Govt. releases memo giving legal reasons for killing Americans overseas

By Christopher B. Daly 

Finally, under court order, the Obama administration has divulged its legal rationale for killing Americans abroad without trials, charges, or even arrests. That reasoning appears in a contested legal memo written four

Al-Alawki in 2010.  Getty.

Al-Awlaki in 2010.
Getty.

years ago in the Office of Legal Counsel offering arguments that would justify using a drone to take out Anwar al-Awlaki — who was an American citizen living (hiding?) in Yemen and fomenting attacks against you and me and our country.

Leaving aside (for the moment) whether al-Awlaki deserved to die in a drone strike, it was an offensive outrage that the Obama administration not only had a secret plan for killing Americans abroad but they also had a secret rationale for doing it, and they said no mere citizen could even read those arguments. Now, we mere citizens can read them for ourselves.

You can find the court ruling ordering the memo’s release and the arguments themselves here, thanks to the Times. That is, we can sort of read the memo. The ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the government some wiggle room so that officials could redact (i.e., “censor”) some parts that pertained to secret stuff the government knew about al-Awlaki through the fruits of spying on him. That makes a certain amount of sense, I guess, but any time that the government is allowed to redact its own documents, you have to wonder what’s missing.

In any case, the president should long ago have made this argument himself, in public. If he believes in it, then he owns it. It is his duty to protect and defend the Constitution and, therefore, to show why his actions are in conformance with his understand of the Constitution. If he makes the case and the people accept it, fine. If he makes his case and the people reject it, then he’s got a problem. But there is no reading of the Constitution that authorizes the president to carry out a secret assassination program and not tell anyone about it.

For now, I will pass on the question of whether al-Awlaki had it coming and whether Obama has a legal leg to stand on. I want to read the document and think it over. The policy might be acceptable, but what was not acceptable was the secrecy.

Meanwhile, kudos to the Times‘ Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, who are named among the plaintiffs who pried this decision out of the courts, along with the Times itself and the ACLU. No matter what we each think about the president and his policies, these plaintiffs have done the whole country a service. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 10.37.41 PM

 

 

 

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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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NY Times: a bridge to a digital future

By Christopher B. Daly 

Most people who care about journalism share a concern: can the New York Times survive the transition from a print past to a digital future? And can the newspaper carry forward its unparalleled standards, staffing level, and values into a future where the Times flourishes in the news business gets out of the paper business and emerges as a truly online news operation?

Increasingly, it appears the answer will be yes.

A big hint landed softly this week in a column by the Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan. In her column, she indicated that the budget for the Times newsroom is “more than $240 million” a year. That’s how much it costs for the care and feeding of some 1,250 journalists in New York and around the world — salaries (which are at the top of our field), benefits, travel, rent on foreign and domestic bureaus, and on and on. It does not include other costs, such as printing and distribution.

That figure, which I had not seen broken out that way before now, is important.

It confirms, of course, that journalism is not cheap — especially journalism that is predicated on original reporting on a global scale. It represents the paper’s “journalistic nut” — the hard core of spending that must be met, just like your rent or mortgage and utility payments.

The challenge is: how to make the nut?

The good news is that it seems more and more do-able to make the nut into the indefinite future, despite the severe contraction in print advertising.

Here’s one scenario:

–Begin by reducing the nut. Let’s just assume that there is some inefficiency in there, some feather-bedding, some wasted effort (like the still extensive time and energy put into the laying out of each next day’s print “front page.”) For the hell of it, say you could cut that budget by 8% and still survive essentially intact. (That’s one-12th of the total, or $220 million instead of $240 million.)

–That means you need to come up with $55 million per quarter.

–Already, the Times is bringing in $38 million, from digital advertising only, according to the Public Editor.

–She did not say how much money is coming in every quarter from digital subscriptions, but she did note that “digital-only” subscriptions have risen (from zero) to about 800,000.

–It would not be unrealistic to think that if the Times went digital-only, it would pick up another 200,000 out of the base of subscribers who now get the print edition.

–So, there’s a hypothetical base of 1 million digital subscribers.

–If those 1 million people would pay $20 per quarter, you would have more than your $55 million nut.

Of course, there are problems. Maybe the Times can’t find 1 million customers. Maybe those readers won’t pony up enough in subscription. And these revenue figures are all net figures: someone still has to go to work at the Times every day to sell those ads and handle those digital subscriptions. Just because those operations are digital, they are not free.

My point is that the trend of rising revenues from digital ads and digital subscriptions is approaching the point at which they could carry the newsroom. They are not there yet, which may point to another partial, temporary answer: just print on Sundays. Print advertising brings in something like four times the amount of digital ads, but that print-based is declining and will not carry the paper into the future. So, during the transition, why not keep the big fat Sunday edition? It has the largest number of readers (1.2 million), pages, ads, and revenue. No need to say goodbye to all those full-page Style-section ads from Ralph Lauren and Chanel. At least not yet.

NYTCo homepage

NYTCo homepage

 

 

 

 

 

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Iraq: Why journalists should study history

By Christopher B. Daly 

As I like to say: History keeps happening.

The events of recent days in the part of the world known as Iraq cannot be understood or explained without mastering a lot of history, going back well before the U.S. invasion and occupation. A good starting point for journalists covering the region (or merely pontificating about it) and for news consumers would be this map, drawn up in secret by the Great Powers who won World War I. In this historical map from 1919, British and French diplomats literally drew lines across the sand and decided how to divvy up the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

(Don’t miss: the notation “secret” on the upper left.)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.  (British Library)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.
(British Library)

This map shows how the European powers essentially created Syria (A) and Iraq (B) without regard for traditional ethnic, religious, tribal, or commercial interests. There was no plebiscite, no consultation with local leaders. That’s the fundamental (modern) problem in the region.

