Jack Shafer http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer Mon, 17 Nov 2014 18:49:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 You can’t build a better Internet out of red tape http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/11/14/you-cant-build-a-better-internet-out-of-red-tape/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/11/14/you-cant-build-a-better-internet-out-of-red-tape/#comments Fri, 14 Nov 2014 22:38:50 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3350 A NBN Co worker arranges fibre-optic cables used in the National Broadband Network in west Sydney

If the latest installment in the long-running net neutrality debate has rendered you mentally exhausted, allow me to approach the future-of-the-Internet argument from a less draining direction. You needn’t worry about mastering such tech and regulatory topics as Title II regulations, peering, and fast lanes.

The net neutrality crowd’s fundamental worries can be boiled down to this: They believe that if the Federal Communications Commission leaves the Internet largely unregulated, the leading Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon will take advantage of their growing powers to 1) fleece customers and websites (and services) with new charges and fees; 2) reduce commercial innovation and competition by ghettoizing new sites and services that won’t pay their new tolls; and 3) censor content that doesn’t serve their corporate masters. The wild, wonderful Web that we’ve roamed for the past two decades will be subdivided by the cruel, corporate gatekeepers into millions and millions of tiny veal stalls. And the great Internet dream will die.

Few who have held an account with Comcast, Time Warner, or other major Internet service providers would be surprised if these companies behaved in dictatorial and choice-limiting ways. They entered the Internet business to make money, not build a techno-utopia for you. They’re as ruthless as you when you buy a house.

Although the Internet service providers have yet to string the Web pasture with barbed-wire veal stalls or price competing Web sites and services off the Internet, the worry remains that they might if unimpeded. The worry is not irrational: Big Internet service providers have potential leverage over their customers, other Web economy businesses, and the market for ideas simply because there is little competition. If you don’t like Comcast’s terms, you usually can’t turn to another broadband provider in your market, because there isn’t one.

And whose fault is that? Well, that would be the government’s fault. It regulated the cable TV business with a heavy hand since its infancy, giving monopoly rights to operators to string cities with coaxial cable. Those policies have been relaxed, so now it’s easier for a new provider — like telephone companies or fiber-upstarts like Google — to create broadband competition. But the market power of entrenched cable operators and the remaining regulatory hurdles still deter new entrants, suppressing the sort of competition that would make broadband companies more mindful of the needs of customers.

The most ardent net-neutrality advocates (President Barack Obama is in the process of becoming one), believe that broadband is so vital to life, politics, and commerce that it must be regulated as vigorously as public utilities like water, electric power, and natural gas, with regulators determining price and terms of service. But as Berin Szoka writes, “utility regulation is a self-fulfilling prophecy: It assumes competition is impossible—and keeps it that way.”

Noting that the technology behind broadband service is nowhere near as static as that for water and electric power, Szoka suggests that policies that encourage competition between Internet service providers instead of carving out monopoly rules will produce the best results. I’m lucky enough to live in one such market, where Verizon pits its Fios service against Comcast, giving me both price and service leverage.

An unspoken premise behind so much of the net-neutrality debate is instead of allowing the market to distribute bandwidth – an unusually scarce resource — the government must intervene to make sure that it is allocated “fairly.” The fallacy here is that available bandwidth is a function of technological progress and built-out infrastructure, and we haven’t even begun to approach the technological limits of how much bandwidth we can produce and distribute. To pinch a phrase from an old column of mine, more capitalism—not less—charts the path to abundance. Bandwidth abundance will help reduce the chances of Comcast censoring the Web or blocking the next Facebook from happening.

The fact that Comcast is currently shaking down big customers like Netflix to prioritize the transmission of terabyte-after-terabyte of movies to viewers is a good sign. It signals to the market that bandwidth is a valuable commodity, and that money is to be made in producing more of it. That’s not a bad thing! FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service charge a premium for expedited delivery, so why should it be evil for Comcast to charge the same to move Netflix’s goods? If the FCC insists on butting in to allocate bandwidth more “fairly,” the market will logically read this intervention as a signal that politics and not cash determine how bandwidth is distributed, and the growth of broadband will stall. In fact, it already has. Obama’s saber-rattling this week caused AT&T to postpone investment in high-speed Internet projects in 100 U.S. cities.

Instead of erecting new barriers to investment and competition, policymakers would be wiser to eliminate them by encouraging new Internet service providers to string cable on utility poles. And don’t forget the over-the-air Internet. My friend Thomas W. Hazlett, former chief economist for the FCC, proposes that we use auctions to reallocate underused frequencies, now controlled by TV stations, to mobile operators and thereby increase phone and Internet competition.

Because my crystal ball has gone missing, I don’t know with any certainty what the Internet will look like in 10 years if we encourage new Internet entrants and more competition instead of giving the FCC the powers that President Obama desires. But I would guess that with proper economic incentives and the continued application of a light regulatory touch, engineers will devise new technologies that will make our current Internet bandwidth look as pathetic as our old dial-up services.

Let’s not fight over the pieces of pie. Let’s make the pie bigger.

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The pie is on me. BYO coffee. Send pie recipes to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I would love to charge a fee to readers of my Twitter feed, but who would pay? Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: A NBN Co worker arranges fibre-optic cables used in the National Broadband Network in west Sydney July 11, 2013. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

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Stop or I’ll write! Why cops shouldn’t fake being reporters. http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/11/11/stop-or-ill-write-why-cops-shouldnt-fake-being-reporters/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/11/11/stop-or-ill-write-why-cops-shouldnt-fake-being-reporters/#comments Tue, 11 Nov 2014 00:06:07 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3334 FBI Director Comey testifies before a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James B. Comey waved his truncheon at the New York Times last week in a concise letter of protest addressed to the paper’s editor. The FBI, denounced in a Nov. 1 Times editorial for impersonating an Associated Press reporter in a 2007 Seattle-area case, had nothing to apologize for, insisted Comey. While the impersonation was “unusual,” he wrote, it was still proper, appropriate, and lawful.

In the case, a high school had been the target of a series of anonymous bomb threats. As was recently revealed, police enlisted the FBI, and an FBI agent pretending to be an AP reporter began communicating over the Internet with a 15-year-old who was suspected of sending the threats. The deception did not end there, however. The FBI composed a fake AP story — “Technology savvy student holds Timberline High School hostage,” which the FBI’s fake AP reporter sent to the suspect and asked him to review for fairness. The kid clicked on a link in the story, the link surreptitiously loaded software onto his computer, the software telegraphed the computer’s location back to the FBI, and he was arrested.

