Opinion

Jack Shafer

Governments worldwide buried in the Snowden avalanche

Jack Shafer
Nov 7, 2013 15:41 UTC

If the U.S. and British governments could stop the press from publishing stories based on the National Security Agency files leaked by Edward Snowden in June, they probably would have acted by now. Oh, the Guardian was coerced by the British government into destroying the hard drives in London containing the leaked files, and London police used terrorism law to detain the partner of Glenn Greenwald — one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked — at Heathrow Airport and confiscated computer media believed to contain leaked files.

But these measures were largely for show. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had earlier reminded officials, other publications and individuals possess copies of the files, and “doomsday” copies exist that will be released “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden,” said Greenwald in June. Greenwald wasn’t so much blackmailing the U.S. and British governments as promising retaliation, Capone-style, should harm come to his source.

Meanwhile, hardly a week has expired since June without the publication of a new Snowden revelation somewhere in the world, as this Wikipedia page illustrates. Last week, the Washington Post reported how the NSA pinches data from Yahoo and Google’s worldwide data centers. On Sunday, the New York Times published a laundry list of NSA operations, demonstrating the agency’s pervasiveness. “The N.S.A. seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world,” wrote reporter Scott Shane.

From the sidelines, the U.S. and British governments appear to be helpless, pitiful giants, to steal a phrase from Richard Nixon, when it comes to the NSA disclosures. Traditionally, the U.S. government has been more or less successful in getting the press to delay — or at least reduce the octane — of their most explosive national security stories, as these Shorenstein Center papers by Jack Nelson (pdf) and Allan Siegal (pdf) attest. Failing to daunt or cajole the press, the government can try other behavior-mod strategies. It can deter future leakers by aggressively prosecuting current leakers, as the Obama administration has done. It can intimidate reporters who refuse to surrender their confidential sources in criminal proceedings with threats of contempt and jail time, an outcome New York Times reporter James Risen seems resigned to. (Gabriel Schoenfeld, author of Necessary Secrets, made the case for why Risen deserves jail in 2010 in the Daily Beast.)

Those techniques won’t work against the reporters writing about the Snowden leaks: Snowden outed himself as the source of the NSA files — essentially confessing to the espionage charge against him — so prosecutors can’t retaliate against Greenwald, the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman, or filmmaker Laura Poitras, early recipients of the Snowden leaks, by using the courts to expose their sources.

Hate your free service? Go tweet yourself

Jack Shafer
Oct 30, 2013 21:58 UTC

Twitter users by the thousands — or maybe even the hundreds! — stubbed their scrolling fingers yesterday at the news of a new default setting in the popular service. Previously, links to photos or videos in tweets hosted on Twitter servers did not appear in a user’s “timeline.” Now, visual previews “will be front and center in tweets,” the company announced.

By Web standards, the Twitter change was incremental. But as Wired‘s Mat Honan and BuzzFeed‘s John Herman explained, it nonetheless infuriated longtime users who like their information-compressed, character-based Twitter just the way it is. These veteran users regard the inclusion of visuals to their Twitter timeline like the addition of a fistful of arrowroot to their miso soup, and don’t care that the visuals will make it easier for the company — as it approaches a public offering — to sell ads and compete with the visually richer Facebook and Google+ services.

Aside from growling about it on Twitter, what can the 140-character minimalists do? Not much. Free Web service outposts like Twitter, Facebook, Google, SkyDrive, Dropbox and the rest can change their features and their terms of service (ToS) at will unless the Federal Trade Commission intercedes with a privacy audit or ruling. The only real resort for irate users is to delete their account and take their cheapskate ways to another free service. For the most part, this never happens. Back in 2010, “Quit Facebook Day” organizers convinced only 33,313 out of 400 million users to disconnect from the service, as Alex Howard reported. It turns out to be easier for someone to leave a marriage than it is to abandon a Facebook or Twitter account. If you’re fed up with your marriage, there’s a bottomless stock of potential spouses. But there is only one Twitter and one Facebook. Grow heavily invested in a free service — Google would be mine — and you’ll grudgingly surrender your golden retriever, your first-born, and your left kidney if and when the new ToS require it.

Yes, we spy on allies. Want to make something of it?

Jack Shafer
Oct 28, 2013 21:59 UTC

If not yet the consensus opinion, by tomorrow morning most everyone with a keyboard and a connection to the Internet who isn’t also a head of state will concede that the ally-on-ally spying by the United States — revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to Der Spiegel — won’t matter much in the long run.

