Russian media and ‘journalistic independence’

e13-iconA couple of days ago, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

American media elites awash in an orgy of feel-good condemnation in particular love to mock Russian media, especially the government-funded English-language outlet RT, as being a source of shameless pro-Putin propaganda, where free expression is strictly barred (in contrast to the Free American Media). That that network has a strong pro-Russian bias is unquestionably true. But one of its leading hosts, Abby Martin, remarkably demonstrated last night what “journalistic independence” means by ending her Breaking the Set program with a clear and unapologetic denunciation of the Russian action in Ukraine:

I imagine most readers here will have already seen Martin’s widely publicized statement. Clearly she was flattered by gaining Greenwald’s attention, whose remarks she featured at the beginning of her next show.

Even so, anyone who thinks that Martin’s statement should be taken as a sign that RT values journalistic independence, is ignoring the reality of the Russian media and the organization she works for and chooses to continue working for despite her opposition to the invasion of Crimea.

RIA Novosti reports: On Wednesday, Izvestia daily newspaper reported that a ruling United Russia party deputy is readying legislation that would, among other things, make it a crime to “allow publication of false anti-Russian information.”

Starting Wednesday, staff at RIA Novosti’s Moscow-based English-language desk was asked to decide whether they wanted to work at [the newly created] Rossiya Segodnya or accept compensation packages. The bulk of the writers and editors for the English-language service have opted for the latter option.

The new agency is to be headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, a notoriously outspoken conservative TV presenter, and will share its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, with the Kremlin-funded TV news channel RT.

RT, which was formerly known as Russia Today, has been at the center of controversy recently with two reporters at the channel “going rogue” to openly criticize Russia’s interventions in the southern Ukrainian province of Crimea in the past few days. Criticism of the Kremlin typically gets little to no attention on RT, while content devoted to negative aspects of life in Western countries makes up a substantial part of its broadcasts.

Kiselyov’s ascendancy appears to point to efforts by the Russian authorities to appeal more to ultra-conservative values, a trend best signaled by last year’s passage of a law banning the promotion of homosexual “propaganda” to minors.

In Kiselyov’s most notorious on-screen harangue, dating back to 2012, he suggested it would be advisable to “burn or bury the hearts of gays” who die in car crashes.

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Russia Today anchor resigns live on air

Russia Today America anchor Liz Wahl resigned live on air on Wednesday, saying: “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government which whitewashes the actions of Putin.” RT dismissed her action by calling it a “self-promotional stunt.”

James Kirchick reports: Wahl, for her part, says that while the Kremlin influence over RT isn’t always overt, that journalists there understand what they have to do to succeed and fall into line accordingly. “I think management is able to manipulate the very young and naïve employees,” she says. “They will find ways to punish you covertly and reward those that do go along with their narrative.”

“It’s interesting that our motto is ‘Question More,’” she says of the RT slogan. (It once adorned posters showing President Obama morphing into former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the words, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?”)

“In order to succeed there you don’t question… In a way you kind of suppress any concerns that you have and play the game.”

Wahl recalls a story she attempted to report about last year’s French intervention in Mali, aimed at repelling an al-Qaeda takeover of the country. She interviewed a Malian man who “talked about what it was like to live under sharia law, people getting limbs amputated…And I thought it was probably one of the best interviews that I’ve ever done. I was touched by what he said as a first hand source, but he also talked about how the French were well-received there and how they were waving French flags and how they should have come sooner, how grateful a large part of the population was, having seen people being literally tortured and having their limbs cut off.”

That story, however, didn’t fit the RT narrative, which portrays every Western military intervention as an act of imperialism while depicting Russian ones as mere humanitarian attempts at “protecting” local populations, as the network constantly describes Moscow’s role in Crimea. Needless to say, Wahl’s interview with the thankful Malian never aired. “I was told after that it was a ‘weak’ interview,” Wahl said.

Though RT America has many American staffers, Wahl says that Russian expatriates call the shots. “They’re definitely at the top, the Russians, they’re kind of able to pull the strings… I just think it’s absurd that we’re just a few blocks away from the White House and this is all able to go along,” she says.