Comey allowed himself some wiggle room in his letter to the Times. The journalistic-impostor ruse would require higher approval if proposed today, he wrote. But Comey didn’t vow to ban the practice completely, which means there’s a  really long shot that the last reporter who phoned or emailed you wasn’t a reporter, he was an FBI agent. Every other big-city chief of police and podunk sheriff who read Comey’s letter probably banged his desk in approval and started to think of hard-to-solve crimes they could crack if only their detectives could go undercover as journalists. If Comey says it’s okay, they could logically reason, why shouldn’t they follow his example.

Obviously, police have long relied on guises to investigate crimes, routinely impersonating drug dealers, prostitutes, homeless people, children (on the Internet), gangsters, johns, hit-men, crooked businessmen, the man-in-the-street, terrorists, and others in their missions to gather evidence, apprehend suspects, and build cases.

So why are the Times editorialists and the CEO of AP (pdf) so steamed about the FBI’s conduct? What’s so special about journalists and journalism? I hope my explanations don’t sound like special-interest pleading when I state that such acts corrupt the very existence of journalism. Whenever police officers masquerade as journalists, they introduce doubt into the public’s mind about whether the next person purporting to be a journalist is actually a police officer or the stories in the news are really bait set by police. It won’t take too many acts of imposture like the FBI’s in Seattle before the credibility of the press and the willingness of news sources to speak to reporters begins to fall, plugging the flow of information that nourishes a free society. Impersonators also expose genuine journalists to unnecessary physical dangers when violent sources have reason to think the nosy parkers asking them questions aren’t reporters, but cops. Impersonation can also boomerang on police: If a violent source unmasks a fake reporter as a cop, he might retaliate in his fury.

As best we know, police impersonation of journalists has become rare in the United States in recent years. Newark police seized a news crew’s video camera in 2000 when an alleged hostage-taker demanded to talk to a TV audience. In a 2001 police standoff in Texas, a detective borrowed a press photographer’s camera and notepad to talk to a murder suspect who requested a conversation with a reporter. The practice was much more common in the 1960s and early 1970s, when police sought to spy on political activists. A 1971 study found Army intelligence agents to be the grossest offenders. They posed as cameramen at the 1969 presidential inauguration, obtained press credentials to monitor H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael during the 1967 riots, and investigated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Across the country, police monitored civil rights and anti-war demonstrations while posing as journalists, sometimes even carrying press credentials issued by the police. The FBI and other agencies also paid unscrupulous journalists to work as part-time informants, the study adds, contaminating journalism by turning reporters into agents of the state.

The American press is probably a more delicate institution than we’d like to admit. It survives as a credible outpost only as long as people regard it as independent of government power and influence, which is one of the reasons reporters seem so often to be picking fights with office-holders and government agencies. Any blurring of the line between government and press can only benefit the government at the expense of the press and the dilution of the best law the country has, the First Amendment. If a law officer tells you that his force has exhausted every means of solving a terribly important, life-threatening case and he must dress a few cops in journalist garb to crack it, quote him the famous line from Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil: “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”

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Hey, no jokes about me impersonating a journalist! Send examples of cops posing as journos to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed does a good cop impersonation. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on “Threats to the Homeland,” on Capitol Hill in Washington Nov. 14, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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One journalist’s vote for divided government http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/11/05/one-journalists-vote-for-divided-government/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/11/05/one-journalists-vote-for-divided-government/#comments Wed, 05 Nov 2014 23:42:25 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3327 U.S. President Barack Obama departs after delivering remarks on student loans at the White House in Washington

Count the Washington press corps as unintended beneficiaries of last night’s slaughter of the Democrats by the Republicans. Now, with the Republicans taking of the Senate in addition to the House, leaving them in control of all congressional committees, we can expect up to twice as many Capitol Hill investigations into alleged fraud, abuse, waste, and perfidy by the Obama administration. Witnesses called! Testimony given! Evidence subpoenaed! Executive privilege claimed! 

The news stories will almost write themselves.

The political use of congressional committees date back to George Washington’s presidency, when a select committee investigated military defeats in the Indian Wars, but as David C.W. Parker and Matthew Dull write in a recent academic study, the up-tick in partisan congressional investigations has been made possible the reassertion of congressional oversight powers and the expansion of the media. But historically, partisan congressional investigations are most common in periods of divided government, Parker and Dull conclude, when no party controls both houses and the White House, like today.

The Republicans have been on an “investigative” tear since they took control of the House and its committees following the November 2010 elections, conducting inquiries of uneven quality into Benghazi, the troubles at Veterans Affairs hospitals, Internal Revenue Service “targeting,” “Fast and Furious,” the Solyndra crack-up, and other federal ruckuses. None of these investigations are bogus, but all of them carry the Republican scent of demagoguery with them.

The Democrats, accomplished perfumers in their own right, aren’t above this sort political theater. Another recent study about divided government and congressional investigations points to the 2006 midterm elections, after which the Democrats took the House and the Senate and commenced their own investigative rampage. “This is just the beginning,” then-Representative Rahm Emanuel’s told the Washington Post. “What a difference a year makes.”

Partisan investigations, to pinch the phrase, are politics by other means. A party that fails to triumph at the polls but still hopes to exert political influence can use investigations to diminish the reputations and the authority of agencies or departments it hopes to throttle but could never do so directly, Parker and Dull note. A variety of politicians, including Harry Truman, Estes Kefauver, Howard Baker, and John Kerry, have relied on congressional investigations to raise their profiles and increase their national political options. A robust partisan investigation is useful because it can also inspire a party’s political base, and give candidates resonant talking points during elections, as Republicans demonstrated this year.

“They’re fabricated issues,” a near helpless President Barack Obama said about the dirt Washington foes had tagged him and his party with. “They’re phony scandals that are generated. It’s all geared towards the next election, or ginning up the base.”

And he may have a point, as have all of his predecessors in the office. As both academic studies cited here present data to show that congressional investigations increase in times of divided government, it suggests that 1) in times of divided government, congressional committees hype with the tools of political theater whatever scandals they come across, and 2) in times of united government, the same committees discourage investigations lest they offend or weaken their president.

Which brings us back to the press. Whatever biases to which my fellow journalists subscribe, they are all inwardly celebrating last night’s returns. The press feeds off congressional investigations the way a leech does its host’s blood. The more bellicose the investigation the better, the better copy: Nothing surpasses a grandstanding member of Congress for raw material. Congressional investigations also turn the reportorial soil, invariably (and sometimes unintentionally) unearthing useful evidence and testimony that journalists can use. Presidents who call upon their lawyers to repel congressional investigations end up generating legal proceedings that nourish and inspire an endless series of stories.

