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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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Winners & Sinners

Winners & Sinners

The Conservative Political Action Conference is the marquee event of the conservative movement, which  this year was sponsored in part by the far-far-right John Birch Society.  The audience seemed to be dominated by the Tea Party Movement.

The way it was covered tells you a lot you might not want to know about the mainstream media in Washington.

Sinners Adam Nagourney and Kate Zernike of The New York Times led their first-day story with Mitt Romney’s “systematic indictment of what he described as the failed presidency of Barack Obama” and mentioned some “coy allusions” to Barack Obama’s youthful experimentation with cocaine, while Sinner Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post thought Romney “sounded every bit the party leader, denouncing the Obama administration as a ‘failure.’”

On the other hand, if you wanted to learn anything about the substance of Romney’s remarks--or anybody else’s at the conference--the person to listen to was Winner Rachel Maddow, who performed that oh-so-out-of-fashion journalistic function of fact-checking the remarks of the principals.  A few examples from the transcript of Maddow’s program the day the conference opened:

Romney: “Let’s ask the Obama folks why they to malpractice reform” and “no to tax cuts that create jobs.” The former Massachusetts governor added, “On our watch, the conversation with a would-be suicide bomber will not begin with the words ‘You have the right to remain silent.’”

The Facts:  Obama is actually in favor of malpractice reform, and the year-old stimulus program included one of the biggest tax cuts ever enacted.  As for the suicide bomber, as Maddow pointed out, “Unless, of course, that would-be suicide bomber is would-be suicide bomber Richard Reid, who was told that he had the right to remain silent roughly five minutes after he was arrested back in 2001 when Republicans were running the show.”

Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCoutter: “When the American people asked for smaller deficits and a reduction of the debt, the Democrats said no.”

The Facts: As this chart reminds us, by far the biggest increases in the national debt took place under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush:

Former Congressman Dick Armey of Texas said Obama was “getting away with peddling” the notion that there is a crisis in health care, “despite the fact that America has the greatest health care in the world.” 

The Facts: As Maddow pointed out, in such a fake crisis, national spending on health care goes from 5 percent of GDP in 1960 to 7 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2000, and is expected to reach 20 percent in 2020. Maddow added, That‘s the crisis President Obama has apparently created out of thin air for his own political gain.  He apparently started working on this in 1970 when he was 9 years old.  He was very precocious.

But if the Times reporters had chosen to illuminate even one of these lies, that would have left them with less space for the jokes that were made about Obama’s cocaine use.

Meanwhile, network news reports like two from NBC’s Mike Viqueira on “Nightly” were virtually content-free, although Viqueira did manage to  include a tiny soundbite of Glenn Beck’s speech to CPAC, which at least hinted at the Fox News host's absolute insanity.

Update: for a good piece in the MSM about the dark side of the Tea Party Movement, see Jonathan Capehart's post.

Second Update: The only way to feel all of the love at the CPAC confab (including the Glenn Beck out-of-body experience) is to watch Jon Stewart--as usual.

Winner: Newsweek national security correspondent Michael Isikoff for revealing that a crucial CIA memo constantly cited by Dick Cheney as the source of his certainty that torture produced crucial intelligence actually contains “plainly inaccurate information” that undermined its conclusions.  Cheney has frequently demanded the publication of the still-classified document, but Justice Department investigators have now concluded “that it significantly misstated the timing of the capture of one Al Qaeda suspect in order to make a claim that seems to have been patently false,” according to Isikoff.   The reporter continued:

The memo also omitted any references to a notorious incident in which another high level CIA detainee, Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi,  provided ‘false information’ about Al Qaeda’s supposed connections to Iraq in order to stop his Egyptian interrogators from abusing him, the Justice report states.  (Al-Libi was transfered by the CIA to Egyptian custody under the agency's "extraordinary rendition" program.)

Sinner: The normally-reliable Clyde Haberman, for a column in The New York Times about Harold Ford, the former Tennessee Congressman threatening to run for the Senate from New York.  Haberman left the clear impression that Ford’s early claims to having paid New York taxes were true. Haberman wrote:

One question raised about Mr. Ford is how diligent he has been in paying taxes in New York. Several weeks ago, he said in an interview with YNN, a cable news station in Buffalo: ‘I pay taxes there. And once you pay taxes there, you feel like a New Yorker.’  That’s an awfully limited definition. I worked for years in foreign countries, paying their taxes, yet somehow never felt like a Japanese, an Italian or an Israeli.

The trouble is, Haberman’s column appeared exactly seven days after Gawker’s John Cook had done a thorough investigation proving that Ford had actually assiduously avoided paying New York State Income Taxes.  Asked by FCP if he had missed the fact that Ford was a New York tax dodger, Haberman replied, “As you surely could tell, that wasn't really my focus this time around”--an answer which neither answered my question, nor explained why Haberman had implied that Ford had paid these taxes when he really hadn’t.

