Friday, March 30, 2007

Going, Going, Gonzalez ...


It's hard to see how Alberto Gonzalez survives, what with the almost complete repudiation of his various defenses by the calm, cool and collected testimony of his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.
The only way out when you can't just quit and your boss isn't going to fire you is to have to resign. To be noble. To protect the kids!


There may not have been the Alexander Butterfield moment Chris Matthews predicted, but Sampson's demeanor hearkened back to that previously faceless bureaucrat, whose testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee about bugging devices in the Oval Office quickly altered history. And it also seemed reminiscent of John Dean's appearance in the same forum, although, chief of staff, you are no John Dean.

Gonzales, who, unless he chooses to do another interview, or step down, is next scheduled to face the subject of how eight US attorneys got the axe on April 17. Support by President Bush (the only support that matters) seems perfunctory at this point:
"Asked about Gonzales during a closed-door meeting with House Republicans on Thursday, Bush did not defend his longtime friend, according to one official who attended the session and demanded anonymity because it was private," MSNBC reports. "Instead, Bush tepidly repeated his public statement: The attorney general would have to go up to Capitol Hill and fix his problem, according to this official."
Recall, by comparison, the rousing defense of Donald Rumsfeld weeks after Bush privately decided to let his defense secretary go, and days before the axe fell.

Nobody's Sweetheart

Gonzalez is nobody's sweetheart except Bush's so it is unlikely many tears would be shed over his departure under a cloud. But since there is no obvious exit strategy, how is the best way to manage this?

Gonzalez has vowed to keep protecting our kids, so he'd be a heel to abandon them just to save himself. Bush has said it is up to Gonzalez to sort it out with Congress but had also says Gonzales has his confidence, so it would take quite a lot to ask for the resignation of his old friend.
Recall, by comparison, the rousing defense of Rumsfeld weeks after Bush decided to let him go and days before the axe fell.


The only way out when you can't just quit and your boss isn't going to fire you is to have to resign so as, oh let's say, not bring further unwanted attention to the administration, be a distraction from the great and important work it does, make it possible to actually protect kids rather than constantly be engaged in self-defense, etc. It has to be noble.

So keep up the pressure on Alberto. Get personal. Be unfair in your criticisms. Make too much of the fact that he either has no idea what is going on at Justice or lied about being deeply involved in the dismissal of the eight US attorneys.

Remember: it's for the kids.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

You Talkin' to Me?

gunn


The arrest of an aide to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb for gun possession is bound to be a straight line for at least a few days. The poor guy -- a husband and father -- had to spend the night in jail for forgetting to drop off in Virginia a handgun and two full magazines.

What none of the news accounts I've read make abundantly clear is how easy it is for this sort of thing to happen in all innocence.

Virginia, which borders DC and is so close in every way that it even shares the city's subway system, is a "shall issue" state, which means that the right to be granted a permit to carry a concealed handgun is more or less inherent and can only be denied for narrow reasons. All you need to qualify for a permit is $50, demonstrate minimal shooting proficiency (taking a safety course from a shooting instructor), fill out some forms, prove residency, wait at least 45 days and make two trips to court (drop off forms, pick up permit). Furthermore, Virginia is an "open-carry" state: while a permit is needed to carry concealed it is legal for anyone who can own a gun to carry one it plain view virtually anywhere.

There is no restriction on gun ownership for anyone who has never been convicted of a crime, or has never been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or has never been subject to a restraining order. Residents can buy virtually any kind of non-automatic gun, rifle or shotgun every thirty days. In some counties there is no waiting period if you go to a dealer who can make an instant "Brady" background check.

One of the big points raised in proficiency training is the danger of entering DC with any gun paraphernalia. An instructor of my acquaintance tells his students that he even maintained separate clothing to go into The District because a friend of his had once been arrested on a gun charge during a routine traffic stop when the police officer found a spent round in his pants cuff.

So Webb aide Phillip Thompson more than likely fell into that trap.

