Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 7:20 pm

How utterly debased New York Times reporting is in two simple blog posts and why that matters to people who don’t read the Times

First, a key paragraph from the offending Times article:

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

Now, an analysis of that paragraph by Felix Salmon, formerly with Reuters and now a senior editor at Fusion. Here’s the money quote:

I’m sure that if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find a member of the Republican party who believes that cheating is rife in today’s elections. Hell, you could probably even find a member of the Democratic party who believes the same thing. But in general, I don’t think that Republicans believe — or even contend — that cheating is rife.

It’s certainly true that a lot of Republicans support voter ID laws. But you don’t need to think that cheating is rife in order to support such measures. In fact, you don’t even need to think that cheating exists in order to support such measures. It’s entirely rational to support a voter ID law even if cheating is rare or nonexistent, on the grounds that cheating is just too easy right now and that you want to make it harder.

In other words, Peters’s formulation actually does Republicans few favors. If you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, you know that (2) is true and (4) is false. Which means that if you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, and you read Peters’s article, you’ll come away thinking two things:

A) In order to support voter ID laws, you first need to believe that cheating is rife.

B) In general, Republicans are liars.

After all, if you contend that cheating is rife, as Peters says Republicans generally do, you are lying.

And, finally, Jay Rosen at PressThink, with the larger context. Money quote:

So what is that exceedingly crappy paragraph doing there on the newspaper-of-record’s front page? Salmon says it’s laziness. (“He-said-she-said is so easy, for a journalist on deadline, that both journalists and editors tend not to really thinking about exactly what they’re saying.”) Certainly ease-of-use is part of the device’s fading delights.

Here’s how I described the appeal of he said, she said in 2009. It makes the story writable on deadline when you don’t know enough to sort things out. In a “he said, she said” classic:

* No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)

* The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.

* The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter [and the user] in the middle between polarized extremes.

I question whether that between-two-extremes territory, the “you figure it out/for us partisan polarization rules” space is valuable turf in the news business. I doubt that it’s “safe,” either, if you mean by safe: won’t do the brand harm. I think it’s likely to corrode trust over time. A conventional explanation for he said, she said says: it may be lazy or incomplete, but it is also a safe middle ground place to land so you can get the damn paper out!

But it’s not that safe. Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have No Idea… increasingly won’t cut it for the Times, or its competitors like the FT, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg. The upscale, high-information readers the Times wants to charge more money to, the core loyalists who are being asked to finance more of the operation— these users are increasingly likely to know about various preponderance-of-evidence callsindependent of whether the Times knows enough to include that review in its reporting. When this kind of reader comes upon he said, she said reporting on a big story where it’s CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, as with the right to vote: bad moment for the Times brand.

On the surface, this example appears to favor Republicans. Salmon argues that upon closer inspection, it favors Democrats by demonstrating that Republicans are liars on this issue. My big picture is that any one example isn’t the issue; the phenomenon is the problem. Some days I want to grab every publisher, executive editor, and executive producer in the country, slap them across the face and say what Jonathan Stewart famously said to then-“Crossfire” co-host Tucker Carlson: Stop it. You’re hurting the country.

Several different things can cause this kind of false-balance, he-said/she-said reporting to be published. Time pressure and byline-count requirements can tempt reporters to slap it down and file it without taking the trouble to see whether there is, in fact, a preponderance of the evidence (or preponderance of LACK of evidence) that would allow a reasonable conclusion to be drawn. Editors and publishers, in an era of dwindling circulation and readership and viewership and, correspondingly, ad revenue, don’t want to risk alienating a large segment of the public, even if that segment has been aboard an accelerating handbasket toward intellectual hell for the past half-century.

But you know what? Those are only excuses. If enough consumers of news demand it, news outlets that genuinely want to stay in business — not all do, but that’s a subject for another day — will respond accordingly. That said, those consumers need to target publishers, executive editors and managing editors, not the reporters who write this stuff or their assigning editors. Reporters write this stuff, and assigning editors send it on through to the copy desk, because they believe they can and/or must. If publishers, executive editors and managing editors — and, yes, I’m talking about my friends at the News & Record, among others — send the strong message that this kind of fake-ass reporting cannot and must not be published, then it won’t be. It’s that simple. So apply pressure in the right place; if nothing changes, then you know whom to blame.

Facts matter. Facts have consequences. And, dammit to hell, in the lives of real people, policy trumps politics. Journalists need to be committing journalism like they understand these things. Too many aren’t, and that crap must stop.

Thursday, January 16, 2014 7:12 pm

New York Times vs. New York Times

If a genie granted me three wishes, I wouldn’t waste one of them on this. But, damn, it would be nice if, at least once in a while, New York Times economics reporters would consult their columnist colleague Paul Krugman, who has, like, a Nobel Prize in the subject, before publishing bilge like this, particularly when Krugman could steer them to a large pile of research showing that he’s right and they’re wrong.

(h/t: Dean Baker)

Friday, December 13, 2013 7:08 pm

The New York Times does not understand Social Security

For evidence of this, I offer the following email exchange between me and D.C. bureau reporter Jonathan Weisman. I first wrote him regarding this article, in which he stated as fact:

Some conservatives feel betrayed, as they often have since the Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said the House Republican conference agreed in the spring that spending levels exacted by the sequestration cuts would not change unless Congress and the White House could strike an accord to control the long-term causes of the rising costs of the federal debt, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Leave aside for the moment that the actual biggest drivers of federal deficits, and thus the growing national debt, are, in fact, NOT entitlements:

The key fact on which I wish to focus is that Social Security does not contribute to the federal deficit AT ALL. This is a simple and widely understood fact with which the reporter took tendentious issue before throwing in the towel, as shown:

On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 2:26 PM, <ordercs@nytimes.com> wrote:

Email: lex.alexander@gmail.com
URL:Your budget-deal story
Comments:Jon, how many times does it have to be said before it sinks into the heads of reporters for the Times Almighty? SOCIAL SECURITY DOES NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEFICIT. It is funded by contributions that, since 1983, have been accumulating a large surplus to be used to pay retirement benefits to the Baby Boomers. Now that Baby Boomers have begun to retire, that surplus, which peaked at around $3 trillion, is being drawn down … just as planned in 1983. There is enough of a surplus that SocSec can pay 100% of expected benefit demands until the mid-2030s and, with continuing FICA withholding revenue, about 80% of benefit demands pretty much forever after that even if we do nothing at all to Social Security. And with small changes (raising the cap on income subject to FICA withholding), we could have SocSec paying 100% of benefits pretty much forever.

