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February 27, 2007

Journalistic Beclownery

americaisatthemall.jpgYesterday, the half vast editorial staff saw something profoundly disturbing over at GayPatriot. Of course it didn't take long for the usual chorus of "He told us to go SHOPPING!" magpies to start squawking, it being a reliable mantra of the BDS-inspired, antiwar crowd that the American public possess no free will of their own.

Robot-like and unquestioning, they rush to obey; the slightest utterance from the Oval Office is as a command to them. All are helpless before the formidable will of the Chief Executive, a man who (if we are to believe the spittle-flecked rants of Keith Olbermann) deftly combines the dark Nietschzean, will-to-power ruthlessness of Adoph Hitler with the befuddled incompetence of a mildly retarded chimpanzee.

Of course America goes shopping. What else can we do - our Fuhrer hath commanded it and any other course is unthinkable.

If only we'd been asked to sacrifice! But you see, no one asked us, and since we have no free will, we cannot act independently. Invisible yet impenetrable barriers prevent us from marching down to that recruiter's office.

And the cost of the war! Why, in historic terms alone, we are drowning in a flood tide of defense spending!

And the war debt! We are financing this illegal and immoral war on the backs of our children! Americans must all do their fair share to pay down the horrible debt from the war!.... not:


Tax receipts are growing at a rate of 11.5%; outlays are growing at 5.5%.

Obviously, individual income taxes (13% growth) and corporate income taxes (26% growth) are the reasons total tax receipts are growing at such a high rate. Can those trends hold for much longer? We’ll see. The U.S. Business Cycle Indicators are still signaling robust growth for at least the near future, so that’s a good sign.

A lot of headlines make it sound like military spending is the biggest category of outlays, but it’s not. HHS and Social Security are each 20% higher, and growing at about the same pace, or more.

So why do most Americans have such a tragically skewed picture of what's going on with the war?

Easy. The folks who are actually running things: making the decisions and carrying out policy; the ones with the most information - have the least access to the American public. This would be the White House and the military. And the people with the least input into the decision-making process, the least accountability for the consequences of their reporting, and the least official constraints on their actions - the press - have the megaphone. And according to several sources in the media itself, that is having a pronounced skewing effect on the news we see and hear on a daily basis.

Interestingly enough, the decline in the power of the President to influence the American public was well documented during the Clinton years in Foreign Affairs by Sebastian Mallaby. The timing of this article is a good defense against charges of pro-Bush partisanship. Mallaby builds a compelling case that a far kinder and gentler press corps used the same tactics to marginalize a President they essentially supported during peacetime. How much more deadly are those tactics now, during war, when used against a Republican President and a war the press is vehemently determined to stop at all costs?

The erosion of presidential power started with changes in the nature of the bully pulpit. After Theodore Roosevelt popularized this phrase at the turn of the last century, technological advance steadily increased the president's power to win popular backing: radio allowed F.D.R. to deliver his fireside chats; network TV let J.F.K. charm the nation. And cheap air transport gave presidents a way to appear before hitherto inaccessible audiences. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of presidential speeches increased nearly fivefold. Moreover, the power of these speeches was enhanced by another technological advance: in 1952 Eisenhower's campaign managers broke new ground when they began using polls to determine which issues most concerned Americans.

Since the 1980s, however, this process has flipped into reverse: technological advances now undermine the bully pulpit rather than amplify it. The rise of cable TV has changed television from a presidential megaphone into a presidential scourge. The three big networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- which once carried all presidential press conferences live, and which reported respectfully on initiatives emanating from the White House, have been displaced by new cable channels that compete for viewers by eschewing such deference. Rather than televise the president, these cable channels churn out irreverent talk shows. The bully pulpit has been drowned out by bullying pundits.

