Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

The Washington Post: RIP

The Washington Post died today.  It was five months short of its 132nd birthday.

News of the demise of the once-great news gathering organization came in a story by Mike Allen at Politico.com, which reported that Post publisher Katharine Weymouth has decided to solicit payoffs of between $25,000 and $250,000 from Washington lobbyists, in return for one or more private dinners in her home, where lucky diners will receive a chance for “your organization’s CEO” to interact with “Health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post” and “key Obama administration and congressional leaders …”

The decision by the Post’s publisher to sell access to government officials was the latest–and, by far, the most horrific–in a series of disastrous decisions in the last two weeks which, taken together, have destroyed what was once one of the proudest brands in American journalism.

As news of the Politico story raced across the Internet this morning, former and present news executives inside and outside The Washington Post Company reacted with stunned horror.  As Allen put it in his Politico story, “The offer ­ which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters ­ is a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival.”

Arthur Gelb, the legendary former managing editor of The New York Times, declared, “Say It Ain’t So, Katharine. Where are the principles set by your grandmother and Ben Bradlee that had for so long imbued the Post? How can your reporters and editors we so admire and respect sit on their hands while this degradation evolves?”

The Post issued a statement which perfectly fits what Washington Post legend Bob Woodward once defined during Watergate as a “non-denial denial”:
 

The flier circulated this morning came out of a business division for conferences and events, and the newsroom was unaware of such communication. It went out before it was properly vetted, and this draft does not represent what the company’s vision for these dinners are, which is meant to be an independent, policy-oriented event for newsmakers.

As written, the newsroom could not participate in an event like this.

We do believe there is an opportunity to have a conferences and events business, and that the Post should be leading these conversations in Washington, big or small, while maintaining journalistic integrity. The newsroom will participate where appropriate.”
 

FCP pointed out to the Post spokeswoman that unless the company repudiated this idea altogether by the end of the day, the company’s brand would be dead.

“I don’t appreciate that kind of talk,” said Kris Coratti, director of communications for Washington Post Media.

“You shouldn’t appreciate it,” FCP replied.  But the failure to repudiate this idea will be fatal:

“Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate,” says the one-page flier. “Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth…Bring your organization’s CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders …“Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it. What is guaranteed is a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds typically on the guest list of 20 or less. …”

Later in the day, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli made this stab at damage control:
 

A flyer was distributed this week offering an “underwriting opportunity” for a dinner on health-care reform, in which the news department had been asked to participate.

The language in the flyer and the description of the event preclude our participation.

We will not participate in events where promises are made that in exchange for money The Post will offer access to newsroom personnel or will refrain from confrontational questioning. Our independence from advertisers or sponsors is inviolable.

There is a long tradition of news organizations hosting conferences and events, and we believe The Post, including the newsroom, can do these things in ways that are consistent with our values.

Marcus

Over at the Dow Jones-owned site All Things Digital, Peter Kafka offered the swiftest and most idiotic reaction to the news, ignoring the fact that there might be any significant difference between paid and unpaid dinner parties:

But let me play devil’s advocate: What exactly would be so wrong about getting the paper’s reporters or editors to to participate in one of these?

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the Post has been at the nexus of power, money and influence ­ in fact, Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, was famous for hosting gatherings much like these at her house. And publications of all stripes ­ including this one, as well as Dow Jones, which owns this site ­ frequently charge fees to attend networking events where their editorial staff participates.

In a chat today on washingtonpost.com, Post Congressional reporter Paul Kane cited Brauchli’s memo as proof that the newsroom would not participate in these confabs–even though the statement of the company’s corporate spokeswoman directly contradicted that. And even if newsroom staffers are excluded from these dinners, the idea that the paper’s publisher would be selling this kind of access remains far, far, far beyond the pale.

Early indications of the collapse of judgement at the Washington news organization included the decision to allow Glenn Beck to host a chat at washingtpost.com-–a scant two weeks before Beck hosted certifiably-maniacal Michael Scheuer on his own program, so that Scheuer could strongly advocate a massive new terrorist attack on the United States by Osama Bin Laden.

Next came the firing of Dan Froomkin, the best and most original reporter on the Post’s website–presumably because Froomkin wrote so many accurate stories pointing up the inadequacies of the national staff of the Post.

But both of those events paled next to this morning’s news, which was leaked to Politico by a healthcare lobbyist. In a piece of remarkable understatement, Mike Allen wrote, “it’s a turn of the times that a lobbyist is scolding The Washington Post for its ethical practices.”

For the first one hundred years of its existence, the Post was a respectable but unremarkable newspaper. All that began to change when Katharine Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, chose Ben Bradlee to lead the paper in 1968. During the next twenty-three years, by expanding the paper’s national staff, opening many new bureaus abroad, inventing the Style section and hiring some of the finest reporters in America, Bradlee gave The New York Times the first serious competition it had received from a general-interest newspaper since the death of the New York Herald Tribune.

The paper’s most celebrated period came when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did more than anyone else to unravel the Watergate scandal during the administration of Richard Nixon. Most famously, when Bernstein called former Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell to read him one of his stories, Mitchell exploded, “All that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published. Good Christ! That’s the most sickening thing I ever heard.”

Graham’s granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, was widely admired within The Washington Post Company as she climbed up the corporate ladder before finally succeeding her uncle Donald Graham as the paper’s publisher. But the extraordinary economic pressures faced by every American newspaper as their traditional business model has collapsed has now led to a comparable collapse in corporate judgment. When historians look back at this event, they will note it as the beginning of the end of newspapers as we have known them.

