Bloomberg.org’s Amity Shlaes recently grouped me together with two other “left-leaning” bloggers in an article about the nefarious world of the Internets. In this murky underworld, faceless bloggers exist only to baselessly attack innocent politicians post-election as part of a dastardly plan to undermine “gentlemanly” newspapers. My qualms with Shlaes article are threefold, but I first want to offer a little background about the article and my initial response.
I am “Exhibit B” in Shlaes’s example. “Exhibit A” is Talking Point Memo’s Eric Kleefeld, and “Exhibit C” is Think Progress’s Matthew Yglesias. In a truly bizarre turn, Shlaes links to a video I cross-posted from TPM of Bobby Jindal retelling the fictitious encounter he had with Sheriff Lee in post-Katrina New Orleans. She cites the headline I gave the post: “Bobby Jindal: Chronically Stupid.” Other than the title, that blog post came entirely from TPM. So Shlaes actually presents TPM as two of three examples of the supposedly dishonest bloggers trolling the Internet.
I am sort of disappointed that Shlaes linked to one of my cross-posted blogs because she would no doubt also enjoy my original Conservative-bashing blogs where I write that Peggy Noonan is a terrible columnist, who “practically shouts that she wants a penis inside of her” at the slightest hint of an impending conflict, Davis Brooks is “elite and clueless”, and that Douglas Feith (among other former Bush officials) are war criminals. Shlaes failed to find these other, better examples of “character assassination” either because the Jindal post really pissed her off, and she was seized by the desire to use it as example of nutty bloggers gone wild, or she was too lazy to properly search my blog for an original work. The blog post is clearly marked “Talking Points Memo” with a link to the original work at the top of the page, so I have to assume the latter is true.
I just received this e-mail from Eileen Clancy, an activist and member of the watchdog group, I-Witness.
We have begun the process of filing suit regarding our treatment at the hands of law enforcement in St. Paul during the RNC. A press release is attached.
Six months after the RNC, the government has charged only 15 percent of the 800 people the police arrested in that period. On Friday, the St. Paul City Attorney announced that he would not prosecute 323 people arrested in a single round-up on the final night of the convention.
Since most potential RNC litigants are approaching the 180-day statutory deadline for giving notice to municipalities in Minnesota, we should have a better sense of the scope of the civil lawsuits contemplated in relation to the RNC fairly soon.
Eileen and I-Witness were routinely harassed at the Republican National Convention (RNC.) By the way, this is the same RNC during which Amy Goodman was violently arrested. During the RNC (and after some initial harassment from local police, including the suspicious mass arrest and release of I-Witness,) I received an urgent email from Clancy.
The police were surrounding her office…again.
Police have arrived at our office in St. Paul. They say that they have
received reports of hostages barricaded in the building. We are behind a
locked door. Lawyers are outside dealing with them.
That was the second encounter I-Witness had with police at the RNC. The first encounter occurred on August 30 when seven members were preemptively detained at the house where the group was staying. The police were basically harassing the protest group, who are peaceful, and whose only intent was to videotape the protests.
Such was the general chaos of the RNC. I was routinely e-mailed by journalists, who were fairly certain of their impending arrest.
I had my own run-in with St. Paul’s police state when I was trying to gather information about Amy Goodman’s arrest for Huffington Post.
Something called the Joint Information Center was set up to monitor all of the hubub that occurs when — ya’ know — a city jails hundreds of activists exercising their right to freedom of speech and protest. My name and press credentials were taken down a few times by various ominous, anonymous foot soldiers.
These are the notes I took during the investigation. I was making inquiries as to the whereabout of Amy Goodman, and the two Democracy Now producers (Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar) with whom she was arrested.
11:00PM EST: The Ramsey County Jail redirected me to something called the “Joint Information Center.” Under a little pressure, the operator finally revealed his name (Sgt. William Palmer,) though he asked for my name (had me spell it twice) and asked for my phone number in exchange. Friendly stuff.
Palmer informed me that Kouddous and Salazar will be held in jail overnight until they are taken to court tomorrow. No one knows what they are being charged with, but Palmer attributes their arrest to “suspicious behavior.”
Kouddous and Salazar are still being held without any formal charges.
11:22PM: Apparently, one of the job qualifications for working at the JIC (Joint Information Center) is that you must have the scariest voice in the world. I spoke with a Coast Guard named Chief Bauman, who again took down my information: name, phone number, website I write for, etc. He had me spell my name twice and repeat my phone number three times.
The JIC seems to exist less to help media representatives and more to intimidate the hell out of them. For instance, I wondered aloud why I couldn’t directly speak to a media representative and first had to pass through Bauman’s filter. Bauman explained he was a conduit between reporter and information.
I then asked Bauman why the JIC was staffed with police officers and Coast Guards seemingly naive to the ways of media. He informed me that he was working at the JIC for “security purposes.” I laughed and said, “Yeah, I see there’s a lot of security at the RNC.” He didn’t laugh.
Bauman said he didn’t know what court Kouddous and Salazar are being taken to in the morning. He said he would get back to me.
This is the state of modern protest. You can protest, but only if you have a permit, you stand back 500 feet from the target of your dispute, you stay behind the barbed wires, and only use a bullhorn if you have another permit. It’s neutered dissent. And even if you obey all their little rules, you get bullied and harassed like Eileen Clancy and Amy Goodman.
And Clancy and Goodman weren’t even protesting. One is a representative of a watchdog group, and the other is a highly respected journalist. Imagine what they do to the poor kids and students, who are usually doing nothing more than operating inside the guidelines of the law, when the cops pick them up off the street.
If the dull tool of bureaucracy hasn’t chipped away enough from America’s monument to civil disobedience, the watchful Sauron-esque eye of the government is threatening to blast it into smithereens. As I wrote over at Huffpost, last year’s DNC and RNC were both laboratories for the newest, most high-tech toys for the intelligence community. Denver dropped $50 million on the police state project.
In an interview with Democracy Now, Erin Rosa, a reporter for the Colorado Independent, explained that Denver seemed to be seriously bracing for a stand-off between the police and protesters [during the DNC], to the point where the Colorado Army National Guard constructed a makeshift barracks in the far east region of the city:
They’re not saying what the purpose is for nearly 400 people to be stationed in this private university. They’re actually going to be stationed at Johnson & Wales University in the eastern region of the city, you know, more than 400 troops in that one area. They rented more than 500 rooms across the city. And they’re not saying what the purpose will be for, but they have confirmed that it will be all Colorado National Guard personnel.
