a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The Rand Paul STOMP, the media pearl clutch

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th October 2010

Great ad — but Talking Points Memo’s Evan McMorris-Santoro  harrumphs: “It seems Democrats have decided to politicize the allegedly criminal assault of activist Lauren Valle.”

Well, of course they are — and well they should.  Has someone explained to Evan that there’s an election on?  It’s really not a big leap to say hanging out with thugs like Tim Profitt might, just might be of a piece with coming up with thuggish policies like insanely high Medicare deductibles, opposing coal mine safety regulations, or 23 percent sales taxes.  Punctuating that point with Profitt stomp footage seems OK to me.

Will it “work”?  I don’t know.  It’s unlikely to convert Paul voters to Conway voters, but it might make a few stay home; the main effects they may be after is galvanizing unlikely Democratic voters to vote and getting undecideds to move to Conway.

What gets me is that yet again, a hard-hitting, accurate ad is disparaged for its decorum rather than its content.  Dear media: when you decide to go all Marquis of Queensberry on us, at least know what the game is and what the rules are — and don’t confuse those rules with your own precious, pearl clutching judgments about campaign etiquette.

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Actively embedded, passively acquiescing

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th May 2010

Remarkable video from CBS, showing BP and Coast Guard personnel turning journalists away from investigating the effects of the Gulf oil spill on marshlands:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

I first saw this video in a story posted by Karl Burkart of Mother Nature News (MNN), who writes:

I never thought I would say this, but for once I actually agree with Rush Limbaugh. The right-wing radio host is attributed with calling the Gulf Oil Spill “Obama’s Katrina.” […] Despite Obama’s half-hearted attempt at displaying anger over the government’s “cozy relationship” with BP, I believe Obama is aiding and abetting a foreign oil company as it perpetrates an environmental crime on American soil…

While I share Burkart’s simmering anger at both BP and the Obama administration, I hesitate to go as far as Burkart in suggesting that’s a quid pro quo for BP’s campaign contributions.  Granted, it’s not comforting at all to learn the video of the oil gusher had been on display in the White House Situation Room for weeks before its release to the public — and immediate calculations that the spill rate was an order of magnitude greater than government estimates.

But I think a response by the Coast Guard (appended to the end of Burkart’s article by an MNN editor) inadvertently suggests a different analysis, both of the incident itself and of the Obama administration’s responses:

…Neither BP nor the U.S. Coast Guard, who are responding to the spill, have any rules in place that would prohibit media access to impacted areas and we were disappointed to hear of this incident. In fact, media has been actively embedded and allowed to cover response efforts since this response began, with more than 400 embeds aboard boats and aircraft to date. Just today 16 members of the press observed clean-up operations on a vessel out of Venice, La….

(Emphasis added.)  Sadly, it’s not hard these days to imagine BP or Coast Guard personnel construing “embeds” as the only authorized form of journalism — we’ve all seen it before in Iraq and elsewhere.  Indeed, it speaks volumes about journalism today that the CBS crew itself acquiesced in a plainly wrong demand.

In fact, the Obama administration seems to have accepted its own “embedding” — buying the absurd notion, for example, that the underwater video of the oil gusher (one of the principal ways of gauging the extent of the disaster)  is simply “proprietary information” that is BP’s to control. It’s not just as if the United States government has ceded control of its shores, its territory, and its authority to provide for the common good and common defense.  They’ve gone and done it — in the face of the organization responsible for the the greatest environmental disaster in our country’s history .

It seems as if Obama and his administration think there’s a tension between making BP pay for the disaster response, and exercising authority and oversight over that response.  To be sure, there may be legal issues to be solved, but there first needs to be executive will to solve them, and that has seemed lacking.    As McClatchy News’s Marisa Taylor and Renee Schoof put it, BP withholds oil spill facts — and government lets it:

BP’s role as the primary source of information has raised questions about whether the government should intervene to gather such data and to publicize it and whether an adequate cleanup can be accomplished without the details of crude oil spreading across the gulf.

Indeed it has.

UPDATE, 5/20: More from Renee Schoof and other McClatchy News reporters at the Real News Network video “Spill may be 19 times larger than BP & Gov’t say.”

