Category Archives: Politics

News comes from far away. . .

By Christopher B. Daly

Do we get too much information about distant conflicts, or too little?

The New York Times offers two very different answers.

One comes from Anjan Sundaram, a former stringer for The Associated Press in Congo. So, he should know. He laments the withdrawal of American correspondents from many countries, the shuttering of overseas bureaus, and a general decline in the coverage of wars, violence, and the politics of many nations.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves.

The other view comes from my Boston University colleague David Carr, the Times‘ media columnist. In his Media Equation piece today, Carr describes the sensation of information-overload that he has been experiencing lately as social media bring him a flood of data about a rocket war in Gaza, plane crashes, and the other disasters.

Geopolitics and the ubiquity of social media have made the world a smaller, seemingly gorier place. If Vietnam brought war into the living room, the last few weeks have put it at our fingertips. On our phones, news alerts full of body counts bubble into our inbox, Facebook feeds are populated by appeals for help or action on behalf of victims, while Twitter boils with up-to-the-second reporting, some by professionals and some by citizens, from scenes of disaster and chaos.

In my view, they are both right, at least to a degree. Sundaram is correct that many U.S. news organizations have retreated (usually for economic reasons) from their commitment to covering international news. In particular, they have lost the budgets to pay for keeping full-time staffers in locations around the world that are not boiling over. I’m talking here about trained journalists who have the time to become multi-lingual, to learn about other cultures and societies, to develop good sources, and to roam about developing a good first-hand sense of the place they are covering. These are the kind of people you want to be able to in a crisis, to explain a self-immolation in Tibet, or a riot in Indonesia, or a drug war in Central America. And, yes, there are too few of those.

But that’s not the same issue David Carr was identifying. He is describing the flood of images, information, and opinions that come streaming at Americans from the hotspot of the week. And yes, he’s right about. In a country or region that America is paying attention to, the flow of news is usually pretty abundant. That doesn’t mean that it’s always very useful, only that there is a lot of it.

This general problem was identified almost a century ago by Walter Lippmann — journalist, author, and media theorist — in his landmark book about journalism, propaganda, and politics, Public Opinion.

News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable imgresconfusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them.

That is, for passive news consumers, the picture of the rest of the world is fragmentary, random, and often blurred or blacked out. I dare say that I am not the only avid consumer of U.S. news reporting who could not tell you a single meaningful thing about Indonesia (the fourth most populous country on Earth and the largest Muslim-majority nation). I don’t know anything about it, because no U.S. news organization has a single full-time correspondent there. I cannot say I am bombarded by social media (or any other kind) about Indonesia. But if something should happen there that draws the attention of the United States, we can be sure the firehose will be turned on, and we will start to absorb a torrent of images, facts, and opinions. Until our attention shifts.

Thurber-Lippmann screenshot

by James Thurber

 

 

 

 

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Rove on Iraq: “We create our own reality”

By Christopher B. Daly

As U.S. policy-makers argue over what to do next in Iraq (How about doing nothing?), it is worth recalling how this all came about. One source of the current situation that is worth recalling can be found in a rare moment of candor in the Bush White House. Thanks to the estimable journalist Ron Suskind, we have a glimpse into the interventionist mindset that propelled U.S. forces into ground action in Iraq. In a New York Times magazine piece from October, 17, 2004, Suskind reported on a conversation he had had in 2002 with a person he could not name but could only identify as a “senior adviser to Bush.” Later, Suskind was able to reveal the identity of that source: turns out, it was Karl Rove, the top political brain in the entire Bush operation.

Here’s what Karl Rove said:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This is why we need journalists — not just to “study what they do,” but to hold them accountable.

(h/t to Larry Houghteling)

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A pox on “A pox on both their houses”

By Christopher B. Daly 

I spend a lot of my waking hours at the intersection of Journalism and History, two empirical fields that share a lot of DNA. It’s an interesting place to hang out, and I wish more of the residents of each street would roam around more on the other street.