So while Denver would be immersed in a total police state, what sort of behavior could individuals expect from their new intelligence and censorship overlords? In the same interview, Mike German, National Security Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, warned protesters that new guidelines for what constitutes suspicious terrorist-like activity may include some pretty basic elements of protesting:
The Los Angeles Police Department issued an order compelling their officers to report criminal and non-criminal suspicious behavior that can be indicative of terrorism, and they listed sixty-five behaviors…One of the precursor behaviors to terrorism that’s identified in the order is taking video. And we put in our report a couple of instances where people taking video were stopped by police officers simply for taking pictures or video. And in some cases, particularly where they’re taking photographs or video of police, it actually resulted in arrests.
I argued this would put quite a damper on many grassroots responses to this kind of intelligence/police state bullying, particularly I-Witness, a group created to protect citizens from the attacks of overzealous police authorities. Clancy, the founder of I-Witness Video, explained that it’s important to keep a video log of every protest (complete with date and time displayed clearly on the camera) should the footage be needed as evidence in later court hearings.
Clancy also explained that the Deputy Chief of Operations in Denver testified before the House subcommittee that they see the DNC fusion center as an opportunity to make permanent a “super fusion center.” Clancy said the Denver crew is going to take their government allocated $50 million and “play with their new toys,” and they are going to build a permanent and more powerful surveillance apparatus for Colorado.
At the time, Clancy offered these words of wisdom to future generations of activists:
“The federal government is trying to criminalize video because it has tremendous power to expose bad acts by the police and federal agents. The best way for people to document police misconduct is to band together in video activist groups such as I-Witness Video, work in pairs or affinity groups, protect their footage by making back-up copies, publish their work in the media or on the Internet, and vigorously challenge any arrests, detentions and police orders to erase photos or videotapes. The First Amendment offers tremendous protection to people videotaping the police at work, but we must fight to maintain our right to shoot.”
Now it’s time to see if Eileen Clancy and the members of I-Witness will receive some delayed justice, and if the police and government officials in St. Paul will acknowledge any wrong-doing.
Please remind Mr. Coleman and Mr. Pawlenty that the behavior of law officials was (at best) overzealous, and at worst, totally fascist and unnecessary:
Contact Mayor Chris Coleman at: 651-266-8510 or e-mail him.
Governor Tim Pawlenty can be reached at: (651) 296-3391 or e-mailed at email@example.com.
I-Witness press release: First Step in RNC Lawsuits Taken.
AND so on the 29th day of his presidency, Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill. But the earth did not move. The Dow Jones fell almost 300 points. G.M. and Chrysler together asked taxpayers for another $21.6 billion and announcedanother 50,000 layoffs. The latest alleged mini-Madoff, R. Allen Stanford, was accused of an $8 billion fraud with 50,000 victims.
No one knows, of course, but a bigger question may be whether we really want to know. One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly “changed everything,” slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obama’s toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door.
This phenomenon could be seen in two TV exposés of the mortgage crisis broadcast on the eve of the stimulus signing. On Sunday, “60 Minutes” focused on the tawdry lending practices of Golden West Financial, built by Herb and Marion Sandler. On Monday, the CNBC documentary “House of Cards” served up another tranche of the subprime culture, typified by the now defunct company Quick Loan Funding and its huckster-in-chief, Daniel Sadek. Both reports were superbly done, but both could have been reruns.
The Sandlers and Sadek have been recurrently whipped at length in print and on television, as far back as 2007 in Sadek’s case (by Bloomberg); the Sandlers were even vilified in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch last October. But still the larger message may not be entirely sinking in. “House of Cards” was littered with come-on commercials, including one hawking “risk-free” foreign-currency trading — yet another variation on Quick Loan Funding, promising credulous Americans something for nothing.
This cultural pattern of denial is hardly limited to the economic crisis. Anyone with eyes could have seen that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire resembled Macy’s parade balloons in their 1998 home-run derby, but it took years for many fans (not to mention Major League Baseball) to accept the sorry truth. It wasn’t until the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plame saga caught fire in summer 2003, months after “Mission Accomplished,” that we began to confront the reality that we had gone to war in Iraq over imaginary W.M.D. Weapons inspectors and even some journalists (especially at Knight-Ridder newspapers) had been telling us exactly that for almost a year.
The writer Mark Danner, who early on chronicled the Bush administration’s practice of torture for The New York Review of Books, reminded me last week that that story first began to emerge in December 2002. That’s when The Washington Post reported on the “stress and duress” tactics used to interrogate terrorism suspects. But while similar reports followed, the notion that torture was official American policy didn’t start to sink in until after the Abu Ghraib photos emerged in April 2004. Torture wasn’t routinely called “torture” in Beltway debate until late 2005, when John McCain began to press for legislation banning it.
Steroids, torture, lies from the White House, civil war in Iraq, even recession: that’s just a partial glossary of the bad-news vocabulary that some of the country, sometimes in tandem with a passive news media, resisted for months on end before bowing to the obvious or the inevitable. “The needle,” as Danner put it, gets “stuck in the groove.”
For all the gloomy headlines we’ve absorbed since the fall, we still can’t quite accept the full depth of our economic abyss either. Nicole Gelinas, a financial analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, sees denial at play over a wide swath of America, reaching from the loftiest economic strata of Wall Street to the foreclosure-decimated boom developments in the Sun Belt.
When we spoke last week, she talked of would-be bankers who, upon graduating, plan “to travel in Asia and teach English for a year” and then pick up where they left off. Such graduates are dreaming, Gelinas says, because the over-the-top Wall Street money culture of the credit bubble isn’t coming back for a very long time, if ever. As she observes, it took decades after the Great Depression — until the 1980s — for Wall Street to fully reclaim its old swagger. Not until then was there “a new group of people without massive psychological scarring” from the 1929 crash.
In states like Nevada, Florida and Arizona, Gelinas sees “huge neighborhoods that will become ghettos” as half their populations lose or abandon their homes, with an attendant collapse of public services and social order. “It will be like after Katrina,” she says, “but it’s no longer just the Lower Ninth Ward’s problem.” Writing in the current issue of The Atlantic, the urban theorist Richard Florida suggests we could be seeing “the end of a whole way of life.” The link between the American dream and home ownership, fostered by years of bipartisan public policy, may be irreparably broken.
