Monday, April 28, 2008

Who Works For You?

People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true. -- Lewis Lapham

In This Week's Sift:

TV's Military Analysts: Who Do They Work For? Eight days ago the New York Times made a stunning attack on the integrity of the major media's military analysts and the networks that employ them. The networks responded by ... well actually they haven't responded. And maybe they can't.

Pretty Laws, Ugly Practices, and the Demonization of Lawyers. Why bother to take away people's rights when you can accomplish the same thing by taking away their ability to claim their rights? How John McCain, Senate Republicans, and conservatives on the Supreme Court have eviscerated a woman's right to equal pay.

Religious Issues. This week I gave the religious short notes their own section. Moyers interviews Wright. An atheist sues the Army. And Ben Stein stands up for innocent religious extremists who are being oppressed by nasty scientists.

Short Notes. How to make John Ashcroft lose his temper. Being poor can kill you. What's underneath the Obama-Clinton battle. And a high school prank I wish I'd thought of.

TV's Military Analysts: Who Do They Work For?
It's hard to claim that a story that made the front page of the Sunday New York Times is flying under the radar, but this one is: On April 20 the NYT had a major article called "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand". The article describes the incestuous relationship between the Pentagon, the "independent" military analysts you see on TV, and the military contractors these analysts often work for.

Short version of how the system works: Ex-generals can make much more money after their military retirement by working for government contractors. To certain extent they're selling their expertise, but mainly what they sell is their access to decision-makers in the Pentagon and to inside information about the military's needs. A number of these retired officers also work as military analysts for the major TV networks. They purport to be independent, but the Pentagon thinks of them as its spokesmen in the media. The Pentagon "pays" them by arranging special events that enhance their access -- and give them more to sell to contractors.

The article describes specific moments when meetings were held and talking points were distributed -- which the analysts then repeated on their networks as if they had come to these conclusions independently.

At the Pentagon, members of Ms. Clarke’s staff marveled at the way the analysts seamlessly incorporated material from talking points and briefings as if it was their own.

“You could see that they were messaging,” Mr. Krueger said. “You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying it over and over and over.” Some days, he added, “We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’ ”

The article is impressive by itself, but this video compiled by brings it home by collecting the TV excerpts. It's one thing to read about talking points, but another to see them come to life.

It's debatable whether this program broke any of the laws against institutionalized propaganda, but the Times' article strikes at the heart of the integrity of networks like CNN. (It also strikes at Fox News, but integrity has never been an issue there.) So you would think that they would respond swiftly either by defending themselves or taking action to right their ship. But no. There's been an almost complete silence about the story from the major media.

Glenn Greenwald has kept after the story in his characteristically relentless way. (Note to self: Never get on Glenn's wrong side.) Already on Sunday he was observing the media non-reaction: "Having just watched more Sunday news shows than a human being should ever have to endure, it is striking -- though unsurprising -- that not a single one saw fit to mention this NYT story demonstrating that these news programs all fed government propaganda to their viewers." On Tuesday he found documentation that CNN had presented its list of military analysts to the Pentagon for approval prior to the Iraq invasion. On Wednesday he was interviewing ex-CNN-anchor Aaron Brown, and destroying the claim "that [the military analysts] were there only to instruct viewers on tactical and military questions, not to engage in political advocacy."

To me, this story looks like the tip of an iceberg that the networks don't dare examine. In the old model of journalism, from the Walter Cronkite era of my youth, journalists were supposed to be working for you, the reader or viewer. Being human, they had points of view that sometimes would distort their coverage, but that was a failing. When exposed, it was deplorable.

Today, though, most of the talking heads you see are not working for you, not even in theory. They're working on you. In political coverage, for example, it has become very hard to tell the difference between the hired campaign operatives being interviewed and the pundits who interview them. This week CNN hired Tony Snow to be a political commentator. Is he working for you now, or is he still working for President Bush and the conservative movement? Is he going to help you understand the political scene, or try to manipulate you into thinking what the conservative movement wants you to think?

In theory, it would be possible to assemble to team of pundits of a variety of political philosophies, but still have them work for you. Their statements would be colored by their philosophies (the same way mine are), but they would say only what they truly thought, and not what their side's strategy wanted you to believe.

