February 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

February 2011

Winners & Sinners: From Obama to Brisbane


Lisa Sotto, Arthur Brisbane


Walfrido Martinez, Zach Wahls

Winner: Barack Hussein Obama, whose decision to instruct his Attorney General to stop defending crucial provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act is quite simply the most important presidential act in support of equal rights for gay people ever.   Combined with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Obama has now undone the two worst things Bill Clinton did to gay people during his presidency.   And with this splendid act, Obama has also  displayed exactly the kind of political courage that all of us have been waiting for since the day he was inaugurated.

One of the cases challenging DOMA was brought with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP and the New York Civil Liberties UnionACLU executive director Anthony Romero said the president had “propelled gay rights into the 21st century, where it belongs.  Our government finally recognizes what we knew 14 years ago — that the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ is a gross violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection before the law.”

Sinners: John Woods, Richard Wyatt Jr. and Robert Quanckenboss (talk about onomatopoeia!), all members of the law firm of Hunton & Williams, which so far has maintained a stony silence in the face of allegations that it asked various security firms to suggest ways to undermine the supporters of WikiLeaks and the opponents of the Chamber of Commerce.

VelvetRevolution.us and StopTheChamber.com have now filed a complaint with the Washington, D.C. Bar Association seeking the disbarment of Woods, Wyatt and Quackenboss because of e-mails suggesting they may have advocated domestic spying, cyber stalking, spear phishing, cyber attacks, and theft.

As Forbes.com reported “Earlier this month, a trove of emails hacked from the servers of security firm HBGary Federal by the loose hacker group Anonymous revealed that Hunton & Williams had asked HBGary Federal and two other security firms to put together a proposal to address Bank of America’s fear that WikiLeaks would release leaked documents from the bank sometime early this year.”

The spectacular irony here is that all of the ammunition in the new complaint comes from e-mails stolen by Anonymous from the account of Aaron Burr, an executive of HBGary, after Burr boasted of his ability to penetrate Anonymous and identify its leaders.

As its website trumpets, Hunton & Williams is a huge multi-national firm, with “1,000 attorneys in 18 offices.”

The other huge irony which FCP has not seen in any of the coverage of this burgeoning scandal is the fact that “for the fourth consecutive time, Hunton & Williams LLP was named the top firm for privacy by Computerworld in its 2010 report on “Best Privacy Advisers.”

FCP queried Hunton managing partner Walfrido Martinez, and its privacy expert partner, Lisa Sotto, on how they thought these allegations might affect its status as “best privacy” advisor.

So far, no response to FCP’s e-mails.

The other thing lacking so far in all of the coverage is a major take-out on the rest of the activities of this sprawling firm–and how these grave allegations are affecting its attempts to recruit new lawyers.

Sinner: New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, for practicing exactly the kind of shoddy journalism he is supposedly paid to criticize.   Brisbane was outraged  that the Times identified Stephen B. Burke, the new chief executive of NBC Universal, as an “Irish Catholic.”

Brisbane reported that “Raymond G. McGuire, a reader in New York City, found “Irish Catholic” to be a “jarring” reference and that “Mr. McGuire recalled growing up in New York City from the 1940s to 1960s, ‘when its Catholic residents universally understood that the N.Y. Times was vaguely hostile to institutionalized Catholicism and deployed reporters and columnists who had little understanding of the daily lives of the city’s Catholic residents, or of the rich culture Catholics of Irish ancestry enjoyed during those years. I thought those days were past.’”

Unfortunately, Brisbane took this single reader’s allegation as gospel, without bothering to investigate whether it had any genuine connection to the truth.  If Brisbane had taken this most elemental journalistic step of checking the reader’s allegation, he would have learned that the somewhat-embarrassed-to-be-somewhat-Jewish owners of The New York Times had, for decades, been famously fawning in their coverage of insitutionalized Catholicismu in the news pages of the newspaper–especially from the ‘40’s through the ‘60’s.