[Special thanks to FCP contributors DEK & JWS]

 

UPDATE: The Post Caves In–To Sanity

Reacting to the uproar, Katharine Weymouth announced early this afternoon that plans for the dinners at her house had been cancelled.  Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz reported that   “Weymouth knew of the plans to host small dinners at her home and to charge lobbying and trade organizations for participation. But, one of the executives said, she believed that there would be multiple sponsors, to minimize any appearance of charging for access, and that the newsroom would be in charge of the scope and content of any dinners in which Post reporters and editors participated.”   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/02/AR2009070201563.html

Forty Years On

Frank Kameny takes the long view on the gay-rights movement

Forty years ago, the New York City Police Department staged a late night raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village lacking a liquor license. This utterly routine event produced a reaction unlike anything New York’s finest had ever witnessed from lesbian and gay bar patrons, whom they had persecuted for decades without ever encountering a particle of resistance.

In the immortal words of Storme DeLaverie, a cross-dressing lesbian and a famous night club performer, “The cop hit me, and I hit him back.” This had never happened before.

Whether or not Ms. DeLaverie was the lesbian who sparked the most famous riot in gay history remains a matter of fierce dispute. But what happened next is a matter of record: a wildly unlikely collection of drag queens, gay teenagers, and their instantly-revolutionized elders suddenly rose up against their oppressors. First they threw coins at the cops (“This is your payoff”); then rocks; then someone shouted “gay power” and someone else lifted a parking meter out of the ground to use it as a battering ram against the barricaded door of the Stonewall. “The homosexuals were usually very docile, quiet people,” remembered deputy police inspector Seymour Pine. “But this night was different…I had been in combat situations, but there was never any time that I felt more scared than that.”

In the twinkling of a mascara-shaded eye, the streets of New York gave birth to a revolution whose echoes would eventually be heard in every country in the world. The riots were given scant coverage in the daily press, but the New York Daily News did produce one brilliant headline about it, as accurate as it was concise:
                                  
    Homo Nest Raided;
    Queen Bees are Stinging Mad

Within weeks there was an explosion of organizational activity, as lesbians and gays finally followed the path of the soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement to claim their rightful place inside America. One month after the riot, the newly created Gay Liberation Front produced one of its first pamphlets. This was its headline:

    YOU THINK HOMOSEXUALS ARE REVOLTING
    YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS WE ARE.

One of the most important reasons why progress would come so rapidly was a man named Frank Kameny. A World War II combat veteran with a Harvard Ph.D in astronomy, Kameny started his own battle for equal rights twelve years before the Stonewall Riot, when he was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Kameny filed the first federal law suit to challenge the executive order banning gays from employment by the federal government and all of its contractors, an order that had been signed by Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. Four years later, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Kameny’s case, but he remained unbowed. Over the next two decades, he would be responsible for most of the intellectual and strategic framework for the burgeoning gay movement.

In 1963, Kameny and five friends, including Jack Nichols, who became his essential co-conspirator, formed their own (unidentified) gay contingent to participate in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. In 1964, Kameny convinced the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to take the case of another federal employee who had been fired because he was gay; until then, even the ACLU had explicitly supported the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws and Eisenhower’s executive order banning gays from the government.

Then Kameny took what would be his most important step of all. He decided to make his own scientific examination of the psychiatric literature that described homosexuality as a pathology.
 
“As we got into things it became very clear that one of the major stumbling blocks to any progress was going to be this attribution of sickness,” Kameny told me many years ago. “An attribution of mental illness in our culture is devastating, and it’s something which is virtually impossible to get beyond. So the first thing was to find out if this was factually based or not. I had no idea what I was going to find. So I looked, and I was absolutely appalled.”

Everything Kameny encountered was “sloppy, slovenly, slipshod, sleazy science–social and cultural and theological value judgments, cloaked and camouflaged in the language of science, without any of the substance of science. There was just nothing there…. All psychiatry assumed that homosexuality is psychopathological.”

“It was garbage in, garbage out.”

This discovery led Kameny to a revolutionary pronouncement in New York in 1964–nearly as shocking to gay people as it was to everyone else: “I take the stand that not only is homosexuality not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and real sense, and are right, good and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.” 

A year later, the New York chapter of the Matachine society, one of the earliest gay groups, endorsed Kameny’s view with a two thirds vote–over the vociferous objections of a reactionary gay minority, who refused to believe that their orientation was not an illness.

In 1968, Kameny coined the phrase “Gay is good”–after seeing Stokely Carmichael declare on television, “Black is beautiful!”

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association adopted the view Kameny had promoted with others that homosexuality should be removed from its list of psychiatric disorders. This was probably his single most important accomplishment.

So it was especially appropriate last week that Frank Kameny, now 82, was standing to the president’s left in the Oval Office when Barack Obama signed a memorandum modestly improving the rights of domestic partners of federal employees. And it was Kameny to whom the president handed the pen he had used to sign the memorandum.

This was not an event Kameny had anticipated when he led the first gay picket line outside the White House in 1965, demanding an end to discrimination against gay employees. “FIFTEEN MILLION U.S. HOMOSEXUALS PROTEST FEDERAL TREATMENT” read the placard carried by Jack Nichols, an artifact now part of the political history collection of the Smithsonian’s National History Museum, which accepted Kameny’s 70,000 documents and pieces of memorabilia three years ago.

“This whole thing felt like a story book,” Kameny said about last week’s event. “Everybody lived happily ever after. The president was very well briefed: he was aware that he and I–in different years–share Harvard University in our background.”

