Monday, April 30, 2007

Mr. Tenet, You're No Jack Ryan

CIA Originally uploaded by prawnpie.

Enough has been said about George Tenet.

But here is a bit of fictional dialogue, reprinted without permission (national security imperative), between CIA analyst Jack Ryan and the President of the United States, from "Clear and Present Danger."

You know, for future reference.
President: "And we have to do this very delicately, otherwise people might get the wrong idea."
Ryan: "We have to lie."
President: "Did I say that?"
Ryan: "No, you didn't."
President: "You're upset."
Ryan: "I'm upset."
President: "Well, it's understandable. You mind if I give you a bit of advice? Of course, you know this, because you're a smart guy. You should never make important decisions while you're upset."
Ryan: "You did. And American soldiers and innocent civilians are dead because of it."
President: "I never ordered any-"
Ryan: "No! Don't even think about playing that game with me! I will not let you dishonor their memories by pretending you had nothing to do with it!"
President: "How dare you come in here and lecture me!"
Ryan: "How dare you, sir!"
President: "How dare you come into this office and bark at me like some little junkyard dog! I am the President of The United States!"
Ryan: "It gives me no pleasure to do it sir. As Acting Deputy Director of Intelligence, it is my duty to report this matter to the Senate Oversight Committee."
President: "You're not gonna do that."
Ryan: "I'm not?"
President: "No, no. You've got yourself a chip in the big game, now. You're gonna tuck that away. You are gonna save that for a time when your own ass is on the line, and then you're gonna pull it out, and I'm gonna cash it in for you. Right?"
Ryan: "I don't think I have anything more to say to you, sir."
President: "The country can't afford another scandal, Jack. To protect itself, it won't allow the possibility of another deception that goes all the way to the top. You'll take the blame. Cutter and Ritter'll take some, too, but it won't amount to much. They'll get a slap on the wrist, and then twenty thousand dollars an hour on the lecture circuit. The rest of the blame'll fall on Greer. Oh yeah, you'll take him down with you. You'll destroy his reputation. But, that's as far as it'll go. The old Potomac two step, Jack."
Ryan: "I'm sorry Mr. President, I don't dance."

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Where is that Beef Anyway?

OK – so the most composed person at the Democratic debate was Brian Williams. And Dennis Kucinich seemed mainstream by comparison to Mike Gravel. And Joe Biden didn’t muck up his a Calvin Coolidge moment by being even slightly verbose about being too verbose. But anyone looking for something other than lackluster job interviews was bound to be disappointed despite the chorus of hype by every MSNBC talking head on the payroll.

It's a shame that neither Barack nor Hillary showed off why they are considered first tier candidates rather than maybe just the best of the lot at raising money (ask Howard Dean about the difference).

What is Edwards waiting for -- and I don't mean the suspiciously long time he took to answer a question about who his moral authority is (I guess Edwards' opposition to gay marriage stems in equal parts to "my lord," his wife and his father).

The First Taste is -- Dull

People: these early debates are for political junkies. Given NBC’s onerous re-use restrictions most of what you say will die on the vine anyway. Play for a tie later. Give the pitiful few of us already mainlining campaign stuff what we need to get through the day. It isn’t the Boy Scout Oath or an ode to first responders.

You get off with a warning this time: don’t leave us wanting more Dennis and Mike, or yearning for Al Sharpton.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Free Speech Isn't Supposed to be Just Rosie

There isn't any real evidence that Rosie O'Donnell was shown the door at ABC, even though it isn't really possible to know for sure why these two parties with obvious common interests have decided to part company. The story is that Rosie wanted a one-year extension for being the lead host of "The View" and that ABC wanted to lock her into more time. The New York Times also reports that Rosie's salary demands were too high.

ABC could have been feeling some heat in this post-Imus world (though Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly's employers seem to have NASA-grade tiles between them and the civilized world). Rosie, who is often restless in her work -- she gave up her top-rated daytime talker and walked away from her eponymous named magazine -- could just be playing her "I couldn't care less" card again.

But you can't blame anyone for speculating about the reasons someone gives up a major, attention-getting pulpit. Or has it taken away.

