Opinion

Jack Shafer

Dear Obama, spare us the press-freedom lecturing

Jack Shafer
Jan 31, 2014 22:52 UTC

Wearing his best straight face, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney lectured China on press freedom yesterday. In a redundant official statement, he accused Beijing of restricting “the ability of journalists to do their work” and “imped[ing] their ability to do their jobs.”

If the Chinese cared about public opinion, they would have called a news conference of their own and read aloud from former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.’s comprehensive October report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which cataloged the Obama administration’s hostility toward the press. Downie found that although President Barack Obama promised a more open government, his administration has prosecuted sources under the Espionage Act, imposed delays on and denials of FOIA requests, and closed its doors on reporters, systematically blunting the press. And recent revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and the secret subpoena of reporters’ phone logs and emails have contributed to a climate of fear in some newsrooms.

Carney’s jawboning, in which he also called for the unblocking of Western news sites, was precipitated by the slowdown game China’s visa offices have been playing with U.S. foreign correspondents. Two New York Times reporters have had to leave the country in the past 13 months because their visa applications went unprocessed, and Bloomberg News’s China-based reporters “have also experienced visa delays,” the Times reports today. Nearly all observers agree that the slowdowns and denials directed at the Times can be attributed to its aggressive coverage of crony capitalism in China.

But Carney isn’t the only member of the Obama administration agitating for freedom of the press in China. The Times also reports that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “warned” Chinese leaders during his visit there last month that there would be consequences if the country continued its efforts to oust U.S. reporters. What consequences? Congress might get mad about it, Biden told the Chinese, and retaliate somehow.

The stifled laughter of the Chinese was not recorded, although I’m sure the country’s leaders and diplomats made Onion-esque jokes about Biden and his rhetorical pop-gun after he left earshot. It’s not much of a threat to tell the leaders of the world’s second-most powerful economy that your legislature, which can’t agree on anything, will soon arrive to tickle them if they don’t behave.

The limits of Ezra Klein’s star power

Jack Shafer
Jan 27, 2014 23:19 UTC

No greater act of press criticism exists than to launch your own publication. Starting anew allows a journalist to leave the cracked glass, dents and rust of the old behind, to reject the past and all its mistakes and compromises, and to show by example how the work should be done. To command a blank slate into existence and drop your pen on to it makes a critical statement like no other.

If I’m right about all of this, then Ezra “Wonkblog” Klein deserves acclamation as the press critic of the day, the week, and maybe even the month for leaving the Washington Post and joining with the blog consortium Vox Media (The Verge, SB Nation, Eater, Curbed, et al.) to start his own Web publication. In a Sunday evening post announcing the deal, Klein promised in a glancing blow at the Post — which rejected his creative vision — that his as-yet-unnamed site would jettison the “workflow built around the old medium” of print to re-imagine “the way we explain the news.”

No news consumer — even his fellow press critics — can wish Klein and his team anything but well. But the future is a dangerous place where past results do not reliably predict performance. Klein’s Wonkblog mélange of charts, policy explainers, economics reporting, and political opinion earned him the sort of canonization at a young age previously enjoyed by fellow liberal journalists Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop, and Michael Kinsley, as Matt Welch wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. Klein’s audience grew and grew, Wonkblog became its own sort of publication tucked inside the Washington Post, and he disseminated his wisdom on new venues, including The New Yorker, Bloomberg View, and MSNBC.

Soft-focus time for celebrity offspring

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2014 21:14 UTC

You didn’t have to be the son or daughter of somebody famous to be written about in the New York Times Magazine during 2013, but it helped. Last year the Times Magazine published stories about the offspring of David Mamet, Ted Kennedy, Mel Brooks, Stephen King, Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (and perhaps Frank Sinatra?), and Johnny Cash. Expanding the kinship circle to include blood relatives of famous people, we discover additional Times Magazine articles about Ernest Hemingway‘s granddaughter and Ben Affleck‘s brother, and a Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg‘s sister. All of these pieces spring from journalism’s gentler provinces, that expanse of lavender and honeybees where tough questions might be asked, but the writer stands ready to catch the subject — “trust game style” — should the question ruffle.

The soft feature has a place in journalism, of course. Not every article need be an interrogation, a prosecution, or an execution to earn our attention. But the uniform generosity exhibited in these Times Magazine pieces poses the question of how many marshmallows a reader should be asked to swallow  before he can ask for a barf bag. Kindness has its place: Children, animals, our colleagues and even prisoners of war deserve a default setting of kindness from us. But, as a former boss of mine loved to say, journalism isn’t a Montessori school. Conflict husks the seed to its germ faster and better than the investigative device of kindness. But few celebrities or their kin will submit to the grinder when they know they can get a journalistic massage for the asking. The average value of features produced via celebrity ego-massage might be low, but kindness will deliver future returns, encouraging other celebrities to agree to sit for their own soft-focus portraits.

