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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Jailed

Judy Miller is in jail. Matt Cooper and Bob Novak are not. Judy Miller is in jail not for what she did or what she said, but for what she knows (and won’t say). Matt Cooper maintained his silence up to the moment he was given an "unconditional pardon" by his “source” after which he apparently sang. Bob Novak apparently never gave singing a second thought. After all it was he who outed Valerie Plame Wilson. Judith Miller works for The New York Times. She didn’t give an inch and didn’t get a inch. The Times backed her to the last and is still doing so. Matt and Bob both work for Time Warner – the first writing for Time, the second continuing to cash in big for CNN appearances. Time helped push Matt over the edge, and one wonders if Time Warner's connections with the Bush Administration facilitated the “pardon”. One also wonders if working for that bastion of Liberalism, The Times, sealed Judy Miller’s fate from the start. It’s ironic of course that she was one of those reporters whose stories (source Ahmad Chalabi) helped the Administration by giving credibility to those phantom WMDs. But that was then, this is now.



I see in Judy Miller and her being jailed for what she knows as a metaphor for our troubling times. Thanks to the Patriot Act there are others in jail (for more than four months) not necessarily for what they know and won’t say, but for who they are. To be sure among the detainees in Gitmo and elsewhere there are some really bad and dangerous people, but we know a significant number there are caught in the “usual suspects” net. As best I can remember whatever it is that resides in my head, even the most evil thoughts (which I don’t have), is not a crime in the United States. It’s a good thing because our penal system is even more stretched than our military. One can’t have lived through the McCarthy era without feeling a shiver down your spine in hearing about the government monitoring the books you check out of the library – I wonder if they will soon put surveillance on the booksellers who have set up shop in front of Zabars or at flea markets around America.



Some say the facts surrounding Judy Miller’s refusal to reveal sources is are not as clear cut First Amendment issues as they might be. Perhaps so. I leave that to the lawyers and the few in the press who may be trying to justify that from time to time they were not so careful about protecting sources. In my own view when it comes to maintaining a free press which may be our only protection in times like these, I err on the side of the broadest possible interpretation. Perhaps Judy Miller’s source for that unwritten story, that information she has in her head but never shared, doesn’t qualify as a whistle blower, but so what. We certainly don’t want to take the slightest chance that making a reporter spill the beans will have a chilling effect on future whistle blowers. Judy Miller is in an American jail for saying nothing when Colin Powell is free for saying what he knew (or at least thought might not be) true. Judy Miller's silence has had (from all reports) no impact on the case against Leaker X, thousands have died because of what Powell said. Miller seems to have more principles than Powell. That said, is there any doubt that Judy Miller and Colin Powell are equally loyal and proud Americans? Of course not. And as for the Supreme Court not taking on the case. I guess the courts aren’t such activists after all.



Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Credibility: The Speech

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson threw in the towel his presidency, that had produced landmark Civil Rights and Anti-Poverty legislation, shattered by a misbegotten war that cost 58,226 young American lives. We still haven’t fully recovered from it, the 2000 lb. guerrilla in our national room. In the end Johnson’s biggest problem was that he had lost credibility with the public. After years of being told that, despite its cost, we were on the way to victory, we simply didn’t believe him. Nixon, it is said, lost his presidency because of a cover-up, not because of a crime. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s clear that his words had also lost credibility. We didn’t believe him. Nothing is more devastating for a leader, nothing more unnerving for a citizen. Our lives are in the hands of a president. When we don’t agree with his policies, that’s OK. Democracies for better or worse are subject to partisan dispute, frustrating, but acceptable. When we don’t believe what he says, the line has been crossed.



In the end, this is George W. Bush’s problem. We went to war rationalized by two lies. The first faded away for lack of evidence. The second is still with us. No one can deny the brutality of terrorist acts, nor their real threat to all of our well being. There is also no question that they are increasingly being used in Iraq much as they have been tools of the tragic Intifada. But terrorism is not the thing, but the modality, a distinction that too few of us are making these days. It is both simplistic and inaccurate to gloss over the insurrection in Iraq as terrorism and part of our war on it. One of the bad habits of the Bush administration is to make contentions as if they were fact. A military analyst assessing the President’s latest address for PBS, suggested that the foreign fighters who the speech implied were the primary enemy in Iraq may in fact represent only 5% of the combatants. That may or may not be the case, but the fact is I simply don’t believe George Bush. It’s not that I disagree with him (which I do), but that he has no credibility.