Having worked on the inside, Wahl perfectly understands RT’s marketing strategy, which is to appeal to a young, Western demographic cynical about mainstream media outlets and traditional political authority. “I think some of them are kind of like this hipster generation, they just kind of think it’s cool to question authority,” she says.

But what the network’s many young viewers don’t understand, or refuse to understand, is that the channel’s message emanates from the most authoritarian of sources: the Kremlin.

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Has Putin lost his mind?

When a professor of journalism refers to Julia Ioffe, a senior editor at The New Republic, putting on “a clinic with her writing and reporting on Russia and Ukraine,” I’m assuming that’s meant as a compliment — a way of signalling to his students and Twitter followers: this is what insightful journalism looks like:


This is how Ioffe’s clinic opens:

In Sunday’s New York Times, Peter Baker reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had tried talking some sense into Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has an affinity for the Germans and Merkel especially: He served in the KGB in East Germany, where Merkel grew up. And yet, nothing:

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. “In another world,” she said.

If you weren’t sure of the veracity of that little reportorial nugget, all doubt should’ve vanished after Putin’s press conference today.

Slouching in a fancy chair in front of a dozen reporters, Putin squirmed and rambled. And rambled and rambled. He was a rainbow of emotion: Serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused.

The Russian president, slouching in a fancy chair — that’s a very evocative image.

But Ioffe doesn’t just leave it to her word and her readers’ powers of imagination to conjure up a picture of the scene; she kindly provides a link. It’s what I’d call a cover-your-ass link, or a don’t-click-on-this link. Which is to say, writers sometimes make misleading statements or exaggerate, but then point to their source as though this will absolve them of any responsibility for misinforming their readers.

putin-chair

Do armrests make a chair fancy? That’s the only difference between Putin’s chair and the ones being used by the reporters — most of whom have laptops which are easier to use when elbows aren’t hitting armrests. As for Putin’s slouch, granted, he probably does not have every single lower vertebrae thrust hard against the chair’s back, but by that measure, who doesn’t slouch?

How about this president in his fancy chair? He didn’t even manage to put on a neck tie before he met his White House guests:

obama-chair

I’m all in favor of journalists adding narrative color to their reporting, but when it turns out that Putin wasn’t sitting in a fancy chair and he wasn’t slouching, why am I supposed to swallow Ioffe’s emphatic claim: “Putin has lost it”?

Aside from the circumstantial evidence for questioning Putin’s sanity — his posture and his self-aggrandizing chair — the substance of Ioffe’s diagnosis is rendered in her delivery of the Russian president’s rambling statement:

Victor Yanukovich is still the acting president of Ukraine, but he can’t talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president. Ukraine needs elections, but you can’t have elections because there is already a president. And no elections will be valid given that there is terrorism in the streets of Ukraine. And how are you going to let just anyone run for president? What if some nationalist punk just pops out like a jack-in-the-box? An anti-Semite? Look at how peaceful the Crimea is, probably thanks to those guys with guns holding it down. Who are they, by the way? Speaking of instability, did you know that the mayor of Dniepropetrovsk is a thief? He cheated “our oligarch, [Chelsea owner Roman] Abramovich” of millions. Just pocketed them! Yanukovich has no political future, I’ve told him that. He didn’t fulfill his obligations as leader of the country. I’ve told him that. Mr. Putin, what mistakes did Yanukovich make as president? You know, I can’t answer that. Not because I don’t know the answer, but because it just wouldn’t be right of me to say. Did you know they burned someone alive in Kiev? Just like that? Is that what you call a manifestation of democracy? Mr. Putin, what about the snipers in Kiev who were firing on civilians? Who gave them orders to shoot? Those were provocateurs. Didn’t you read the reports? They were open source reports. So I don’t know what happened there. It’s unclear. But did you see the bullets piercing the shields of the Berkut [special police]. That was obvious. As for who gave the order to shoot, I don’t know. Yanukovich didn’t give that order. He told me. I only know what Yanukovich told me. And I told him, don’t do it. You’ll bring chaos to your city. And he did it, and they toppled him. Look at that bacchanalia. The American political technologists they did their work well. And this isn’t the first time they’ve done this in Ukraine, no. Sometimes, I get the feeling that these people…these people in America. They are sitting there, in their laboratory, and doing experiments, like on rats. You’re not listening to me. I’ve already said, that yesterday, I met with three colleagues. Colleagues, you’re not listening. It’s not that Yanukovich said he’s not going to sign the agreement with Europe. What he said was that, based on the content of the agreement, having examined it, he did not like it. We have problems. We have a lot of problems in Russia. But they’re not as bad as in Ukraine. The Secretary of State. Well. The Secretary of State is not the ultimate authority, is he?

