Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Same Time, Next Year

I always look forward to the State of the Union and shortly after it begins forget why. The speeches themselves are well below the average hot convention speech or presidential address to the nation prompted by tragedy or political necessity, although President Clinton, with visible glee, used the forum in a traditional way to trot out wild and crazy ideas guaranteed to go nowhere.

At least this one didn't begin with the tired boilerplate: "The State of the Union (is excellent! is superb! has never been better!). But Bush could not help himself from making an insider's jab as is his wont by referring to the "Democrat Party" -- which drives the Democrats nuts -- although published transcripts based on the released version says "Democratic Party."

There is very little to dissect, but I can't help but think if Bush's next, and last, SotU will be any different.

Iraq came up late in the speech, and wasn't mentioned in passing. As the NY Times reports:
In an admission that the United States now finds itself trapped in the cross-fire of a sectarian conflict, Mr. Bush said, “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.” While he insisted that America could not afford to fail, he also warned the Iraqi government that “our commitment is not open-ended.”
What if The Surge works even a little bit? What if the Democratic-led Congress cannot bring itself to drop the defunding bomb? What if al-Malaki perfects his carrot-and-stick routine? What if Iran realizes that provocation, but not all-out provocation, keeps the United States just where it wants it?

If the U.S. military commitment is not materially different in a year's time, what will we hear then?

You've Come a Long Way, Baby?

The talk-show host approach to "introducing" Sen. Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate doesn't seem entirely odd, given the tough political calculations the presumptive Democratic nominee must make. But it does reveal some clues about what trail she must forge to win.
This early in a campaign a candidate is usually hoping to win undecideds while holding the base. But with 97% name recognition Mrs. Clinton has the difficult task of winning over voters who already don't like her.
It wasn't just a Webcast -- nobody is talking anymore about how cool Sen. Barack Obama was to two-camera his exploratoriousness online. And in the spirit of keeping every aspect of a candidate's appearance under control, what is better than a closed set with no live audience? Put her at a desk in an office that isn't Oval and it fails. Put her in her living room and it just ... may ... work.

But still, there had to have been some talk within the campaign about the symbolism of a woman softening her image. Has any woman candidate for national office ever tried less to seem like one of the boys? Can this be the same person who, while campaigning for her husband back in 1992, infamously blurted out: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life. "

As far as blatant iconography goes, sitting on the the end of a sofa, elbow propped up on a pillow, is probably better for candidate Clinton at this stage in the game than bellowing from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This may even be true in a campaign where commander-in-chief potential, at least as it relates to Iraq, will be Topics A, B and C.

But I can't see any of the guys going this route. Even in leather chairs in the study. With a fire in the background. Pictures of the family on a hard-wood, piano-finish side table adorned only with a brass colonial lamp -- coasters and ash trays banished to a sealed room at another location.

The answer may lie in the fact that Sen. Clinton has virtually 100% name recognition and that only 3% of the public has no opinion of her. This early in a campaign a candidate is usually hoping to win undecideds while holding the base. But Mrs. Clinton has the difficult task of winning over voters who already don't like her because so few have yet to make up their minds one way or the other.

Maybe the best way to do that is to invite them into her home for an friendly chat in the living room.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Closing the Circle (Not Circling the Wagons)

David Schlesinger has dropped the other shoe from last August's incident involving altered photos from the Middle East. The Editor-in-Chief of Reuters discloses in his blog that the senior photo editor in the region has been fired and replaced, the code of professional conduct for
Time is at a tremendous premium at a place like Reuters, where there absolutely no sense of a beginning, a middle or an end.
photographers has been re-written and changes to vetting procedures instituted.

"We called together our senior photographers to strengthen our existing exacting guidelines on ethical issues in photography and wrote a new code of conduct for photographers, appended to this note.

"We have restructured our pictures editing operation to ensure that senior editors deal with all potentially controversial photographs, and we have ensured that shift leaders are focusing solely on quality issues instead of doing editing themselves.

"In addition, we have invested in additional training and supervision, particularly in the area of digital workflow, where we have engaged external experts.

"Finally, we are working with industry leaders to see if there are technical means we can devise to better recognize possible fraud."

This last initiative was first disclosed by Reuters CEO Tom Glocer and involves Adobe and Canon.

Taken as a whole, it looks like Reuters has made all the right moves. As perhaps too a fine point, I wonder what were the exact transgressions of the fired senior editor. Schlesinger says only the editor "...was dismissed ... for his handling of the case." This suggests that the offense went beyond adhering to rules that have now been changed but were in force at the time.

The strongest impediment to doing things right is lack of time. Time is at a tremendous premium at a place like Reuters, where there absolutely no sense of a beginning, a middle or an end, but rather a steady, powerful stream that journalists jump in and out of -- but always there is more to do: one more call, one last peek at the competition, a second look at that photo ...

Of all the disclosed procedural changes the most significant is the new charge for shift leaders to focus solely on quality issues rather than doing any hands-on editing. This is very important because, as I have argued, the only way to stop an altered image is to look at them all critically, almost as an ombudsman, and the only way to do that is to make it somebody's job, to the exclusion of all else. I doubt that any technology will make it possible to automate the kind of quality assurance required and at worst could provide a false sense of security.

It was a human who caught a glimpse of the red flag last August, not a machine. A human who had the time, and the motivation. Reuters must be at least as motivated to spend time as its most vociferous critics.

