Why we need organizations like Wikileaks

Here’s why:

When the New York Times revealed the location of the U.S.’s top-secret drone base in Saudi Arabia today, after months of keeping the information quiet, the other most important news outlets in the country sheepishly admitted they’d known about it, too. Along with the Washington Post, which said it had “an informal arrangement” with the government for more than a year, the Associated Press added last night that it “first reported the construction of the base in June 2011 but withheld the exact location at the request of senior administration officials.” Asked why the Times acted now, the paper’s managing editor Dean Baquet told public editor Margaret Sullivan it was simple: John Brennan’s big day.

“It was central to the story because the architect of the base and drone program is nominated to head the C.I.A.,” Baquet explained. Brennan’s confirmation hearings start tomorrow, and the Times decided it was important to discuss his pivotal role in U.S. operations in Yemen, where dozens of suspected terrorists have been targeted by drones, beforehand.

Previously, the government worried that the Saudis “might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset,” so when the location “was a footnote,” the Times complied, Baquet said. “We have to balance that concern with reporting the news.” (Fox News, too, appears to have published the Saudi Arabian base location briefly in 2011 before switching to the more general “Arabian Peninsula.”)

When the location was a footnote? As decided by whom: the White House? And I have to laugh at Baquet’s comment about “[balancing] that concern with reporting the news.” Forgive me for assuming that reporting on secretive government wartime activity conducted without the knowledge of its taxpaying citizens might be considered, without resorting to qualification or euphemism, damn newsworthy. Forgive me further for daring to presume that government “concern” is a stalling tactic as old as the media and the state themselves, and that the Times, which published the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks cables, must know a little something about that. Even the Times‘ normally decent public editor Margaret Sullivan scored an assist on the coverup this time:

One of its revelations is the location of a drone base in Saudi Arabia. The Times and other news organizations, including The Washington Post, had withheld the location of that base at the request of the C.I.A., but The Times decided to reveal it now because, according to the managing editor Dean Baquet, it was at the heart of this particular article and because examining Mr. Brennan’s role demanded it…

If it was ever appropriate to withhold the information, that time was over. The drone program needs as much sunlight as possible. This is another crucial step in the right direction.

No, a crucial step in the right direction would have been to publish that remarkable story back when the Times actually found out about it. Amazing that the newspaper had no problem helping to push us into war in Iraq with shoddy, factually incorrect reporting, but it now claims the mantle of journalistic responsibility in defense of delaying the reporting of relevant facts about our ever-expanding drone wars. Here’s the Washington Post‘s equally appalling take:

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

In China, of course, this would be called government censorship. But here in the United States, it’s just old-fashioned journalistic integrity. Glad we have that cleared up.

The future of journalism?

Screen Shot 2012-12-20 at 10.21.14 PM

Am I going too far? All the cool kids on the Internet (such as Jay Rosen) are buzzing about the New York Times‘ special multimedia feature, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek:”

I’ve never seen a better design for any story online. It sets a new standard, in my opinion. Now in saying that I am NOT saying “there’s never been anything like it.” Nor am I saying: this is the future of journalism. Nor am I saying that everyone can do this. I’m saying only what I said: in my opinion, it sets a new standard in digital storytelling.

Rarely have I personally been so excited by anything the New York Times has done. But this is truly impressive: an old-media organization standing up to be counted in the twenty-first century. Obviously this level of graphical detail and interactive content is simply too time-intensive and costly to incorporate into most stories, but it absolutely raises the bar for future feature pieces by anyone online.

Hide your kids, hide your wife: Thomas Friedman is back and pontificating

ThomasFriedmanI just conducted a quick spot check, and was horrified to learn that — in the entire history of this blog — I have devoted only two posts to mocking New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. This is really too bad, as he deserves regular treatment of this sort on a monthly basis, at the very least. (Turns out, in fact, that my first post on Sir Thomas was actually my first-ever post on this blog, which I launched on December 12, 2010. Can I get a “happy two-year anniversary?”)

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Friedman has caught my attention again with his latest missive, which you really should go take several minutes to read. Let’s examine the opening line:

When you fly along the Mediterranean today, what do you see below?

Now be careful here. This may seem like a question with a remarkably obvious answer, but you only think this because you’re not Thomas Friedman. If you were, in fact, Thomas Friedman — God save us all — you’d know that, when life gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemonade.