Unfortunately, although Kameny’s name was mentioned in the pool report written about the Oval Office event, neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post mentioned Kameny’s presence at the ceremony–an oversight akin to leaving Martin Luther King Jr. out of the story when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (even though that law was vastly more significant than Obama’s modest memorandum).

Why was Kameny ignored–except in the caption of a page one photograph of the ceremony on the front page of The Washington Times? Because no ordinary political reporter in Washington knows anything about gay issues, and, therefore, none of them has any idea who Kameny is–even though Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas finally got his paper to profile Kameny (for the first time) four years ago. 

The ignorance of the White House reporters is regrettable but understandable, and when FCP contacted Scott Wilson of The Washington Post to ask him why he had left Kameny out, he at least had the good grace to apologize for being too ignorant to have realized how important Kameny was. “I wish I could do it over,” Wilson said.

On the other hand, when New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters wrote last Sunday about “Why the gay movement has no national leader” in the Week in Review section, his omission of Kameny a few days after his appearance at the White House was unconscionable. When FCP castigated Peters in an e-mail for leaving Kameny out of his story, Peters replied, “I am very familiar with who Mr. Frank Kameny is. But the fact of the matter is that if you were to ask Americans if they recognized his name, the vast, vast majority would not be able to say yes.” 

Which, of course, is because of the incompetence of generations of reporters like Mr. Peters.

What the Washington reporters who missed Kameny’s presence in the Oval Office focused on instead was the dissatisfaction of other gay leaders with Obama’s failure so far to redeem his promises from the campaign trail, especially his repeated pledge to end the military’s idiotic policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

But here again the MSM has completely ignored the main reason for unhappiness within the gay movement: a widespread belief that Obama could suspend the policy all by himself, even though it was enacted by Congress in 1993.

The Palm Center, a unit of the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the main source of most of the hard data about the disastrous effects of the current DADT policy. Its director is Aaron Belkin, who recently told an interviewer, “I think that issue after issue after issue, when it comes to gay rights, there is quite a divide between candidate Obama and President Obama.”

The Palm Center’s senior research fellow is Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, the definitive volume on this subject, which was published last spring to great acclaim. The book proved that the current DADT policy was based entirely on prejudice, rather than on any hard data proving that allowing gay people to serve openly would damage the military.

During the Obama transition, the Palm Center put together a team of legal scholars who concluded that the president could suspend Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell through a stop-loss order–but no one reading The New York Times or The Washington Post would know that.

“At first the White House wasn’t 100 percent sure they could do this,” said veteran gay activist Ethan Geto. “But they have since concluded that the president can do this.”

“People said, ‘We don’t want to Clintonize Obama,’” Geto continued, referring to the political damage Clinton suffered from his efforts to end the ban on gays in the military in 1993. “But 2009 is tremendously different from 1993. The culture has had a massive change; the reality is, every major poll in this country shows that an overwhelming majority of American voters support immediate repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So there is no political trap for Barack Obama here, in doing something unilaterally like a suspension of the policy.”

The other move that enraged many gay activists was the filing the government made in court in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act–even though Obama reiterated in the Oval Office last week that he favors the law’s repeal. Activists were particularly furious that the filing compared gay marriage to incest–another fact no New York Times reporter has managed to mention so far in any of their stories about DOMA.

Interestingly, the sexual orientation of an MSM reporter seems to have no effect whatsoever on his competence in discussing these issues. Jeff Zeleny is an openly gay White House correspondent for The New York Times. But when he was asked about this subject by Gwen Ifill on PBS’s Washington Week, Zeleny was unable to articulate a single sentence about the substance of any of gay issues currently facing the president–except to say that gay leaders were disappointed that Obama had failed to extend healthcare benefits to the spouses of federal employees.

As the man who has been fighting these battles longer than everyone else, Frank Kameny naturally takes the longest view on the matter. He said he is “very, very concious” of the criticism of the president–but he does not agree with it.

“That abominable brief that was filed in the DOMA case in California does have them embarrassed in the White House,” said Kameny. “And a lot of people have been blaming Obama for that. Obviously it’s self-evident that something like that was written by some two-bit, lower-level flunky. A lot of people seem to visualize it being written at a conference in the Oval Office presided over by Obama. Well, it’s nonsense.”

Kameny noted that a bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is moving through the Congress, and it already has more than 140 co-sponsors in the House. On the Defense of Marriage Act, the president “has indicated very clearly–and unmistakably restated on Wednesday afternoon–that he wants it to be repealed–but he can’t repeal DOMA until they put a bill on his desk from over in the capital. He can bring certain elements of pressure on Congress, but ultimately Congress is Congress, and it’s its own master.”

“Meanwhile he has a hideous economic mess to straighten out,” Kameny continued.  “And of course the whole far right and the conservatives are opposed to him tooth and nail. So he has to deal with all of that. So I’m willing to sit and wait.”
 
“I can understand why people are reacting as they are. But I’m not part of that kind of counter-reaction.”

                                                   

The Washington Post Drops Froomkin, Drops the Ball

The firing of Dan Froomkin by The Washington Post set off a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere this week for one very simple reason: Froomkin  is a superb reporter, who consistently covers stories that his own newspaper–and the rest of the national press–routinely ignore. And most of them are about inconvenient truths concerning torture and the war in Iraq–two subjects covered almost exclusively from a right-wing point of view on the Post’s increasingly neoconservative editorial page.

Here are a few examples cited by FCP over the past eighteen months:

* When the Center for Public Integrity reported that the Bush administration had made 935 false statements in the run-up to the war in Iraq (many of them repeated without challenge in the MSM), The Washington Post newspaper and all of the network evening news broadcasts ignored the story, and The New York Time covered it in 375 words. Only Froomkin gave it the attention it deserved–a full 1,238 word column.