Today, a story in TPM about an item on a blog known as the 20Committee, nicely frames an issue that highlights one of the distinctions between the disciplines of journalism and history. The upshot is that journalists do us all a disservice when, in the name of non-partisanship or “fairness,” they throw up their hands and blame Democrats and Republicans equally for behaving in ways that are partisan, counter-productive, hypocritical or the like. As a former political journalist myself, I know this phenomenon well, and I know where it comes from: it is an adaptation to the pressure many American journalists feel to write as if they have no stake in the outcome, to show an aloof indifference to cause or candidate or party.

Many journalists, particularly in the mainstream media who work in the reporting tradition, apply this technique to coverage of hard problems like Obamacare or fracking or political spending. This is the problem often referred to as “false equivalence” or “false balance.”

But, I would submit, no historian who studies our current period in the future would be caught dead doing that. Every historian of our present situation will look at essentially the same facts and will exercise judgment.

[I will further predict that 95 percent of them will conclude that our current messes are the fault of Republicans. But, to use another favorite journalistic evasion, Only time will tell.]

Shutterstock/ Christos Georghiou

Shutterstock/
Christos Georghiou

 

 

 

 

 

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Inside the meme factory: The Clintons figured this out long ago

By Christopher B. Daly

When Hilary Clinton complained back in 1995 of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” trying to bring down her husband, she was not wrong. In fact, she and her husband’s political advisers were onto something: the interlocking network of conservative institutions set up since WWII to American politics to the right. As the Clintons realized, the right-wing think tanks and the right-wing media were mutually supportive in their campaign to concoct conservative political themes and inject them into the mainstream media. (Whether this system qualifies as a “consipracy” is a fine point, but Hilary was right to be paranoid: people were out to get her.)

A new batch of disclosures from the Clinton presidential library lay out the Clintons’ grasp of this phenomenon, circa 1995. They rightly identified Richard Mellon Scaife as a major source of funding for both conservative think tanks and media.

Scroll down past the heading sheets for a fascinating glimpse inside this usually hidden world.

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Inside the meme factory: GOP discovers “imperial presidency”

By Christopher B. Daly

In today’s NYTimes, a story purports to have discovered a trend among Republican congressmen, who are depicted as suddenly deciding to accuse President Obama of creating an “imperial presidency.”

Hmmm. . .

Whenever Republicans start using the same phrase for the same purpose, it behooves political journalists to dig a little deeper and figure out where the new phrase/slogan/soundbite is coming from. Usually, it has been hatched deep in the bowels of the conservative “meme factory” — that set of interlocking think tanks, consultants, and media that serves the conservative movement by providing it with a constant supply of talking points, slogans, and rallying cries.

Today’s story, by Ashley Parker, traced the new “meme” as far upstream as a recent report from the office of Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House, but that’s as far as she got. I suspect there are more tributaries to explore, even further upstream.

An excerpt:

Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader, recently released an addendum to a 33-page report his office had already put out on the “imperial presidency.” And both Mr. Broun and Mr. Loudermilk used similar phrases when talking about the role they believe government should play.

“Our founding fathers truly believed that government should be a government of the people, by the people and for the people — not a government over the people,” Mr. Broun told a gathering of supporters recently.The day before, Mr. Loudermilk offered a nearly identical refrain: “This is a government that is of the people, not a government over the people,” he told supporters. “That’s the mentality that a lot of Washington has.”

The day before, Mr. Loudermilk offered a nearly identical refrain: “This is a government that is of the people, not a government over the people,” he told supporters. “That’s the mentality that a lot of Washington has.”

Imagine that — Loudermilk “offered a nearly identical refrain.” What a coincidence!

