Thursday, November 30, 2006

Sticks and Carrots in Iraq

After suddenly coming down with a so serious a case of the vapors that he could not attend a meeting with the President of the United States, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki got some good news: yes, the Iraq Study Group is going to recommend redeployment of a substantial number of US troops in his country, but no, there won't be any pesky timetables -- for now.

Al-Malaki was allowed to twist slowly, slowly in the wind for only a few hours. Bush folksily declared him "the right guy for Iraq" -- like this was just another whirlwind campaign appearance for a member of congress whose seat was in jeopardy -- shortly after someone in his administration leaked a Nov. 8 memo from National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley that questioned al-Malaki's commitment, honesty or competence (your pick).

I hope one of the US exports to Iraq these days are episodes of "The Sopranos," because this sure looks like the diplomatic equivalent of a serious warning from a White House. If the new posture is, "We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way," there might be an end in sight.

It may mean nothing since Bush is not known for necessarily picking his words carefully, but one could infer from his "my pal Nuri" remarks that the offshoring of responsibility is accelerating:
"I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," the president said during a joint news conference with Mr. Maliki, referring to the panel's reports that are expected next week. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there." (emphasis added)
Bush has said both of these things, but they are twinned, and in a highly relevant context. I can't take the comment as a DOA pronouncement with that kind of wiggle room.

If preemptive criticism of the ISG report is valid, that it is intended to do nothing more than provide cover to politicians trapped in webs of their own creation, then perhaps a something-for-everyone approach is just what we need.

How better to give the administration the chance to check and raise than to omit -- ahem, defer to a higher authority -- talk a performance schedule? According to the New York Times report, the ISG will be tough enough on the White House for ignoring meaningful diplomacy. No need to rap both sets of knuckles.

If both Congress and the White House decide to conclude that the ISG recommendations don't go far enough that might provide some common ground. The trick will be to not tree the administration. But it is hard to imagine it being consigned to the dustbin of history.

Sticks and Carrots.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A War By Any Other Name?


They say you are always wise to pick your fights, but did NBC expect a fight by deciding that the Iraq fighting had become a civil war?

The decision not to stay the course was revealed, of all places, on the "Today" Show, and no discussion of what would seem a fairly momentus change was yet on The Daily Nightly, the mostly Brian Williams blog, by the time of the evening network newscast.

This is not the posture of a newsroom that was braced for criticism of a delicate semantic choice.

Donald Rumsfeld is in no position to complain but the White House is, and is. "While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither (Iraqi) Prime Minister Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war," the administration said in a statement.

There are no rules on who gets to decide these things, but newsrooms always -- always -- need to describe things accurately. Sometimes the same thing can be called two things by two different sides -- quick: is it Myanmar, or Burma? -- so any decision, and no decision, is seen either wrong.

Sometimes reporters avoid words and phrases that they believe carry inherent perjorative meaning, as my old haunt, Reuters, did by eschewing the use of the word "terrorist" and its various forms for quite some time after the 9/11 attacks. Can anyone forget that catchy phrase, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter?"

The NBC Nightly News began with this intro: "A critical week for the president and the civil war in Iraq," stating as fact what yesterday was not considered a fact. Reuters, and other major MSM, is still, as of today, using some formulation of "sectarian" strife/conflict/violence to describe the increasingly violent Iraqi-on-Iraqi attacks. But that's today.

There are plenty who say that asserting Iraq is in the midst of a civil war merely states the obvious, and others who argue that NBC doesn't get to decide these things, and thus is advancing an agenda by trying to influence events rather than report on them. MSNBC, to its credit, had at least one critic on the the air today who was unbridled in her contempt for the decision.

For whatever it is worth, after the architect of this war is forced to resign; Kissinger says the war can't be won; the Democrats are elected to control both houses of Congress; and everyone is waiting for James Baker to provide political cover for some kind of exit strategy, NBC's decision can't seriously be seen as going out on a very long limb.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

When OJ Simpson thinks you've crossed line ...

Simpson tells AP he knew 'If I Did It' profits would be 'blood money'

"In the course of the interview I said, 'This is blood money and I hope nobody reads it,'" Simpson told the AP.

So it's official: the music has stopped and the only person involved with the OJ Simpson book and TV-special deal that hasn't said it was a bad idea yet is Janice Regan, who published the book and conducted the interview that was to have aired on Fox next week.

