Monthly Archives: January 2013

Press freedom

It’s hard to see how this is over.

And this one is definitely not over. (Here’s the Guardian’s version, which is a bit clearer.)

And this one won’t be over until you-know-when.

 

 

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In China’s censorship struggle, who’s a liberal?

By Christopher B. Daly 

The struggle over censorship continues in China. While it plays out, American journalists are struggling over political nomenclature.

This has been a problem since early in the 20th Century, when first the Russians and later the Chinese and others had communist revolutions. After that point, those former insurgent leftists became the establishment (with a vengeance, to be sure). They often faced right-wing opposition, which wanted to reverse those revolutions and restore the old (dictatorial) regimes.

But at a certain point, those old communist regimes faced a new insurgency — call it “progressive” perhaps? — that was not counter-revolutionary but was not happy either.

In Russia, in eastern Europe and elsewhere and now in China, people began to challenge the regime on the grounds that they wanted real liberation. They demanded such things as:

–rule of law

–accountability of government officials

–free and fair elections

–transparency

–free speech & press

–economic opportunity

Many of these demands overlap with the cluster of values often associated with classical “liberalism” in the West. But the term “liberal” was re-purposed in the 20th Century to refer to people like FDR who support the use of government power to intervene in the industrial economy in the interest of full employment and economic security for all.

So, by either definition, it makes little sense to refer to those brave Chinese demanding press freedom as “liberals.” They are not exactly “leftists” either, at least not by most definitions. (Granted, they are, in some ways, to the left of the putatively leftist regime they are challenging, but in terms of political labels, it’s pretty hard to put these people to the left of Mao.)

They are certainly not Communists or communists, either.

It often makes sense to call them “critics,” but then China has right-wing critics too. Journalists often fall back on the all-purpose “dissident,” which has its uses and may not be the worst label, in a pinch.

But this is not a simple question, and it appears to need an answer, judging from the comments accompanying today’s Times story. But it will have to wait. Far more urgent, of course, is the issue of ending censorship.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ada Louise Huxtable, 1921-2012

Whether you agreed with her or not, it must be acknowledged that Ada Louise Huxtable elevated the practice of American journalism just by being in it. I recall how many of her pieces were events in themselves.

Thank you, Ada.

Ada Louise Huxtable, with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, in 1970, when she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Ada Louise Huxtable, with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, in 1970, when she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Legacy media showing signs of life

By Christopher B. Daly

David Carr has a worthwhile column today in the New York Times, making the point that many of the brand-name “legacy media” that were so recently written off are quietly staging a comeback. According to Carr, the dinosaurs are learning to dance. (In the final chapter of my book, COVERING AMERICA, I used a slightly different metaphor: I said the dinosaurs had to learn to ice skate!)

Here’s an excerpt:

In the last year, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was up 13.4 percent, which was a significant advance, but legacy media giants like Comcast, News Corporation and Time Warner absolutely surpassed it in terms of share price.

Viacom, which has had serious ratings trouble with MTV and Nickelodeon, still managed to be up 16.1 percent on the year. We keep hearing how traditional networks are getting clobbered, but Viacom’s sibling, CBS, was up a whopping 40.2 percent.

News Corporation, despite being racked by scandal, was up 43 percent, and fellow global media conglomerates like Disney and Time Warner were up more than 32 percent. And Comcast, which has both the pipes and programming — cable and NBCUniversal — soared 57.6 percent.

One piece of data that Carr did not cite is the recent history of the market fortunes of his own employer, the New York Times Co. So, here it is:

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 12.18.06 PM

 

Turns out, the value of Times Co. stock has been on a roller-coaster track over the past 12 months. The company had a terrific six months, from May to October, during which the value of a share of NYTCo stock almost doubled. Somewhere around Halloween, the stock cratered, and it has been basically crawling sideways since then. So, the Times Co. experience does not fit Carr’s trend story. I would say that would be a good subject for him to take up next: why doesn’t the Times‘ journalistic excellence translate into financial success?

It’s an important question to answer, because without making money, the Times will not long be able to dance or ice skate. Like other dinosaurs, it will die out.

 

 

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Obama: Wrong on secrecy (NYTimes version)

imgres3No surprise: the New York Times, whose reporters filed a FOIA request in this case, agrees with me that the Obama administration has engaged in excessive secrecy around the legal rationale for its drone program.

Here’s the Times editorial:

Misplaced Secrecy on Targeted Killings

For years, President Obama has been stretching executive power to claim that the authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda gives him the unilateral authority to order people killed away from any battlefield without judicial oversight or public accountability — even when the target is an American citizen.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Manhattan came down on the side of preserving secrecy regarding how this dangerous view of executive power gets exercised. Judge Colleen McMahon refused to require the Justice Department to disclose a memorandum providing the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.

The decision came in response to a lawsuit for the memorandum and related materials filed under the Freedom of Information Act by The New York Times and two of its reporters, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, and also a broader request under the act from the American Civil Liberties Union. We strongly disagree with Judge McMahon’s conclusion that she was compelled by a “thicket of laws and precedents” to deny access to the legal memo — prepared by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel — and other documents that provided the legal and factual basis for the killings.

