Monthly Archives: June 2013

Who will buy the Boston Globe?

By Christopher B. Daly 

imgresThe Boston Globe carries a story today about the impending sale of the newspaper by its owner of the past two decades — the NYTimes Co. Bids are due by June 27. As a regular reader, I hope, of course, that the new owners will be very, very rich people with very, very high standards of journalistic integrity. I hope they will be innovators who have a clue about how to make a business out of quality journalism. I also hope they really care about Boston and New England. I hope they have the nerve to stand up to people like Whitey Bulger (and Billy Bulger, for that matter) and an appreciation for why this is a special place. (Yes, every place is special, but I am looking for someone who gets the particular special-ness of this particular place; in other words, no Sam Zells, please.) I hope they have wit, and style, and grace.

Know anyone?

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NSA Leak: Why not the Times?

By Christopher B. Daly

Since the disclosure of the NSA leaks story, a fair amount of media commentary has focused on the thinking of the self-identified leaker, Edward Snowden, who got access to secrets by working for a government contractor. Many have compared him to Daniel Ellsberg, who got access to secrets by working for a government contractor, then divulged the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to the New York Times. 

Some wonder why Snowden chose to cooperate with Glenn Greenwald (who is a lawyer/activist/blogger/freelancer) rather than a traditional media heavyweight such as the New York Times. Some of the concern is misplaced, I believe, since Snowden also shared his NSA leak with the estimable Barton Gellman of the Washington Post.

As far as the Times goes, the newspaper’s own Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, aired out the question in her most recent posting.

I think it is worth recalling some of the history of the Pentagon Papers case (which you can read at greater length in chapter 11 of my book, Covering America.) By his own CA cover finalaccount, Ellsberg had a political goal — ending the U.S. war in Vietnam. To that end, he first tried to leak the classified documents to members of Congress, on the theory that they could use their congressional immunity to read the papers aloud on the floor of the House or Senate. Because of their immunity, they could not be prosecuted for anything said as part of the proceedings of Congress and their remarks would be on the public record.

When the office-holders balked, Ellsberg turned his thoughts to the media. There I think it is indicative that he did not approach the Times as an institution. Indeed, the Times — in 1971 — was not well known for challenging the federal government. Instead, Ellsberg was targeting an individual journalist whom he thought he could trust: Neil Sheehan.

Ellsberg and Sheehan had a bit of history. They had met when Ellsberg was serving in the Marines in Vietnam and Sheehan was working for United Press in its Saigon bureau. Ellsberg had a sense that Sheehan was a skeptic about the war. Later, Sheehanimgres-1 joined the Times, and he was working as a reporter in the Times Washington bureau in 1971. Under the terms of employment for Times reporters, he was supposed to keep his political views to himself. On March 28, 1971, Sheehan wrote a lengthy multi-book review for the Times Sunday Book Review in which took seriously the idea that there should be war-crimes trials for the U.S. policy-makers who kept us in Vietnam. When Ellsberg read that review, he knew he had found the right journalist.

Three months later, Sheehan wrote the first front-page article in the series that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

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NYTimes videos revisit recent past

By Christopher B. Daly 

Without much fanfare, the New York Times has been engaging in an interesting experiment that revisiting old news stories to address the ageless qusetion: “Oh, yeah . . . whatever happened to that?”

Rev. Al, back in the day.

Rev. Al, back in the day.

The service is a partnership between the Times video section and a private non-profit called “RetroReport.” (It’s not that easy to find on the Times site, but here is the link to the page that lists all seven such reports done to date.) According to the partner’s website, RetroReport’s mission is to produce video follow-ups to big stories from a decade or more ago that dropped off the radar of the news business. Recent examples include revisiting the Tawana Brawley case, the Biosphere 2 experiment, and the Y2K hubbub. The folks at RetroReport seem to be a mix of young documentarians and some heavy-hitting alumni of top-shelf operations like 60 Minutes, the Ken Burns films, and PBS.

This is a potentially great idea that brings the Times into the realm of creating the second draft of history as well as the first. In a sense, the Times has entered the field

Biosphere 2. Remember?

Biosphere 2. Remember?

of historical revisionism, giving its audience the chance to re-evaluate stories that once seemed to have one point or significance only to find that new evidence or new concerns have cast the recent past in a different light.

One theme that emerges from these early versions: a lot of stories are wrong the first time around.

Another theme: Despite the predictions, the sky rarely falls.

History keeps happening.

 

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Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history, media, New York Times, Photojournalism

Justice Powell’s SCOTUS errors

By Christopher B. Daly

Fascinating story in today’s NYTimes about the hidden history of gay clerks in the U.S. Supreme Court. No surprise: there were gay clerks in the high court’s chambers, drafting opinions, and spending a lot of time with the justices for years before any of them were out of the closet.

Ho-hum. This cannot come as that big a shock to anyone, although the details are certainly interesting.

What I found so interesting was how oblivious some of the justices were (or appeared to have been) until just how recently. A focus of the article is Justice Lewis Powell, who joined the 5-4 majority in a 1986 decision that upheld a Georgia law making sodomy a crime.