One experienced image specialist notes, in a comment to Schlesinger's entry, that requiring photojournalists to also provide the RAW file of all of their images would provide a powerful baseline against which to detect illicit tampering -- and a tremendous disincentive to try.
"It’s extremely difficult to alter a RAW image in the compositional sense (helps in cropping, contrast, overall color balance correction and overall sharpness) and virtually impossible in an entire sequence," writes Geoffrey Mehl, Director of Publications at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

"The original RAW images would allow the photo desk to see the work right from the camera and make its own judgments on acceptable modification, as well as have a detailed archive (i.e., the entire “roll” and “contacts”)."
But this still takes time, and this approach wouldn't even take into account images taken by citizen journalists, which Reuters is contemplating putting in the news stream and which, one might argue, presents a considerably most serious potential breach of acceptable practices than rogue or careless employees.

Time is the enemy. Speed kills.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Getting it Wrong

It's tough to be wrong, but it's tougher to deny an obvious truth.

I'm speaking of myself, of course, and my naive hopes that President Bush was just giving his opponents no satisfaction before deciding to reduce the US military presence in Iraq as rapidly as possible.

But I could just as easily be speaking of Bush, who, despite the clear logic of the Iraq Study Group's analysis and, perhaps most importantly, strong opposition by the U.S electorate to raise troop levels, thinks the best way to bring an end to US military involvement in Iraq is by first increasing it.

Americans support folly and even things they don't understand -- if they have confidence in their leader. Sometimes that requires a leader to admit to fallibility. Bush has perhaps never come closer to this than in these woefully inadequate 10 words in his Iraq speech:
"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."
Is this the way to begin to re-build consensus? I doubt many hearts and minds will be swayed by an undeniable truth masquerading as a concession: the commander (decider) in chief is responsible for everything -- including, as the statement seems to imply, the mistakes of underlings and allies. After all, the only other reference to mistakes in the speech is this:
"There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have."
Given his past assurances to always give the generals on the ground everything they wanted, the first mistake must be theirs, which is nonsensical. The second is, of course, by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is absolutely true.

If the purpose of Bush's speech was to sell an unpopular policy that was already irretrievably in motion I doubt this lackluster statement of the obvious and shifting of blame will do. All it seems to underscore is how unreliable Iraq's government can be.

It is hard to believe that even the president's most ardent supporters do not now, after all, see the Iraq escapade for what it is.

The stated purpose of attacking Iraq was self-defense against a nation-state (no need to go into how disingenuous this was) but we are now trapped in a guerrilla war involving feuding neighbors and opportunistic outside instigators with nothing to lose in an urban setting filled with innocents. This is a war our leaders did not foresee, denied was developing, failed to adapt to quickly enough and now do not have a strategy to either end or escape.

This is a recipe for disaster, but it is a disaster the United States must face. The only way to get support for any new initiatives is to acknowledge a history of being wrong about a great many things, the better to inspire confidence about future assertions.

As tough as it may be, without a mea culpa moment there really is no way out, at home or in Iraq. This administration needs to say it blundered us into a quagmire before it can believably add, but now we know what we are doing.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Killing the Messenger

It appears to be one of the great early successes in open-source journalism -- exactly what MSM futurists like Reuters' Tom Glocer seemed eager to greet and other news organizations welcomed with little visible trepidation.

But the unauthorized video of Saddam Hussein being hanged is likely to result in some severe penalty for someone -- one hopes it is at least the "guilty" party -- and for the moment the media focus seems to be on the act of taping some pretty odd gallows behavior by official participants (or were they? see below) rather than the behavior itself.

Ironically, the overarching issue is not whether TV would show the actual death. These days that discussion is quaint beyond words. The issue is that there is tremendous news value in the illicit recording of an historical event that could not have been obtained any other way. And, but for this, history would have been inaccurately recorded.

Recall that the first video released of the execution, the official video, had no audio
, an omission which seems explained now by the fact that the audio tells an unflattering story about how this execution was carried out. Recall also that not a single witness to the execution emerged to complain of unseemly treatment of the condemned, and that nobody is disputing the accuracy of the video.

So this tape, whatever the motivation of its author, sheds a new light on a newsworthy event around which rumor and speculation would have swirled for ages. And the official version, at first redacted almost as clumsily as Rose Mary Woods erasing the Watergate tapes, now looks like a coverup.

So, what to do? Iraq seems determined to make a bad situation worse.
"Whoever leaked this video meant to harm national reconciliation and drive a wedge between Shi'ites and Sunnis," said National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, one of a group of 20 officials and other witnesses who were present at the execution at dawn on Saturday.

Maybe. But the person who shot this video reasonably expected to leave with only a snuff film of a former dictator, not boys gone wild. If that person is trying to make trouble, what are we to make of the people on the video who actually are trying to make trouble?

And it gets better.
(A) senior Interior Ministry official said the hanging was supposed to be carried out by hangmen employed by the Interior Ministry but that "militias" had managed to infiltrate the executioners' team."The execution was carried out by militias and outsiders. They put aside the team from the Interior Ministry that was supposed to carry it out," the official said.
So, if this is the final official story it seems that Iraq cannot even manage to secure the Ministry of Justice's As-Buratha prison for an execution of historic proportions with the entire world watching. How hard will they try to ensure that the army and police are not infiltrated? What does infiltration even mean in today's Iraq?

The United States will bear blame for this. The U.S. captured Saddam. It handed him over to Iraq. But if there is any good news about all this, here it is: there is something to be learned from this transaction, something very valuable.

The U.S. captured Iraq. It will hand it over to Iraq. Will Iraq on that day be as clueless and ineffective as it was executing Saddam Hussein the moment it took control of him?

It may be that this 2:36 piece of grainy video becomes a metaphor for what is possible in the US-Iraq relationship, specifically how little power the former has to make the latter effective.

Will the passage of any amount of time help the U.S. help Iraq? If not, what are we fighting for?