British daily’s campaign to prevent climate change raises bold questions about role of press advocacy

The Guardian, the London daily that has risen from a respected but fringe player on the British political scene to a major transatlantic voice of liberal thought, did something notable and gutsy a few weeks ago, and just about nobody on this side of the ocean paid any attention.

Flanked by stories and commentaries, Alan Rusbridger, the editor credited with leading the Guardian’s rise, announced March 6 that his organization was launching a campaign intended to head off the climate catastrophe that the scientific consensus has concluded is unavoidable without deep changes in public policy and industrial practice.

The Guardian’s objective is to slow the production of fossil fuels by pressing to halt the exploitation of new energy reserves. The world has much more coal, oil and gas in the earth than it can safely burn. “Leave it in the ground,” is the rallying cry.

The immediate goal is to encourage investors to dump their holdings in fossil fuel-based companies, on grounds that pulling money out would slow the use of suicidal fuels and goad the energy giants into investing in environmentally palatable power sources. As a first step, the Guardian would lead a drive to persuade two immensely rich—and by reputation, socially responsible—foundations, UK’s Wellcome and the U.S.-based Gates, to unload the $1.5-plus billion worth of energy shares they own.

The Guardian was allying with an organization called 350.org, associated with the influential U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben. It takes its name from the prediction that unless the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is cut from its current 400 parts per million (ppm) to 350, we’re all in very big trouble.

In a personal note, Rusbridger explained that as he looked back on his two decades as The Guardian’s editorial chief—he retires this summer—his greatest regret was “that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.”

Now I’m a big fan of the Guardian, and I’ve watched its ascent under Rusbridger with admiration. It stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s top news organizations in the Wikileaks stories and in the publication of the Edward Snowden leaks, for which it shared a Pulitzer, and I applauded.

And I was moved by Rusbridger’s epiphany that, for all the fights he’s fought and won, none will matter 20 or 30 years from now if climate science is right, and we have lost it all.

So I don’t wonder why Rusbridger took this move, but I do wonder why it has gone unnoticed. I’ve poked around online and can find almost no mention of this campaign—to which The Guardian devoted lavish space, solid reporting, and gorgeous graphics—in the U.S. media. It’s as if, to borrow an English image, the quirky matriarch had now become the batty old aunt in the attic. Continue reading

While newscasters’ storytelling sparks outrage, the official lies that justified torture go unpunished

The zeal with which TV news stars Brian Williams of NBC and Bill O’Reilly of Fox have been lambasted and ridiculed for burnishing their tales of bravery in the field would be heartening if it signaled a thoroughgoing insistence that people in the public eye tell the truth. But when you appraise the current state of truth-telling through a wider lens, you have to wonder whether any consistent standards of honesty are being applied.

Case in point: For the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through the Senate committee report released in December that chronicles one of the darkest episodes of U.S. official misconduct in recent years. In it, a succession of government operatives—acting out of vindictiveness, ineptitude, fear, arrogance and lockstep obedience—inflicted cruel and lawless punishment on individuals suspected, wrongly in some cases, of being connected to terrorist threats against this country.

This was the CIA detention program, which between late 2001 and 2007 featured what the agency still calls “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and which any conscious human over the age of five understands was torture.

Let’s be clear here: The techniques included sleep deprivation of up to 180 hours, which triggered hallucinations and “attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation;” diapering prisoners and denying them access to toilets; “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding,” in which detainees were essentially sodomized; ice water baths, beatings, water dousing, forced nudity, abdominal slaps, “dietary manipulation” (being denied food for up to two days), threats to family members, suspension by handcuffs from overhead bars for up to 22 hours; being shackled and isolated in complete darkness in unheated cells, inducing hypothermia (and in one case, death); and waterboarding, or near-drowning.

What’s immediately striking about the Senate report is, first and foremost, the persuasive evidence that these horrors did us not a lick of good and made us no safer. Those are conclusions investigators reached by examining with apparent precision what the interrogators and their handlers said they learned and comparing that with what was already known, with what they’d learned by questioning the suspects without torturing them, and with what turned out to be the truth.