Once again: Social Security does not contribute in any way, shape or form to the government’s operating budget deficit. And this isn’t just a matter of opinion, this is an error of fact so egregious that it demands a published correction. My next stop is the public editor, for that very purpose.

Best,
Lex Alexander
Greensboro, NC
www.lexalexander.net

On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 2:35 PM, Weisman, Jonathan <jonathan.weisman@nytimes.com> wrote:

You are simply wrong here. Since 2010, Social Security has been operating in deficit since 2010. As the annual trustees report said, Social Security’s “cash-flow deficit will average $75 billion between 2013 and 2018 before rising steeply” http://www.ssa.gov/oact/trsum/

It is true that the system is now cashing bonds it has been given by other parts of the government that have “borrowed” from its surplus over decades. But the fact is, every bond cashed must be paid in cash by the U.S. government and the taxpayers. Social Security as a system is not in debt yet. It is redeeming what is owed it. But those redemptions ARE driving the the debt upward, along with Medicare, Medicaid and other programs impacted by the aging baby boom.

On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 2:56 PM, Lex Alexander <lex.alexander@gmail.com> wrote:

OK, fine, if you’re not going to believe me, how ’bout walking down the hall or picking up the phone and talking about it with your colleague Paul Krugman, OK? Or, hell, economist Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, or Brad DeLong at Berkeley, or … pretty much any half-sentient economist not on a corporate payroll. Will you do that for me? Please?

Best,
Lex
On Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 3:01 PM, Weisman, Jonathan <jonathan.weisman@nytimes.com> wrote:

I am aware of their position on this. They are saying Social Security is solvent because it has trillions of dollars in bonds that are real and owed to it. That is true and it is a valid position. But Krugman, DeLong et al also know that as those bonds are redeemed, the cash must come from the Treasury. That is why Larry Summers wanted to wall off the Social Security surplus, to run large surpluses for the day when the bills come due. That did not happen. Now we are paying the piper. What liberal economists would say is it is simply unfair to make Social Security and its recipients pay for the rest of the government’s profligacy (and maybe theft).

Ask them. (Krugman is at Princeton, not in the building)

On Dec 12, 2013, at 4:27 PM, Lex Alexander <lex.alexander@gmail.com> wrote:

Had the government borrowed the money for its deficits from, say, a private bank, would you seriously argue that the private bank is contributing to the deficit? No, you would not; it would be ridiculous. But, in part, that’s exactly what the government did: It borrowed, in the form of U.S. bonds, not only from the Social Security Trust Fund but also from investment banks, commercial banks, institutional investors and individuals. So how is Social Security “contributing to the deficit” when these other bond holders are not? Or are you going to argue that they ALL are “contributing to the deficit”? That argument, though also basically silly, at least would have the benefit of being consistent and contextually complete.

Best,
Lex
On Dec 12, 2013, at 4:30 PM, Jonathan <jonathan.weisman@nytimes.com> wrote:
OK, whatever

Jonathan Weisman

New York Times
* * *
So that’s the kind of intellectual firepower the Times is assigning to the biggest domestic-policy story of the week. Good to know. I’ve emailed the Times’s public editor, for all the good that will do.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012 8:27 pm

Institutionalized

As befits one of the holders of prime New York Times op-ed real-estate, columnist David Brooks has analyzed American society and concluded that the problem is … us:

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

I guess Brooks didn’t get the word about the brown acid.

Because, see, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monicagate, torture and other war crimes, and even The New York Times helping lie this country into a war and sitting on a story about unconstitutional and criminal government wiretapping for more than a year while the guilty president who ordered it won re-election, have had nothing to do with collapse of people’s faith in institutions. Nor has the fact that the economy got blown up by the greatest white-collar crime in history while  the people responsible are still massively wealthy and the people who warned about it are continually ignored. Nor has the fact that government in general and the Republican Party in particular are hell-bent on looting this country until there is nothing left to steal.

And Jesus H. Child Molesting Vaginal Ultrasound Christ with Jimmy Swaggart Sauce and Jerry Falwell on top, what could institutional religion possibly have done to warrant such a massive loss of trust?

Without having done any polling, I’ll grant Brooks one possible point: It might actually be true that institutions aren’t performing significantly worse now than they did in 1955 (they were screwing up in 1925, too, and the result was the Great Depression). It might just be that thanks to the Intertubez, we just know more about the screwups than we used to. Certainly I don’t think the Catholic Church’s skirts were any cleaner in 1955.