This shift emerged during Reagan's second term, when the "great communicator" himself became the first president to be refused a request to have a speech televised. But the trend has advanced by leaps and bounds since then, as cable has spread to around two out of three households (up from one in two in the late 1980s) and as the early cable programs have come under pressure from even more irreverent competitors on new channels and on the Internet. The bully pulpit’s reach has been reduced to brief sound bites on the evening news, and even these are diminishing. A study of presidential campaigns found that the length of candidates’ broadcast quotations declined from 43 seconds in 1968 to 7 seconds by early 1996. Just as television first built up the bully pulpit and then tore it down, so have opinion polls. In the early postwar years, when Eisenhower’s sophisticated advisers started poll-testing the president’s speeches, this new science served as a boost to executive power. The president alone spoke on behalf of the whole nation, since no other politician could boast a national mandate and few others had access to such data. But the president’s critics have long since begun to use polls themselves, and the media now delight in announcing opinion surveys that suggest the president is out of step with voters. Now anyone with poll data can claim democratic legitimacy for an idea. The president no longer speaks for the country because the country speaks continually to pollsters.

Harder and more contemporaneous data is available from Neil Munro of The National Journal. In an article in the February 17th issue, Munro looks at the dollar value of US news accounts that cover insurgent attacks: the American media is, in effect, providing free advertising for the Iraqi insurgency. He discusses the recent murder of an Iraqi comedian:

The targeting of Hassan was more than the cold-blooded murder of a married father of five children. In its ability to reinforce the view, increasingly held by Iraqis and Americans, that Iraq is a chaotic, violence-prone, ungovernable place, it also was a great public relations coup for the insurgents who killed him.

Public-relations professionals routinely rate the success of a publicity event by adding up the volume of news coverage it generates, and then calculating the cost of a comparable amount of advertising space or time. In this case, Hassan's killers scored a 26-column-inch, page one spread in The Washington Post, plus a 10-inch, two-column photo on the inside jump page. The Post charges about $556 per column-inch for ads inside the newspapers, so the 36 inches of space could have cost an advertiser about $20,000. The Post also ran the story on its web site. The paper declined to say how much a similar amount of Web space would cost an advertiser, but other major newspapers charge about $20 per 1.000 online visitors. If 650,000 people clicked on The Post's site that day, the advertising value of the online story would have been about $13,000.

The murder was highlighted or mentioned by other newspapers, major and minor, across the country including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, the LA Times, and the Kansas City Star.

...So, for a $6,000 investment, Hassan's killers earned as much as $100,000 in what they would deem to be free publicity in the United States. That's at least a sixteenfold return-on-investment.

...In contrast, US and Iraqi forces had a harder time during the same period getting positive publicity for their work against insurgents. On November 30, for instance, Iraqi officials announced the arrests of an infamous sniper and 30 of his followers. The group gained notoriety because it often videotaped its attacks on US troops, dubbed them in English, and posted them on Internet sites where they were picked up by Arab TV stations and also by CNN.

The snipers knew the value of the videos. The Financial Times quoted one of them as saying, "The idea of filming the operations is very important...The scene that shows the falling solder when hit has ore impact on the enemy than any other weapon.". But according to Nexis, the November announcement of the snipers' arrests was not cited in any US news reports.

During that same week, the AP wrongly reported that 4 mosques had been "blown up" in Hurriyah. They took almost 40 days to correct the story, and even then the correction was buried.

The media campaign to win hearts and minds during the war on terror has been a dishonest and inflammatory one: a pronouncedly asymmetrical form of warfare in which the press refuse to follow even their own rules and have repeatedly held themselves above the same laws ordinary citizens are bound to respect and obey. Eugene Volokh comments on a recent attempt to portray simple disrespect for the law as a "post-911 loss of press freedoms":

Recall that all citizens must generally testify before grand juries -- or turn over tangible evidence to grand juries -- if they know things relevant to a criminal investigation. In 1972, 29 years before 9/11, the Court faced a journalist's claim that journalists have a First Amendment exemption from this duty, and rejected it. The Court left open room for some limited First Amendment protection for journalists, but quite limited; and since then journalists have repeatedly been required to testify before grand juries. And this is so even as to confidential communications to journalists, where journalists can most plausibly claim an analogy to the several narrow exceptions to the duty to testify (for instance, attorneys', psychotherapists', and clergy's right not to testify about confidential communications by their clients or parishioners).

It's hard to see how Wolf's case symbolizes "the loss of press freedoms in post-September 11 America." First, the rejection of the First Amendment arguments he makes long predates September 11. Second, to my knowledge there was never a time when the press had an established freedom not to testify, especially as to facts they observed in a public place. Third, even if "press freedom" should include the right to gather confidential information without the risk that one will be required to testify about it, I don't see a persuasive argument for why "press freedom" includes the right not to turn over publicly gathered video footage of a public demonstration. I certainly don't see any such argument in the c|net column.

