Drone war’s media profile remains low, despite Jihadi John hit, and opponents resort to an ad campaign to raise public outrage

A ghost is stalking the presidential debates, uninvited and unacknowledged. It’s the silent envoy from a murderous side of U.S. overseas operations, one that’s reviled abroad and can’t help but scar the hearts and minds of the very people our leaders consider pivotal to global success. Here I’m talking about the U.S. drone war.

This week’s news that the loathsome ISIS executioner with the London accent, Mohammed Emwazi—known as Jihadi John—was killed in Syria by a U.S. drone was one of the rare instances when drones draw public attention here.

The candidates’ silence during the debates is understandable, since they have nothing to gain from talking about the drone war, this being one of only three out of the 44 countries Pew surveyed last year where most people support the program. Elsewhere, Pew found, disgust reigns and is growing.

We don’t hear much about that from our media, since earlier disclosures indicating our government knows that drones are killing a lot of civilians provoked scant public response—and this Congress is hardly likely to hold hearings on an effort lawmakers generally support, whose victims are both faceless and distant.

Still, I was surprised a few weeks back to see an article in The Guardian of London in which whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden were applauding some new leaks of secret U.S. documents about the drones.

The leaks, which concern CIA and Air Force drones in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were reported by The Intercept, the maverick U.S. website bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The leaks indicate that drone-borne targeted assassinations: first, are guided by frequently inaccurate “signals intelligence,” meaning inferences based on electronic communication captures instead of ground-level spies; second, are authorized by death sentences pronounced by presidential decree, which are subject to neither review nor appeal; and third, have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, many of them reflexively classified as “enemies” posthumously, no matter how thin the evidence that they had done, or intended to do, any harm to us.

As one example, The Intercept reported, during 13-month-long Operation Haymaker in Northeastern Afghanistan in 2012-13, some 200 people died, of whom only 35 were specifically targeted. “During one five-month period … nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets,” The Intercept said.

The reason I was surprised to read that Ellsberg and Snowden welcomed those disclosures was that I hadn’t seen the new leaks reported anywhere else in this country’s media.

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Suppose an inside scoop of official secrets gives some market players an unfair advantage—is that a good reason to muzzle the media?

People who are concerned about runaway secrecy and who cheer when the media break important stories in defiance of government edict may still find this particular affair worrisome.

Suppose the official secrets that are illegally leaked are published in an exclusive newsletter for a narrow sliver of the public that pays a lot of money for them. What’s more, the secrets don’t so much enlighten the broad public—which doesn’t see them—as they enable those lucky customers to cash in by making smarter investments than non-subscribers do.

Now, by and large, even though the government prosecutes leakers vigorously (especially in the national security realm) and tries its best to imprison them, it never goes after the outfits that publish the blown secrets. By custom—if not by statutory or constitutional entitlement, since this immunity has never been tested in court—the media get a pass.

But should the newsletter that brokered the illegal leak to its clients, who sought to profit from it financially, still benefit from the restraint that the U.S. government usually shows to news organizations that run classified material?

So to the case at hand, which involves Medley Global Advisors, owned by the London-based Financial Times. Medley describes itself as “the leading global provider of macro policy intelligence for the world’s top hedge funds, institutional investors, and asset managers. “

In October 2012 a Medley newsletter published delectable, secret information about forthcoming actions to be taken by a pivotal committee of the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank.

The Fed is notoriously protective of its deliberations, since they routinely move markets worldwide, and is mindful of the immense advantage that knowledge of coming decisions can give to those in the know.

In this instance, according to an account from Pro Publica, Medley reported that the Fed’s Open Markets Committee had decided in September to extend its stimulus program, and would buy $45 billion per month in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities for some months to come.

That was big news, and the day after Medley’s account came out the Fed, as scheduled, released minutes of the committee meeting, which confirmed the report. That caused bond prices to fall and yields to rise. Advance knowledge of what the minutes would say was, it’s safe to assume, extremely advantageous.

