2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Where do the media get off exposing a spy?

At first blush, the Robert Levinson affair seems like the epitome of reckless reporting on national security: The news media flat out blew a missing spy’s cover.

Levinson, a former FBI agent who vanished in March 2007 on the Iranian island of Kish, hadn’t been working as a private investigator, as the U.S. government had consistently claimed. Actually, he was working for the CIA. That’s what the Associated Press reported this month in a rigorously detailed 5,200-word article.

The AP said it learned of Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010, and at the government’s request had delayed publishing what it knew three times. The New York Times followed the AP days later with a story of comparable heft, and, not to be outdone, said it had known about Levinson’s CIA connection since late 2007 and had kept quiet to avoid endangering him.

The White House called the AP story “highly irresponsible,” and spokesman Jay Carney said they had  “strongly urged” the wire service not to run the story. Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from Levinson’s home state of Florida, who’d been working with his family, said he too had admonished the AP not to publish.

The AP acknowledged that the story might put Levinson at risk, but argued it’s “almost certain” his captors know about his mission. “We have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication,” executive editor Kathleen Carroll wrote.

The Levinson affair is no fable of daring spycraft. It’s the sort of tale familiar to connoisseurs of John LeCarre’s world. There, hapless agents way past their prime who yearn for redemption are beguiled into pointless and misguided missions to serve the dreary vanities of bureaucratic schemers.

Levinson, now 65 if he’s still alive, appears to have fallen victim to a factional split within the agency between analysts and operatives, in which the desk-bound experts—like Monty Python’s CPA who longed to be a lion tamer—figured they’d run their own field agents. Levinson was a retired 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, and reportedly was tasked with wooing a potential informant.

Nobody will say where he is and, if he was captured, by whom and why. Iran’s foreign minister said on TV two weeks ago that he had “no idea” where Levinson is. The family last received video evidence he was alive in early 2011. With U.S.-Iran relations a top administration concern, Secretary of State John Kerry says he’s continuing to try to find Levinson and get him back.

Meantime, three senior CIA analysts have been fired, seven others were disciplined, and the government paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s family. The story that has since emerged is of a rogue operation, and as the AP account made its way through the news system his mission came to be described as “unapproved.”

Still, exposing a covert agent in the field has long been held out as the electrified third-rail of national security reporting—to be avoided at all cost—and it’s worth looking closer at this case to see an instance where publication was, I think, clearly warranted.

First, let’s put the decision to expose Levinson in a journalistic context: The media’s other option was deceit. For years, each and every time the AP, The Times and other organizations that knew better described him as a private individual engaged in private inquiries—the cover story was that he was investigating cigarette smugglers—they were misleading their readers, deliberately.

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Maybe summoning the press before Parliament isn’t such a bad idea

Alan Rusbridger, editor of London’s Guardian, faced off with British legislators last week about his newspaper’s publishing secrets about official surveillance that were leaked by the fugitive U.S. intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden.

Press advocates weren’t pleased.

Carl Bernstein, the Watergate-era star who’s on the Mount Rushmore of 20th century media heroes, certainly wasn’t. In an open letter to Rusbridger, Bernstein objected to Parliament’s “hauling in journalists for questioning and trying to intimidate them,” and said the editor’s appearance before a House of Commons committee was “dangerously pernicious.”

Roy Greenslade, ex-editor of Britain’s Daily Mirror, wasn’t pleased either. “Why, I kept asking myself, was an editor being required to explain himself to MPs [Members of Parliament]?” Greenslade wrote. “What makes them think they have the right to do so?”

Me, I disagree. I was glad to hear Rusbridger answering questions. It’s not that I want politicians to bully the news media. And I don’t think journalists should be routinely summoned before legislators to explain their editorial choices.

Nor do I disagree with Carl Bernstein about the need to keep governmental secrecy, not newsroom policies, at the foreground of public debate, and to insist that it’s the duty of a free press to battle bureaucrats over control of information that has public significance.