Think of the GOP’s Senate takeover as a full-employment act for Washington reporters. Profiles of the new committee chairs have already been assigned to chart the flow of power from Senate Democrats to Senate Republicans, and reporters who once set their watches by the time kept by Senate Democrats will have to adjust to Republican time. Inside Capitol Hill offices, Republicans are plotting new investigations and reformulating old ones for your future entertainment on cable TV. Inside other offices, Democrats are dreaming of a brighter 2016 when they can say, “This is just the beginning…what a difference a couple of years make.”

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What do I get out of looming partisan investigations? This column. Send your best shot to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. See my Twitter feed for nonpartisan investigations. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama departs after delivering remarks on student loans at the White House in Washington June 21, 2012. A congressional panel voted on Wednesday to charge Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress after the Obama administration invoked executive privilege for the first time since coming to office, withholding some documents related to a failed gun-running investigation. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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In covering politics, a little speculation ain’t a bad thing http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/31/in-covering-politics-a-little-speculation-aint-a-bad-thing/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/31/in-covering-politics-a-little-speculation-aint-a-bad-thing/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 20:41:52 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3321

With the great burden of the 2014 campaign season largely behind us, and commercial haulers queuing to feed the countless tons of now-obsolete political coverage to the nation’s landfills, it’s a good time to visit Tom Wicker’s timeless confession about the nature of political journalism.

Wicker, who died three years ago, worked as a reporter, a Washington bureau chief, and a liberal columnist for the New York Times. In his 1978 book, On Press, he described political journalism as a wobbly construct, stating that “in writing about politics, the possibilities matter as much as the supposedly known facts, which often are not facts at all.”

Wicker wasn’t complaining about political journalism, criticizing it, or disparaging the reporting of facts. Facts are useful in political journalism, but only as a starting point, because they tend to contradict one another. The job of a political journalist is to expertly weed his patch of facts to produce a tenable reportorial conclusion. Wicker explains how this technique worked during the1972 Democratic presidential campaign. One set of observable “facts” gave Senator Edmund Muskie front-runner status in the contest. Muskie had a talented staff, enjoyed a high standing in the polls, and possessed a calming, media-honed manner.

Senator George McGovern, who would eventually win the nomination, didn’t “stand a chance,” one top but unnamed political journalist told Wicker in 1971. That reporter was ignoring another set of “facts,” which Wicker calls evident to “anyone willing to see them.” Among other things, McGovern was expertly exploiting new delegate-selection rules (that he helped formulate) that blunted the traditional power of the political bosses and united the party’s left wing. An appreciation of these facts governed Wicker’s writing for the campaign cycle and made him look like a prophet.

“I believed his nomination was possible and opened my mind to that possibility before it became an obvious probability,” Wicker writes. Later in his book, he writes:

Not that facts are unimportant, or may be ignored, or tampered with, any more in political reporting than in other forms of journalism. But in political journalism, what can be assumed from facts, sometimes what can be plausibly suggested despite the facts, is often more important than the facts themselves—which may not really be facts anyway, in the accepted sense of the word. As an obvious example, it may be a “fact” that a Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois has carried Chicago; but for someone writing the story against a deadline, it’s infinitely more important to know enough to speculate that the Democrat carried Chicago by so small a margin that he could not possibly offset the predictable Republican vote downstate and win the election.

Like most gamblers, Wicker remembers his winning wagers better than he does his bad bets. He does, however, sheepishly recount his early belief that populist Fred Harris would inherit the McGovern wing and win the 1976 nomination that eventually went to Jimmy Carter. But the Wicker Principle is less about who has the best record in print of wins-and-losses and more about how political reporters play the game. This year in Texas, the press corps over-invested heavily in the possibility that Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis would generate blue momentum in that very red state. Whether they were wishing it or had spied real evidence I leave behind as a discussion point. But without a doubt, reporters had grown weary of writing about Texas because it was so dominated by Republicans.

As late as mid-July, the routinely astute Dan Balz of the Washington Post remained open to the big blue possibility. “The most important part of the campaign is yet to come, when the two candidates begin their advertising and engage in debates,” he concluded. Alas, Davis currently trails the Republican opponent 38 percent to 54 percent in one recent poll, with no sign of an incoming tide turning the state blue.

I single out Balz not because he is the worst political reporter but one of the best, and to illustrate Wicker’s observation that political reporters tend to build their stories on a foundation of informed speculation. What else can we expect them to do? Like sports columnists who prognosticate about winners and losers at the beginning of the season, political reporters draw on today’s facts and the string they’ve gathered in the past to glimpse the future and report back. Sometimes the gimmick works, as it did for Wicker in 1972. Sometimes it fails, as it did in 2008, when a Hillary Clinton nomination seemed inevitable, but providence awarded the nod to Barack Obama. As we inch toward 2016, the press corps is divining another Clinton cinch.

As the presidential campaign replaces the mid-terms in your daily news feed, keep in mind how much conjecture, guesswork, and hearsay informs what political reporters file, and remember that this is a necessary thing, not a bad thing! Political reporting concerns itself mostly with what’s going to happen. If you’re interested in what happened, please seek a historian.

Having given Wicker the first and the middle words on this topic, it’s only right that I give him the final ones. In 1962, the young Wicker asked Washington Post political reporter Edward T. Folliard for advice on a political assignment he was working on. “Young man,” Folliard said, “if you’re going to be a political writer, there’s one thing you’d better remember. Never let the facts get in your way.”

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Don’t just sit there: Order a used copy of On Press! I expect to get several columns out of my copy, and you might do better. Send book recommendations to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed never lets the facts get in its way. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 PHOTO: President Obama waves at a campaign event for the Rep. Mike Michaud, running for Governor of Maine. REUTERS/Larry Downing  

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Our appetite for fake Ebola stories and other bunk http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/29/our-appetite-for-fake-ebola-stories-and-other-bunk/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/29/our-appetite-for-fake-ebola-stories-and-other-bunk/#comments Wed, 29 Oct 2014 21:01:13 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3315

As if the genuine horrors of Ebola weren’t enough, a website called the National Report has taken to ginning up hoax “reports” about the disease. Over the past month, the site has published at least seven fake stories about Ebola, including one reporting that authorities quarantined the entire town of Purdon, Texas. It would be generous to describe the National Report’s treatment of current events as “satirical.” In addition to this bogus (and stupid) story, the site has published others about Texas kindergarteners getting Ebola from a Liberian foreign exchange student; the government’s plan to implant RFID chips in citizens during a pilot Ebola vaccination program; the president’s promise that Obamacare will cover the coming epidemic; and more.

