Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

End of the Great Newspaper Era

End of the Great
Newspaper Era

Out of Print

Another Great Newspaper Died Today The 150 year old Rocky Mountain News will publish its final paper today, and then fold forever. A CEO told staffers: "Denver can't support two newspapers anymore," and reportedly some of those staffers cried. He added, "The industry is in serious, serious trouble." Thanks for that. [Rocky Mountain News]

Out of Print

The death and life of the American newspaper.

by Eric Alterman March 31, 2008

Arianna Huffington questions newspapers’“veneer of unassailable trustworthiness.”

Arianna Huffington questions newspapers’“veneer of unassailable trustworthiness.”

The American newspaper has been around for approximately three hundred years. Benjamin Harris’s spirited Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick managed just one issue, in 1690, before the Massachusetts authorities closed it down. Harris had suggested a politically incorrect hard line on Indian removal and shocked local sensibilities by reporting that the King of France had been taking liberties with the Prince’s wife.

It really was not until 1721, when the printer James Franklin launched the New England Courant, that any of Britain’s North American colonies saw what we might recognize today as a real newspaper. Franklin, Benjamin’s older brother, refused to adhere to customary licensing arrangements and constantly attacked the ruling powers of New England, thereby achieving both editorial independence and commercial success. He filled his paper with crusades (on everything from pirates to the power of Cotton and Increase Mather), literary essays by Addison and Steele, character sketches, and assorted philosophical ruminations.

Three centuries after the appearance of Franklin’s Courant, it no longer requires a dystopic imagination to wonder who will have the dubious distinction of publishing America’s last genuine newspaper. Few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive. Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, said recently in a speech in London, “At places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is funereal. Editors ask one another, ‘How are you?,’ in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce.” Keller’s speech appeared on the Web site of its sponsor, the Guardian, under the headline “NOT DEAD YET.”

Perhaps not, but trends in circulation and advertising––the rise of the Internet, which has made the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive; the advent of Craigslist, which is wiping out classified advertising––have created a palpable sense of doom. Independent, publicly traded American newspapers have lost forty-two per cent of their market value in the past three years, according to the media entrepreneur Alan Mutter. Few corporations have been punished on Wall Street the way those who dare to invest in the newspaper business have. The McClatchy Company, which was the only company to bid on the Knight Ridder chain when, in 2005, it was put on the auction block, has surrendered more than eighty per cent of its stock value since making the $6.5-billion purchase. Lee Enterprises’ stock is down by three-quarters since it bought out the Pulitzer chain, the same year. America’s most prized journalistic possessions are suddenly looking like corporate millstones. Rather than compete in an era of merciless transformation, the families that owned the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal sold off the majority of their holdings. The New York Times Company has seen its stock decline by fifty-four per cent since the end of 2004, with much of the loss coming in the past year; in late February, an analyst at Deutsche Bank recommended that clients sell off their Times stock. The Washington Post Company has avoided a similar fate only by rebranding itself an “education and media company”; its testing and prep company, Kaplan, now brings in at least half the company’s revenue.

Until recently, newspapers were accustomed to operating as high-margin monopolies. To own the dominant, or only, newspaper in a mid-sized American city was, for many decades, a kind of license to print money. In the Internet age, however, no one has figured out how to rescue the newspaper in the United States or abroad. Newspapers have created Web sites that benefit from the growth of online advertising, but the sums are not nearly enough to replace the loss in revenue from circulation and print ads.

Most managers in the industry have reacted to the collapse of their business model with a spiral of budget cuts, bureau closings, buyouts, layoffs, and reductions in page size and column inches. Since 1990, a quarter of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared. The columnist Molly Ivins complained, shortly before her death, that the newspaper companies’ solution to their problem was to make “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.” That may help explain why the dwindling number of Americans who buy and read a daily paper are spending less time with it; the average is down to less than fifteen hours a month. Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.

Philip Meyer, in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper” (2004), predicts that the final copy of the final newspaper will appear on somebody’s doorstep one day in 2043. It may be unkind to point out that all these parlous trends coincide with the opening, this spring, of the $450-million Newseum, in Washington, D.C., but, more and more, what Bill Keller calls “that lovable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose” is starting to feel like an artifact ready for display under glass.

Taking its place, of course, is the Internet, which is about to pass newspapers as a source of political news for American readers. For young people, and for the most politically engaged, it has already done so. As early as May, 2004, newspapers had become the least preferred source for news among younger people. According to “Abandoning the News,” published by the Carnegie Corporation, thirty-nine per cent of respondents under the age of thirty-five told researchers that they expected to use the Internet in the future for news purposes; just eight per cent said that they would rely on a newspaper. It is a point of ironic injustice, perhaps, that when a reader surfs the Web in search of political news he frequently ends up at a site that is merely aggregating journalistic work that originated in a newspaper, but that fact is not likely to save any newspaper jobs or increase papers’ stock valuation.

Among the most significant aspects of the transition from “dead tree” newspapers to a world of digital information lies in the nature of “news” itself. The American newspaper (and the nightly newscast) is designed to appeal to a broad audience, with conflicting values and opinions, by virtue of its commitment to the goal of objectivity. Many newspapers, in their eagerness to demonstrate a sense of balance and impartiality, do not allow reporters to voice their opinions publicly, march in demonstrations, volunteer in political campaigns, wear political buttons, or attach bumper stickers to their cars.

In private conversation, reporters and editors concede that objectivity is an ideal, an unreachable horizon, but journalists belong to a remarkably thin-skinned fraternity, and few of them will publicly admit to betraying in print even a trace of bias. They discount the notion that their beliefs could interfere with their ability to report a story with perfect balance. As the venerable “dean” of the Washington press corps, David Broder, of the Post, puts it, “There just isn’t enough ideology in the average reporter to fill a thimble.”

Meanwhile, public trust in newspapers has been slipping at least as quickly as the bottom line. A recent study published by Sacred Heart University found that fewer than twenty per cent of Americans said they could believe “all or most” media reporting, a figure that has fallen from more than twenty-seven per cent just five years ago. “Less than one in five believe what they read in print,” the 2007 “State of the News Media” report, issued by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, concluded. “CNN is not really more trusted than Fox, or ABC than NBC. The local paper is not viewed much differently than the New York Times.” Vastly more Americans believe in flying saucers and 9/11 conspiracy theories than believe in the notion of balanced—much less “objective”—mainstream news media. Nearly nine in ten Americans, according to the Sacred Heart study, say that the media consciously seek to influence public policies, though they disagree about whether the bias is liberal or conservative.

No less challenging is the rapid transformation that has taken place in the public’s understanding of, and demand for, “news” itself. Rupert Murdoch, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in April, 2005—two years before his five-billion-dollar takeover of Dow Jones & Co. and the Wall Street Journal—warned the industry’s top editors and publishers that the days when “news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deigned to tell us what we could and should know,” were over. No longer would people accept “a godlike figure from above” presenting the news as “gospel.” Today’s consumers “want news on demand, continuously updated. They want a point of view about not just what happened but why it happened. . . . And finally, they want to be able to use the information in a larger community—to talk about, to debate, to question, and even to meet people who think about the world in similar or different ways.”

