Opinion

The Great Debate

from Jack Shafer:

The jumbo coverage of Malaysia flight MH370

When a big story breaks, my news digestion knows no satiety. Earthquake, assassination, invasion, bank run, political campaign, celebrity court case, sport scandal or a drunk stubs his toe on the Lower East Side -- I can handle anything the press swarm sends at me.

So unlike Fox News press reporter Howard Kurtz ("It’s too much with too few facts," he said last week of the saturation reporting by his former network, CNN, about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370), I can handle any "over"-coverage the news machine chooses to throw my way. By handle, I usually mean avoid, but on a story like MH370, I desire the sort of coverage that could fill the Indian Ocean, which I did not know until last week had an average depth of 2.5 miles.

That fact was only one of the scores of news nuggets I've chewed and swallowed since the airliner was reported missing on March 8. While I'm aware that the flight's fate, its back story, and repercussions will have no impact on my life, and that there aren't enough degrees of Kevin Bacon to connect me to 95 percent of the missing passengers, I have clawed my way through stories and even stayed up at night to learn about transponders, the different kinds of radars, the stolen passport business, the number of air strips within MH370's flight range that could have accommodated a landing, general Malaysian political incompetence, Southeast Asian geography, satellite telemetry, international relations, black boxes, the workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system, the Andaman Islands, life raft locator radios, search technologies, air navigation and more. One measure of my devotion to this story is that I even watched an oceanographer talk on Charlie Rose about the missing aircraft.

None of my newly acquired knowledge will serve me in any tangible way. It won't improve democracy or raise productivity. I doubt that it will even make me a better journalist, although it might make me a better conversationalist. But the story has wedged its way into my consciousness and will persist until somebody locates the Boeing 777 and solves the mystery.

Much has been made about how provisional some of the findings of journalists have been in their coverage of MH370 -- inaccuracies about the origin of the flight data and what time the flight disappeared, the provenance of the debris spotted by a satellite and the number of no-shows for the flight. As my colleague Erik Wemple of the Washington Post explained last week, fast-moving stories routinely produce conflicting reports;  as was the case with the Boston Marathon bombing, the Washington Navy Yard shootings and the Newtown slaughter. Dozens of conflicting reports emerged from the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, the 9/11 attacks, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and even Watergate reporting. I'm not making excuses for anybody, but those who expect perfect reporting from the scene of breaking news haven't been paying close attention to what they have been consuming over the years.

To punish Putin, help Ukraine

Sunday’s referendum in Crimea and provocative Russian troop maneuvers have raised the Ukraine crisis to new heights.

Congress has expressed strong support for Ukraine and condemned Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Unfortunately, some on Capitol Hill are pushing ideas that would do little to punish Moscow while undercutting U.S. and NATO security interests. Congress needs to be smart in how it seeks to help Ukraine and punish Russia.

A whirlwind has engulfed Ukraine since former President Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev on February 21 and the Russian military occupied Crimea one week later. In response, Democrats and Republicans have backed Ukraine, called for Moscow’s international isolation, and supported steps to assure NATO allies in Central Europe.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Japan as the crisis next time

Which major economy is most likely to disappoint expectations this year, and perhaps even cause a financial crisis big enough to break the momentum of global economic recovery? The usual suspects are China and southern Europe. But in my view the most likely culprit will be Japan.

While Japan no longer attracts much attention these days, it is still the world’s third-largest economy, with a gross domestic product equal to France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined. Its industries still pose the main competitive challenge to U.S., European and Korean manufacturers, and its regional weight is still sufficient to trigger financial crises across the whole of Asia -- as it did in 1997.

To make matters worse, the Japanese government bond market is in an enormous financial bubble that could burst catastrophically if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s audacious economic program is seen to have failed.

Confederation: An off-ramp for the Ukrainian crisis

The United States has no good options with regard to Crimea.

The best outcome would be for Crimea to remain an integral part of Ukraine. This will not happen. The next best outcome would be to give Crimea even more autonomy within Ukraine than it now has, federalism on steroids. This is highly unlikely.

The next best outcome would be a confederal arrangement in which Crimea remains formally a part of Ukraine, but would have autonomy over elements of both its foreign and domestic affairs. This is possible but will require adroit diplomacy — not just threats and sanctions from the United States and the West.

The worst outcome would be for Crimea to be incorporated into Russia. On the current track, this may be where we end up.

Democrats: Beware the Ides of March

For Democrats, the Ides of March came early this year.

On March 11, to be precise, in a special election in a swing congressional district in Florida. A mostly unknown Republican knocked off a much better known Democrat, just like Roman conspirators knocked off Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Caesar’s killers used a knife. The Republicans’ deadly weapon? Obamacare. Three-quarters of Republican TV spots mentioned Obamacare.

Democrats need to practice saying, “Just wait until next time.” Because while 2014 is looking worse and worse for Democrats, 2016 is looking better and better.

Midterm elections like 2014 are not about choosing a leader. They’re about sending a message.

from Jack Shafer:

It’s an ad, ad, ad, ad world

The last place you'd expect to discover a map to navigate the future of the content-advertising landscape would be a book about the golden age of radio. But damn it all to hell, there it is on the concluding 12 pages of Cynthia B. Meyers' new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.