UPDATE: In brief remarks to reporters on Capitol Hill, Webb suggested that Thompson had inadvertently brought the weapon into town. “I think this is one of those very unfortunate situations where, completely inadvertently, he took the weapon into the Senate yesterday,” Webb said, according to The Hill.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Cockeyed Optimism

I'm not in the habit of commenting there and publishing here (it really should be one or the other, shouldn't it?), but Jeff Jarvis struck a nerve over at The Buzz Machine with his call for comments on why anyone should be optimistic about the future of news in a post headlined "Nabobs of negativism v. cock-eyed optimists".

In the interest of full disclosure: I am.

Here's what I wrote over there:

The good news is great news: there is no evidence that the public interest in news has waned. We just don’t know exactly what people
I feel like a kid in a candy store most days, free to be disloyal or to ignore, to find out what’s happening on my terms. Or to skip a day or two and catch up later.
are doing or like – and maybe they don’t either since the volume of choice -- in content and means of consumption -- can tend to breed fickleness. The theorists call this "fragmentation."

I feel like a kid in a candy store most days, free to be disloyal or to ignore, to find out what’s happening on my terms. Or to skip a day or two and catch up later. Catch me if you can, metric-boy!

The definition of news may be expanding (thank you Jon Stewart and Bill Maher) and the way we get our news may remain a moving target for some time to come, but the appetite is not going away. I would even take the over and bet that it is borderline insatiable: how else to explain all the passion behind strident comments about media accuracy and comprehensiveness? Why else would there be multiple comments on routine local stories?

The Internet saved the news business.
The Internet saved the news business.

Without the Internet, television would have been the dominant medium, without portability, interactivity or the ability to delve deep all the time, every time, infinite in all directions (apologies to Freeman Dyson).

Our inability to understand how to perfectly exploit the digital medium after 10 years or so shouldn’t be surprising or demoralizing. We still can’t count TV viewership in prime time properly, 50 years on. The patient ones among us will prevail and flourish and if that means keeping some extra powder dry for a while, so be it.

This isn’t the first era of paradigmatic change for news and, with any luck -- any luck -- it won’t be the last one, either.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Best Wishes, But ... ?

www.johnedwards.com
This is a question about balance, but it may sound insensitive: was Elizabeth Edwards' medical news worthy of a national press conference?

Early in the day The Politico, (which righteously tells all here) broke the story that a change in Mrs. Edwards'
The specter of something coming out of left field rightly put media outlets on "Stop the Presses" mode. But Edwards knew what the announcement would be -- sad, but not landscape-altering.
health -- whatever it was -- would prompt her husband to abandon or at least suspend his presidential campaign. That's newsworthy because he is considered a serious contender for the Democratic nomination (although well behind Hillary and Obama, and in the same neighborhood as Al Gore, who is not running at all) and leads the polling in the Iowa caucuses where the first actual voting occurs, oh, years from now.

The specter of something coming out of left field rightly put all media outlets on "Stop the Presses" mode. But Edwards knew what the announcement was going to be -- sad, but not one which would alter any public landscape. Edwards didn't even raise the issue of what impact his wife's medical condition would have on his campaign, which must have caused some head-scratching in the pack. It was left to a reporter to ask the question, timidly, as if inquiring was impolite or rude.

The air could have easily be let out of this balloon. That might have cut interest in a mid-day news conference but such a consideration could not have accounted the the hours and hours that misinformation was allowed to circulate, right?

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Future of News and All That

  1. Television news viewership is down across the board -- but YouTube is more popular than ever.
  2. Newspaper readership is way up -- online -- but newspaper company earnings are down and the financials are challenging.
  3. The online news audience has plateaued, even though broadband connections are increasing.
What is going on here?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has published its fourth annual report on American journalism and the big question it seems to ask is, "Where is everybody?"
The Web story is over as the driving force for digital news. Sites have already become repositories rather than destinations, warehouses instead of storefronts.