The National Report, which specializes in fake news (“Graffiti Artist Banksy Arrested in London,” “Federal Government to Restrict Hunting by Setting a Minimum Age of 21“) got a boost with its Purdon story. The Verge reported that the site enjoyed a traffic spike of 2 million unique visitors in a single day last week. And it appears that a good number of readers swallowed the Purdon piece. According to tabulations by the bunk-busting site Emergent.info, the story earned about six times as many “shares” from Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ users than did the stories debunking it as a hoax on Snopes and other sites, indicating more endorsers of the tale than doubters. Joining The Verge to rip the National Report and other similar sites that engage in page-view-seeking journalistic horseplay have been the Tucson Weekly, Digiday, and Fast Company.

Fake news and bad satire venues like the National Report, critics invariably note, prey on the gullible by spreading patently false rumors that spread panic and sometimes do real harm. While we should deplore Ebola hoaxes—what sort of creep concocts a prank that ostracizes Africans and sick people?—the National Report taps into a long-standing tradition of journalistic hoaxes that go beyond the clever lampooning that is published daily in the Onion. In the 1800s, science-themed hoaxes proliferated in American newspapers as journalists advanced fantastic tales with such regularity, the Museum of Hoaxes website reports, that sometimes the more far-fetched ones that got published didn’t get much of a rise out of readers.

In 1874, the New York Herald put on Page One a completely counterfeit story about a mass escape of animals from the Central Park Zoo that riled the populace. “Armed men rushed into the streets, ready to defend their homes. Reporters were dispatched to cover the story. The police mobilized. Parents rushed to bring their children back from school,” the Museum of Hoaxes reports. And, of course, there’s the famous Moon hoax of 1835, in which the New York Sun reported the discovery of life on the Moon by a famous astronomer, and the 1899 account of a Mississippi farmer who trained monkeys to pick cotton on his plantation, which was printed in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, with an earlier version appearing in print as far back as 1867.

“There are certain newspapers that prefer an interesting fake to a true story,” the trade journal Editor & Publisher stated in 1907. So pervasive were hoaxes and fakes that the New York World established “The Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play” in 1913 to “stamp out fakes and fakers,” as the scoundrels were called. In 1915, Max Sherover devoted an entire book to the topic, noting that while journalists were occasionally taken in by scammers, they were usually willing participants or the prime perpetrators. No less a journalistic hero than H.L. Mencken fabricated a Page One account of a naval battle between Japan and Russia in the Baltimore Evening Herald in 1905, publishing the “scoop” almost two weeks before authentic reports of the clash reached the West, he writes in his autobiography. Mencken also writes of having worked hard to prevent his staff from writing fakes, but added that his piece on the naval battle was “my masterpiece of all time, with the sole exception of my bogus history of the bathtub.” Ben Hecht wrote fakes for the Chicago Daily News in the ‘teens, including one about a Chicago earthquake. By 1920, fakes promoted by public relations men in service of their clients became so widespread that New York City District Attorney Edward Swann considered prosecuting flacks who promoted fakes into print.

“Pulling off a good fake offered other satisfactions to the reporter,” writes press scholar Andie Tucher in her essay “The True, the False, and the ‘Not Exactly Lying,'” which compiles a tasty banquet of fake stories from the old days. Fakes tended to delight and attract readers, boost circulation and revenues, and produce journalistic results that the honest competition couldn’t match. “They kept public excitement boiling even during lulls in the action,” she continues. Even fake photographs joined the journalistic mix until rising professional standards nixed phony stories from the better outlets, only to reappear when a rogue like Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, or Jay Forman outwitted their editors to dress fiction in the clothing of fact.

Inheriting the disgraced tradition of the prank-hoax-fake story, the National Report can still attract readers because our appetite for news can never be fully sated by the truth. In his new book Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, Kembrew McLeod demonstrates that sometimes pranksters, working as culture jammers, provoke worthy debates “by sowing skepticism” about power. (The now-defunct tabloid Weekly World News performed this function with its fictional accounts of the supernatural dressed up as real news. But don’t place the modern National Enquirer in the hoax bag. Its stories are in the main pretty accurate).

People buy into pranks and hoaxes, McLeod writes, “when they resonate with their own deeply entrenched worldviews.” In the case of Ebola, who among us really has a sure grip on the dangers the disease poses for the American population? Surely not President Barack Obama, who keeps rewriting his anti-hysterical advice to the public. And surely not the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose Ebola revisions have revealed his limitations.

In drawing a big audience for its witless Ebola stories, the National Report reaffirms history’s verdict that nothing entices readers more than a good, bladder-emptying scare. Stephen King knows this, as do the horror film directors of Hollywood. They also know that in order to be truly frightening, the new scare must surpass the previous scares, which we have already normalized, and reach a level of fear we’ve not yet experienced. We never feel so alive as when we can convince ourselves that death—a painful, fluid-drenched death—is just a step away.

The National Report also performs an unintentional public service by acquainting us with the vast ignorance of the public. The National Report isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom. Feel free to quarantine.

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I pinched that “vast ignorance of the public” idea from this Oscar Wilde quotation: “By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, [journalism] keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.” Send your favorite Wildeisms to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed both causes and cures Ebola. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A volunteer wearing a protective suit walks in a ‘high risk’ zone during an Ebola training session held by Germany’s Red Cross in Wuerzburg October 21, 2014. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

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Ben Bradlee, the last giant standing http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/22/ben-bradlee-the-last-giant-standing/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/22/ben-bradlee-the-last-giant-standing/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 20:15:03 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3299 Ben Bradlee, a former Washington Post executive editor discusses about the Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda

One of the great payoffs of having lived a long life arrives on the day the newspapers publish your obituary. By out-lasting your competitors and foes, the storyline naturally bends your way. Time blurs precise recollection in favor of generous feelings, which we tend to bestow upon most famous survivors, no matter what sort of lives they lived.

