Lock Up The Bloggers

Josh Wolf is in trouble. The San Francisco journalist/activist is in jail on contempt charges for refusing to comply with a federal subpoe0na. The Feds want to see a video he took of a protest where a cop was injured and some property damaged.

I’ve been struggling with the merits of this case because, on the one hand, I’m inclined to be sympathetic to an independent media advocate who is under pressure to submit to government demands. On the other hand, this is a difficult case to argue for a reporter’s privilege. The key issue is that Wolf is not protecting an external source, but is declining to provide potential evidence to an event to which he was a witness.

If the videotape in question was given to Wolf in confidence, he would have every right to withhold it and to defy the court order. But this is video he took himself, so who is he protecting? The problem I had with Judith Miller’s claim of privilege was that she was not protecting a source, but that she was a participant in the events on which she was reporting. I don’t believe she had the right to withhold testimony from the grand jury regarding a crime she was helping to facilitate. Of course, there is no allegation that Wolf was involved in anything criminal himself and the state cannot engage in witch hunts.

Despite the conflicting arguments in this matter, I have remained troubled by Wolf’s predicament, and this story from Editors and Publishers has helped me understand why:

Trying to compel journalists to testify is an increasingly popular tactic among federal investigators seeking all types of information. Even the occasional incarceration of reporters is enough to put the squeeze on the news media.

The article goes on to make the point that this case was bumped to the federal courts because California has a strong reporter’s shield law, while the feds have none at all. In addition, there appears to be an escalation of legal pressure being placed on journalists to, in effect, do the work of law enforcement. Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said:

“This is the first time it’s been pretty clear to me the federal government is interested in what bloggers do.” And that, “While jailings are infrequent, the number of subpoenas seeking to force reporters to testify has grown.”

The problem here is the trend. As the government seeks to intimidate reporters, it is also silencing the voices of its critics. For an administration that has elevated secrecy to an art form, there is no greater achievement than the dismantling of the first amendment. Josh Wolf may not be the perfect banner carrier for this battle, but he is at least collateral damage and his dilemma should be troubling to anyone who reveres a free press.

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The White House Propaganda Center

Today’s confab from the White House briefing room will be the last for nine months while the site undergoes an extreme makeover. While it is indisputable that renovations are necessary, the scope and the timing are surprising.

When originally proposed, the work was expected to take about a month. Typical of Washington’s efficiency, the budget and schedule have exceeded projections. Now, the press corps will be cast out of the White House throughout the fall campaign and beyond into next year. Is the White House erecting new barriers between itself and the media during a campaign season that is likely to be rife with bad news for the incumbent party?

When the press does return (if they return), they will hardly recognize the place. Press Secretary Tony Snow, newly recruited from Fox News, seems bent on bringing the Fox flavor to presidential briefings. The centerpiece of the remodeling will be a video wall that can display anything from waving flags to charts and graphs to remote speakers. The press pool will be able to televise the podium with the video wall in the background or switch it to full screen. All they need now is a news ticker, a swoosh, and a Fox logo. They also plan to install microphones and Internet access at all seats. I’m not sure I would use that Internet connection with any expectation of privacy. And reporters would be wise to consider what those mics are recording.

The new press room appears to be developing into a full-fledged PR facility. This administration knows the power of perceptions. They carefully manage all photo ops. They decorate public appearances with graphic reinforcements of the day’s message. They pay pundits to evangelize their agenda. They pioneered video press releases that were made to look like local TV news reports, and distributed them to stations that aired them without disclosing that they were fake.

Now they are putting the finishing touches on the propaganda machine that is already humming at the White House. For those interested in substantive journalism, this electronic theater could be a step backwards. The flashy graphics and canned promotional clips may serve to distract from the probing inquiries of reporters. In the end, the audience will remember the brightly shining objects that filled their screen. What will those objects look like? Will they show the rubble produced by a suicide bomber in Baghdad? Will they show victims of natural disasters here at home? Not likely. But they will show positive images that promote whatever fiction they are trying to sell that day. Those images will be as professionally conceived as any other television commercial. And it will be their intention to have the same effect. Politics will be just another consumer product, and ideology will be just another brand.