And so on, for about an hour. And much of that, by the way, is direct quotes.

Now compare this with an actual translated transcript of what Putin said: [Read more...]

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Pierre Omidyar’s role at First Look Media

Following a report on Pierre Omidyar’s involvement in Ukrainian politics, Glenn Greenwald felt obliged to explain why he knew nothing about this.

That’s because, prior to creating The Intercept with Laura Poitras and Jermey Scahill, I did not research Omidyar’s political views or donations. That’s because his political views and donations are of no special interest to me – any more than I cared about the political views of the family that owns and funds Salon (about which I know literally nothing, despite having worked there for almost 6 years), or any more than I cared about the political views of those who control the Guardian Trust.

There’s a very simple reason for that: they have no effect whatsoever on my journalism or the journalism of The Intercept. That’s because we are guaranteed full editorial freedom and journalistic independence. The Omidyar Network’s political views or activities – or those of anyone else – have no effect whatsoever on what we report, how we report it, or what we say.

I’m having a hard time squaring Greenwald’s description of the editorial independence of The Intercept with the following statements made by his colleague there, Jeremy Scahill, as reported by the Daily Beast:

The whole venture will have a lower wall between owner and journalist than traditional media. Omidyar, he says, wanted to do the project because he was interested in Fourth Amendment issues, and they are hiring teams of lawyers, not just to keep the staff from getting sued, but to actively push courts on the First Amendment, to “force confrontation with the state on these issues.”

“[Omidyar] strikes me as always sort of political, but I think that the NSA story and the expanding wars put politics for him into a much more prominent place in his existence. This is not a side project that he is doing. Pierre writes more on our internal messaging than anyone else. And he is not micromanaging. This guy has a vision. And his vision is to confront what he sees as an assault on the privacy of Americans.”

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If native advertising is so harmless, why does it rely on misleading readers?

o13-iconBob Garfield writes: The devil walks into a bar and sits at a table with eight newspaper and magazine publishers plus one strange little fellow in shabby, dated robes. The devil says, “How’d you all like to get some advertising revenue at higher rates than what you’ve been fetching for the past five or six years?”

The publishers crowd in to hear to his offer. All they need do in exchange is make the advertising look similar to the surrounding editorial matter. “Can we label it as advertising?” one publisher asks.
“You can label it ‘sponsored content,’” the devil replies.
“And it will be worthy?” chimes in another publisher.
“Oh yes,” says the devil. “My clients don’t benefit if people don’t read the stuff.”
“But won’t this confuse our readers,” ventures another publisher, “and even deceive them into reading brand propaganda when they’re expecting arms-length journalism?”

The devil has an answer for that, too. “I repeat: the rates are higher than for the regular display ads that nobody ever looks at. What say we put this to a vote?”

One by one the publishers raise their hands. The Economist. Forbes. The Atlantic. The Huffington Post. The Washington Post. Time Inc. The New York Times. And, most recently, Yahoo. Nine people sit at the table, and eight hands eventually are raised. Only one, the strange fellow with the odd garments and a thick German accent, fails to accept the devil’s offer.

“And you, sir,” says the prince of darkness. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Faust,” answers the holdout.
“And may I ask why you did not accept my bargain, Mr Faust?”
The odd fellow nods. “Sure,” he says to the devil. “To tell you the truth, I don’t see much of an upside.” [Continue reading...]

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If it’s reported by Bild, is it worth repeating?

