldn't understand what all that anti-Nixon hysteria was about, especially since it appeared to be a totally sexless scandal, unlike their scandals usually involving photos of some Chancellor of the Exchequer patronizing the same call girl that once had relations with a Soviet Ambassador, prompting the whole cabinet to resign and the queen to ask someone or other to form a new government. Now THAT'S a proper scandal, to be sure!

So you think this whole thing is just a concern of the "news business and its satellites"? Then so be it. Somebody's got to give a shit about what goes on in the halls of power, even if American voters don't.
Then Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, sent a second email to the group -
Having just re-read this after having sent it, it certainly sounds much harsher than I meant it to sound. I'm not really that angry at all.

I was just expressing a difference of opinion with you, Ric, so please, don't come gunning for me. Thanks.
The reply from Paris? This -
But wait! You do sound angry with these louts. Let it out.

Everybody except the crazies is too polite. Besides, I haven't any BB's.

Compared to the United States' other problems a couple of Repubs shooting each other is pretty small spuds. But you are right - they can't even get this straight. So Cheney was bombed with a loaded gun - let a lobbyist take care of it! It's how all business in the United States is handled these days. It's not something new, like a runaway bride.

Here, in Froglando, the incident got its 30 seconds' worth on TV Tuesday. That's it, no more, all done. There was the New York snow pile to report. And fires - isn't LA burning again? [Editor's Note: No, not today.]

The French were sending an old aircraft carrier to India to get rid of it. Before, they were supposed to take all the asbestos out of it. But there's lots left in, says Greenpeace, and now the Indian Supreme Court says, hmmmm? Today France decides to give up and recall the wretched thing, but it's got to go by way of Good Hope because the Egyptians don't want it going through Suez again. Anybody could see this coming, but it'll take the navy three months to drag the thing back - and then? And then there'll be a big fight about it being too dangerous to take apart in France, in Europe, in the whole world. You know what TV-news showed us? The Americans took their aircraft carrier, USS America, out to some nice deep place lost in the middle of the ocean owned by the whole world, and pulled its plug. Glug, glug, no more 80,000-ton carrier full of asbestos. Can do!

European perspective about what is going on in America is slightly out-of-kilter because the United States is slightly out-of-kilter. French hunters shoot each other all the time. An unwritten rule here is, don't go in the woods from September until February unless you are crazy. It's too dangerous. Worse - 'they' won't even tell us how many hunters get bumped off every year. Statistics, if any, about innocent dead civilians are just thrown away.

So, you see, getting shot while hunting is as easy as breathing.

That the Vice President does it too just proves that it's a popular pastime on both sides of the Atlantic.
Well, you can read about that old French aircraft carrier full of asbestos here - Chirac Orders Return of Ship Over Asbestos Concerns (New York Times) but the conflict is clear. It the "Vice President Cheney Shoots Man and Says Nothing for Four Days" an important story? And, if it is, why is it important?

Out here in Hollywood late in the afternoon you could watch Tony Blankley, the pleasant fellow in charge of the Op-Ed page of Reverend Moon's hyper-Republican Washington Times and a Fox News mainstay. He had the new line - this is a non-story, it's no big deal. He was on a panel on Chris Matthews' Hardball on MSNBC with Byron York of the conservative National Review, who was actually amazed at that idea. Blankley trotted out the concept that the whole thing was in the news because the Washington reporters, the White House press contingent, got scooped by a tiny Texas paper, felt the White House was mocking them, and they were angry and jealous, so they were making a big deal about what was really nothing. That concept (would-be meme) has been bouncing around on the right side of the web for a few days. Right now it's just a talking point, and hasn't snowballed into a meme. In any event, York and Matthews looked dumfounded. They may not agree with all that
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, said above, but they seemed to agree with a large part of it.

How about a counter-meme, one from the land of tin-foil hats? There's this - something about the big confession (or whatever it was) about the shooting, this hunting accident, is too convenient. The administration knew this bad week was coming - the nasty hearings on this and that that would make them look very bad, the cartoon wars raging, Iraq still and mess and the Iran bomb thing getting even more tense - and the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Good day for Cheney to drop by Fox News and chat with Brit. Keep the rubes for attending to the other stuff. (Not advanced - was the shooting itself planned as a distraction for all the hits the administration was taking and those that might come? That's too far out.)

But what got short shrift was this - Senate Republicans Criticize Rice on Iraq. Yes, while the nation wanted to know if Vice President Cheney would say, yes, he shot the guy while buzzed on Jack Daniels and his heart medications (he did have two drunken driving arrests many years ago, here), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was facing a bunch of Republican Senators asking here what was going on, as Iraq was is chaos and thing were getting worse and not better. Photos show her looking angry and defensive.

This would have been big news on another day. Not this day. Cheney looked a tad sad and thoughtful on Fox News, mellow and contemplative.

The very same day Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff faced another group of senators, who wanted to go over the just-released nearly six hundred page report on how the response to Hurricane Katrina was so messed up. The report explicitly said he and the president were "disengaged" (putting it kindly), and pretty much asleep at the switch and ignoring the incoming facts on the ground, and people dies because of their incompetence. They weren't prepared, and then reacted stupidly. Reuters covered the report itself here. ABC covered the basics of the hearing here - it was nasty. Chertoff said they did do some good things but yes, they messed up badly, and said he takes responsibility, and he will fix things.

This would have been big news on another day. Not this day. Cheney looked a tad sad and thoughtful on Fox News, mellow and contemplative. (And Fox News covered the hearing with this - Everybody and Kitchen Sink Faulted for Katrina Response - as they thought everyone misinterpreted what was in the report and said in the hearing - both really showed everyone messed up and the feds did fine, considering.)