This principle applies to both heroes, such as Benjamin C. Bradlee, and villains, such as Richard Nixon. By wisely dying in 1994 at the age of 81 instead of the late 1970s or early 1980s, Nixon reaped better death notices than he would have otherwise. The groundwork for Nixon’s first obituaries was first laid in the 1950s when he was vice president, when a plane crash or an assassin’s bullet would have required a comprehensive obituary on deadline, with the immediate circumstances of his death tacked onto the lede. When Nixon died, many preliminary obituaries later, obituary writers did not whitewash Watergate and his other crimes, but decades of distance from those events moved them to paint death notices in a softer hue. Contemplation doth make saps of us all.

Like most journalists, Bradlee fretted about how his obituary would portray him, certain for many years that the shame of 1981’s Janet Cooke scandal would scream from the second paragraph of his. He needn’t have worried. The New York Times first touches the topic in the 26th paragraph in its obituary, the Washington Post in paragraph 18, and the Los Angeles Times in paragraph 15, a sour footnote in an otherwise outstanding life.

Bradlee was all the things his obituarists and essayists claim today. He graduated from Harvard, got married, and was commissioned in the Naval Reserve on the same summer day in 1942. A cultural aristocrat, he knew how to mix with the commoners. He was brave, staring down administration after administration, fighting libel cases to the end. He pulsed with charisma, making women and men faint by merely entering a room, an attribute more common in cult leaders than editors. He rewarded that adulation with his trust. Had he chosen the career of warlord instead of journalist, he would have conquered all of the states from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River by the time he hit 65. He hired well and fired well, once bragging of the plagiarists and fabulists he bounced from the paper for their transgressions. And he put out a pretty good newspaper for more than two decades.

Reading the Bradlee ink today, you’d think he all but invented lively writing, pugnacious editing, newsroom creativity, scoop-gathering, and office panache. But that’s because journalistic history is written mostly by the survivors and their acolytes. In 1979, when Bradlee was still at the height of his powers, the Washington Journalism Review published this about him and James Bellows, the recently departed editor of the Post‘s competitor, the Washington Star:

Years from now, newspaper historians will refer to the mid-1970s era as Washington journalism’s Gilded Age of Bradlee and Bellows. … Not long ago, the Post barely acknowledged the competitive existence of the Star. Now, Bradlee is accused of copying successful features of the afternoon paper, such as Ear, the popular gossip column. Bradlee is aware that the Star’s reclamation and its reborn vitality made it obligatory for the Post to come up with a second act following its dazzling Watergate coverage.

Bellows, who brought journalistic innovation to the New York Herald Tribune in the 1960s, then the Star, and later the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, did his magic on an underdog’s budget. His itinerant ways — and venturing into the TV news business and new media — diluted his profile, if not his many accomplishments. “He was a terrific editor,” Bradlee once told the Washington Journalism Review.

A contemporary of Bradlee’s, Bellows flew F6F Hellcats for the Navy during World War II. He never captained a newspaper that rose to Pentagon Papers- or Watergate-style glory, but he did attract and develop talents every bit as good as those who labored under Bradlee — young journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Clay Felker (who created New York magazine under Bellows while both worked at the Herald-Tribune), Maureen Dowd, and many others. And he promoted women to top positions before it was in political vogue. Bellows might have gotten a bigger send off when he died at the age of 86 in 2009 had Bradlee preceded him in death. But, no, Bradlee was the last giant standing, and according to the rules of the game, he who dies last gets the biggest funeral pyre. Bellows would understand completely.

Because all journalism is a form of autobiography, the accolades falling on Bradlee’s coffin today mourn not just him but a whole era of newspapering. Bradlee embodied the romance of journalism more than any 20th-century reporter or editor you care to name, a subtext to today’s appreciations. It’s unlikely we’ll ever again see a top newspaper editor who was as profane and defiant of authority as Bradlee, and so worshipped. He’s taking more than his bones with him to the grave.

“A great journalist is a lucky good journalist,” Bradlee told the Greensboro News & Record in 2006. “If you’re good long enough, you get lucky.” He was plenty good long enough.

******

Burn me at the stake for heresy, but I think Leonard Downie, Jr. was a greater editor than Ben Bradlee. Save room to fry David Von Drehle, who agrees. Send tinder to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Watch me burn in my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: Ben Bradlee, a former Washington Post executive editor discusses about the Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

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GamerGate: We now know what evil lurks in the heart of man – or trolls http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/17/gamergate-we-now-know-what-evil-lurks-in-the-heart-of-man-or-trolls/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/17/gamergate-we-now-know-what-evil-lurks-in-the-heart-of-man-or-trolls/#comments Fri, 17 Oct 2014 16:23:56 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3284 A girl dressed in costume plays a video game at the PAX East gaming conference in Boston

For the purposes of this column, all you need to know about “GamerGate” is that it has earned writer Anita Sarkeesian, game entrepreneur Brianna Wu, and developer Zoe Quinn violent threats from anonymous Internet sources (here’s coverage in the New York TimesReason, the Washington PostVoxHuffington Post, the Guardian, and Gawker, if you want to know more).

Sarkeesian canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University after three death threats — one promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history” — were lodged against her and the school said a state law prohibited it from banning permitted concealed weapons from the campus. Wu, who joked about GamerGate online, says ensuing violent threats caused her and her husband to flee their home. Quinn collected threats in the opening days of the “scandal” for having allegedly engaged in unethical behavior.

Many journalists have received anonymous death threats at some point in their careers from people who think a promise to execute you in Grand Guignol fashion constitutes effective press criticism. The first death threat tends to leave an unsettling impression, but over time American journalists learn that anonymous death threats, like bloody road-rage howling, can usually be ignored.

But not all murderous bile is created equal. While readers have vowed to kill or otherwise rough me up over the years, I wouldn’t equate those generic promises with what other writers — especially female ones — say they face routinely on the Web. In a January 2014 Pacific Standard piece titled “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” writer Amanda Hess, who covers sex, politics, and culture, documents the anonymous threats to kill, rape, and stalk her for speaking her mind in print.

Hess is no outlier. Last summer, in a round-up piece about online ugliness against women, the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg provided other examples. (See also Kat Stoeffel in New York). A comic-book review by Janelle Asselin was greeted by rape threats. The comments section at the feminist site Jezebel became such a garden of sexual harassment that staffers demanded that their bosses at Gawker rein the section in. After asking on Twitter if anybody knew if any country offered free or subsidized tampons to residents, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti was told to undergo a hysterectomy or have her vagina sewn shut for asking. “When people say you should be raped and killed for years on end, it takes a toll on your soul,” Valenti told Hess. When men she doesn’t know approach her at public events, she added, “the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

Other female writers of my acquaintance say they regularly endure physical threats and vile comments about their sexual equipment merely for publishing. I can’t say that I know of many male journalists who have suffered similarly, although I’m sure gay writers are invited to kill themselves in great number.