It may not be terribly obvious yet but they are going somewhere, for sure. There is no reason to believe that there is a diminished appetite for news, however currently defined. Is it just a matter of coming up with ways of measuring user experiences with mobile phones, RSS feeds, downloads and pirated & "lent" content? When that's doable, will there be any way to monetize your content?

The Web story is over as the driving force for digital news. We will look back in a few years and be able to date it properly, but I believe sites have already become repositories rather than destinations, warehouses instead of storefronts.

Social bookmarking, email advisories (already old hat) and text-based RSS feeds (how ironic) are the best way to tame the beast that is information overload. As others have said, setting the content free so that it creates a viral trail back to you seems to be a better way of building brand loyalty than marketing your address and expecting the world to beat a path to your door. How else could it be that some of the most popular services own and create nothing?

Newspapers own local and need to press that advantage. That might mean closing far-flung bureaus and not giving readers the benefit of full-time "built here" coverage from parts yonder. But is doesn't mean they can't parachute in on cherry-picked stories (National Guard unit in the trenches, etc). And there might even be more money for that sort of thing.

Yes, that is just a variation of local. But the fact is that Yahoo! and MSNBC and Reuters et al have a lot of readers who live in places served admirably by a newspaper (dead tree and online). These places are where the eyeballs will commune for national news, especially in times of crisis. The same is true on TV: you go to CNN or MSNBC or FNC, not channel 9, when a plane or politician crashes.

The challenge is, and always has been, getting right the part about what people are doing, and when and where. Neilsen ratings, the lifeblood of ad rates for television, are still a mere approximation -- more than 50 years after television became mainstream. So maybe it isn't too strange that we haven't got a grip yet on the digital metrics thing.

If Google hasn't hired every living engineer already some brainy grad student will come up with an unassailable impact algorithm that will be good news for some, bad for others but will settle the discussion.

I think these are times of opportunity for news, not despair. The cool heads who can or choose to afford to tread water for a while will seem like patient geniuses when the patterns emerge.

And it will be worth the wait.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Libby, not Liddy

It's not perjury; it's just business.
--
"Caught in the Spin Cycle," by Michael Wolff, in Vanity Fair
A very smart friend of unrepentant left-wing views shares with me this very fine Vanity Fair article about the Libby trial.

Funny thing: it is business. Dirty politics is part of politics and when discovered speaks volumes to voters about the perpetrators in a way no other perspective can. Bring it on and blow it, I say.

But there is a cost of doing business, and sometimes it involves a visit to the graybar hotel. Libby's "pardon him now" backers should know better; there is no rational sanctuary
If the purpose of justice is prosecute the right people and appropriately punish a crime then it is a shame that there will be no more indictments and that Robert Novack flourishes, and it would be a shame if Scooter gets more time than Martha Stewart.
in portraying Libby as a man wronged unless one believes he was wronged not by Patrick Fitzgerald, but by his former boss and his kind.

I was not happy with Time Magazine when, having run out of legal recourse, chose not to resist the injunction ordering them to turn over Michael Cooper's notes in the face of stiff daily fines shareholders may have winced at. So I can't very well come down on the "law and order" side that there are no exceptions to civil obedience.

That's why I don't favor a pardon -- even though granting one implies and accepting one infers guilt -- but do favor a "light" sentence.

Libby isn't Liddy: someone who just plain needed punishing (and welcomed it) because he fancied himself a martyr. Libby is a true-believing functionary whom, it is clear to me, at least, a) wasn't leading this awful charge and b) seemed pretty glum about the whole thing, if one could glean anything from the tone of his voice during grand jury testimony.

Plus, Libby is protecting people who seem not to deserve his loyalty. If this were a cheap teleplay the prosecutor would turn the screws on Libby to appeal indirectly to the better instincts of the real criminals, who would step up at the last moment because they couldn't see an innocent man condemned.

Well, that ain't gonna happen.

If the purpose of justice is prosecute the right people and appropriately punish a crime then it is a shame that there will be no more indictments and that Robert Novack flourishes, and it would be a shame if Scooter gets more time than Martha Stewart.