In practice, I don't see this happening anywhere.

Pretty Laws, Ugly Practices, and the Demonization of Lawyers
In order to be meaningful, a right has to be embedded in a much larger structure of oversight and enforcement. The constitution of the Soviet Union, for example, guaranteed all kinds of rights -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and just about any other right you'd want. But if the Soviet government violated those rights, a citizen had no way to call it to account. In this way, beautiful laws and oppressive governments can get along quite nicely.

Rights are popular in America, so no political party can run on the platform "We want to take away rights." But what this administration has consistently done instead is chip away at the structure of oversight and enforcement. On paper, for example, you haven't lost your fourth-amendment right not to be spied on without probable cause. But if the state secrets privilege prevents a court from examining the government's domestic spying, just try to claim that right. And if habeas corpus is weakened enough that you can't see an impartial judge at all, pretty much all your rights become unenforceable.

Habeas corpus is a little abstract, but this week we saw a much more easily grasped example of the enforcement-denying process. Federal law protects women from discrimination in the workplace, and in particular makes it illegal to pay a woman less purely because she's a woman. Last year, the Supreme Court re-interpreted the 180-day statute of limitations on this law. Under the old interpretation, each discriminatory paycheck restarted the statute-of-limitations clock. But the new interpretation is that the clock starts only once, when the discrimination starts; if you don't catch on and file suit within six months, tough luck.

The new interpretation makes the law (Title VII) just about useless. If it takes you more than six months to figure out that your male colleagues make more money, too late. Given that companies discourage their employees from comparing paychecks, very few women are going to pull a case together under the time limit.

In response, the House passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (named for the woman who lost the Supreme Court case), which would reinstate the old interpretation -- each paycheck is a new act of discrimination. But it died in the Senate Wednesday under Senate rules that allow 41 senators to block consideration of a bill. (It's an implicit filibuster; you don't have to actually talk the bill to death if you can demonstrate enough support to show that you could talk the bill to death.) Every Democratic senator voted for the bill. (Except Harry Reid, who joined the opposition for procedural reasons after it was clear the vote had failed. You have to be in the opposition to bring the bill up again in this session of Congress.) Forty-one Republicans voted against.

John McCain didn't stop campaigning long enough to vote. (Obama and Clinton showed up and voted in favor.) But he expressed his opposition from the road: "
I am all in favor of pay equity for women, but this kind of legislation, as is typical of what's being proposed by my friends on the other side of the aisle, opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems."

There you have it in a nutshell: McCain isn't against equal pay, he's just against lawsuits. But how does he intend for a woman to claim her right to equal pay, if she can't file a lawsuit? It's a Soviet-style position: We can retain our pretty law against pay discrimination, as long as we don't allow anyone to use it.

Keep this example in mind whenever the Republicans trot out their favorite whipping boys, the trial lawyers. Lawyers have a bad image these days, so it sounds good to be against lawyers. But lawyers represent clients, and clients need some way to enforce their rights. Are the Republicans offering some alternative way to defend rights? Or are they in effect doing away with those rights?

When pressed, of course, Republicans will even deny that they're against lawsuits; they're just against frivolous lawsuits. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick presents a good summary of Lily Ledbetter's case. Go and check its frivolity for yourself.

Religious Issues
So many of this week's short notes concerned religious issues that they're worth a section of their own.

This week's Bill Moyers' Journal demonstrates why Bill has become such a hero in the liberal blogosphere: He sits down with Jeremiah Wright and has a real conversation with him about religion and the black experience of Christianity. You can watch the whole thing online. (Or you can go to Salon and let Joan Walsh give you the view from Planet Clinton.) Wright's discussion of how black Christians have been taught to be ashamed of Africa and African culture gave me some new understanding of the black church: "A lotta the missionaries were going to other countries assuming that our culture is superior, that you have no culture. And to be a Christian, you must be like us. Right now, you can go to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and see Christians in 140-degree weather. They have to have on a tie. Because that's what it means to be a Christian." A lot of whites have been reading the "unashamedly black" part of Trinity Church's self-description as some kind of militant separatism. But Wright comes out of a context where the shame of being black is very real and has to be addressed.