Pity our new president. As he rolls out one recovery package after another, he can’t know for sure what will work. If he tells the whole story of what might be around the corner, he risks instilling fear itself among Americans who are already panicked. (Half the country, according to a new Associated Press poll, now fears unemployment.) But if the president airbrushes the picture too much, the country could be as angry about ensuing calamities as it was when the Bush administration’s repeated assertion of “success” in Iraq proved a sham. Managing America’s future shock is a task that will call for every last ounce of Obama’s brains, temperament and oratorical gifts.
The difficulty of walking this fine line can be seen in the drama surrounding the latest forbidden word to creep around the shadows for months before finally leaping into the open: nationalization. Until he started hedging a little last weekend, the president has pointedly said that nationalizing banks, while fine for Sweden, wouldn’t do in America, with its “different” (i.e., non-socialistic) culture and traditions. But the word nationalization, once mostly whispered by liberal economists, is now even being tossed around by Lindsey Graham and Alan Greenspan. It’s a clear indication that no one has a better idea.
The Obama White House may come up with euphemisms for nationalization (temporary receivership, anyone?). But whatever it’s called, what will it mean? The reason why the White House has been punting on the new installment of the bank rescue is not that the much-maligned Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is incapable of getting his act together. What’s slowing the works are the huge political questions at stake, many of them with consequences potentially as toxic as the banks’ assets.
Will Obama concede aloud that some of our “too big to fail” banks have, in essence, already failed? If so, what will he do about it? What will it cost? And, most important, who will pay? No one knows the sum of the American banks’ losses, but the economist Nouriel Roubini, who has gotten much right about this crash, puts it at $1.8 trillion. That doesn’t count any defaults still to come on what had been considered “good” mortgages and myriad other debt, whether from auto loans or credit cards.
Americans are right to wonder why there has been scant punishment for the management and boards of bailed-out banks that recklessly sliced and diced all this debt into worthless gambling chips. They are also right to wonder why there is still little transparency in how TARP funds have been spent by these teetering institutions. If a CNBC commentator can stir up a populist dust storm by ranting that Obama’s new mortgage program (priced at $75 billion to $275 billion) is “promoting bad behavior,” imagine the tornado that would greet an even bigger bank bailout on top of the $700 billion already down the TARP drain.
Nationalization would likely mean wiping out the big banks’ managements and shareholders. It’s because that reckoning has mostly been avoided so far that those bankers may be the Americans in the greatest denial of all. Wall Street’s last barons still seem to believe that they can hang on to their old culture by scuttling corporate jets, rejecting bonuses or sounding contrite in public. Ask the former Citigroup wise man Robert Rubin how that strategy worked out.
We are now waiting to learn if Obama’s economic team, much of it drawn from the Wonderful World of Citi and Goldman Sachs, will have the will to make its own former cohort face the truth. But at a certain point, as in every other turn of our culture of denial, outside events will force the recognition of harsh realities. Nationalization, unmentionable only yesterday, has entered common usage not least because an even scarier word — depression — is next on America’s list to avoid.
Drunken Politics’ interview with Johann Hari will air next week.
Last week, I wrote an article defending free speech for everyone — and in response there have been riots, death threats, and the arrest of an editor who published the article.
Here’s how it happened. My column reported on a startling development at the United Nations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has always had the job of investigating governments that forcibly take the fundamental human right to free speech from their citizens with violence. But in the past year, a coalition of religious fundamentalist states have successfully fought to change her job description. Now, she has to report on “abuses of free expression” including “defamation of religions and prophets.” Instead of defending free speech, she must now oppose it.
I argued this was a symbol of how religious fundamentalists — of all stripes — have been progressively stripping away the right to freely discuss their faiths. They claim religious ideas are unique and cannot be discussed freely; instead, they must be “respected” — by which they mean unchallenged. So now, whenever anyone on the UN Human Rights Council tries to discuss the stoning of “adulterous” women, the hanging of gay people, or the marrying off of ten year old girls to grandfathers, they are silenced by the chair on the grounds these are “religious” issues, and it is “offensive” to talk about them.
This trend is not confined to the UN. It has spread deep into democratic countries. Whenever I have reported on immoral acts by religious fanatics — Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim — I am accused of “prejudice”, and I am not alone. But my only “prejudice” is in favor of individuals being able to choose to live their lives, their way, without intimidation. That means choosing religion, or rejecting it, as they wish, after hearing an honest, open argument.
A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas; it is not surrounded by an electric fence through which none of us can pass.
That’s why I wrote: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice…. When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”
An Indian newspaper called The Statesman — one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country — thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested — or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was “prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet” and I should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol… He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”
Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged — in the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech — with “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings”. I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.
What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth — especially in a democracy of a billion people rivven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.
I did not write a sectarian attack on any particular religion of the kind that could lead to a rerun of India’s hellish anti-Muslim or anti-Sikh pogroms, but rather a principled critique of all religions who try to forcibly silence their critics. The right to free speech I am defending protects Muslims as much as everyone else. I passionately support their right to say anything they want — as long as I too have the right to respond.
It’s worth going through the arguments put forward by the rioting fundamentalists, because they will keep recurring in the twenty-first century as secularism is assaulted again and again. They said I had upset “the harmony” of India, and it could only be restored by my arrest. But this is a lop-sided vision of “harmony”. It would mean that religious fundamentalists are free to say whatever they want — and the rest of us have to shut up and agree.
The protesters said I deliberately set out to “offend” them, and I am supposed to say that, no, no offense was intended. But the honest truth is more complicated. Offending fundamentalists isn’t my goal — but if it is an inevitable side-effect of defending human rights, so be it. If fanatics who believe Muslim women should be imprisoned in their homes and gay people should be killed are insulted by my arguments, I don’t resile from it. Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone.
You do not have a right to be ring-fenced from offense. Every day, I am offended — not least by ancient religious texts filled with hate-speech. But I am glad, because I know that the price of taking offense is that I can give it too, if that is where the facts lead me. But again, the protesters propose a lop-sided world. They do not propose to stop voicing their own heinously offensive views about women’s rights or homosexuality, but we have to shut up and take it — or we are the ones being “insulting.”
It’s also worth going through the arguments of the Western defenders of these protesters, because they too aren’t going away. Already I have had e-mails and bloggers saying I was “asking for it” by writing a “needlessly provocative” article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?