But many in the media seem to believe that simply saying a thing makes it so. In The New Republic, Eric Greenburg manages to recast the Scooter Libby case as a vital test of the journalist's unqualified right to receive classified information!:

Some culprits responsible for ushering in this dark new era are obvious, from Cheney to exponents of a "unitary theory of the executive." But aggressive prosecutors may have exacted the greatest long-term damage. Besides Fitzgerald's, there have been a series of troubling cases in this vein, including the probe of two officials at the proIsrael lobbying group aipac for accepting secret material from a Pentagon analyst. Should these lobbyists be convicted, it would imperil the right of journalists to receive classified data. In addition, Pulitzer Prize-winning disclosures by The Washington Post's Dana Priest (of secret CIA prisons) and the Times' James Risen (of illegal government wiretapping) have prompted calls to investigate and punish these reporters and their sources.

Although the right has continued to fight against disclosure by claiming that reporters like Priest and Risen imperil our safety, it can no longer bear sole blame for this unfriendly new climate. American political culture as a whole has grown troublingly tolerant of high-handed tactics used against reporters and troublingly unsympathetic to the reporters themselves. And liberals, buying into the notion that Plame's outing deserves criminal punishment, have bolstered this impulse to suppress by giving it across-the-board support.

Fitzgerald's cheerleaders sometimes retort that "true" whistle-blowing merits protection but malicious leaking doesn't. It sounds nice, but drawing such distinctions is subjective and treacherous. Sources blab for a tangle of reasons, selfish and selfless, and unscrambling motives will likely prove disastrous. In our climate of easily ginned-up fury toward the left, we can guess who will face the most vicious leak-related prosecutions--not GOP hardball artists, you can bet, but sources for reporters like Priest and Risen.

We await, with great interest, the court case that has upheld this "right", but perhaps this ends-justifies-the-means reasoning from the press should not surprise us. Bill Keller, the Unitary Editor, has already argued that an unelected and unaccountable newspaper editor is fully justified in unilaterally declassifying national security information and bypassing the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (charged with oversight of the intelligence community) on the mere suspicion the our elected President may be unilaterally declassifying national security information and bypassing the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

And oh by the way... should it turn out that he was wrong? There is no accountability for Herr Keller, because it is written right into the Constitution that the press is above the law. He merely directs his Ombudsman to say "Oops" in a NYT column. How very convenient.

Howard Kurtz, whom we usually admire, seems to make a similar argument in last week's Media Notes. Once more, the press are a breed apart: not part of a general polity who owe mutual duties to each other and are bound by the same laws. While not nearly as egregious as the before-cited examples, it speaks volumes about the insularity and arrogance of the media:

As for Weightman's complaint that the paper should have notified the Army of its conclusions earlier in the process, Priest called that "ridiculous," saying: "You find wrongdoing and you don't report it to the public first? You report it to them first? That's not our role."

Think about that one for a moment.

"Not our job???" Whose job is it, pray tell, to ensure our wounded vets are taken care of? Like those in-duh-viduals at Walter Reed who failed to ensure adequate living conditions however, Ms. Priest passed the buck. It is, you see, "not her job" to fix the problem. She could have taken many different paths, had she genuinely cared about the plight of the Walter Reed vets. The public were not in a position to fix Bldg. 18 quickly -- the Army was. How long, while she 'investigated', did soldiers at Walter Reed continue to live in substandard conditions?

What would she have lost if, after compiling the bulk of her story, she'd gone to the Army and said, "Fix this - NOW - I'm going public".

And then she could have included, in her story, the horrors of neglect and shame in Walter Reed... along with a happy (sort of) ending: the news that something was being done. Considering the importance of military morale and the fact that we ARE at war, did that never occur to her? Did the propaganda value of her story never occur to her?

It obviously never did to Howard Kurtz, because the media's animosity towards the military is so deep-seated and their antiwar agenda so pronounced, all they really cared about was the chance to give the administration a black eye. That - ambush value - is what they would have lost by being upfront with the Army -- and by trying to help the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed.