Would this be news on another day? UN Urges Haiti Poll 'Fraud' Probe - we arranged that the previously elected ruler there was removed, and urged elections to bring "democracy" (better outcome), and that's falling apart. Not news this day.

Go southeast a few hundred miles. Iran Open To Helping Venezuela Nuclear Program. What? The game Iran is playing these days just got local. This is a major in-your-face challenge. How will we react? Would this be news on another day?

ABC chose the day for this - airing tapes of Saddam Hussein himself back in the mid-nineties saying some terrorists were sure to attack America but they'd obviously not be associated with any state. It was inevitable. Interesting. Would this be news on another day?

Would this - Vice President Cheney won't say a word about the CIA leak scandal because now it seems he will actually be called as a witness in the trial of Scooter Libby? The VP will take the stand? My, my. At least the trial has been postponed until after the fall elections. This will be hot, but not cost seats in the senate or house.

What about this? Congress back in 1978 passed the FISA law to specify the precise conditions under which the executive branch could secretly wiretap and generally spy on American citizen in America, and amended it in 1995 or so, and again with the first version of the Patriot Act. You can do that. Just get a warrant. We'll make it easy. The president ignores the law and says no law congress applies to him if he thinks what's he's doing is in any way related to terrorism. They can pass anything they'd like. He can decide to ignore it. And even the Republicans in the senate call him out - the Senate Intelligence Committee calls for hearings on the whole NSA business. Explain yourself, sir! While Dick is chatting with Brit in the shadows on Fox News, the American Bar Association, across party lines, announces that, damn it, you have to get warrants - that's the law. (See this.) And the Washington Post reports this - the White House, led by Rove and Cheney, will soon get the Senate to cancel the hearings and effectively admit the president has the authority to ignore whatever laws they pass he judges tiresome and inappropriate. That changes the nature of our government. After two hundred and thirty years things change suddenly. But the story is a sidebar.

Is this news? No one was shot. 325,000 Names on Terrorism List - "The National Counterterrorism Center maintains a central repository of 325,000 names of international terrorism suspects or people who allegedly aid them, a number that has more than quadrupled since the fall of 2003, according to counterterrorism officials." That's a lot of names, and a four-fold increase means what? The war has created four times the number of terrorists in the last three years? Things are worse? Or are they better - our intelligence efforts are finally paying off and we know more? Or did they just add Americans who don't care much for what the president has down in the last three years? Hard to tell.

Oh well, while the Vice President was reliving his personal agony on Fox News the world was attending to this -
New images showing Iraqis abused by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib prison three years ago threatened Wednesday to enflame public anger already running high over footage of British soldiers beating youths in southern Iraq.

Images of naked prisoners, some bloodied and lying on the floor, were taken about the same time as earlier photos that triggered a worldwide scandal and led to military trials and prison sentences for several lower-ranking American soldiers.

Many of the pictures broadcast Wednesday by Australia's Special Broadcasting Service, including some that appear to show corpses, were more graphic than those previously published. One of the video clips depicted a group of naked men with bags over their heads standing together and masturbating. The network said they were forced to participate.
This is trouble, and our reaction is to say someone should do something about all these leaks, as reported here - these could "further inflame and cause unnecessary violence" and we already took care of the low-level people who did this stuff, so everything is fine now. Excpet the rest of the would snickers when we say such things. This would be a big story another day.

There's complete review of the situation here with links to all the photos. They aren't new. They're part of the original batch but withheld as they were too rough. The ACLU has been fighting to get them released, with the idea we should know what really happened. That's still in litigation. The world gets more dangerous.

And the Cartoon Wars rage on, the third week - Three Killed in Massive Cartoon Protests.

The odd thing is that whole matter has been discussed in these pages, but Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, where nothing has been said, has received these two messages -
It is a very sorrowful and painful incident that cartoon has been published in the western newspapers without caring the dignity of holy prophet of God. This is a serious matter. Such bad and criminal act cannot be tolerated. Such a criminal and vulgar act can destroy the harmony and peace of world. Those who dared to draw and publish such cartoons must be punished. Doing such will not only satisfy the Muslims but the criminals will also be taught a lesson. No law of the world allows doing such. The holy prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) was a man who led his life very cleanly. He is a true prophet of God who preached to worship only one God. His attitudes are exemplary for the mankind in every field of life. He gave the mankind the lessons of justice, respect, tolerance, peace and human dignity. During his life he conveyed the message of God and never harmed any one. Then why European newspapers tried to publish such cartoons. If the criminals were not punished it will only show that Europeans does not have any rule of human dignity and going to put an end the harmony and peace of world.

Islamabad, PAKISTAN February 15, 2006
Note: Convey my aspirations to your public and government

Mr. Editor,

Important Matter Of Respect For Holy Prophets

Yes making cartoon is not a crime but making such like insulting cartoons about holy prophet is a crime and vulgar action. The editors of Jyllans Posten have committed a crime. So the must be punished. They have hurt millions of Muslims of the world. Will they like to make such like insulting cartoon about their beloved leader? I want to ask you what will be your feelings and expressions if some one may dare to draw and publish such like cartoon about Holy Jesus or Holy Christ. Will not you denounce it? We being Muslims strongly condemn such like vulgar and criminal action. Being Muslim we believe that all the prophets of God are most respectable and sacred personalities. It is the part of our faith.

There must be a respect for these holy and sacred personalities such as prophets.

Islamabad, PAKISTAN February 15, 2006

Note: Convey my and Muslims' aspirations to your public and government by publishing my mail. Thanks
Done, for what it's worth.