In This Corner: Donald Trump!

Donald Trump's feud with O'Donnell made for great tabloid headlines, and neither could seem to let it go. Call me
Nobody who wanted Rosie to shut up and go away should be proud -- or comfortable -- if it was political uneasiness not just a dispute over time and money that ended O'Donnell's tenure.
old-fashioned, but whatever taunts from Rosie started this spat, Trump behaved like a cad. Look it up. I'll help.
1. colloq
A man who behaves discourteously or dishonourably, especially towards a woman.
Thesaurus: knave, churl, blackguard, caitiff, cur, rat (slang), heel (slang), skunk (slang), swine (slang), worm (slang); Antonym: gentleman.
That feud just ginned up ratings for all concerned. More significantly, O'Donnell became the hobby for a handful of cable pundits, notably MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who argued that Rosie should not be sharing the stage with a journalist of Barbara Walters' stature as a pundit (rather than comic relief), promulgating such ideas as that World Trade Center building 7 was intentionally demolished during the 9/11 attack and asserting that "radical Christians" were as dangerous as "radical Muslims."

It's difficult to know now what the standards are these days for broadcasters. Imus is out for saying "nappy-headed hos" but everyone who utters or prints that phrase while reporting on Imus gets a pass. Nobody will use the "N" word but nobody has any trouble saying "n-word" repeatedly when talking about the "N" word. I'm waiting for some shock jock to say to someone: "Hey, n-word!" just to see what happens.

Rosie never used coarse language on the air and never attacked the weak. She does have uncommon political views on some subjects and was, to say the least, outspoken on a show that is about talking about the issues of the day. The only show, by the way, that not only invites women to join the panel but is entirely made up of women. As much of a cynic as I may seem, that can't have anything to do with this, could it? Scarborough can't possibly be stepping up to defend poor, defenseless Walters, who doesn't even know what is good for her, poor thing. A chivalrous knight to Trump's knave?

Your Business is My Business

I was against term limits not because I was a Democrat and it was a Republican initiative. I just didn't like the idea of trading my right to be represented by Ted Kennedy (for example) for the right to banish Jesse Helms (for example). Giving away rights when so often there are powers who want to take them away seems idiotic. So it is especially chilling when people who make their living exercising free speech call for others who are exercising free speech to be silenced.

Maybe ABC made it impossible for Rosie to renew and maybe it didn't. Maybe Rosie was tired of it all and doesn't care that the timing looks like she may have been bullied. But nobody who wanted Rosie to shut up and go away should be proud -- or comfortable -- if it was uneasiness with her opinions and not just a dispute over time and money that ended O'Donnell's tenure on "The View."

You could be next. Especially if stupidity, lying or being pathologically misinformed become litmus tests right after having wacky ideas about a thing or two becomes unacceptable.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstam, R.I.P

The untimely death of David Halberstam will, I hope, provide a peg for new discussion about the proper role of dissent against war.

May only generals assert that a war cannot be won? Is it the troops, or is it the strategists who are being attacked when war policy is criticized? What are we to think of those who, during wartime, say that the war is wrong (when else is there an opportunity to do so)?

A Pulitzer-Prize winning correspondent whose early Vietnam War despatches expressed a pessimism about the prospects of "success" that would not become the conventional wisdom for years, Halberstam would a decade after his reporting write a best seller about the long list of very smart men who thought that war had to be fought, and won.

"The Best and the Brightest," published in 1972 as the war still raged on, chronicled the creeping dementia and paranoia of three administrations. By then, opposition to that war was widespread, as is opposition to the Iraq now. Halberstam's patriotism was not questioned, his family was not attacked, he was not the object of an smear campaign.

Not many would characterize the war counsels in the current administration as the best and the brightest minds of our time but it is important to remember that even the pathologically brilliant can be astonishingly unwise. It is an equal opportunity affliction. But, smart or not, being unwise in matters of war is catastrophic and unforgivable. And mistaking critics for enemies only make matters worse.