The Times observes:

Within just a few years, the climate for gay rights began to change. Justice Powell himself, in 1990, expressed reservations about his vote in the Hardwick case. “I think I probably made a mistake in that one,” he said at New York University’s law school.

Sure enough, the holding in Hardwick was reversed 180 degrees in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas. So, in that instance, it took just 17 years for the Supreme Court to reverse itself on a 5-4 ruling that was wrong.

Justice Lewis Powell: wrong on sodomy, wrong on sources.

Justice Lewis Powell: wrong on sodomy, wrong on sources.

That is precisely the result I am holding out for in my recent posts about the 1972 Branzburg case and the idea of a federal “shield law” for journalists. In Branzburg, one of the five justices who made up the wrong-headed majority was none other than. . . Lewis Powell.

The take-away: the Supreme Court makes mistakes and sometimes corrects them later.

 

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David Simon on U.S. spy program

By Christopher B. Daly

I think he’s wrong (for reasons I hope to get to), but I also think it is worth reading this long post by David Simon, author of “The Wire” and much else.

Worth noting: the reason that David Simon can hold forth on this subject is that journalists ferreted out the details of this program, relying in part on leaks of classified information from confidential sources. Without those sources and those journalists, we would all still be in the dark.

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Obama welcomes debate . . . on his secret program

By Christopher B. Daly 

President Obama says that when it comes to deciding on the wisdom of the government’s vast data-mining operations, “I welcome this debate.” What he did not say is that we could not have such a debate unless journalists reported on leaks of classified information. The executive branch’s Plan A was to do all this in secret and never debate it.

Here is a transcript of his remarks Friday on the subject. Taken as a whole, it is quite thoughtful, nuanced, and worth considering. But it is based on a fundamentally misleading premise (which I have highlighted in bold).

 

Obama’s Remarks on Health Care and Surveillance

The following is a [partial — cbd] transcript of President Obama’s remarks about the health care overhaul and response to a question about electronic surveillance in San Jose, Calif., as provided by the White House:

 

QUESTION: Mr. President?

 

MR. OBAMA: I’m going to take one question. And then, remember, people are going to have opportunities to also — answer questions when I’m with the Chinese President today. So I don’t want the whole day to just be a bleeding press conference. But I’m going to take Jackie Calmes’ question.

 

QUESTION: Mr. President, could you please react to the reports of secret government surveillance of phones and Internet? And can you also assure Americans that the government — your government doesn’t have some massive secret database of all their personal online information and activities?

 

MR. OBAMA: Yes. When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I made: Number one, to keep the American people safe; and number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.

 

Now, the programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified. But they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program. With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006.

 

And so, I think at the outset, it’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing. Now, let me take the two issues separately.

 

When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If these folks — if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they’ve got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation.

 

So I want to be very clear — some of the hype that we’ve been hearing over the last day or so — nobody is listening to the content of people’s phone calls. This program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress, but by the FISA Court — a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them, and that it’s being carried out consistent with the Constitution and rule of law.

 

And so, not only does that court authorize the initial gathering of data, but — I want to repeat — if anybody in government wanted to go further than just that top-line data and want to, for example, listen to Jackie Calmes’ phone call, they would have to go back to a federal judge and indicate why, in fact, they were doing further probing.

 

Now, with respect to the Internet and emails — this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States. And again, in this instance, not only is Congress fully apprised of it, but what is also true is that the FISA Court has to authorize it.

 

So in summary, what you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress, bipartisan majorities have approved on them, Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted. There are a whole range of safeguards involved, and federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout. We’re also setting up — we’ve also set up an audit process, when I came into office, to make sure that we’re, after the fact, making absolutely certain that all the safeguards are being properly observed.

 

Now, having said all that, you’ll remember when I made that speech a couple of weeks ago about the need for us to shift out of a perpetual war mindset, I specifically said that one of the things that we’re going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some tradeoffs involved.

 

I welcome this debate. And I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate. And I think it’s interesting that there are some folks on the left but also some folks on the right who are now worried about it who weren’t very worried about it when there was a Republican President. I think that’s good that we’re having this discussion.

 

But I think it’s important for everybody to understand — and I think the American people understand — that there are some tradeoffs involved. I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net, it was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment on that.

 

But I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity. And the fact that they’re under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and that they do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation — I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.

 

But, again, these programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate. And if there are members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up. And we’re happy to have that debate.

 

Okay? All right. And we’ll have a chance to talk further over the course of the next couple of days.

 

QUESTION: Do you welcome the leaks, sir? Do you welcome the leaks? Do you welcome the debate?

MR. OBAMA: I don’t welcome leaks, because there’s a reason why these programs are classified. I think that there is a suggestion that somehow any classified program is a “secret” program, which means it’s somehow suspicious.

The fact of the matter is in our modern history, there are a whole range of programs that have been classified because — when it comes to, for example, fighting terror, our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm. And if every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That’s why these things are classified.