Now you may be asking yourself, “But what does that have to do with not knowing where you are when you’re flying along the Mediterranean?” But again, as you know — starting to get the hang of this? — you’re not Thomas Friedman. In fact, if you were Thomas Friedman, you’d likely have written some tired cliche like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” many times by now in your columns. And you would have known this axiom to be useful because both a cabdriver you once met in Amman and a flight attendant on Singapore Airlines have said it to you. And both of those people’s companies use solar panels. And so all of this is why it is not remarkably obvious to Thomas Friedman that all one needs to do to figure out what one sees below oneself when one is flying along the Mediterranean is to…look down.

Next:

If Syria and Egypt both unravel at once, this whole region will be destabilized. That’s why a billboard on the road to the Pyramids said it all: “God save Egypt.”

Oh. Yes, that explains it.

Having watched a young, veiled, Egyptian female reporter tear into a Muslim Brotherhood official the other day over the group’s recent autocratic and abusive behavior, I can assure you that the fight here is not between more religious and less religious Egyptians.

You can be forgiven for thinking that extrapolating one angry journalist’s question into a nationwide trend is a bit of a specious argument. Or that assuming any Egyptian veil-sporting female must be a card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood is just downright stupid. But then, you’ve clearly forgotten who employs Thomas Friedman: the New York Times is notorious for its three-instances-make-a-trend approach to narrative-building, so the fact that Friedman has downsized to a mere one-instance-makes-a-trend paradigm is simply a reflection of his desire to conserve energy and save our planet. As we should be doing but aren’t, because we’re not China. (Yet. Maybe someday?)

Whenever anyone asked me what I saw in Tahrir Square during that original revolution, I told them I saw a tiger that had been living in a 5-by-8 cage for 60 years get released. And there are three things I can tell you about the tiger: 1) Tiger is never going back in that cage; 2) Do not try to ride tiger for your own narrow purposes or party because this tiger only serves Egypt as a whole; 3) Tiger only eats beef. He has been fed every dog food lie in the Arabic language for 60 years, so don’t try doing it again.

I am astonished that Friedman forgot to insert a Tiger/Tigris pun here. How could he have let this opportunity slip by? Sure, Egypt’s not Iraq, but Syria isn’t either and that never stopped Sir Thomas. By the way, why didn’t anyone else covering the Tahrir Square protests in 2011 notice a tiger escaping from his cage and making a beeline for the nearest beef steakhouse? Why did only Thomas Friedman see this? I’m starting to understand why he couldn’t see the Mediterranean below him earlier: while everyone else saw the sea, he was staring at a blue monkey playing the harmonica. A solar-powered harmonica.

Friedman closes:

God is not going to save Egypt. It will be saved only if the opposition here respects that the Muslim Brotherhood won the election fairly — and resists its excesses not with boycotts (or dreams of a coup) but with better ideas that win the public to the opposition’s side. And it will be saved only if Morsi respects that elections are not winner-take-all, especially in a society that is still defining its new identity, and stops grabbing authority and starts earning it. Otherwise, it will be all fall down.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d always thought a relatively secular, progressive, democratic government was a better idea than one that strong-arms the opposition and attempts to consolidate power by pushing through an unpopular constitution. So doesn’t that mean the Egyptian opposition has already taken Friedman’s advice to heart? And if so, why hasn’t the public been won to their side?

Maybe it’s because Egypt is more complicated than all that. But more likely, it’s because they haven’t yet learned to make lemonade.

Republican unity is a figment of the Times’ imagination

Contra the post immediately before this one, New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer has a piece today talking up Speaker of the House John Boehner’s supposed “strong backing” in Congress’ lower chamber:

With a daunting fiscal crisis looming and conservatives outside the House torching him at every turn, Speaker John A. Boehner might be assumed to have a shaky hold on his gavel. Instead, it appears he is enjoying the broadest support of his tumultuous two-year speakership from House Republicans.

As Mr. Boehner digs in for a tense fiscal confrontation with President Obama, the strong embrace from a broad spectrum of the rank and file may empower him as he tries to strike a deal on spending cuts and tax increases that spares the country a recession, without costing Republicans too much in terms of political principle.

The problem is, nowhere in the article does Steinhauer present even a reasonable facsimile of evidence supporting her hypothesis. At one point she writes that “member after member spoke in support of” Boehner at a private House Republican meeting, and elsewhere quotes from a handful of post-election chastened Republicans who are now more willing to accept compromise in theory (if not in practice). These vignettes, paired with the observation that Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor have signed onto Boehner’s $800 billion proposal — a brief moment of agreement on an issue on which even Republicans in Steinhauer’s article admit they have virtually no leverage — constitute the near-totality of Steinhauer’s thesis.