In an online chat with the Washington Post in 2005 Halberstam spoke with a credibility few could rival of the Iraq war and its makers and the parallels to earlier leaders and Vietnam:
"There's a real danger here right now of something that happened during the Vietnam War which is an administration being more and more caught up in what it believes are its own truths but which many, many others increasingly see as self-deceptions. When that happens the administration often becomes, as happened with the Johnson administration, more and more isolated and it begins to see those who wish it well but dissent from it on this issue, not as friendly but reluctant critics but as sworn enemies."
Only today, Vice President Dick Cheney chose to criticize Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who dared to say the war in Iraqis "lost," (and) likened Bush to President Lyndon Johnson, saying Johnson ordered troop escalations in Vietnam in an attempt "to save his political legacy" only to watch U.S. casualties climb steadily.

"Some Democratic leaders seem to believe that blind opposition to the new strategy in Iraq is good politics," Cheney said. "Sen. Reid himself has said that the war in Iraq will bring his party more seats in the next election. It is cynical to declare that the war is lost because you believe it gives you political advantage."

Only today, Jessica Lynch told Congress that the Pentagon had tried to "to turn her into a "little girl Rambo", and accused military chiefs of using "elaborate tales" to try to make her into a hero of the Iraq war."

Only today, U.S. Army Specialist Bryan O'Neal told the same House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform he was ordered to conceal from Pat Tillman's family the fact that his fellow Ranger was killed by friendly fire.

Is it too soon for Halberstam to be spinning in his grave?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Funniest Guy Wasn't There

They've been after him for years, so David Letterman must know something.

Maybe it's because of his famous anti-social proclivities. Maybe Saturday really is Yoga night at the Letterman home. Maybe he learned a tough lesson when he hosted the Oscars: it ain't fun bombing in person.

Thanks to C-SPAN even nobodies can be a fly on the wall at the White House Correspondent Association's annual dinner. I'm no Sanjaya but I like watching a train wreck as much as the next guy.

Don't worry if you missed it last night -- C-SPAN will repeat it several thousand times. But you missed nothing. Well, almost nothing: the only thing worth seeing, Letterman's virtual appearance, is already on YouTube.

Please Help Me Forget

Rich Little, making his second and certainly last appearance as "the talent" at the dinner, was horrible. A choice intended to make everyone forget last year's pointed commentary by Steven Colbert, he probably succeeded by putting everyone to sleep. Little's impersonation pipes are a far cry from his prime (circa the last time he appeared here, in 1984) and his material is the kind grandpa thinks is still funny after all these years.

Bush laughed a little, but maybe he was just savoring his wise decision not to do his own material this year, too soon after the Virginia Tech massacre, while Little went down in flames. Watching another proxy take the heat is pretty funny, actually.

But the funniest guy in the room wasn't in the room -- props anyway to WHCA president Steve Scully for calling Charlie Gibson "Brian Williams" as the ABC News anchor left the podium, which not enough people seemed to hear. Letterman was prevailed upon to provide a video edition of his "Top 10 List" for the occasion, and it killed.

True to Form

Made up entirely of familiar Bush malapropisms and pratfalls, the compiliation exactly captured Letterman's signature tone of unapologetic irreverance shorn of real malice. This is a tough balancing act for a guy who does an almost nightly video of "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" which unflatteringly compares Bush to JFK and FDR over and over and over again.

I hope the next WSCA president, Ann Compton, has better luck wooing Letterman to actually show up. Or maybe they should get the message and just dispense with booking an act to do 30 minutes of bad material that keeps attendees from getting to the after parties, where everyone really wants to be.

Letterman's three minutes from afar, calmly sitting at his Ed Sullivan Theater studio desk, was a perfect tonic at this moribund annual event everyone wants to attend and can't wait to leave -- you know, sort of like the Oscars. So next year how about getting by with brief video "tributes" from the people in the news, sprinkled throughout the evening. And another "Top 10" from Dave, of course.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Guns & Roe(ses)

The push of other news has crowded the presidential campaign from the media front burner for a few days. I have to think that the occasional yellow flag is welcomed by front-runners and that even emerging also-rans like John McCain are grateful for the small favors of a distracted crowd, so things like "Bomb bomb bomb. Bomb bomb Iran" get (mostly) buried.