One month after Murdoch’s speech, a thirty-one-year-old computer whiz, Jonah Peretti, and a former A.O.L. executive, Kenneth Lerer, joined the ubiquitous commentator-candidate-activist Arianna Huffington to launch a new Web site, which they called the Huffington Post. First envisaged as a liberal alternative to the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post started out by aggregating political news and gossip; it also organized a group blog, with writers drawn largely from Huffington’s alarmingly vast array of friends and connections. Huffington had accumulated that network during years as a writer on topics from Greek philosophy to the life of Picasso, as the spouse of a wealthy Republican congressman in California, and now, after a divorce and an ideological conversion, as a Los Angeles-based liberal commentator and failed gubernatorial candidate.

Almost by accident, however, the owners of the Huffington Post had discovered a formula that capitalized on the problems confronting newspapers in the Internet era, and they are convinced that they are ready to reinvent the American newspaper. “Early on, we saw that the key to this enterprise was not aping Drudge,” Lerer recalls. “It was taking advantage of our community. And the key was to think of what we were doing through the community’s eyes.”

On the Huffington Post, Peretti explains, news is not something handed down from above but “a shared enterprise between its producer and its consumer.” Echoing Murdoch, he says that the Internet offers editors “immediate information” about which stories interest readers, provoke comments, are shared with friends, and generate the greatest number of Web searches. An Internet-based news site, Peretti contends, is therefore “alive in a way that is impossible for paper and ink.”

Though Huffington has a news staff (it is tiny, but the hope is to expand in the future), the vast majority of the stories that it features originate elsewhere, whether in print, on television, or on someone’s video camera or cell phone. The editors link to whatever they believe to be the best story on a given topic. Then they repurpose it with a catchy, often liberal-leaning headline and provide a comment section beneath it, where readers can chime in. Surrounding the news articles are the highly opinionated posts of an apparently endless army of both celebrity (Nora Ephron, Larry David) and non-celebrity bloggers—more than eighteen hundred so far. The bloggers are not paid. The over-all effect may appear chaotic and confusing, but, Lerer argues, “this new way of thinking about, and presenting, the news, is transforming news as much as CNN did thirty years ago.” Arianna Huffington and her partners believe that their model points to where the news business is heading. “People love to talk about the death of newspapers, as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I think that’s ridiculous,” she says. “Traditional media just need to realize that the online world isn’t the enemy. In fact, it’s the thing that will save them, if they fully embrace it.”

It’s an almost comically audacious ambition for an operation with only forty-six full-time employees—many of whom are barely old enough to rent a car. But, with about eleven million dollars at its disposal, the site is poised to break even on advertising revenue of somewhere between six and ten million dollars annually. What most impresses advertisers—and depresses newspaper-company executives—is the site’s growth numbers. In the past thirty days, thanks in large measure to the excitement of the Democratic primaries, the site’s “unique visitors”—that is, individual computers that clicked on one of its pages––jumped to more than eleven million, according to the company. And, according to estimates from Nielsen NetRatings and comScore, the Huffington Post is more popular than all but eight newspaper sites, rising from sixteenth place in December.

Arthur Miller once described a good newspaper as “a nation talking to itself.” If only in this respect, the Huffington Post is a great newspaper. It is not unusual for a short blog post to inspire a thousand posts from readers—posts that go off in their own directions and lead to arguments and conversations unrelated to the topic that inspired them. Occasionally, these comments present original perspectives and arguments, but many resemble the graffiti on a bathroom wall.

The notion that the Huffington Post is somehow going to compete with, much less displace, the best traditional newspapers is arguable on other grounds as well. The site’s original-reporting resources are minuscule. The site has no regular sports or book coverage, and its entertainment section is a trashy grab bag of unverified Internet gossip. And, while the Huffington Post has successfully positioned itself as the place where progressive politicians and Hollywood liberal luminaries post their anti-Bush Administration sentiments, many of the original blog posts that it publishes do not merit the effort of even a mouse click.

Additional oddities abound. Whereas a newspaper tends to stand by its story on the basis of an editorial process in which professional reporters and editors attempt to vet their sources and check their accuracy before publishing, the blogosphere relies on its readership—its community—for quality control. At the Huffington Post, Jonah Peretti explains, the editors “stand behind our front page” and do their best to insure that only trusted bloggers and reliable news sources are posted there. Most posts inside the site, however, go up before an editor sees them. Only if a post is deemed by a reader to be false, defamatory, or offensive does an editor get involved.

The Huffington Post’s editorial processes are based on what Peretti has named the “mullet strategy.” (“Business up front, party in the back” is how his trend-spotting site BuzzFeed glosses it.) “User-generated content is all the rage, but most of it totally sucks,” Peretti says. The mullet strategy invites users to “argue and vent on the secondary pages, but professional editors keep the front page looking sharp. The mullet strategy is here to stay, because the best way for Web companies to increase traffic is to let users have control, but the best way to sell advertising is a slick, pretty front page where corporate sponsors can admire their brands.”

This policy is hardly without its pitfalls. During the Hurricane Katrina crisis, the activist Randall Robinson referred, in a post, to reports from New Orleans that some people there were “eating corpses to survive.” When Arianna Huffington heard about the post, she got in touch with Robinson and found that he could not support his musings; she asked Robinson to post a retraction. The alacrity with which the correction took place was admirable, but it was not fast enough to prevent the false information from being repeated elsewhere.

The tensions between the leaders of the mainstream media and the challengers from the Web were presaged by one of the most instructive and heated intellectual debates of the American twentieth century.

Between 1920 and 1925, the young Walter Lippmann published three books investigating the theoretical relationship between democracy and the press, including “Public Opinion” (1922), which is credited with inspiring both the public-relations profession and the academic field of media studies. Lippmann identified a fundamental gap between what we naturally expect from democracy and what we know to be true about people. Democratic theory demands that citizens be knowledgeable about issues and familiar with the individuals put forward to lead them. And, while these assumptions may have been reasonable for the white, male, property-owning classes of James Franklin’s Colonial Boston, contemporary capitalist society had, in Lippmann’s view, grown too big and complex for crucial events to be mastered by the average citizen.

Journalism works well, Lippmann wrote, when “it can report the score of a game or a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch.” But where the situation is more complicated, “as for example, in the matter of the success of a policy, or the social conditions among a foreign people—that is to say, where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle, and a matter of balanced evidence,” journalism “causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.”

Lippmann likened the average American—or “outsider,” as he tellingly named him—to a “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” In a description that may strike a familiar chord with anyone who watches cable news or listens to talk radio today, Lippmann assumed a public that “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.” A committed élitist, Lippmann did not see why anyone should find these conclusions shocking. Average citizens are hardly expected to master particle physics or post-structuralism. Why should we expect them to understand the politics of Congress, much less that of the Middle East?

Lippmann’s preferred solution was, in essence, to junk democracy entirely. He justified this by arguing that the results were what mattered. Even “if there were a prospect” that people could become sufficiently well-informed to govern themselves wisely, he wrote, “it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered.” In his first attempt to consider the issue, in “Liberty and the News” (1920), Lippmann suggested addressing the problem by raising the status of journalism to that of more respected professions. Two years later, in “Public Opinion,” he concluded that journalism could never solve the problem merely by “acting upon everybody for thirty minutes in twenty-four hours.” Instead, in one of the oddest formulations of his long career, Lippmann proposed the creation of “intelligence bureaus,” which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government’s actions without concerning themselves much with democratic preferences or public debate. Just what, if any, role the public would play in this process Lippmann never explained.