But the reason followers aren’t following leaders the way they used to has nothing to do with vanity on the rabble’s part. (I and people like me don’t think we’re better than everyone else around us, but let’s face it: If Congress, the Roman Catholic Church and The New York Times op-ed page are the standard, then the bar’s really not all that high.) It’s not even explained entirely by the fact that leaders have manifestly screwed the pooch and/or sold themselves to the highest bidder, over and over again. No, what really gets our goats is that if you have enough money and/or profess to believe certain things, you can commit the most calamitous misfeasances, utterly without consequence — indeed, you can make a career out of failing upward – while those who were right are marginalized and ridiculed.  Blogger Driftglass has neatly encapsulated the phenomenon:

That last bit’s the most maddening part, and for Exhibit A, you need look no further than David Effing Brooks himself,  sitting in his comfy office at the Times Almighty and pulling meretricious and/or delusional observations out of his lower digestive tract, not only getting to keep his lucrative job but actually being celebrated as a public intellectual. He has decided that this country’s biggest problem is that you and I haven’t suffered enough. God help us.

Monday, April 9, 2012 8:50 pm

The NY Times should just die already, moronic sports editor edition

If you’ve ever wondered why newspapers are dying, here’s a significant clue:

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The golf writer for the New York Times told a website Thursday she wouldn’t want to cover the Masters again until Augusta National invites a woman to be a member.

“If it were left to me, which it seldom is in the power structure of writer versus editor, I’d probably not come cover this event again until there is a woman member,” Karen Crouse told GOLF.com. “More and more, the lack of a woman member is just a blue elephant in the room.”

Contacted by The Associated Press, Times sports editor Joe Sexton said the comments were, “completely inappropriate and she has been spoken to.”

So, after some poking around the Times’ website, I submitted the following email to Joe Sexton:

Dear Joe:

Resign. Just quit. You’re doing the craft of journalism no damn good whatever, and I say that with some sense of perspective, having devoted a quarter-century of my life to it.

Gee. So Karen Crouse had the unmitigated gall to point out that the sponsoring organization of a major event on her beat is run by a bunch of Neanderthals. Until fairly recently, publicly remarking on such a fact was considered “journalism.” It was also considered “holding the powerful accountable,” “refusing to truckle to sexist shitheads” and “introducing a desperately needed note of reality into an industry and a national conversation that has grown lethally surreal,” among other things.

If you were an editor worth the name, the “words” you would have had with Karen Crouse would have been, “Good work. Here’s a raise.”

Oh, I’m sure that, coached by Times Co. lawyers and PR people, you could give me a nice talk about “ethics” and the appearance of objectivity and all that other happy horseshit. And all that stuff might even work on a half-bright marmoset who had never heard of Judy (“I was proved f–king right”) Miller and is never subjected to the factual inaccuracies, contextual ignorance, economic illiteracy and sociopathic contempt for the nonwealthy that makes up the Times op-ed page these days. But don’t try that shit on anyone else. You’d be wasting the very expensive time of your legal counsel.

In conclusion, Karen Crouse has a lot better idea of the ethics, values and duties of journalism than you do. Depriving Augusta National of the oxygen of publicity is not only the right thing to do, it might well be the most effective thing to drag the club, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.  The fact that she listened to your “talking to” and apparently didn’t shove a pica pole up your hindquarters also suggests she has a higher level of patience than anyone this side of Mother Teresa.

You want to know why newspapers are dying? Look in the mirror.

With richly deserved contempt,

Lex

I will give him credit for this: He responded promptly.

Always a delight to receive the thoughtful observations of a principled reader such as yourself.
Nice getting to know you, and thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts.
Joe

Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion, but not his own math

Dean Baker eviscerates both James B. Stewart of The New York Times and Rep. Paul Ryan’s massive tax cuts for rich folks disguised as a federal budget:

What Stewart tells us is reasonable is that the budget calls for cuts in entitlements and tax reform. He then asks who could disagree with this.

One has to wonder whether Stewart has looked at the Ryan budget. First, on taxes the only specifics are cuts in the tax rates paid by rich people and corporations. None of the offsetting tax increases are specified.

If this sounds like a sensible opening gambit, let’s imagine the equivalent on the opposite side. Suppose that we proposed to increase Social Security benefits for the bottom two income quintiles of retirees. Suppose that we also proposed increased spending on infrastructure, research and development, and education.

Suppose the left-wing Ryan budget wrote down that these spending increases would be offset by unspecified reductions in government waste. We then told CBO to score it accordingly. Is this a good starting point for further discussion? …

Even more to the point: Is there anyone who has been paying attention for the past 20 years who believes that if some leftist proposed such a budget as Baker hypothesizes, the mainstream media (forget Fox) wouldn’t go utterly batshit calling out the many problems, miscalculations and flawed assumptions contained therein, including but not limited to some that were not flawed or miscalculated at all (Politifact and Factcheck, I’m looking at you)?

The Ryan budget is proving to be a wonderful Rorschach test. We have people who want to be part of the inside Washington conversation who praise the budget’s courage and integrity. Then we have people who believe in arithmetic who call it what it is: a piece of trash.

Why does this matter? Because people who ought to know better are running round calling Paul Ryan a serious thinker, when in fact he is either unable or unwilling to do fifth-grade math, and because there’s a nontrivial chance he will be Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Friday, January 20, 2012 8:34 pm

Happy new year!

Sorry I haven’t been around. I’ve been busy.

For one thing, I took a real vacation earlier this month, which I desperately needed.

For another, I’m back in school. Fun, but major timesuck.

So, what’s been going on?

Well, we’re now down to four presidential candidates on my side. Mitt Romney, lying sack (outsourced to Steve Benen). Newt “Swing” Gingrich, flaming hypocrite. Rick Santorum, who wants government small enough to fit into your uterus. And Racist Ron Paul, the “libertarian” who ain’t, exactly.

Really, GOP? Really?

The Times Almighty wonders out loud whether it ought to point out when lying presidential candidates are, you know, lying. And NBC’s White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, worries that the biggest problem in the presidential campaign might be … wait for it … Stephen Colbert.

I may go back into seclusion.