Must be a slow news day over at the Grey Lady, so they decided to concoct some of their own.

Now searchable: the New York Times crosswords

Zachary M. Seward takes a lookaol at the appearance of “AOL” in the vaunted crossword puzzle over the years:

There are many ways to tell the story of AOL and its numerous reinventions, so here’s just one: The New York Times Crossword. With just a few letters, most of which are vowels, AOL is a common crutch of cruciverbalists. (See also: APE, EPEE, and BRIO.)

Below, I’ve compiled nearly every appearance of AOL in the Times crossword from 1997 to 2011, taking the company on a journey from “Prodigy competitor” (Jan. 14, 1997) to “Netcom competitor” (Mar. 29, 1998) to ”Juno rival” (Apr. 6, 2003) to “Gmail alternative” (June 5, 2007) to “Yahoo! competitor” (May 10, 2010)—oh, and finally, “Huffington Post buyer” (Apr. 17, 2011) and ”Company with Patch Media” (Oct. 9, 2011). There are many other gems in between.

Irony of the day

Today’s New York Times reports on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to expand settlements by building 3,000 new housing units in the Palestinian land known as E1 (just east of Jerusalem proper). But the way reporter Isabel Kershner concluded the article suggests a certain wry sensibility about Israel’s endless self-delusion:

But beyond the tit-for-tat measures set off by the United Nations vote, analysts pointed to a trend of deteriorating relations between Israel and Europe in particular.

“That is because the top-level people making decisions here in recent years are completely insular and out of touch with the rest of the world, especially regarding the Palestinians and the settlements,” said Mark Heller, a foreign-policy analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Self-righteousness may be good for domestic politics,” he said, but it is not a policy.”

At the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, 138 nations voted in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinians and 41 abstained. The nine that voted against it were Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama and Palau.

Yes, Mr. Heller, key decision-makers in the 138 countries that voted in favor of Palestinian observer status at the United Nations are out of touch with the “rest of the world,” by which he means the nine countries that voted no. At this point, Israeli rhetoric has entered a self-parodic stage.

The hardest job in the world?

That may be slightly hyperbolic, but the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief will always have his/her work cut out for him/her. And then shredded to pieces, castigated, and masticated ad nauseum. (Even just recently, I have also covered various unsavory aspects of the Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

In this regard, then, criticism of Jodi Rudoren is no different than the intense scrutiny faced by her predecessors (a line that most recently included Ethan Bronner, whose son served in the Israel Defense Forces). She got off to a rocky start earlier this year by doing things as downright treasonous as linking (via retweet) to a Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese news site and acknowledging the existence of Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abuminah, also in a tweet. (It should come as no surprise to anyone that Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg found all of this very upsetting.)

Well, she’s back in hot water again. As part of an otherwise very admirable step into social media (especially for an employee of an “old-fashioned” media institution), Rudoren posted the following commentary on her Facebook page on November 19, during the recent Israeli strikes in Gaza:

In terms of Sarah Sanchez’s q about effects on civilians, the strange thing is that while death and destruction is far more severe in Gaza than in Israel, it seems like Israelis are almost more traumatized. The Gazans have a deep culture of resistance and aspiration to martyrdom, they’re used to it from Cast Lead and other conflicts, and they have such limited lives than in many ways they have less to lose. Both sides seem intensely proud of their military “achievements” — Israel killing Jabari and taking out so many Fajr 5s, Hamas reaching TA and Jeru. And I’ve been surprised that when I talk to people who just lost a relative, or who are gathering belongings from a bombed-out house, they seem a bit ho-hum.

It was this last word — “ho-hum” — that sparked an avalanche of criticism. This flood of responses included one from Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss.net and a fierce critic of Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians. He posted an article extensively analyzing Rudoren’s “ho-hum” comment, as well as previous statements she’s made, and concluded the following:

Rudoren was posted to Israel last June with her family, and we have a couple of times now…commented that she seems culturally bound inside the Israeli experience. These observations in the Facebook shtetl support that view.

When, to her credit, Rudoren linked to Weiss’ column — calling it an “incredibly unfair analysis of my Facebook posts, taking everything out of context to support his agenda” — many of her Facebook subscribers took to her comments section to air their perspectives, including me:

I hate to say it, but “they seem a bit ho-hum” is something you would never see printed in the NYT — or anywhere else — about Israelis/Jews. I’m not even saying it was deliberate bias, but just that certain narratives become reinforced through sheer force of habit and complacency. That was irresponsible phrasing.