Update: The New WH Propaganda Center Is Open.


Fox News Sinks Again

In the July ratings for the cable news networks, Fox continues its steady year-over-year decline. This July’s book includes reporting on the Israel/Lebanon conflict. Breaking news events like this spike ratings for news programs. So when comparing this year’s July book with last year’s, it is important to note that there was no comparable news event in July of 2005. That means that the comparisons with this year would have been even worse, but for the boost caused by current events.

UPDATE: Here is an hourly breakdown (PDF) of the numbers by demo and program, with comparisons to 2005.

Total Day – 25-54 Demo:

  FNC CNN MSNBC HLN CNBC
July ’06: 293 203 109 85 56
July ’05: 295 144 84 104 43
% change: -1% +45% +30% -18% +24%

Primetime – 25-54 Demo:

  FNC CNN MSNBC HLN CNBC
July ’06: 404 278 142 104 61
July ’05: 492 210 111 151 61
% change: -24% +32% +28% -31% 0%

The severe decline in the Fox and Headline News primetime schedules suggests a possible audience fatigue for the bloviating pundits that populate those dayparts. That includes Bill O’Reilly, Hannity & Colmes, and Greta Van Susteren on Fox, and Nancy Grace and Glen Beck on on HLN. While the increases at MSNBC and CNN may suggest an appreciation for the counter-programming on MSNBC (i.e. Keith Olbermann’s Countdown) and the hard news flavor of CNN.

Most of all, I believe that the significance of the O’Reilly, et al, free fall is that we may have pushed back the hands of the Armageddon Clock a half hour or so. There is still a long way to go before Fox is knocked off its pedestal, but the trends are consistently pointing toward that outcome.


Deleting Online Predators – An Update

In May, I wrote about The Deleting Online Predators Act (PDF), a bill designed to ban access to social networking sites from schools, libraries, and other federally funded locations. Unfortunately, the language was so broad that the bill would end up banning everything from MySpace to Wikipedia, and everyone on Blogger, Live Journal and DailyKos. Well, the bill passed yesterday by a whopping 410-15 margin. Despite having been trashed in committee, the sponsors revised it and pushed it to the House floor without further discussion. And the Republican members pointedly excluded any Democrats from participating in the revisions.

In the new version, the definition of social networking is being left up to the FCC, but the criteria for consideration is almost identical to the original bill:

In determining the definition of a social networking website, the Commission shall take into consideration the extent to which a website-

  • (i) is offered by a commercial entity;
  • (ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information;
  • (iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users;
  • (iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and
  • (v) enables communication among users.

If the bill becomes law, we will have FCC Chair Kevin Martin in charge of implemementing it. Martin is a long-term Bush crony who, among other things, was part of the Bush campaign’s legal team in Florida after the election in 2000. His stewardship of the bill could actually result in a worse outcome than the original draft.

There is speculation that the Senate is poised to quickly pass its version of the bill. This would be a good time for online advocates, and especially users of MySpace, Facebook, Blogger, and any other social networking site or forum, to start making as much noise as possible.

Here is your assignment:

  • 1) Contact your senators and tell them you oppose DOPA.
  • 2) Place posts on your blogs.
  • 3) Send bulletins and messages to your online friends.

Number 3 is particularly important. If we can get this message to blast across MySpace, and other social networks, the impact could be profound. These are the communities that would be most directly affected and they should be willing to help spread the word.

This bill will also disproportionally hurt low income kids who rely on public terminals to get online. But it won’t stop there. Remember, they want to ban access now from schools and libraries. Next it will be any public terminal, like cafes and WiFi sites. And they will just keep going until they achieve a universal ban. Believe it!


WMD Delusion Disorder

A new Harris poll finds that:

Despite being widely reported in the media that the U.S. and other countries have not found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, surprisingly; more U.S. adults (50%) think that Iraq had such weapons when the U.S. invaded Iraq. This is an increase from 36 percent in February 2005.