In the AP interview Simpson says the book is no confession but a needed shot in the arm to his finances. "Everybody who has written a book about this has taken blood money; you can't have selective morality," Simpson tells the AP.

Oh yeah -- News Corp Chairman Murdoch is getting off easy in the court of public opinion, OJ says, and that's just not fair. "I'm taking heat and I deserve it," Simpson said. "But Murdoch should not be taking the high road either."

There might be a little something to this, if the New York Times article is correct in its reporting that Murdoch sanctioned the project from the start.

Simpson got his money -- less than the $3.5 million bandied about, he says -- and there is still money to be made on auctioned copies of the book, all of whose copies were ostensibly returned to the publisher.

Monday, November 20, 2006

When Rupert Murdoch thinks you've crossed a line, well ...

Fox TV's schedule for the week of Nov. 26, which did not yet reflect the canceled Simpson programs shortly after they were pulled.

News Corp, the corporate parent of the broadcast network that brought you "The Littlest Groom," Temptation Island" -- I, II and III -- and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee," has decided that pimping O.J. Simpson's tell-nothing fantasy non-confessional book and Fox TV interview just goes too far.

At last, we have found a bottom.
"I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project," said Rupert Murdoch, News Corp. chairman. "We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson."
There had been some backlash from some Fox affiliates, who said they would not air the show, and tons of criticism, from expected and unexpected places. With no obvious connection to his life other than his folksy contempt for things vile, CBS Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer used his "Face the Nation" commentary last Sunday to say that until the latest Simpson saga "I thought the Congressional Page scandal would surely win the most disgusting story of the year prize."

Fox News stars Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Riviera also felt just fine biting the hand that feeds them. (Of course O'Reilly couldn't resist accusing what he calls the "so-called 'media elite'" of underplaying the story).

With friends like these, pitchforks and torches can't be far behind.

This whole thing was doomed from the start, of course, even though in the midst of the firestorm Barnes and Noble and Borders said they would carry the book. When I was a reporter in New York City in 1989 Barnes and Noble wasn't even stocking "The Satanic Verses" when Salman Rushdie was first under a death threat from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Times change, I guess.

What remains astonishing about this entire, thankfully brief episode is how these projects percolated up and down the food chain for so long -- how long? -- only to be squashed days before they saw the light of day.

Did every insider underestimate the potential for revulsion? Is it even remotely possible that Janet Regan can survive this?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kissinger Lays Groundwork for Redeployment?

The AP is picking up a BBC interview with Henry Kissinger in which he says "military victory" in Iraq as no longer a plausible outcome. The story backs up the headline, Kissinger: Iraq Military Win Impossible, with this quote:
"If you mean by 'military victory' an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.
Leaving aside the snide aside that one impediment to victory might be lack of resolve by the citizens of the U.S and what remains of its coalition partners, this looks like a campaign to soften the enemy in preparation for advancing troops.

The AP item was rip-read by Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" and was immediate fodder for a question to an unprepared Sen. Lyndsay Graham (R-SC), who left us only with "I disagree." That sort of moment happens rarely on TV, so that news team regarded the item as significant.

Less noticed, perhaps, is an interview conducted last week and published today by the LA Times, conducted by veteran correspondent Doyle McManus, in which Kissinger is said to make some familiar points but which the author asserts amounts
"to a sharp critique of the administration's course."
"As long as he (Bush) was told he was winning, he had every reason to pursue the recommended strategy" that his advisors (sic) had proposed, Kissinger said.

He declined to elaborate, except to add that it was impossible to portray the current state of affairs in Iraq as "winning."

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that what we're seeing now would be an odd appearance for a victory," he said.
With the Iraq Study Group on the verge of providing what may be an intervention, is this evidence that tough love is in the offing? Watch for new talking points on the primary importance of establishing stability rather than democracy.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Publish and Perish


Janice Regan's various explanations for why she has published O.J. Simpson's latest pleas for attention, "If I Did It," just make no sense. And In tying up with someone who is widely thought to be beyond redemption, Regan has done herself and her imprint irreparable damage. For what?

The silliest of her explanations is the notion that publishing Simpson would ensure that the world was not deprived of the "... historical value in such work; there is value for law enforcement, for students of psychology, for anyone who wants to gain insight into the mind of a sociopath."

Let's say there is some benefit to hearing more from Simpson. He can publish himself. Lots of aspiring writers resort to this. He can blog. Between DOS attacks he'd probably get plenty of attention.