* When ABC News’s Jan Craword Greenberg reported that, in 2002, Condoleezza Rice had chaired meetings attended by Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Tenet to discuss specific torture techniques, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, CBS, and NBC all ignored the story. Froomkin pointed out that The Washington Post had never reported that Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft had participated in these meetings—”[a]nd the earlier article certainly didn’t contain any admission by Bush that he had given the principals the go-ahead.”

* When retired Major General Anthony Tauba declared “there is no longer any doubt the current administration has committed war crimes, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post missed the story the next day–while Froomkin wrote the single most comprehensive piece about the General’s accusation on his blog.

And finally, and most admirably of all, when a Post reader in an online chat said, “If the Post can’t or won’t call the techniques torture, the Post’s editorial position lines up exactly with the Bush Administration’s line that they didn’t torture, doesn’t it?”

Froomkin replied: “I call it torture. Over and over again.”

There is nothing–and I mean nothing–that enrages the typical reporter more than a colleague who consistently points out his shortcomings. And as the op-ed page of the Post increasingly becomes a depository for neocon pablum produced by Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Liz Cheney, and oh-so-many-more, Froomkin was increasingly out of step with the zeitgeist promoted by Fred Hiatt, the paper’s editorial page editor.

And although Froomkin did not work directly for Hiatt, the editor told FCP that he had been consulted about the decision to terminate Froomkin’s contract, and he approved of it.

Responding to messages left by FCP for Post publisher Katharine Weymouth and two of the paper’s top editors, Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti declared by e-mail, “Editors need to be able to make decisions on what they think provides the most value to our readers, and a great deal of discussion and research informed this particular decision of not extending a contract that was expiring.” 

Which means, of course, that if they didn’t see the value of Froomkin’s contributions, they really don’t have any news judgment at all.

When FCP pointed out that as recently as last December, Froomkin’s column was the third most popular feature on washingtonpost.com, Coratti first pretended that the Post had never issued such a statistic. Then, a few minutes later, she said by e-mail, “It was a feature we must have done at the end of ’07,” which is what FCP had told her in the first place.

Marcus W. Brauchli , the new executive editor of The Washington Post, is supposed to be more focused than any other newspaper editor on how to transform his product so that it will thrive in the digital age. If he and his colleagues don’t understand the value of someone like Dan Froomkin, his chances of succeeding are nil. The good news is, the blogosphere is filled with editors who do recognize the value of Froomkin’s work, so there is no danger that his contributions will disappear. In fact, he should soon be at the center of a heated bidding war.

Tilting to the Right

When the media cater to the far right, everything gets off-kilter

This morning Paul Krugman joined the chorus on the Internet reminding us of how the right wing reacted to a perfectly sensible internal report from the department of Homeland Security a couple of months ago, which warned of an upsurge of right-wing violence. Conservative commentators were outraged then, of course, so what are they saying now, in the wake of the assassination of a doctor by an anti-abortion fanatic and the killing of a guard at the Holcaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist?

It’s all the fault of the left.

Rush Limbaugh quickly established the right-wing party-line by declaring that the white supremacist in question was really a leftist—partly because a Fox News location was supposedly one of his potential targets.

Keith Olbermann led the counter-attack to this lunacy on MSNBC. Appearing on Olbermann’s show, Countdown, last night, Mark Potok, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, offered this cogent summary of the facts:

The answer is—yes, it is precisely what [the Department of Homeland Security] talked about. They talked about a resurgence of the radical right. They had a great deal of evidence to support that conclusion. It very much mirrored the conclusions of the Southern Poverty Law Center earlier. And, as you well know, DHS was pilloried by political opportunists on the right [for] supposedly attacking all conservatives and all war veterans…

I think that the groups are definitely growing. They have been trying very hard to recruit around the idea of a black man being in the White House, sort of “horror of horrors.” And there has been quite a lot of criminal violence as well. In addition to the cases you‘ve mentioned, in just the last couple of months, five law enforcement officers have been murdered by right-wing extremists in two different incidents….

The day after Obama was inaugurated, a man in Brockton, Massachusetts, stormed out of his house and started murdering black people. When he was finally apprehended after murdering two and nearly killing a third, he told the police that he was going on that evening to murder as many Jews as possible in an Orthodox synagogue. His complaint was that the white race was suffering a genocide at the hands of others.

The idea, though, that, somehow, this shooting at the Holocaust Museum was in any remote way an artifact of the left or Obama‘s fault somehow—I mean, it‘s vile beyond words and just has no basis at all in fact of any kind.

 

Krugman’s column also restored some of the honor of The New York Times by counter-balancing the absurd, page-one story about Glenn Beck which appeared last March, in which Brian Stelter and Bill Carter gushed that Beck was “suddenly one of the most powerful media voices for the nation’s conservative populist anger” and that “barely two months into his job at Fox, his program is a phenomenon.”

(For the very latest example of this kind of “journalism,” see this repellently rhapsodic preview of John Stossel’s upcoming 20/20 profile of Beck.)

Krugman pointed out that, for the most part, Fox News and the RNC haven’t directly incited violence, “but they have gone out of their way to provide a platform for conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric, just as they did the last time a Democrat held the White House.”

And there’s the problem. The profitability of Fox is rooted in people like Beck and Bill O’Reilly, whose entire raison d’etre is to keep their viewers in a perpetual state of fear by harping on a largely imaginary set of demons, thereby creating the perfect breeding ground for the gun-toting extremists they supposedly abhor. And yet the Times too often treats these pariahs as amusing clowns instead of portraying them as what they really are: permanent purveyors of hatred.