Sunday, November 27, 2011 10:31 pm

Media criticism …

… outsourced to Duncan “Atrios” Black:

When Village elders like David Brooks or similar write their various tributes to the joys of other people suffering in order to purge the nation of its sins, and by sins they mean the Lewinsky affair and not banksters stealing all the money, I think their idea of personal austerity is like cutting HBO from the cable bill or something. They have no understanding of what it might be like to be without a job for years after spending your life living mostly paycheck to paycheck. It isn’t about one fewer trip per month to the Outback.

In the old days, journalism of Brooks’s type, replete with errors of fact and context, would be called “bad journalism,” and its perpetrators would be fired. Now they get slots on the New York Times op-ed page and cushy TV-talk-show gigs.

Thursday, September 15, 2011 7:05 pm

Why John Cole is better than The New York Times

John Cole was a Republican who supported invading Iraq in 2003.

Bill Keller is the editor of The New York Times, whose flawed reporting contributed significantly to the perception that the U.S. needed to invade Iraq.

Here is what Bill Keller says about his role in that fiasco:

Where does this leave me? The world is well rid of Saddam Hussein. But knowing as we now do the exaggeration of Hussein’s threat, the cost in Iraqi and American lives and the fact that none of this great splurge has bought us confidence in Iraq’s future or advanced the cause of freedom elsewhere — I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.

Whether it was wrong to support the invasion at the time is a harder call. [Emphasis added; see below -- Lex] I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly, but I could see that there was no clear plan for — and at the highest levels, a shameful smugness about — what came after the invasion. I could not have known how bad the intelligence was, but I could see that the White House and the Pentagon were so eager to go that they were probably indifferent to any evidence that didn’t fit their scenario. I could see that they had embraced Chalabi, the exile cheerleader for war, despite considerable suspicion within the State Department and elsewhere that he was a charlatan. I could have seen, had I looked hard enough, that even by the more dire appraisals of Hussein’s capabilities he did not amount to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called in a very different context “a clear and present danger.” But I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.

And here is what Cole — who, by the way, is no longer a Republican — says about what Bill Keller says:

What a bunch of mealy-mouthed bullshit, particularly the highlighted part. The war has been a complete and total disaster, and you don’t just get to grant yourself absolution by claiming it was a tough call. The simple fact of the matter is that warmongering cheerleaders like me and Keller got it wrong. The difference between me and Keller is I have the balls to admit I was wrong. Lots and lots of people with the exact same information we had got it right. Not only did they get it right, but they were chided and derided by folks like me, and in some cases were investigated by the CIA or had their covert cover blown.

So STFU, Keller. You were wrong then, as was I, and you haven’t learned a damned thing in the decade since other than the most important thing in our modern political and media environment is to never admit you were wrong.

For the record, I, too, supported the invasion, mainly because of the claims that Saddam had or was close to getting nuclear weapons and because I naively believed that the U.S. government wouldn’t lie us into a war again (remember the Gulf of Tonkin?). And I, too, was wrong. I apologize for that. I take a little comfort in the fact that I didn’t chide or deride those who disagreed with me, but not much.

And I think Cole’s larger point is crucial. Those who were right — about Iraq, about the housing bubble, about the widespread mortgage fraud — are still being chided and derided. Certainly they were not being given positions of responsibility and authority as a reward for their having been correct. Hell, they’re almost never even showing up on the Sunday-morning talk shows. Meanwhile, toads and worse like Doug Feith and John Yoo are rewarded for their wrongness. (Keller, for his part, should have lost his job over Judy Miller alone.)

Behavior like that is not how a great country stays great.

Monday, April 18, 2011 9:14 pm

NYT disease

I welcomed the addition of Joseph Nocera to the New York Times’ op-ed stable primarily because he has been properly harsh on the socialization of private industry’s costs (particularly banking) and because I thought he might not succumb to the Times culture of constantly denying undeniable error.

Oops.

First, Nocera writes a column about the need for increased domestic natural-gas production (which, by the way, I don’t dispute) without mentioning the significant potential environmental downside — a particularly egregious omission for those of us in North Carolina, where the battle over whether and how fracking will be permitted is being waged in the General Assembly right now.

Then, as Ed Cone observes, when called on this significant error of omission, Nocera doubles down.

OK, Times, we get it. Just die already.

Thursday, July 1, 2010 10:42 pm

“… and newspapers … drove the getaway car.”

It is common in every age for humanity to mourn the passing of morality. And in the interest of perspective, I guess it’s appropriate to point out that no one we know of has been operating gas chambers and crematoria lately.

That said, we have had, in the fairly recent past and possibly continuing as I type, people in our government and military who have carried out torture and other war crimes and crimes against humanity, and leaders in this country who have ordered torture and other war crimes and crimes against humanity. This fact that has been strongly suspected since late 2003 or early 2004 and beyond doubt since President Bush’s public acknowledgement in April 2008 that he ordered at least one specific instance of torture, the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, an admission he repeated publicly as recently as one month ago.

Only here’s the thing. A study by Harvard students of the four largest U.S. papers by circulation found that between the 1930s and 2004, they overwhelmingly called waterboarding torture, often explicitly. But when the Bush administration started pushing back, a funny thing happened (pdf):

… from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

Now, why might these phenomena have occurred?

One simple answer is that mainstream media are not the liberal, America-hating institutions their right-wing critics always claim. Indeed, they never have been. That’s factual enough, as far as it goes.

But there’s a bigger problem here.

Conservatives like to accuse liberals of not having any standards or values, of “moral relativism,” of believing there were no objective facts, only different individual perspectives. But in fact, the so-called liberal media, for about three-quarters of a century, had a pretty damn clear standard and value with respect to waterboarding: It was torture, and it was wrong, and it was a crime, and that was a fact.