What possesses people to make the anonymous threats against women? Our culture has corrected many cultural wrongs against women over the last century — granting them the vote; allowing them to hold property after marriage; make reproductive decisions; and so on — and no revolution leaves everybody happy. But even then, I don’t think the death and rape threats are necessarily coming from chauvinist counter-revolutionaries. I blame the Web’s embrace of anonymity for making these sociopathic gestures so easy to make without being held accountable.

That doesn’t mean I oppose anonymity. Inscribed inside the concept of anonymity is the right to be left alone, the greatest right there is. Anonymity also encourages many excellent behaviors, such as voting in a democratic election, which many would otherwise avoid. Likewise, the Web makes it supremely easy for whistleblowers to bring wrongdoing to the attention of journalists and for all to speak their minds against power. For all that I’m grateful.

The dark side of anonymity, of course, is the sucker punch that comes out of the dark. No murder and rape threat I’ve read in preparing this column has a human being’s signature attached to it. Like the people who write, “For a good time, call Edith at 555-1212″ on a toilet-stall wall, the death- and rape-threat perpetrators would be silent if they knew their covers could be blown. Another enabler is the ease that the Web offers. In the old days, when your id instructed you to anonymously threaten a woman with rape, you had to write the letter by hand, address the envelope, stick a stamp on it, and send it via post. Then, a couple of days later, your message would arrive. This sort of delayed satisfaction does not appeal to the average id, whereas the structure of today’s Web allows you to terrify almost anybody instantaneously. And get away with it.

Reforming sociopathic personalities, alas, is beyond my powers as a columnist. In lieu of a cure, a few institutional changes could slow if not stop the damage done by the idiot ids on the Web. A pair of excellent suggestions came from Brianna Wu, one of the targeted women in GamerGate. When a rampaging id tweets his abuse, Twitter users can block their accounts from view. But that’s not a perfect remedy, because an unlimited number of new, unblocked accounts can be created. To defeat these serial abusers, she told the BBC this week, Twitter should give users the option of blocking accounts opened within the last 30 days. That wouldn’t eliminate all abuse tweets, but it would consume more of their time, and one thing we know about the id is that it craves instant gratification. She also calls for Twitter to allow users to share “block lists,” which would crimp the perpetrators’ reach. Likewise, comments sections that can’t prevent users from promising rape and dismemberment ought to shut themselves down.

The police will remain remiss in their duties until they start taking online death threats seriously. The fact that the police shrug off the threats is one of the reasons the ids feel so free to terrorize people. Finally, where are the hackers when you need them? I’d like to see their talents put to use exposing the identities of the threat-makers. Let them feel a little terror for once.

 

My favorite countermeasure, the Twitter account “Eliza R. Barr,” got some publicity in the New Statesman yesterday. Untended by human intelligence, Eliza is a bot who tweets comments and questions designed to engage responses from GamerGate enthusiasts in hopes of exhausting them. Eliza is like one of those diabolical phone trees from which you can’t escape, but you keep pressing buttons because you think the next number you tap will bring satisfaction.

If human intelligence and bots can’t slow the trolls, I give up.

******

Send only love mail to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Fair warning: My Twitter account is run by a bot. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: A girl dressed in costume plays a video game at the PAX East gaming conference in Boston, Massachusetts April 7, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi 

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How the White House intruder story came out and what we can expect next http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/01/how-scandals-play-out-in-the-press-white-house-security-edition/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/10/01/how-scandals-play-out-in-the-press-white-house-security-edition/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2014 00:48:41 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3273 Members of the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service patrol Pennsylvania Avenue outside the North Lawn of the White House in Washington

No bungling bureaucracy will last very long once insiders start anonymously dishing dirt to the press, a lesson currently being taught to Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. Anonymous sources from the Secret Service, its alumni, and insiders who have been read-in on current investigations are taking the agency apart brick-by-brick this month with their leaks to the Washington Post about the White House fence-jumper and the White House shooter.

Ever since Omar J. Gonzalez scaled the nearly 8-foot-high pointed fence, raced 70 yards to the White House front door, and entered untouched, the Post has been pants-ing the Secret Service at regular intervals. First a Secret Service spokesman told the paper on Sept. 20 that Gonzalez was unarmed and arrested just inside the front door. Uh-uh.

The paper’s Sept. 30 edition reported, citing “three people familiar with the incident,” “a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” and “people who provided information about the incident to the Washington Post and whistleblowers who contacted U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah),” that Gonzalez had made it more than 100 feet into the White House, running past the stairs to the presidential family’s living quarters, until he was subdued in the East Room by a guard. Contradicting the original Secret Service spokesman’s comment, it turns out that Gonzalez was armed with a knife.

Anonymous sources also conveyed to the primary Post reporter on the story, Carol D. Leonnig, reams about the agency’s clumsy handling of a November 2011 incident in which Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez shot up the White House as if he was taking target practice. Leonnig’s story, in the Sept. 28 edition, says that it took the Secret Service four days to figure out that the White House had been hit, even though officers heard the shots and scrambled to attention. The discovery of the damage was made by a housekeeper. The story broadened its sourcing to “agents, investigators and other government officials with knowledge about the shooting” and “hundreds of pages of documents, including transcripts of interviews with officers on duty that night,” and recordings of officers’ radio transmissions.

The Post continues to give the Secret Service the business, reporting online today that “according to people familiar with the incident,” Gonzalez was tackled by an off-duty officer who “could easily have been outside or on his way home.”

Except for Chaffetz’s comments and the criminal charges filed, almost all of the human sources for the Post coverage have been unnamed, and the information published has been beyond damaging. “Crash boxes,” which are supposed to sound an alarm should an intruder intrude on the White House, have been muted or turned down so as not to disturb the White House usher staff. Gonzalez’s dash went unnoticed by the plainclothes surveillance team on duty outside the fence. The attack dog was not unleashed. And so on.

Ordinarily, I am critical of anonymously sourced information because, among other reasons, it games the press to deliver a message to the world that benefits the anonymous speakers. But I make exceptions when the anonymous information is this specific; can potentially be falsified by other reporters or sources; and is not refuted by the authorities it attacks. The Secret Service has yet to challenge the Post‘s findings. The Secret Service’s director, Pierson, made no effort to do so today in a congressional hearing on her agency’s lapses. And the New York Times is confirming the Post reports with its anonymous sources.