But soon enough the cameras will get back on the calliope. And with a war in Iraq sucking most of the air out of the smoke-filled room who could have predicted that gun control and abortion might be central campaign issues in '08?

The disturbingly efficient rampage by was committed not with the fringe weapons the gun control battle is always about, but
With a war in Iraq sucking most of the air out of the smoke-filled room who could have predicted that gun control and abortion might be central campaign issues in '08?
with a pedestrian semi-automatic 9 mm handgun he acquired legally (though the New York Times reports that a gaping loophole in the background check process may have existed). There is no cover here with the usual dodges. This isn't about banning guns that hunters are said not to need (though I doubt many use handguns. Hmmmm .... Nah).

I Don't Want To Talk About It

Democrats traditionally favor stricter gun rules than Republicans, of course, but it isn't a winning issue for them because of the diverse and conflicted feelings Americans have about guns, and because the gun lobby is always loaded for bear. The VIrginia Tech massacre took place in a rural part of a state which has few restrictions on gun ownership. This makes it a more nuanced issue than, say, if a similar event had taken place in New York or Washington.

The groundwork has been laid to proceed with caution about drawing any conclusions, and watch the wise politicians take the hint. Knocking down suggestions to even consider the gun lobby position that armed Virginia Tech students might have prevented at least the scale of the disaster on their gun-free-zone campus, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said "... people who want to take this within 24 hours of the event and make it, you know, their political hobby horse to ride, I've got nothing but loathing for them."

Perfect that the opportunity to seethe was at a question about expanding gun rights, giving nice cred to anyone who follows Kaine's lead. Kaine has appointed a panel, including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, to make assessments and suggestions. So look for everyone to defer comment until this work is done, whenever that is. You can't be too careful.

Against Abortion? Absolutely Maybe

While the gun debate may shift to a mainstream scenario it was with a ruling on a fringe abortion procedure that the Supreme Court departed from precedent, upholding the U.S. Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. It was the first time the Court had upheld a ban on a specific method of abortion, under a law which permits no discretion to perform the procedure even if, in her physician's medical opinion, the woman's life is in jeopardy.

Getting behind this is an easier decision for those courting the most conservative voters, but there's no consolation in winning the primaries and losing the general. And I defy anyone to accurately assess what the mood of "the people" is at any given time. If there is any political equivalent to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle it is in abortion.

Republican candidates traditionally favor restrictions to abortion or the undoing of "Roe v. Wade," but it isn't a winning issue for them because while most Americans favor curbs most also seem not to want to eliminate abortion rights. So confusing is the issue that the language used in polling tips the outcome.

A CBS/New York Times poll taken in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2003 found that 77% of respondents said abortion should either be "Generally available", or "Available but with stricter limits that now," and only 22% said abortion should not be permitted. The results were nearly identical from precisely the same questions asked 10 years before. But a Zogby poll in December of the same year found that, by 53% to 36%, the public supports the statement, "Abortion destroys a human life and is manslaughter."

So, who needs the grief of taking positions on this stuff? What ever happened to just kissing babies and being against an unpopular war?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Cho Tapes: Having it Both Ways

The day after, nearly every broadcast network has drawn a line in the sand about further airings of the Cho tapes. While reserving the right to air them in whatever way merited in the future, they are saying enough is enough, sometimes in very strong terms.

The statements are all at TVNewser, the best outlet for breaking news about TV news, and I quote them all from that source.

NBC: "Beginning this morning, we have limited our usage of the video across NBC News, including MSNBC, to no more than 10 percent of our airtime."
It used to be that news organizations risked doing irresponsible things for competitive reasons against only other news organizations. Now the argument is extended to the point that if it is on YouTube, it is fair game.

FNC: "We believe that 18 hours after they were first broadcast and distributed via the Internet, our news viewers have had the opportunity to see the images and draw their own conclusions about them. We see no reason to continue assaulting the public with these disturbing and demented images."

ABC: "We are planning to severely limit the use of the video. Obviously in the first news cycle there's some breaking news value to that video. But once that first news cycle has passed, the repetition of it is little more than pornography."