 

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Math for journalists (Koch edition): Free spending is not free speech

By Christopher B. Daly 

Kudos to The New Republic for this takedown of a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. The Murdoch newspaper was trying to gin up sympathy for the Koch brothers, the fossil-fuel billionaires who pour big money into the conservative Meme Factory and into political campaigns. The Journal tried to make the case that the Kochs have actually been outspent by organized labor — without noting that there are two Koch brothers and 14.5 million labor union members. When the Kochs are treated as individuals (as the Constitution would indicate), the TNR piece calculates that each Koch brother is exercising the same level of “political speech” as about half a million union members.

Can anyone really argue that amplifying those two voices by the millions of dollars they have to spend makes the country a better place? Does their wealth make their ideas more worth listening to? Does their wealth make them wiser? Does it mean they love their country more than others? Why should they have a megaphone that their neighbors do not have? If they want to speak, let them speak. If they want to publish, let them publish. And let them do so without limitation. But spending money is not protected by the First Amendment (and nor should it be).

As a First Amendment militant, I believe speech should be free. It shouldn’t be paid for.

[Note: the following graphic is merely suggestive. For it to be accurate, it would have to include hundreds of thousands of separate tiny images for union members.]

koch2-article

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Surveillance state (cont): FISA courts fail to check Executive

by Christopher B. Daly 

“Experience has shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
― Thomas Jefferson

So it goes. As Jefferson warned us, the nature of power is to be aggressive, to try always to expand rather than to contract or even to abide. Today brings a fresh revelation about the FISA Courts and the Executive Branch. Thanks to Charlie Savage and Laura Poitras of the New York Times, we now know what some of us have long assumed — that U.S.  intelligence agencies have steadily expanded their powers to spy on Americans and have run through, around, top-secret-stampand over the few legal restraints put on them by Congress. Working with a new batch of documents leaked by Edward Snowden from the NSA, the journalists focus on steps taken in secret by the George W. Bush administration, with the compliance of the secret(ive) FISA Court, to respond to the attacks of 9/11 by expanding the powers of the surveillance agencies. From the Times:

Previously, with narrow exceptions, an intelligence agency was permitted to disseminate information gathered from court-approved wiretaps only after deleting irrelevant private details and masking the names of innocent Americans who came into contact with a terrorism suspect. The Raw Take order significantly changed that system, documents show, allowing counterterrorism analysts at the N.S.A., the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. to share unfiltered personal information.

Obviously, there is a challenge here to the Congress: since the executive and judicial branches won’t stop this, the legislative branch must do something to rein in the surveillance state.

I would feel more optimistic about the chances of that happening if it weren’t for the “Spy v. Spy” drama playing out right now between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA. Briefly, the committee thought it would be a good idea to look into the years of torture carried out by the CIA. The agency would have none of that, so it set up an operation that not only spied on the congressional committee’s staffers but engaged in a bit of cyberwarfare by hacking into the committee’s computers and deleting material. Has there ever been a more rogue operation? [Not only that: the CIA, which shows no respect for the rule of law, then had the chutzpah to refer the matter to the Justice Dept. to prosecute the Senate staffers involved. Now, that shows that someone at the agency at least has a sense of humor. Sheesh.]

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Surveillance State (cont): Snowden: Why build a big haystack?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who divulged the secret surveillance that the agency conducts on innocent American civilians, made a good point in his recent “public appearance.” Still stuck in Russia, Snowden imgres3spoke to the SxSW conference, via teleconference, thanks to multiple encrypted relays to disguise his actual location.

The Times chose to put its story in the Business section (which was unfortunate, I think) on the apparent grounds that Snowden’s big pitch was aimed at U.S. tech and social-media companies, telling them that they need to step up their privacy. They already knew that, so I am not sure what the news value was there.

Of greater interest was the theme developed by the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima. She emphasized Snowden’s view that the NSA is so swamped with big data from its indiscriminate surveillance that it is not doing a very good job of tracking individual bad guys (which is, after all, what we want them to do).

‘‘We’ve actually had a tremendous intelligence failure because . . . we’re monitoring everybody’s communications instead of suspects’ communications’’ — a situation, he asserts, that has ‘‘caused us to miss’’ intelligence.