Then there is the chance to purge her own demons. Perhaps she should consider writing a book of her own ...

This public service must include the proposition that ReganBooks expects to make money. And that Simpson expects something in return.
"What I do know is I didn't pay him. I contracted through a third party who owns the rights, and I was told the money would go to his children. That much I could live with."
Sounds like an iron-clad contract to me. And it must be very consoling to the families of the victims, who have yet to receive the full amount of the civil judgment they were awarded.

The line between fact and fiction was blurred by James Frey, but this is a new twist. Regan considers the Simpson book a confession. The book is being touted as a work of fiction. There is no legal necessity for Simpson to finesse anything since he cannot be criminally charged in the murders again and already has a civil judgment against him.

Borders and Barnes and Noble say they will carry the book. The former will donate proceeds to charity, the latter not. But everyone should have done a little checking about the marketability of Simpson. His last book on his favorite subject is still available, on amazon.com. There are 352 copies available, in hardcover, starting at one penny.

My favorite quote on the prospect of marketing Simpson comes in the Nov. 15 edition of the NYTimes:
Rebecca Marks, a spokeswoman for NBC Universal Television, said the network passed (on a packaged broadcast interview conducted by Regan) because “from an advertising point of view, from a public relations point of view, everything, it was impossible.”



Thursday, November 16, 2006

Nancy Fumbles, Trent Returns

The U.S. Congress (photo by tsnyther)
This might not rank up there with the enduring mystery of why Bush 41 a) picked and then b) stuck with Dan Quayle, but incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's very public support of Jack Murtha for majority leader seems oddly naive for a veteran politician.

Not that Murtha didn't deserve a shout out -- he will chair a powerful defense appropriations subcommittee anyway -- but he erased any doubt that a leadership post exceeded his skill set when, just before the election process, he called Pelosi's pet ethics reform rules "total crap." Real men curse, of course, but not about the things that are important to prospective bosses.

Quite a bit is being made of the spectacle of Pelosi being so thoroughly rebuked. I doubt many people are paying much attention, and Republicans deserve to have a laugh at the Democrats expense. It's been tough for them recently.

But why didn't a seasoned pol like Pelosi work in the shadows, at arms length, so she could pay whatever debt she felt she had to Murtha while appearing above it all? Why risk handing your enemies snicker material? I don't think taking a stand and losing -- especially your first fight -- ever reflects back well, unless you can spin that losing was what you had in mind the whole time.

We'll see if this turns out to be emblamatic of poor political judgement or deft long game politics. Speaking of which, for a textbook lesson on how the long game is played read about how Trent Lott battled his way back to the number two Senate Republican post after a humiliating fall from Majority Leader nearly four years ago.

As the NYTimes reports -- and they have covered Lott's lot a lot -- the former number-one earned his way back by stoically paying dues all over again: showing up to and participating in all the hearings, accepting hall monitor assignments, the whole come-in-early-stay-late thing.

And how do you act when you've done all this and clearly have the right to brag on yourself a little? As the NYTimes reports:
Today, Mr. Lott declined the opportunity to gloat. Asked if he felt vindicated, he said: “I’m going to shock you by starting off with the right frame of mind. I defer on this occasion to our leader, and we’ll work together with him and talking about substance more later. The spotlight belongs on him."
John McCain was a big supporter of Lott's resurrection, the NYTimes reports, so this could be as much a story about McCain's influence as the presumptive Republican presidential front-runner as it is about his U.S. Senate colleague's tenacity.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Parting the Curtain


it may be that Schlesinger is the most senior editorial executive blogging (though not the highest paid. See Katie Couric or Brian Williams or Charles Gibson for that.)
There is something new going on at the traditionally stodgy place where I used to work. I've already written about Reuters' foray into covering non-events from a place that doesn't exist by opening a "bureau" in the Sims-like online community, Second Life. This may be too hip to be cool or too cool to be hip, but either way it is iconic rather than informative.

Now, the global managing editor at Reuters, David Schlesinger, is taking the lead in blogging for senior editors at the news agency. This is notable in at least three respects:
  • Reuters has always been exceptionally insulated, not behaving as if it were terribly concerned with public image
  • Reuters has tended to be at best reluctantly reactive to the discussion of journalism hot topics, engaging in public discourse only when necessary and usually only to defend itself
  • Reuters has been slavishly devoted to the notion of not appearing to take sides on anything
So now we have a conversation about news coverage in general and Reuters' approach to it in particular laid out by the executive most responsible for it, for all the world to see.