To zero in on Iraq at present, here’s a valuable recent map from the Washington Post, showing a much-needed degree of granularity that goes beyond the artificial “national” boundaries. At a glance, the grey area suggests the need for an independent Kurdistan. The green area from Baghdad to the Gulf suggests the contours of a smaller country populated by Shiites. The yellow areas may well make more sense as a new Sunni country that includes parts of Syria.

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.  Washington Post

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.
Washington Post

 

My suggestion: Don’t listen to any journalist, analyst, or U.S. politician who could not intelligently discuss these maps for at least an hour in an informed way.

[My personal view: these are not real countries with genuine borders, so they cannot be effectively governed by anyone until borders are brought in line with social reality. In any case, this is not a U.S. problem. This region belongs to the people who live there. If they want to have a civil war or a religious war, they are entitled to have one. If any outside parties bear any responsibility, it would be the British and the French.]

 

 

 

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Must-read article about Brazil and the World Cup

By Christopher B. Daly

If you read only one article about Brazil as the country starts to host the World Cup, here is the one to read. It is written by one of my star former B.U. students, Matt Negrin (who would be my first choice in a pick-up game that involved reporting, initiative, imagination, and writing).

Matt is an intrepid explorer, as this piece amply demonstrates. (“Not killed” is a recurring theme. .  .). He is also a graceful, often playful, writer. In this piece about play, I enjoyed his many references to the games of his own childhood (from the Sims to adult-driven, trophies-for-everyone American soccer). At

The beautiful game Getty

The beautiful game
Getty

the same time, he’s deadly serious about the life he is seeing in the favelas, and he brings a measure of respect and gravitas to people who don’t have much of either.

This piece is part of a bigger project Matt is working on — a book about the insanity of soccer fans worldwide. He has made stops in Asia and Europe (that I know of), and he is naturally in Brazil now for the Copa.

His work makes me happy to read, and it makes me optimistic about the future of storytelling.

[BTW, Matt's Brazil piece was published (if that's still the right word), by SB Nation. (They did a beautiful job on it, but I personally would like to see a much blacker typeface; if you are going to go long, you can't ask people to read that faint gray type all day. Sheesh.) If you think "sports writing" is all about who won a game or about how some young millionaire's groin feels, this is the piece for you. SB Nation (short for Sports Blog Nation) is part of the growing Vox Media online empire, and I hope they are making gobs of money. H/t to Glenn Stout for acquiring Matt's piece.]

 

"That's just the way it is" Getty

“That’s just the way it is”
Getty

 

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News media: Let’s impose a blackout on mass shoooters

By Christopher B. Daly 

The headlines are both horrifying and all too familiar: another town in America is the location for another mass shooting. My hunch is that to some degree, each new one is partly a product of all the preceding ones. The idea for it, the methods, the script — it’s all there in the coverage of almost every mass shooting.

Thanks to the folks at Vox for compiling this dreadful map, showing all the mass shootings since Sandy Hook (that’s 74, in about 18 months, or about one a week).

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So, here’s an idea that goes against my grain and against the instincts of most of my colleagues in the news business: Let’s stop covering mass shootings.

Or, at least, let’s stop covering them in a way that glorifies the killer or provides a scenario for any copycat to follow.

Let me state: I believe the main reason for this horror is the specific combination of a scarcity of mental health care and an abundance of high-capacity firearms. Those two forces strike me as the overwhelmingly clear reason for our national plague of mass shootings. But there’s not much that anyone I know can do about either problem.

So, to the extent that coverage of massacres begets more massacres, let’s change the coverage. How?

For one thing, we should consider a moratorium on even naming the shooter. And no photos. And no follow-up profiles of a troubled young man who seemed a little weird to some people (but not that weird) and  not at all weird to other people and then, suddenly — blam! he became deeply psychotic and started firing.

I know something about those kind of stories, having written one for the Washington Post back in 1994 when a schizophrenic young man named John Salvi opened fire at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., killing two people he had never met and wounding five others. Following journalistic protocol, I dropped everything and covered the shooting, then turned my efforts to the inevitable “profile of a killer.” Salvi’s story was one that is now all-too-familiar: young man grows increasingly aloof and unreasoning, no one does anything about it, and then he becomes almost totally isolated and captivated by voices or disordered thinking. Next he’s in a public place with an assault weapon.

In a sense, these shootings — tragically, awfully — do not meet a strict definition of news, because they have ceased to be rare. I would suggest that the news media refrain from covering these men and telling their individual stories so long as the shooter is:

–male

–white

–between 15 and 30

–at least a little “off” by someone’s criteria

–armed to the teeth in a way that would be impossible in almost any other country on Earth.

One Canadian news network did just that this week, following a rare multiple murder in Canada. Let’s impose a moratorium on this kind of story, at least until they become rare again.

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Data viz: 19th Century Edition

By Christopher B. Daly 

Thanks to TNR and this terrific piece by Susan Schulten about two very powerful maps that could have (and should have) shaped the settlement of the United States. Essentially, they tell the same story: do not attempt European-style agriculture west of the long-grass Great Plains. 

Here’s a map made by the great one-armed Western explorer John Wesley Powell for the U.S. Geological Survey:

drainage_thumb

In it, he drew a north-south line from the middle of North Dakota to Houston and warned against even attempting to farm those areas (except for the far West Coast). The wonderfully colored areas depict the watersheds of the region’s major rivers.

 

And here’s an earlier map showing rainfall totals across the country. Again, the message is pretty clear.

U.S. rain chart

U.S. rain chart

 

 

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