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Dear Katharine Weymouth: I accept your abject apology

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th July 2009

Washington Post health care \Kathy — can I call you Kathy? great! — I’ve been a little upset about the story in Politico last week about how you and the Washington Post were going to hold pay for play issue “salons”, where companies could pay anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 to have off the record discussions with top of the line, elite journalists and government policy makers.

Now obviously this was mishandled from the start; these “salons” — heck, let’s just call a spade a spade and call ’em policy brothels — are a great idea, but the product rollout was terribleLike you told your loyal servant Howie Kurtz the day the story broke, “This should never have happened. The fliers got out and weren’t vetted. They didn’t represent at all what we were attempting to do.”

But I still accept your abject weekend apology in the Washington Post.  Like you wrote, this was a venture that just “went off track,” — kind of like a dog that slipped its leash; I mean, who’s really to blame for that?

After all, how could you be blamed for some business plan by some guy you employ to hold a policy brothel in your home? Sure, the Washington Post business vice president guy — Charles Pelton — said that “newsroom leaders, including Brauchli, had been involved in discussions about the salons and other events,” but seriously: who’s going to believe a guy who can screw up a nice racket like this one?

For my part, I can’t wait for whatever it was you were attempting to do.  Like the flyer said — “Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No.” I’m sure I speak for most captains of industry when I say now that’s the way I like my journalists, all shy and respectful, in the “intimate and exclusive” privacy of your own home.  I don’t know which of the talent in your stable you were “inviting” to these “salons,” Kathy, but I tell you what: you take a fresh young fella like Ezra Klein, why, it’d be a crying shame not to try to make a little money off him.  You brought him in off the mean streets of the blogosphere, you gave him a nice home — you have an investment to recoup! I’m sure there’s many an “underwriter” who’d gladly pay for even just a kind word from him.

For his part, Ezra still seems to hope that “salons could be profitable after all”; as long as everything’s on the record the way you (now) agree it should be.  So he’s not against the “pay to play” part — tough as that might be on little papers that can’t attract the high rollers, or the little nonprofit citizens groups who either can’t afford to get past the doorman, or won’t suck up to the “underwriters.”  Not his problem — and not ours either, Kathy!

Kathy, like you, I think there’s got to be some “legitimate way to hold such events” — there’s too much money at stake for there not to be!  However the events eventually do work, you’re right to want to“review the guidelines for them with The Post’s top editors and make sure those guidelines are strictly followed.” As long as those “guidelines” have 3 or 4 zeroes at the end of ’em, I’m sure old Fred Hiatt will play ball — heck, just a couple of zeroes would probably get you some of the, you know, less discriminating boys.  Am I right or am I right, Jackson?

I’ve been saying for a long time that the way the Post and the Times do journalism only makes sense if you figure they’re doing it for the influence, not for the readers.  Thanks for proving me right, Kathy — it might have been better if you’d piled up some board memberships instead, but now that it’s out in the open, go make it profitable!

EDIT, 7/7: D’oh. Weymouth, not Graham.
UPDATE, 7/20: prompted by Nell, I lay a figurative flower wreath at the Internet Archive link to Media Whores Online, 2000-2004.
UPDATE, 7/26: In an e-mail, eRobin went “policy brothels” one better with “message parlors.”  Also, on his July 10 “Journal,” Bill Moyers delivered a homily for the ages on the subject. Among the many good parts:

Remember, the invitation promises this private, intimate, and off-the-record dinner is an extension “of THE WASHINGTON POST brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard.” Let that sink in. The “stakeholders” in health care reform in this case do not include the rabble — the folks across the country who actually need quality health care but can’t afford it. If any of them showed up at the kitchen door on the night of this little soiree, a bouncer would drop kick them beyond the beltway.


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Yup, the Daily Me

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2009

Fellow Takoma Park blogger Keith Berner took the Washington Post to task (to wit, “WaPo is a rag“) for a couple of stories today — An Imperiled Agenda: Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama’s Political Capital and President’s Budget Strategy Under Fire: Tactic May Break Obama’s Pledge, GOP Says. Berner:

…the Post has taken it upon itself to declare on two successive days that AIG bonuses have caused the Obama Presidency to fail and that Obama is a dangerous heretic because the GOP says so.