John Dewey termed “Public Opinion” “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned,” and he spent much of the next five years countering it. The result, published in 1927, was an extremely tendentious, dense, yet important book, titled “The Public and Its Problems.” Dewey did not dispute Lippmann’s contention regarding journalism’s flaws or the public’s vulnerability to manipulation. But Dewey thought that Lippmann’s cure was worse than the disease. While Lippmann viewed public opinion as little more than the sum of the views of each individual, much like a poll, Dewey saw it more like a focus group. The foundation of democracy to Dewey was less information than conversation. Members of a democratic society needed to cultivate what the journalism scholar James W. Carey, in describing the debate, called “certain vital habits” of democracy—the ability to discuss, deliberate on, and debate various perspectives in a manner that would move it toward consensus.

Dewey also criticized Lippmann’s trust in knowledge-based élites. “A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge,” he argued. “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.”

Lippmann and Dewey devoted much of the rest of their lives to addressing the problems they had diagnosed, Lippmann as the archetypal insider pundit and Dewey as the prophet of democratic education. To the degree that posterity can be said to have declared a winner in this argument, the future turned out much closer to Lippmann’s ideal. Dewey’s confidence in democracy rested in significant measure on his “faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished.” But nothing in his voluminous writings gives the impression that he believed these conditions—which he defined expansively to include democratic schools, factories, voluntary associations, and, particularly, newspapers—were ever met in his lifetime. (Dewey died in 1952, at the age of ninety-two.)

The history of the American press demonstrates a tendency toward exactly the kind of professionalization for which Lippmann initially argued. When Lippmann was writing, many newspapers remained committed to the partisan model of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American press, in which editors and publishers viewed themselves as appendages of one or another political power or patronage machine and slanted their news offerings accordingly. (Think of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton battling each other through their competing newspapers while serving in George Washington’s Cabinet.) The twentieth-century model, in which newspapers strive for political independence and attempt to act as referees between competing parties on behalf of what they perceive to be the public interest, was, in Lippmann’s time, in its infancy.

As the profession grew more sophisticated and respected, in part owing to Lippmann’s example, top reporters, anchors, and editors naturally rose in status to the point where some came to be considered the social equals of the senators, Cabinet secretaries, and C.E.O.s they reported on. Just as naturally, these same reporters and editors sometimes came to identify with their subjects, rather than with their readers, as Dewey had predicted. Aside from biennial elections featuring smaller and smaller portions of the electorate, politics increasingly became a business for professionals and a spectator sport for the great unwashed—much as Lippmann had hoped and Dewey had feared. Beyond the publication of the occasional letter to the editor, the role of the reader was defined as purely passive.

The Lippmann model received its initial challenge from the political right. Many conservatives regarded the major networks, newspapers, and newsweeklies—the mainstream media—as liberal arbiters, incapable of covering without bias the civil-rights movement in the South or Barry Goldwater’s Presidential campaign. They responded by building think tanks and media outlets designed both to challenge and to bypass the mainstream media. The Reagan revolution, which brought conservatives to power in Washington, had its roots not only in the candidate’s personal appeal as a “great communicator” but in a decades-long campaign of ideological spadework undertaken in magazines such as William F. Buckley, Jr.,’s National Review and Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary and in the pugnacious editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, edited for three decades by Robert Bartley. The rise of what has come to be known as the conservative “counter-establishment” and, later, of media phenomena such as Rush Limbaugh, on talk radio, and Bill O’Reilly, on cable television, can be viewed in terms of a Deweyan community attempting to seize the reins of democratic authority and information from a Lippmann-like élite.

A liberal version of the Deweyan community took longer to form, in part because it took liberals longer to find fault with the media. Until the late nineteen-seventies, many in the mainstream media did, in fact, exhibit the “liberal bias” with which conservatives continue to charge them, regarding their unquestioned belief both in a strong, activist government and in its moral responsibility to insure the expansion of rights to women and to ethnic and racial minorities. But a concerted effort to recruit pundits from the new conservative counter-establishment, coupled with investment by wealthy right-wing activists and businessmen in an interlocking web of counter-establishment think tanks, pressure groups, periodicals, radio stations, and television networks, operated as a kind of rightward gravitational pull on the mainstream’s reporting and helped to create a far more sympathetic context for conservative candidates than Goldwater supporters could have imagined.

Duncan Black, a former economics professor who writes a popular progressive blog under the name Atrios, explains that he, too, believed in what he calls “the myth of the liberal media.” He goes on, “But watching the press’s collective behavior during the Clinton impeachment saga, the Gore campaign, the post-9/11 era, the run-up to the Iraq war, and the Bush Administration’s absurd and dangerous claims of executive power rendered such a belief absurd. Sixty-five per cent of the American public disapproves of the Bush Administration, but that perspective, even now, has very little representation anywhere in the mainstream media.”

The birth of the liberal blogosphere, with its ability to bypass the big media institutions and conduct conversations within a like-minded community, represents a revival of the Deweyan challenge to our Lippmann-like understanding of what constitutes “news” and, in doing so, might seem to revive the philosopher’s notion of a genuinely democratic discourse. The Web provides a powerful platform that enables the creation of communities; distribution is frictionless, swift, and cheap. The old democratic model was a nation of New England towns filled with well-meaning, well-informed yeoman farmers. Thanks to the Web, we can all join in a Deweyan debate on Presidents, policies, and proposals. All that’s necessary is a decent Internet connection.

What put the Huffington Post on the map was a series of pieces during the summer and autumn of 2005, in which Arianna Huffington relentlessly attacked the military and foreign-affairs reporting of the Times’ Judith Miller. Huffington was fed by a steady stream of leaks and suggestions from Times editors and reporters, even though much of the newspaper world considered her journalistic credentials highly questionable.

The Huffington Post was hardly the first Web site to stumble on the technique of leveraging the knowledge of its readers to challenge the mainstream media narrative. For example, conservative bloggers at sites like Little Green Footballs took pleasure in helping to bring down Dan Rather after he broadcast dubious documents allegedly showing that George W. Bush had received special treatment during his service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Long before the conservatives forced out Dan Rather, a liberal freelance journalist named Joshua Micah Marshall had begun a site, called Talking Points Memo, intended to take stories well beyond where mainstream newspapers had taken them, often by relying on the voluntary research and well-timed leaks of an avid readership. His site, begun during the 2000 Florida-recount controversy, ultimately spawned several related sites, which are collectively known as TPM Media, and which are financed through a combination of reader donations and advertising. In the admiring judgment of the Columbia Journalism Review, Talking Points Memo “was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the story of the fired U.S. Attorneys to a boil,” a scandal that ultimately ended with the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and a George Polk Award for Marshall, the first ever for a blogger. Talking Points Memo also played a lead role in defeating the Bush Social Security plan and in highlighting Trent Lott’s praise for Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist Presidential campaign. Lott was eventually forced to step down as Senate Majority Leader.

According to Marshall, “the collaborative aspect” of his site “came about entirely by accident.” His original intention was merely to offer his readers “transparency,” so that his “strong viewpoint” would be distinguishable from the facts that he presented. Over time, however, he found that the enormous response that his work engendered offered access to “a huge amount of valuable information”––information that was not always available to mainstream reporters, who tended to deal largely with what Marshall terms “professional sources.” During the Katrina crisis, for example, Marshall discovered that some of his readers worked in the federal government’s climate-and-weather-tracking infrastructure. They provided him and the site with reliable reporting available nowhere else.

Marshall’s undeniable achievement notwithstanding, traditional newspaper men and women tend to be unimpressed by the style of journalism practiced at the political Web sites. Operating on the basis of a Lippmann-like reverence for inside knowledge and contempt for those who lack it, many view these sites the way serious fiction authors might view the “novels” tapped out by Japanese commuters on their cell phones. Real reporting, especially the investigative kind, is expensive, they remind us. Aggregation and opinion are cheap.