This is not to say German Chancellor Angela Merkel has no right to be personally ticked off about the U.S. snooping on her phone calls since 2002. She does. This morning, the Wall Street Journal reported that upwards of 35 world leaders were spied on by the U.S. They have a right to be ticked off, too, but the protests are largely contrived. As Max Boot and David Gewirtz wrote in Commentary‘s blog and ZDNet, respectively, nations have traditionally spied on allies both putative and stalwart. One excellent reason to spy on an ally, Gewirtz notes, is to confirm that the ally is really an ally. Allies sometimes become adversaries, so shifting signs must be monitored. Likewise, allies may be allies, but they always have their disagreements. What better way to prevent unpleasant surprises from an ally than by monitoring him? Boot quotes Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister, on this score: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Other reasons to spy on allies: It keeps them honest, or if not honest, it at least puts them on notice that their lies might get found out. Spying gives countries a diplomatic leg up on allies, as well as an edge in things military. The downside — well, there is really no downside unless receiving the stink eye from an ally for a couple of weeks qualifies as a downside. And so it has been for a long time, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote in 2004. In 2009 Britain’s Telegraph reported that spy agencies from 20 countries, including France and Germany, had sought to steal Britain’s secrets. Earlier this year, the Guardian disclosed that British spooks eavesdropped on the G20 dignitaries when they convened in London in 2009, dispensing a little what-goes-around-comes-around to their allies. Apprehended spies may suffer, as has the American Jonathan Pollard, who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel in 1987 and is serving a life sentence in prison. But the spymasters don’t, so don’t expect them to stop any time soon.

Move over Bezos, ESPN can do news better than you

Jack Shafer
Oct 23, 2013 22:28 UTC

The pompous slogan, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” actually undersells ESPN’s ultimate potential.

If the Bristol behemoth were a stand-alone company instead of a Walt Disney Co./Hearst Corporation co-venture, it would be the most valuable media property in the world, worth $40 billion against annual revenues of $10.3 billion, according to one estimate. Wherever sports happens or is discussed — cable, broadcast TV, radio, online, mobile and print — one ESPN tentacle can be found wrapped tight around it, squeezing out revenue, and the others probing for fresh sucking places. It speaks four languages in more than 61 countries and has a larger standing army than Canada. I made up that army fact, but if ESPN had one it would be the world’s most predatory, profitable and entertaining.

Like Alexander the Great, ESPN has recorded so many victories in such a brief time that it will soon weep upon discovering that no additional sports worlds exist to conquer. The company has entered its mop-up phase, a place where most mature companies end up, doing more of what it does best, finding new ways to serve the old stuff, but not advancing at the old velocity. But if ESPN wanted to break out of the gold-plated sports ghetto that it now owns, what better strategy than to spend its millions refashioning itself as “The Worldwide Leader in News.” International news. Political news. Domestic news. Cultural news. Business and financial news. Local news (it already has a sports presence in five top cities). Weather. And, yeah, even sports.

Pierre Omidyar and the bottomless optimism of billionaire publishers

Jack Shafer
Oct 17, 2013 21:18 UTC

Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar – reckoned to be worth $8.5 billion — inspired tens of thousands of journalists to freshen their resumes this week when word of his plan to start his own mass media organization leaked out. With Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras announced as its first hires, the outlet will emphasize investigative journalism, but as Omidyar explained in a post, the site will serve all news.

Rattling his dumpster of cash, Omidyar will soon join other billionaires who made their money elsewhere and now peddle product at the newsstand, including Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg News, Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post, Herb Sandler of ProPublica, Philip Anschutz of the Weekly Standard and the Washington Examiner, Mortimer Zuckerman of the Daily News and U.S. News and World Report, Richard Mellon Scaife of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, John Henry of the Boston Globe, the late Sidney Harman of Newsweek, and the late convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Washington Times. A whole junior varsity of sub-billionaire moneybags, including Wendy P. McCaw of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Jared Kushner of the New York Observer, Doug Manchester of U-T San Diego and Chris Hughes of the New Republic, have similarly bought their way into the news business to spread their influence or enrich democracy, depending on who is doing the telling.

Plutocrats the world over delight in owning media properties, and for good reason: Money can buy a lot, but unless you own a publication you’re just one of the world’s 1,426 billionaires – human cargo on a private jet, a delegator, an employer of lobbyists, another yakker in the opinion chorus. Moving to the head of the line requires the media club upgrade, which makes you and your publication a compulsory venue for campaigning candidates. Media properties are like musical instruments: when played just so, they compel your enemies to dance, as William Randolph Hearst of the San Francisco Examiner and New York Journal first demonstrated with his family’s money in the 1890s, and the super billionaire Koch brothers would have discovered had they purchased the Los Angeles Times.

Will anyone defend the Washington Redskins name?

Jack Shafer
Oct 10, 2013 21:35 UTC

For the past 14 years, Dan Snyder, principal owner of the Washington Redskins football franchise, has defied incessant calls from activists and journalists to change his team’s name and Indian logo to something less “offensive.” In May, he added extra rebar and a moat of burning oil to his previous vows on the name-change, telling USA Today that “We’ll never change the name,” adding, “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

Obviously, Snyder could never have thought that a good liberal like President Barack Obama would side with him on the issue. The best Snyder could hope for was that the president would remain too busy with domestic and global crises to comment on the dispute.

Then, in an interview last weekend with the Associated Press, Obama suited up and entered the name-change field. What was his position on the name of the Washington Redskins football team, the AP asked. Is it insulting to Native Americans? Did he think it should be changed? Obama acknowledged the controversy diplomatically, careful not to rile Redskins loyalists, but said that if he were an owner of the team, “I’d think about changing it.”