Update: A spokesman for Ford telephoned FCP today (Tuesday) to dispute the notion that the former Congressman had ever tried to avoid paying New York State income taxes.
Earlier this year, Congressman Ford told reporters in Buffalo, and his spokeswoman told John Cook of Gawker, that Ford would file a New York State Income Tax Return for the first time in April,  2010, although he began working for Merrill Lynch in New York City in 2007.

    The spokeswoman then contacted Cook again to say that Ford would actually file his first New York State resident tax return in 2010.

    Ford spokesman David Goldin told FCP today that Ford had filed a non-resident New York State tax return for 2007 and 2008.   You can only file as a non-resident if you can prove that you spent at least 182 days outside New York State.  So although Ford was working for Merrill Lynch in New York, he apparently was careful to stay out of the state for more than half the year, to limit his New York tax liability.

Winner: Environmental reporter Margot Roosevelt of The Los Angeles Times for two beautiuflly written and thorougly nuanced stories (here and here) about the continuing destruction of the Amazon Forest–and the chances that developed nations will spend enough quickly enough to end that destruction. The ghastly bottom line:

Slash-and-burn deforestation accounts for about 15% of humanity's carbon dioxide emissions. Despite activists' efforts, forests have been disappearing at the rate of about 34 million acres a year for the last two decades. Globally, Indonesia and Brazil are the third- and fourth-largest emitters respectively of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S., because of their breakneck pace of forest destruction.

The stories demonstrate that even though it remains in bankruptcy, The LA Times will sometimes still invest a substantial sum to send a talented correspondent abroad to write about a crucial subject like this one.

Sinners: The editors of the op-ed page of The New York Times for printing, and their contributor, Lara M. Dadkhah, for writing, a fiercely incoherent argument in favor of sharply increasing civilian casualties in Afghanistan--by reversing the very wise directive Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued last July, which stipulated that air strikes (and long-range artillery fire) would only be authorized under “very limited and prescribed conditions.”

Besides the idiocy of the piece, there was the problem of who it was who had actually written it.  Times editors identified the previously unknown Dadkhah as “an intelligence analyst,” while the author herself slipped in the fact that she was “employed by a defense consulting company.”

Oddly, neither Dadkhah nor the Times recognized the obvious journalistic imperative to name that company.

Update: This afternoon, deputy editorial page editor David Shipley provided FCP with this explanation via e-mail:

We found Ms. Dadkhah from work she did in Small Wars Journal, work that was part of her Ph.D. dissertation at Georgetown.  Ms. Dadkhah only recently took a job at Booz Allen. We tend not to mention the names of companies -- as it can run the risk of seeming self-promotional. I thought it was sufficient to have the author say, as she did high up in the piece, that "While I am employed by a defense consulting company, my research and opinions on air support are my own." It's worth underscoring that Ms. Dadkhah's research regarding close air support came entirely from her doctoral research, and that these are issues she has written about over the the last couple years for Small Wars.

Second Update: The estimable Glenn Greenwald, who was one of the very first people to post about this monstrosity, adds these essential details in response to Shipley's explanation:

Shipley's answer strongly suggests that Dadkhah did not submit her Op-Ed unsolicited, but rather, the NYT purposely sought out an Op-Ed to urge more civilian deaths in Afghanistan ("We found Ms. Dadkhah from work she did in Small Wars Journal").  Why would they do that?  Maybe tomorrow the NYT Editors can actively solicit an Op-Ed urging the use of biological agents and chemical weapons on civilian populations in Yemen.  After that, they can search out someone to advocate medical experiments on detainees in Bagram.  Perhaps the day after, they can host a symposium on the tactical advantages of air bombing hospitals and orphanages as a means of keeping local populations in line...Dadkhah's employer -- Booz Allen -- has more overlapping ties with the Pentagon than virtually any other corporation on the planet.  The very idea that Dadkhah's employment with a company that has its hooks in virtually every aspect of war policy need not have been disclosed, when she's advocating greater use of air power, is absurd on its face.  And Shipley's claim that the companies which employ Op-Ed writers are not typically mentioned by the NYT is insultingly false; just today, Newt Gingrich's short Op-Ed contribution is accompanied by this tagline:  "founder of the Center for Health Transformation, a health-care policy consulting firm."  Yesterday, the NYT published an Op-Ed from the "former general counsel of the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses,"  and throughout the month, the NYT had Op-Ed writers identified as "chairman of Convers Group in Moscow," "a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 to 2004," and "the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop."  Suffice to say, concealing the employer of the Op-Ed writer is not customary policy.

Read the rest of Glenn's latest post here.

Third Update: My brother David Kaiser, author of the excellent History Unfolding blog, informs me:

The work Dadkhah did in Small Wars Journal consists of exactly one article, makig the same basic arguent at greater lenght.  That article actually takes a considerably more balanced view of the issue. At the end of the article she is described as follows.
   Lara M. Dadkhah is a graduate student in Security Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. She has worked as an open source analyst covering biodefense issues in Iran and Afghanistan, and as a data analyst for current coalition information operations in Afghanistan.