As a former insider I am, frankly, astonished. In the two weeks or so since inception Schlesinger has already taken up citizen journalism and deciding what's news in his occasional entries. Global Editor for Political and General News Paul Holmes has blogged about the plight of Iraqi nationals who work for Reuters covering the war. He responded to a number of tough questions about the pay and conditions for these local hires, whose contribution to the world's knowledge about what is going on there is scandalously unappreciated and even unknown by the general public.

I haven't made an exhaustive study of this, but it may be that Schlesinger is the most senior editorial executive blogging (though not the highest paid. See Katie Couric or Brian Williams or Charles Gibson for that.)

I don't expect the Reuters Editor blog to be quite as transparent or prolific as the those by the U.S. TV networks, and it isn't exactly an ombudsman's space either. But it does seem to be a sincere attempt to go public by a congenitally non-publicity-seeking company.

It may be that I may be able to say so and that David couldn't possibly comment, but since he is an old Asia hand with extensive knowledge of China culture, history and politics, I would wager that the irony cannot possibly have escaped him.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

I'd Like To Believe Him, But …

Kerry's post "botched joke" news conference
Give me five more John Kerry’s,” says Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). “He’s a fighter, and he puts his money where his mouth is.” – Roll Call, 5.1.06, as quoted on johnkerry.com

***** ***** ***** ***** *****
IMUS: Did you say you were going back to Washington?
KERRY: I’m going to go back to Washington. And I’m going to go back to tackle this, you bet.
IMUS: OK. You’re not going to Tennessee for Harold Ford, are you?
KERRY: No.
IMUS: Good.
KERRY: I was not going down there.
IMUS: Thank you...
(LAUGHTER)
-- Imus in the Morning, Nov 1, 2006, as transcribed by MSNBC
Say what you will about whether Republicans are making fair hay of Sen. John Kerry's remarks in California last Sunday (no, they are not, and yes, it is good politics), but even the most liberal of liberal die-hard Democrats have to admit this was an avoidable gaffe by a criminally inept campaigner. This time it didn't take even swift-boating to get Kerry on the ropes he can never seem to disentangle himself from because he is happy to steam over his own tow line. My goodness – even when he gets indignant he sounds insincere.

Here is the problem: it is traditional liberal dogma that the armed forces are overweighted with underclass people. This was a rallying cry during Vietnam and is an especially potent charge when there is a draft, since the privileged can usually get deferments or easier duty than being sent to the front.

Some who espouse the point of view that the U.S. military is endemically comprised of poor, undereducated kids -- unlike, say, Israel's -- take it a step or two further, alleging that macro economic forces are manipulated so that poor, undereducated kids see military service in a better light than they would if there were more good jobs in the private sector to be had.

So, the more conspiratorial theory goes, why bother going to too much trouble to protect domestic jobs when you need a steady supply of recruits? President Reagan fueled this fire a bit by including the military in jobless rates reporting. Critics said this was a disingenuous way of hiding the true rate of unemployment. Reagan said it reflected the reality that service in the military is a job.

Kerry has to know all this, and what a sensitive subject it remains, even if he didn't read the Heritage Foundation report on this subject which came out two days earlier. Maybe he even believes some of it. I think in his aristocratic version of liberalism it's possible he'd be tone deaf to what is implicit in the basic argument – when you suggest that dupes are being manipulated by evil people, you aren't just calling your enemies evil but your friends dupes. This is a trap that people who want to do good sometimes trip, in all innocence.

So that's why I think Kerry has been caught completely off-guard by this, and why his people are struggling to find the envelope the original joke was written on. The defense is that Kerry left one word was left out. So it comes down to the meaning of "us."

Sadly, none of this had to happen. Kerry is running for nothing. He lost the last presidential election that few believed a Democrat could lose. Not nearly enough time has elapsed for a Gore-ification. So why is Kerry even campaigning for the Phil Angelides, a sacrificial lamb who is going to be slaughtered by Arnold Schwarzenegger? I mean, what is the point?

Kerry has, thankfully, decided to cancel his upcoming campaign appearances, affirming my strategic advice to his 2004 presidential team (in my mind): if only you will be quiet and stop campaigning, maybe you will win.

This time, listen to Imus: please stop it.