As Theodore Sturgeon said, “It aint what you don’t know that kills you. It’s what you know that just aint so”. And apparently about half of U.S. adults think they know that Saddam had WMDs. Whose fault is that?

Certainly the Bush administration bears some responsibility for its aggressive and fallacious claims as they tried to scare America into its first preemptive war. But even BushCo no longer peddles those lies. The real culprit is, of course, the media.

Harris begins its report saying, “Despite being widely reported in the media…” But that imposes a much too narrow view. The media, as a whole, has indeed reported that WMDs were not found, but we need to be more specific. The number one cable news network is Fox News. It is fair to say that their reporting is not particularly balanced. In fact, studies have shown that Fox viewers are far more likely to believe things that are demonstrably false, than are viewers of other networks. The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) report says in summary:

“Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely.”

These poll results are more evidence of how dangerous the media can be. If, after three years, the public can still exhibit this scale of ignorance, we obviously have a lot of work yet to do, both in correcting the public record and reforming the media.


From Ally McBeal to Ann Coulter?

Well, probably not. But Calista Flockhart, formally of Ally McBeal, will be playing a conservative pundit on a new ABC series debuting this fall. “Brothers & Sisters” will follow “Desperate Houswives” and will also feature Sally Field as Flockhart’s mother.

Asked to describe the pundit, producer Ken Olin (formerly a star of “Thirty Something’) said, “She’s not Ann Coulter. She’s not insane.”

“She’s not insane.” That’s a nice qualification to differentiate the show’s character from Coulter’s lack of same. But I think the show is missing an opportunity. Drama thrives on conflict and who is more conflicting than Coultergeist? The potential for story lines that drip with dramatic tension is enormous. The character’s rabid antogonism, unbounded ego, and even gender confusion, could give the show some powerful ammunition for salacious entertainment.

And while drama thrives on conflict, television thrives on controversy. The closer this show’s character is alligned with Coulter, the more promotion juice they could squeeze out of it. If ABC is going to be too timid to run with this, I hope somebody else will do it.

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Is The IRS Meddling In Politics? Again!

The Political Activity Compliance Initiative (PACI). Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? That’s what the IRS is calling its program to investigate churches and other non-profit groups that they suspect of engaging in impermissible political activity.

Tax-exempt organizations are properly prohibited from overtly engaging in partisan politics. It’s entirely appropriate to keep religious institutions and others from operating as tax-free front groups for politicians while avoiding campaign finance laws. The problem with PACI is that it doesn’t provide a workable definition for the activity it seeks to regulate. Consequently, the affected institutions have no clear guidelines for when they may be in violation. In addition, the agency can use the initiative to target groups for partisan purposes. The result would be political activity compliance, alright.

Indeed, amongst the more high profile investigations are those against the NAACP and the All Saints Church, a predominately liberal congregation in Pasadena, CA. Last year, Congressman Kendrick Meek (D-FL) sent a letter to IRS Commissioner, Mark W. Everson, asking him to look into whether black churches in Florida were being unfairly singled out.

OMB Watch prepared a report detailing the pitfalls of the IRS program. They summarized several factors that they believe raise constitutional concerns:

  • The vagueness of the “facts and circumstances” test
  • Secrecy regarding enforcement action
  • IRS statements regarding its intent to prevent repeat violations before an election
  • The threat that an organization’s tax-exempt status will be revoked
  • Lack of deadlines for closing cases

In addition to these concerns is the potential for partisan mischief if politically motivated people or groups chose to file complaints against opponents as a strategy to suppress free expression. The IRS would then be obligated to conduct an investigation which could lead to the revocation of the non-profit’s tax-exempt status. This would have a chilling effect on free speech as well as the free exercise of religion.

Could it be more than a curious coincidence that this initiative is being advanced at this time during an election year? This is not the first time the IRS has made a point of chasing down churches and charities. In June of 2004, Everson appeared before a Senate committee to announce an unprecedented audit effort against these groups. That announcement also came in the midst of election year politics.

