Jack Shafer

Don’t fear the Web

Jack Shafer
Feb 29, 2012 23:49 UTC

Does the Internet make you anxious? Do you lie awake nights worrying that Russian hackers are turning your children into sex slaves? Have you had the feeling that your iPhone is spying on you?

You’re not alone, Adam Thierer of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, would have you know. In a working paper he posted on the Web yesterday titled “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” Thierer outlines the dread that many have for the Web. The fears are real, of course. People do get robbed on the Web. Individuals have lost their privacy on the Web. Companies and governments have been hacked by thieves and foreign agents.

But surveying the hacks and rip-offs, Thierer finds that for reasons both psychological and political, the severity of most intrusions has been exaggerated. Attributing the overreactions to “moral panics” linked to new technology (“technopanics”), he writes convincingly that “there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society than previous technologies did.” That’s not to say that you’ve got no right to be flipped out about apps pinching your address book or your photos without your express permission, or about Facebook accessing your phone’s text messages without explicitly saying so, or about Google using a browser flaw to bypass your privacy settings, or about Google and 104 other companies tracking you as you pad around the Web.

You have every right to be flipped out, Thierer counsels. Yet the best way to deal with these nightmares is not with Federal Trade Commission rules or new legislation but “societal learning, experimentation, resiliency, and coping strategies,” he writes.

The beating heart of Thierer’s paper is the belief — which I endorse — that societies tend to twist themselves into moral panics when confronted with something new or unrecognized that they don’t understand. “A moral panic occurs when a segment of society believes that the behavior or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole,” is how one academic quoted by Thierer defines it. The current panics over the Web are just the latest manifestation. Thierer continues:


Jack Shafer
Feb 27, 2012 22:34 UTC

I love WikiLeaks — by which I mean that any organization that helps ferret out the secrets of states or the nefarious secrets of corporations deserves a cozy place in my heart. But as anyone who has experienced my love can tell you, it’s not always lovely. So I don’t feel bad at all about taking the business end of my press-crit rake to the latest WikiLeaks project, “The Global Intelligence Files.”

The Files contain in excess of 5 million emails from the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. WikiLeaks appears to have obtained the email from the hackers at Anonymous, who nicked the haul late last year. There may be great stuff in the 5 million emails, but the files released thus far, which International Business Times puts at 194 emails, underwhelm.

We learn, for instance, that Coca-Cola asked Stratfor for some intelligence on the animal-rights group PETA in 2009 in relation to the coming Winter Olympics in Vancouver: How many PETA supporters in Canada? How inclined toward activism are they? What relation does PETA Canada have to PETA U.S.A? Stuff like that. Stratfor’s vice-president for intelligence, Fred Burton, purportedly shares that he knows about a classified investigation of PETA operatives that the FBI has produced and that he’ll see what he can “uncover.” Another Stratfor employee assigns an intern to the project. In WikiLeaks lingo, this amounts to Coca-Cola “Contracting Stratfor to Spy on PETA.” If asking an intern to look up some information constitutes spying, you could say that I’ve been in the espionage business for 30 years and my operatives have probed hundreds of government bodies, public institutions and corporations. This particular WikiLeaks dump should probably be taken to the dump and dumped.

Who cares if a politician buys a newspaper?

Jack Shafer
Feb 23, 2012 23:45 UTC

Philadelphia has gone all hinky at the prospect of an investor group headed by former governor, former mayor, former district attorney, and former head of the Democratic National Committee Ed Rendell purchasing Philadelphia Media Network, the company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. The Rendell group includes powerful local businessmen and assorted politicos, causing Philadelphia magazine’s Paul Davies to fret that such a sale would result in newspapers “viewed as a direct extension of the Democratic Party and Chamber of Commerce.”

Davies’s prediction that the new publishers would interfere in editorial matters was quickly preempted by editorial interference from Philadelphia Media Network’s current publisher, Gregory J. Osberg, whom the New York Times has already caught butting in on coverage.

Philly journalist Tom Ferrick maps the web of conflicts of interest the Rendell group would weave as owners: “[H]ow do you cover Rendell if he is chairman of your board? … George Norcross is the Democratic power of South Jersey. Watch what you say about him. Lew Katz has many diverse holdings — all of which could be sensitive topics to cover.” Non-Rendell bidders bring similar baggage to the deal: 94-year-old billionaire Raymond Perelman has teamed up with his billionaire son Ronald Perelman to buy the company; Raymond’s estranged son, Jeffrey Perelman, is said to be making his own offer; and developer Bart Blatstein wants a shot, although Raymond Perelman and Blatstein complain that they’ve been frozen out from bidding by the current owners.

What made Deep Throat leak?

Jack Shafer
Feb 21, 2012 21:14 UTC

Why did Deep Throat leak to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward?

Woodward and Carl Bernstein write in their 1974 book, All the President’s Men, that Deep Throat shared his secrets to “protect the office” of the presidency and “effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” Woodward amended his source’s purely patriotic motives in his 2005 book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat. In it, Woodward held that Deep Throat — whom he confirmed was W. Mark Felt, a former high-ranking FBI man who outed himself as the leaker — supplied him with information to protect the FBI from the meddling Nixon White House. That harmonized with the rationale offered in A G-man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, Felt’s 2006 book published with the guiding hand of a co-writer (Felt was 92 and suffering from dementia): that Deep Throat leaked to Woodward to “spark a broader investigation” by the Justice Department of the break-in.

By 2010, Woodward’s appreciation of his leaker’s motives had expanded to include bureaucratic infighting. Woodward writes:

In brief, [Felt] knew there was a cover-up, knew higher-ups were involved, and did not trust the acting FBI director, Pat Gray. He knew the Nixon White House was corrupt. At the same time he was disappointed that he did not get the directorship. And I was pushing him and pushing him. [Emphasis added.]

Media Madders

Jack Shafer
Feb 15, 2012 00:09 UTC

The “investigative series” that the conservative Daily Caller commenced this week about the liberal media watchdog outfit Media Matters for America and its founder David Brock accomplishes the impossible: It makes me sympathize with Media Matters and Brock.

This is no small accomplishment, as I’ve never thought much of Media Matters’ style of watchdogging or Brock’s journalism. I don’t mind Media Matters’ partisanship. Partisans often serve journalism by spotting unseen truths. I don’t dislike anybody over there; a couple of veteran journalists of my acquaintance produce copy for it. And I’ll be the first to admit that Media Matters’ giant media trawler captures much embarrassing — and occasionally useful — information about conservatives and conservative media.

That said, I always approach the group’s findings with the same reservations I do prosecutorial briefs or opposition research. What are the authors leaving out? Media Matters, like so many think tanks and watchdogs, is in the propaganda business. Yet even a propagandist deserves a fair hearing in the press. But the Daily Caller fails to clear even that low hurdle. As someone who routinely finds valuable nuggets in partisan media squabbles, I kept waiting to be shown something that wasn’t predictable political point-scoring. But it has yet to emerge.