This week, Rush Limbaugh—the subject of a nauseatingly affectionate portrait in The New York Times Magazine last summer—continued to pretend that the one thing Obama has in common with God is that neither of them has a birth certificate—well, “not that we’ve seen.” The fact that the Obama campaign released the candidate’s birth certificate last summer, and that you can see it in dozens of locations on the Internet has had no impact at all on this permanent campaign to raise false doubts about the president’s citizenship.

In a splendid column last week, E.J. Dionne identified another problem with the reflex attention the mainstream media gives to every utterance of Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich: “A media environment that tilts to the right is obscuring what President Obama stands for and closing off political options that should be part of the public discussion.”

Dionne was describing a problem which FCP has repeatedly pointed to on every Washington chat show, from NBC’s Meet the Press to Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week: on almost every issue, the debate rages—from the center to the extreme right. Here’s the way Dionne dissected the problem:

The power of the Limbaugh-Gingrich axis means that Obama is regularly cast as somewhere on the far left end of a truncated political spectrum. He’s the guy who nominates a “racist” to the Supreme Court (though Gingrich retreated from the word yesterday), wants to weaken America’s defenses against terrorism and is proposing a massive government takeover of the private economy. Steve Forbes, writing for his magazine, recently went so far as to compare Obama’s economic policies to those of Juan Peron’s Argentina.

Democrats are complicit in building up Gingrich and Limbaugh as the main spokesmen for the Republican Party, since Obama polls so much better than either of them. But the media play an independent role by regularly treating far-right views as mainstream positions and by largely ignoring critiques of Obama that come from elected officials on the left.

So while “the right wing’s rants get wall-to-wall airtime,” you almost never hear from progressive members of Congress like Representatives Jared Polis of Colorado, Donna Edwards of Maryland, and Raul Grijalva of Arizona—all three of whom are “passionately opposed to [the president’s] military approach to Afghanistan and want a serious debate over the implications of Obama’s strategy.”

Partly because of the gigantic right-wing investment in conservative Washington think tanks over the last forty years, right-wing pundits are much more deeply embedded within the Washington media establishment than their liberal counterparts. As a result, the utterly discredited positions of the right, on everything from terrorism to immigration, continue to attract a disproportionate amount of attention on every important television network—except, of course, for MSNBC.

Above the Fold: The Speech Heard 'Round the World

Obama’s message to Cairo focuses on our common humanity

“America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

“I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

                                                                    —Barack Hussein Obama, Cairo, June 4, 2009

 

President Obama delivered the greatest speech of his presidency in Egypt yesterday, the best one he has given since he rescued his presidential campaign last year, by dissecting the issues of race which have fractured America since its founding.

A large part of the power of both speeches lies in Obama’s willingness to articulate facts that have previously been treated as taboos, such as America’s role “in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government,” which he mentioned in Cairo yesterday.  The president also made a revolutionary pledge to obliterate the difference between America’s public stands and its private proddings:

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

What were seen as his greatest liabilities when Obama was a candidate—a Muslim father, Muslim schooling in Indonesia, and the middle name of “Hussein”—now clearly give him the chance to be the most credible leader of the free world America has ever placed in the White House.

The speech was broadcast simultaneously around the world (only Iran tried to jam satellite transmission of it), and in Pakistan it was seen live with Urdu subtitles on TV screens throughout the country. By mid-afternoon Friday, it was available on the White House Web site in Arabic, Chinese, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. (Translations into Dari, Hebrew, and Malay are, as of this writing, still ‘in progress’; oddly, currently not included among the fourteen language options is a Spanish version.)

American journalists tended to focus on whatever there was in the speech that made right-wing Israelis unhappy, including this refreshingly forthright declaration: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”   But around the world the speech was recognized as an extraordinary effort to extract the humanity from three of the world’s great religions, to emphasize our common values instead of our constant conflicts.

The reaction of Hamas depended entirely on where you read about it.  In The New York Times, “Ahmed Youssef, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government, criticized the speech for not going far enough on Palestinian issues. ‘He points to the right of Israel to exist, but what about the refugees and their right of return?’”

But in Le Monde, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum saw “tangible change” in the president’s speech as well as “some contradictions”: “It’s a speech that plays on feelings and is filled with civility, which makes us believe he is trying to enhance America’s image in the world.”

And on the Web site of the Arab cable news network Al Jazeera, Hamas was downright cordial towards Obama: “Ahmad Yousuf, a senior Hamas official, told Al Jazeera that Obama’s speech reminded him of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech.’ About Obama stressing on the legitimacy of Israel, he said the Palestinians must have a state of their own before being asked to recognize another. But the message that America is not a threat to the Muslim world is a good signal, he said.”

Yousuf’s comparison was utterly apt.  When Obama called upon the Palestinians to emulate American blacks because “it was not violence that won full and equal rights; it was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding,” he was of course echoing King’s commitment to Gandhi’s nonviolence.

The single best analysis FCP saw anywhere was by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. Under the headline, “Barack Obama in Cairo: the speech no other president could make,” Freedland wrote that Obama had given  “a speech that demonstrated not only his trademark eloquence but also the sheer ambition of his purpose—nothing less than bridging the divide between Islam and the west…” Freedland continued: 

…the thread that ran through every paragraph was a simple but radical idea: respect for the Arab and Muslim world.  It was there in Obama’s use of the traditional Muslim greeting, met with cheering applause: assalamu alaykum. There, too, in his quotations from “the holy Qur’an”—pronouncing the word the way his Cairo audience would pronounce it.