Reuters has a report which is really a repeat, which is to say, it elevates to the status of “news,” an item in the Sunday edition of Germany’s Bild — a newspaper which is not renowned for the quality of its reporting.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has stepped up its surveillance of senior German government officials since being ordered by Barack Obama to halt its spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday.

Revelations last year about mass U.S. surveillance in Germany, in particular of Merkel’s mobile phone, shocked Germans and sparked the most serious dispute between the transatlantic allies in a decade.

Bild am Sonntag said its information stemmed from a high-ranking NSA employee in Germany and that those being spied on included Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a close confidant of Merkel.

“We have had the order not to miss out on any information now that we are no longer able to monitor the chancellor’s communication directly,” it quoted the NSA employee as saying.

This is silly.

Firstly, how likely is it that a “high-ranking NSA employee in Germany” is going to talk to Bild? Not likely.

Secondly, how likely is it that surveillance of Angela Merkel’s phone was occurring in isolation and thus, having been curtailed, now needs to be supplemented by broader surveillance?

Assuming that the NSA’s bugging efforts are designed for gathering intelligence as opposed to irritating the people being bugged, it’s hard to imagine that an interest in Merkel’s communications would overshadow an interest in the communications of the officials who brief her. Indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that an intelligence agency conducting surveillance on any head of state will actually be more interested in the communications going on around that individual than those that directly involve the individual her or himself. That being the case, what the NSA is doing in Germany now is probably very close to what it was doing before — except they are now more nervous about getting caught.

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Egypt’s crackdown on journalism

a13-iconThe New York Times reports: The three men, wearing white prison scrubs in metal cages reserved for criminal suspects, listened to the list of explosive charges accusing them of aiding a plot to undermine Egypt’s national security.

They had links to terrorists, the prosecutors contended, and before their court appearance on Thursday, the men were detained for weeks among prisoners whom the government considers its most dangerous opponents. The charges could bring up to 15 years in prison.

But the three suspects are all seasoned journalists. Their crime was filing news reports for their employer, Al Jazeera English, before state security officers came to the hotel suite they used as a makeshift studio in December, ultimately rounding them up and throwing them in jail.

The charges against the men, branded the “the Marriott cell” by government-friendly news outlets, are the most serious against journalists here in recent memory, rights groups say, part of a widening crackdown by Egypt’s military-backed government that has ensnared scores of reporters, as well as filmmakers, bloggers and academics.

What began months ago with mass arrests and repression of the government’s opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood has steadily broadened into a campaign against perceived critics of all stripes. In all, thousands of people — mostly Islamists, but also some of the best-known activists from the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — have been put in jail, many of them still awaiting trial. [Continue reading...]

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Do not go gentle into that good night

o13-iconDavid Shipler writes: The phone at Ed Walsh’s Jerusalem home rang during a small dinner party one evening in the early 1980s. He was the Washington Post’s bureau chief, but the call was for me. In those pre-cell phone days, I made it a practice to let the New York Times Foreign Desk know where I’d be and how to reach me.

Ed said I could take it in his office, which was near enough to the dining room that the guests could hear my end of the conversation. An editor in New York wanted me to expand on a short piece I’d done on a small and insignificant event. They were considering it for the front page.

No, I said, please don’t. It will send readers the wrong message. It will inflate the importance of a minor incident. I no longer remember exactly what it was: perhaps a cabinet minister threatening to resign from the governing coalition, which always got New York excited although it was the Israelis’ routine method of conducting politics. Or, it might have been the time when a couple of Palestinian would-be terrorists crossed the well-patrolled border from Jordan into the West Bank, prompting a manhunt by the Israeli army, which caught them before they launched an attack. In any case, it needed to be reported but certainly didn’t rise to the level of major news, and I managed to talk the editor down from the height of what would have been embarrassing hype.

I returned to the table to see quizzical looks from a couple who were not journalists. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was for Ed, and we could hear him in the same conversation, working to dissuade his editor in Washington from overplaying the story. When he came back, one of the non-journalists laughed in amazement: I thought you guys were always pushing to get ONTO page one, and here you were trying to stay OFF!