Nothing at this writing from CBS.

No Control Point?

If a key argument for the network use of this video is that "there is no control point anymore," as Jeff Jarvis argues, why show any restraint -- and issue statements about why you are showing restraint? Could have it have anything to do with pushback, like the decision by some victim's families to cancel appearances on NBC?

It is short-sighted to suggest that digital ubiquity of material on one medium (the Internet) forces changes to the news editing criteria on another (television). Responsible people have to act responsibly. The discussion has to be whether airing even portions of the raw video on network television is right or wrong, and whether the video could have been edited in such a way that its poison was extracted (no audio, snippets of phrases on screen, voice-overs). Only children argue that they should be allowed to do something because Billy can.

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're Ignoring Them

Does the medium matter? Of course. I can avoid anything I want on the Internet (even video, which I must proactively play). But unless I am quick on the remote-draw or TiVo everything, TV immerses me in what its programmers want me to experience.

It used to be that news organizations risked doing irresponsible things for competitive reasons against only other news organizations — ABC has the tape so CBS might as well run with it. Bad enough. Now the argument is extended to the point that if it is on YouTube, it is fair game.

So why are news organizations not showing enemy videos of US forces being blown up, plentiful on the Internet, while simultaneously complaining that they can’t take pictures of body bags of our returning dead?

There may be a good reason why the Cho video has news value and blown up coalition forces do not. But that is the debate I want to hear — not the shrug, the upturned hands and the "Well, what can we do?"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

NBC Gives VTech Killer the Last Word?

I'm no fan of self censorship but NBC's decision to air Virginia Tech mass murder Cho Seung-Hui's video "manifesto" is difficult to understand.

What is the news value in this pathetic, meaningless, juvenile rant mailed to NBC in New York by Cho? This student, who according to fellow students and faculty said almost nothing in life is permitted to veritably spit venom in death.

"NBC News has indeed received what I would call a "multimedia manifesto" from the gunman," Brian Williams says in his blog, the Daily Nightly. "We received it today, and immediately handed it over to Federal law enforcement authorities. We are still going over our own copy -- its a lot of material -- we are talking with law enforcement, our own standards people -- and Pete Williams, our Justice Correspondent, will join me live on the broadcast to go through the material."
Well, maybe not so immediately.

Coming up on Today -- More from the Mass Killer

What is the news value in this pathetic, meaningless, juvenile rant mailed to NBC in New York by Cho? This student, who according to fellow students and faculty said almost nothing in life is permitted to veritably spit venom in death.

"We are sensitive to how all of this well be seen by those affected and know we are airing the words of a murder," Williams intoned at the top of his newscast, saying nothing about why the decision was made. Hand-wringing aside (it continued on MSNBC), he closed the newscast with a promise that more video would be shown on -- Today.

We'll see what happens in the next few hours and whether there is any taste for this during breakfast.

Self-censorship is the worst kind because you do the bidding of your detractors without a fight. But not every piece of video that comes into your possession is appropriate to air. The networks did not show all of the Saddam hanging nor all of the Daniel Pearl beheading. Both were available and I presume remain so online. So, standards do apply.

Under what exception does the incoherent blather of a unredemptive mass killer fall? If the video had been discovered a year from now, would the decision have been the same? If it had been sent first to law enforcement, would NBC or any news organization have tried to obtain it for airing? What if it had been proffered by a hostage-holding Cho with a demand that it be aired?

Keith Olbermann continued to use the video on MSNBC's Countdown but seemed less sure it was a good idea. The video purports "to provide answers to his motives," he said, "and in the end, no answers at all."

Can the news organization that silenced Don Imus truly be proud of giving Cho Seung-Hui a soap box?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Weapons of Mass Destruction

We now know who was responsible for the mass shootings at Virginia Tech and are relieved that he was not a terrorist, or someone who had been in the country for a short time, or an illegal alien. Or a Muslim. Nobody to carelessly blame, just a young man, troubled and/or angry and determined to make someone pay for his torment.