Time and again, investigators found that the tortured prisoners told them nothing they didn’t previously know; had already fully disclosed everything they knew before they were tortured; fabricated what they thought their tormentors wanted to hear; or didn’t actually know anything because they were wrongly accused of in the first place.

That’s not what the jailers and their handlers claimed, however. The report details instance after instance of the people who were running this torture program again and again misrepresenting its extent, the precise horrors they were inflicting, the precautions they were taking, and above all, the effectiveness of the measures. They repeatedly ignored or willfully distorted the records their own operatives were keeping of the grotesque and nightmarish interrogations and the aftermaths.

According to the Senate report, they lied to their bosses in the White House. They lied to their overseers in Congress. They lied to the media, and they lied to the public. They claimed that torture unearthed information that couldn’t be obtained in any other way, and that it thwarted real plots and saved lives. And in every case, under close examination the Senate investigators determined those Continue reading

SIS video of the Jordanian pilot’s immolation is disturbing testimony to the media skills of a vicious movement

Revulsion over the video made by ISIS of the savage execution of a captured Jordanian pilot has eclipsed a reality that’s even more remarkable than the barbarism the film celebrates: That it’s an intensely crafted piece of video, the work of people with a sophisticated understanding of the power of visual propaganda and a keen grasp of the uses to which advanced media can be bent in advancing their cause and winning new followers.

The video is no mere snuff film. It’s nothing like the grainy, almost pornographic movies that ISIS—the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—made last year of the beheadings of journalists and aid workers.

This is in a whole different league cinematically—a 22-minute morality play constructed almost like a trial, woven from film, animation and informational graphics, and given a texture, a pace, and a narrative coherence that’s shrewdly crafted, chilling, and thoroughly contemporary.

In it, the Jordanian pilot, 26-year-old Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, is portrayed as a tool of a multinational cabal united against ISIS. He is linked visually to the destruction of civilian targets and the horrific deaths of children, who are repeatedly shown burnt and mangled.

Kasasbeh is made to face, literally, buildings on a deserted city street that were shattered by the air war he waged. And finally he’s put to death in a harrowing Continue reading

Ex-CIA agent’s conviction reminds us that whistle-blowing remains thankless and perilous, despite assurances of protection

So Jeffrey Sterling, a former U.S. intelligence officer, has finally been found guilty of espionage for leaking details of “what may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA,” as James Risen, the journalist Sterling was convicted of informing, put it.

The news media wasted little time lamenting Sterling’s Jan. 26 conviction, since their main concern had been with whether Risen, a national security reporter for The New York Times, would be jailed for refusing to say whether Sterling was his source.

After hounding Risen for seven years, the Justice Department had backed off its demand that he inform on his alleged informant, and prosecutors got their conviction anyway. That’s fairly outrageous in itself, since the department’s guidelines had long stipulated that reporters shouldn’t be muscled unless, among other things, there’s no other way to get the evidence prosecutors need, which plainly wasn’t true here.

A pointless verdict to avenge a stale embarrassment —a conviction in 2015 stemming from a 2006 book about a foolish operation that blew up in the CIA’s face in 2000. The spymasters, Risen recounted in State of War, had infiltrated a recipe for nuclear weaponry into Iran that was so transparently flawed that it was immediately detected and which still may have ended up advancing Iran’s nuclear program.

By 2006, when Risen’s book came out, the secrets had long ago ceased to be secret from the people they were supposed to be secret from.

It should be obvious that if Sterling’s leaks had told of unsung heroism and brilliance within the agency, there’d have been no prosecution, even if the information had been no less secret. But he committed the mortal sin of humiliating his bosses, and for that he’ll pay.

Still, the idea that whistle-blowers don’t really have to go public to expose government stupidity is a recurring element in the criticisms leveled at Jeffrey Sterling and other well-placed leakers, such as Chelsea Manning, the Wikileaks uber-source, and Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) operative now a fugitive in, of all places, Russia.

President Obama in 2013 noted that he had approved whistle-blower protection for national security workers. That’s why Snowden had no reason to go to the media with his explosive information about NSA domestic surveillance. “So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions,” the president said.

The idea that whistle-blowers are protected is often voiced, and may sometimes even be true.

