Monday, October 29, 2007

FEMA'S Philbin Has No More Explaining To Do

John "Pat" Philbin, the former FEMA spokesman whose final days on that job were spiced up by a fake news briefing, has now lost his next job: director of public affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

It seemed to me too easy a punchline that the vilified Philbin was going to segue from a PR fiasco to the ultimate PR-challenged agency, even though the move had been done deal. I guess the irony was not lost on his new boss either.

My full take on the briefing fiasco -- "It's OK -- I'm a Reporter!" -- is here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Conviction Overturned, But Guilt Unaddressed?

The New York Times reports that the US military is in the midst of rectifying what appears to be a gross injustice against black soldiers that occurred 63 years ago. The 28 black solders were among 43 charged with starting a riot that led to deaths of an Italian POW at a base in Seattle. They were convicted despite laughable defense inadequacies and possible prosecutorial misconduct.

All 43 defendants were represented by only two lawyers, who had only 13 days to prepare for trial. There is evidence that the lead prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who would become famous 30 years later as the Watergate prosecutor, was aware of exculpatory evidence he did not share with the defense. The charges against two were dropped, and the other 13 were acquitted.

So far only one of the 28 convictions has been overturned. Samuel Snow, 83, who served a year in jail, will now receive back pay and an honorable discharge. But Snow, whose pictures as a young soldier and as he is today accompany the article, is only one of two defendants who hasn't died.

The article is strong, thorough and dramatic. If author William Yardley's goal is to evoke a sense that a terrible, racially-motivated injustice is being unwound in time for at least one man who "(w)alked with it all all his life" to savor some vindication, then he succeeds.

But in an otherwise excellent article, properly fronted on Oct. 27, 2007, this passage struck me as something of a slur:
"The ruling does not say the convicted soldiers were not guilty, but that the process by which they were convicted was unjust."
Well, exactly. So what?

Appeal or review panels are not finders of fact but only arbiters of process. Unless these 28 soldiers are tried again -- probably impossible and surely undesirable -- or if they receive executive clemency of some kind, this something-short-of-exoneration-status could be said of every person whose criminal conviction has been overturned.

Yet we don't generally make that trivially accurate but irrelevant distinction. Why in this story of an apparently massive injustice against 28 black soldiers that is being rectified 60 long years later is it necessary to inject unreasonable doubt?

I've written a slightly different version of this post to the New York Times Public Editor. If the matter is taken up for any reason by the ombudsman, I'll follow up.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

It's OK -- I'm a Reporter!

Now it can be told: Almost every day in my reporting career I felt like a phony.

It was easy to feel inadequate. I worked with people who got shot at -- hell, shot -- and whose gifts with even the words "to," "at" and "the" were positively Shakespearean.

Without any credentials other than a wire service generalist's bravado I reported on medical breakthroughs, nuanced court rulings and world championship boxing. Let's just say the cramming skills I honed as an undergraduate served me well.

But at the FEMA briefing this week I would have been the only pro in the room. Not even a genuine journalist shill was present. Real reporters could listen in on a hastily-arranged "800" line, but couldn't ask any questions. No, the only people doing any talking, the Washington Post tells us, were FEMA employees: some pitching softballs, and the other one hitting them out of the park.

"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" somebody asked.
"I am very happy with FEMA's response so far," responded Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr.

What was FEMA thinking? We'll probably never know. The propaganda value was so press-release pedestrian it is hard to imagine it was part of a malicious plan to conceal inconvenient truths. The platitudinous PR spins included such exchanges as this:
"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" somebody asked.
"I am very happy with FEMA's response so far," responded Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr.
Yes. Must get that message out -- at any cost.

A Casablanca Moment

That is the sort of question that won't get asked by real reporters, unless it's to set up a Perry Mason moment. But when even the White House and the Department of Homeland Security criticize a lame attempt to shape the message you know that what you have witnessed is instead a Casablanca moment.

And it was all going so very well.

In its response to the California wildfires, FEMA didn't suck this time. To hear President Bush, though, the big difference was a governor taking the initiative, not the heedlessness of hand-picked administration incompetents doing a heckofa job of ignoring 48 hours of non-stop TV coverage of death and destruction.

As usual the stew for this boneheadedness might be the slow but steady blurring of a line between self-aggrandizing partisan advocacy and journalism. It has long become commonplace for advertisers to adopt the look-and-feel of news reporting. Infomercials use ersatz interviews to try to convince viewers that what they are seeing is unscripted give-and take instead of two-fisted shoveling. Newspapers and magazines routinely accept special ad sections that are laid out like the publications themselves.

But even though these Wizard of Oz contrivances flourish it is one thing to sell get-rich-quick real estate schemes to insomniacs at 4 am and another to bamboozle the electorate. Especially when they are starting to like you -- really, really like you! -- again.

Ignorance Won't Work This Time

So is it possible the PAOtards at FEMA really had no idea they were crossing a line? FEMA Director of Current Affairs John "Pat" Philbin is no Michael Brown, who had no background in emergency relief. No, Philbin's extensive education and professional life has been all about public relations and communications.