But suppose it had been a terrorist attack? It is frightening what one person with a handgun can do: a handgun firing the most common round manufactured, easy to purchase legally and to transport.
This incident has no obvious homeland security dimensions. In other words, homeland security measures did not fail because they do not apply. But it ought to be troubling to those who protect us from terrorists because it isn't the least bit obvious why those who do wish our destruction have not attacked us in the manner of the Virginia Tech
Forget airplanes, skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels and bombs, dirty or otherwise. Anyone who is prepared to die and who has a few hundred dollars' worth of gun and ammo purchased in the morning can create carnage in the afternoon.
massacre or the Long Island RailRoad shooting spree in 1993, or the DC sniper rampage, which had the nation's capital and environs terrorized for weeks in 2002.
Low-Tech Mayhem

Forget airplanes, skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels and bombs, dirty or otherwise. Anyone who is prepared to die and has a few hundred dollars' worth of gun and ammo purchased in the morning can create carnage in the afternoon.

And then a week later, someone else, somewhere else, the same thing.

And so on.

That description fits everyone who hates us and plenty of others. So why haven't we been subjected to this sort of thing by our enemies?

If our leaders are not thinking about the implications of these types of incidents in the context of national security, they certainly should be, without fear that they will have to take sides in the never-ending Second Amendment debate. If we can't have a discussion about this without getting silly about the right to bear arms and how many times a presidential candidate has been hunting, shame on us.

The disturbingly simply method of this attack is a national security matter. How can the easily replicated, methodical killing of more than 30 innocents be thought of as anything else in the post 9/11 world?

[NOTE:An edited version of this post was published as a letter to the New York Times]

Friday, April 13, 2007

Imus in the Aftermath

The death spiral for Imus came incredibly quickly -- sentence carried out a week after the infraction -- and incredibly slowly -- hard to accept that his media bosses were "shocked shocked" days after the offense and after lots of counties were heard from.

A very smart friend was the first to my knowledge to make the "Bonfires of the Vanities" allusion: "It's a Tom Wolf novel now," he wrote me, "not a 'conversation' about race."

But let's try to keep it a conversation about race or at least a conversation about standards and the price(s) for violating them.

I'm not sorry to see Imus go. But I was not a fan so I don't really count. He does have some friends loyal enough to say that the punishment did not fit his crime (and the less convincing "I know this man's heart" stuff).

Bill and Hillary, Sure. But Essense and Kia?

The remarks of his undoing, while typical after a fashion over the course of his career, were not particularly representative of his broadcasting schtick; unlike many wannabe radio stars who think their ticket to the top is
In serious matters that have both a personal and social component the question always is: who gets to decide?
routinely tormenting the weak, the Imus remarks were shocking in part because they were directed at people ordinarily way below his radar. Feel free to do whatever you want to Bill and Hillary (Imus did), but Essence and Kia? Please.

While Imus used some pretty intense street lingo, it isn't his habit to use pretty intense street lingo -- he actually sounded pretty dorky. There was, even from his fiercest critics, no accusation that Imus was a serial user of charged racial language on the air, only that any use could not be condoned.

So, something worthy of sanction occurred, everyone agrees. But in serious matters that have both a personal and social component the question always is: who gets to decide?

An easy answer in a commercial context is, of course, the market. Imus serves, contractual niceties notwithstanding, at the pleasure of his employers. An unusual development in the Imus case was the rapid exodus of sponsors -- organized boycotts seldom get any traction -- though his former employers have said it was their own disgust and that of Imus' colleagues which moved them to remove him.

Business is Business, But ...

Business is business, but was this power exercised with integrity? Should MSNBC and CBS have so quickly abandoned the period of reflection implied by their original decisions to subject Imus to concurrent two-week suspensions? I wonder who else now thinks
I fear now, with Imus effectively out of the discussion, not all of the right people will take part in whatever passes for conversation next. And worse, I fear we will now turn our attentions to other "demons" and the talk will instead be of retribution than of how people in a civilized place speak to, about and of each other.
those suspensions should have started immediately, radiothon or not.

What of the objects of Imus's language? Do they have a special standing in deciding his fate? The Rutgers woman's basketball team, and their coach, have never asked for his ouster. After meeting with him last night, they accepted his apology.