What changed?

Simple: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney started pushing back. And the news media chose not to believe their own lyin’ eyes. But don’t take my word for it. Take … well, the word of an anonymous spokesman for The New York Times in this story from Yahoo!‘s Michael Calderone:

However, the Times acknowledged that political circumstances did play a role in the paper’s usage calls. “As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

So by this standard of logic, if the White House says 2 + 2 = 5, The New York Times repeats that position uncritically, justifying that action by saying that using a particular numerical fact “amounts to taking sides in a political dispute. “Fit[ting] all the moral and legal definitions of torture” might be good enough for The New York Times’ opinion pages, but apparently that’s not good enough for those elevated beings who breathe the rarified air of the Times newsroom, even when the “legal definition of torture” is simple enough that even a New York Times reporter ought to be able to understand it:

torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

For 75 years or more, Americans had no trouble understanding that waterboarding met this definition. All of a sudden, however, along come Bush and Cheney and the Times isn’t so sure. Hey, Times, here’s a clue, free of charge: Not all political disputes are honest differences of opinion. Some of them involve one side or the other making assertions of fact that are objectively false, either because they’re shooting from the hip or because they’re lying. And guess what a journalist’s job is? To report when that happens, you asshats.

The Times and the other major papers surveyed have failed to do a journalist’s job. Andrew Sullivan, the Atlantic blogger who recently publicized the weeks-old Harvard study, comments:

So their journalism is dictated by whatever any government says. In any dispute, their view is not: what is true? But: how can we preserve our access to the political right and not lose pro-torture readers? If you want a locus classicus for why the legacy media has collapsed, look no further.

So if anyone wants to get the NYT to use a different word in order to obfuscate the truth, all they need to do is make enough noise so there is a political dispute about a question. If there’s a political dispute, the NYT will retreat. And so we now know that its core ethos is ceding the meaning of words to others, rather than actually deciding for itself how to call torture torture. Orwell wrote about this in his classic “Politics and the English Language.” If newspapers will not defend the English language from the propaganda of war criminals, who will? And it is not as if they haven’t made this call before — when they routinely called waterboarding torture. They already had a view. They changed it so as not to offend. In so doing, they knowingly printed newspeak in their paper — not because they believed in it, but because someone else might.

This is not editing. It is surrender. It is not journalism; it is acquiescence to propaganda. It strikes me as much more egregious a failing than, say, the Jayson Blair scandal. Because it reaches to the very top, was a conscious decision and reveals the empty moral center in the most important newspaper in the country.

When historians look back and try to understand how the US came to be a country that legitimizes torture, the New York Times will be seen to have played an important role in euphemizing it, enabling it, and entrenching it. The evidence shows conclusively that there is not a shred of argument behind the dramatic shift in 2002 — just plain cowardice.

In my view, the people who made that decision should resign.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. But I would argue that the Times has even bigger problems, especially if you believe in an afterlife. Philly Daily News blogger Will Bunch gets at this:

… in claiming they were working so hard not to take “a side,” the journalists who wouldn’t call waterboarding “torture” were absolutely taking a side and handing a victory to the Bush administration, which convinced newspapers to stop unambiguously describing this crime as they had done for decades prior to 2004. It’s a tactic that has continued to this day. It’s the reason why Cheney — who’d been nearly invisible when he was in power — and [former Bush administration lawyer John] Yoo were suddenly all over the place beginning on Jan. 21, 2009, because they were desperately trying to keep framing this debate as the newspapers had, that their torture tactics were a public, political disagreement, and not a war crime.

And tragically, they succeeded. They were America’s leaders, they tortured, and they got away with it. And newspapers and other journalists drove the getaway car.

It’s not just that they can’t do journalism right, although that is certainly true and has awful ramifications for our country’s future. It’s that they’ve lost even the most basic grasp of the difference between right and wrong and are suffering absolutely no consequences for having done so.

Sunday, June 27, 2010 7:09 pm

Remember “The grownups are in charge”??

Yeah, only, by “grownups,” Jeb Bush did NOT mean “people who accept responsibility for what they have done”:

For months now, Jeb Bush has been listening as President Obama blasts his older brother’s administration for the battered economy, budget deficits and even the lax oversight of oil wells.

“It’s kind of like a kid coming to school saying, ‘The dog ate my homework,’ ” Mr. Bush, this state’s former governor, said over lunch last week at the Biltmore Hotel. “It’s childish. This is what children do until they mature. They don’t accept responsibility.”

In fact, instead of constantly bashing the 43rd president, Mr. Bush offered, perhaps Mr. Obama could learn something from him, especially when it comes to ignoring the Washington chatter. “This would break his heart, to get advice that applies some of the lessons of leadership my brother learned, because he apparently likes to act like he’s still campaigning, and he likes to blame George’s administration for everything,” Mr. Bush said, dangling a ketchup-soaked French fry. “But he really seems like he’s getting caught up in what people are writing about him.”

Jesus wept. I don’t know whether Jeb Bush actually thinks Dubya did nothing wrong or if he’s just trying clean up the family name in advance of a run of his own. Or both.

I also don’t know what’s worse: that Jeb would say this crap, or that The New York Times would let him do it without challenging him, even though it’s factually inaccurate. Damn liberal media.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:40 pm

When I called the war in Afghanistan “the longest war” …

… looks like I was more right than I knew.

I snarked that there was no way the copper, gold, lithium, etc., supposedly in Afghanistan was “newly discovered.” But what I didn’t think about was why The New York Times might pimp a decades-old story now.