But a chilling story that Risen tells in his 2014 book, Pay Any Price, gives a depressingly different account about how warmly whistle-blowers are welcomed inside the Beltway.

Diane Roark was a career civil servant and had spent 16 years on the staff of the House Select Committee on Intelligence when, after 9/11, she was approached by a disaffected senior-level technical manager for the NSA. He told her the agency had apparently launched a domestic, warrantless wiretapping program that, she realized, was illegal and unconstitutional.

The details of the program—which was eventually exposed in December 2005 by Risen and fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau—matter less than the lengths Roark went through to alert authorities to what she initially thought had to be “a rogue operation.”

It’s an infuriating chronicle that unfolded over nearly five years. Roark started by approaching her bosses, the senior Intelligence Committee staffers from both Continue reading

Beyond the pieties, the Charlie Hebdo massacre leaves us with painful new ironies and tired old remedies

It’s not hard to imagine the scorn that the artists and writers of Charlie Hebdo might have heaped on the dour protests their deaths provoked. I could see a cartoon lampooning the political luminaries and cultural lions who turned out, trudging along in solemn procession holding placards that insist they too are Charlie. Then they pause just long enough to say what they’re really feeling—relief! After all, they’ll now be spared, for a while anyway, the jaundiced and biting ridicule at which Charlie’s staff excelled.

Instead of laughs, the funeral air was thick with pieties about freedom. But, hey, nobody can control who comes to their burials or what’s said in their obituaries (if any), and so the brilliant malcontents whose work populated Charlie’s pages have little choice but to suffer in silence the ironies and discomforts of martyrdom.

Their killers confront their own ironies, I suspect, though their fate as martyrs wouldn’t make them wince, since it’s what they sought. They would never be taken alive, and they knew it.

Still, it’s ironic that they shared with the people they murdered an estrangement from a deeply rooted, cultural mainstream, a sense of alienation and grievance, a wish to be noticed, to have their impact felt, to settle scores. It’s hard to watch the video of slain terrorist Cherif Kouachi, a onetime rapper and pop culture enthusiast, alongside the video of Charlie’s cartoonists brainstorming about how to respond to the satirical Danish cartoons of 2005 featuring Mohammed in caricature, and not wonder what they all might have talked about, if their only meeting hadn’t been down the barrel of a machine gun.

I was shocked and disgusted by the Charlie Hebdo killings in a way that I hadn’t been by the other atrocities of the post-9/11 terror. That’s because I got to know the tabloid weekly when I was young, a student in Paris. I used to read it because the cartoons were cool, its language was the patois I wanted to learn, and its sensibility the same anarchic and tasteless post-’68 blasphemy that inspired the counterculture that was roaring to life back home.

Hearing about the Jan. 7 slaughter was like finding out that somebody assassinated Don Martin, the late Mad magazine cartoonist, or Robert Crumb, the Leonardo of the U.S. underground press. Charlie Hebdo? Who on earth would kill those guys? Has the world truly gone nuts?

Journalism advocates moved quickly to claim the killings as further evidence of the lethal danger that reporters face, and were eager to add the murders to the dismal tally of news correspondents killed, jailed, tortured, beheaded. But it’s not a good fit. Unless they’re held as a target of opportunity for ransom that’s refused, journalists are killed for cause. They die by a chill, utilitarian logic, which was absent here. Reporters are in the business of exposing realities Continue reading

Smash hit podcast Serial built audience appeal on questionable reporting practices

So much was impressive about Serial that I’m reluctant to point out some of the intractable ethical problems on which the sensational podcast, which explored over 12 weeks the 1999 murder of a Baltimore teenager, was built. But since Serial’s spectacular success is bound to inspire imitators, and the people who do it next may not be as careful as Serial’s creator, Sarah Koenig, it’s vital to identify these pitfalls, which aren’t minor.

The series, which concluded in mid-December, is widely hailed as the most popular podcast in the admittedly brief history of the medium—some 850,000 downloads per episode—and has spawned virtual boroughs of fans and commentators.

But apart from a posting on the ThinkProgress.org website in November, I haven’t seen any serious meditations on its ethical shortcomings, most of them baked into the core conceit of the program: It aired as a journalistic work-in-progress, sharing its incomplete reporting as it went along.