In response, a reader on the listserv he shared this with (teaser:“The Washington Post declares the Obama administration dead.  And then declares war on it”)  replied that the Post’s articles were true and objective; the same reader subsequently recommended an opinion piece by Nick Kristof of the New York Times entitled “The Daily Me.”

So I had a look — and concluded that I agree a lot more with Keith than with Nick.

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Late to the funeral

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th March 2009

I picked up a copy of The New Republic today because the cover looked promising — a watchdog flanked by the theme “The End of the Press: Democracy Loses Its Best Friend.”  While hopeful, I was prepared to be disappointed, and I was.

The New Republic, March 4, 2009:
The End of the Press

MSM, RIP , The Editors
Anchors Away, Michael Schaffer
Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers
(Hello to a New Era of Corruption)
, Paul Starr
The Media Misery Index
The Morgue: A reporter’s elegy for his
dying paper
, Joe Mathews
The Scoop Factory, Gabriel Sherman
D.C. Confidential, Michael Tomasky

It has become the latest, longest running whine of the print media to blame their decline on the Internet, and this issue proves no exception.  The New Republic editors sniff that “On The Huffington Post and its ilk, you would find rants about how “Beltway media really makes no effort to do anything other than parrot totally out-of-touch conventional wisdom.” — rather proving the point of the “ranters,” it would seem to me.  The digs continue even when they have no bearing on the article; in a piece ostensibly about local TV news, Michael Schaffer writes, “In a cheeseball 1970s way, winning market share by selling personality prefigured the formula that’s seen lone bloggers supplant venerable newspapers.”

There’s plenty to dislike about the new “model,” such as it is, of internet journalism.  Perhaps the main thing, though, has nothing to do with any of what TNR writers are talking about: it’s often sheer, rank exploitation.  I’ve been following the early stages in the career of a friend’s daughter as she tries to break in to writing and journalism.  One of her better offers recently was the chance to work 60 hour weeks for three months at Talking Points Memo — unpaid.

It’s probably no wonder.  In “The Scoop Factory,” about the rise of the “Politico” — a kind of slightly elevated Drudge Report in tabloid form — to inside-the-Beltway prominence, Gabriel Sherman could probably have saved several thousand words by simply cutting to this sentence: Politico also vastly undercuts the big dailies with lower ad rates (a full-page color ad costs $11,000, according to the rate card; a full-page ad in the Times runs more than $100, 000).” That and who’s bankrolling Politico — none other than Riggs Bank financier Allbritton family.  My guess is we’ll never hear about Politico’s red ink if (or rather: when) that ever happens — it’s too valuable a political base and weapon.

And that’s as good a transition as any to the notion that there was also plenty to dislike about the old model of American journalism, such as it was, in the late 20th and early 21st century.  Part of that is captured in the very metrics the New Republic uses to measure the tale of woe, in their Media Misery Index: “Percentage the Dow dropped in 2008: 34 percent”; Percentage the Gannett Company’s stock dropped in 2008: 79 percent. Etcetera.  Sounds like life is tough on investors trying to turn a buck on the newspaper business.

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Tasering mentally disturbed people is funny!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th February 2009

Reading the Express (the Washington Post’s tabloid style free newspaper) today on the way to work, an Associated Press report out of Bay City, MI caught my eye:  police received 911 calls about a naked man outside a church funeral mass service.  The man reportedly told officers he was “having problems with his parents and wanted to go to church.” Things rapidly deteriorated from there:

[Sgt.] Cameron told the Bay City Times the man verbally abused police before Officer Troy Sierras immobilized him with a Taser. […] Cameron said the man likely wouldn’t be charged with any crime.

Which man? The naked one or the one in uniform?  Why or why not?  In remarks I found at the Bay City Times’ article, Cameron added,

“You never want to see anybody like that,” he said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

But an officer’s apparent right to use a torture stick to respond to derogatory remarks from someone who “[won’t] be charged with any crime” and “doesn’t know what he’s doing” isn’t the only insidious thing about this story.

What’s also insidious is that the news media play the story for laughs: the item ran under the header “eyeOpeners: Sports” — with the headline “Nude Tasering Added to X Games Lineup.”  And that there’s probably a nontrivial fraction of the Express-reading demographic who laughed like hyenas when they read it.