Ed and I had violated the stereotypes of the hard-bitten newsroom in The Front Page, and we joked about that evening for years afterwards. I guess we tried to explain to the bemused guests that it was not the first time that Washington and New York had exaggerated the gravity of developments in Israel, that we thought our responsibility as correspondents included perspective and sober judgment. Ed must have given his crooked smile and a twinkle of irreverence for those in power, as he did wherever he encountered them–whether among politicians or editors.

Ed died on Valentine’s Day. I find myself wondering if his breed of reporter is dying too. The pressures in this age of cable and Internet and gotcha journalism work against the lower key. They promote self-promotion. They induce hype. And they distort reality as a result. [Continue reading...]

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How to ‘obtain’ a memo from the NSA

Obtain: to get something that you want, especially through your own effort, skill, or work

e13-iconMichael Isikoff reports: A civilian NSA employee recently resigned after being stripped of his security clearance for allowing former agency contractor Edward Snowden to use his personal log-in credentials to access classified information, according to an agency memo obtained by NBC News.

In addition, an active duty member of the U.S. military and a contractor have been barred from accessing National Security Agency facilities after they were “implicated” in actions that may have aided Snowden, the memo states. Their status is now being reviewed by their employers, the memo says.

The Feb. 10 memo, sent to congressional intelligence and judiciary committees this week, provides the first official account of a sweeping NSA internal inquiry aimed at identifying intelligence officials and contractors who may been responsible for one of the biggest security breaches in U.S. history. The memo is unclassified but labeled “for official use only.”

While the memo’s account is sketchy, it suggests that, contrary to Snowden’s statements, he used an element of trickery to retrieve his trove of tens of thousands of classified documents: “At Snowden’s request,” the civilian NSA employee, who is not identified by name, entered his password onto Snowden’s computer terminal, the memo states.

When an investigative journalists writes that he has “obtained” a memo from the NSA, it might seem that the publication of the memo is the fruit of the labor of investigation. Obtain connotes, he got his hands on it, rather than, it fell into his lap.

In the case of Michael Isikoff and the NSA memo he obtained, how much effort did that require?

I don’t know, but I doubt it involved much more effort than is required to open an email from a Congressional staffer with a subject line like “Must-read document.”

Maybe it didn’t come by email. Maybe it was delivered by hand. Either way, my guess is that more effort was being made by the sender than the receiver. Indeed, in this case I wouldn’t put it past the sender to have volunteered a loaded term like “trickery” in an unspoken quid pro quo along the lines that a journalist lucky enough to be selected to receive such a gift should show his gratitude by framing his report in terms that would please the source.

As with so many news reports, assessing its significance requires more than reviewing its content. It requires that we understand how it came to be published.

Isikoff is in this respect no different from any other reporter: he reveals nothing about his own investigative process.

What he does is advance a narrative that the NSA have been pushing from day one: that Snowden should not be seen as a whistleblower; he should be treated as a thief.

Yet the NSA, like every other intelligence agency, is not run by professional truth-tellers. From their perspective, Snowden represents a multifaceted problem and one element of the solution they are pursuing is character assassination.

Snowden has not faced questioning under oath in Congress, but so far — unlike Keith Alexander and James Clapper — nothing he has said has been demonstrated to be a bald-faced lie.

The New York Times notes that another feature of the memo is that it appears designed to lay to rest any expectation of high-level accountability:

The letter, first reported by NBC News, was intended to answer congressional queries about who, beyond Mr. Snowden himself, would be held accountable for the security lapses that led to his disclosures. The answer appeared to suggest that no senior officials of the N.S.A. or its oversight organization, the office of the director of national intelligence, will be disciplined or fired for what officials have called the largest and most damaging disclosure of classified material in American history.

The director of the N.S.A., Gen. Keith B. Alexander, is retiring next month after serving far longer than his predecessors. The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who has also been a focus of criticism for failing to police the speed at which security upgrades have been conducted throughout the intelligence community, remains in office.

Both men, and their wives, were guests at the state dinner on Tuesday night for France’s president, François Hollande, which was widely interpreted as an indication they remained in good stead at the White House.