The Secret Service attempted in early reports to appear on top of things. Anonymous agency sources told the Times (Sept. 22 edition) of plans to screen tourists blocks away from the White House before they could enter the building’s proximity. The attribution the Times provides for that information reads like a punch-line against the most recent Post revelation: “The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a continuing investigation or security measures under consideration.” A more accurate attribution would be, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in hopes that their comments about perimeter shifting would divert discussion from the agency’s amateurism.

A second line of defense deployed by agency defenders has been to blame its poor performance on low “morale.” Joe Davidson, who writes a Post column about the federal workplace, devoted a whole column (Sept. 26) to falling morale at the Secret Service. But not even Davidson, a reliable booster of all things federal, can get behind this evasion. The poor morale excuse doesn’t spread wide enough to explain the recent breakdown of White House security, the Secret Service agents who partied with Colombian prostitutes, or those who passed out drunk in Amsterdam. (Not to mention the Secret Service officer who allegedly left a bullet in a hotel room across from the White House while visiting a woman he met in the hotel’s bar).

If Pierson and her team are to survive this crisis, they’ll need a dramatic news event (a tsunami, Middle East turmoil, or maybe a royal birth) to drive the story off of Page One and give them breathing room. Absent that, the agency’s leaders will have to mount a press counter-offensive to save themselves. Traditionally, the players in Washington scandals or turf battles end up drafting competing news organizations to tell their sides of the story, like Fox News Channel did for the Benghazi doubters. Pierson doesn’t need to reverse the momentum to survive, just stall it or deflect it.

First, she’ll need a sympathetic reporter — not a total shill, of course — but somebody who will ferry her team’s anonymous complaints into print. Pierson, who has led the Secret Service for only 18 months, can (with the help of her allies) feed the press damning information about the previous leadership and position herself not as a bad boss but as the savior of the once-elite agency. She and her allies can blame the Secret Service’s deterioration on its transfer in March 2003 from the Department of the Treasury to everybody’s least-favorite federal department, the ding-dongs at Homeland Security. The brilliance of the Homeland Security dodge would be that there might be some truth in it. See this Carol D. Leonnig story from earlier this year about perfidy at the department.

The Times would be an excellent venue for such a Pierson gambit, except its reporters will never go for it. Oh, sure, the paper happily would cook a banquet from whatever juicy ingredients anonymous Secret Service sources might want to offer, but it’s too proud to serve pure swill. Look for Pierson’s defense to come from a news operation below the Post or the Times. Maybe a magazine or a website, another daily, or maybe a columnist willing to say that Pierson is the one to clean up the mess. With mountains of sensitive reports and inside dope to leak, Pierson and her allies could be in the driving seat of this scandal in a couple of news cycles.

******

I prefer the passenger seat. Send directions to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed remembers when President Richard Nixon would take the form of a werewolf to leap over the White House fence and toward the Watergate. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

 

PHOTO: Members of the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service patrol Pennsylvania Avenue outside the North Lawn of the White House in Washington September 29, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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All in all, Eric Holder was just another brick in the wall http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/09/26/all-in-all-eric-holder-was-just-another-brick-in-the-wall/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/09/26/all-in-all-eric-holder-was-just-another-brick-in-the-wall/#comments Fri, 26 Sep 2014 21:20:04 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3261 U.S.  Attorney General Holder stands with President Obama after the president announced Holder's resignation at the White House in Washington

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. first signaled his exit from office so long ago that every reporter and pundit who covers the Department of Justice has stockpiled enough copy assessing his tenure to fill a mattress. Like Derek Jeter, Holder announced his farewell tour this past February, telling the New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin that he would depart in 2014. The admission prompted journalists to update and fine tune their critiques of the attorney general with emerging details, the way obituary writers tweak their pre-written obituaries of famous, old people to keep them fresh and newsy.

To paraphrase Marcus Raskin, the law is just politics frozen in time. Every attorney general applies the heat gun to the solid mass of law in hopes of melting and refreezing it to serve his boss, be he a Republican president or a Democratic president. These efforts naturally earn them disparaging comments from the opposing party, giving reporters the opportunity to plug in modular language like this passage from today’s New York Times story about Holder’s resignation: “He … emerged as the primary political antagonist for a Republican opposition in Congress that viewed him as dismissive of existing laws and contemptuous of its oversight of his department.” Republicans, the Times continues, “once voted to hold Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress.” Deeper in the piece: “Conservatives spent years attacking Mr. Holder’s integrity, especially over the Justice Department’s botched gun-trafficking operation called Fast and Furious.”

Page back to August 2007 to the coverage of the resignations of the two very Republican attorneys general serving under President George W. Bush, and you find similar language in the Times. The paper reported that Alberto Gonzales’ “tenure has been marred by controversy and accusations of perjury before Congress,” adding furious foot-stomping by congressional Democrats about Gonzales’ oppressor ways. Upon the departure of Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004, the Times account called him “one of the most high-profile and polarizing members of the Bush Cabinet.” The paper quoted a law professor saying this of Ashcroft: “We had an attorney general who treated criticism and dissent as treason, ethnic identity as grounds for suspicion and congressional and judicial oversight as inconvenient obstacles.”

More perhaps than any other Cabinet officer, the attorney general attracts attention and criticism from politicians and the press. Hobbled with more laws than he has prosecutors to enforce, the AG must perform daily triage if he hopes to put a dent into crime. Republican attorneys general tend to tilt against civil liberties and in favor of Wall Street, while Democratic attorneys general tend to tilt against civil liberties and in favor of Wall Street. I kid here, but not that much.

Holder’s press notices Friday morning rough him up for continuing, some would say accelerating, the previous administration’s national security state. Holder, the Times reminds us, approved the National Security Agency’s phone-records sweep, supported the FBI’s right to electronically track cars without a warrant, subpoenaed journalists and their phone records, and defended the president’s right to kill American members of Al Qaeda. The Times captured Holder’s duplicitous approach to civil liberties when it noted that he supports proposals that would limit the NSA’s power to seize phone records while declining to say why he accepted those powers in the first place. If Ashcroft and Gonzales had had a child together, they would have named him Eric Holder and bragged about his accomplishments.

At least until they heard about Holder’s civil rights record, at which point both would probably demand paternity tests. Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who could also be an Ashcroft-Gonzales love child, was quoted in the Washington Post saying Holder was “the most divisive U.S. attorney general in modern history” because of his practice of “needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement.”