Because the war in Afghanistan is shaping up as a failure and our deadline for withdrawing arrives within a year. Duh:

… guaranteed U.S. access to “strategic reserves” of “strategic minerals”, where possession is nine tenths of the game and the resources are just as valuable still in the ground as mined and processed for market, is a heady brew to mostly-hawkish senior policymakers and Very Serious think-tankers, especially if the end of the sentence goes “and China doesn’t get them.” [New York Times reporter James] Risen’s stenography isn’t aimed at us, but at them and will be used to add some geopolitical weight to the arguments McChrystal and others are already beginning to make as to why they should be allowed to break their promise to Obama and the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan a few years longer.

The people jumping up and down, screaming, “We’ve got to DO something before the ChiNEEEEESE get all the precious!”  are some of the same people who lied us into a war. Of course they would pull a stunt like this, and I’m ashamed that I didn’t jump immediately to that conclusion or one very much like it.

UPDATE: Oh, for crying out loud, Risen even admits it:

“Several months ago, Milt [former CIA officer Milt Bearden, who was active in Afghanistan in the 1980s] started telling me about what they were finding,” Risen said. “At the beginning of the year, I said I wanted to do a story on it.” At first both Bearden and Brinkley [Paul Brinkley, a deputy undersecretary of defense charged with rebuilding the Afghan economy, with whom Bearden is now working] resisted, Risen said, but he eventually wore them down. “Milt convinced Brinkley to talk to me,” he said, “and Brinkley convinced other Pentagon officials to go on the record. I think Milt realized that things were going so badly in Afghanistan that people would be willing to talk about this.”

Memo to the New York Times ombudsman: Having a Times staff writer pimping an exploitative pro-war policy (which, by the way, would violate a military agreement between the U.S. and another sovereign nation) to the Very Serious People of Washington is a wee bit of an ethics problem. Particularly when that war is going badly. Just sayin’.

Sunday, March 21, 2010 11:04 pm

As Ray Donovan once asked, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Journalism — Lex @ 11:04 pm
Tags: ,

Shorter New York Times public editor on the paper’s ACORN coverage: “You [expletive]ed up. You trusted us.”

UPDATE: Simon Owens offers a bit of background on the pressure on the Times to correct its reporting.

Saturday, February 20, 2010 3:29 pm

Gridlock myopia; or, The New York Times as concern troll

The New York Times is deeply concerned that the partisan gridlock in the Senate is going to keep us from being able to do anything about the rapidly expanding national debt.

That is, in isolation, a logical and legitimate concern. But, as is so often the case with mainstream journalism these days, the article is so contextually anemic that it may as well have one big, stinking fact error as a premise.

The article basically overlooks the many other problems that this gridlock will keep us from addressing. The most important problems include unemployment, health-care reform, infrastructure decay, energy-conservation initiatives and global warming.

This article is a huge journalistic failure for two reasons.

First, some of those problems, such as unemployment, are more immediately pressing than the deficit.

Second, several of them, such as unemployment, health care and energy conservation, are actually contributing to the deficit. And spending on the correct parts of our infrastructure is the surest way to create the kind of long-term prosperity that will be necessary to bring the deficit down.

Why might such a flawed article be published in the Times? I don’t know. I can think of several possible reasons. One is that reporters and their editors have bought into the notion that the deficit is more important, and more urgent, than any other problem. (You would think that employees of an industry that has been so devastated by layoffs would have more sense, but it’s still possible.)

Another is that the article goes the way it goes because that’s the way it’s steered by its sources. And who are they? In a 1,600-word article, only two are quoted by name: G. William Hoagland, “who was a fiscal policy adviser to Senate Republican leaders,” and former Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican.

But, remember, the Times is a liberal newspaper.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010 9:25 pm

The New York Times may or may not be biased, but it is unquestionably inept; or, Cokie’s Law at work

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 9:25 pm
Tags: , ,

Ordinarily I couldn’t care less about an investigative piece about a top aide I’ve never heard of who works for the governor of a state I don’t live in. But I have to call out this Times article about David W. Johnson, a top aide to New York Gov. David Paterson, because it is just a steaming, stinking, radioactive pile of Journalism Fail. Stories like this, far from illustrating — as the Times no doubt would claim — that big newspapers are indispensable, illustrate exactly why they’re dying and deserve to die.

Half a dozen reporters contributed to this dungpile, and presumably at least that many editors read behind them. Yet at no point in the story is it ever made clear exactly what the problem is. Is it that Johnson has a problem with women? Is it that Johnson isn’t qualified for his $132,000-a-year job? Is is that Paterson is showing bad judgment in hiring Johnson (and if so, why?)? Is it one illustration of a larger problem with Paterson’s staffing decisions? Is it some of the above, or all of the above?

I mean, c’mon, what the hell? Tell me: WHAT? IS? THE? PROBLEM? AND WHY? DO? I? CARE? If you can’t answer those questions, or at least give me a reasonable basis for thinking you’re going to answer them, within a few paragraphs, then do not waste my time.

I could do a blow-by-blow critique, but you’d be just as enlightened, and vastly more entertained, by reading Tom Scocca and Choire Sicca’s dialogue on the subject at The Awl (some language NSFW). This passage gets to the heart of things:

Tom: The Times is not a passive observer of these things. This kind of reporting is a prosecutorial activity. That doesn’t mean the paper is out to get someone. It means that the paper has, through reporting, come to a particular factual conclusion, and it needs to prove that conclusion to the reader.

Tom: It’s a very scrupulous kind of prosecutor.

Choire: That is a useful act.

Tom: The thing about a prosecutorial approach is, it assumes a vigorous defense.

Tom: Is the evidence you’re obtained solid and persuasive, or can someone contest the facts? Are there gaps in your logic that would allow someone to reject your conclusions? Is there exculpatory evidence that you’re overlooking? Would your piece survive the most skeptical and uncharitable reading it could get?

Choire: You mean, basically, someone asking over and over again: why are you writing this?