Fed officials launched an internal probe, and by last month the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a regulatory agency, had started an insider-trading investigation while federal prosecutors in Manhattan were conducting a Continue reading

Privacy anyone? Anti-GMO activists target Big Food’s science by pillaging emails of academic researchers thought friendly to industry

A group of activists “working to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know” is targeting university scientists who they suspect are paid shills for Big Food because their work buttresses industry claims that food made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is safe.

The organization, Oakland, Calif.-based U.S. Right to Know, has been using open records laws to ferret out correspondence, especially emails, in which scientists at public universities who have done research or talked publicly about GMO safety were in touch with industry representatives.

Right to Know scored with Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, who had been on the speaking circuit defending the safety of GMOs. Folta had denied receiving industry money, but the activists determined, from the three years of emails he turned over to them, that he had gotten $25,000 from Monsanto, the agrichemical giant that is a leading GMO market force.

For his part, Folta says he never pocketed the money, and used it to cover travel costs for speeches and lobbying trips that he regards as the legitimate public extension of his work as a scientist. But he was sufficiently chastened to turn over $25,000 to a local food bank, and became the prime exhibit in a Sunday New York Times takeout titled “Food Industry Enlists Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Show.”

My interest in this affair, and in the handling of the 43 scientists whose emails the activists want, has to do with privacy, not food safety. If anything, I am a GMO skeptic, not because I know much about growing food but because I spent years covering business, and believe if Big Food is anything like its cousins it will insist its products are perfectly fine up until the third generation of babies are born with horns, and will admit otherwise only when it has lucrative horn-reduction remedies to sell, when it will say it had been working tirelessly on the problem all along.

So I’m glad to see industry assurances challenged, and the work of those who support it scrutinized rigorously.

But I’m dismayed by the cavalier way in which the privacy claims of these scientists are being dismissed.

First, conflict of interest is invoked. I buy that. It’s not even remotely ethical for scientists to conceal financial sponsorships that might induce them to skew their research.

But enforcing that shouldn’t require email sweeps. Universities generally have rules that require faculty to disclose all payments from outside entities. If Folta Continue reading

Hack of meet-up site for adulterers produces plenty of embarrassment, but does it produce news?

It was in 1991, during the lurid Senate confirmation hearings over the nomination of Clarence Thomas, a career Republican functionary with scant judicial qualifications, for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The hearings were testy, and among weightier sins, Thomas was allegedly a regular at a D.C. video rental shop that specialized in porn.

Now I didn’t care for Thomas politically, and I cheered for the women who characterized him as an office creep and borderline predator. But I was chilled by the idea that his personal movie choices could first, be unearthed, and then, be brandished as evidence of character. Really? Is that where we want to go?

Little did I know. This was way pre-Internet. We now inhabit a world where the volume of personal data that’s routinely gathered by anonymous vendors is immeasurably greater and says much more about us than mere video rental records do.

What’s more, as we all continue to learn, the places where this personal data is kept are more porous, more accessible, and more frequently pillaged than any of its self-serving keepers ever willingly admit.

But even if the data can’t be kept private, can’t we at least keep it from becoming public?

Enter Ashley Madison. That’s not some debutante, but a Canadian-based online hookup network for aspiring adulterers. Its catchphrase is, “Life is short. Have an affair.”

Ashley’s marketing persuaded more than 32 million people to sign on since 2007, and it seems reasonable to figure some proportion of them had satisfactory dalliances. The parent company, Avid Life Media, wasn’t taking any chances, and hedged its bets by also creating Established Men, which offers romantic opportunities for the rich; Man Crunch, for gay dating; one site for swinging couples, and another for the overweight but libidinous.

So far so good, until July, when a web security expert named Brian Krebs broke the news that Ashley had been hacked, and information about millions of its customers had been uploaded to the Internet. The hackers, an outfit called The Impact Team, said they were outraged by Avid Life Media’s policy of letting customers expunge their identifying information for a $19 fee.

The hackers said the offer was fraudulent, the listings were left intact, and Ashley had pocketed $1.7 million last year for a bogus service. So the hackers helped themselves to acres of personal information about Ashley’s users and posted it online, hoping the furious customers would sue Ashley for failing to safeguard their privacy.