Somebody should give Issa a talk show on the Fox News Channel or enroll him in some history classes. Has Issa never heard of John Mitchell of Watergate fame? A. Mitchell Palmer of “Palmer raids” fame? Or even Robert F. Kennedy?

On at least one level, Issa was right about Holder’s politicking. According to the Post, Holder rumbled with White House aides, notably Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, over where major terrorism cases should be tried. (Holder wanted the federal courts to handle the cases in Manhattan. Emanuel didn’t, and Emanuel won).

A less — dare I say it? — politically hyperactive Republican would have found a way to make common cause with Holder. I’m not saying Issa should be tossing garlands on Holder for battling against mandatory sentencing, for viewing the drug war though a civil-rights lens, for allowing the states to go their own way on marijuana, for favoring more liberal voting rights measures, or for sidestepping the Republicans’ “Fast and Furious” inquiries. Issa can be as angry as he wants to be about those policies. Holder even declined to prosecute both the CIA officers accused of torturing suspects after the 9/11 attacks and the officials who set the policies.

Whenever the law is unfrozen by politics, it can stay in that state for only a short time before politics demands its refreezing. Considered in its totality, Holder’s time as attorney general maintained the Bush administration’s legal philosophy on the largest issues, and in a style that Bush’s attorneys general must have admired. Trained to detect and amplify Washington’s marginal political differences, the press sometimes overlooks the obvious continuity of the permanent government.

******

“Law is the politics of the past frozen into ice blocks, which must be melted from time to time. Otherwise, law is the dead weight of the past on the present,” is the precise Raskin quotation. I think mine is punchier. Send punches via email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed is hot. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stands with President Barack Obama after the president announced Holder’s resignation in the White House State Dining Room in Washington, September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing 

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War without end: The U.S. may still be fighting in Syria in 2024, 2034, 2044 . . . http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/09/24/war-without-end-the-u-s-may-still-be-fighting-in-syria-in-2024-2034-2044/ http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2014/09/24/war-without-end-the-u-s-may-still-be-fighting-in-syria-in-2024-2034-2044/#comments Wed, 24 Sep 2014 22:51:22 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/?p=3248 RTR47HCZ.jpg

This must be what perpetual war looks like.

In a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Army Lieutenant General Bill Mayville called the cruise missiles and bombs flung at targets in Syria “the beginning of a credible and sustainable persistent campaign.” How long will the campaign last? “I would think of it in terms of years,” Mayville responded.

Although the bombs exploded on Syrian soil, they didn’t target Bashar al-Assad’s battered, murderous regime. The bombs were addressed to Syria’s enemy, the Islamic State, a nascent nation that has pledged to topple both Iraq and Syria, as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, and parts of southern Turkey, and erect a caliphate on the parcel.

But in attacking Syria’s enemy, the United States wasn’t looking to make friends with Syria. President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down in 2011, and it was only last year that the United States was prepared to bomb Syria for having crossed the chemical-weapons “red line” to kill its own citizens. Not that the United States is remarkably choosey about which nations it counts among its allies. Among the Middle East nations joining with the United States to strike Syria is Qatar, which has allowed one of its sheikhs to raise funds for an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. As you know, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda in all of its flavors, including the Syria-based Khorasan Group, upon which U.S. bombs fell this week. The Khorasan Group is said to be plotting attacks on the United States and Europe.

Our perpetual war is complicated, however, by the fact that the Islamic State is the sworn enemy of Al Qaeda, from which it split earlier this year because it couldn’t play nice with Al Qaeda’s other affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also fighting the Assad regime. Or, to look at it another way, the enemies of America’s enemies are not automatically America’s friends; and even America’s friends, which can be permissive about the flow of money to Al Qaeda, aren’t necessarily America’s friends either.

America has allies in Syria’s civil war, of course, including Harakat Hazm, part of the Free Syrian Army. Harakat Hazm is fighting Assad, but it has also fought alongside America’s enemy Jabhat al-Nusra, which has not disqualified it from receiving U.S. weapons and training. Harakat Hazm took exception to the American-led bombing of Syria in a statement, calling it an “external intervention” and “an attack on the revolution,” according to a Los Angeles Times report. So Harakat Hazm, America’s friend, which fought with America’s enemy against Syria—which is neither friend nor enemy—objects to the fact that America bombed Syria in pursuit of the Islamic State, which is also Harakat Hazm’s enemy. Meanwhile, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah is drone-bombing Jabat al-Nusrat along the Lebanon-Syria border at the same time Israel is downing Syrian jets.

Confused yet? You’ll have plenty of time to catch up. As Mayville promised, this conflict will likely go on for years.

A formation of U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern IraqIt’s a wild card war in which allies and enemies seem arbitrary and ever-shifting. Will the American attacks strengthen the Assad regime by weakening the Islamic State, as some speculate? Or will it drive Jabhat al-Nusra closer to the Islamic State, at least in the interim? Or will the American-funded “moderates” shake off their masters and place Assad in their gun sights instead of the Islamic State? National security reporter Thomas E. Ricks, a man not subject to confusion, can’t decide whether to call the latest hostilities a new installment of a new Thirty Years’ War (1991-2021?) or another chapter in the War of the End of the Ottoman Empire (1914-2040?).

A war with a conclusion that its participants can’t see or can’t imagine is a war without end. None of the dig-in parties in Syria and Iraq look like pushovers, but neither do any of them look like sure bets. Without American intervention, the current war will likely rage on. With regard to American intervention, not even the Pentagon dares to predict an end.

For Americans, at least so far, this war is rumbling on like background noise. The usual markers of military victory—body-counts tabulated, territories seized and banked, no-fly zones established, governments-in-waiting imposed, and elections supervised—don’t apply to the Syria war. The borders, combatants, allegiances, and military objectives in the Syrian war are too fluid to conform to our usual expectations. Nor do the usual markers of peace seem to exist. There are no peace talks taking shape, no shuttle diplomacy, no evidence of a dominant power about to exert its might to create a lasting peace by flattening everybody.

In hypothesizing a 30-year-long war, I fear that Tom Ricks was off by a factor of two or three. In bombing Syria, President Obama, who inherited this war, has made this war his war, the next president’s war, and our war. Today, tomorrow, and for as far as the eye can see. Perpetual war for perpetual peace.

*******

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PHOTO: A still image taken from video provided by the U.S. Central Command shows a damaged building at an Islamic State (IS) compound near the northern Syrian town of Ar Raqqah, following an air strike against IS targets September 23, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Central Command/Handout via Reuters TV

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