On the other hand, considering the real news today - "Look! Something bright and sparkly! - if you want to deal with the hunting accident,
this is good, Bruce Reed at SLATE.COM

He gets off some good lines -
Even in his darkest hour, Vice President Cheney must have taken some perverse pleasure in watching the press corps whine for two days that the White House withheld information. The more reporters complain about secrecy, the more Cheney must be thinking, "Stop Me Before I Shoot Again."

But after Republican leaders put a gun to his head, the vice president couldn't hide out any longer, and agreed to be interviewed by Brit Hume for this evening. Tonight on Fox: "I Shot the Lawyer, But I Did Not Shoot the Deputy."
The main idea is Cheney is just following the crisis management guidelines the president established during Katrina: Blame everyone else for three days, and if that doesn't work, agree to take the fall. "Bush and Cheney have kept that campaign promise about ushering in 'the responsibility era'; they just forgot to mention the tape delay."

Sigh. Well, it is the news story of the day, and somehow emblematic.



The rivalry between the networks for what is the news story of the day produces some neat stuff, like this exchange on the CNN Crossfire show - Wolf Blitzer host, Jack Cafferty commentator and resident curmudgeon. From Media Matters, what was said -
BLITZER: First of all, Jack, what did you make of Dick Cheney's interview today?

CAFFERTY: Well, I obviously didn't see it 'cause it hasn't been released in its entirety yet, but I - I would guess it didn't exactly represent a profile in courage for the vice president to wander over there to the F-word network for a sit down with Brit Hume. I mean, that's a little like Bonnie interviewing Clyde, ain't it? I mean, where was the news conference? Where was the - where was the access to all of the members of the media? I don't know. You know? Whatever.

BLITZER: You still think he needs to do a full-scale news conference in front of all of the cameras, all of the reporters, and ask whatever they want?

CAFFERTY: That's never going to happen. But, I mean, running over there to the Fox network to - I mean that's - talk about seeking a safe haven. He's not going to get any high, hard ones from anybody at the F-word network. I think we know that.
Jack Cafferty is onto something here. It was carefully managed.

And this has been cited in the pages before -
Vice President Cheney endorsed the Fox News Channel during a conference call last night with tens of thousands of Republicans who were gathered across the country to celebrate a National Party for the President Day organized by the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Fox News styles its coverage as "fair and balanced," but it has a heavy stable of conservative commentators that makes it a favorite around the White House. It is unusual for a president or vice president to single out a commercial enterprise for public praise.

The comment came as Cheney took questions from supporters at 5,245 parties that were held in 50 states to energize grass-roots volunteers building a precinct-by-precinct army for President Bush's campaign.

"It's easy to complain about the press - I've been doing it for a good part of my career," Cheney said. "It's part of what goes with a free society. What I do is try to focus upon those elements of the press that I think do an effective job and try to be accurate in their portrayal of events. For example, I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News, because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally involved in, than many of the other outlets."
Where do you go for news?

Posted by Alan at 22:34 PST | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006 22:36 PST home

Friday, 3 February 2006
Cartoon Wars: The Sacred and the Profane
Topic: The Media

Cartoon Wars: The Sacred and the Profane

Obviously it is hard to write about "The Sacred and the Profane" (not the book) from Just Above Sunset in Hollywood, given local events like this - Lee Tamahori, the fellow from New Zealand who directed the James Bond movie "Die Another Day," was arrested on January 8th in a Hollywood prostitution sting while dressed in drag - but the news just hit the wires this week, as the charges came up in a criminal complaint filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court. (Reporters still scan those.) Tamahori approached an undercover policeman while wearing women's clothes and smiled broadly, as it were. The charges are agreeing to engage in an act of prostitution and unlawfully loitering on Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard.

What a world... and that's just down the hill, somewhere between the area the police used to call boy's town and the odd little theater district.

Of course, there are redeeming local stories of directors, as we see here - on January 26th, just up the hill, less that a mile from here, one of them did a good thing. That day, young Joaquin Phoenix, just after he got a best actor Oscar nomination for "Walk the Line" - in which he plays the late Johnny Cash, and even signs the songs himself - crashed his car on Lookout Mountain Road, just off Laurel Canyon. He says he lost his brakes, swerved to avoid another car, and well, his car went up the hillside and he ended up inside, a bit upside down. Oops.

Now Joaquin Phoenix is thirty-one, famous, rich and a big star - so you'd think he'd be able to afford a good car. Be that as it may, first on the scene, helping him from the car, was a local resident, Werner Herzog, the German director. The Los Angeles Times item quotes Joaquin Phoenix - "I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, 'Just relax.' I said to myself, 'That's Werner Herzog!' There's something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog's voice." Very odd. Herzog helped him out of the wreck and just faded away. The Times does not tell us if Herzog was in drag - but they do remind us Herzog just won Best Documentary down at the Directors Guild for his film "Grizzly Man." (The Directors Guild is a block away, and looks like this - and to the west is the Viper Room, Johnny Depp's club, where Joaquin's brother, River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose some years back - the chalk lines on the sidewalk are still there.)

This is a strange place, and far from the heartland, specifically far from Bennett, out in Colorado, where we get this - parents up in arms because of Gounod's "Faust."


It seems the new schoolmarm - actually an elementary school music teacher - showed the kids clips from a thirty-three-year-old PBS thing called "Who's Afraid of Opera" - specifically Dame Joan Sutherland and three puppet "friends" discussing Gounod's "Faust." Bad move - "Any adult with common sense would not think that video was appropriate for a young person to see. I'm not sure it's appropriate for a high school student." You see, Faust sells his soul to the devil, and as one parent says, "I think it glorifies Satan in some way."