Not to discourage you from reading Meyers' first 281 pages about the co-evolution of broadcasting and advertising before excavating her new media insights, but this is one of those books that demands to be read backwards -- conclusion first, historical arguments and research later. In Meyers' view, advertising is not something appended to radio and TV broadcasts or shimmied into the pages of newspapers and magazines. Advertising has been both the dog wagging the tail and the tail wagging the dog, sometimes occupying points in between, its symbiotic relationship with popular media forever ebbing and cresting. And while the past never predicts the future, this book gives readers a peak around the media future's corner.

The commercial Web that permeates our culture today was revolutionary because it allowed news and entertainment content to migrate from the lockdown of the radio and TV networks, as well as from print. But that migration was already in progress when the first banner ad (for AT&T) ran on Hotwire.com in late 1994. A decade before, cable had given advertisers new venues to place their TV bets, and VCRs (and later DVRs) gave viewers the power to time-shift and edit ads out of their consumption. The advent of videotape and discs further liberated audiences from advertising's hold.

from Ian Bremmer:

Who loses most in Ukraine?

 

As we march toward Sunday’s Crimean referendum, the result is predetermined. Crimea will vote Russia, and tensions will only escalate. At this juncture, it’s important to take a step back and ask who “lost” here. What could the United States have done differently? What about Russia? Was the outbreak of violence and explosive geopolitical confrontation inevitable? Where does it go from here?

If the United States’ primary goal has been to keep violence in Ukraine and tensions between outside powers to a minimum, it has made a series of significant missteps. The United States failed to offer real economic support to the Ukrainian government before events reached a crescendo. Former President Viktor Yanukovich didn't want to just work with the Russians; he was looking to strike a balance between Russia and the EU while skirting economic collapse. Europe pushed too hard, and the IMF wasn't going to step in in time. The lack of support from the West helped push Yanukovich far enough towards Russia that protests in Kiev reached a point of no return.

On February 21st, key Ukrainian opposition figures and President Yanukovich signed a deal along with a group of European foreign ministers, only for it to soon break down and Yanukovich to flee. The United States eagerly jumped ship with the new pro-West Kiev government. This was a mistake. Washington could have expressed its reservations and urged that the signed deal at least be respected as a factor in determining political processes moving forward. Showing public support for that position would have been an important acknowledgment to Russia that the United States respects Russia’s interests. In Syria six months ago, the United States was perfectly happy to pretend (as were the Russians) that the chemical weapons deal was a breakthrough that would address the underlying conflict, even though it was just a smokescreen for relieving Obama of his obligation to intervene militarily. The Americans could have offered the Russians a similar face-saving gesture here, but they chose not to.

Can Congress control the CIA?

The current fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA – each accuses the other of spying on it – is part of the deep, continuing struggle between the legislative and executive branches of government over the wide-ranging power of the intelligence agency in the post-9/11 world.

The immediate dispute is about the committee’s lengthy study of the CIA’s harsh interrogation policies, used during the Bush administration. But underlying all the charges and counter-charges is a larger question: Can Congress genuinely exercise  its authority if the intelligence agencies can classify, and so control, the committee’s oversight efforts?

The CIA has blocked the release of a powerful report from a duly constituted congressional committee, keeping it under “review” for 16 months. CIA officials claim the report contains many inaccuracies. Although President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was “absolutely committed” to declassifying the report, he was vague on when he would do so.

Malaysia: Crisis management on a need-to-know basis

At a press conference on March 12, General Rodzali Daud, chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, faced a confused and angry audience. What exactly happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished last Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing? Fury mounted in this case, not because the general did not know enough — but because he may have known much more than he or his colleagues were willing to share.

In contrast to the initial reports of the aircraft’s sudden disappearance, Wednesday’s coverage suggests several “last sightings” with a possibility that the plane turned back to Malaysia. The previously undisclosed military radar data, it turns out, captured an unidentified airplane 200 miles into the Straits of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia. A Malaysian air force staffer claims that the plane showed up on the military’s radar for over an hour following the communication failure. Yet on Thursday, Malaysia’s senior officials still denied these claims. Not surprisingly, they have come under fire for misreporting, obstructing the multinational search mission, and prolonging the agony for family and friends of the 239 passengers and crew.

The Malaysian government’s handling of the crisis raises legitimate questions about how a historically closed society communicates with the public after a disaster. Malaysia is ranked 145 out of 179 countries in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index — better off than its vocal critic China (173) but uncomfortably close to Russia (148).

Our fierce fight over torture

The new Congress versus the CIA battle over “hacking” Senate computers and “spying” isn’t about surveillance. It’s about torture.

We have never had a full reckoning for our government’s use of torture on terror suspects after September 11. There were no prosecutions of military officers or senior officials. (One soldier was imprisoned for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, former Corporal Charles Graner, while four officers received administrative demerits, not prosecution.) Remarkably, there has not even been a full release of classified government investigations into U.S. torture. It’s hard to get accountability in the dark.

That repressed history is the real context for the remarkable fight that spilled into public view when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

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