Above the Fold: Where Are the Editors? | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Above the Fold: Where Are the Editors?

    One of the main arguments for preserving the mainstream media is the idea that highly paid reporters supervised by highly paid editors are bound to produce stories that  are more sophisticated and more accurate than anything you are likely to read from the typical blogger.   However, three recent stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post were so egregious, they only make it easier to argue that accuracy, thoroughness and judgment are often strangers to our most “serious” journalistic institutions.

    The first one was written by FCP’s old friends Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti, the alliterative twins in the Washington bureau of The New York Times who have embarrassed themselves so often by acting as shills for their C.I.A. sources instead of behaving like objective reporters.

    Shane’s previous triumphs in the torture department include a Week in Review piece in which he found The Army Field Manual (which specifies how to interrogate a prisoner without torturing him) wanting because it had never “been updated to reflect decades of corporate analysis of how to influence consumers.”

    But the latest Shane-Mazzetti effort is so idiotic, it boggles the mind that none of the editors who read it before it was published noticed how flawed it was.   After noting that other reporters analyzing the most recently released torture memos focused on things like “threats of execution by handgun or assault by power drill; a prisoner lifted off the ground by his arms, which were tied behind his back; [and] another detainee repeatedly knocked out with pressure applied to the carotid artery,”  Shane and Mazzetti proceeded to focus on what was the real news here for them–and, just coincidentally, of course, for all the C.I.A. officials who are still terrified that they will be prosecuted for the war crimes that they committed.

    According to the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, what matters here is that these memos show that the Bush administration kept really, really careful records of the crimes they were committing:

   “Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program’s parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee’s daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis…The required records, the medical supervisors said, included “how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

    The obvious comparison that springs to mind here is to the splendidly detailed notes kept by Dr. Mengele’s acolytes when he was conducting his own ground-breaking experiments during World War II.   But that is very far indeed from  what Messrs. Shane and Mazzetti have in mind.

    After assuring themselves of what their editors apparently consider “balance” by quoting a couple of actual opponents of torture, the reporters get around to the real raison d’être of their piece: “…Defenders of the program say the tight rules show the government’s attempt to keep the program within the law. ‘Elaborate care went into figuring out the precise gradations of coercion,’ said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. ‘Yes, it’s jarring. But it shows how both the lawyers and the nonlawyers tried to do the right thing.’”
    Note to Shane and Mazzetti: when you commit an established war crime like waterboarding, following “tight rules” does not suddenly place your actions “within the law.”  And keeping careful records of your crimes should actually make you more likely to be prosecuted, rather than less.  Could anything be more obvious than that? 

    Not to The New York Times.

    To their credit, the reporters did manage to write one intelligent paragraph in their piece.  It was this one: “The records suggest one quandary prosecutors face as they begin a review of the C.I.A. program, part of the larger inquiry into abuse cases ordered Monday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Any prosecution that focuses narrowly on low-level interrogators who on a few occasions broke the rules may appear unfair, since most of the brutal treatment was authorized from the White House on down..”

    Over at The Washington Post, one of two journalistic felonies was committed by Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Julie Tate, which, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, could just as easily have been penned by Dick Cheney.

    Basing their account entirely on anonymous sources, Finn, Warrick and Tate wrote a full-throated defense of torture.  “After enduring the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency’s secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called  terrorist tutorials.

….These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its  preeminent source  on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.”

    Greenwald gets to the heart of the matter here: “What makes the Post’s breathless vindication of torture all the more journalistically corrupt is that the document on which it principally bases these claims – the just-released 2004 CIA Inspector General Report – provides no support whatsoever for the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, despite the fact that it was based on the claims of CIA officials themselves.  Ironically, nobody has done a better job this week of demonstrating how true that is than the Post’s own Greg Sargent – who, in post after post  – dissected the IG Report to demonstrate that it provides no evidence for Cheney’s claims that torture helped obtain valuable intelligence.”

    New Yorker writer and Dark Side author Jane Mayer has made a whole career out of compensating for all of the inadequacies of the torture reporting in the Times and the Post.  Here is what she told Keith Olbermann about Khalid Sheik Mohammed:
“There is nothing but a mass of claims that they got information from this individual and that individual, many from KSM, who apparently has been the greatest fount of information for them, but there’s absolutely nothing saying that they had to beat them to get this information. In fact, as anybody knows who knows anything about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was dying to tell the world, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera before he was in US custody, about everything he knew and everything he did. He was proud of his role as the mastermind of 9/11. He loves to talk about it. So there’s no evidence that I see in this that these things were necessary. I spoke to someone at the CIA who was an advisor to them who conceded to me that “We could have gotten the same information from tea and crumpets.”

    FINALLY, WE COME TO the most disgusting story of all, a worshipful portrait by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post of Brian Brown, a leading crusader against marriage equality.   The catastrophe here begins with the headline: “Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile.”

    It continues with beautiful aperçus like these:

* “this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis. Brian Brown speaks to these people.”

 * “He shoulders the accusations of bigotry; it’s horrible when people say that your life’s mission is actually just prejudice.”

* “The reason Brian Brown is so effective is that he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.”

*  “The racial bigot comparison is the most troubling part of the argument,  Brown says. It’s horrible, offensive, deliberately incendiary. He thinks it is  irrational,  a word he uses often.”

* ” It is irrational when the opposition points to polls suggesting that most young people support gay marriage.  People mature,  he says. Their views change. It is irrational when people believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage is an inevitability:  We have the people. We have not had such an organized force  before, Brown says.”

    And so on.  Of course, Ms. Hesse did not quote a single representative of any gay organization to provide an iota of balance to any of these idiotic assertions.

    The trouble is, the truth here is quite simple: you cannot oppose marriage equality without being a bigot. The “racial bigot comparison” is entirely appropriate.  There is nothing “sane” or “sunny” about bigotry.  And there is nothing “irrational” about pointing out that every new generation of Americans is more tolerant of sexual diversity than the one that preceded it–and that most Americans under 30 recognize that opposition to gay marriage is as repugnant as it is antediluvial. 

   Because equal treatment of all men and women under the law is the most American value of all.

   Mr. Brown is actually part of that large and loathsome contingent of Americans who has decided to make a living based entirely  on hatred and irrational fear.  The only interesting things in Hesse’s piece are the quotes from Mr. Brown’s wife, which suggest that she might actually understand that.

    Writing a piece like this is the equivalent of going down to Mississippi in the early ‘60’s, and writing a worshipful portrait of Governor Ross Barnett, who devoted himself to an unsuccessful effort to prevent James Meredith from integrating Ole Miss.  Such a piece would have focused on Barnett’s charming demeanor, his fine works as president of the Mississippi Bar Association, and so on.   And it would have pointed out how Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was hopelessly out of step with centuries of wonderful southern traditions like slavery and segregation. 

    Why is it so hard for mainstream editors to understand this? 

    Mostly it’s the result of a willful effort to remain woefully uninformed about gay issues, from marriage equality to gays in the military.   FCP has learned Ms. Hesse is considered a rising young star at the Style section of the Post.  If its editors had any judgment, a piece like this would permanently derail her career.

    The only truly useful thing Mr. Brown has ever done was to produce an anti-marriage equality ad that was so inane and offensive, it inspired Stephen Colbert’s single finest piece of satire of 2009.  Watch it here.

   Happy Labor Day.

Special thanks to FCP contributors John Flannery and AN.

 

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