So there. The new schoolmarm sent a letter of apology to all elementary school parents in Bennett. She tells the Denver Post - "I was definitely not sensitive to the conservative nature of the community, and I've learned that. However, from what has been said about me, that I'm a Satan worshipper, my character, I can't believe all of this. My intention was just to expose the kids to opera."

She's leaving town after the school year.

She might be comfortable out here - this community doesn't exactly have "a conservative nature," and has a pretty good opera company. But then again, out here we have this other German voice saying, "Just relax..." - and that'd be our governor, Arnold Shwarzenegger, not Werner Herzog.

So, just what should upset us, and what should we just let slide as not our business?

Well, what should upset us is cartoons. The Muslim world is up in arms at what the Danes published, and the Pentagon is outraged at what the Washington Post published. No one outside that tiny town in high plains of Colorado seems to be mad at the nineteenth-century French composer Charles Gounod, although much of his music is somewhere between pedestrian and silly. Everyone else is argry about cartoons.

Go figure.

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has been sending items on the Danish mess, as the French became involved. And it's a very odd story - provocative cartoons in the Danish and Norwegian papers depicting the Prophet Muhammad provoking rage in the Muslim world. What's up with that?

Well, Islamic law, based on clerics' interpretation of the Koran and the sayings of the prophet, forbids any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, even positive ones, to prevent idolatry. We have this or that plaster Jesus, hyper-realistic with blood and all that (see Mel Gibson) or abstracted in some way, above the alter of every church. It's a reminder of Christ's suffering and all that, while these folks think such things are just plain wrong - it cheapens it all (see the plastic Jesus on the dashboard).

And too, Denmark, Holland and Netherlands are a hot spot, particularly after the murder of the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, and the subsequent trial and conviction with the defendant being quite blandly unrepentant - this particular Van Gogh insulted Islam and the Prophet, and he'd slit the guy's throat again gladly. There was much discussion of how we can get along with such people. (Full background here, and this Van Gogh, oddly enough, was a descendant of the brother of the famous painter.)

This controversy didn't just come out of the blue. Note here, the drawings were commissioned by the Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) to accompany an article on self-censorship and freedom - and a deliberate challenge to Muslim insistence that their religious feelings must be given special consideration. It seems Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen was unable failed to find any artists willing to illustrate his children's book about Mohammed - they all worried about violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Theo Van Gogh was on their minds. So the paper, on its own, commissioned some folks to do some drawings - forty artists were invited to give their interpretation on of how Mohammed may have looked. Twelve (brave, foolish, broke?) members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union responded. And the paper published the article and the commissioned drawings September 30th of last year. This may have been a bad move.

See this for a continually updated detailed account of the whole mess. The cartoons can been seen here - but they come down to this:
- The face of Muhammad as a part of the Islamic star and crescent symbol. His right eye the star, the crescent surrounds his beard and face.

- The most controversial drawing shows Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb.

- Muhammad standing with a halo in the shape of a crescent moon.

- An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women "Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!". In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet! daft and dumb, keeping woman under thumb"

- Muhammad as a peaceful wanderer, in the desert, at sunset. There is a donkey in the background.

- One shows a nervous caricaturist, shakingly drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.

- Two angry Muslims charge forward with sabres and bombs, while Muhammad addresses them with: "Rolig, venner, når alt kommer til alt er det jo bare en tegning lavet af en vantro sønderjyde" (loosely, "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander". The reference is to a common Danish expression for a person from the middle of nowhere.)

- An Asian-looking boy in front of a blackboard, pointing to the Farsi chalkings, which translate into "the editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs". The boy is labelled "Mohammed, Valby school, 7.A", implying that this Muhammed is a second-generation immigrant to Denmark rather than the man Muslims believe was a prophet. On his shirt is written "Fremtiden" (the future). According to the editor of Jyllands Posten, he didn't know what was written on the blackboard before it was published.

- Another drawing shows an angry Muhammad with a short sabre and a black bar censoring his eyes. He is flanked by two women in niqaabs, having only their eyes visible.

- Muhammad standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with "Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!" ("Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!"), an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs.

- Another shows Kåre Bluitgen, wearing a turban with the proverbial orange dropping into it, with the inscription "Publicity stunt". In his hand is a stick drawing of Muhammad. An "orange in the turban" is a Danish proverb meaning "a stroke of luck."
That's it.

See? That wasn't so bad. But it was bad enough.

The paper said this -
The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings.

It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.

It is certainly not always equally attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is less important in this context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end.
And it seems some folks across Europe agreed. As Ric reported from Paris, France Soir, published them, in a sort of free press solidarity move. The publisher fired the editor over that, but then the publisher is half-Egyptian, even if a good Catholic Frenchman. The always left Libération, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, posted them as background information for a series of articles. It was the controversy of the week. Le Monde is here (in French), saying this is really about threatening those who want to discuss and debate the intersection of fundamentalism and politics, the clash between freedom and faith. (Has anyone ever mentioned the French love to debate big topics?)

In any event, Le Monde posted this cartoon, full of that trademark French ironic wit - the words say "I must not draw Muhammad."

But then by the end of the week, this had good global, as Associated Press reports here - "a swell of protests across the Muslim world" Friday - Britain, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Palestinian areas - demonstrators demanding revenge against Denmark and death for those they accuse of "defaming Islam's holiest figure." In Sudan, some demonstrators urged al Qaeda to target Denmark. Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and said the Danish government "cannot accept an assault against Islam" - but that's according to Abbas' office. The Danes may not cave. And Abbas just lost that election to the Hamas folks and has to look good.