Along with the media's persistent refusal to give the President a direct line to the American people or give our military successes equal billing with the successes of our enemies during wartime - doesn't that speak volumes?

It does to this Marine wife. Always, they put their agenda ahead of what is good for the nation and we, the Little People, are not to question their judgment.

Posted by Cassandra at February 27, 2007 07:20 AM

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Ms. Priest could have taken many different paths, had she genuinely cared about the plight of the Walter Reed vets. The public were not in a position to fix Bldg. 18 quickly -- the Army was. How long, while she 'investigated', did soldiers at Walter Reed continue to live in substandard conditions?

Another slightly different example of this was the reporting on Abu Ghraib. The situation there was known, had been reported on, and was well underway towards resolution when the NYTimes picked it up and hyped it to an extraordinary level, acting as if they had unearthed the whole thing with their tenacious and diligent reserach.

Posted by: daveg at February 27, 2007 10:34 AM

Re: WRAMC Bldg 18, I saw something somewhere online, indicating the military was already investigating problems with the bureaucracy there (WRAMC), prior to the release of her exposé...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at February 27, 2007 11:48 AM

"Should these lobbyists be convicted, it would imperil the right of journalists to receive classified data."(bold emphasis mine)

When MH was but a lowly Sgt., he was assigned a "B" billet at Building 1 on Camp Lejeune. Part of his duty included decoding the Command General's email messages. (These were just the ordinary USMC blah blah blah messages.) For such a menial task, he was required to obtain Secret clearance. (Not Top Secret, mind you, just regular Security clearance.) For such clearance to be issued his entire background from grade school through current time frame was researched - diligently. Just to decode email messages! As he has moved up in ranks, his clearance has been upgraded accordingly, with the requisite background checks -- not only for himself, but for me as well. What in the world makes these people think that just because they spew inkspots in random patterns on paper that they have a *right* to receive classified documents? Has there been a change in employment policies whereby all prospective journalists are subject to the rigorous screening process that DoD uses to ensure that our classified documents stay just that -- classified? How do they avoid the inevitable EEOE lawsuit from those spurned journalists who didn't quite make the "grade"? Surely some *fine, upstanding* journalists-wannabe has gotten their panties in a wad because they didn't get that Copyboy/Mailroom job they had been pinning their hopes and dreams on. (Granted, we probably wouldn't read about that in the papers though anyway.)
Sheesh, talk about a "world owes me a livin'" mindset.

Posted by: Sly2017 at February 27, 2007 12:45 PM

I'm fighting it, but I'm starting to recast my view of most institutions as children. Honestly, if you try looking at the world as a playground without a teacher in sight, it makes a lot more sense.

In this case, Ms. Priest would be one of those slimy little narks who says "So and so were fighting!"-- when one was being beat to a pulp without warning.
(Full disclosure: when I was 6, a 14 year old who played football pulled me off of the gymset and started beating me up. The school wanted to expel me for "fighting" because I kicked, punched and tried to get away.)

The closest mindset I've seen, Media vs. Military/President, is that of a tourist town vs tourists. The media depends on the military and Prez for many things, including news and protection, so for some odd quirk in human nature they hate both.

Posted by: Sailorette at February 27, 2007 12:55 PM

Stop using reason and logic to try to understand and explain this modern world of yours. You're frightening me with this thing (now, don't bite!). I'm just a simple mid-western caveman.

Of course, Bob Woodchuck, Bill Killer, Judy Diller, and Sy Smersh and the like have a "right" to receive classified documents and splash them all over the newspapers. That's in the double-secret amendment (sorry, classified) to the Bill of Rights that was passed back in the '70's after the Pentagon Papers were leaked.
You Marine wives. Sheesh.

And tell Sailorette to stop kicking, screaming, resisting and fighting back. Resistance....is...futile... :)

So, what's the latest with Anna Nicole what's her name's body, anyways?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at February 27, 2007 01:20 PM

For the sake of brevity, I'll say nothing.

Posted by: spd rdr at February 27, 2007 06:37 PM

mr rdr... where do you find this stuff? :)

Posted by: Cassandra at February 28, 2007 07:55 AM

Hey, Don, can I go all Picard on that one?!?! His response to resistance being futile was a tommy gun. *Grin*

Posted by: Sailorette/Foxfier at March 1, 2007 12:45 PM

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