Jeremy Hall, a soldier who happens to be an atheist, is suing the Army for religious discrimination. Now he's an atheist with a lawsuit, which gives the Army two reasons to treat him unfairly.

Ben Stein's new anti-evolution movie Expelled is out now, and crystallizes the challenge that the scientific community faces in bringing its message to the public. One of the most important plot-types in our culture is: "A privileged elite is using its institutional power to suppress the evidence against the story that justifies that power. But a brave few are trying to bring out the truth." If you can fill in the blanks in that plot so that you are the brave few and your enemies are the privileged elite, you've got a powerful propaganda weapon. That's what Stein has set out to do. He presents intelligent design as the oppressed scientific rival of evolution, and tars the scientific community as the oppressors. This kind of narrative is hard to fight with facts and reason alone, as Chris Mooney observes.

Basically, you have to fight stories with stories. A humorous parody of the Expelled trailer is here, advertising a non-existent movie about the Stork Theory of where babies come from. And this video from the National Center for Science Education makes heroes out of the people who protect students from creationist disinformation.

Short Notes
John Ashcroft made a speech Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Illnois. Elsinora from DailyKos was there, and gives a good example of how to confront an unrepentant torture advocate. My favorite part: In response to someone else's question about the UN Convention Against Torture, Ashcroft says, "Now, I don't have a copy of the convention in front of me ..." and Elsinora jumps up and says: "I do! Would you like to borrow it?"

I've talked about this before, but the evidence just gets more and more disturbing: Being poor means that you die sooner, and the number of lost years is growing. Sunday the New York Times called attention to recent reports that life expectancy has flattened out for poorer women, and is actually going down in many parts of the country. This graphic is, well, graphic. If you want to chase down the details, the two reports the article is based on are from the Public Library of Science's medical journal and the Congressional Budget Office.

Another NYT article: The story of one principal's attempt to start an Arabic-language-based public school in Brooklyn, and the smear campaign that brought her down. The article ends with the now-former principal, Debbie Almontaser, touring a Spanish-language school and thinking about what might have been.

Last week I wondered whether the 2001 quote ("we didn't do enough") that is being used to paint Bill Ayers as an unrepentant terrorist might have been out of context. Well, this week I ran across the letter Ayers wrote to Times right after the quote appeared. In it he embraced the interpretation I speculated: that he didn't do enough to end the Vietnam War, not that he didn't set off enough bombs.

David Sirota raises an interesting point: As we talk about the importance of white working class voters, at some point the discussion starts to shade over into a less savory notion -- that Democratic superdelegates shouldn't take black primary voters as seriously as white primary voters.

In the course of a speculative post about who would make a good VP for Obama, BooMan brings up something that it seems like everybody in the liberal blogosphere knows, but never gets discussed in front of the general public: Underneath the Clinton-Obama battle are the same forces that lined up in the Terry McAuliffe vs. Howard Dean battle over the direction of the Democratic Party. The Dean position has been: Evangelize for liberalism. Try to compete in all 50 states, and tell people everywhere why Democratic principles and programs would work for them. The McAuliffe position is: Focus all your energies on the battleground states and the swing voters, and move to the right to make yourself more appealing to them. Deaniacs see the 2006 sweep as a vindication of their approach, with victories in places that McAuliffe would never have put resources. As current head of the DNC, Dean is officially neutral in the Obama-Clinton race, but the Deaniac activists are almost unanimously for Obama, while McAuliffe is working for Clinton. One reason there's so much hostility between the campaigns is that the activists on each side have been battling much, much longer than Obama and Clinton.

EmptyWheel is one of the best investigative bloggers -- she covered the Scooter Libby trial better than any mainstream journalist -- and doesn't usually get into the horserace side of politics. But she's also a Michigan Democrat who resents the way her state has been turned into a political football. So she presents her own plan for handling the Michigan delegation.

SlateV lets us in on White House Life's plan for President Bush's retirement.

Am I the only one who wishes I had pulled off a prank like this when I was in high school?

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