More media won’t solve political ignorance

Jack Shafer
Oct 8, 2013 20:24 UTC

The surplus of quality journalism in print, on the Web, and over the air should give the public little to no excuse for being uninformed about political issues. Never before has so much raw and refined political intelligence been available at such a low cost to citizens willing to buy a cheap computer and Web connection — or pay the bus fare to the local public library.

But uninformed the people are, as Ilya Somin delineates in his subversive new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, and their ignorance is willful!

“The sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance may be shocking to readers not familiar with the research,” Somin writes on his first page. Many Americans don’t know how the government works, they don’t know much about who runs the government, and they’re clueless about how government programs work. For instance, a 2006 Zogby poll reported that only 42 percent of respondees could name the three branches of government. In another survey from that year, only 28 percent could name two or more of the five rights in the First Amendment, and a 2002 study indicated that 35 percent believed that the words “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” could be found in the Constitution. CNN found in its 2011 poll that Americans estimated on average that foreign aid consumes 10 percent of the federal budget when it actually takes up less than 1 percent.

The flimflam of this week’s Obamacare numbers

Jack Shafer
Sep 27, 2013 21:13 UTC

At midweek, the Department of Health and Human Services released its report on the health plan choices and insurance premiums available under the Affordable Care Act, which opens for enrollment on Oct. 1 in 36 states.

The HHS press release accompanying the report glistened with the positivity of a group hug, starting with its headline, “Significant choice and lower than expected premiums available in the new Health Insurance Marketplace.” The press release’s feel-good theme of “lower than expected premiums” ricocheted up and down many news columns the next day.

“Cost may be under forecasts”; “Obamacare To Cost Less, Feds Say”; “Rates from insurance exchanges lower than projected for most, HHS says”; and “Report: Georgia Obamacare premiums lower than expected”; read the print headlines in the Dallas Morning News, the Herald News of Passaic County, N.J., the Kansas City Business Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

“Jack Shafer’s latest column is his absolute BEST! Ever!”

Jack Shafer
Sep 24, 2013 21:55 UTC

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made Page One news yesterday, Sept. 23, in the New York Times with his announcement that he had shaken down $350,000 from 19 companies he had accused of violating “laws against false advertising” and which “engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”

Schneiderman didn’t call the $350,000 collected a “shakedown” in his press release. Rather, he called it an “agreement” with 19 New York firms in exchange for their promise to stop flooding such websites as Yelp, Google Local, and Citysearch with fake online consumer reviews. The fake reviews, written for pay by freelancers both here and abroad, were purchased for as little as $1 a pop, and sang the praises of a charter bus company, a teeth-whitening emporium, a strip club, and a hair-removal service, among other companies. Both “reputation management” companies procuring the fake reviews and companies that purchased the fake reviews entered into the agreement with the attorney general.

That the reader reviews appearing in Yelp and Citysearch pages might be as loaded as a pair of dice at a floating craps game will not astonish anybody who has ever read those pages. On more than one occasion, I have struggled to find a single trustworthy review beneath a restaurant or services listing. The positive reviews always read too positive, as if composed by somebody with a neurotransmitter imbalance, and too many of the negative reviews seem animated by some vile but unnamed transgression committed by the proprietor. Had the attorney general’s investigators desired to perform a useful public service, they would have found the honest reviews on consumer referral sites and marked those pages with a yellow highlighter.

Of media typhoons and media tycoons

Jack Shafer
Sep 20, 2013 21:24 UTC

In the 1993 debut issue of Wired magazine, founding editor Louis Rossetto predicted that the media and other industries would be whipped like a “Bengali typhoon” by digital change. As it turns out, Rossetto underestimated the impending mayhem. The ruins of the newspaper industry, music business, and the book trade smolder beneath us, with newspaper companies selling for pennies on the dollar they commanded when Rossetto wrote. Madison Avenue and the retail industry stagger about like cattle just shot to the head with a stun bolt. If re-writing his manifesto today, Rossetto might want to compare the coming gale not to a typhoon but to the solar super-storm of 1859, which made telegraph machines spit fire, turned night into aurora-lit day, and encouraged some to think the end times had arrived.

The digital revolution has yet to turn our skies crimson, but Moore’s law and its codicils have not finished with the news media business. If you seek to identify the future victims of the digital typhoon, do what Rossetto did, and point your finger at the current incumbents. The organizations at the top — heavily invested in older technology, wedded to waning ideas, beholden to existing revenue streams, haunted by yesterday’s successes, and possessed by fantasies of invulnerability — are always the best targets.

My incumbents list includes but is not limited to the Huffington Post, Politico, Atlantic Wire (and its sister-site, Quartz), Business Insider, Bleacher Report, BuzzFeed, The Verge, and Gawker Media. All of these organizations raced from almost nothing to something big in a relative hurry. HuffPo was just six years old when it sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011. Bleacher Report, born in 2007, sold to Turner Broadcasting System for almost $200 million in 2012. As a point of comparison, the Washington Post, first published in 1877, just went to Jeff Bezos for $250 million.

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