The argument that I was “asking for it” seems a little like saying a woman wearing a short skirt is “asking” to be raped. Or, as Salman Rushdie wrote when he received far, far worse threats simply for writing a novel (and a masterpiece at that): “When Osip Mandelstam wrote his poem against Stalin, did he ‘know what he was doing’ and so deserve his death? When the students filled Tiananmen Square to ask for freedom, were they not also, and knowingly, asking for the murderous repression that resulted? When Terry Waite was taken hostage, hadn’t he been ‘asking for it’?” When fanatics threaten violence against people who simply use words, you should not blame the victim.
These events are also a reminder of why it is so important to try to let the oxygen of rationality into religious debates — and introduce doubt. Voltaire — one of the great anti-clericalists — said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” If you can be made to believe the absurd notion that an invisible deity dictated The Eternal Unchanging Truth to a specific person at a specific time in history and anyone who questions this is Evil, then you can easily be made to demand the death of journalists and free women and homosexuals who question that Truth. But if they have a moment of doubt — if there is a single nagging question at the back of their minds — then they are more likely to hesitate. That’s why these ideas must be challenged at their core, using words and reason.
But the fundamentalists are determined not to allow those rational ideas to be heard — because at some level they know they will persuade for many people, especially children and teenagers in the slow process of being indoctrinated.
If, after all the discussion and all the facts about how contradictory and periodically vile their ‘holy’ texts are, religious people still choose fanatical faith, I passionately defend their right to articulate it. Free speech is for the stupid and the wicked and the wrong — whether it is fanatics or the racist Geert Wilders — just as much as for the rational and the right. All I say is that they do not have the right to force it on other people or silence the other side. In this respect, Wilders resembles the Islamists he professes to despise: he wants to ban the Koran. Fine. Let him make his argument. He discredits himself by speaking such ugly nonsense.
The solution to the problems of free speech — that sometimes people will say terrible things — are always and irreducibly more free speech. If you don’t like what a person says, argue back. Make a better case. Persuade people. The best way to discredit a bad argument is to let people hear it. I recently interviewed the pseudo-historian David Irving, and simply quoting his crazy arguments did far more harm to him than any Austrian jail sentence for Holocaust Denial.
Please do not imagine that if you defend these rioters, you are defending ordinary Muslims. If we allow fanatics to silence all questioning voices, the primary victims today will be Muslim women,Muslim gay people, and the many good and honourable Muslim men who support them. Imagine what Europe would look like now if everybody who offered dissenting thoughts about Christianity in the seventeenth century and since was intimidated into silence by the mobs and tyrants who wanted to preserve the most literalist and fanatical readings of the Bible. Imagine how women and gay people would live.
You can see this if you compare my experience to that of journalists living under religious-Islamist regimes. Because generations of people sought to create a secular space, when I went to the police, they offered total protection. When they go to the police, they are handed over to the fanatics — or charged for their “crimes.” They are people like Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the young Afghan journalism student who was sentenced to death for downloading a report on women’s rights. They are people like the staff of Zanan, one of Iran’s leading reform-minded women’s magazines, who have been told they will be jailed if they carry on publishing. They are people like the 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman who has been seized, jailed and tortured in Egypt for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah law.
It would be a betrayal of them — and the tens of thousands of journalists like them – to apologize for what I wrote. Yes, if we speak out now, there will be turbulence and threats, and some people may get hurt. But if we fall silent — if we leave the basic human values of free speech, feminism and gay rights undefended in the face of violent religious mobs — then many, many more people will be hurt in the long term. Today, we have to use our right to criticise religion — or lose it.
If you are appalled by the erosion of secularism across the world and want to do something about it, there are a number of organizations you can join, volunteer for or donate to.
Some good places to start are the National Secular Society, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, or – if you want the money to go specifically to work in India – theInternational Humanist and Ethical Union. (Mark your donation as for their India branch.)
Even donating a few hours or a few pounds can really make a difference to defending people subject to religious oppression – by providing them with legal help, education materials, and lobbying for changes in the law.
An essential source of news for secularists is the terrific website Butterflies and Wheels.
Sticking with the theme of shouting whatever crazy crap pops into his giant Irish head, today Chris Matthews enlightened us all by explaining journalists can’t be bloggers, and bloggers contribute nothing to journalism.
The declaration came after NY Daily News reporter Liz Benjamin cited blogs regarding the possible “affair question” with regard to Caroline Kennedy’s withdrawal from consideration for the New York Senate seat.
Matthews cut her off: “Let’s stick to journalism. I don’t do that here. If it’s just blogging let’s drop it.”
Riiiight. Apparently the law and journalism degrees are so darn heavy that graduates can’t possibly juggle their qualifications and their keyboards, rendering them physically incapable of being learned AND bloggers. Someone should really tell the thousands of qualified doctors, lawyers, civil rights workers, and authors that they are literally defying the will of nature by posting their thoughtful analyses online.
After all, Chris Matthews knows real journalism. The man has always been a professional whether he’s screaming at his producers that “We’re all reacting here and we’re putting on shit, we have nothing going,” or he’s thoughtfully analyzing the Middle East situation: “We are not going to fight it out with Iran for the next thirty years to see who the big shit…” Or who could forget his nuanced critique of geo-political post-World War II demographics? “I’m so sick of Southern guys with ranches running this country…I want a guy to run for president who doesn’t have a fucking ranch…”
I can taste the Pulitzer. To be fair, bloggers do have a habit of posting speculative gossip, which is surely why Chris Matthews dismissed them as a serious source of news. Matthews has set such a high standard of journalistic integrity that it’s no wonder he so zealously dismisses non-Washington insiders as a source of meaningful journalism. Bloggers can be gossipy and shallow.
I gave Val Kilmer a ride home last night. I met—let’s go through the names of who I met, John Cusack. I love—I always wanted to meet him. He said he always wanted to meet me. That’s kind of cool. And Ed Harris. And Robert De Niro, I met him last night.
— Chris Matthews, post-inaugural party-hopping
Bloggers can make unfair assumptions and be especially crude, sexist, and indecent:
“[T]he reason (Hillary Clinton’s) a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around. That’s how she got to be senator from New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn’t win there on her merit. She won because everybody felt, ‘My God, this woman stood up under humiliation,’ right? That’s what happened.”
— Chris Matthews, on Hillary Clinton
Bloggers can be partisan and regurgitate propaganda thoughtlessly:
“It’s part of reporting this case, this election, the feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama’s speech. My, I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don’t have that too often.”