Others voiced similar concerns. (The response was not unanimously of one mind, however. Several commenters registered disgust for Philip Weiss, for example.) The next morning in Gaza, Rudoren again — to her credit once more — took to Facebook to explain herself:

My feeling is that my posts on social media have to adhere to the same fairness standards as my work in the NYT itself, but not to the same tone or content standards as I try to bring a bit of reflection/behind the news. So while people are right that I would absolutely never use a term like ho-hum in the newspaper in this situation, I might well use a different word, and probably many more of them, to describe what I have experienced as a kind of numbness and, frankly, strength in the face of all that is happened to the people here. Steadfast probably would have been a much better choice.

I did not at all mean to imply that people were indifferent to the suffering, or uncaring, or unfeeling — they are passionate about their cause, deeply connected to the land being destroyed, with incredibly close extended families loved and honored above all else. What I meant was that their reaction to the literal things that had been happening this week was (mostly) outwardly calm, even, stoic. There is little panic and little public display of emotion (whether sadness or anger) that you might see in other cultures. Talking to people has made me think this is a mix of resignation, routine and resistance, along with a religious viewpoint that views death in this context as a sacrifice, of course, but also a worthy one.

Whether or not Rudoren’s elaboration was entirely honest is certainly debatable. But whatever its degree of veracity, it appears that such off-the-cuff statements will no longer be forthcoming from the freshman Jerusalem bureau chief. Today, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (who yesterday also tackled the allegedly “Orwellian” captioning of a Gaza photograph that appeared in the newspaper) took Rudoren to task for her social media commentary:

Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.

The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.

Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.

The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.

Some would argue, however, that this nebulous middle ground is the worst position of all. The Times stakes a large part of its reputation on the lofty notion that its reporting is utterly devoid of bias, an idea that implicitly extends to the reporters themselves. Of course, it is impossible to be utterly devoid of opinions and biases developed through experience, research, or otherwise (also known as “living”).

As this inherent contradiction — practiced far and wide by mainstream media establishments — is subjected to increasingly incisive scrutiny by the likes of Jay Rosen and others, some organizations (especially those being distributed primarily via the Internet) have taken to disclosing political leanings and other relevant information upfront, and allowing readers to decide for themselves whether the reporting is worthwhile.

But in the case of Rudoren, it appears the New York Times is doing neither: now that it is no longer able to plausibly deny the existence of a functioning analytical brain inside its Jerusalem bureau chief’s head, it has decided to censor her, instead of embracing the newfound transparency of her possible innate biases. In fact, Rudoren’s critic, Philip Weiss, is among the frustrated:

Count me an unhappy reader. I like the transparency of social media, I like to know about reporters’ biases. The Rudoren moment showed us that even reporters for the most prestigious journals are real people with real responses, for better or worse; and I believe that Rudoren’s apprehensions about Palestinian culture are widely shared in the US establishment (indeed, I have admitted my own apprehensions re Islam). In the unfolding of the story, we got to see Rudoren, who is a smart, tough, thoughtful person, respond and evolve before our eyes. Now the Times, worried about its authority being diminished, needs to pull the curtain.

Chimes in Pamela Olson: No more unfiltered thoughts from Mrs. Rudoren– it probably would have happened sooner or later anyway, but it’s a pity.  It was a fascinating look into the mind of an establishment journalist just getting her feet wet, unconscious biases and all, revealing things that are supposed to be kept well hidden.  It’s always fun to watch the newbies– reporters, politicians, thinktankers– slowly learn the various orthodoxies they must adhere to.

Fellow blogger, friend, and Middle East obsessive Max Marder is on the same page:

For many, Rudoren’s social media activity has provided a refreshing peak into the way she covers her beat. She should not be criticized for talking to, or sympathizing with, actors on the fringes of the Israeli-Palestinian political spectrum as long as her reporting remains unbiased. The Times decision to attach an editor to her desk to supervise her social media use will prevent its readership from gaining insight into its reporter’s true feelings.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent. In journalism and in social media, as in politics writ large, censorship has been delegitimized and transparency is the ideal. The Times should know better.

Noted Israel critic Glenn Greenwald expressed similar concerns:

The reality is that all human beings – even including journalists – see the world through a subjective prism, and it is impossible to completely divorce one’s assumptions and biases and cultural and political beliefs from one’s observations and “reporting”. It is far better to know a journalists’ biases than to conceal them or pretend they do not exist. Having a window into what Sullivan calls “the unfiltered and unedited thoughts” of journalists is of crucial value in knowing that these biases exist and in knowing what they are – which is precisely why the New York Times acted so quickly to slam that window shut.