This administration has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to act honorably. The lies it told prior to the Iraq war, its incompetence in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the innumerable examples of partisanship with regard to legislating, judges, executive appointees, election fraud, etc., are all good reasons to be suspicious of their motivation for launching this initiative. Would you trust the IRS to administer this program fairly? Commissioner Everson came right from the Bush White House, where he was deputy director for management for the Office of Management and Budget. His wife, Nanette, was a White House counsel. One of his first projects at IRS was a plan to cross-check applications for tax-exempt status against terrorist watch lists. These lists were notoriously inaccurate. He also considered sharing IRS data with other agencies in spite of the fact that it was illegal to do so. He was said to believe that 9/11 legislation gave him the authority to act without the laws being changed. Sound familiar?

The rubber stamp Republican congress cannot be depended on to fulfill its oversight responsibilities. The media won’t be any help either. So if the IRS accuses liberal non-profits of politicking, without also going after the Falwells and the Dobsons, it will be up to the people to set the media and the government straight.

UPDATE: I wonder if any action has been taken concerning this pastor who told his congregation that anyone who planned to vote for Kerry should either leave the church or repent?


Jonah Goldberg Doesn’t Care

In his most recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg demonstrates again what a lousy trade the Times made when they picked up Goldberg in place of Robert Scheer.

In the second paragraph of his column, Goldberg prefaces his citation of Times colleague Jonathan Chait saying, “…and I’m not making this up…” It is considerate of him to alert us to when he is, or is not, making things up. It would be even better if he did so consistently.

Much of the article, which he introduces as a critique of the Democrat’s lack of ideas, is devoted to a defense of Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Fox News). One of the obvious fabrications Goldberg unleashes is his contention that his critics are hypocrites because…

“There was no lack of enthusiasm for Lieberman when the sainted Al Gore picked Joe as his running mate.”

Oh, wasn’t there? That falsehood could easily be debunked with a simple web search. Here is a single page with dozens of critical articles from a wide array of sources ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Washington Post; from American Atheists to BeliefNet; from David Broder to Michael Moore. Goldberg must have done zero research for this column. And for this invented reference to Lieberman’s alleged popularity, he reaches back six years, conveniently ignoring Joementum’s dismal failure as a presidential candidate just two years ago.

He also can’t help contradicting himself. In the fourth paragraph, he accuses Lieberman’s critics of being driven by their opposition to the war in Iraq:

“For good or ill, there are no grand ‘big ideas’ behind the anti-Lieberman cause. It’s driven by a riot of passions, chiefly against President Bush and ‘his’ war.”

Jump down two grafs and Goldberg characterizes his own “hawk-versus-dove analysis” as “weak,” pointing out that:

“…there are other Iraq war supporters whom the Democratic base hasn’t targeted.”

Goldberg’s conclusion is that Lieberman’s opponents, whom he disgustingly refers to as “anti-Joe jihadists,” are guilty of the great sin of opposing Lieberman’s pro-bush positions. What a shock. Democrats are against Bush, as well as other Democrats who support him. This is actually the one thing Goldberg gets right. The anti-Lieberman crowd got that way because of Lieberman’s consistent support of Republican causes, starting with the war, but also including Supreme Court justices, reproductive choice, and censorship. And it doesn’t help when he attempts to squelch dissent by warning Democrats that:

“…in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril”

But I must give credit where credit’s due. Goldberg signs off the column saying:

“You can be a moderate, like Virginia Senate hopeful Jim Webb or former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, or a flaming liberal, like Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, and that’s fine as long as you’ll “stand up and fight”…..The important part is that you care.”

In Goldberg’s mind that statement is some kind of a denunciation. That’s unsurprising for a party that long ago chose politics over people. I view the statement as an unintentional affirmation of the big-tent inclusiveness of the Democratic Party, where caring about what you say and do is amongst the principles we value in our representatives.


Designs On Dissent

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum recognizes the works of designers in an annual ceremony held in conjunction with the White House Millennium Council. The purpose of the program is to celebrate “design in various disciplines as a vital humanistic tool in shaping the world.”