And it is true: no Web site spends anything remotely like what the best newspapers do on reporting. Even after the latest round of new cutbacks and buyouts are carried out, the Times will retain a core of more than twelve hundred newsroom employees, or approximately fifty times as many as the Huffington Post. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times maintain between eight hundred and nine hundred editorial employees each. The Times’ Baghdad bureau alone costs around three million dollars a year to maintain. And while the Huffington Post shares the benefit of these investments, it shoulders none of the costs.

Despite the many failures at newspapers, the vast majority of reporters and editors have devoted years, even decades, to understanding the subjects of their stories. It is hard to name any bloggers who can match the professional expertise, and the reporting, of, for example, the Post s Barton Gellman and Dana Priest, or the Times’ Dexter Filkins and Alissa Rubin.

In October, 2005, at an advertisers’ conference in Phoenix, Bill Keller complained that bloggers merely “recycle and chew on the news,” contrasting that with the Times’ emphasis on what he called “a ‘journalism of verification,’ ” rather than mere “assertion.”

“Bloggers are not chewing on the news. They are spitting it out,” Arianna Huffington protested in a Huffington Post blog. Like most liberal bloggers, she takes exception to the assumption by so many traditional journalists that their work is superior to that of bloggers when it comes to ferreting out the truth. The ability of bloggers to find the flaws in the mainstream media’s reporting of the Iraq war “highlighted the absurdity of the knee jerk comparison of the relative credibility of the so-called MSM and the blogosphere,” she said, and went on, “In the run-up to the Iraq war, many in the mainstream media, including the New York Times, lost their veneer of unassailable trustworthiness for many readers and viewers, and it became clear that new media sources could be trusted—and indeed are often much quicker at correcting mistakes than old media sources.”

But Huffington fails to address the parasitical relationship that virtually all Internet news sites and blog commentators enjoy with newspapers. The Huffington Post made a gesture in the direction of original reporting and professionalism last year when it hired Thomas Edsall, a forty-year veteran of the Washington Post and other papers, as its political editor. At the time he was approached by the Huffington Post, Edsall said, he felt that the Post had become “increasingly driven by fear—the fear of declining readership, the fear of losing advertisers, the fear of diminishing revenues, the fear of being swamped by the Internet, the fear of irrelevance. Fear drove the paper, from top to bottom, to corrupt the entire news operation.” Joining the Huffington Post, Edsall said, was akin to “getting out of jail,” and he has written, ever since, with a sense of liberation. But such examples are rare.

And so even if one agrees with all of Huffington’s jabs at the Times, and Edsall’s critique of the Washington Post, it is impossible not to wonder what will become of not just news but democracy itself, in a world in which we can no longer depend on newspapers to invest their unmatched resources and professional pride in helping the rest of us to learn, however imperfectly, what we need to know.

In a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” a cartoon version of Dan Rather introduced a debate panel featuring “Ron Lehar, a print journalist from the Washington Post.” This inspired Bart’s nemesis Nelson to shout, “Haw haw! Your medium is dying!”

“Nelson!” Principal Skinner admonished the boy.

“But it is!” was the young man’s reply.

Nelson is right. Newspapers are dying; the evidence of diminishment in economic vitality, editorial quality, depth, personnel, and the over-all number of papers is everywhere. What this portends for the future is complicated. Three years ago, Rupert Murdoch warned newspaper editors, “Many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably complacent . . . quietly hoping that this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along.” Today, almost all serious newspapers are scrambling to adapt themselves to the technological and community-building opportunities offered by digital news delivery, including individual blogs, video reports, and “chat” opportunities for readers. Some, like the Times and the Post, will likely survive this moment of technological transformation in different form, cutting staff while increasing their depth and presence online. Others will seek to focus themselves locally. Newspaper editors now say that they “get it.” Yet traditional journalists are blinkered by their emotional investment in their Lippmann-like status as insiders. They tend to dismiss not only most blogosphere-based criticisms but also the messy democratic ferment from which these criticisms emanate. The Chicago Tribune recently felt compelled to shut down comment boards on its Web site for all political news stories. Its public editor, Timothy J. McNulty, complained, not without reason, that “the boards were beginning to read like a community of foul-mouthed bigots.”

Arianna Huffington, for her part, believes that the online and the print newspaper model are beginning to converge: “As advertising dollars continue to move online—as they slowly but certainly are—HuffPost will be adding more and more reporting and the Times and Post model will continue with the kinds of reporting they do, but they’ll do more of it originally online.” She predicts “more vigorous reporting in the future that will include distributed journalism—wisdom-of-the-crowd reporting of the kind that was responsible for the exposing of the Attorneys General firing scandal.” As for what may be lost in this transition, she is untroubled: “A lot of reporting now is just piling on the conventional wisdom—with important stories dying on the front page of the New York Times.”

The survivors among the big newspapers will not be without support from the nonprofit sector. ProPublica, funded by the liberal billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler and headed by the former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, hopes to provide the mainstream media with the investigative reporting that so many have chosen to forgo. The Center for Independent Media, headed by David Bennahum, a former writer at Wired, recently hired Jefferson Morley, from the Washington Post, and Allison Silver, a former editor at both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, to oversee a Web site called the Washington Independent. It’s one of a family of news-blogging sites meant to pick up some of the slack left by declining staffs in local and Washington reporting, with the hope of expanding everywhere. But to imagine that philanthropy can fill all the gaps arising from journalistic cutbacks is wishful thinking.

And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.” This is not utterly new. Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous “without fear or favor” declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.

The transformation will also engender serious losses. By providing what Bill Keller, of the Times, calls the “serendipitous encounters that are hard to replicate in the quicker, reader-driven format of a Web site”—a difference that he compares to that “between a clock and a calendar”—newspapers have helped to define the meaning of America to its citizens. To choose one date at random, on the morning of Monday, February 11th, I picked up the paper-and-ink New York Times on my doorstep, and, in addition to the stories one could have found anywhere—Obama defeating Clinton again and the Bush Administration’s decision to seek the death penalty for six Guantánamo detainees—the front page featured a unique combination of articles, stories that might disappear from our collective consciousness were there no longer any institution to generate and publish them. These included a report from Nairobi, by Jeffrey Gettleman, on the effect of Kenya’s ethnic violence on the country’s middle class; a dispatch from Doha, by Tamar Lewin, on the growth of American university campuses in Qatar; and, in a scoop that was featured on the Huffington Post’s politics page and excited much of the blogosphere that day, a story, by Michael R. Gordon, about the existence of a study by the RAND Corporation which offered a harsh critique of the Bush Administration’s performance in Iraq. The juxtaposition of these disparate topics forms both a baseline of knowledge for the paper’s readers and a picture of the world they inhabit. In “Imagined Communities” (1983), an influential book on the origins of nationalism, the political scientist Benedict Anderson recalls Hegel’s comparison of the ritual of the morning paper to that of morning prayer: “Each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” It is at least partially through the “imagined community” of the daily newspaper, Anderson writes, that nations are forged.