I don’t know about you, but hearing 9/11 (now a combination of brand and a code-word) weave in and out of speeches in such a manipulative way is getting a little sickening. No one who lives in New York has to be convinced of the horror of that day but nothing is more repulsive than hearing it being used as a rhetorical device to justify every controversial foreign policy action of this administration. I can live with the argument that we can’t just cut and run when we’ve mucked up a country and served as a catalyst for such destruction, such misery (even if there are places in Iraq that remain relatively tranquil). What I can’t buy into is doing it under some false premise, some blatant lack of candor justified time and again by 9/11. The fact that Bush and his people are incapable of admitting and mistakes and of taking responsibility for their actions makes it all the worse.



One more thing. The last thing I would want to see is more terrorist actions in my city or my country. In that everyone “red and blue” can agree. That said, there is something very disturbing about hearing over and over again from the President, his Secretary of State and others that we’re fighting there so we don’t have to fight here. The implicit message that sends is it’s OK for the people over there, not the combatants but the innocent caught in the crossfire, to die as our surrogates. There is something perverse in such an idea, as is the call for raising the flag and calling someone else’s kids to arms, but not our kids. I don’t think anyone in the next Bush family generation is in uniform. They don’t take responsibility, and they want to make us feel grateful, to take comfort, that others are suffering rather than the homeland. That makes me angry and frustrated but perhaps worse of all it makes me terribly sad.



Post Script: More on Gitmo from the President and Secretary of Defense. Not only does it serve great food, it's a modern facility situated in an inviting warm climate. Some kind of Marriott resort, I guess.



Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Fine Cuisine

We’re not making our usual summer trip to what my children and I consider our paradise, St Barths. Not being able to swim those blue green waters and see many good friends is a real downer, but our schedules just didn’t work out this year. With the Caribbean on my mind, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a new option, a place touted as having great food: Guantanamo. You think I must be kidding, but why would I do that especially reflecting on words I heard yesterday on C-Span from the hallowed floor of the Congress. Challenged by a continued call for investigation of reported abuses of prisoners detained in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan, Administration apologists lashed out with the usual charges that critics were undermining our troops and the war on terrorism, clearly Un-American if not seditious behavior. That said, the only words in defense of the practices at these prisons was, yes, the very excellent food served there, comparable to any nice restaurant across America. Which American would that be? As the kids say, whatever. The point is that it all boils down to Cuisine, the very same thing that so distinguishes St Barths from most other places. Is it any wonder that I started thinking a Cuban vacation? Blue green waters and fine food.



Of course the protectors of our country’s fine reputation don’t simply talk about food these days. When they are not telling us that we’ve yet again turned the corner with those pesky insurgents (100% imported terrorists of course), they are building a case to destroy what they call the Bill Moyers Public Broadcasting Network – that insidious tool of Lyndon (the great left winger) Johnson’s Great Society. There is a method to their approach, just claim a "truth" often enough and, presto, it is or at the very least everyone will believe that to be the case. That Karl Rove, there he goes again with his unique approach to politics and governance (indistinguishable from one another). When the President’s diving poll numbers were reported last week, the White House announced that they were planning to do a better job of talking up their positions. I guess if social security is ranked by only 14% of respondents as an urgent problem, PR is what’s needed. Oh, did I mention they had great food at Gitmo?



What continues to be so interesting is how disciplined these people are about message, all repeating the same themes as if original (and God forbid independent thoughts) were possible. I wonder who writes these lock step scripts? I wonder what’s on the menu tonight down there, what we’re all missing? Should Jean George be worried? Will putting some their recipes on air save Jaques P├ępins' controversial left wing PBS cooking shows? Oh life is full of questions these days. The only good thing about it, thinking of those falling polls, is that more Americans may be beginning to ask some questions of their own – those classically un-American questions like, “what the hell are we doing?” Do they realize how great the cuisine is at Guantanamo?



Friday, June 17, 2005

The Church of Florida

If you thought you’d heard the last of Terri Schiavo you were wrong. Terri is dead, her body turned to ash but the manipulation of her person to serve the agenda of others is alive and well, resurrected by the Most Reverend Governor Jeb Bush, head of the Church of Florida. What did George Herbert Walker and Barbara Bush feed those kids that made them such religious extremists? If this were simply an isolated case of innocuously seeking to impose a particular religious point of view on the body politic one could dismiss it with a Reagan-like quip, “there he goes again.” But it is neither isolated nor episodic and certainly not benign. Christian fundamentalists, supported by people like the governor of Florida, are engaged in a systematic attack on the America that you and I hold dear. They want to enter our bedrooms, decide with whom we should partner and discredit our judicial system which they rightly see as a threat. Most judges (described by them as activists) tend to follow the law of the land not some particular religious agenda. These zealots feel, having won the last elections that it’s time for the country as a whole to fall into lock step. Many of them now more openly and actively describe this as a Christian country which is distinctly different than a country in which the majority of its citizens are Christian. Where does that leave the many of us who are not?