But I was happy to see a reasonably honest confrontation between a brave and dedicated journalist and parliamentarians, especially when the interlocutors weren’t just showboating for cable news or social media, but seemed genuinely concerned that the journalists might have badly misunderstood the harm that publishing the Snowden materials might cause.

Like Rusbridger, I believe the legislators were wrong. But they asked pretty good questions. They wanted to know whether The Guardian and the organizations with which it cooperated—among them The Washington Post and New York Times—had handled the files with care, and they worried that the leaks might leak further even if the journalists didn’t mean to publish them.

And the lawmakers wanted to know how journalists decide which secrets should be disclosed, a question even press zealots like me agree is pivotal. Rusbridger responded about the skill and long experience of the reporters involved, and the steps they took to seek official input and withhold what might prove truly harmful.

Now, it’s important not to admire unduly the British approach to media controls, which can be heavy-handed and autocratic. But while U.S. political leaders pay lip service to the need for “a national conversation” about surveillance and state secrecy, their main response has been not to foster one, but to vilify and criminalize the whistleblowers like Snowden whose leaks put that conversation on the national agenda.

That’s hypocritical, in my view. But what about the position of our news media? Shouldn’t they be part of this supposed conversation? Apparently not. My guess is there’s not one U.S. journalist in a hundred who would suggest that the editor of The New York Times or Washington Post should submit to congressional questioning the way Rusbridger did.

But why not? Congress, as ridiculous as it can be, is still our supreme deliberative body. Our journalists, unlike Britain’s, operate within a strong tradition of constitutional and statutory protections—so it’s not as if they would face anything like the legislative perils The Guardian had to consider.

Moreover, what better place to weigh in and argue the case for a powerfully adversarial press that challenges dominant institutions and wrests from them the information—even when it’s classified—that the public needs to do its job, which is to run this country?

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Will the Sixties survive all the media commemoratives that are coming?

The news media love anniversaries, and this month’s surge of commemoratives marking the assassination of President Kennedy is just the opening bell for a media observance that will go on for years—the 50th anniversary of the Sixties.

The Kennedy retrospectives I saw were tasteful and appropriate, but they got me to thinking about the differences between practicing journalism and writing history.  The fact is, one of the most consequential things the news media do is something they’re not really equipped to do: Decide what should be remembered and how.

Tending the collective memory isn’t the media’s vocation. News people are trained to chronicle what’s happening around them, not to recognize what’s of lasting significance, let alone to sort out the contemporary meaning of long-ago events. News is only the first draft of history, as the lame old saying goes, and as writers know, most first drafts end up in the trash.

Still, there’s nobody else around to supervise the work of large-scale remembering, so that function falls to the media. Normally, it’s a function that goes unnoticed, even though it percolates into news reporting, typically when the journalist introduces context or background.

Sometimes history intrudes in the form of the tossed-off, parenthetic characterization of an individual—in the obituary that refers in passing to “the disgraced former congressman.” Other times whole chapters of history are telescoped into insanely compressed descriptions, as when a tortured region is identified as  “the province whose secession provoked a murderous 20-year war.”

As readers, we let that pass, although if we considered for a moment how cavalierly the past was being rummaged through we’d realize the practice is dubious. It’s not that the references are false. It’s that they’re trotted out as shorthand for some settled historical record, and there isn’t one. (That congressman must have done many other things; that war surely had much more complex roots.)

Instead, what journalism draws from history are usually highly selective invocations, blinkered ways of seeing a complicated past. As with news, the media seek the common denominator, and typically key off the most emotionally resonant aspect of a major event and universalize it (such as “the searing loss” that “America” experienced when Kennedy was shot.)

The capsule histories they present are deeply flawed, but because they’re inserted routinely into the flow of news, they’re also the way that we most often learn about the past. Thus have the news media become the country’s most influential history teachers.

We’re bound to see quite a lot of that now. Ahead are remembrances of the full mosaic of mid-‘60s/early ‘70s cultural, political and social upheaval: the Beatles, Continue reading

Will the Snowden affair lead to the Internet’s breakup?