— Chris Matthews, post-Obamania
Bloggers can be blowhards, and social ladder climbers, quick to anger, and incapable of calm, thoughtful analysis:
Chris: What did Chamberlain do, just tell me what he did, Kevin? What did Chamberlain do that you didn’t like?
Kevin: What, what Chamberlain did? <confused> What, what, the President was talking about, you just said the President was talking about Barack. Look…
Chris: You’re making a reference to the days before our involvement in WWII. When the war in Europe began. I want you to tell me as an expert, what did Chamberlain do wrong.
Kevin: You’re not going to box me in here, Chris. President Bush was making that. I’m glad, I’m glad.
Chris: You don’t know, do you? You don’t know what Neville Chamberlain did
Kevin: Yeah, he was an appeaser, Chris….
Chris: You are BS’ing me… You don’t know what you’re talking about.
— Chris Matthews, screaming at right wing blogger, Kevin James
I guess we’ll just have to take back that Polk Award from Joshua Micah Marshall, editor and publisher of the widely read political blog, Talking Points Memo. I’m sure Josh will understand, even though the Polk award is a major journalism award, and Talking Points Memo has been hailed for “(leading) the news media in coverage of the politically motivated dismissals of United States attorneys across the country.” You know, that little story about the attorney firings that the mainstream media only started covering because those crazy bloggers kept harping on it.
Millions of international bloggers will also have to close up shop, even though they are oftentimes the only windows into their societies, especially if the press is controlled by the government. Sorry, crew, Chris Matthews says you’re not real journalists and shouldn’t be taken seriously. That means you, Yoani Sanchez, winner of Spain’s coveted Ortega and Gasset prizes for digital journalism, and Nasim Fekrat, winner of ISF’s award for freedom of expression.
Fold the laptops, people! Chris Matthews fears change!
MOSCOW — A prominent Russian lawyer who spent the better part of a decade pursuing contentious human rights and social justice cases was killed on Monday in a brazen daylight assassination in central Moscow, officials said.
The lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, had just left a news conference where he announced that he would continue to fight against the early release from jail of Yuri D. Budanov, a former Russian tank commander imprisoned for murdering a young Chechen woman.
Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old journalist who was with Mr. Markelov, was also killed, according to a spokeswoman for a newspaper where she worked as a freelancer, Novaya Gazeta, which is highly critical of the government. The two were shot.
Officials said they believed that Mr. Markelov, 34, was the primary target, having brought cases against the Russian military, Chechen warlords and murderous neo-fascists. With a laundry list of his potential enemies, authorities refrained from naming any suspects.
“Investigators are looking into various theories, including that the murder was linked to the victim’s professional activities,” Vladimir I. Markin, a spokesman for the investigative wing of the Prosecutor General’s Office, said of Mr. Markelov.
The murder bore the characteristics of a contract killing, a not-uncommon phenomenon in Russia. Even so, the audacity of Mr. Markelov’s murder surprised some commentators.
“Even when organized crime in the 1990s was rampant, such a killing would have been considered bold and horrific,” said a correspondent from Vesti television.
Mr. Markelov, who was the director of the Rule of Law Institute, a civil liberties group, gained prominence recently representing the family of Elza Kungayeva. She was an 18-year-old Chechen whom Mr. Budanov, the former tank commander, admitted strangling in his quarters in March 2000, just as the second post-Soviet war in Chechnya was beginning to rage.
Mr. Budanov was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was given early parole for good behavior.
Mr. Markelov, at the news conference just before his death, told reporters that he might file an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against the early release of Mr. Budanov, who was a decorated colonel of the Russian Army before he was stripped of his rank. In an interview last week with The New York Times, Mr. Markelov said he might also file a lawsuit against the administration of the prison that released Mr. Budanov last Thursday.
The decision to free Mr. Budanov set off street protests and outraged some human rights groups and Chechen officials. It reignited long-simmering tensions years after a decade of intermittent war in Chechnya, a southern Russian republic, was replaced by tenuous stability.
But Mr. Budanov was also revered by nationalists as a valiant fighter who helped wage a bloody but necessary war against separatist rebels in Chechnya. Some now see Mr. Markelov’s murder as revenge for his efforts against a Russian hero.
“The murder of Markelov, I consider a bold open warning by the ‘party of war’ to democratic Russia,” Nudri S. Nukhazhiev, Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, said in a statement. “Today, there are no facts or evidence of the direct participation of Budanov in this crime, but I am more than certain that it was committed by his supporters with his consent.”
Mr. Markelov phoned the father of Ms. Kungayeva, the slain teenager, a few days ago to complain that he had received death threats, the father told the Interfax news agency.
Lela Khamzayeva, another lawyer for Ms. Kungayeva’s family, was adamant, however, that the killing of Mr. Markelov could not be linked to his connection with Mr. Budanov, because his role during the actual proceedings against the former colonel was, as she put it, “insignificant.”
“If someone is trying to link this murder with Markelov’s participation in the Budanov case, well, that’s just ridiculous,” she said.
Given Mr. Markelov’s propensity for challenging the Russian authorities and others known to settle scores violently, the list of potential suspects is lengthy.
He worked closely with Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta and strong critic of Russia’s Chechnya policies, who was murdered in Moscow in 2006.
He often defended the interests of those, like Ms. Kungayeva, who became ensnared in the violent and often arbitrary military justice of the Chechen conflict or the tyrannical rule of Chechnya’s violence-prone leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, in the war’s aftermath.
“He handled almost every case opened as a result of the work of Anna Politkovskaya,” said Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokeswoman for Novaya Gazeta.
While he was not involved in the current trial of three men accused in the murder of Ms. Politkovskaya, Mr. Markelov did work on the case of another murdered Novaya Gazeta journalist, Igor Domnikov, who died in 2000 from wounds caused by a hammer blow to the head.
Mr. Markelov has also represented victims of neo-fascist and xenophobic violence, a phenomenon that has been expanding annually both in frequency and intensity, according to experts.
At least 10 people were killed and 9 others injured in racist attacks in Russia in the first two weeks of 2009, said Aleksandr Brod, the head of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, Interfax reported.
Ms. Baburova, the freelancer who was killed Monday, began working for Novaya Gazeta last October. She cited Mr. Markelov in her most recent article about fascist groups, published on Saturday.
In it, the lawyer criticized the authorities for their handling of a case against the leader of a violent nationalist group, who was sentenced to three years in prison for arranging the murder of a man from Tajikistan and putting video of the killing on the Internet.