Finally, we need to consider what will become of those people, both at home and abroad, who depend on such journalistic enterprises to keep them safe from various forms of torture, oppression, and injustice. “People do awful things to each other,” the veteran war photographer George Guthrie says in “Night and Day,” Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play about foreign correspondents. “But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.” Ever since James Franklin’s New England Courant started coming off the presses, the daily newspaper, more than any other medium, has provided the information that the nation needed if it was to be kept out of “the dark.” Just how an Internet-based news culture can spread the kind of “light” that is necessary to prevent terrible things, without the armies of reporters and photographers that newspapers have traditionally employed, is a question that even the most ardent democrat in John Dewey’s tradition may not wish to see answered.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Organized Crime Politics

Thursday, February 26, 2009

by Gary Tilzer

Everyone recognizes that bid rigging on cement and traffic light contracts are the work of organized crime. Until ex-city labor leader and Queens assemblyman Brian McLaughlin pleaded guilty to fixing traffic light bidding contracts, that is. Why is it then, that when elected officials rig our state and city elections to ensure that every incumbent gets reelected, no one calls their deliberate strategy criminal and organized? Party leaders unchallenged for generations in competitive elections, use their control over ballot access to enrich themselves and their friends. Has extortion become normal in politics? The shake down goes way beyond control of the ballot lines. Member items and other government funding has been used not only to assure reelection but to break the bones of those that oppose the elected officials on any subject.

Newspaper editorials and good government groups push for individual fixes to our crisis in local government – public financing of state campaigns is one example. But, no one says outright that our right to representative democracy has been hijacked in an organized crime sort of way. Just like the mob rigged drugs, gambling and prostitution, our elected officials have rigged the election laws to protect incumbents from challengers. A good example of an election law hit can be found in the case of the candidate who was knocked off the ballot in a special election this week because a judge said the name of his party broke the election law (in a special election you cannot use established parties). Glenn DiResto was removed from the ballot because the name he chose: Families First, according to the judge, sounded too much like the established Working Families Party. Because of thuggish tactics like the manipulation of election laws, our local elections have become so noncompetitive that beyond public view, most incumbents regardless of party or reform beliefs, work together like the organized crime commission (organized in 1957 in Appalachian, New York), to keep the outs “out.” Sometimes elections are so fixed that opposing parties do not put up candidates to oppose elected officials who work with them . In Brooklyn last year Democrats Kurger and Cymbrowitz were both unopposed by Republicans. Republican Golden was unopposed by Democrats. There are dozens of other examples throughout the city.

It is not only the election laws at play here. A lot of muscle has been used by incumbents to cause the collapse of local competitive elections: The barriers erected to block ballot access to non-incumbent candidates; redistricting to protect incumbents and divide organized communities; the political use of the government budget by incumbents - member items; the low voter turnout caused by the lack of a real choice, the replacement of the clubhouse system which with all its probems provided services in exchange for votes, with public relations consultant's flacks who spin to a willing press that all too often accepts press releases and spin as news.

Democracy is strongest and the public is best represented when one candidate gets 49% and the other gets 51%. In a close election incumbents are forced to pay attention to their voter’s needs and their legislative leaders funnel programs and services to their districts to help them get reelected. Click here to read more about Political Organized Crime *** Showdown for the BusFellas' Union: A mobster's old cronies vie to keep control.

Unknown Slave Cemetary?

While developers continue to change the landscape of the city, many considerations are overlooked. YFP found an interesting comment from a reader in the blogosphere.

-Joe said...
There is one of these slave cemeteries across the street from North Shore LIJ Hospital on Community Drive in Manhasset nobody talks about.The old church has already been torched, now both the Hospital and a developer are after it.A HUGE tax exempt synagogue for the Great Neck people (Imported Buk and Iranian medical staff)already sits on part of the property yet it’s plugged into Manhasset taxpayers water a sewer treatment.It’s Not Fair and was a sneaky illegel stealthy project IMONorth Shore LIJ is F_ing up the whole Town of North Hempstead!

California Mayor Needs Deleting

Republican Mayor Sends Hilarious Not-Racist White House ‘n Watermelon Joke

The mayor of a tiny Republican hamlet in Southern California’s Orange County — just across the 605 from Long Beach — thought it was super funny to send around a picture of the White House surrounded by a watermelon garden, because gosh, the watermelon is simply a very funny thing, in almost any setting. Watermelons! The very word is fun, and certainly not racist. There was also a caption on the funny picture, of watermelons surrounding the White House: “No Easter Egg Hunt this year.” Ha ha, because Muslims don’t celebrate Easter, right? (Sure, they celebrate Good Friday, but anyway ….)

Local businesswoman and city volunteer Keyanus Price, who is black, said Tuesday she received the e-mail from Mayor Dean Grose’s personal account on Sunday and wants a public apology.
“I have had plenty of my share of chicken and watermelon and all those kinds of jokes,” Price told The Associated Press. “I honestly don’t even understand where he was coming from, sending this to me. As a black person receiving something like this from the city-freakin’-mayor — come on.”

Dean Grose, mayor of this little shithole, Los Alamitos, has the usual response: Oh gosh never did I mean to suggest anything RACIAL, by this cheap fucktard racist “joke.” His actual weasel words went like this:

“Bottom line is, we laugh at things and I didn’t see this in the same light that she did,” Grose told the AP. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t sent to offend her personally — or anyone — from the standpoint of the African-American race.”
Honestly, these people need to be killed, all of them. This is what Eric Holder means when he speaks of the need for a frank discussion about racism in America.
Mayor Hits Rough Patch Over Watermelon Pic [CBS News]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: Bill Clinton Says Obama’s Speech Was “Terrific” And Struck Right Tone Of Optimism

The Plum LineGreg Sargent's blog

BillClintonPresident.jpg President Bill Clinton picture by dissent_is_cool

President Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton — who recently urged President Obama to show more optimism about the future — hailed Obama for getting the tone right in his speech last night, praising Obama’s effort as “terrific” and a “real success” that struck just “the right balance.”

In a phone interview with me just now, Clinton offered his first public comments on the speech, saying Obama succeeded in telling “the American people that we’re gonna get out of this and it’s gonna be alright in the end.”

In the interview, Clinton also threw a bit of support to embattled Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, saying he’d done “the best job he could with a hard hand to play.” And Clinton also commented on Obama’s vow last night to tackle health care reform this year, saying he thought Obama had a “better than 50-50 chance of getting it done.”

Speaking of Obama’s speech, Clinton said: “I think he drew the right balance — he didn’t sugarcoat anything, he didn’t say it’s gonna get better tomorrow.”

“I think people appreciate the fact that he’s not jerking them around and [is] just telling them the way it is,” Clinton added. “But they do wanna know that we are gonna get out of this. And he said we were, and that our commitment to clean energy, and energy independence, and energy efficiency would lead the way, followed with health care and education reforms…It was a real success.”

“When he ran for President he was always relentlessly upbeat and I think that he’d really been focusing on trying to make sure the American people understood how wide and deep the crisis was, which I understood,” Clinton said. Referring to his own earlier interviews, Clinton said he’d previously thought “Obama should always say in addition to that, `we are gonna get out of this.’”

“And he did that last night really well,” Clinton said.

Clinton praised other aspects of the speech, saying Obama had done a good job selling the stimulus and bank bailout efforts.

“He explained what he was trying to achieve with the stimulus and strongly defended it in a way that I thought was important,” Clinton said. Obama, Clinton added, had convincingly argued that the stim package isn’t “just supposed to create jobs, it’s also supposed to save jobs by giving money to state and local governments” and to “put money in people’s pockets.”

“To have the President directly explaining that, I thought was important,” Clinton said.

Clinton also said Obama had explained well that the bank bailouts are “for the benefit of average Americans, middle class Americans, small business people, people who needed jobs. It wasn’t about the banks, it was about the American people” and “would not have unjust enrichment.”