I single out the Times Magazine for abuse not because it created nepotism. Nor is it the Times Magazine‘s fault that a certain percentage of famous people owe all or a smidgen of their fame to their ancestry. Nor do I believe the Times Magazine has any exclusive on the easy-does-it-on-the-famous-relatives beat. The style section of your local newspaper, your city magazine and any number of popular titles on the newsstand are likely to contain similar featherweight features and Q&As. It’s just because I expect more bites and fewer licks from the alpha dog of journalism. The sogginess of these stories probably has as much to do with the choice of subjects as it does the editorial tip-toeing. It might be possible to write a two-fisted profile of a junior member of the Mamet, Kennedy, Brooks, King, Hemingway, Affleck, Zuckerberg, Farrow, or Cash clans, but I wouldn’t want that assignment. Only columnists can reliably make something out of nothing.

All lanes close in on Christie

Jack Shafer
Jan 14, 2014 21:56 UTC

This much we know for sure about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal: In early September mid-August, one of his staffers sent an email instructing an official, appointed by the governor, that it was “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey responded, “Got it.” Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which connects the New Jersey city to Manhattan, were closed and days of vehicular mayhem ensued. When confronted about the closures, Christie’s people lied and lied about the reason for the closure, citing a non-existent “traffic study.”

What Christie knew and when he knew it, and the precise reason his office ordered disorder for the bridge remain unknown, although the affair reeks of perfidy on Christie’s part: Three Christie people connected to the closures have been sacked or have resigned as facts have emerged.

As the many tick-tocks written about the affair have noted, traffic jams are a way of life in the New York City metro area, making low the likelihood that one would rise to the level of a national news story. So what has lent this story such strong legs, which continue their march across the front pages of America’s newspapers?

Don’t fear the Internet of things

Jack Shafer
Jan 10, 2014 21:43 UTC

Novelist Philip K. Dick anticipated by four decades the Internet of Things, a phenomenon touted loudly by the press from this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Internet-aware automobilestoothbrushesmattressesinfant monitorsfitness trackerspet collarstennis racketslightbulbstoiletsbathroom scales“wearable” techtricorder-like medical sensors, and more have arrived or are on their way.

Dick, ever the dystopian, recognized that one man’s technological boon is inevitably another’s bane, and expressed this view most bleakly in his Ubik. The novel, published in 1969 but set in the early 1990s, posits a world populated with nearly sentient appliances. Joe Chip, the novel’s protagonist, is so broke he’s in arrears with the robots that clean his apartment, and they have reported him to a credit agency as a deadbeat. One morning, upon attempting to exit his apartment, the smartdoor blocked him, saying “Five cents, please.”

“I’ll pay you tomorrow,” Chip promised after searching his empty pockets.

The door isn’t having it, and refused to open. “What I pay you,” Chip said, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”

Buzz off, Waxman — Congress can’t tell a newspaper how to do business

Jack Shafer
Jan 8, 2014 21:21 UTC

Oh to be a fly on the wall Jan. 15, when Tribune Co. executives meet with the staff of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., in a command performance to explain the media conglomerate’s plans to spin off its newspapers — which include the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun — into a separate company named Tribune Publishing.

Waxman called for the meeting in mid-December after Tribune filed its blueprint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, arguing in a letter that the restructuring may not “be in the best interests” of his constituents, who live in the Pacific Coast-hugging congressional district that runs inland to include Beverly Hills. The spin-off will essentially defund the newspapers, Waxman argued, specifically the Los Angeles Times, which his district depends on for news. Under the terms of the restructuring, the Tribune Publishing newspapers will pay a cash dividend to Tribune Co. The newspapers will also lose their real estate holdings, forcing them to pay rent for their current facilities.

Waxman worries that the deal endangers the long-term survival of the Los Angeles Times, which like most other newspapers has shrunken its newsroom as advertising and circulation have fallen over the past decade. In a second letter to Tribune, which he also made public, Waxman wrote, “At a minimum, you appear to be putting the profits of the Tribune Co. ahead of the interests of the public in viable local newspapers.” In it, he asked Tribune to forward to his staff a raft of relevant spin-off documents before the Jan. 15 meeting.