Some of the winners of the 2006 awards did their part to shape the world and demonstrate their humanity by refusing to participate in the ceremony hosted by First Lady, Laura Bush. Their letter, detailing the reasons for choosing to stay away, was published by the Design Observer and says, in part:

“it is our belief that the current administration of George W. Bush has used the mass communication of words and images in ways that have seriously harmed the political discourse in America. We therefore feel it would be inconsistent with those values previously stated to accept an award celebrating language and communication, from a representative of an administration that has engaged in a prolonged assault on meaning.”

The letter was signed by 2006 winners Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, and Georgie Stout, of the 2×4 design studio; finalist Paula Scher; and last year’s winner Stefan Sagmeister.

I applaud these patriots for staking out a position that comes with some risk and some personal sacrifice. Their willingness to resist the lure of the halls of power for the sake of their principles is commendable. I, myself, might have shown up and made my statement in the spotlight in which the White House glows. But I cannot criticize the method these folks used to speak their minds.

I believe that the creative arts are an invaluable resource for movement building and social progress. I am also disappointed that this resource is so glaringly underused. Historically, artists have always been the key to inspiring and motivating people to take action. It is their conscience, passion, and communication skills that resonate through our communities and culture. Artists need to reassert themselves in the public sphere and assume their traditional role as interpreters of the human condition. Until they do, I fear that the stage will be left to the decidedly dull discourse of pundits and politicians.


When News Is Classified

In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of stories that test the boundaries of publishing when classified data is involved. The NSA wiretapping affair, phone companies handing over records to intelligence agencies, and the tracking of the SWIFT financial transactions. Now, the deans of several big dog journalism schools are weighing in with an op-ed in the Washington Post: When in Doubt, Publish.

On the whole, they present a decent argument that is fully conveyed in the opening sentence, “It is the business — and the responsibility — of the press to reveal secrets.” How I wish the press would undertake that responsibility more often. A full reading of the article, however, seems to water down the premise. They describe the journalist’s dilemma as, “choosing between the risk that would result from disclosure and the parallel risk of keeping the public in the dark.” But the risk of keeping the public in the dark, while significant, is not the only risk that lack of disclosure portends.

By choosing to suppress information that is deemed classified, the press is enabling the government’s proclivity for avoiding oversight. The deans acknowledge that governments have made national security claims in the past, when all they were really concerned about was their own political necks. But it goes even deeper than that. Since the executive branch gets to decide what gets classified, they are in the position of being able to cover up criminal acts by simply classifying the evidence. We’ve even seen variations of this in the legal arena with investigations into the administration that were halted when Justice Department lawyers were prohibited from pursuing leads because they lacked security clearances, the issuance of which is also within the purview of the administration being investigated.

Jay Rosen at PressThink, tackles the question of how to cover a classified war. The essay is illuminating and worth reading in full (but stay out of the comments. After the first couple of dozen they get trampled by trolls). Rosen unveils an administration fighting a war that has no generals or governing authority. But the War on Terror, nonetheless, has operations that are shielded from the public by classification. When the New York Times raised questions about those operations, congress passed a resolution condemning the media for endangering national security. At the same time, we have pundits like William Bennett asking, “Who elected the media?” to decide what information the public is entitled to receive. The question itself is irrelevant. The press gets its rights from the Constitution, not the ballot box. Thank heaven for that, because try to imagine the state of journalism if the inverse were true.

This is the most secretive administration in history. They have classified more documents than any before it. They are even re-classifying tens of thousands of documents that have been available for years. They go around the traditional oversight provided by the courts and congress. Even congressional allies are starting to recoil. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence committee, sent a letter to the White House complaining about not having been informed of programs that the law requires be disclosed to the committee.

A free press is expected to be independent and to function with a healthy dose of skepticism. If the press cannot independently analyze government, even with respect to what the government claims should be classified, what good is the press? Should it obediently bow before the government’s royal edicts? Or should it cherish the freedom to think critically and act in accordance with that freedom?