In other aspects of the interview:

* On health care, Clinton said that he thought the public mood had shifted in favor of reform since his ill-fated efforts in 1993, and said Obama would be able to make good on his vow last night to tackle health care reform this year, along with rescuing the economy.

“They should try to do it now,” Clinton said of last night’s promise. “There’s a willingness to take a fresh look at all this, and so I believe he should try, I’m glad he’s going to, and I think it’s a better than 50-50 chance he’ll succeed.”

* On Jindal’s response, Clinton said of the Republicans that Jindal is “their future.”

“He’s a smart guy. While he basically espouses their social conservatism, he is not negative in the way he deals with people, and he’s policy oriented,” Clinton said.

Clinton added that Jindal’s speech foundered because the Republican party line right now is untenable. “They’re on very weak ground with their blanket opposition to the stimulus,” Clinton said, adding with a chuckle: “He did the best job he could with a hard hand to play.”

Clinton said much more in the interview, talking more about health care and about the future of the Republican Party, and we’ll bring you more of it tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Long time friend and colleague, Jay DeDapper was recently "furloughed" from WNBC TV. Jay is a top notch political reporter. It is their loss and our gain. Jay has his own website . Take a look and a listen.

Get Real 1 from Jay DeDapper on Vimeo.


Poor Annie Leibovitz Has Pawned All Her Photos www.
By Hamilton Nolan, 10:46 AM on Tue Feb 24 2009, 19,604 views
We knew that celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz had some serious financial problems. But we didn't know they were so bad that she had to sign over all of her photos to a pawn shop:

The NYT today reveals that Leibovitz took out more than $15 million in loans from Art Capital Group—essentially a very high class pawn shop specializing in art.
Last fall, Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, borrowed $5 million from a company called Art Capital Group. In December, she borrowed $10.5 million more from the same firm. As collateral, among other items, she used town houses she owns in Greenwich Village, a country house, and something else: the rights to all of her photographs.

In addition to the lawsuit for more than $700k from unpaid vendors, Leibovitz reportedly used the cash to pay back taxes and finance "a lengthy, costly and litigious renovation on the three adjoining town houses." Why one would pawn their town houses in order to raise money to renovate them, I do not know.

Obviously, a $2 million per year income is no savior from hard times. And hey, Julian Schnabel also pawned some real estate with the same firm to help finance his goddamn monstrosity of a pink, constantly-discounted celebrity condo building, Palazzo Chupi. Pawn shops prey on the rich just as they do the poor. Fairness!

F.C.C. Agrees to Talk to Sharpton

About News Corp. Waiver

The Reverend Al Sharpton said the F.C.C. has agreed to meet him in Washington tomorrow at 11 a.m. to discuss his call to review the waivers granted to Rupert Murdoch that allow him to own more than one television station and newspaper in the same city.

The meeting comes on the heels of a Sharpton-led rally against a cartoon that ran in the Murdoch-owned New York Post depicting Barack Obama as a dead chimpanzee.

Murdoch ran a personal apology for the cartoon in the Post today.

Sharpton made the announcement he would meet with federal officials during a rally he held on the steps of City Hall this morning, where more than 100 activists and elected officials vented frustration with Murdoch’s empire.

At the event, I asked Sharpton about the First Amendment right to criticize public officials. “What we’ve said is the only way to protece First Amendment is not to give all of the media ownership in the city to one person. Because, have you seen Fox News do a special on this cartoon? No, cause he owns it. Have you seen a Wall Street Journal article on this? No, cause he owns it. So, you cannot say you’re going to give a waiver to one person to own everything and then say they have the First Amendment right to use the dominating of a market to slur people.”

UPDATE: As Jeff Bercovici points out, the Journal did, in fact, run an article on the cartoon.

Azi Paybarah can be reached via email at

Related topics: Rupert Murdoch, Al Sharpton


by: Amy Goodman

Hillary Transue was sentenced to three months in juvenile detention. Transue made a web page mocking her assistant principal. (Photo: Niko J. Kallianiotis / The New York Times)

As many as 5,000 children in Pennsylvania have been found guilty, and up to 2,000 of them jailed, by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities that benefited. The two judges pleaded guilty in a stunning case of greed and corruption that is still unfolding. Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan received $2.6 million in kickbacks while imprisoning children who often had no access to a lawyer. The case offers an extraordinary glimpse into the shameful private prison industry that is flourishing in the United States.

Take the story of Jamie Quinn. When she was 14 years old, she was imprisoned for almost a year. Jamie, now 18, described the incident that led to her incarceration:

"I got into an argument with one of my friends. And all that happened was just a basic fight. She slapped me in the face, and I did the same thing back. There [were] no marks, no witnesses, nothing. It was just her word against my word."

Jamie was placed in one of the two controversial facilities, PA Child Care, then bounced around to several other locations. The 11-month imprisonment had a devastating impact on her. She told me: "People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long. My family started splitting up ... because I was away and got locked up. I'm still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places [are] just horrible."

She began cutting herself, blaming medication that she was forced to take: "I was never depressed, I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn't even know what they were. They said if I didn't take them, I wasn't following my program." She was hospitalized three times.

Jamie Quinn is just one of thousands that these two corrupt judges locked up. The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center got involved when Hillary Transue was sent away for three months for posting a Web site parodying the assistant principal at her school. Hillary clearly marked the Web page as a joke. The assistant principal didn't find it funny, apparently, and Hillary faced the notoriously harsh Judge Ciavarella.

As Bob Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center told me: "Hillary had, unknown to her, signed a paper, her mother had signed a paper, giving up her right to a lawyer. That made the 90-second hearing that she had in front of Judge Ciavarella pretty much of a kangaroo court." The JLC found that in half of the juvenile cases in Luzerne County, defendants had waived their right to an attorney. Judge Ciavarella repeatedly ignored recommendations for leniency from both prosecutors and probation officers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the JLC's case, then the FBI began an investigation, which resulted in the two judges entering guilty-plea agreements last week for tax evasion and wire fraud.

They are expected to serve seven years in federal prison. Two separate class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the imprisoned children.

This scandal involves just one county in the U.S., and one relatively small private prison company. According to The Sentencing Project, "the United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.1 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails—a 500 percent increase over the past thirty years." The Wall Street Journal reports that "[p]rison companies are preparing for a wave of new business as the economic downturn makes it increasingly difficult for federal and state government officials to build and operate their own jails." For-profit prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) are positioned for increased profits. It is still not clear what impact the just-signed stimulus bill will have on the private prison industry (for example, the bill contains $800 million for prison construction, yet billions for school construction were cut out).

Congress is considering legislation to improve juvenile justice policy, legislation the American Civil Liberties Union says is "built on the clear evidence that community-based programs can be far more successful at preventing youth crime than the discredited policies of excessive incarceration."

Our children need education and opportunity, not incarceration. Let the kids of Luzerne County imprisoned for profit by corrupt judges teach us a lesson. As young Jamie Quinn said of her 11-month imprisonment, "It just makes me really question other authority figures and people that we're supposed to look up to and trust."


Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the "Alternative Nobel" prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Free the New York Three!

I must protest – even at the risk of having my press credential arbitrarily and summarily revoked – the latest undemocratic decision by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Fresh on the heels of having abrogated the decision of the people at the ballot box regarding the matter of term limits, Hizzoner’s current controversy revolves around a boneheaded decision by his Police Department to deny official ‘working press’ passes to three men, Rafael Martínez Alequin, Ralph E. Smith and David Wallis, all of whom work for online or nontraditional news outlets — such as this one!