And if he gets the right sentence he just might be wise to take a page from Martha's book, burnish his victim's credentials, by doing the time while he continues to fight the charges.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Libby Now Twists Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

"I wish we weren't judging Libby. This sucks."
-- Libby trial juror Denis Collins, describing the defendant as a "fall guy"
It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it -- whether it is being the point person for a campaign to discredit a political opponent of your boss, or serving on a jury that is judging the wrong person.

"Scooter" Libby has been found guilty of four of the five criminal counts against him, charges that he lied to a grand jury and to FBI investigators over how and from whom he learned that former ambassador Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative.

Wilson appeared on the White House radar by writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times recounting his CIA-backed mission to Niger,
I wonder if Libby is replaying his grand jury testimony and FBI interviews over and over and asking himself why oh why he just didn't remember at all. Would there have been charges if he didn't remember but also didn't contradict reporters with notes and memories of their own?
during which he determined that an accusation made by President Bush in his State of the Union Address, that Iraq was seeking nuclear material from the African country, was unfounded. When his wife's identity was shortly thereafter revealed in a column by Robert Novack, her career was over.

The subtext, of course, is what matters: believe the worst, and Libby was part (although certainly not the architect) of an administration disinformation campaign, run by Vice President Dick Cheney, to destroy credible critics of Iraq policy. Believe the worst, and one asks what more damning secrets there might be to justify hardball tactics that seem overkill.

Libby did not testify, perhaps the better to seek leniency after the resolution of a lost cause, but his defense was that he forgot where he heard about the Wilson/Plame connection because he was a busy guy in the middle of weightier issues. The problem for me with that was not that it was a patently ridiculous defense; I remember things and don't know where I learned them and I don't share the weight of the world on my shoulders.

The problem for me with Libby wasn't just that he said he didn't remember, but that he did "remember" incorrectly (the jury has so determined), not from official sources but from specific reporters. Too convenient this: getting the dope from Cheney & Co would support the conspiracy theory or at least look like unseemly dirty politics while spreading rumors with reporters is, well, just what goes on. Bad behavior, but not a crime.

I wonder if Libby is replaying his grand jury testimony and FBI interviews over and over and asking himself why oh why he just didn't remember at all. Would there even have been charges if he didn't remember but also didn't contradict reporters with notes and memories of their own?

Monday, March 5, 2007

May I Violate Your Space?


Reuters was a bit late to embrace the Internet for its core franchises and now wants it known that it gets it. Loud and clear.

Sure, Reuters lagged Bloomberg on instant messaging and failed to gain traction with "Reuters Mail" but, as CEO Tom Glocer recently asserted, Reuters invented the UGC phenomenon 50 years ago by getting contributed data from some of its customers and selling it to others. Now Reuters is talking about creating a financial MySpace.
"It won't have the latest hot videos and the 'why I am into Metallica and the Arctic Monkeys' blogs,"Glocer tells the Guardian. "Instead we
are going to give our financial services users the ability to post their research or if they are traders, their trading models."
And then there was this other money quote:

"People don't want to have 100 friend requests from teenage girls in Florida if they are trading the credit derivatives market, but they probably are interested in being able to share research."
Will the business class, which invented networking and raised it to an art form at power lunches, conferences and golf clubs, take to schmoozing in the virtual world?

The basic ingredients of online communities are showing off and sharing. The college kids and undiscovered musicians who populate MySpace and Facebook are natural virtual citizens. Masters of the Universe in The City and on Wall Street -- not so much. But off the bat I'd back off that Metallica-free zone posture. It just might find it helpful to know if CIBC's buy-side tech analyst listens to Akon.

It must also have occurred to the strategists behind this idea that financial houses are notoriously secretive about their methods and techniques -- but not their successes, which may make the Reuters community an additional marketing platform, but not really very useful. What is the incentive for posting research or trading models, and would the reader have visions of Sharesleuth dancing in his head?

In the meantime it is good buzz, and it's often good to have a second message when announcing your results.