Both the Governor and the President Bush seem to see themselves as ordained by God to do his work (as they interpret it). So too with Rev. Senator Frist, the Rev Representative DeLay and a host of other elected and appointed officials from the far right. I understand that Americans of good (and fair) will are sometimes slow to react – it took a tipping point of indignation to undermine McCarthy. What I fail to understand is the virtual silence and acquiescence of the mainstream progressive clergy, many of whom are citizens of Florida. Why aren’t religious leaders there and across this country speaking out against this hijacking of our republic by a fringe who no longer hide their objective of pushing us toward a theocracy in spirit if not in fact. Does anyone really believe that Jeb Bush’s response to the definitive autopsy of poor Terri’s body in referring her case to prosecutors is anything other than the reaction of a religious fanatic? It should not be lost on us either that, beyond being politically opportunistic, Mr. Bush, perhaps even more so than his older brother doesn’t cotton to defeats of any kind. After all, God is on his side, and those who think differently are sinners who can go to hell and literally will.



The debate between right and left in this country used to be about different economic visions – sometimes simplistically expressed as big business verses labor. Those halcyon days are over. Today’s debates are more reminiscent of Medieval Spain than of what one would expect in twenty first century America. The extremist religion that’s being pushed is both one sided and very selective. Turning off life support of a brain dead woman is bad, treating a prisoner inhumanely including using his belief as a torturous lever in a time of “war” is OK, the right thing to do, what undoubtedly God wants us to do. Which God is that?



One word of caution to Rev. Jeb Bush of the Church of Florida. Over in the mother county where the Queen sits in her palace there is a Church of England, the official church of the land over which she nominally presides. The problem is, nobody goes to church any more. How is that for a bright future?



Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Absence of Michael

Isn’t there any celebrity out there who can do something really terrible so that we can spend the next months (years if we’re lucky) obsessing over it?I know that poor missing girl in the Bahamas is trying to help, but even if she’s found (alive I hope), my guess is she won’t have sustaining star power. Look how quickly Terri was pushed to the side. I give it to Russell Crowe for trying to save us, but despite apparently being able to throw accurate punches as Cinderella Man, he can’t seem to be as lethal with a telephone. He’s also apologized, ouch! Thousands of reporters were sent out to California to cover the, let’s see trial of the century has already been used, oh perhaps not in this century. Well any way, thousands went and we really shouldn’t be surprised. Frank Rich would ascribe it to the age of the mediathon (his coined term), and of course that’s exactly right. But I think there are two other things at play here. First, covering these celebrity extravaganzas is safe. I don’t know anyone who was blown up by a suicide bomber or fired upon covering Michel, Robert, Martha or OJ. Second, they are all in English, stupid. Neither we or the reporters involved have to deal with one of those quaint foreign languages.



I guess that’s why, relatively speaking, things like Darfour, pandemics in Africa and generally what’s happening out there in the world get virtually no media time. Given where we are these days, and most specifically where we are as a country, I truly wonder why things like the Jackson trial merit even a paragraph in print or a mention on broadcast. Sure what happens there is important to those involved, but it has absolutely no relevance to your life or mine. On the other hand, genocide (which is something families like mine know something about) and the spread of AIDS matter very much and at some point and time will catch up with our futures, a fact that apparently nobody wants to share with us. Speaking of sharing, do you think Dr. Frist will be sending any sort of apology to Michael Schiavo upon learning that his video diagnosis of Terri was established as totally inaccurate (if not absurd) by the autopsy results released today? Maybe he should also apologize to his colleagues, the neurologists who haven’t given up medicine for grandstanding faith-driven politics and actually examined her before sharing a real (and accurate) diagnosis with her loved ones.



The other night The News Hour, once again showed the photos and stats of another seventeen service personnel killed in Iraq. They do this in total silence and I always stop whatever multi-tasking may be at hand and pay total attention. It never ceases to move me, all those young faces. As it happens that number 17 had an aura of symmetry because on the same day the total lost of US forces hit 1700 more than half of them in the past twelve months (long after the mission was accomplished and "we got him") and a very large percentage of them since that election about which we congratulated ourselves. Things certainly haven’t gotten a better nor are they likely to do so. I just finished reading Reza Aslan’s excellent book on Islam, “No god but God”. What is clear is that followers of Muhammad have little patience for colonial powers, all of whom did them dirty over a couple of centuries. Perhaps we have short memories and can abide only instant gratification, but people who see their land as being invaded don’t and they won't stop fighting until they have recaptured it. You can talk about terrorists and outsiders all you want, but in the end, we’re facing people who simply want us to get out of their home and return to our own. And why shouldn’t we, it’s so much easier to report on things we know – Michael and where he goes from here, for one. Now that's a story worth knowing about!



Thursday, June 9, 2005

Separation Farewell?