Me? I’m a bit conflicted. The New York Times‘ solution feels excessively heavy-handed and, worse, effectively eliminates any incentive for someone like me to bother following Jodi Rudoren’s Facebook and Twitter feeds anymore. At the same time, even if Rudoren’s reporting itself appears to be at least superficially neutral, her troubling Facebook comments leave an open question as to whether she is truly approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an open mind. (Given her predecessor Ethan Bronner’s own familial entanglement, it can surely be said that the Times has followed a somewhat risky path in its Jerusalem appointments.)

I’m still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As Max Marder has pointed out (both in his post and in conversation with me), when it comes to this particular conflict, it is often difficult to distinguish bias on the part of the Times from one’s own political stance on the subject. Whatever mistakes Rudoren may have made so far, it seems likely that we’ve now lost an interesting source of first impressions from a newcomer to the region, thanks to the (understandable) skittishness of her employer.

The New York Times, Israel, and Gaza

Robert Wright justifiably takes issue with the Paper of Record’s description of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip:

Sadly typical of the way the MSM covers the issue is a recent New York Times piece about the ceasefire by David Kirkpatrick and Jodi Rudoren (both of whom have done excellent work on other issues in the region). The piece described the blockade as “Israel’s tight restrictions on the border crossings into Gaza under a seven-year-old embargo imposed to thwart Hamas from arming itself.”

Putting it this way is a real time saver, not just because it fits into a single short sentence, but because, if you’re too busy to actually write that sentence, the Israeli government’s press office would be happy to do it for you. But this description of the blockade raises a question:

If the essential purpose of the blockade were indeed to “thwart Hamas from arming itself,” wouldn’t restrictions on imports into Gaza suffice? (And even then the import restrictions wouldn’t have to be as draconian as they were when imposed, or even as tight as they are now, after some loosening.) What I’d like to see an enterprising MSM reporter ask is: How do Israel’s severe restrictions on Gazan exports keep arms from getting to Hamas?

The Nation‘s Greg Mitchell is on the same page regarding the newspaper’s photo captioning.

The peace process industrial complex

Stephen Walt thinks the media relies too heavily on stale sources with nothing new to add on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as exemplified by this New York Times piece):

Case in point: Helene Cooper and Mark Landler’s New York Times article from a few days ago.  The title of the piece was “Obama, Showing Support for Israel, Gains New Leverage Over Netanyahu,” and the article suggested that the combination of Obama’s reelection, Netanyahu’s support for Romney during the campaign, the Gaza fighting, and the upcoming Israeli election would suddenly give Obama a lot of new-found influence over the Israeli leader.

There were two fundamental problems with this piece.  The first is that it is almost certainly wrong.  Netanyahu is going to get re-elected anyway, so he hardly needs to curry favor with Obama.   In fact, quarreling with Obama has increased Netanyahu’s popularity in the past, so where’s the alleged leverage going to come from?  Over the past four years, Obama has backed Israel over the Goldstone Report, the attack on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara, and the Palestinian statehood resolution at the UN.  He’s also stopped trying to get Israel to halt settlement building.   Obama was already re-elected when the latest round of fighting broke out, yet the administration reflexively defended Israel’s right to pummel Gaza as much as it wanted.  If you’re looking for signs of new-found leverage, in short, they’re mighty hard to detect.

Do Cooper and Landler think Netanyahu will be so grateful for all this support that he’ll suddenly abandon his life-long dream of Greater Israel?  Or do they think Obama will be so empowered by re-election that he’ll put the rest of his agenda on the back-burner and devote months or years of effort to the elusive grail of Israeli-Palestinian peace?  After pandering to the Israel lobby throughout the 2012 election, does Obama now think it is irrelevant to his political calculations?  Hardly.  We might see another half-hearted effort at pointless peace processing (akin to the Bush administration’s token gesture at Annapolis), but who really believes Obama will be able to get Netanyahu to make the concessions necessary to achieve a genuine two-state solution, especially given all the other obstacles to progress that now exist?

The second problem with the article were the sources on which Cooper and Landler relied.   The article quotes four people: Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, and Robert Malley.  All four are former U.S. officials with long experience working on U.S. Middle East policy, and mainstream reporters like Cooper and Landler consult them all the time.   There are some differences among the four, but all share a powerful attachment to Israel and both Ross and Indyk have worked for key organizations in the Israel lobby.   All four men have been closely connected to the post-Oslo “peace process,” which is another way of saying that they have a lengthy track record of failure.   I know Washington is a pretty incestuous hothouse, but are these really the only names that Cooper and Landler have in their smart phones?