With Ms. Baburova’s death, Novaya Gazeta has lost four reporters to murder or other mysterious circumstances since 2000.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Moscow, and Graham Bowley from New York.
Note from Allison: Since 1992, over 700 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka for trying to report on government activities.
Lasantha Wickramatunga was gunned down in his car last week on his way to work. According to colleagues, his attackers used an automatic pistol equipped with a silencer. After they smashed in one of his car windows, they repeatedly shot Lasantha at close range. Somehow he didn’t die on the spot. He died about three hours later in a hospital operating room. Just days after his death, his newspaper published his final editorial, showing that Lansantha may have seen what was coming.
Lasantha was a big, important, controversial name in Sri Lankan journalism. He had taken on the government–make that many of Sri Lanka’s governments–many times in the 25 years he was a journalist. He was argumentative and wrote from a distinct political position. In Sri Lanka, with its corrupt governments and its seemingly interminable Tamil secessionist war, taking a principled stance is dangerous.
But he was a committed journalist. After he was killed on January 8, his paper, The Sunday Leader, ran his last editorial–“And Then They Came For Me”–on January 11. It explains why he did what he was doing, and laid out clearly the drive that makes journalists take on the powerful. The editorial’s arguments are based inSri Lanka’s brutal political reality, but they are universal to people who follow this career everywhere. Here’s Lasantha’s lead, but follow the link for the entire piece, it’s really worth it, particularly if you do this sort of work for a living:
No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.
A death like Lasantha’s generates a lot of emotion, and testimonials and anguished e-mail messages are flying back and forth. A colleague from Asiaweek magazine, Arjuna Ranawana, sent around a message pouring out his grief and anger. Arjuna was Asiaweek‘s South Asia correspondent for years. He knew Lasantha well; they had worked at the Leader together. Arjuna was the director of the Sri Lanka College of Journalism for a while, and now is news manager for Omni TV in Edmonton, Canada.
The government has promised a full investigation of Lasantha’s death, and of the early morning attack on Maharajah TV (MTV) a few days earlier. CPJ called for a nonpartisan investigation into the MTV attack and diplomatic pressure to be put on the government to clarify what happened in Lasantha’s killing. I checked with Arjuna, and he is OK with me reproducing some of his e-mail message:
I for one do not expect such an investigation to yield results but believe them to be cynical public statements being made by a regime bent on killing the messenger. This is because there have been so many of these investigations launched and none have borne results. Either the IGP [Inspector General of Police] never gets those orders and only reads them in the newspapers, the police are utterly inept, or the government is lying to the public and allowing the killers to get away with a bundle of cash, a nod and a wink. Can you even remember the number of special investigations launched into these types of killings, which include MPs N Raviraj and P Maheswaran? These include assaults on journalists and the horrible farce that exists around Minister Mervyn de Silva’s incursion into Rupavahini. All have probes, no? Even Presidential Commissions. There is still space though, for the IGP to prove me wrong.
It would be good for the IGP, and for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to prove Arjuna, and all the other skeptics, Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans, wrong. But so far, that doesn’t look like it will happen.
In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized– connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding. I will try to explain why.
It’s easily the most useful diagram I’ve found for understanding the practice of journalism in the United States, and the hidden politics of that practice. You can draw it by hand right now. Take a sheet of paper and make a big circle in the middle. In the center of that circle draw a smaller one to create a doughnut shape. Label the doughnut hole “sphere of consensus.” Call the middle region “sphere of legitimate debate,” and the outer region “sphere of deviance.”
That’s the entire model. Now you have a way to understand why it’s so unproductive to argue with journalists about the deep politics of their work. They don’t know about this freakin’ diagram! Here it is in its original form, from the 1986 book The Uncensored War by press scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Hallin felt he needed something more supple—and truthful—than calcified notions like objectivity and “opinions are confined to the editorial page.” So he came up with this diagram.
Let’s look more carefully at his three regions.
1.) The sphere of legitimate debate is the one journalists recognize as real, normal, everyday terrain. They think of their work as taking place almost exclusively within this space. (It doesn’t, but they think so.) Hallin: “This is the region of electoral contests and legislative debates, of issues recognized as such by the major established actors of the American political process.”
Here the two-party system reigns, and the news agenda is what the people in power are likely to have on their agenda. Perhaps the purest expression of this sphere is Washington Week on PBS, where journalists discuss what the two-party system defines as “the issues.” Objectivity and balance are “the supreme journalistic virtues” for the panelists on Washington Week because when there is legitimate debate it’s hard to know where the truth lies. There are risks in saying that truth lies with one faction in the debate, as against another— even when it does. He said, she said journalism is like the bad seed of this sphere, but also a logical outcome of it.
2. ) The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. Here, Hallin writes, “journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.” (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.)
Consensus in American politics begins, of course, with the United States Constitution, but it includes other propositions too, like “Lincoln was a great president,” and “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can succeed in America.” Whereas journalists equate ideology with the clash of programs and parties in the debate sphere, academics know that the consensus or background sphere is almost pure ideology: the American creed.
3.) In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible. The press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant view, says Hallin. It “marks out and defends the limits of acceptable political conduct.”
Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.
Complications to keep in mind.
The three spheres are not really separate; they create one another, like the public and private do. The boundaries between regions are semi-porous and impermanent. Things can move out of one sphere and into another—that’s what political and cultural change is, if you think about it—but when they do shift there is often no announcement. One day David Brody of Christian Broadcasting Network shows up on Meet the Press, but Amy Goodman of Democracy Now never does.
This can be confusing. Of course, the producers of Meet the Press could say in a press release, “We decided that Pat Robertson’s CBN is now to be placed within the sphere of legitimate debate because… ” but then they would have to complete the “because” in a plausible way and very often they cannot. (“Amy Goodman, we decided, does not qualify for this show because…”) This gap between what journalists actually do as they arrange the scene of politics, and the portion they can explain or defend publicly—the difference between making news and making sense—is responsible for a lot of the anger and bad feeling projected at the political press by various constituencies that notice these moves and question them.
Within the sphere of legitimate debate there is some variance. Journalists behave differently if the issue is closer to the doughnut hole than they do when it is nearer the edge. The closer they think they are to the unquestioned core of consensus, the more plausible it is to present a single view as the only view, which is a variant on the old saw about American foreign policy: “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” (Atrios: “I’ve long noticed a tendency of the American press to take the side of official US policy when covering foreign affairs.”)