"These comments are indicative of greater ills in our culture," Coach Vivian Stringer said after the meeting. "It is not just Mr. Imus, and we hope that this will be and serve as a catalyst for change. Let us continue to work hard together to make this world a better place."

I fear now, with Imus effectively out of the discussion, not all of the right people will take part in whatever passes for conversation next. And worse, I fear we will now turn our attentions to other "demons" and the talk will instead be of retribution and of new targets than of how people in a civilized place speak to, about and of each other.

And Now .. The Backlash

There is some backlash against chief public Imus antagonists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, including from an unexpectedly resonant quarter: Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock, whose April 11 commentary has been widely circulated and who, next Monday, gets a coronation of sorts as a guest on Oprah (who hosted the Rutgers team this week).
You’ve given Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson another opportunity to pretend that the old fight, which is now the safe and lucrative fight, is still the most important fight in our push for true economic and social equality," Whitlock writes. "The bigots win again."
Imus, a very rich man, will be just fine and content in his own skin whether or not he's been wronged having wronged. But if Whitlock is prescient about the legacy of this whole affair, that would be a real tragedy. We don't have so many opportunities that we can afford to waste any of them.

Monday, April 9, 2007

An Accident Waiting to Happen

It isn't too much to expect that a two-week hiatus will make it clear if Imus, in his wisdom, should continue to fight to keep his job.

Don Imus has been suspended for two weeks starting next Monday for referring to the Rutger's women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." The suspension will take his MSNBC morning drive time simulcast off cable, and CBS -- which owns the New York City station where Imus' radio show originates as well as the company which syndicates him -- will also keep him off the air for that period.

Imus has engaged in crude humor with a cast that does terrible and insulting impersonations of public figures for many years. Everyone puts up with it; his program is also flypaper to big-name politicians and a regular staging area for NBC journalists talking up their own projects so it has anchored itself firmly in the mainstream rather than the fringe.

The Rutgers' team are not public figures, and did nothing to even merit his attentions. It is the randomness of the comments, as well as the stinging stereotypes they conjure, that shocked pretty much everyone.

It was really just a matter of time that something Imus said would be considered going to far, and it isn't surprising that a racial remark has stoked a chorus of calls for his resignation or ouster. There is no place in the public discourse for the kind of language Imus used, and it's no excuse that others routinely mock themselves (and make money in the the process) with similar language.

Is Imus a racist? Nobody but Imus knows. But it isn't too much to expect that a two-week hiatus will make it clear to Imus, if in his wisdom, he should continue to fight to keep his job.

The world won't end if Imus retires, and that might be the only way for him to gracefully walk the walk and continue to do the good things he does in the sunlight.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Josh Wolf, Citizen [Journalist?]

"It was journalism to the extent that I went out to capture the truth and present it to the public." … "It has nothing to do with whether or not I'm employed by a corporation or I carry a press pass."
-- Josh Wolf
Is that enough? Is it even the right argument?

Wolf, a videographer and blogger, spent nearly eight months in jail for refusing to cooperate with federal prosecutors who wanted him to give up video of a protest he took and testify before a grand jury. It was said to be the longest contempt-of-court term ever served by someone in a media-related case (though because his status as a journalist is disputed even that claim is controversial.) Wolf was released yesterday after he agreed to give up the video – he posted it in it’s entirely on his site – and answer two written questions from prosecutors.

Being too inclusive, by lumping in those whose credentials and commitment are disputable, creates a new jeopardy to journalists whose credentials are not in dispute. This is probably why there hasn’t been much support for Wolf in the MSM world, for fear rather than loathing.

Wolf's cause, at least from his perspective, was one of fundamental press freedom. He considers himself a journalist and thus entitled to rights not enjoyed by non-journalists. There is no federal law specifying a journalist’s rights to not cooperate with authorities regarding their work product, and not every state – though a majority -- has such a law either. But there is a First Amendment, from which flows whatever protections journalists have from the chilling effect of official scrutiny and regulation.

So where does an enterprising and passionate person like Josh Wolf fit in?

Fair and Balanced? Who Needs It.