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Risen and Lichtblau vs. Keller vs. Bush

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th January 2009

On the occasion of Mark Felt’s (a.k.a. “Deep Throat” of Watergate) recent death, the Washington Post’s former executive editor Leonard Downie pondered whether breaking another Watergate story “could happen again,” and confidently concluded — what with prepaid cell phones, bloggers, whistleblower protection laws and all — that it could, and faster than ever: “Nixon was re-elected five months after the burglary in 1972, and Watergate was not much of an issue during the campaign. That would not happen today.”

But it did.

The NSA warrantless surveillance story —  lawbreaking arguably even more serious than Watergate, and also directly at presidential command — was ready to go before the 2004 election, but far from becoming the critical election issue it deserved to be, it was delayed for more than a year.

My timeline* of the events related to the NSA warrantless surveillance program and its reporting, and my rereading of a lot of secondary reporting, convince me that while there were many contributing factors to the Times’s failure, the most important ones boiled down to one thing: the news leadership at the  New York Times — executive editor Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman — put an appeasing, fearful kind of politics ahead of reporting a critically important story.  Their own statements and actions indicate they were more concerned — much more concerned — with adapting to and accommodating events than in reporting them.

“There’s more there”

“There’s more there…. There’s talk of indictments over at the Justice Department. Whatever’s going on, there’s even talk that Ashcroft could be indicted.”
— Eric Lichtblau, “Bush’s Law,” p. 186-187,

Eric Lichtblau
Eric Lichtblau (standing, center), DCDL/firedoglake
“Bush’s Law”book discussion, 5/13/08.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew.

Times reporter Eric Lichtblau says a tipster told him the above sometime in 2004; assuming that the tipster is in fact former Thomas Tamm, a recent Newsweek story by Michael Isikoff (“The Fed Who Blew the Whistle“) pinpoints the timing to “spring 2004” and “eighteen months before the [mid December, 2005] Times report.” While his name has been in the news at least since an FBI raid in 2007, Michael Isikoff’s December Newsweek story  confirmed Tamm was Lichtblau’s whistleblower; with elements of Isikoff’s story matching elements of both James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s accounts.

As the “eighteen months” figure indicates, though, Tamm’s risky whistle-blowing took a long, long, long time to turn into the “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts” story Lichtblau and Risen published to the Internet on the evening of December 15, 2005.

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I’d better see a doctor — I hallucinated a debate

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th October 2008

— and three candidates, for that matter.

In a profile of Republican Congressional candidate Steve Hudson, one C. Benjamin Ford of the Montgomery County Gazette informs his readers:

Van Hollen said he knew little of Hudson’s background, but that he had an impressive record of service. The two were scheduled to debate, but it was canceled by the congressional action on the economic crisis.

(Emphases added.) Thing is, I’m positive I saw that debate a week ago at the Rockville Public Library! Van Hollen couldn’t make it because of the House vote on the bailout bill, but Van Hollen’s legislative director was there — he even said “responsible, responsive, and properly prioritized,” which almost made me swoon and just isn’t something I could make up.   Hudson was there!  Write-in candidate Deborah Vollmer was there!  Looking back, I’ll grant there was a certain hallucinatory quality to Lih Young’s remarks, but everything else made sense!

Especially Green Party candidate Gordon Clark, who made a solid, persuasive impression as the Green Party candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 8th Congressional district.  Seriously, you can watch the debate online here; if you’d like to cut to the chase of any particular participant’s remarks, you can use this time chart and the slider on the video.

I’m informed that Mr. Ford will interview Gordon Clark for a coming issue of the Gazette.  That’s great — well, actually it’s the least the Gazette could do; they really ought to promise to put Clark on page 1.

But someone ought to interview Mr. Ford and his editors as well: what does it say about their reporting and standards that he’d claim (a) there were just two candidates for Congress in Maryland’s 8th District, and (b) that a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, attended by close to a hundred people, and broadcast on TV and the Internet was “canceled”?  Are they lazy, incurious, easily misled, in the tank, or all of the above?  Hell, I found out about the debate all by myself, ran to catch two trains to make it there after work, and wrote it up within a day.  Can’t an actual newspaper and journalist be bothered to try to follow a story about a congressional election campaign in their own back yard — and try to get it right?