But in Palestinian you had your prayers for a boycott of Danish and European goods and for severing of diplomatic ties, with lots of burning the Danish flag and calling for vengeance - chants of "Bin Laden our beloved, Denmark must be blown up." So the foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists began pulling out of Palestinian areas Thursday - kidnapping threats.

In Iraq demonstrators burned Danish journalists in effigy and set fire to boxes of Danish cheese. Mmmmm, toasted cheese... But get this - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the publication of the drawings was a "horrific action" - but then his website referred to "misguided and oppressive" segments of the Muslim community whose actions "projected a distorted and dark image of the faith of justice, love and brotherhood." (We're not so bad?)

That might depend on your point of view. Go here for pictures of the demonstrations in London - the signs read "Butcher Those Who Mock Islam" and "Exterminate Those Who Mock Islam" and "Be Prepared for the Real Holocaust." So much for the faith of justice, love and brotherhood.

And Andrew Sullivan here points out the irony - "... these people have a right to say these things - the very right they are trying to deny others with the threat of violence." Yeah, well... they're angry.

Sullivan also says this -
European countries would be in a stronger position to defend press freedom if they practiced it more often. There's a bill in the British parliament right now to make offending people's religion a legal offense. Germany bans depictions of the swastika and makes Holocaust-denial a crime. One reason I love America is its First Amendment. I suspect it has something to do with the more moderate Muslim population in the United States, compared with Europe's. Once you start censoring people, you have to deal with the problem of double-standards. If you defend free speech in every case, you're on firmer ground.
But that's not the way it's going.

See this from Reuters - "Mona Omar Attia, Egypt's ambassador to Denmark, said after a meeting with Rasmussen that she was satisfied with the position of the Danish government but noted the prime minister had said he could not interfere with the press. 'This means the whole story will continue and that we are back to square one again. The government of Denmark has to do something to appease the Muslim world,' Attia said."

Egypt's ambassador to Denmark is saying the Danes just have to get their press under control. They should only write the right things, as defined by... the prophet?

Seems odd. The Danes are saying that's not how they see role of the press. The government doesn't tell the press what is proper to report. That's not how it's done.

Well, our government disagrees, as we see here -
The United States backed Muslims on Friday against European newspapers that printed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a move that could help America's battered image in the Islamic world.

Inserting itself into a dispute that has become a lightning rod for anti-European sentiment across the Muslim world, the United States sided with Muslims outraged that the publications put press freedom over respect for religion.

"These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims," State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in answer to a question.

"We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."
Okay then, you think you're reporting on an issue, and those you report on say that's not reporting on an issue at all - that's inciting hatred!

There's a problem here. Anyone who is subject to a press piece can use that dodge. You see it all the time played out on Fox News with O'Reilly and Hannity - the left suggests the president's war may have been a tactical and strategic blunder of the first order, for reasons X, Y and Z (with footnotes), and there may be some other alternatives, but then the left is told they are just seething with irrational hatred for George Bush and the probably hate America too, and they probably think al Qaeda should take over the world. Huh? The international issue right now is a page of cartoons, of all things. But like "the war on Christians and Christmas" asking that the giant Ten Commandments granite thing and the "Jesus Rules" stuff be removed from public courthouse, or saying Happy Holidays in December, what seems neutral or, in the case of the cartoons, analytical, becomes an attack on this religion or that. It's most curious.

One man's "incitement to hatred" in another man's discussion of pros and cons. Who gets to define which it is?

So US publications have not republished the cartoons. The European press has.

And the governments? "The US response contrasted with European governments, which have tended to acknowledge the tension between free speech and respect for religion but have generally accepted the newspapers' rights to print the cartoons."

There's load of irony here that hardly needs explaining. The rest of the world doesn't understand what a "free press" is all about, and we do, because we self-censor out of fear and government pressure? It seems odd to be shown up by the Europeans on this First Amendment stuff. That used to be our pride and joy. Oh well. Times change.

The State Department says its reaction "was a strong statement in support of Muslims around the world. It's a reflection of the concern felt by millions of Muslims and I think it will be appreciated." So they hope. "It is support for an understanding that with freedom comes responsibility." (We'll keep our press in line because we're really scared of you guys.)

Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, is saying the United States was responsible for creating far more anger in the Muslim world because of its invasion of Iraq - "The United States is the last nation that should caution against unnecessarily inflaming sentiments in the Muslim world."

It's a mess.

More detail?

There's this -
It's possible to regard the cartoon crisis as either a strategic disaster or boon for the War on Terror. The argument for it being a disaster is the assertion that in the war against extremists it is necessary to win over the moderates. And even if winning them over is impossible one may still be capable of keeping them neutral or indifferent; but at all events to avoid raising the Muslim masses in an emotional war against the West. The Danish cartoon crisis has managed to ignite what the Bush administration hoped to avoid from the beginning: turning the War on Terror into a War with Islam. Now an incident arising from a relatively obscure newspaper in Denmark has forced a choice between the most deeply held of all Western values, freedom of speech, with the cherished strategic goal of keeping the Muslim "street" aboard in the War on Terror.
And from Budapest, from Zsofia Szilagyi, political analyst and director of the Human Rights Film Foundation, Publishing Those Cartoons Was A Mistake -
In our networked world, existing societal and political tensions can be inflamed instantly through the transfer of messages from one cultural context to another. Media messages, films and art works cannot be addressed to a specific cultural group - traditional borders of culture and nation no longer exist.

Whether we like it or not, now we all effectively live next door to one another. This raises the stakes in the century-old debate on how to strike a balance between individual and collective press freedom rights.