One of them – David Wallis – is well known to me as the founder of, a professional syndication service that provides news coverage to 1,500 publications worldwide. (Disclosure: Wallis and featurewell have syndicated many of my blog posts and articles in the past.) There is NO question that Wallis — who had a valid press identification card for many years, beginning in 1994 — is a legitimate and noted journalist. His articles, for example, have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and numerous other prominent publications, and he is also the editor of two acclaimed collections of censored articles and cartoons. Nonetheless, as of last year, he has been deemed illegitimate by the NYPD and denied credentials — without explanation. As a direct result, his ability to engage in professional journalistic activities has been hampered, and he says he eventually “ceased to pursue opportunities to report on newsworthy events.”

Mr. Smith, a public information officer for the city’s Correction Department, is also publisher of The Guardian Chronicle, a Web site for black law enforcement workers. He had a press credential from 1996 until 2007, when his application to renew was also denied without a written explanation. And Mr. Martínez Alequin, identified by the Times as “a longtime City Hall gadfly” who had become “persona non grata in City Hall,” has already had his troubles with the powers-that-wannabe. (For example Rudolph Giuliani, that paragon of politesse, once called him a “jerk” and an “embarrassment.”)

For nearly twenty years Martínez Alequin published The Brooklyn Free Press, after which he began the online New York City Free Press, and then the blog Your Free Press. He too was credentialed as a journalist for years — from 1986 to 2000 and again in 2005 and 2006. But in the apparently fateful year of 2007, his application to renew his press pass was denied, and as a result, he was barred for a time from Mayor Bloomberg’s news conferences.

It is unclear whether the fact that Martínez Alequin often criticized Mayor Bloomberg — just as he did with Bloomie’s City Hall predecessors like rude Rudy G — had anything to do with the refusal to grant him credentials. But even if that is not the case, the decision to hold back official recognition of his role as a journalist is blatantly stupid – if only because that inference can and will be made as a result. Why is the Mayor opening himself up to charges that police permits are denied to journalists who may have viewpoints considered controversial? Is the problem perhaps that Martinez Alequin has been insufficiently reverential of powerful politicians? (He once angered Giuliani by noting that the NYPD was “trigger-happy when it comes to blacks and Latinos,” and was later publicly chastised by the current mayor for referring to his autobiography “Bloomberg by Bloomberg” as “Bloomberg on Bloomberg.” Whatever!) In any event, Martinez Alequin has it right when he says, “There are many questions that have to be asked to the mayor or to any elected official that I think the mainstream media very seldom asks.”

After exhausting other means of appeal, the New York Three have now filed a federal lawsuit asserting that the Police Department violated their constitutional rights. The suit contends –- rightly, to my mind — that the city’s regulations governing press credentialing are “unconstitutionally vague,” and the plaintiffs are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.

Norman Siegel, the attorney representing the three men, told the Times in a phone interview that, “The system of granting press credentials in New York City has run amok and needs to be changed immediately.” Siegel is correct – but why does it require literally making a federal case out of this for the city to begin “investigating the plaintiff’s concerns thoroughly?”

The Times report on the matter by Sewell Chan framed the conflict as one of determining, “In the ever-shifting media landscape of 2008, who, exactly, is a journalist?” Wrong in its entirety! There can be no doubt that people like David Wallis, Rafael Martínez Alequin, and Ralph E. Smith are practicing journalism. That makes them, de facto, practicing journalists.

The City of New York should promptly get this entire matter out of federal court, issue credentials to the three journalists –- along with an official apology -– and then get busy rationalizing their ridiculous credentialing process, or else just get out of the press pass business entirely.

Come on, Mayor Bloomberg -— you’re better than that… Free the New York Three!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bkly'n Co-op Says "No" to Israeli Products

Brooklyn Co-Op May Boycott Israeli Products
Reporting Jay Dow NEW YORK (CBS) ―

The 15,000 member food co-op in Park Slope is considering a ban on Israeli products because of the conflict in the Mideast.

A food fight is heating up in Brooklyn. The 15,000 member food co-op in Park Slope is considering a ban on Israeli products because of the conflict in the Mideast. Officials there are now debating making an international statement after a member's proposal to take a symbolic stand against Israel. So far the co-op staff has identified just four products from Israel, but they say it's possible there are others out of the 10,000 products offered at the co-op.

How do he members feel about losing Israeli grown persimmons, sweet peppers, paprika, and marshmallows? Reaction is mixed. "Red peppers are the only thing that I would use of those four, and I would not boycott them," said co-op member Steve Monroe. "I don't really support the boycott.

But I really don't support the policy of Israel either," said Ted Stafford, another member. But other say they would stand behind the decision if it goes through. "Just make people more aware and more responsible in how we find the things that we sell," said member Crystal Whaley. Members say until the boycott proposal reaches the co-op board's official agenda, they'll continue stocking the shelves based on a food's quality instead of its nationality.

Could a Sudden Collapse of Mexico Be Obama's Surprise Foreign Policy Challenge?

By Bill Weinberg, AlterNet.

Posted February 19, 2009.

Free-trade politics and the drug war created a social crisis in Mexico, and a militarized response to it may push events to an explosion.

A year-end report by the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command names two countries as likely candidates for a "rapid and sudden collapse" -- Pakistan and Mexico.

The report, named "JOE 2008" (for Joint Operating Environment), states:

"In terms of worse-case scenarios for the Joint Force, and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico. The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state."

Mexican officials were quick to deny the ominous claim. Exterior Secretary Patricia Espinosa told reporters that the fast-escalating violence mostly affects the narco gangs themselves, and "Mexico is not a failed state."

Enrique Hubbard Urrea, Mexico's consul general in Dallas, actually boasted improvement, asserting that the government has won the war against the drug cartels in certain areas, such as Nuevo Laredo -- one of the border cities that has been the scene of recent nightmarish violence.

But U.S. political figures were also quick to react -- using the Pentagon's lurid findings to argue for increased military aid to Mexico. As President-elect Barack Obama met in Washington with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Jan. 12, the former U.S. drug czar, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, just back from a meeting in Mexico of the International Forum of Intelligence and Security Specialists, told a Washington press conference: "Mexico is on the edge of the abyss -- it could become a narco state in the coming decade." He praised Calderon, who he said has "launched a serious attempt to reclaim the rule of law from the chaos of the drug cartels." The International Forum of Intelligence and Security Specialists is an advisory body to Mexican federal law enforcement.

Also weighing in was Joel Kurtzman, senior fellow at the Milken Institute, who warned in a Wall Street Journal editorial: "It may only be a matter of time before the drug war spills across the border and into the U.S." He hailed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for his "plan to 'surge' civilian, and possibly, military law-enforcement personnel to the border should that be necessary…" He also lauded Calderon's deployment of 45,000 military troops to fight the drug cartels -- but raised the possibility of a tide of refugees flooding the U.S. Southwest. "Unless the violence can be reversed, the U.S. can anticipate that the flow across the border will continue."

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., joined the chorus. On Jan. 11, the day before Calderon arrived in Washington, Gingrich told ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos: "There is a war under way in Mexico. More people were killed in Mexico in 2008 than were killed in Iraq. It is grossly undercovered by the American media. It's is on our border. It has the potential to extend into our country side. … The illegal narcotics teams in Mexico are in a direct civil war with the government in which they are killing the police, killing judges, killing the army ... [I'm] surprised that no one in the American system is looking at it very much. It's a very serious problem."