And as late as 1995 the paper assigned an Irish Catholic reporter to write a hugely favorable profile of John Cardinal O’Connor, the hugely controversial head of the New York Catholic Church.

Winner: Russ Buettner, for a superb piece of investigative reporting in the New York Times about how court documents that were supposed to have been kept secret described how Fox News chairman Roger Ailes may have counseled former Murdoch publishing honcho Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators who were vetting Bernard B. Kerik for the job of homeland security secretary.  As Buettner points out, “The dispute involves a cast of well-known and outsize personalities” including several “New Yorkers who have had spectacular career meltdowns.”

Winner: Zach Wahls, an engineering student at the University of Iowa, raised by two women, who gave a brilliant speech, humiliating Iowa legislators determined to overturn the decision of the Iowa Supreme court which legalized gay marriage.  “You are voting for the first time in the history of our state to codify discrimination in our constitution” Wahls declared. “My family isn’t really so different from any other Iowan family.”  For the rest of Wahls’ brilliant indictment of prejudice, go here.

And if you missed the other best piece of oratory of 2011, watch Barack Obama’s speech after the Tuscon massacre (below)  Although it was one of the defining moments of his presidency, neither NBC Nightly News nor ABC’s World News bothered to devote a whole story to the speech the night after it was delivered. 


Winners & Sinners: From Egypt to Mississippi


Elizabeth Palmer of CBS News



Kate Ellis, Stephen Smith, Filmmakers Brent and Craig Renaud


Winner: Elizabeth Palmer, a CBS News correspondent of the old school, who provided calm, thorough and fascinating reports from Egypt every night on Katie Couric’s evening news.

Winners: Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith, for a superb documentary for American RadioWorks with many fascinating details about how Mississippi whites organized to resist segregation throughout the early 1960’s.  A splendid example of bringing history to life through sound, with intelligence and care.

Sinner: New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters, for a woefully inadequate piece about reader dissatisfaction with a shrunken Los Angles Times.  Peters got a “no comment” from the Times publisher.  Then he didn’t bother to include a single quote from a current editor or reporter for the newspaper.  FCP asked Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, “How would you feel if the LA Times did a story about the decline of the NYT by talking to half a dozen random readers, a couple of ex-staffers, got a ‘no comment’ from Arthur — and then failed to include a single comment from a current NYT editor or reporter?

That’s what Jeremy Peters did today to the LA Times.  Does this meet current NYT standards for fairness and thoroughness?”

Keller acknowledged receipt of the e-mail but did not reply to it.

Winner: Sandy Hausman, for an in-depth look, for Virginia Public Radio, into the completely counterproductive anti-gang policy of Virginia’s Attorney General.

Winners: Brent and Craig Renaud and Dave Rummel for a personal and powerful ten-minute video about the continuing, devastating effects of the earthquake in Haiti.

Sinners: The law firm of Hunton & Williams and the security firm of HBGary, for promoting a bizarre scheme to undermine the allies of WikiLeaks, partly by submitting fake documents to WikiLeaks, and partly by threatening its supporters, including Glenn Greenwald.  Hunton & Williams represents Bank of America, and HBGary proposed these clever ideas to the law firm after rumors circulated that WikiLeaks was about to release a deeply damaging set of documents about America’s largest bank.

Another set of documents proposed similar ways to embarrass adversaries of the Chamber of Commerce for an initial fee of $200,000 and $2 million later.

Winners: Eric Lipton and Charlie Savage, two of the finest reporters in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, who did a fine job of unraveling this mess.





Winners & Sinners: Egyptian Edition

Diane Sawyer on top of Egypt


Brian Williams and Lester Holt in Egypt


Jane Mayer and Steve Coll of the New Yorker     

    As Facebook and Twitter (with an apparently significant assist from Al Jazeera) prepared to claim their latest scalp of a head of state–Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak–the world’s media descended en masse on Cairo, just as thousands of foreigners were streaming out of the airport in the opposite direction.