Like Isikoff, the Times reporter, David Sanger, appears to be carrying water for the NSA when he claims that the question — “did [Snowden] have the help of a foreign intelligence service?” — is “reverberating around the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department”.

While those reverberations are apparently audible to Sanger, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein has heard nothing.

Finally, one question that neither of the reporters address is whether it would be unusual for NSA employees or contractors to provide a systems administrator with their passwords. Even though, for obvious reasons, that practice can be described as a security lapse, it might also have been commonplace.

If that’s the case, then the individual referred to in the NSA who resigned, may now justifiably feel like the fall guy.

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Truth in journalism

In a report exemplifying the kind of journalism-as-stenography in which David Sanger specializes, comes this observation about the pressures under which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper now operates — thanks to Edward Snowden:

The continuing revelations have posed a particular challenge to Mr. Clapper, a retired Air Force general and longtime intelligence expert, who has made no secret of his dislike for testifying in public. Critics have charged that he deliberately misled Congress and the public last year when asked if the intelligence agencies collected information on domestic communications. He was forced by the Snowden revelations to correct his statements, and he has been somewhat more careful in his testimony.

“Critics have charged” that Clapper perjured himself in Congress, but as studiously impartial journalists, Sanger (and his colleague Eric Schmitt) are incapable of making any determination on that matter.

This is really pseudo-impartiality since by avoiding using the word lied and framing this as a “charge” from “critics” the reporters are insinuating that Clapper might have merely made a mistake. Indeed, to say that he has since been more “careful” in his testimony suggests that his earlier statements were careless.

Seven members of Congress who in December called for a Justice Department investigation of Clapper, were not suffering from the same affliction which makes Times reporters mealy-mouthed so often. They called Clapper’s words by their real name: a willful lie.

Director Clapper has served his country with distinction, and we have no doubt he believed he was acting in its best interest. Nevertheless, the law is clear. He was asked a question and he was obligated to answer it truthfully. He could have declined to answer. He could have offered to answer in a classified setting. He could have corrected himself immediately following the hearing. He did none of these things despite advance warning that the question was coming.

The country’s interests are best served when its leaders deal truthfully with its citizens. The mutual sense of good faith it fosters permits compromise and concessions in those cases that warrant it. Director Clapper’s willful lie under oath fuels the unhealthy cynicism and distrust that citizens feel toward their government and undermines Congress’s ability to perform its Constitutional function.

There are differences of opinion about the propriety of the NSA’s data collection programs. There can be no disagreement, however, on the basic premise that congressional witnesses must answer truthfully.

A willingness to align oneself with those in positions of power is the explicit price of access for journalists who cherish their ability to communicate with senior officials, yet Jane Mayer describes how little such access can be worth:

Not long after coming to Washington in 1984 to cover the Reagan White House for The Wall Street Journal, I learned that Reagan’s embattled national security adviser was about to resign. I quickly went to see him and asked him about this point-blank, and with warm brown eyes that kind of looked like a trustworthy Labrador retriever, he looked across the desk at me and told me that he had absolutely no plans to resign.

I may be telescoping this in memory, but as I remember it, the very next day after I had shelved my story, they announced his resignation and I was stunned. Government officials lie. They lie to reporters boldly and straight-faced. It taught me that access is overrated. Never forget that the relationship between reporters and the subjects in power that we cover is, by necessity, one that is adversarial and sometimes full of distrust and opposition.

True. But I would argue that whether a journalist is aligned or in an adversarial relationship with power is an issue that can itself become a distraction.

What counts more than anything is a commitment to truth.

Such a commitment neither presupposes a trust or distrust of power. It is not in awe of power either positively or negatively. It recognizes that those perceived as the most important people in this world are never as grand as the positions they occupy.

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Why this climate scientist’s libel case matters

a13-iconUnion of Concerned Scientists: Back in 2012, after the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review each published pieces that likened climate scientist Michael E. Mann to a child molester and called his work a fraud, Mann fought back with a lawsuit, charging them with libel. Now, in a preliminary ruling, a Superior Court Judge has sided with Mann, paving the way for the case to move forward and potentially setting an important precedent about the limits of disinformation.