“I know civilisation’s debt to Islam,” he declared, before listing a Muslim record of achievement that stretched from algebra to poetry.

All of this was a world away from George W Bush, who was unable to address Muslims in a tone that was not bellicose or patronizing. If Bush had said the same words, they would have sounded phoney. But Obama had the credibility of his own life story: the Muslims in his father’s family, the childhood years in Indonesia. What had threatened to be a liability for Barack Hussein Obama in the 2008 election campaign was deployed as an asset.

But it went deeper than flattery about the great Islamic past. He showed understanding, if not always acceptance, of what one might call the Arab and Muslim narrative.”

Finally, for his peroration, Obama borrowed from three of the holiest books in the world:

“The Holy Koran tells us, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”

The Holy Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Then, with his final sentence, he appealed to the humanity which is the most admirable part of all three religions:

“The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.”

                                         

 

 

Above the Fold: The One That Got Away

How The New York Times let a Watergate lead slip through its fingers

Former New York Times editors and reporters contacted yesterday were almost uniformly flabbergasted by the news that the Washington news editor of the Times had received a huge leak about the Watergate scandal from a reporter who had gone to lunch with FBI Director L. Patrick Gray exactly two months after the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee–and then did absolutely nothing to follow it up.

The revelation of the editor’s inaction was made by the editor himself, Robert Phelps, in his newly published book, God and the Editor, My Search for Meaning at the New York Times (Syracuse University Press). Phelps’s account has been confirmed by Robert Smith, the former Times reporter who had lunch with the FBI director on August 16, 1972, the day before Smith resigned from the paper to attend Yale Law School. The date of the lunch was also confirmed by Gray’s son, Ed Gray, who found the appointment for it written in his father’s date book.

According to Smith’s account of the lunch, posted on the Web site of the American Journalism Review, the newly named FBI director

told me about a guy who burned his palm, [G. Gordon Liddy] and about [Nixon campaign dirty trickster] Donald Segretti (by name). And when he intimated over the entrée that the wrongdoing went further, I leaned back against the wall on my inside banquette and looked at him in frank astonishment.
‘The attorney general?’ I asked.
He nodded.
I paused.
‘The president?’ I asked.
He looked me in the eye without denial–or any comment. In other words, confirmation.

Smith raced back to the Washington bureau and retreated into Robert Phelps’s cubby-hole office, where Smith turned on a dictation machine and Phelps took notes on everything Patrick Gray told Smith. “ ‘Bob,’ I remember beginning. ‘This is incredible,’” Smith wrote. “And for the next half hour or so–like a jumping bean, unable to contain myself–I told him about the lunch”

After that, there is nothing but a gigantic black hole in the memory of Phelps–and everyone else who was in the Washington Bureau of the Times in 1972.

Now eighty-nine years old, Phelps writes blandly in his book, “We never developed Gray’s tips into publishable stories. Why we failed is a mystery to me. In fact, while I can still picture the debriefing, my memory is fuzzy on the crucial point of what I did with the Tape.” Phelps went on vacation to Alaska for a month soon afterwards, he writes–and he has no idea whether he ever shared the information with anyone else.

“I lead the bafflement brigade,” Phelps told FCP in a telephone interview. “I have no recollection at all; and that baffles me. It is enough to make you question your sanity, of course”

Other former Times men reacted with shock to Phelps’s account. Thirty-seven years later, no other story in journalism retains as much resonance for everyone old enough to remember Watergate–especially if you worked for the Times or The Washington Post when the story unfolded.

“I can picture Abe Rosenthal [managing editor of the Times in 1972] howling in his grave, and howling loudly,” said Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of the Times himself and one of Rosenthal’s closest friends. “Rosenthal desperately wanted to get the Watergate story. He always believed that management of the Washington Bureau at that time left an awful lot to be desired, but never to the extent that we are learning now. The new facts are truly shocking”

Rosenthal’s son, Andrew, who now heads the Times’s editorial page, said his late father’s reaction to the news “would not have been suitable for a family blog.”

The fact that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke most of the important Watergate stories in The Washington Post in 1972 remained an open wound for the fiercely competitive Rosenthal, right up until his death three years ago. It was only after Seymour Hersh began writing about Watergate for the Times in January, 1973, that the paper began catching up with the Post on the story.

Bill Kovach was brought to the Washington bureau of the Times to head up its investigative unit at the end of 1972, as it tried desperately to match the scoops of Bernstein and Woodward.

“Bob Phelps never said to me, ‘Patrick Gray might be a good guy to hook up on or anything,’” Kovach told FCP yesterday. “Phelps had a little cubby-hole office in the front of the bureau. And he said, ‘That’ll be your office; I’ll clean out my desk and I’ll turn over all my files on the investigation.’ And he never mentioned any tape, he never mentioned Bob Smith. So far as I know, nobody in the bureau and nobody in New York ever said anything to me about it. I can’t imagine how he–thirty-seven years after the fact, when he’s writing his memoirs–remembers this interview with L. Patrick Gray, and it could have been dynamite. And didn’t remember it three or four months later to tell me. Why the hell would you ask someone to run the investigative operation–and we were still trying to catch up with Watergate at the time–and not tell him that? I mean, Jesus, it’s a real surprise to me.”

When Smith went off to Yale Law School, he continued to read the Times faithfully, but he never saw any stories about what the FBI director had told him. FCP asked him why he never called any of his former colleagues to find out what had happened to his leads. “I assumed they’re working on it,” Smith told FCP, “or they’ve checked it and it’s wrong.”