Serial re-examined the case of 18-year-old high school senior Hae Min Lee, murdered one afternoon in January 1999. Her body was discovered in a park a month later. Police were led to her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, by a friend of his who told police he helped bury the girl. Syed, then 17, allegedly strangled her in a jealous rage and is serving a life sentence.

Koenig, an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter with strong journalistic chops, began looking into the case when she was preparing an item for This American Life, the quirky and compelling public radio series created by Ira Glass. With Glass’s support Koenig and her producers spent months on a minute investigation, interviewing dozens of witnesses, some never contacted for the trial.

That description doesn’t begin to convey how engaging Serial was for its listeners, myself included, and how masterfully Koenig both reconstructed the case and probed the limits of memory and evidence on which her reconstruction was built.

I have nothing but admiration for her craft, but as to whether Serial is a model of “incredibly hard, original journalism” (Philadelphia Inquirer) and a “daring, living piece of serious, journalistic work,” (NBC News), I have big doubts. Most derive from the fact that Serial began airing well before Koenig finished her investigation, and she shared her hunches, speculations, and suppositions as the series unspooled.

That may seem like a commendable reflection of reportorial humility and transparency, but when I first heard Koenig was going public with findings before she had reached any conclusions about what they meant, I was aghast.

First, doing that creates a huge potential for gratuitous defamation if it means sharing damaging conjectures based on suspicions that turned out to be ill-founded. The more the producers advanced hypotheticals about the truthfulness, Continue reading

How much more hacking will the news media gleefully publicize? The twisted ethics of the Sony coverage.

Just before Thanksgiving an entity calling itself the Guardians of Peace shunted an unimaginably vast amount of data pillaged from Sony Pictures Entertainment, one of the world’s foremost movie companies, onto publicly available Internet sites. Then they alerted the news media. Stories hit the wires based on the dump of purloined corporate information, which included pretty much everything: personal emails, salary files, employee health records, unreleased feature films, credit card records, passwords, performance evaluations, scripts from rejected TV pilots, and 47,400 Social Security numbers of current and former employees.

The scale and impact of what CNN called the “extraordinary and devastating cyberattack” were both unprecedented—as Buzzfeed put it, “the most embarrassing and all-encompassing hack of internal corporate data ever made public.” While 40 gigabytes of data were released, the hackers claimed to have 100 terabytes in hand. That would be five times the estimated size of the Library of Congress’s book collection.

Stories based on private online chitchat among Sony executives disparaging actors, directors, and other collaborators got big play, as did pay comparisons, strategic musings, details of big show biz contracts, evidence of huge diversity gaps and gender disparities, a counterattack by Hollywood stars, and confirmation of the long-held belief “that the film business was full of back-stabbing egomaniacs,” as a Guardian writer observed.

For its part, Sony responded with both groveling apologetics and a stern warning from its attorney, the celebrated David Boies—hero of the successful Microsoft antitrust suit and the unsuccessful attempt to keep George W. Bush out of the White House in 2000—that news media would be sued if they didn’t delete the stolen material. That’s a warning that few people regarded as legally plausible, and would have put Sony on a legal collision course with its fellow Hollywood movie giants that also own big news media, notably Walt Disney Co. (ABC and Fusion) and Time Warner (Time Inc.), which had weighed in with substantial hacking coverage of their own.

Sony also decided—after threats were posted of possible reprisals against cinemas showing the satirical movie that apparently provoked the hack, in which the leader of North Korea is assassinated—to withhold it from theatrical release. It’s now talking to online distributors about relying exclusively on Internet-based rental channels.

But I want to look at the ethics of the assault on Sony, which drew some initial comment but which deserves more sustained consideration. While the wrongness of what the hackers did is clear, the complicity of the news media in aiding and abetting them has been less thoroughly condemned.

In my view this is an affair that exquisitely compresses some of the most troubling ethical issues of journalism in the digital age. “West Wing” writer and producer Aaron Sorkin—who got “dinged,” as he put it, in hacked emails about a project he’s scripting for Sony—wrote an angry Op-Ed column for the New York Times wondering, in a word, what gives? What’s the justification for the news media to take part in such wholesale informational plunder? Continue reading