Philbin, who asked one of the six questions, says he knows he should have stopped department #2 Johnson's countenance of staff-fed questions with no disclosure.

But, as it happens, this is an easy sword for him to fall on. Turns out Philbin's last day on the job anyway was going to be Thursday -- three days after the fateful "news" conference. His next gig? Head of public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Washington Post reports.

Oh my.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

An Unbertable Colbert on MTP

Stephen Colbert's fake presidential ambitions crumbled today in an appearance today on "Meet the Press." And more importantly: Strangers to Colbert -- and I presume there are more than a few who are regular watchers of MTP -- will be left wondering what is funny about this guy, which is no way to promote a funny book.

This "interview" was very, very not funny, in a clear-the-room, cue-the-crickets, only-a-mother-could-love kind of way.

Colbert couldn't quite figure out whether to play it straight or outrageous, and his gift for spontaneity mostly eluded him. Russert's decision to play it straight as Sunday's Interlocutor-in-Chief misfired over and over again. The lack of any live feedback was cringe-inducing; either there is nobody on the set within earshot of an open mic or none of the crew thought there was anything to laugh about either.

Bert & Ernie on Phonics, Not Gay Marriage

There was a lengthy answer about the pride in getting a single South Carolina delegate at the Democratic Convention that went nowhere. A quiz about the extent of Colbert's knowledge of South Carolina ("What is the state amphibian?" Pause. "My dog."). An excruciatingly long riff on the chosen pronunciation of the guest's last name (Kohl*BEAR), culminating with Russert producing an Sesame Street "Ernie" doll and asking Colbert to utter the name of Ernie's friend. Colbert's position: Bert is entitled to call himself anything he wants.

Here's a suggestion: if you are going to trot out Bert and Ernie, how about letting the ultra-conservative candidate pontificate about gay marriage? Moving on.

Clearly some things were set up. But even an apparently scripted bit about Larry Craig fell flat besides being just plain icky and not remotely in character for the biliously right-wing Colbert persona:
Russert: Would you consider Sen. Larry Craig as your running mate?
Colbert: I would. I would.
Russert: Have you had conversations with him?
Colbert: (Pause) Define “conversation.”
Russert: Have you spoken to him?
Colbert: No …no …no.
Russert: Have you met with him?
Colbert: (Silence)
Russert: Have you been in the same room together?
Colbert: Yes! Sorry (glancing off set) -- my lawyer's telling me to say no more
Russert: How did you express your interest in developing your relationship?
Colbert: Forcefully.
Lessons from Andy Kaufman, and Pat Paulson

I wish Colbert good luck with his book. He's getting major promotion, and running for president -- but only campaigning in South Carolina -- is a potentially funny way of getting attention on his tour. But in all honesty, when I watch his program (during Letterman re-runs) I think he tends to run out of gas early most of the time.

It's hard work being funny as someone else all the time. Only truly deranged immense talents, like Andy Kaufman, can pull it off day in and day out. But Colbert has a lot to learn even about deadpan comedic presidential campaigns. May I suggest a master class in Pat Paulson?

So skip the MTP replays and delete the podcast (or watch it and prepare yourself for what television will be like when the writers go on strike). Instead, check out "Take Two," which is an online-only real interview by Russert with Colbert, out of character. They should have switched these two productions at birth.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Winning is a Family Value

Sam Brownback has dropped out of the Republican hunt for the presidency.

He rejects evolution, but maybe believes in reincarnation?

What could the so-called values voters want if such a true believer can't get any traction and leaves the table with a piddling $94,000 in the bank?

I have no sympathy with holier than thou people who presume their beliefs are more sacred than mine, and who have forgotten, or don't really care about, what freedom means.

But with a buffet of candidates who talk the talk, and with some of those actually walking the walk, I'm perplexed about what the "values" wing really wants.

Can it be so crass as ... a winner?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Better than President

Why would Al Gore want to be president?

A darling of the Democratic left, Gore has now garnered the ultimate in bragging rights by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. So naturally the idle speculation about how to convert this into a late-entry presidential bid is in high gear, as if there is only one thing an ambitious, talented person would find worth buying with life's chits in the Big Box Store of America.

Clever liberal pundits love joking that since Gore won the presidency in 2000 it's
In short order Gore has garnered an Oscar, and Emmy and a Nobel Peace Prize. He's rich. He's young and has good hair. He is beloved by the right people and reviled by the right people. To paraphrase an old Frank Sinatra song, why would he want to go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like "I'm running."
about time he starting serving out his term, and a group which seems not to be a stalking horse for the man himself took out one of those discount (legitimately, this time) New York Times ads urging the former vice president to heed their call and get into the 2008 nominating process.

Let Them Just Swoon

In short order Gore has garnered an Oscar, and Emmy and a Nobel Peace Prize. He's rich. He's young and has good hair. He is beloved by the right people and reviled by the right people. To paraphrase an old Frank Sinatra song, why would he want to go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like "I'm running."