Smith said, “I’ve always liked Phelps enormously and respected him enormously as an editor.” But he is as baffled as everyone else by Phelps’s apparent failure to follow up on any of the blockbuster leads Smith had given him. “He has absolutely no explanation for it–for not having spilled one syllable. I don’t understand it. This is not a person who took drugs or alcohol. He was sane, conservative, very self contained.”

Max Frankel was the Washington Bureau chief in 1972, and he admitted in his own memoirs that his bureau’s coverage of the Watergate scandal was one of his failures. “We were too sluggish even after the White House was implicated,” Frankel wrote.

So you might expect Frankel to be the most shocked of all by Phelps’s account. But Frankel told FCP that he wasn’t shocked at all.

“I wasn’t around then,” said Frankel, explaining why Phelps might not have told him immediately about the leak from the FBI Director. “I was at the Republican Convention in the period they were writing about.” However, Patrick Gray’s diary says the lunch took place on Wednesday, August 16, and the Republican Convention did not begin until the following Monday, on August 21. “If he had been at the convention, I would have been at the convention, too,” Phelps said yesterday. However, Phelps added that he had no recollection of sharing the leak with his boss at the time.

In any case, Frankel said he did not believe that the FBI Director “was leaking.”

“I don’t know what happened,” Frankel said. “I’m skeptical about the whole thing. I think he was schmoozing”

But didn’t Frankel wish that Phelps had told him what Gray had told Robert Smith over lunch?

“No,” said Frankel. “I think Bob had good news judgment and whatever it was, I doubt that it was very important.”

Informed of Frankel’s non-reaction, Smith said to FCP, “You’re joking. I’m stupefied. Does he not know now that this was important? He was running the Washington Bureau that got trounced on this story, and he went on to run The New York Times! How can he say that?”

Smith said that he had never discussed his lunch with Gray publicly because he felt bound by an implied promise of confidentiality, even after Gray’s death. Three years ago, a Hollywood producer called Smith and demanded that he tell him what he knew about Watergate at the time, but Smith said he has no idea how the Hollywood producer might have been tipped off.

“He became quite threatening,” Smith remembered; but the former reporter, now a lawyer and a mediator, refused to cooperate. Smith said he called the general counsel of The New York Times after being contacted by the Hollywood producer, and asked the Times lawyer whether he thought Smith should continue to be bound by his vow of secrecy, even after Gray’s death. “He agreed that I still was,” Smith said.

Only after he learned that Phelps was going to publish the whole story did Smith decide to write his own version of these events–in an op-ed piece that he submitted to The New York Times. Smith said he submitted the piece without contacting anyone at the paper, and he never received any response to it. Andrew Rosenthal told FCP yesterday that the op-ed page could not find any record of ever having received a piece from Smith. After failing to place it in the Times, Smith offered the piece to the American Journalism Review, which this week posted it on its website.

Four years ago, former deputy FBI Director W. Mark Felt revealed that he had been Woodward and Bernstein’s “deep throat” in the Watergate affair. But Bernstein insisted that Felt’s guidance had been no substitute for old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting–the kind the Washington Bureau of the Times proved incapable of in 1972.

“The difficulty I have with all of this is this notion of leaks,” Bernstein told FCP. “The story didn’t work that way. If you read All the President’s Men [the book Bernstein co-authored with Woodward] the point is, by and large, what Mark Felt did was, he confirmed for us information that we had gotten elsewhere. He gave us very little original information such as Pat Gray was supposedly giving to Bob Smith.”

“I can’t believe we’re still talking about this stuff,” Bernstein continued. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Schanberg Reports: Journalism At A Precipice – Google Et Al Vs. Newspapers

There have been, in recent years, some whopping negatives that temporarily diminished the credibility of the mainstream press – the most egregious of them being the failure to debunk the Bush Administration’s false intelligence that led the nation into the Iraq war.

But the threat that faces the press now has nothing to do with our professionalism or reporting skills. The dark cloud this time is the economic meltdown in the newspaper industry, which is literally strangling the reporting profession.

Computer screens connected to the internet, not newspapers, are where more and more people around the world are getting their news. And the advertising that once supported the newspapers’ biggest expense – the salaries of the reporters and editors necessary to produce professional, reliable information – has also migrated to the Internet. So newsrooms have been shrinking at a hastening pace, as more and more staffers have to be laid off. A number of papers have already folded, while others have gone into bankruptcy proceedings. The staff cuts across the country are so numerous that they are now almost daily news stories themselves.

The bitter paradox of this sea-change is that the news stories that appear on the Internet now are still coming from the same beleaguered newspapers. But not a penny is paid to the papers. The looters simply “aggregate” the news stories by linking to the papers’ own websites. “Aggregation” is the new-age euphemism for grand theft.

Isn’t this illegal? I think so. But the papers were slow to band together and go to court to defend their copyrighted material. They seemed to give up the ghost, accept the looting and begin groping for a new “business model” to replace the lost advertising revenue. As I write this article, with the situation deteriorating, there are some stirrings in the print world to coalesce, get mad and go after the looters. It’s the only way to bring about some fairness, since the “aggregators” are still insisting that their free ride is completely legal.

The biggest violator is Google, the multi-billion-dollar information gatherer and dispenser that sits atop the Internet business world, its coffers over-flowing despite the tanked national economy. As the saying goes, the Google slickers have been laughing all the way to the bank.

And there are a myriad of smaller Internet news and commentary sites doing exactly the same thing.