    NBC’s Brian Williams was the first American network anchor on the scene, but the evening news broadcast to watch last night was definitely the one on CBS.   CBS Evening News executive producer Rick Kaplan showed that he still knows twice as much as his competitors about how to cover a huge breaking news story.  So while Katie Couric arrived in Egypt a day later than Brian, the  CBS broadcast last night–subbed by Harry Smith–included stories that were vastly superior to the very ordinary ones done by Richard Engel and his colleagues at NBC.

    Veteran CBS foreign correspondent Elisabeth Palmer did an especially sophisticated and thorough summary at the top of the broadcast, followed by an equally good sidebar by Mark Strassmann about when the Egyptian police force first disappeared from the streets of Cairo, before slowly returning to select Cairo neighborhoods.

    Over at ABC News, since Diane Sawyer hadn’t managed to cross the ocean to reach the exploding scene, she tried to compensate by standing on Egypt, in the center of a vast floor map of North Africa and the Middle East.  ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who seems to alternate between flaking for the Pentagon and the C.I.A., continued her rapturous account of Egypt’s vital role in the war on terror, but last night she came a little closer to explaining to what that actually meant: “capturing and brutally interrogating suspects”–i.e., torturing them–often on behalf of the CIA, which made Egyptian prisons one of its favorite destinations for victims of American rendition.

    But to understand just how effective this cooperation was, once again it was necessary to turn to the indispensable Jane Mayer, who did a post at newyorker.com
 which made all of the important points which most of her competitors left out of their reports.  Among Mayer’s crucial details:

* Newly chosen Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman  is actually not so new to anyone who has followed the American policy of renditions for terror suspects

* In fact, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for American renditions.

*Technically, U.S. law required the C.I.A. to seek “assurances” from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the intelligence service, such assurances were considered close to worthless.

* As Ron Suskind recounts in the The One Percent Doctrine,  Suleiman was the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of an Al Qaeda suspect known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi.   It was al-Libi who was then tortured by the Egyptians into giving false information that Saddam Hussein wanted to give biological weapons to  Al Qaeda–a fantasy which then found its way into Colin Powell’s notorious U.N. speech explaining why the United States felt compelled to invade Iraq.

* Several years later, however, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned up no such weapons of mass destruction, or ties between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Libi recanted. When the F.B.I. later asked him why he had lied, he blamed the brutality of the Egyptian intelligence service.

    Which demonstrates once again why Dick Cheney thought torture was so indispensable for the production of the information he needed–even (or especially) when it was entirely false. (h/t Syd Schanberg.)

    Steve Coll was also ahead of the curve in his post for the New Yorker  , when he wrote that Egyptian generals “may conclude that patriotism and justice require them now to switch sides, to stand with the population, which they are, after all, sworn to defend”–which now seems to be exactly what they’re doing, at least so far.

    Jon Lee Anderson offered a concise and useful history of American involvement in Egypt, beginning with our support of the coup which brought  Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952.  “In the end,” Anderson writes, “our serial monogamy with Egypt’s dictators, and the money we have given them—reportedly, sixty-eight billion dollars in all—bought us their loyalty, and years of borrowed time”–partly in the form of a very important thirty-year old peace with Israel.  “That time appears to have run out. In the days to come, it will become clearer whether our money has also bought us the loyalties of ordinary Egyptians, or whether, once again, we will have to pack up and leave.”

    Finally, The New Yorker’s Wendell Steavenson had a lovely on-scener from Tahrir Square:

    “It feels like a preëmptive celebration. People hugged each other—“Congratulations!”—sang the national anthem; punched the air shouting, “Viva Egypt!” Chants rose and fell. They had been singing, “The people want the fall of the regime,” since last Tuesday. Also popular is the blunt exultation, “Leave!”

    Meanwhile, the 1.6 million most-committed-American-news-junkies (including the ones in the White House) turned to Al Jazeera English’s live feed  on the internet, for the most exciting wall-to-wall coverage of all.