Another complication: Journalists aren’t the only actors here. Elections have a great deal to do with what gets entered into legitimate debate. Candidates—especially candidates for president—can legitimize an issue just by talking about it. Political parties can expand their agenda, and journalists will cover that. Powerful and visible people can start questioning a consensus belief and remove it from the “everyone agrees” category. And of course public opinion and social behavior do change over time.
Some implications of Daniel Hallin’s model.
That journalists affirm and enforce the sphere of consensus, consign ideas and actors to the sphere of deviance, and decide when the shift is made from one to another— none of this is in their official job description. You won’t find it taught in J-school, either. It’s an intrinsic part of what they do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded. Worse than that, these decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.
When (with some exceptions) political journalists failed properly to examine George W. Bush’s case for war in Iraq, they were making a category mistake. They treated Bush’s plan as part of the sphere of consensus. But even when Congress supports it, a case for war can never be removed from legitimate debate. That’s just a bad idea. Mentally placing the war’s opponents in the sphere of deviance was another category error. In politics, when people screw up like that, we can replace them: throw the bums out! we say. But the First Amendment says we cannot do that to people in the press. The bums stay. And later they are free to say: we didn’t screw up at all, as David Gregory, now host of Meet the Press, did say to his enduring shame.
“We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”
Deciding what does and does not legitimately belong within the national debate is—no way around it—a political act. And yet a pervasive belief within the press is that journalists do not engage in such action, for to do so would be against their principles. As Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Postonce said about why things make the front page, “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.” I think he’s right. The press does not permit itself to think politically. But it does engage in political acts. Ergo, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good. When it is criticized for this it will reject the criticism out of hand, which is also not good.
Atrios, the economist and liberal blogger with a big following, has a more colorful phrase for “maintaining boundaries around the sphere of legitimate debate.” He often writes about the “dirty f*cking hippies,” by which he means the out-of-power or online left, and the way this group is marginalized by Washington journalists, who sometimes seem to define themselves against it. “In the late 90s, the dirty f*cking hippies were the crazy people who thought that Bill Clinton should neither resign nor be impeached,” he writes. “In the great wasteland of our mainstream media there was almost no place one could turn to find someone expressing the majority view of the American public, that this whole thing was insane.” Sometimes the people the press thinks of as deviant types are closer to the sphere of consensus than the journalists who are classifying those same people as “fringe.”
How can that happen? Well, one of the problems with our political press is that its reference group for establishing the “ground” of consensus is the insiders: the professional political class in Washington. It then offers that consensus to the country as if it were the country’s own, when it’s not, necessarily. This erodes confidence in a way that may be invisible to journalists behaving as insiders themselves. And it gives the opening to Jon Stewart and his kind to exploit that gap I talked about between making news and making sense.
“Echo chamber” or counter-sphere?
Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.
In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a followingand serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.
Which is how I got to my three word formlua for understanding the Internet’s effects in politics and media: “audience atomization overcome.”
* * *
Daniel C. Hallin writes in with a response. I urge you to read it. He says there has been a “de-centering” of the mass media since the Vietnam War era. He also thinks the echo chamber is a plausible outcome of that process:
Many of those who posted seem to believe that what is on the internet is closer to “real public opinion” than what is in the mainstream media, but I’m not sure we really know this. Some of the posts seem based on the assumption that “the people” are always wise, but I would question this, and also point to Alexis deToqueville’s old observation that the greatest barrier to real freedom of thought in America is often not top-down control but public opinion itself.
More Hallin: “I think journalists often play an important role as an independent source of information, and in many ways I’d like to see them playing a stronger role, not a weaker one, in shaping the public sphere.” Me too! My reply:
I think a strong, independent press can be undermined by thoughtless press bashing, phony populism and culture war excess. Definitely. I also think a strong independent press is undermined when the professionals in it fail to recognize that there’s a politics to what they do, which can go wrong, fall out of alignment, or even implode, failing the country.
David Westphal, former head of McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau and now a journalism professor at USC, cheers Hallin on in the comments. “The role of the independent press needs to be strengthened, not brought down in victory-lap celebration.”
The ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision — “well it’s pragmatic, let’s be realistic” — what we’re really doing is we’re speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they’re likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we’ve learned from the media even if we are skeptics.
Always remember what Raymond Williams said, “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” During the age of mass media, these ways of seeing sunk deeply into us. It’s harder to get them out than you think. I speak to that in the podcast with Glenn.
So far no comment, reaction, link or other gesture from journalists in the national press. This after I told Chris Cillizza, who does The Fix blog for the Washington Post, “I wrote this for you, especially you. When you have a moment, give it a gander.” (That was on Twitter.) Of course we are exchanging presidents in DC this week so maybe they have other things to do :-)
You can follow me on Twitter, if you’re on Twitter. It’s like PressThink for the live web.
The established media—particularly the Washington-based political media—are not passive agents here. They have an overt bias for consensus and against “deviancy”, which means they want the doughnut hole to be as big as possible and they want to exclude as much “deviancy” as possible from admission to the sphere of “legitimate” debate.The result is that the doughnut itself keeps getting thinner. Issues, particularly big issues, tend to migrate inward, into the sphere of conventional wisdom (the intelligence proves there are WMDs in Iraq; financial deregulation promotes economic growth; the Social Security system is going bankrupt) while alternative—or even worse, radical—points of view, which might enliven the sphere of “legitimate” debate are consistently excluded.
Who is Billmon? I met him once. Cool guy.
Investigative reporter John McQuaid says at his blog that “it’s good to have a million voices calling BS on big media’s persistent, strange, Reagan-era take on American politics.”
Obviously, you can’t turn back the clock. You can’t leverage authority that no longer exists. A new configuration of old/new media is still taking shape. So: will a vastly more diverse but also more diffuse media ecosystem still have the ability (via individual media outlet, or via a swarm) to bring pressure to bear on the upper levels of government?
Atrios—who has a speaking part in this post—reacts at Eschaton. “I think the most fascinating thing is how willfully blind many journalists are about this stuff. I don’t know if they really can’t see it, or if it’s in their interest to pretend not to see it.”
Longtime PressThink reader Tim Schmoyer collected some good pointers to writers and scholars who define the news media as a political institution, as I do. Many of the problems discussed in this piece and the podcast with Glenn Greenwald originate in the professional journalist’s felt need to deny this basic observation. That’s why it’s an important observation.