A leading example is the Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington, a smart, ambitious person on the move, has created a successful website whose advertising supports the comfortable lives of herself and her financial partners. The Huffington Post presents a daily smorgasbord of stolen stories and the blogging rants of Arianna’s wide collection of celebrities and friends who don’t mind not being paid as long as their names and faces are out there.

Arianna has only a handful of paid employees – mostly the worker-bees and techies who do the aggregating and tend to the digital mechanics. After a barrage of criticism that she initially ignored, Arianna recently announced that she plans to spend nearly two million dollars to build an investigative team that will produce original work. It’s about time, Arianna. Let’s see what it produces.

Tina Brown is another, but somewhat different, example. Late last year, the writer and magazine editor started up a competitive news website called the Daily Beast. Though she, too, appropriates stories she also immediately began publishing and paying for original content. Kudos to her – in the hope that she will eventually pay for her purloined content as well.

Those who contend that the Internet will fill whatever gaps are left by the demise of newspapers have been, however, unable to answer the key question: If newspapers become faded relics, who will do the serious investigative journalism that holds government and other power centers accountable? That kind of journalism – so critical to a democracy – has been diminished by the newspaper layoffs, and the Internet has shown little interest in taking on this challenge. Investigative stories are labor intensive. They often take several months or more for a duo or team of reporters to produce. In short, deep-digging journalism is costly. And newspapers have always done the bulk of it.

The cheerleaders for Google and its free-loading sister souls (who include Drudge and Yahoo) say that the Internet was invented to make all information free. Some of these acolytes talk as if they’re rooting for newspapers and their product to die off entirely. But if newspapers disappear and the Google world continues to refuse to do its own original reporting, where will serious journalism come from? Hollywood? Lobbyists? Derivative brokers?

One of Google’s most active cheerleaders is Jeff Jarvis, who teaches at the CUNY Journalism school, does consulting and maintains a blog called “Buzz Machine.”

In early April, Jarvis composed and posted on “Buzz Machine” the “get-lost” speech that he thought the Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, should deliver bluntly to the nation’s newspaper publishers. The latter were then gathered in San Diego at the annual meeting of the Associated Press, a news service co-operative formed by newspapers in 1846.

The running theme of Jarvis’s proposed speech, addressed to the publishers and repeated several times, was: “You blew it.” The language was hostile, nasty and dismissive.

Here are some samples: Jarvis says, referring to the publishers: “They’re preaching up at their own choir loft with angry, self-righteous fire and brimstone about their plight…Well, gentlemen –and that’s pretty much all I see before me: angry, old, white men – you have no right to anger. Instead, you are the proper objects of anger. The public should be angry with you for the poor stewardship you have exercised over the press and its service to society….Yesterday, you delivered a foot-stomping little hissy fit over Google and aggregators. How dare they link to you and not pay you?….Google and aggregators and bloggers are bringing value to you; they should be charging you for the value they bring. You should rise up today and give Mr. Schmidt a big thank you for not charging you. But you won’t, because you’ve refused to understand this new business reality. You blew it.”

Schmidt, who spoke to the publishers on April 7, didn’t deliver the ugly Jarvis speech, but he didn’t offer any olive branches either. His address was narcissistic and self-serving. He told the newspapermen they should reinvent their businesses to be more like Google and the aggregators. He gave no ground on his use of newspaper product without paying.

On the day before Schmidt’s speech, William Dean Singleton, chairman of the Associated Press, had addressed the publishers’ meeting and announced that his news service and its member newspapers (which include the nation’s largest papers) would henceforth take legal action against websites that took the work of news organizations without first gaining permission and agreeing to share revenue with them.

“We can no longer stand by,” said Singleton, “and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.” (The Singleton speech was what Jarvis had labeled “a foot-stomping little hissy fit”)

So, belatedly, the inevitable legal clash has begun.

I hope the story rustlers are made to stop stealing. They give rustling a bad name. But it’s hardly a sure thing.

Google bases the legality of its behavior on something called the “fair use” doctrine that evolved in copyright cases over the years. But this doctrine is now just as antiquated as the typewriter, linotype machines and carbon paper that used to put out newspapers. Just as newspapers have had to revamp themselves because of the new electronics that have utterly transformed the delivery of information, so too must the “fair use” practice be brought up to date to fit today’s technological realities. “Fair Use” allowed someone to use a few paragraphs of someone else’s published work. Now Google and the other appropriators give you a link to the entire text while keeping all the advertising income for themselves.

Still, some key newspaper executives seem hesitant about mounting a serious fight to create a fairer playing field. The other day, Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, chose to disagree with Robert Thompson, his counterpart at The Wall Street Journal, who had said publicly that Google and other aggregators function like “parasites or tech tapeworms.”

According to The Observer, where Keller’s remarks appeared, the Times editor said instead, “Google is one of those companies that we generally refer to as frenemies,” – which he defined as a force that while self-interested was at the same time an “ally” of newspapers. “On balance,” he said,“ they’re driving a lot of traffic to us. I don’t think most of what Google does in that regard could be described as parasitism or piracy.” But what about the other things that Google does that do seem ever-so-much like piracy?

Keller didn’t go near that murky lagoon. He said that The Times was rather pursuing a “carrot approach” in which the paper and Google would collaborate to improve the paper’s web advertising revenue. The idea is to imbed the ads in the text of the articles and thus increase the audience when someone links to the articles from other sites.

While the two sides visibly strain to make nice in public, I can’t help thinking that until the Times gets serious in this struggle, only one side will be carrying a big stick.

A version of this piece was first published in The Silurian News.

FCP November 2008 - May 2009

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