Come to think of it, for all the money that we spend on the intelligence community as a whole, and for all the compromises we make with the Constitution and our liberties, how great is the return? Where are the answers to these questions:

–Did anyone know that Putin would seize Crimea? Did anyone tell President Obama?

–Did anyone predict the Boston Marathon bombing?

–Did anyone predict the uprising that toppled Mubarak in Egypt?

–Can anyone tell us how to get rid of Assad in Syria?

–Did anyone know what was coming in Benghazi?

–What about 9/11? What about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Basically, we need to ask: why do all the big, important things seem to come as such a surprise (to our presidents as well as to the average informed citizen)?

Whenever you don’t find something, doesn’t that tell you that you’re looking in the wrong places?

 

 

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Why DO we spend so much on defense? (check the map)

By Christopher B. Daly

According to recent news accounts, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has plans to reduce U.S. defense spending dramatically — even to what used to be considered peacetime levels. There are reasons to wish him success, and there are reasons to doubt he’ll be able to make much change.

One of the drivers of defense spending is the extent of our commitments worldwide. Like many a great power before us. . . Check that: Like every great power before us, we are over-extending our military. Here’s a map that makes that clear. This is an official map from the Pentagon, showing that every inch of the Earth is the “responsibility” of one U.S. military commander or another.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

u-s-_unified_command_plan_map_2011-04-06

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Death penalty for Marathon bomber: A reluctant “NO”

By Christopher B. Daly 

[Update, 2.4.14: A new study shows a surge in exonerations.]

I was opposed to the death penalty last April 14, the day before two immigrant brothers allegedly set off two homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, causing death, grievous wounds, maiming,and mayhem. It was a despicable act, and it made me furious (not terrified, by the way).

In the heat of the moment, I wanted to find the perpetrators and punish them. I thought maybe they should be put into stocks on Boston Common and subject to whatever vengeance the public wanted to wreak. I think they would not have lasted long.

The Boston case – in which Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Thursday that federal prosecutors would seek the death penalty – illustrates exactly why we have laws. It strikes me that we make these laws as much for ourselves as we do for the criminals. When we are not furious, we have the chance to deliberate and to make wise laws that we agree to abide by even when all hell is breaking loose.

Before the Marathon Bombing, I thought the death penalty was a bad idea, for several reasons. It has become so rare in the United States — especially in Massachusetts, where the first execution took place in 1630 and the last execution took place in 1947 — that it could be seen as so “unusual” that it is unconstitutional on those grounds alone.

What I find even more compelling is the experience of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University and similar efforts carried out by journalists and journalism students. For lots of reasons — racism, inadequate public defenders, bogus confessions, and more — there are a horrifying number of people in America who have been placed on Death Row only to be exonerated before execution. (As of today, the Innocence Project tallies 312 cases of exoneration of prisoners slated to be put to death.) And of course, some innocent people have certainly been wrongfully killed by the state — which is to say, by all of us, through our laws and our taxes.

Ultimately, the problem is this: the death penalty is an irreversible climax to an imperfect system of justice. If we could be absolutely sure that our courts never made a mistake, then the death penalty might be worth considering. But the fact is that we know that our courts (and our cops and our prosecutors) sometime make mistakes. So, it is illogical and immoral to cap off such a system with a penalty that has no remedy.

For these reasons, as someone who was born in Boston and works here I am pleased that the Massachusetts Legislature has repeatedly refused to reinstate the death penalty. The last time the issue came up for a vote, in 2001, the Legislature rejected it by a vote of 94-60. Even in the aftermath of the Marathon Bombing, a large majority of Bostonians said they opposed capital punishment. And I am glad that in a time of peaceful deliberation, the people of Massachusetts were able to listen to the angels of our better nature and put in place restraints on ourselves.

In the Marathon bombing, the would-be terrorists used death as the instrument of their purpose. Let us not sink to their level.

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