Category Archives: Newspaper columns

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

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

News media’s growing Facebook co-dependency challenges journalism’s limits on acquiring informational ethically

In the pre-dawn of the media age the main delivery system for news in much of the country consisted of sleepy boys on bikes, who pedaled from house to house before daybreak and stuck papers into mailboxes or threw them in the general vicinity of front doors.

I did that one summer for The Washington Post, a dreary job that was legal only thanks to the longstanding exemptions from child labor laws the newspaper industry had finagled. I got a dollar per subscriber per month. It would’ve been more, except the boy who had sublet the route to me insisted on handling the collections and, I later learned, pocketing the tips.

Now, under traditional newspaper economics, what subscribers paid for their papers covered only distribution costs. If the papers had been distributed cost-free to subscribers, publishers could have given them away and still made a profit. The real money was from advertising.

As it still is. Now, however, things have changed. I started thinking about how radically they’d changed after reading a pair of articles in The New York Times about Facebook. The stupendously successful social media network has morphed from a place where friendships are carried on to one of the primary ways that people find out about the world.

Citing a Pew Research Center study, The Times noted that 64 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook at least monthly, and roughly half of them get news there. That means that instead of clicking directly to the home pages of news outfits to find out what the editors there think readers should know about, the readers are taking the advice of Facebook friends: They then enter news sites through side doors to view what the editors there might very well consider sideshows.

In effect, the news organization’s Facebook presence has become its online newsrack.

I first became aware that this was Facebook’s plan back in 2011. That’s when the company’s brass—led by Sheryl Sandberg, who hadn’t yet become the cultural lodestone she is now, but was still Facebook’s chief operating officer and a speaker of immense appeal—carpet-bombed the American Society of News Editors annual gathering in San Diego with a single message: Facebook was the future of news.

Facebook was aiming to become the Macy’s window on the Internet for the news biz, offering fully modern functionality, visual pizzazz, and, above all, an unbeatable storefront on the same network that was fast becoming the choice online meet-up space for about a fifth of humanity.

That seems to be what now has happened. By throwing in with Facebook, news sites rent space in a virtual metropolis teeming with enthusiasts, who send traffic their way, and permeated by commercial vendors.

That’s the good part of the story. The rest of the story is that their readers’ online comings and goings, likes and dislikes, are noted, rummaged, inventoried, and harvested for data to be acted on and resold by Facebook and its collaborators.

It’s as if, back when newspapers were hand-delivered, they were given away for free. Then, in exchange, the paper boys got to record their observations about cars in the driveway and bikes in the yard, sift through the subscribers’ trash bins for commercially actionable intelligence, note any repairs on the house, check if the garden was tended and see which veggies were growing, and pass along information about family visitors, backyard swing sets, retail buying, empty milk bottles, etc.

None of that would be appealing, but a larger question looms: Isn’t Facebook-style informational pillage especially problematic when it’s undertaken on behalf Continue reading

Journalism codes leave vexing problems untouched

Since the 1920s journalists in the United States have been writing and rewriting codes of ethics. This began because they wanted the public and their own employers to regard them as worthy of respect (and decent pay), with rules, specialized expertise, and lofty purpose—genuine professionals, just like dentists and accountants. They also wanted guidelines that would keep them both honest and out of court.

There are quite a lot of codes around: The broadcasters have one; a good many news organizations, from tiny newspapers to major market TV stations, have their own; the Online News Association is even hosting a participatory hacking party to encourage members to draw up their own codes, “because one size does not fit all.”

Most recently, just after Labor Day the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) released a revision of its 1996 code, probably the most influential and most widely consulted among U.S. journalists.

Codes typically have many problems because they fill conflicting needs. The ones written by news outlets are often no more than employee manuals, and pronounce on confidential sources alongside overtime and severance. The deft touch of in-house lawyers is apparent, and the codes give management both deniability if reporters mess up and the moral license to nail them even if their misdeeds are more embarrassing than unethical.

But the bigger problem of codes is that they are so clearly overmatched by the swirl of ethical challenge that inundates contemporary journalism.

To be sure, right conduct can be encouraged by admonitions such as seek the truth, don’t plagiarize, correct errors, don’t shill, and treat people with respect.

But like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, those instructions constantly clash with each other and with real world pressures. Today’s journalists—and their employers—face challenges that are immensely more perplexing than those that these codes anticipate, let alone address. Take these hot-button issues the SPJ code does almost nothing to clarify:

– Clickbait: News organizations increasingly rely on web analytics that track, in real time, the traffic that particular postings draw, according to research by Angele Christin of the New School in New York. The result, Christin suggests, is the emergence of incentive structures that tilt reporters’ attention toward editorial confections with strong audience appeal but little news value. Isn’t this an ethical problem? Indeed, isn’t the way that editorial resources are used the quintessential ethical problem that journalism faces?

– Herding: Similarly, the ability to discern momentary trends in online chatter lures editorial resources toward offerings that will draw more of the mindshare of the minute and keep the news outlet “in the conversation,” as the trendy usage puts it. At what point does that constitute an abandonment of the discernment that was once called editorial judgment in favor of a continual state of market-chasing panic?

– Corporate complicity: News organizations now routinely incorporate social media into their newsgathering and online distribution operations. They crown Twitter users as trendsetters by recognizing tweets as newsworthy, they treat Google as a natural part of the utility landscape, they sell products in partnership with Amazon, and they build outreach strategies on Facebook. Yet those same vast networks are built on bare-knuckle competition, high-stakes lobbying, and problematic appropriation of user data. Isn’t this complicity a problem? Doesn’t Continue reading

Remembering Manhattan, Sept.11, 2001

This was originally published the week of Sept. 24, 2001, in The Miami Herald and other newspapers.