Tom: Yes. Why are you writing this, and how do you know you’re right?

Tom: That is what the editors’ job is.

Tom: But what the editing at the Times does is it fudges the indictment.

Tom: “We ain’t sayin’ nothin’, we’re just sayin’…”

And this charming conclusion, which illustrates the virtue of cautioning the reader about what you don’t know, and why:

Tom: You have six reporters on this story, and you are just asking the woman to offer evidence herself? Get the [investigative record pertaining to the crime she alleges], or shut the [expletive]  up.

Choire: I’d like to think a parenthetical was cut by the editors there about shoddy police record-expunging.

Tom: I’d like to think I’ve got a homemade ice cream sandwich right here, but I don’t.

As T&C observe, this is as bad, in a number of ways, as the Times’ “expose” of John McCain.

Back in 2003, the blogger Digby codified what came to be called the “Cokie Roberts law,” based on something that pundit had once said about the need for mainstream news organizations to cover even stories they themselves couldn’t document independently: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it’s out there.” To a certain extent there’s some merit to the point, in the sense that if, for example, the National Enquirer claims presidential candidate John Edwards is having an affair, then, yes, mainstream news organizations should look into it.

But truth does matter, legally, morally, intellectually and practically. Therefore, serious news organizations should NOT just publish whatever gossip, unsubstantiated allegations, uncorroborated claims, questionable conclusions and leaps of logic they can come up with on the subject. It means they should find out what the facts are, determine what if anything can be concluded from those facts, and test all that stuff carefully. And then publish, if there’s actually any there there.

In the story of David W. Johnson, there may or may not actually be any there there. That’s the problem: I can’t tell. The Times confused me and it wasted my time doing it. And if I’m this annoyed, I can only imagine how David W. Johnson must feel.

(I’m adding this quote from commenter Karen UhOh, although it doesn’t really define the precise nature of my problem with the article, just because I think it’s funny: “They yelled ‘Fire!’ and delivered fart.”)

Friday, July 10, 2009 8:31 pm

I’m no business whiz …

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 8:31 pm
Tags: ,

… so maybe I’m missing something obvious, but if The New York Times Co., which does not charge for content on its newspaper Web sites, is taking in $237 million a year in online revenue from its newspaper sites alone, then why can’t it do … well, pretty much whatever it wants, news-wise?

Because even as labor- and resource-intensive as journalism is, $237 million will buy quite a lot of it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 9:52 pm

Another swing-and-a-miss in New York … and I ain’t talking baseball.

On Saturday, The New York Times published this story:

WASHINGTON — When Justice Department lawyers engaged in a sharp internal debate in 2005 over brutal interrogation techniques, even some who believed that using tough tactics was a serious mistake agreed on a basic point: the methods themselves were legal.

Previously undisclosed Justice Department e-mail messages, interviews and newly declassified documents show that some of the lawyers, including James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general who argued repeatedly that the United States would regret using harsh methods, went along with a 2005 legal opinion asserting that the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency were lawful.

Only here’s the thing: The Times based its story in significant part on memos from Comey that actually show the opposite with respect to combining various forms of, as the phrase goes, enhanced interrogation techniques. Go on and read ‘em yourself; it won’t take long.

What they actually show, among other things, is that both Comey and another Justice official, Pat Philbin, were raising serious concerns about the analysis that led to the conclusion that torture was legal; that Vice President Dick Cheney was putting pressure on Justice to provide legal cover — and to do it quickly; that Comey personally told then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez that the combined-effects memo “would come back to haunt him and the Department.” (Gonzalez even agreed with Comey that that memo was unacceptable as written.)

Comey also writes:

[Ted Ullyot, then chief of staff to Gonzalez] asked if I felt like I had had the chance to adequately air my views with the AG. I told him I had, so much so that the AG had agreed with me, which left me puzzled about the need to send the opinion now.

I told him that the people who were applying pressure now would not be there when the [   ] hit the fan. Rather, they would simply say that they had only asked for an opinion. It would be Alberto Gonzalez in the bullseye. I told him that my job was to protect the Departmwnt [sic] and the AG and that I could not agree to this because it was wrong.

Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald provides more detailed analysis of how the memos undermine the Times’ thesis rather than supporting it.

So does Marcy Wheeler, a former federal prosecutor, at Firedoglake. One thing she finds in the memos that the Times somehow did not is that ” … the May 10, 2005 authorization to use combined techniques was designed to give legal cover for something that had already happened.” She also provides additional analysis, particularly in this post, although even someone not overly familiar with either Washington politics or the law can look at the plain meaning of the memos and understand that the Times article does not accurately represent their contents.

In particular, she points out that although the Times says Comey said individual torture techniques were “legal,” Comey in fact makes clear that he believes only that they do not violate one particular U.S. statute (which was all he actually was asked about). He specifically emphasizes that he is not considering whether they might violate the Geneva Conventions or the UN Convention Against Torture.

Here’s Greenwald’s summary:

It’s worth noting that all of the officials involved in these events — including Comey — are right-wing ideologues appointed by George Bush.  That’s why they were appointed.  The fact that Comey was willing to go along with approval of these tactics when used individually — just as is true of his willingness to endorse a modified version of Bush’s NSA warrantless eavesdropping program in the face of FISA — hardly proves that there was a good-faith basis for the view that these individual tactics were legal.