In other words, the hackers sought to avenge a fraud by punishing the defrauded, and millions of names of wannabe adulterers were posted online.

So the question is, how much of that information was honest news? What use should the media make of it? If news organizations begin scouring the listings, what should they do with data suggesting that a TV star, or a high-level bureaucrat, or a member of Congress, or a candidate for public office, once went trolling for playmates through a channel he or she had every assurance would remain secret?

As it happens, the media were hungry, but turned out to be picky eaters. An Continue reading

Maybe media shaming isn’t always a bad thing, especially if injustice otherwise goes unanswered

Media shaming is hot. It’s the new spectator sport in which hapless people say or do something that unexpectedly provokes general wrath, and get their skin torn off by online abuse from thousands of furious, abusive, and hateful strangers.

Justine Sacco was among the early headliners. She was a New York public relations practitioner who tweeted, as she got on plane for Capetown in December 2013, an ironic remark about how she probably wouldn’t get AIDs in South Africa because she was white. Within hours Sacco was inundated with ferocious, Twittered scorn and denunciation, and wound up losing her job.

Now comes Walter Palmer, the hapless dentist from Minnesota, who killed a lion in Zimbabwe in July. It was named Cecil, apparently had a devoted following, and was allegedly lured illegally from a wildlife sanctuary so the hunter could put an arrow in it. Palmer was the subject of 670,000 tweets in the first 24 hours after he owned up to shooting Cecil.

These cases and the many others that the feverish pace of online chatter is churning up involve misdeeds, often trivial, for which people are vilified and insulted, sometimes with serious consequences. They aren’t charged formally with wrongdoing that they can deny or explain. They can’t rely on a forum where they can argue they did no real harm, they can’t offer to remedy their wrongdoing, they can’t appeal to a disinterested panel.

If they could do that, they’d be in the realm of guilt. That’s where wrongs are clearly identified and punishment is pronounced after evidence is heard, explanations are offered, and some reflection is given to what might be necessary to set things right.

But this isn’t the republic of guilt, it’s the empire of shame. Both are mechanisms by which people are held accountable for wrongs, but they’re very different. Guilt is a response to a wrongful act, while shame instead blankets the person who appears to have done wrong with moral condemnation.

Guilt can be mitigated by showing that the action didn’t do much harm or that the harm was unintended. Any response by the wrongdoer that reduces the harm is pertinent. Punishment that seems to even the score, makes whoever was hurt whole again, ensures the wrong doesn’t continue or isn’t repeated—those are all part of a venerable formula for redress that seems rational and fair.

Shame is different. It’s about a lack of moral worth. The crook who robs the bank may be guilty, but the one who mugs the bank teller is shamed. In the old days, guilt got you flogged, shame got you shunned.

Shame can’t be relieved; it must be suffered and endured and, at best, can in time be forgiven, through an accumulation of evidence that the person who was shamed has done the prescribed penance.

Shaming rituals have elements about them that are pre-modern, almost tribal, and which are hard to square with fairness and proportionality. They constitute punishment without trial, inflicted by anonymous strangers acting under standards of their own, and they trigger reprisals that may be grossly excessive. (Why was Sacco fired? Should Palmer have been hounded into suspending his practice?)

That said, what should the response be to wrongdoing in instances when the rational machinery of deciding guilt isn’t up to the job?

Maybe, sometimes, shame has its place.

“Scorn or shaming are important in reaffirming the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior and helping ensure that people adhere to them,” Continue reading

Online news undergoes a reprofessionalization. Amen.

For more than a decade now, a steady refrain in the online media has been that the traditional practice of journalism was dying, the victim of technological advance and cultural insurgency.

It wasn’t just the economic collapse of the legacy press. The most widely followed online news sites were increasingly populated by articles, pictures, and audio tracks selected not by living editors but by continuous, automated samplings of user behavior and mathematically ingenious hunches about reader interest.

News itself was being reimagined as no longer mainly the job of salaried reporters. It was more and more the work of impassioned civilians equipped with handheld devices and driven by curiosity and a commitment to public illumination.

As a political matter, that meant the day when a newsroom elite superintended civic awareness was over. News consumers would now rely on their social media pals for guidance on what to pay attention to, and the power to create and sustain networks of attention was now in the hands of ordinary people.