Gingrich doesn't have his facts quite right. The Iraq Body Count Web site puts the number of just Iraqi civilian deaths last year at a maximum of 9,028 (compared to 24,295 in 2007). The Mexican daily El Universal reports that according to its tally, there were 5,612 killings related to organized crime in Mexico last year -- more than double the 2007 figure, and the highest since it started keeping track four years ago.

Yet even if Gingrich is exaggerating, and the Pentagon is paranoid, there is definitely cause for concern. The violence -- at its worst in the border cities of Juarez and Tijuana -- is reaching spectacular levels redolent of Colombia.

In Juarez (and elsewhere across Mexico), severed heads are left outside police stations in chilling numbers; mutilated, decapitated corpses left outside schools and shopping centers -- or hanging from overpasses as a warning to the populace.

A man recently arrested in Tijuana -- charmingly nicknamed the "Stew-maker" -- confessed to disposing of hundreds of bodies by dissolving them in chemicals, for which he was paid $600 a week. A barrel with partially dissolved human remains was left outside a popular seafood restaurant.

Bombs hurled into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in Michoacn on Sept. 15 left seven dead.

The mysterious wave of femicide, which has haunted Juarez for more than 15 years, has spiraled hideously. Authorities report that 81 women were killed in the city this year, breaking all previous records -- in fact, more than doubling 2001's record and bringing the total since 1993 to 508.

And the cartels' agents have penetrated the highest levels of Mexican federal power. Several high-ranking law-enforcement officials were detained last year in Operacion Limpieza ("Operation House Cleaning"), aimed at weeding out officials suspected of collaborating with the warring drug lords.

Cartel hit squads operate in the uniforms of Mexican federal police agents, and in towns such as Nuevo Laredo, the local police became so thoroughly co-opted that the federal government dissolved their powers. It is questionable whether the Mexican bloodletting is really a war of the cartels against the state or among cartels for control of the state.

State security forces are hardly less brutal than the drug gangs they battle (and overlap with). Mexico's National Human Rights Commission issued several recommendations last year calling on the defense secretary to punish those responsible for torture and gratuitous killings. Up until now, those recommendations have been ignored.

Despite the blatant corruption, the U.S. is pouring guns into Mexico -- an illicit trade from north of the border arming the cartels (and their paramilitary units like the notorious "Zetas," made up of military veterans) with assault rifles and rocket-launchers, while Washington is beefing up the Mexican army and federal police over the table. "Mexican law enforcement and soldiers face heavily armed drug gangs with high-powered military automatic weapons," warns McCaffrey, oblivious to the incestuous interpenetration of these seeming opponents.

McCaffrey, who was an architect of Plan Colombia 10 years ago, is today a booster of its new Mexican counterpart -- the $1.4 billion, multiyear Merida Initiative. At his Washington press conference, he decried that this is "a drop in the bucket compared to what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. … We cannot afford to have a narco-state as a neighbor."

The first $400 million Merida Initiative package was approved by Congress in June, and the first $197 million of mostly military aid sent south in December. Although it differs in not actually introducing U.S. military advisors, the Merida Initiative is clearly modeled on Plan Colombia, and is dubbed "Plan Mexico" by its critics.

It has moved apace with the Homeland Security's ambitious plans to seal the border. And indeed, Plan Colombia's supposed success in bringing a tenuous "stability" to Colombia has done nothing to dethrone the nation from the dubious honor of both the hemisphere's worst rights abuser and biggest humanitarian crisis -- nearly 3 million internally displaced by political violence, with the rate of displacement growing since the intensive U.S. military aid program began in 2000.

With all eyes on Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, this is the grim situation that Obama inherits on the nation's southern border. But he also faces an active resistance to the "Plan Mexico" model and concomitant border militarization -- both sides of the line.

Obama, who was famously made an honorary member of Montana's Crow Indian nation last year, received a letter just before he took office from women elders of the Lipan Apache, whose small south Texas reservation is to be bisected by Homeland Security's border wall. The letter calls the land seizure unlawful, and urges Obama to call a halt to the wall. Texas ranchers also have litigation pending against the seizure of their lands for the wall.

Environmentalists are incensed at the border wall's exemption from EPA regulations, and one -- Judy Ackerman of El Paso, Texas -- was arrested in December for blocking Homeland Security's construction equipment in an act of civil disobedience.

Elvira Arellano, a deported Mexican woman, who in 2006 took sanctuary for weeks in a church in Obama's hometown of Chicago to highlight immigrants' rights, held a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City two days after he took office to ask the new president to call a halt to Homeland Security's coast-to-coast immigration raids.

Arguably, NAFTA is to blame for what could be Mexico's impending destabilization. The largest surge ever in both legal and unauthorized Mexican migration to the U.S. began after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement took effect.

Sociologist James Russell finds that the percentage of all North America's Mexican-origin persons living in the United States jumped from 13.6 percent to 20.5 percent between 1990 and 2005. Russell argues that "NAFTA allowed tariff-free imports to flood into Mexico, taking markets away from many Mexican peasants and manufacturers. With work no longer available, displaced peasants and workers joined in increasing numbers the migrant route north into the United States."

The privatization of Mexico's communal peasant lands -- the ejidos -- was another NAFTA-related measure that helped force hundreds of thousands from their traditional rural communities. In these same years, Mexico's narco economy exploded, the trafficking of cocaine and growing of opium and marijuana filling the vacuum left by the evaporation of the market for domestic maize and beans.

And when the oil shock prompted the diversion of U.S. croplands of Mexico-bound corn to biofuels, a now-dependent Mexico experienced a "maize shock" in 2008 -- and food riots.

Even amidst the spiraling violence of the narco wars, nonviolent political resistance to policies of free trade and militarization persists in Mexico.

As Obama was taking the oath of office, farmers in Chihuahua state, just across from Texas and New Mexico, blockaded roads and used farm equipment and animals to erect barricades at the entrances of Agriculture Secretariat offices to demand rises in the price of their maize and other (legal) crops.

Days earlier, thousands of fishermen went on strike on Mexico's Pacific coast to protest the rise in the price of diesel fuel. The Zapatistas and related peasant movements in Mexico's south continue to occupy disputed lands and resist their privatization. On Jan. 9, some 4,000 marched in Jalisco to protest the police killing of a local youth. And in December, public-sector workers and students in Ciudad Juarez staged a 24-hour strike to protest the wave of narco-killings in the city.

Obama pledged on the campaign trail to consider a renegotiation of NAFTA. And in his third debate with Republican Sen. John McCain, when asked about the pending free trade agreement with Colombia, he noted that in the Andean nation "labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions." This won him public opprobrium from Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, who was Bush's closest ally in South America.

But despite criticisms, Obama supports the Merida Initiative and has spoken of extending it into a comprehensive hemispheric security bloc. Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden support continued military aid to Colombia, albeit with a greater emphasis on human rights conditions.

Apart from the security implications of its mere proximity to the U.S., Mexico is the third-largest oil supplier to the U.S. Free-trade politics helped create a social crisis there, and militarization in response to this crisis may only push it to the point of explosion. If Obama doesn't rethink the Merida Initiative as well as follow through on his campaign pledge to take another look at NAFTA, the prospects for escalation are frighteningly real.

The last direct U.S. military intervention in Mexico was under Woodrow Wilson -- a Democrat who won re-election in 1916 by pledging to keep the U.S. out of World War I, just as Obama won the White House with pledges to get us out of Iraq.

A resurgent American left putting Mexico and Latin America back on its agenda may help assure that this history does not repeat itself.