The Times advances the NSA’s amnesty-for-Snowden trial balloon

Jack Shafer
Jan 2, 2014 23:32 UTC

Of course the New York Times editorial page wants clemency or, at the very least, a generous plea bargain for National Security Agency contractor turned super-leaker Edward Snowden! The news pages of the New York Times have directly benefited from top-secret leaks from Snowden to break stories since last August, when the paper acquired a cache of his NSA material from the Guardian. (The Guardian published its own “pardon for Snowden” editorial today.) In urging leniency for Snowden, the Times editorial page is urging leniency for a specific news-pages source, which the editorial doesn’t directly state. If that doesn’t define enlightened self-interest, nothing does.

The Times editorial page operates independently from the Times news operation, so I’m not suggesting that Executive Editor Jill Abramson instructed Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal what to write. But on this score, she probably didn’t even have to stifle the urge. For the last decade, the news side has been breaking stories about warrantless surveillance by the NSA, a secret bank-data surveillance program, and, via WikiLeaks, the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. diplomatic cables. The editorial page has lectured the government on its overreach and incompetence in the security realm. Abramson and Rosenthal, who report to the same publisher, obviously harmonize on this score. Even if they didn’t, it’s unlikely in the extreme that a Times editorial would ever call for a Times news-side source to be seated in a Judas Cradle as punishment for leaking to the press.

Did I say unlikely in the extreme? Allow me to reverse my course. Not every editorial page is buckled to its news pages. Take the Washington Post for example.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1998 lesson on the price of secrets

Jack Shafer
Dec 27, 2013 15:22 UTC

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and is reprinted with permission.

The ease with which the United States government creates new state secrets masks the ultimate cost of the secret’s production. Once minted, a secret must be guarded lest a spy sneak in and pluck it from the bunch — or a Chelsea Manning, an Edward Snowden, or a lesser leaker with a security clearance release it into the wild. Vaults must be built, moats dug, and guards hired, trained, and paid. Add to that the cost of routine audits, to make sure nobody has picked the locks, and the expense of the annual security clearances for the spooks, bureaucrats, and IT specialists who make, sort, use, and maintain the secrets. At last count, nearly five million people in the U.S. were cleared to access Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret information, a number that includes both government employees (like Manning) and contractors (like Snowden).

Official secrets have been reproducing faster than a basket of mongooses thanks to the miracle of “derivative classification,” and this rapid propagation has compounded the maintenance costs. Whenever information stamped as classified is folded into a new document — either verbatim or in paraphrased form — that new derivative document is born classified. Derivative classification — and the fact that nobody ever got fired for overusing the classified stamp — means that 92.1 million “classification decisions” were made in FY 2011, according to a government report, a 20 percent increase over FY 2010. Once created, your typical secret is a stubborn thing. The secret-makers’ reluctance to declassify their trove is legendary: In 1997, 204 million pages were declassified, but since 9/11 only an average of 33.5 million pages have been declassified annually.

The information singularity is coming!

Jack Shafer
Dec 19, 2013 22:36 UTC

“Data! Data! Data!” Sherlock Holmes cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

The sleuth’s insatiable hunger for petabytes of data presaged that of the National Security Agency’s by a little less than seven decades. Like the NSA, Holmes took a pointillistic view of the truth. Find as many facts as possible, he held, view them from as many angles as possible, turn them inside out or set them aside until you collect more facts, and then, like pouring iron into a mold, cast your most durable image of reality. “It’s an old maxim of mine that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Holmes stated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.”

The age of Snowden has made well-known NSA’s demanding data desires. So, too, have we gotten a glimpse of how the agency’s information foundry works, that place where mathematicians massage the metadata of phone records and Web traffic with powerful relational database software to strip away the impossible in pursuit of the “truth.” Whether you believe the collection and analysis of your personal data is trivial or intolerable, the age of Snowden has alerted us all to the coming of the information singularity, where near perfect portraits and detailed biographies of us all can be assembled if enough computer power is thrown at a big enough data set.

Plotting the Snowden plea bargain

Jack Shafer
Dec 16, 2013 21:32 UTC

CBS News gave the National Security Agency an early Christmas present on Sunday—a segment on “60 Minutes.” The title of the segment, “NSA Speaks Out on Snowden, Spying,” telegraphed the network’s generosity. After taking beatings in the press and in Congress, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander reached out to “invite” (which is how CBS News put it) the program to receive the NSA’s version of the Snowden affair. “What they got was a chance to make their case,” said correspondent John Miller.

The segment contained the usual NSA evasions and elisions (see the blog work of Jesselyn Radack for examples), so besides the novelty of network cameras recording images inside the puzzle palace, the only non-trivial moments of the broadcast came when Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force in charge of Snowden damage assessment, gave a positive response to Miller’s question of what he thought of the idea of acceding to Edward Snowden’s request for amnesty.

“What would your thought on making a deal be?” asked Miller. Ledgett responded:

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