But the real story here is obvious — these DOJ memos authorizing torture were anything but the by-product of independent, good faith legal analysis.  Instead, those memos — just like the pre-war CIA reports about The Threat of Saddam — were coerced by White House officials eager for bureaucratic cover for what they had already ordered.  This was done precisely so that once this all became public, they could point to those memos and have the political and media establishment excuse what they did (“Oh, they only did what they DOJ told them was legal”‘/”Oh, they were only reacting to CIA warnings about Saddam’s weapons”).  These DOJ memos, like the CIA reports, were all engineered by the White House to give cover to what they wanted to do; they were not the precipitating events that led to and justified those decisions.  That is the critical point proven by the Comey emails, and it is completely obscured by the NYT article, which instead trumpets the opposite point (“Unanimity at DOJ that these tactics were legal”) because that’s the story their leaking sources wanted them to promote.

What’s most ironic about what the NYT did here is that on the very same day this article appears, there is a column from the NYT Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, excoriating the paper for having published a deeply misleading front page story by Elizabeth Bumiller, that claimed that 1 out of 7 Guantanamo detainees returned to “jihad” once they are released.  That happened because Bumiller followed the most common method of modern establishment reporting:  she mindlessly repeated what her government sources told her to say.  As Hoyt put it:

But the article on which he based that statement was seriously flawed and greatly overplayed. It demonstrated again the dangers when editors run with exclusive leaked material in politically charged circumstances and fail to push back skeptically. The lapse is especially unfortunate at The Times, given its history in covering the run-up to the Iraq war.

That is exactly what Shane and Johnston did with these Comey emails.

The first three rules of journalism are 1) follow the money, 2) follow the money and 3) follow the money. Rule No. 4 is: Always read the documents. The NYT article reads as if the people who wrote it didn’t read them. I don’t know whether that’s because, as Greenwald supposes, the reporters were merely parroting what their sources were telling them, or whether something else was going on. But the Times blew this one badly, as anyone who looks at the e-mails him/herself can plainly see.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 10:14 am

Memo to Jail-Me Judy

(This post originally appeared in my blog The Lex Files at News-Record.com, which is no longer available.)

So former New York Times reporter (or Bush-administration mouthpiece) Judith Miller was actually presuming to lecture the rest of us this past weekend on journalism ethics.

It is to laugh.

Now, to be absolutely, positively, scrupulously fair to Miller, she’s quite right about increasing levels of secrecy, and corresponding decreases in the levels of freedom, in this country. In fact, the country’s voters spoke rather loudly last Tuesday to the effect that they get that and want to do something about it.

But I had to laugh at this:

Miller said the American media, however, give the federal government reason to doubt its motives and competence each time it is discovered that an article is plagiarized or gossip is reported as fact.The blurring of entertainment and news and the relaxing of journalistic standards can be seen in online bloggers who are critical of people without giving them an opportunity to respond or who don’t post corrections when they learn that what they have posted is wrong, she said.

“I’m worried about bloggers,” she said. “(A post) starts as a rumor and within 24 hours it’s repeated as fact.”

While she advocates a federal shield law to protect mainstream journalists from divulging their sources, she doesn’t favor extending that to bloggers who don’t follow the standards and ethnics of the journalism industry.

Still, she wouldn’t restrict a blogger’s right to publish online. She said some bloggers have been invaluable in uncovering government flaws.

“I’m glad to welcome them as long as they agree to the standards,” she said.

Tell me, Miss “I was proved f—— right”: What exactly are the standards?:

On September 7, 2002, Miller and Times reporter Michael R. Gordon reported the interception of metal tubes bound for Iraq. Her front page story quoted unnamed “American officials” and “American intelligence experts” who said the tubes were intended to be used to enrich nuclear material, and cited unnamed “Bush administration officials” who claimed that in recent months, Iraq had “stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”[4]Miller added that “Mr. Hussein’s dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions, along with what defectors described in interviews as Iraq’s push to improve and expand Baghdad’s chemical and biological arsenals, have brought Iraq and the United States to the brink of war.” Although Miller conceded that some intelligence experts found the information on Iraq’s weapons programs “spotty,” she did not report specific and detailed objections, including a report filed with the US government more than a year before Miller’s article appeared by retired Oak Ridge National Laboratory physicist, Houston G. Wood III, who concluded that the tubes were not meant for centrifuges.

Shortly after Miller’s article was published, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld all appeared on television and pointed to Miller’s story as a partial basis for going to war. Subsequent analyses by various agencies all concluded that there was no way the tubes could have been used for uranium-enrichment centrifuges.

Miller would later claim, based only on second-hand statements from the military unit she was embedded with, that WMDs had been found in Iraq. (NYT; April 21, 2003) This again was widely repeated in the press. “Well, I think they found something more than a smoking gun,” Miller said on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. “What they’ve found is a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual, a scientist, as we’ve called him, who really worked on the programs, who knows them, firsthand, and who has led MET Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions.” This story also turned out to be false.[5]

On May 26, 2004, a week after the U.S. government apparently severed ties with Ahmed Chalabi, a Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. It also regretted that “information that was controversial [was] allowed to stand unchallenged.” While the editorial rejected “blame on individual reporters,” others noted that ten of the twelve flawed stories discussed had been written or co-written by Miller.[6]

Miller has reacted angrily to criticism of her pre-war reporting. In a May 27, 2004 article in Salon, published the day after the Times mea culpa, James C. Moore quoted her: “You know what,” she offered angrily. “I was proved f—— right. That’s what happened. People who disagreed with me were saying, ‘There she goes again.’ But I was proved f—— right.” This quotation was originally in relation to another Miller story, wherein she indicated that trailers found in Iraq had been proven to be mobile weapons labs. That too was later shown to be untrue.

So tell us, Judy: Is it OK if the bloggers lie the country into a war, like you did, as long as they correct their misspellings?

Actually, strike that. I’ll tell you what: In the unlikely event we who are still in the business of trying to report stuff instead of making stuff up need your advice, we’ll beat it out of you. Otherwise? Just. Shut. Up. Our jobs are hard enough as it is.

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