I watched the World Trade Center burn to death from 70 blocks away, Fifth Avenue and 45th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It gushed flame and black smoke, staining an immaculate, pale blue sky. I made it to work, and my office at Rockefeller Center was shut down at 10:30 a.m. The sidewalks overflowed with scared people who wanted to go home. By mid-day, while a colleague and I were trying to walk to her flat in Battery City, well within lower Manhattan’s dead zone, the giddiness that comes with emancipation from routine had faded. The city was numb.

The striking thing about the hospitals where we tried to volunteer, or give blood, or something, was the medical staff: They stood around outside, chatting, drinking coffee, with nothing to do. I realized there wouldn’t be anybody to treat. By 3 p.m., we had walked back to Midtown, and from the same spot where I’d seen the towers on fire I saw only empty sky, nothing but clouds of white smoke and dust. The city’s front teeth had been punched out.

We ended up in an Irish bar run by Hispanics. An African-American guy, a building contractor, told us about running for his life after he saw the second jet hit the tower a few blocks from his job site.

I went back to work the next day and learned that the young sister of a close colleague’s wife had phoned from the 90th floor of the south tower minutes after the second plane struck. The building was on fire, and she knew she had no way out. They had heard nothing since.

A night later, a friend who lived in the neighborhood walked me through a police checkpoint in the West Village. We passed her local fire station, a quaint, storybook place that her 5-year-old son loves because the firefighters always fussed over him. My friend said that eight of its men were lost, and it’s a small firehouse.

I made my way to the financial district. The air was thick and dank with diesel and pulverized city. It was hot. The streets were ferociously loud from dozens of huge trucks. Apart from the strobes of occasional emergency vehicles and the lights of the odd Red Cross coffee truck, it was very dark. The power was gone, and the buildings were black. I got within a few blocks of one of the fallen towers and could see a giant, flood-lit lattice of metal struts poking into the air, like a rib cage on an autopsy table.

That weekend, back home in Miami, we gave a surprise birthday party for our youngest. We had sixty 13-year olds rampaging through house and yard, oblivious – the boys still young, the girls already grown, pizza in the pool. I was back from a future they hadn’t seen yet.

I thought of the old Esquire magazine cartoon: Two golfers standing on the green, in the distance a mushroom-shaped cloud. One says to the other, “Go ahead and putt. It’ll be a while before the shock wave gets here.”

How did we get here? How was it that two weeks ago we were talking about Gary Condit, shark bites and stem cells, and overnight we’re facing a tottering economy, a roll-up of civil liberties and the prospect of a long, shadowy war in a world peppered with murderous monsters?

The search for causes seems beside the point now. But it’s key to our future:

* If our protectors failed us, maybe it’s because for decades we starved our government of money and talent, cutting funding and turning public service into an unappealing career path.

* If we were pig-ignorant of the desperation and hatred in the world, maybe it’s because our media stopped telling us what was really happening out there, because the audiences were deemed sparse compared with, say, “reality” TV’s.

* If we quietly have been making enemies, maybe it’s because we were heedless of the innocent blood we ourselves, with the noblest of intentions, were spilling; the causes we summoned, armed and abandoned; and the lives we ruined.

Those questions must be posed. But now we must not only ask, must not only cope; we must prevail.

Elemental justice demands that the guilty be punished. The challenge is not only to our might, though; it’s to our wisdom. We suffered horribly on Sept. 11. To redeem that suffering will require true greatness – not just power, but humility. Our victory has to hold out a promise not just of safety for our own people but of a promising future for the rest of humankind. The whole world is watching.

 

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Murder of journalists puts news media in a quandary

The murders of the U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by their Islamist captors were trivial horrors in the spiraling calamity that has engulfed Syria and Iraq. Still, to me they were uniquely painful for reasons unrelated to the region’s incomparably greater misfortunes: They were the needless deaths of brave and committed professionals, they pointed up the frayed logic of this country’s no-ransom policy, and they reminded us of the vulnerability of the corps of freelancers on which our media increasingly rely for news from the world’s most desperate places.

As news stories the killings were was not just grim and depressing, they were perplexing too, because they couldn’t help but call into question the wisdom and morality of the considerations that define news and dictate how news is presented.

Reports of the deaths were inextricably interwoven with the spectacle that the killers created out of them, and for the news media, it was impossible to report the murders without dealing with the video of their final moments—whether displaying it, suppressing it, alluding to it, or excerpting from it.

This isn’t the first time that has happened, but I think the need for media to strike the balance between, on the one hand, judiciously conveying publicly significant information and imagery and, on the other, refusing to serve as a terrorist conduit requires a moral clarity that has been elusive.

I didn’t view the video of either killing and don’t intend to, for reasons that will be clearer in a moment, but my understanding from those who have is that they don’t actually show the beheadings. The screen fades to black as the ostensible executioner, standing alongside their kneeling prisoners, brings out the knife; the images return to show the immediate aftermath.

I mention that apparent fastidiousness to make a point that’s important—that these weren’t newsreels; the “news”—the slaughter itself–wasn’t shown. What was shown was a carefully composed set piece of physical domination and verbal polemic constructed around an offscreen act of cruelty, and it was produced to make a point.

The reluctance of various news media to show the videos—and the decision by Twitter and YouTube to remove the Foley video from their servers, and Continue reading