But that’s also why we set up congressional oversight. These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress, and they’re being fully briefed on these programs. And if, in fact, there was — there were abuses taking place, presumably those members of Congress could raise those issues very aggressively. They’re empowered to do so.

We also have federal judges that we put in place who are not subject to political pressure. They’ve got lifetime tenure as federal judges, and they’re empowered to look over our shoulder at the executive branch to make sure that these programs aren’t being abused.

So we have a system in which some information is classified, and we have a system of checks and balances to make sure that it’s not abused. And if, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved — in some cases, on other leaks, risks to personnel in a very dangerous situation — then it’s very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people.

That’s not to suggest that you just say, trust me; we’re doing the right thing; we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.

But my observation is, is that the people who are involved in America’s national security, they take this work very seriously. They cherish our Constitution. The last thing they’d be doing is taking programs like this to listen to somebody’s phone calls.

And by the way, with respect to my concerns about privacy issues, I will leave this office at some point, sometime in the last — next three and a half years, and after that, I will be a private citizen. And I suspect that, on a list of people who might be targeted so that somebody could read their emails or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected.

But I know that the people who are involved in these programs, they operate like professionals. And these things are very narrowly circumscribed. They’re very focused. And in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amuck, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.

Thank you very much, guys.

 

 

 

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Murdoch to racing writers: drop dead

By Christopher B. Daly

When the horses run today in the Belmont Stakes in New York, there will be some empty seats in the press box. Just days before the running of the prestigious horse race, the New York Post fired all its racing reporters, according to a story in the Daily Racing Form. 

The thinking?

Here’s my guess: the Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., was included in the print half of the company that Murdoch recently spun off in order to protect his more-lucrative broadcasting properties from the legal and financial catastrophes that his print properties have brought upon themselves. So, among the money-losing print properties, the strategy seems to be to slash costs by getting rid of reporters.

The timing?

That seems like a bit of egregious cruelty. They shoot horses, don’t they?

[A hat-tip to my brother, Ned, for pointing me to the Racing Form.]

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Bulger loses one

By Christopher B. Daly

Good to see: Whitey Bulger lost his attempt to use the rules of trial procedure to exclude two Boston Globe journalists from covering his murder trial. He tried to place Shelley Murphy and Kevin Cullen on his witness list, then claimed that, as witnesses, they cannot attend his trial.

Kudos to Judge Denise Casper, who brushed that one off and granted the Globe’s request to exempt Murphy and Cullen from the list of witnesses who will be “sequestered” from the trial.

Not to be missed: This is one of many rulings that Bulger will have to accept from Judge Casper — which is rich, because Bulger is notorious for (among other things) his oft-stated contempt for women and African-Americans. Now, his fate is in the hands of someone who is both.

(A hat-tip to Margery Eagan, columnist for the Boston Herald, who made this point last night on the weekly public-TV media analysis show “Beat the Press.”)

 

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Abolish the NCAA (cont.)

By Christopher B. Daly

The NYTimes adds to the pile of reasons to abolish the NCAA. The athletes who play for big-time imgres-1college teams sign a letter when they are in high school declaring the name of the school where they intend to play. This was originally meant to signal to recruiters from other schools to cease and desist. But, under the iron law of unintended consequences, today’s story indicates that these letters have morphed into what amounts to a “reserve clause,” like the one that used to tie professional baseball players to their team owners. Increasingly, college players are thwarted in their attempts to transfer.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for the “student athletes” who want to switch schools, but then I realize: they are not transferring to find a better English department or more-advanced physics labs. They are acting like professional athletes in any sport who want to do what’s best for their athletic careers (not their educations).

Proponents of transfer limits say that they are put in place to prevent coaches from continually attempting to lure athletes from other universities, which could create a never-ending recruiting cycle. Critics counter that the rules make it much too easy for coaches to act punitively, penalizing athletes for changing their minds about decisions made when they were teenagers.

Coaches cannot fully prevent athletes like Lunt from transferring to any university they want. But if a coach does not grant an athlete a release, the player must forfeit any scholarship opportunity, pay his own way to the new university and sit out the next season. Meanwhile, Gundy, whose contract pays him $30.3 million over eight years, and other coaches can routinely move from one college to another with minimal consequence, often for bigger contracts after arranging a buyout with the first college.

Not only that, but the article includes the startling figure that nearly 500 mens basketball players transferred from one college to another last year.

500 basketball players switching schools!

(That’s one sport, one gender, from a sport with a fairly small roster. How many total athletic transfers take place in a year?)

Now, let’s acknowledge that, on average, these are not the strongest students on our campuses, and let’s acknowledge that transferring is disruptive and probably sets most students back somewhat.

How much sense does this make?

Again, I ask: what educational purpose does the NCAA serve?

 

 

 

 

 

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By Christopher B. Daly

As a public service, I went over the statement by James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and made some suggested edits. I, for one, think it’s touching that Clapper wants to inform Americans about his activities, so I would like to help him with his writing skills.

Turns out, Clapper has a serious writing problem: he overuses the passive voice, thereby disconnecting acts from their actors. Maybe he should write more often.

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