Winner: CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper, for leading his network’s superb coverage of the Haiti catastrophe.  Whether he was pointing out the critical shortage of medicine, or the absence of any organized system to take care of the newly orphaned, Cooper and the rest of the CNN team set the standard for coverage which was both detailed and empathetic--and thereby earned Cooper the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award for January.

Winners: Michelle and Barack Obama, for hosting one of the most spectacular musical events in the history of the White House--a Celebration of Music of the Civil Rights Movement.  The evening was pushed up 24 hours because of an impending snow storm, and broadcast nationally by PBS.  Morgan Freeman hosted, and the president offered this eloquent introduction:

The civil rights movement was a movement sustained by music.  It was lifted by spirituals inspired by the Bible.  It was sharpened by protest songs about wrongs that needed righting.  It was broadened by folk artists like a New York-born daughter of immigrants, and a young storyteller from Minnesota, who captured the hardships and hopes of people who were worlds different from them, in ways that only song can do. It was a movement with a soundtrack -- diverse strains of music that coalesced when the moment was right.

A brilliant Bob Dylan stole the evening with a haunting The Times They Are A Changin’, accompanied only by piano, bass, and the bard’s own acoustic guitar.  (Dylan refused to tell the concert’s organizers which song he would sing until 20 minutes before his performance; Blowin’ in The Wind was naturally another finalist.)  Dylan was immediately followed by an equally powerful rendition by Smokey Robinson of Dion’s great lament of 1968, Abraham, Martin and John.  Obama thanked Dylan for being “a man who was good enough to take a night off from his never ending tour;" then the president shook the great man’s hand after he sang.

Astonishingly, it was the first time Dylan had ever performed at the White House.

Dylan first recorded The Times They Are A Changin' in 1963,  four weeks to the day before JFK was assassinated.  On November 13, 1985,  Dylan told me,  it was "definitely a song with a purpose.  I knew exactly what I wanted to say and for whom I wanted to say it to.  I wanted to write a big song in a simple way."

The evening ended when Obama joined all the other performers (except Dylan, who had exited earlier) in an unbelievably poignant rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Chris Richards of The Washington Post called it the “most stirring concert” ever performed at the White House.

Score 1 for the mainstream media.


To view the entire broadcast of the concert go here.

To read about and watch the original musical triumph of the Obama administration, provided by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, go here.


While I don't think there's any question about the largest increases in the national debt coming under the last three Republican administrations, the chart (which I'm guessing Maddow used) isn't showing the actual dollar increase in the debt -- it's showing the increase in the percentage of the debt versus the national GNP. Granted, this is an important economic statistic, but I'd bet that most citizens equate the idea of "debt increase" in how much more we owe, period. And, in that respect, the gross federal debt -- the big, really fun number people use -- has grown (according to OMB data) every year since the end of 1957. But, unless you carefully explain that chart and what it represents, it looks like everybody before Ronald Reagan were good guys in paying off the mortgage. And, of course, the gross debt isn't the real debt, after subtracting the funds held by the federal government. The point is that this little chart wasn't fact-checking. It was showing a statistical offset and changing the context.

It wasn't the CIA, but William L. Laurence had a second job writing press releases for the Pentagon while he was a science journalist for the New York Time. Not certain if he let his newspaper in on that. I am certain his Pulitzer should be revoked.

Susan Tifft and Alex Jones tell, in "The Trust," how Edwin L. James, the editor at the time, agreed to a request from General Leslie Groves to "borrow" Laurence for a top-secret war assignment. Laurence's story on the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima was one part of it. Autres temps, autres moeurs.

During the Cold War, both the Times and the Washington Post (and plenty of other media firms) collaborated closely with the Petagon, State CIA: naming CIA agents to jobs as journalists, assiduously purveying disinformation, conveying a view of the world quite congenial to the projects of the warfare state. Is there any reason not to suspect that this has continued--or been revived? We should be interested to hear more from Mr. Shipley as to the exact origins of the decision to shop for the piece....
FCP replies:  I don't believe that there is any hard evidence that either the Times or the Washington Post ever knowlingly employed a CIA agent.  I believe Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal made a large effort to discover whether  he was unknowingly employing such an agent, and the Agency always denied it.
If you know of any hard evidence to the contrary, FCP would be very interested in seeing it.

Great post. I feel especially validated by your calling out of Lara Dadkah's opinion on civilian casualties. I felt like I was taking crazy pills -- it's one thing to war hawk, with the (hopefully) usual qualifications about waging war in the most ethical way possible (humane treatment of POWs, assiduously avoiding civilian targets, showing respect for local culture, up-front apologies and fair reparations when there is "collateral damage"). It's quite another thing to scold the military for being to careful about avoiding civilians, and essentially mocking the idea that we will be most effective with Afghan hearts and minds sharing our cause. Ay ay ya. Thanks Charlie.

great post, loved the Dylan song


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