Wolf was working for nobody, and although he sold some of his footage to local TV stations he had no credentials from any media organization in advance.

But neither did Richard Engle, who dropped himself into Iraq as a freelancer and now is “perhaps the best-known television name and face reporting from Iraq, mostly for NBC” the New York Times says in a profile.

Wolf is unashamedly an advocate; his access to the protest was granted by the protesters, he says. He signs his blog posts “Insurgent.” He strays (to say the least) from accepted notions of journalism by writing things like
When the judge came to realize the support for my cause was growing and that I was unlikely to waver anytime soon, he ordered both parties to meet with a magistrate judge in the hopes we could reach a solution amenable to everyone.
Okay, okay -- that is a press release about his prison release (the amusingly titled "My First Public Statement as a Free Wolf"), not journalism per se. But I doubt the judge would see things this way. And while it's one thing not to be fair or balanced it's another to ascribe to someone thoughts and motives.

Does this disqualify Wolf? Interestingly, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel do not include the concepts of “fairness” or “balance” as one of the nine precepts to the craft in, “The Elements of Journalism.”
"Why these nine?,"Kovach and Rosenstiel ask in the book's introduction. "Some readers will think items are missing here. Where is fairness? Where is balance? After synthesizing what we learned, it became clear that a number of familiar and even useful ideas -- including fairness and balance -- are too vague to rise to the level of essential elements of the profession.”
Is Wolf a journalist? Maybe.

A few years ago the best hope for a guy like Wolf would have been to try to get the interest of someone who would be able to publish his material. Some special lucky person who owned a printing press. He might have had to argue that selling some clips to a TV station was a blanket endorsement of his journalistic credentials. He probably would not have been successful since media companies get material from civilians all the time and do not casually invite them to into their umbra.

But the emergence of a disruptive technology which makes it possible for anyone who aspires to be a journalist do journalistic things has blurred the line of who is who. Even someone working alone, as an advocate, without the promise of backing from a news organization can be considered a journalist now. And if Wolf was working under the auspices of a place like Assignment Zero (full disclosure: I am a volunteer editor there) that would almost certainly add weight to his arguments.

So Is Wolf a journalist? "Maybe" is the best I can muster from this distance. But that is better than "no." If Wolf consistently engages in journalistic enterprises and abides by the basic tenets of journalistic integrity the answer is probably "yes." This is a tricky area because it is impossible to quantify such fudges as “consistently engages.” And would any transgression from “the basic tenets of journalistic integrity” disqualify one as a journalist? Stealing one quote isn’t likely to get you fired and cause your company to implode.

The Downside of Inclusion

But being too inclusive, by lumping in those whose credentials and commitment are disputable, creates a new jeopardy to journalists whose credentials are not in dispute. And they have enough to worry about without defending strangers who assert "I am just like you!" This is probably why there hasn’t been overwhelming support for Wolf in the MSM
world, for fear rather than loathing.

I strongly (perhaps naively) believe that a trust imperative exists for journalists working for media companies – that both have everything to lose by not being honest – and that this dynamic does not necessarily exist for citizen journalists, whose ranks can be infiltrated by manipulators masquerading as reporters.

So is Wolf doing himself or anyone any good by seeking to cloak himself as a journalist? Wolf possessed no secrets and his full video appears to offer nothing of value to the police. He promised confidentiality to no one, but says of the prospect of being asked the identity of any protester: "I could not answer that question before the grand jury. There were various promises made, both directly and indirectly."

Beware the Cameraphone-Wielding Civilian

There is a greater danger than journalists being hauled before official proceedings to dissemble their work, and Wolf should have been fighting for them (us): it is the prospect of citizens becoming targets for officials because they take pictures and videos. France even recently passed a law that criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists.

Since "professional journalists" are easily outnumbered by cameraphone-wielding civilians the danger is clear: disable your sources and things don’t get reported.

Wolf may aspire to be a journalist, or he may be one. But either way he is a citizen with the right to associate with whom he pleases and take pictures in public places of willing subjects. What he takes is his – to keep, sell, burn, give away.

At what point does any of that empower the state to demand that he share, or lose his liberty?