There is a swooning part of the population that has a huge crush on Gore, a reputed stiff whose genuine ability to tell a joke is never more evident than when he is mocking himself. Sometimes these kinds of yearnings seem deeper than they truly are -- you know, the romance is impossible, the love is unrequited. Most literature and every movie released before September is based on this tired theme.

Yes, you're third in those national polls which insert your name. Al -- we love you, but it's a trap. You'll wake up and we'll both realize it was just physical -- and then it'll be too late. You don't want to jeopardize our friendship for a brief sizzle. It isn't you -- it's us.

But consider benefits of the high road, which, in this case, lets you be both selfish and selfless. Remember: Times heals all.

History Wasn't On His Side

Jimmy Carter -- fellow Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter -- was ignominiously booted from office. His presidential afterlife has been stunningly more productive than his four years in office, where his successes were drowned out by the Iran hostage crisis, unbelievable inflation and a gasoline shortage that provided iconic images of lines at gas stations and elevated OPEC almost as much as the current president has Al-Quaeda.

Bill Clinton served out a second term despite a sex scandal but in the end such was the fatigue -- and Gore's miscalculation about how to exploit the Clinton/Gore legacy -- that Clinton's glow was too weak to ensure a third successive Democrat occupant in the White House.

[While he did win the popular vote nationally and a pivotal Florida electoral vote count was halted by the US Supreme Court, history may not have been on Gore's side. The last time a Democrat occupied the White House for three successive terms was in the 1940s, when FDR was elected to a third term in the days before the 22nd Amendment. Before that -- and the only time an incumbent Democrat vice president was elected president -- was when Vice President Martin Van Buren succeeded two-term president Andrew Jackson in 1837. But I digress.]

Gore has now entered a rarified space that even few ex-presidents inhabit. He is an internationally renowned celebrity in the best meaning of the word, able to spend considerable capital and relish vindication from being tarred by incumbent President GHW Bush in the 1992 campaign as "Ozone Man." He is unencumbered by any failures as president, because he has never been president. On the downside, his role in advancing the Internet is still incorrectly mocked, and there are a small handful of other tidbits in this narrative. But that's it.

The good Gore can do, unencumbered by the restrictions and obligations of office, are incalculable, as Carter has demonstrated for a quarter of a century and Clinton since he left office.

It would be a mistake of Greek proportions for Gore to be tempted by the vanity of electoral vindication to jump into the 2008 race. I can't imagine being president matters to him anymore, and I can't imagine why it should.

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Friday, October 5, 2007

Craig's List

"I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively."
-- Sen. Larry Craig, Oct 4, 2007

Things to do this summer:

  • Circle around hunky guy in stall "8" while waiting for connecting flight. Muse on how great it is to have time to kill in a city where nobody knows me -- and save money at the same time by not flying direct!
  • Plead ignorance of solicitation to guy who doesn't seem nearly as hunky when he turns out to be an undercover cop. Give him my business card anyway. You never know
  • In post-arrest interview with undercover cop (who I see now definitely is not a looker) don't act like I don't know what he's talking about when he says I was doing the abnormal things guys seeking gay sex with strangers in public restrooms do. Instead, tell him I was doing normal things, like picking up toilet paper off the bathroom floor
  • Don't get any legal advice in the many weeks before I have to enter a plea. Reflect fondly on my votes for tort reform
  • Plead guilty to disorderly conduct by mail. Relax. It's all over now. What could possibly go wrong
  • When story inexplicably breaks, blame the media. This never fails
  • When media fails to roll over admit nothing. Attack feral enemies. But write speech announcing that I will resign on Sept. 30, 2007
  • Get it on the record: "I am not gay. I never have been gay." Hope nobody notices peculiar similarity to same statement I gave 25 years ago, when nobody asked me. Remind children and wife that I am definitely not gay, no way never have been. Cut short family meeting to watch football game on TV. Note to self: find out what channel ESPN is on beforehand
  • Send Arlen Specter some roses. Scratch that.
  • Hire three lawyers. Call one of them, ignore unfamiliar voicemail and leave message instead for a stranger saying I am going to alter my "resignation" speech to say, "it is my intent to resign."
  • In speech go noble: Cite the need for America to focus war in Iraq blah blah blah
  • Snicker as nobody in the media picks up on that clever "intent" loophole
  • Buy time by saying it is still my "intent" to quit if I can't get my guilty plea withdrawn. This will definitely blow over in a few days and everybody will be talking about Britney 24/7 again
  • Show up for Republican lunch in Senate. Draw strength from the guy who applauds me after my brief and definitely unawkward remarks. See if he's interested in drinks later.
  • Try to convince judge that a US Senator's guilty plea to a misdemenor disorderly conduct charge amounted to a "travesty of justice." Make sure lawyers underline that phrase three times in filing
  • Announce when guilty plea is upheld that I intend to serve out my term for the good of the people
  • Say I can get'er done in the Senate even though the Republican leadership would just as soon ship to me Iran, where everybody know there aren't any gays.
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