For starters, various government officials have spoken publicly about the American role in killing Mr. Awlaki and the circumstances under which the government considers targeted killings, including of American citizens. At President Obama’s nominating convention last summer, a video prepared by his campaign listed the killing of Mr. Awlaki prominently among Mr. Obama’s national security achievements.

Such a selective and self-serving “public relations campaign,” as the judge termed it, should have been deemed a waiver of the government’s right to withhold its legal rationale from public scrutiny. Moreover, disclosing the document would not have jeopardized national security or revealed any properly classified operational details. The ruling, which is inconsistent with the purpose and history of the information disclosure law, richly deserves overturning on appeal.

However, we appreciate Judge McMahon’s honest recognition of the “Alice-in-Wonderland nature” of her decision, which allows the executive branch to publicly proclaim the legality of the targeted killing program while insisting that the public may not know the reasons for that conclusion. The administration has opposed all legal efforts by Mr. Awlaki’s father and others to compel a court review of the decision to have him killed.

Judge McMahon took pains to acknowledge the serious questions the targeted killing program raises about the appropriate limits on government authority in our constitutional system and expressed the view that, as a matter of policy, the administration’s legal analysis should be made public.

“More fulsome disclosure of the legal reasoning on which the administration relies to justify the targeted killing of individuals, including united States citizens, far from any recognizable ‘hot’ field of battle, would allow for intelligent discussion and assessment of a tactic that (like torture before it) remains hotly debated,” the judge wrote.

President Obama, who pledged more government transparency in his first campaign and early days in office, should heed those sentiments and order the legal memo released along with other information that would shed light on the government’s legal reasoning and the evidence leading to Mr. Awlaki’s killing.

It is past time he did so.

 

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Obama: Wrong on secrecy

By Christopher B. Daly 

I am disappointed in President Obama over his insistence on shrouding his drone program in secrecy. It is one thing to keep quiet about the operations of a quasi-military, semi-secret technology such as the drones that have emerged as the leading weapon in the “war on terror” that Obama inherited from George W. Bush. But imgres3there is no reason that justifies keeping quiet about the legal rationale for such a program. When drones are used in countries against which we have not declared war, and particularly when they are used to kill American citizens overseas, I believe the people of the United States are not only entitled to an explanation, we have a duty to know what is being done in our name. If Obama has a good reason for his drone program that squares with the Constitution, fine. If he does not, then he should admit it and seek another way.

But as things stand, we cannot even have a debate over the wisdom of the program, because the White House won’t allow it. As the Times reports today, a federal judge in Manhattan threw up her hands in frustration over the secrecy but had to conclude that, under law, she could not force the administration to divulge anything. Judge Colleen McMahon issued a ruling (see page 3) in a FOIA request filed by two of the Times‘ own reporters, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane. Good for them for trying to get the Obama folks on the record. And shame on the administration (DOJ, DOD, and CIA) for keeping the reason for their secret program secret. What do we have a Freedom of Information Act for, if not for situations like this?

As matters stand, the president won’t deny that the program exists, and he won’t stop it. But he won’t explain it either. Meanwhile, the drone strikes continue. There are reports of successes in places like Waziristan and Yemen. But, as the president, who watches “Homeland,” must realize, the drone program continues to make new enemies every day who must blame Americans for keeping a government in power that would do such things.

Don’t get me wrong: I have an open mind about the drone strikes, but I find this secrecy intolerable.

What Would Carrie Do?

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State of the Art: Multimedia journalism

By Christopher B. Daly 

Just catching up with a landmark in multimedia journalism: the New York Times project titled “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” which was originally posted just before Christmas. IMHO, it is very nearly the state of the art in using multimedia to tell a story, especially a narrative.

The piece (if that’s the right word… project?) was a success in many ways — it was beautiful (in a terrifying sort of way), it was deeply informative, and it brought the Times a whole lot of welcome traffic from new visitors. Snow Fall It remains to be seen if any of those drop-in readers become regulars or subscribers. I would say “Snow Fall” is on a par with the best work done by MediaStorm or NatGeo, or even one of my all-time favorites, Bear71.

That said, could the Times have done a better job on Snow Fall? I hasten to say I could not have done better but I can think of two suggestions: First, the Times took some well-deserved flak for annoying subscribers by sending out a “breaking news” alert about Snow Fall, when it was clearly not breaking news. I trust they will not do that again.

More important, I would venture to say that the essential story could have been stronger. There were a lot of protagonists, and we barely met a few of them before they were all engaged in dramatic actions, and it was hard to keep them straight. It is very hard to drive a narrative without a clear hero or villain, and I found the focus wavering. Still, a salute to the lead reporter/writer, John Branch. And, thanks to the Times for tackling the whole project.

Courtesy of Jim Romenesko, here is a comment to the Times staff from the paper’s executive editor, Jill Abramson.

 

 

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