This was all thought to be a very good thing, since it not only universalized a hugely expanded population of people as news sources. It also spread the net much wider so that realities that might have escaped notice became news. “Journalism gets better the more people who do it,” as one writer put it, paraphrasing New York University media theorist Jay Rosen.

The outlook was buoyant, even euphoric, and it was tempting to overlook what might be lost in the rush to the online news millennium—accuracy and taste, for starters. More troubling, where was the quality? Even with a decade of citizen mobilization behind us, it’s hard to point to genuinely good journalism that was truly attributable to this turbo-fed democratization, no matter how lavishly admired it has been.

Now, that’s not to say that great news tips and evocative videos haven’t come from civilians with the right tools, in the right place, at the right time. We’ve seen that in the past year in the awareness of police killings of young black men in this country. Nor is that to ignore instances of exuberantly successful mass mobilization – such as when some 20,000 Britons scoured the personal spending of their parliamentarians in 2009 under the auspices of the Guardian newspaper.

But by and large, the most dramatic impact of the digital explosion on journalism has been to widen the world of sources, not to transform the rituals of newsgathering. Quality journalism has remained, defiantly, a professional practice. The value of meticulous attention to accuracy, of careful confirmation, of sifting competing claims about truth and significance, of respect for privacy, of concern to avoid harm where possible—these cornerstone principles of traditional journalism (however often they’re violated) have not been replaced in the millennial rush to a digital populism.

So it comes as welcome news that some of the most successful web-based news operations are surrendering the algorithms that they’ve been using to make editorial decisions, and will now, as Wired magazine reports, “use real, live humans to curate the news, entertainment, and content they’ll deliver via their platforms.” Continue reading

Anger triggered by Rachel Dolezal affair remains puzzling, but illuminating

At first blush it’s hard to imagine why the racial identity of an obscure civil rights advocate from eastern Washington State deserved the nationwide media high beam: Hours of TV air time, acres of newsprint, a tidal flood of tweets and electronic chatter. All of it devoted to exposing, denouncing, defending, or puzzling over the case of Rachel Dolezal, the daughter of white parents, who over the course of her 37 years and her rise as an activist in the Pacific Northwest had reinvented herself—sometimes by deliberate implication and sometimes explicitly—as a black woman.

The story came to light after Dolezal was attacked in the Spokane, Wash., media for burnishing her application for an unpaid municipal advocacy job by falsely claiming African American parentage. Her biological parents, a Montana couple of European ancestry, said Dolezal had began to “disguise herself” in 2006 or 2007 after they adopted four black children.

Dolezal herself was brought up blonde and blue-eyed, then was educated at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., before building a career in rights advocacy and college teaching in western Idaho and Washington State. She married an African American man and gave birth to two children.

Those children, under the idiosyncratic rules of racial attribution in this country, are black, of course. And there seemed to be nothing questionable about her commitment to racial justice.

Still, Dolezal, media reports suggest, left a somewhat woozy trail of ambiguity and dissembling that made her hard to sympathize with. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that authorities in nearby Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where she had worked as an advocate, were skeptical about whether racist provocations and threats supposedly directed at her were genuine.

Once doubts were raised in Spokane about her claim to be black, she dodged direct questions on camera about the race of her parents. At the college where she taught Africana studies colleagues assumed she was black, a conclusion she appears to have encouraged.

As the story continued to unfurl, Dolezal became a media luminary, giving numerous network and cable TV interviews, explaining her life, justifying her choices.

The larger question, to me, was less why she did what she did, but why everybody seemed to care so much, and why her case provoked so much anger—anger from whites, some of whom no doubt viewed her attempts to take improper advantage of racial preferences as proof that their own ancestral privileges had been upended; anger from blacks, who resent her claiming a make-good share she did nothing to deserve from a legacy of privation from which she suffered not at all.

One of the kinder and, in my view, more insightful commentaries on the affair came from a Stanford historian, Allyson Hobbs, author of a history of racial “passing,” the practice of posing as a member of a different race. Hobbs Continue reading