The central question in this debate is as simple as it is difficult. What is more important for the democratic advancement of a society - to ensure the freedom of expression of all its citizens (within the limits marked by law) or to protect the collective interests of society?
We're so interconnected now we have to watch what we say very, very, very carefully now?

Also see this, a collection of what Arab journalists are saying - "If Denmark has tried to teach Arabs and Muslims a lesson in respect for the country's constitution and its laws, I believe it did not succeed in choosing the right issue. The justification that one must respect the constitution that guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to denigrate others, was not appropriate - this is the trap that Denmark fell into."

There's no understanding of the editorial cartoon here - the freedom to denigrate others is what that's all about. It may be the genre.

Then there's this -

That, from Tom Toles, ran in the Washington Post on 29 January and then this -
Military leaders angrily denounced as "beyond tasteless" a Washington Post editorial cartoon featuring a likeness of a severely wounded soldier and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as an attending doctor who says, "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.'"

... It reflected the view of some that Bush administration officials do not recognize that U.S. forces are being worn out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, in response to a Pentagon-commissioned report that said the Army was stretched so thin that it had become a "thin green line," Rumsfeld said the war-fighting experience had made U.S. troops "battle hardened" - stronger rather than weaker.

In a letter to the Post signed by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., the vice chairman, as well as the chiefs of the four military services, they blasted the cartoon as "a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation and as a result have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds."

"We believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency to not make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices," they wrote, while adding that the newspaper is "free to address any topic, including the state of readiness of today's armed forces."
Tome wasn't playing nice. But guys, that's not his job.

Even Rumsfeld got it right -
He recalled that editorial cartoonists had made "vicious" attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and had published "perfectly terrible" cartoons about President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

"That's the way it is here," Rumsfeld said. "It comes with the territory, I guess is all I can say."
So lighten up. Rumsfeld himself famously said democracy can be messy.

Toles - "I certainly never intended it to be in any way a personal attack on, or a derogatory comment on, the service or sacrifice of American soldiers."

Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt - "While I certainly can understand the strong feelings, I took it to be a cartoon about the state of the Army and not one intended to demean wounded soldiers."

One man's "incitement to hatred" in another man's vivid discussion of pros and cons. Who gets to define which it is?

Tom Toles' editorial cartoons are here, with an archive. You decide if he should be reined in.

So we had the Cindy Sheehan t-shirt wars, and the war of the cartoons. Each may seem silly in some way, but somehow, people are touchy, and the issues are larger than the initial event.

And in the meantime, there was another memo - a two-hour pre-Iraq war meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair - two months before the war the two agree they'll invade no matter what the inspectors find or what the UN decides. You have to love the part where Bush considers painting some of our planes with UN markings and that nice robin's egg blue, and making sure Saddam's guys shoot them down, so the UN will want revenge and let us bomb the crap out of Baghdad.

And in the meantime, there was another poll - 53 percent of respondents to a new Gallup thing saying the Bush administration "deliberately misled the American public about whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." Times change.

The editorial cartoonists are sharpening their pencils on these last two, unless they shouldn't.

Posted by Alan at 20:52 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 5 February 2006 07:07 PST home

Thursday, 12 January 2006
Editor's Choice: Hot News versus Military Matters
Topic: The Media

Editor's Choice: Hot News versus Military Matters

Thursday, January 12th, being a Thursday, was set aside for the usual - a photo shoot for the weekend edition of Just Above Sunset, the weekly parent to this daily web log. Driving around Hollywood, camera at the ready, seeking the unusual - and the last day of the Alito hearings burbled way on the car radio, or at least the last day of questioning. There will be one more day for "witnesses," who will say he's a fine fellow, or not. The Democrats have some grumpy people lined up. Alito won't be there. But the general consensus is the man will take his seat on the Supreme Court (one of the many "consensus" stories here, as if it matters). He revealed little, and nothing dramatic happened - his wife didn't leave in tears and no senators shouted at each other, as they did the previous day. Ah well, the questions were good, and the answers extraordinarily careful and masterfully non-committal.

But there was much talk, in the breaks, of this - "Supreme Court nominees are so mum about the major legal issues at their Senate confirmation hearings that the hearings serve little purpose and should probably be abandoned, Democratic Senator Joe Biden said Thursday."

So the Senator from Delaware, with that goofy smile and the too-perfect teeth, just up and said it. This was all a waste of time. Good for him. It's often said that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, and this did seem to be a lot of strutting and striking valiant poses, and making what passes for splendid speeches these days, in one of these few times the members of this judiciary committee ever get a national television audience. They played it for all it was worth. Alito just seemed glum. It wasn't his show.

So those of us who follow politics and policy didn't really have to listen. Joe said so. Good. The jazz station from Long Beach was doing a lot of old Horace Silver stuff. Much better.

There was other news. There was what had been knocking around the bottom of many a news page for days, first flagged by the Chicago Police. Did you know that for between ninety and a hundred dollars you can get the cell phone records for any cell phone in America? If you have the name, and the number (or sometimes just the name), you can get a list of all outgoing and incoming calls for anyone at all.

No. That couldn't be true. But it is, as here this fellow plunked down 89.95 and purchased the cell phone records of General Wesley Clark, who was one of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination last time around. The fellow called the general and confirmed that the records were just what they seemed. The calls placed are all there, with area codes and location and duration. And the incoming calls are all there. The fellow is now working on buying the cell phone records of George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton aide who hosts the ABC "This Week" show, and those of the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, and the New York Time's Adam Nagourney. Investigative journalism just got baroque - everyone will know who is talking to whom, and the date, and the length of the call.