President Obama might as well have had on his Nobel laureate coat and tails back in August. That’s when he weighed in on the revelations from fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden that had ignited a worldwide furor over the vast reach of previously undisclosed U.S. electronic snooping.

The moment was reminiscent of Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. That too invited him to muster a wisdom and statesmanship he seemed to possess but had never demonstrated.

Opinions differ as to how much peace Obama has made since then, but his Snowden comments Aug. 9 were auspicious. Acknowledging public outrage, he said he was stepping up oversight of the National Security Agency, and noted it was Snowden’s “repeated leaks of classified information” that “initiated the debate,” albeit “in a passionate but not always fully informed way.”

Obama added that “there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case…”

Unfortunately, that pretty much ended Obama’s statesmanship when it came to the conversation he credits Snowden with starting. Since then, Obama has been focused on trying to jail the guy who started it.

The Justice Department has charged Snowden with espionage, and he has taken refuge in that haven of expressive freedom and governmental restraint, Russia. This fact is itself no small embarrassment to those of us who thought this was the place you came to escape governmental wrath and overreach.

Abroad, Snowden has emerged as a hero in some quarters—ironically, an as archetypal American hero, the lone individualist who follows his conscience and defies officialdom in dogged pursuit of a larger good. Opinion leaders in Germany—where people are miffed that the NSA tapped the cell phone of their current chancellor, Angela Merkel, for more than a decade—have demanded he be given asylum there.

Over here, the possibility that Snowden might be anything but a traitor is barely breathed. The question of clemency was raised, briefly, the other day during the Sunday talk shows, and was swatted away instantly by the two congressional leaders on hand, backed up soon after by a White House spokesman.

The U.S. media, for their part, remain hunkered in the crouch they’ve assumed since the flood of Internet-era leaks began in 2010—a posture neck-deep in hypocrisy, with editorialists declaiming the great public value of the leaks, while keeping silent when their government imprisons the leakers.

Meanwhile, the riveting stories derived from Snowden’s NSA files continue to flow.  The realities he has exposed are immense, incomparably more significant, in my view, than the Wikileaks disclosures, for which Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning has been sentenced to 35 years and Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, remains besieged in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Unlike the Wikileaks files, the Snowden material does not, by and large, consist of sensitive information the spymasters have scraped up, but instead illuminates a much more serious matter—their breathtaking capacity to scrape. That capacity, it seems, is unimaginably broad and deep, and encompasses practically all public communication systems—from phones to emails—to corporate intranets, to social media, the world’s mightiest search engines, “the cloud,” most anything digital.

The picture that emerges is of a stupendously vast surveillance system, and in the weeks and months to come, I think we’ll hear more about the most momentous potential consequence of all this: That US. spymasters have been so successful that their capability has been woven into the infrastructure of the Internet itself.

That’s the big one. And that’s the fear that is already driving Germany, India, Russia, China and the European Union to push for the United Nations to take a greater role in Internet governance, and of greater concern, is encouraging countries such as Brazil and Germany to take steps toward regionalized Internets and developing secure national email services.

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The myth of the free, unregulated Internet

Who regulates the Internet? If you answered “nobody”—because the government keeps its hands off—read on.

Earlier this month, The New York Times exposed a squalid online mini-industry that makes its money from posting photos taken of people who’ve just been arrested—not drunken celebrities at the rag end of a frolic, but ordinary people.

This is one media sector with an inexhaustible supply of fresh content to publish. Booking photos are public documents, and a lot of people get arrested every day.

But how does anyone make money from this? Do people pay to gawk at the mug shots? No, the sites—and The Times says more than 80 have sprung up over the past three years—charge the people who were photographed anywhere from $30 to $400 in exchange for not publishing the pictures.

This certainly seems like a despicable little shakedown. Worse, people who get arrested often are never convicted of a crime, and may not have done anything wrong. Moreover, once the photos are posted they’re likely to linger elsewhere on the Internet even after the originating sites remove them. For the unlucky arrestee, what might have been a fleeting embarrassment continues to hover and ache, like a bad hangover.

