Tag Archives: media ethics

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

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

Cosby affair asks whether media can be engines not of news, but of justice

To someone who came of age regarding The Washington Post as the journalistic gold standard, it was a puzzling moment. On The Post’s website Nov. 13 was a first-person account by a former actress titled: “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”

The 1,200-word article never answered that question, but Barbara Bowman, now a married mother of two in Arizona, did describe a relationship with Cosby in the mid-‘80s when she was a teenage ingenue and he was a huge star. Cosby purported to take an interest in her career, she wrote, but his mentoring was a fig leaf for predation and ended with him drugging and abusing her sexually in New York.

Now, the Post hadn’t investigated her account itself and didn’t do its own story on Cosby until more than a week after it ran Bowman’s, when it weighed in with a richly reported chronicle of what was becoming a cascade of similar allegations.

This seemed like a case of “fire, ready, aim.” I couldn’t remember another instance when a top-tier news organization had published a detailed denunciation from somebody it couldn’t vouch for, against a person generally regarded as a public benefactor, that it had not first examined independently.

Women have continued to come forward, and the number who’ve accused the onetime comedy giant of various depravities stands at 20, by Slate’s count. Cosby’s intended show biz comeback has been stowed in the deepest of deep freezes, and he’s being consigned to a seemingly irretrievable disgrace, suitable for no comedic use beyond a punchline.

Well deserved, it appears. But my interest is in the media, and I think it’s important to point out that Bill Cosby’s destruction is entirely the work of the news media. That’s not a criticism. When it came to gathering evidence, assessing the record, making judgments about credibility and falsehood, and ultimately deciding reward and punishment, there has been nobody around but the media.

That isn’t the way the system normally works. And I worry that if this becomes a precedent, it will assign to news media a power they may not be able to handle properly.

Normally, the media set in motion the machinery of justice. They blow the whistle on apparent wrongdoing. They tee up a case like Cosby’s by doing the background reporting, encouraging reluctant witnesses to step forward. Reporters offer findings they believe are strong enough to warrant the attention of authorities; then the systems of criminal or civil adjudication get to work—charges are brought, suits are filed, justice is served.

Ultimately, there will be reckonings that are regarded as authoritative.

But the Cosby affair is different. There is no higher court here. Whether it’s because victims were too scared, police were too timid, laws were too weak, plaintiffs too willing to settle, or evidence too thin—the judicial system is by now largely irrelevant.

So there may never be authoritative verdicts about whether Bill Cosby hurt those 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