Who needs the NSA? Well, unlike the case with the NSA, those who buy these records won't know just what was said.

The other implications? There may be a few more divorces. Suspicious spouses won't even need to hire a private investigator. And will folks use their cell phones less? Will we see a return of pay phones, and phone booths? Who knows? Expect legislation. The cell phone is too much a part of everyone's life these days.

Still, this is curious. Privacy is for those who are very careful.

But putting all that aside, the most interesting stories of the day, other than those hearings and this cell phone business, were military.

There was this - one of our generals invoked his right not to incriminate himself in a court-martial of two soldiers who maintain that they were ordered to use dogs on prisoners at Abu Ghraib. There is, of course, the military, JAG equivalent of "taking the Fifth." You cannot be expected to testify to something that may implicate you in a crime -
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, a central figure in the U.S. detainee-abuse scandal, this week invoked his right not to incriminate himself in court-martial proceedings against two soldiers accused of using dogs to intimidate captives at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to lawyers involved in the case.

The move by Miller - who once supervised the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and helped set up operations at Abu Ghraib - is the first time the general has given an indication that he might have information that could implicate him in wrongdoing, according to military lawyers.

Harvey Volzer, an attorney for one of the dog handlers, has been seeking to question Miller to determine whether Miller ordered the use of military working dogs to frighten detainees during interrogations at Abu Ghraib. Volzer has argued that the dog handlers were following orders when the animals were used against detainees.

Miller's decision came shortly after Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, accepted immunity from prosecution this week and was ordered to testify at upcoming courts-martial. Pappas, a military intelligence officer, could be asked to detail high-level policies relating to the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib.
The implications are obvious. Someone is not buying the "few bad apples" theory of how all this happened. We've moved into the realm of policy, and the higher-ups are covering their asses, and Pappas may sing so he doesn't face charges. How high will this go? The torture and abuse policy came from the top down, from Rumsfeld himself?

That would be interesting. This doesn't bode well for the administration.

From the Post article - "'It would seem in light of General Miller's invocation that there's more fire than smoke in terms of whether or not there was an authorized use of unlawful force,' said David P. Sheldon, an expert on military law."

More fire than smoke is not good for the administration, at least for Rumsfeld.

Here's some perspective -
The notion that torture and detainee abuse would appear spontaneously at various locations around Iraq and Afghanistan, with common methods used throughout, always defied common sense. And yet it worked. If you wanted to list the people with real responsibility for what happened, for example Donald Rumsfeld, who by definition holds ultimate responsibility for the conduct of US armed forces, you'll find a complete vacuum of accountability. Like a mafia family, it seemed like once you're 'made' nothing but death or betrayal can bring you down. On top of the list of folks whose resignations seem long overdue is Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who oversaw prison operations in Iraq during the worst of the abuse. Especially damning is the possibility that Miller was brought to Iraq specifically to promote this kind of behavior at US detention facilities.
Yeah, he was an artillery officer with no experience in running detention centers, but he got lots of information from the folks we held. It was all crap, but the volume of information was amazing. It looked good. And now he's shut up. He's not talking, for good reason.

More perspective on Miller here from Andrew Sullivan
He's the key figure in the decision to introduce torture and abuse of detainees in the U.S. military. He's the one who set up the abuse program at Guantanamo Bay and was then sent by Rumsfeld to "Gitmoize" Abu Ghraib. He's the one who told General Karpinski to treat detainees "like dogs." He's the one who organized the framing of Muslim chaplain James Yee, after once confiding in Yee that he had problems with Muslims in general. As usual, the Bush administration has done all it can to protect Miller, because he could explain who, higher up in the administration, sanctioned torture and abuse. Secure that no one in the real chain of command would contradict him, Miller has, in the past, cooperated with Pentagon investigations. Even so, the Fay report concluded that he had recommended policies that contravened the Geneva Conventions, which were supposed to apply in Iraq.
And he's not talking.

From Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis - "He isn't? Why not, then, torture him? If he's got a good reason not to talk he must know something interesting. Toss him in Leavenworth until he spills! Pull out his fingernails."

Leavenworth (Kansas) is home to both the famous prison and the US Army General Staff College. Make up you own comment on that.

As for Pappas, the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, accepting immunity from prosecution this week, Jeralyn Merritt here digs up this from June 2004 in USA Today. This concerns Army Lieutenant Coronal Steven Jordan, the top military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib who oversaw interrogations, and summarizes what he said a sworn statement regarding one of our "ghost detainees" who had died while being interrogated -
One of these detainees died under questioning, a death that has become subject of an internal CIA investigation. Jordan said Pappas was concerned about such a development and demanded a memorandum of understanding with the agency. Jordan quoted Pappas as saying, "Well, if I go down, I'm not going down alone. The guys from Langley are going with me."
This should be interesting.

But this was minor story. If it eventually brings down Rumsfeld and Cheney, and exposes the real guidelines - the "bad apples" were ordered to do what they did as a matter of secret prohibited-by-treaty-and-law policy - then the media will fit it in somewhere. Fox News will cover the missing white woman in Aruba. She's still missing.

But the oddest story to get play, against all this, is rather old. Perhaps this is because of a new poll - it seems only about nineteen percent of Americans think Iraqis can assemble a sound, democratic government in the next twelve months - one that is able to maintain order without our help. Seventy-five percent said they didn't believe that would ever happen. Bummer.

So when a senior British officer calls the US Army "its own worst enemy," people sit up and take notice. Maybe there's another way to get this whole thing back on track.