It’s not right. Several states have had a go at legislation compelling sites to take down the pictures of anyone who’s exonerated, or barring the cops from releasing mug shots to profit-seeking entities.

Press advocates, understandably, object to restrictions on access to public records. I’d say people have a right to control use of their images for purely money-making purposes even if the images are obtained from a public data base.

But admittedly, laws limiting access to mug shots or curtailing what can be done with them may be unconstitutional.

While the law dithers, however, the real regulators of the Internet can act.

Enter the privatized world of Internet regulation. It appears that after being approached by Times reporter David Segal, the paymasters who handle the cash that lubricates the online economy suffered spasms of conscience.

Shocked, they said, by what they now knew about their clients, MasterCard decided the mug shot sites were “repugnant,” and American Express, PayPal and Discovery announced they wouldn’t handle the money anymore. Visa asked the banks it uses to look into the legality of the sites. Big trouble looms.

Now, I wouldn’t weep if the mug shot sites went dark. But among the commentators on this affair, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones was one of few who asked the most significant question: “Should credit card companies get to decide who does business on the web?”

This sort of thing has happened before. In December 2010 those same financial companies—along with Western Union, Amazon and Bank of America—went after Wikileaks and suddenly refused to process donations to the anti-secrecy  Continue reading

Nonprofit journalism faces tough struggle to keep its promise

As the head of a journalism school I have a strong, and obvious, interest in promoting the idea that people who decide to pursue careers as journalists are making a good choice—that it’ll enable them both to serve a valuable social purpose and, no less important, to make a living.

Without a doubt, the news business is in upheaval—or, to be kind, transition—and many of the institutions that have made up its core are struggling.

But while some of the country’s top news organizations are being sold off (most recently, The Washington Post and Boston Globe) and the legacy industry is perpetually scaling back, other media are emerging to meet the public’s insatiable appetite for news, information and interaction.

The burning question is whether they stand any greater likelihood of success than their tottering predecessors.

One sector of great interest consists of nonprofit news media, which have sprung up over the past decade, especially since the 2008 financial crash sent advertising revenues plunging.

The glittering constellation of startup, nonprofit news sites range from local operations that use thinly qualified volunteers to cover neighborhood happenings, to top-shelf news outfits—such as Manhattan-based Pro Publica and the Bay Area’s Center for Investigative Reporting—which routinely win major accolades for high-impact stories of national scope.

Now, nonprofit journalism has long been a durable part of the media landscape, and media underwritten by religious groups (such as The Christian Science Monitor), political movements (The Nation), public giving (NPR), or community organizations have been around for generations.

Nonprofits generally made their money from some combination of advertising, subscription sales, and generosity from their patrons, and they survived in the quiet waters on the edge of the overwhelmingly profit-seeking, ad-supported mainstream. The model’s appeal deepened as consumer advertising began to falter over the past decade, and the production of what had been considered basic news was imperiled.

Foundations and rich donors took interest, and entrepreneurial journalists, denied the jobs they otherwise would’ve commanded, lined up capitalization and got to work. Suddenly, nonprofits seemed not just plausible as a successor paradigm, but unavoidable.

Yet a study released in June by the Pew Research Center that examined 172 nonprofit news organizations offered a picture of energetic striving that has yet to achieve durability and size. Most of the nonprofits were “small, with minimal staffs and modest budgets.” More than three-quarters had five or fewer full-time employees, and just under half had gross revenues of under $500,000.

By comparison, even in their dotage, the country still had 1,386 daily newspapers as of 2011, and they had full-time editorial staffs averaging 28. Even though that average was down from 39 a decade earlier, it was still an order of magnitude greater than the staffing of the nonprofits.

Moreover, an impressive proportion of nonprofits had been unable to leave the funding nest. Three-quarters still were dependent on foundation money, which made up more than half the total revenue of most of those. Continue reading