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Rate *all* the debates

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th September 2008

A side note: I also joined many hundreds of others in “rating the debate” for an initiative by the FreePress.Net organization, which set up a questionnaire for participants to rate the media — in this case, Jim Lehrer — on his performance. The idea, at least in part, is to try to discourage the kind of farce that Stephanopolous and Gibson staged with Obama and Clinton before the Pennsylvania primary.

Rate the Debates

In that regard, I think that on the whole Lehrer was sensible and constructive, and did not come anywhere near the lows of the primary season (see the video below, by

I do think Lehrer was noticeably less deferential to Obama than to McCain, though. First, he all but hectored Obama twice to address McCain directly (“say it directly to him”). Even though he then at least said “I’m just determined to get you all to talk to each other. I’m going to try,” he then did not demand the same of McCain, at least not as baldly or memorably. Second, he was far more persistent in demanding Obama confess which of his programs would be dropped in view of the huge bailout price tag — despite Obama’s reasonable answer (assuming the premise had to be granted) that his response would be not to drop programs but phase them in more slowly.

But to be clear, I’m not interested in making a federal case of that — just in trying to do my part as one citizen media watchdog.

“Rate the Debates” will set up online rating systems for each of the next three debates as well; consider joining in.

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Presidential campaigns in a democracy don’t work this way

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th September 2008

Every night now, my 10 year old asks me, “has Sarah Palin done anything stupid today?” And every night — except for the “war with Russia? like, whatever” interview with Charlie Gibson — I have to answer that Ms. Palin hasn’t done anything at all, really.  As days have turned into weeks and Palin has yet to face a press conference, the McCain campaign has succeeded in prolonging her honeymoon with the right wing base, and controlling the terms of her coverage towards precisely the kind of “celebrity” status they once derided Obama for.

That’s why there’s some glee in the leftish blogosphere about CNN’s refusal to go along with a completely transparent ploy for free air time.  CBS News reporter Scott Conroy reported that hours before a Palin grip-and-grin with her first pair of foreign leaders (Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe), Palin’s aides notified CNN that while the TV coverage pool and CNN video cameras were welcome, the CNN producer wouldn’t be allowed to be at the proceedings. As Conroy explained:

This means that the McCain/Palin campaign would get the benefit of free pictures of Palin’s meeting with world leaders without having to face the possibility that the candidate might have to answer a question from the media.

CNN threatened to pull its coverage, leaving Palin invisible for another day — and the McCain/Palin campaign relented, allowing a a producer to attend the so-called “photo spray.” The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen was pleased — maybe a little too easily pleased — with the pushback:

Good call. The McCain campaign’s overbearing handlers are panicked at the notion of a candidate for national office hearing an unscripted question for which she has not been prepped. As a result, they want the benefit of the images, without the risk of embarrassment. As it turns out, presidential campaigns in a democracy don’t work this way.

Sure they do — McCain’s has so far. Several points: (1) “democracy” had nothing to do with the result Mr. Benen applauds; Ms. Palin merely ran afoul of CNN company policy. (2) What’s more, the decisionmakers involved would have instantly changed their minds if the event had been too juicy to pass up.  And finally, (3): the CNN producer, Peter Hamby got all of 29 seconds of access time, in which he was able to hear Mr. Karzai explain his son’s name to Ms. Palin, and apparently was unable to ask any questions.

As this MediaMatters video (“Change the Debate”) demonstrates all too clearly, the major media have accomplished nothing substantial in this election campaign other than to embarrass themselves and the country. If CNN, CBS, ABC et al are wondering how it came to pass that they’d be asked to be publicity cameramen for a nincompoop mayor from Alaska, they need only look in the mirror.

Still, as it turns out, Mr. Benen has a point after all: presidential campaigns in a democracy don’t work this way.  At least not for us.

UPDATE, 9/26: Well, I’ll finally have something to tell Maddie again; it appears that Ms. Palin has shown how extremely stupid and/or deer in the headlights and/or talented a word salad maker she can be in that Katie Couric interview.  The Editors at the Poor Man Institute have two clips of the interview and one useful comparison.

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