This first got press notice in The Guardian (UK) and the Sidney Morning Herald, and the story was picked up by the Washington Post (here, here and here , respectively).

The Guardian said "what is startling is the severity of his comments - and the decision by Military Review, a US army magazine, to publish them." Well, Military Review is printed bi-monthly in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and quarterly in Arabic. Only twelve thousand copies are distributed. This is an obscure publication, or was until now.

You can read the whole thing here - item 2 - Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations (.PDF format and fourteen dense pages). It has two editorial disclaimers up top -
- A virtue of having coalition partners with a legacy of shared sacrifice during difficult military campaigns is that they can also share candid observations. Such observations are understood to be professional exchanges among friends to promote constructive discussion that can improve the prospects of the coalition successes for which all strive. It was in a constructive spirit, then, that this article was made available to Military Review. The article is a professional commentary by an experienced officer based on his experiences and background. It should also be understood that publishing this article does not imply endorsement of or agreement with its observations by the Combined Arms Center leadership or Military Review. Indeed, some comments are already dated and no longer valid. Nonetheless, this article does provide Military Review readers the thought-provoking assessments of a senior officer with significant experience in counterterrorism operations. And it is offered in that vein - to stimulate discussion.

- This is a reprint of an article originally published in the "Seaford House Papers" and retains its original punctuation, spelling, grammar, and paragraphing. The views herein do not reflect those of the United Kingdom, the US Army, or Military Review.
That's a warning about more than the spelling, grammar, and paragraphing. The magazine, the Army, and the British government are washing their hands of this, although the magazine prints it. It's something to talk about.

The Guardian says what this Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster says reflects criticism and frustration voiced by British commanders of American military tactics. And he was the second most senior officer responsible for training Iraqi security forces. A Brigadier, by the way, is the equivalent of a one-star here.

What the verdict?

Plus: American soldiers were "almost unfailingly courteous and considerate."

Minus: At times "their cultural insensitivity, almost certainly inadvertent, arguably amounted to institutional racism."

Plus: The US army is imbued with an unparalleled sense of patriotism, duty, passion and talent.

Minus: "Yet it seemed weighed down by bureaucracy, a stiflingly hierarchical outlook, a predisposition to offensive operations and a sense that duty required all issues to be confronted head-on."

And he says our Army has a wonderful "can-do" approach - but that leads directly to another trait, "damaging optimism."

Optimism isn't always realistic or good? Phone George and tell him.

The idea is all this "is unhelpful if it discourages junior commanders from reporting unwelcome news up the chain of command."

The idea here is what the Brits have long said - US military commanders have failed to train and educate their soldiers in the art of counter-insurgency operations and the need to cultivate the "hearts and minds" of the local population.

Yeah, yeah. The Brits did well is Basra because they knew this stuff from dealing with Northern Ireland and all that. But Basra went sour too.

Our officers rag on the Brits for being too reluctant to use force - and their officers say all we want to do is "to kill or capture all terrorists and insurgents: they saw military destruction of the enemy as a strategic goal in its own right." Yeah, all we know how to do is that - "the US army has developed over time a singular focus on conventional warfare, of a particularly swift and violent kind."

But we think it works. This guy says "such an unsophisticated approach, ingrained in American military doctrine, is counter-productive, exacerbating the task the US faced by alienating significant sections of the population."

From The Guardian -
What he calls a sense of "moral righteousness" contributed to the US response to the killing of four American contractors in Fallujah in the spring of 2004. As a "come-on" tactic by insurgents, designed to provoke a disproportionate response, it succeeded, says the brigadier, as US commanders were "set on the total destruction of the enemy".

He notes that the firing on one night of more than 40 155mm artillery rounds on a small part of the city was considered by the local US commander as a "minor application of combat power". Such tactics are not the answer, he says, to remove Iraq from the grip of what he calls a "vicious and tenacious insurgency".
So what is the answer?

Colonel Kevin Benson, director of the US Army's School Of Advanced Military Studies, told the Post the brigadier was an "insufferable British snob." But he took that back. He said he was just upset. He's going to write a response.

The Post notes that Lieutenant General David Petraeus - the man who "runs much of the Army's educational establishment, and also oversees Military Review" - said he doesn't agree with many of this guy's assertions, but "he is a very good officer, and therefore his viewpoint has some importance, as we do not think it is his alone."

Nope it isn't his alone. The Guardian notes that General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of their army, told their MPs in April 2004 just as our forces attacked Fallujah - "We must be able to fight with the Americans. That does not mean we must be able to fight as the Americans."

Is this all "inside baseball" - and not really news?

Not when General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Thursday, January 12th, issues a public statement, as reported here. He calls the critique "very helpful" "in opening debate but "off the mark" because we're not too centralized. And as for the rest - "If only one percent of what he said turned out to be something that needs to be adjusted to, then we are all better off for it."

Rumsfeld said he had not read the article, but he said - "Broad sweeping generalizations of that type need to be supported by information." He doesn't believe any of it?

Okay, time to reread the Graham Greene novel about Vietnam - all about "damaging optimism." That's what made The Quiet American so dangerous, after all.

Well, optimistically, this Alito fellow will be just fine on the Supreme Court, and listen and think things through and be fair. And the cell phone thing will be straightened out, as more and more folks buy the detailed phone records of their congressmen and senators. And in Iraq we'll move from playing "whack-a-mole" and figure out how to get that place up and running so we can move on.

Or maybe not.


By the way, from the photo shoot mentioned up top, a narrative photo (every picture tells a story?) - the Stella Adler Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Thursday, January 12, 2006, about noon. Note the lower left.

Posted by Alan at 21:35 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006 13:04 PST home

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