The controls have been loosened, says Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:
I’m heartened by Bob Fertik’s efforts and the transparency of the Obama administration that allowed 70,000 people to show up and demand a Special Prosecutor on the change.gov site. It’s the kind of “critical mass” event that defies the ability of a few people to limit the sphere of debate as easily as they have in the past, and shifts the power of defining “consensus” even if slightly in favor people willing to connect and speak up.
“I think you nailed it in your explanation of the spheres,” says Daniel Weintraub, political reporter and columnist for the Sacramento Bee. “But when you use the Iraq war run-up as an example where the press supposedly defined opposition as outside the sphere of legitimate debate, you contribute to what I think is a flawed conventional wisdom.” Read the rest.
Over at Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas—Kos—says that “another word for the ‘sphere of consensus’ is ‘conventional wisdom,’ which plays an important role in my last book, Taking on the System. The person who controls the CW controls the terms of the debate. Modern activism is in large part a battle to capture thatCW.”
An example of a view confined to the sphere of deviance that might have helped the press over the last seven years is my own opinion (shared with a few) that President George W. Bush was a radical, not a conservative or traditional Republican. The press never took it seriously; in my view, that was a bad decision— if we can call it that.
Other reactions of note:
- Eamonn Fitz, Manufacturing and deconstructing the (fake) news in five acts. Makes intelligent use of this post.
- Andrew Cline at Rhetorica, The Yummy Donut of Status Quo Bias. He thinks the answer is “show your work” journalism.
- Rumproast, a blog new to me, extends the analysis here to an urgent matter. Investigating Bush is a Must! <> Deviant opinion or sphere of legitimate debate?
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Journalists throughout Europe, both east and west, are faced with a growing pattern of censorship and pressure including physical violence and intimidation, according to a survey by the Association of European Journalists (AEJ). What’s more, the EU is failing to stand up for them, the AEJ adds.
Responding to growing concerns over media concentration, in 1992 the Commission launched a wide consultation (Green Paper) on pluralism and media concentration in the EU. Two years later, the consultation concluded that it is primarily up to the member states to maintain media pluralism and diversity. A directive was proposed at a later stage by then Internal Market Commissioner Mario Monti but his initiative was rejected twice by the College of Commissioners, last time in 1997.
A new approach to media pluralism, based on monitoring, was launched by current Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding. Initial results are expected in 2009 with the publication of an independent study that will seek to define indicators for assessing media pluralism in the EU member states.
The Association of European Journalists (AEJ) presented its first survey of media freedom across Europe in November 2007. Entitled “Goodbye to Freedom?”, the survey was updated and presented at an event in Brussels on 28 February 2008. It covers 20 countries across Western and Eastern Europe.
The survey, presented on 28 February in Brussels, found media freedom “in retreat across much of Europe” and pointed to a number of abuses by governments, including interference in editorial policies and even threats and intimidation.
The AEJ survey, which covers 20 countries, listed a number of abuses including:
- Violence and intimidation (Russia, Armenia);
- assault against media independence by governments (Slovenia);
- political abuses, particularly in public broadcasting (Croatia, Slovakia, Poland), and;
- commercial pressure and over-concentration in mainstream media (France, Italy).
William Horsley, the survey’s editor, said: “Governments across Europe are showing a marked trend to use harsher methods, including heavy official ‘spin’ and tighter controls on journalists’ access to information in order to block media criticism.”
And according to Horsley, the trend is not confined to the younger democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. “The open confrontation between government and the media in Slovenia is mirrored in various ways in the UK, Ireland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, among others.”
In Ireland, two senior journalists from The Irish Times are facing jail sentences for refusing to reveal their sources, the AEJ heard at a recent workshop in Dublin. In Slovakia, journalist Martin Klein was condemned for publishing a satirical article about a church leader, a ruling which was subsequently upheld by Slovakia’s Supreme Court despite a judgement by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which backed the journalist.
EU and media organisations slow to react
What’s more, Horsley says media organisations themselves have to share part of the blame. “European media have been too slow to comprehend and report the pattern of censorship, pressure and sometimes physical violence faced by journalists in every corner of Europe,” Horsley told EurActiv.
As for the European institutions – the Council, Commission and Parliament – Horsley said they had so far failed to stand up for media freedom.
“EU leaders have too often failed to live up to their rhetoric about upholding ‘European values’ like media freedom,” Horsley told EurActiv. “The EU’s main institutions have failed to stand up to Russia over the strangulation of its independent media.”
“If the EU neglects its own doubtful record in protecting media freedoms at home it is obvious that governments elsewhere will not take very seriously its appeals to allow media freedom and independence there.”
OSCE forum on media freedom
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) called on its member states to respect their media commitments at a forum on 29 February in Vienna.
The forum discussion marked the tenth anniversary of the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFOM), now held by Miklos Haraszti. The office provides early warning on violations of freedom of expression and assists participating states in fulfilling their commitments.
“The 56 OSCE nations committed themselves to the highest standards of human rights, freedom of expression included. Today, we sometimes have to defend not only press freedom standards but also the very notion of international co-operation on human rights,” Haraszti said in a statement.
William Horsley, the AEJ survey’s editor and an ex-BBC foreign correspondent, told the Brussels event on 28 February: “Media freedom is not an optional extra. Without it, governments cannot be held to account and there can be no rule of law.”
European journalists attending the survey presentation in Brussels identified further threats such as the lowering of standards due to commercial pressure and cost reductions. This includes the rise of ‘churnalism’, a practice where news production is considered as “a factory-like process simply to fill space.”
Lorenzo Consoli, president of the International Press Association (IPA), said it was important to improve conditions for transparency and denounced the growing tendency among Brussels institutions to try and control the questions asked by the press.
Some participants also recommended thinking about new revenue models brought about by new Internet technologies. Recent successful attempts at renewing journalism have included websites such as: http://www.mediapart.fr , http://www.rue89.com and http://www.opendemocracy.net
Christophe Leclercq, founder and publisher of EurActiv.com, stated after these events: “The internet is not without issues of quality and independence, but the new technology also makes it more difficult for governments to suppress news entirely.”
Leclercq pointed to the EurActiv network itself as a “small step” towards greater media pluralism. “Set up initially as a contribution to transparency, media diversity and multilingualism, the EurActiv network started with a pilot project administered by the European Centre for Journalism, which was then expanded to Central Europe, in co-operation notably with the International Federation of Journalists. The EurActiv CrossLingual network now connects around 30 journalists, working in nine languages in nine countries.”