You may have missed the June 9th Lehrer News Hour report about the fight being waged by an Oregon public school official to get more than a 1,000 home-schooled kids into his classrooms. His reason isn’t at all that he feels these youngsters would be better off in a learning environment that includes something more than parents and siblings. His primary concern is that each of these non-attending students represents a loss of state revenues for the school. Without being judgmental about that narrow premise - I certainly understand his concern at a time when funds for education are so short and the need so great - I am deeply concerned about the price he is willing to pay to get these kids, and more importantly their parents, aboard.



Introduce creationism into the school curriculum and have the teachers let all the students know that this is a Christian country and perhaps we can talk, say the home schooled parents. In other words break down the barrier between church and state. This case of course only echoes what has been happening in many different places around the country specifically around replacing Darwin with Genesis – theory with truth. Considering it’s been eighty years since Clarence Darrow defended young Mr. Scopes in Dayton Tennessee, it is remarkable we're still talking about this. It is as if no science has taken place since, certainly none worth considering. The information age notwithstanding, we seem to be retrogressing. That bridge to the 21st Century is fragile indeed.



But the real concern here is that recent elections have emboldened Christian social conservatives and indeed fundamentalists of all faiths to engage in a frontal attack on one of our most cherished and long standing American traditions – keeping church and state apart. By undertaking an assault on this separation in many different places at one time, all of them seemingly involving the kind of localism that Tip O’Neill understood so well, they largely pass are under our radar. This doesn’t mean that they are inconsequential. Quite the reverse, put enough locals together and you begin to have something national.



I have long felt that there are those among us who don’t simply want to break down the barriers between church and state; they really seek to supplant the pluralistic society we cherish with an American theocracy. That may seem far fetched, even alarmist, but I think to ignore this threat would be a big mistake. The Schiavo debate wasn't merely an example of social conservative excess, it was another salvo in this ongoing struggle in which many scared members of the Senate and House were unwitting pawns. Forgive them, they know not what they do. I wish it were that simple. Let's not give ourselves the same pass.



Sunday, June 5, 2005

…the money. Right!

You’re probably sick of hearing Mark Felt’s advice to Bob Woodward and even how much money he and Bernstein have raked in (compared to Felt) since. Nonetheless, how well Woodward heeded the advice, of course in pursuit of that particular story, but more significantly personally is worth thinking about. Woodward has leveraged Watergate in a way probably never before seen in journalism. He has become an industry within himself, a manufacturer of the best seller. Many reporters were forced to dangerously embed themselves with the troops in Iraq. Some lost their lives in the process. Woodward safely embedded himself in the White House during the run up, and far from facing any risk more the possible ire of Dick Chaney et al, his “reporting” ended up in yet another blockbuster book. In the years since breaking major news as a young reporter Woodward not so quietly moved to the other side becoming a celebrity part of Washington’s society elite, rather than its independent critic.



The fact is I don’t much care what Woodward has done as an individual – more power to him in living out the American dream in the American way. But his disease is contagious as Frank Rich so aptly pointed out last month in writing about the White House Press Corps gala. Remember that when Watergate broke, CNN didn’t exist and even the greats like Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley weren’t raking in numbers like those accorded to modern day anchors. In an era where news broadcasts are routinely described as “shows”, which they are, it's often hard to distinguish between the interviewer and the interviewee. In fact the former is most likely to be better known, better paid and more of an insider than the latter. For many in the press, it would seem that what they do “on the job” (to use TV cop show jargon) is often used to reinforce what they do on their own, especially to increase the nickel earned elsewhere.



Case in point: Tom Friedman of the NY Times has written a new and from what I understand (it’s on my growing to read pile) very insightful book about a sea change in the world economy. I’ve heard him interviewed about it which (as such interviews are meant to do) made me log into Amazon. He also has been coming back to the subject in his regular column. In many respects that’s not surprising. Columnists often take on a theme and pursue it for an extended period of time to drive home their point. The only problem is that, much as I am impressed with his argument, I can’t get it out of my mind that he is promoting his book, not on a tour at this point but while drawing a salary for his day job.



Don’t get me wrong. I am not focusing on Friedman for anything more than to make a general point with a particular. I could have just as well pointed to the multi-million dollar man Tom Brokaw who may not have used his nightly broadcasts to push the Greatest Generation but who like his (former) anchor colleagues epitomizes reporter as celebrity. Friedman continues to be an important voice, an honest one. While I don’t always agree with him, it’s a voice that hopefully will be used for a long time to come. What I fear is that as news people following in Woodward and Bernstein’s footsteps, also take on Felt’s advice to a degree even Richard Nixon might not have dreamed that our nation and its free press risk becoming an endangered species, even more so than we already are. In yet another time of White House denials, cover-ups and disinformation that is a significant problem. We, their readers and listers, dare not let it happen.