The ruling, in essence, reinforces the wise adage attributed to former New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan that, while everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, we are not each entitled to our own facts. But first, some background.

Michael Mann, a world-renowned climate scientist at Penn State University, is perhaps best known as the author of the so-called “Hockey Stick” graph. Some 15 years ago, in 1999, Mann and two colleagues published data they had compiled from tree rings, coral growth bands and ice cores, as well as more recent temperature measurements, to chart 1,000 years’ worth of climate data. The resulting graph of their findings showed relatively stable global temperatures followed by a steep warming trend beginning in the 1900s. One of Mann’s colleagues gave it the nickname because the graph looks something like a hockey stick lying on its side with the upturned blade representing the sharp, comparatively recent temperature increase. It quickly became one of the most famous, easy-to-grasp representations of the reality of global warming.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change featured Mann’s work, among similar studies, in their pathbreaking 2001 report, concluding that temperature increases in the 20th century were likely to have been “the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years.” But while Mann’s peer-reviewed research pointed clearly to a human role in global warming, it also made Mann a lightning rod for attacks from those, including many in the fossil fuel industry, who sought to deny the reality of global warming. [Continue reading...]

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How much will Glenn Greenwald shape the future of First Look Media?

o13-iconLloyd Grove writes: [S]ince last fall the pugnacious Greenwald — constantly making television appearance by satellite from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he lives with his domestic partner, David Miranda — has seemed to be the camera-ready face of First Look Media. [Editorial strategist Eric] Bates, however, said that’s all wrong.

“I think the way the news of the founding of it got leaked led to that misperception, because every time you saw the initial headlines for months, it was a ‘Glenn Greenwald-led organization funded by Pierre Omidyar,’ as if Pierre was simply writing the checks,” Bates told me. “And I think we’ve done a better job of making it clear that’s just not the case… Our ambitions and aspirations are much broader.” Indeed, Bates described the $250 million being spent by the press-shy Omidyar — whose personal fortune is estimated at $9 billion — as an “initial” investment.

But the question is: how much top-flight talent can they recruit if Greenwald remains the organization’s apparent front man?

Greenwald and Scahill, especially, have positioned themselves as fearless warriors against “modern establishment journalism” as practiced by mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times and NBC News (on which Greenwald engaged in a memorable brawl over Snowden with Meet The Press host David Gregory).

At last summer’s 2013 Socialism Conference in Chicago, Scahill spoke of “lapdog stenographers posing as journalists,” prompting cheers from the audience, and Greenwald inveighed against “the corruption of American journalism,” “actors who play the role of journalists on TV,” and even former Times executive editor Bill Keller, who “defines good journalism by how much you please the people in power you’re covering.”

That would have come as news to Keller. who in a December 2005 showdown at the Oval Office defied President Bush and his demand that the Times not publish an exposé of the NSA’s warrantless electronic eavesdropping program targeting people inside the United States. The story — by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau — earned Keller the Bush White House sobriquet of “traitor” and was a worthy predecessor to Greenwald’s NSA/Snowden scoops last June in The Guardian, for which Greenwald and Poitras are on the short list for a prestigious George Polk Award.

Some mainstream journalists who would otherwise be logical recruits to work on national security issues with Greenwald & Co. — such as the Times’s Risen, who didn’t respond to my voicemail message, or The New Yorker’s Amy Davison and The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman, who declined to comment for this story — haven’t signed on with First Look, at least not so far. Perhaps they’re loath to identify themselves with a worldview that leaves so little room for nuance. [Continue reading...]

Let’s suspend the question about the definition of “top-flight talent.” What will be much more significant is whether Greenwald’s presence has the effect of producing a lack of editorial diversity.

In its mission statement, The Intercept says: “The editorial independence of our journalists will be guaranteed.” Take it as given that this means independence from the usual suspects — big government, the national security state, and the corporate media — but how much independence will these journalists have from each other?

There don’t need to be any editorial litmus tests applied in the hiring process to still end up with the same result: group think, or a tendency moving in that direction, that is simply the effect of like attracting like.

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Is Syria becoming this generation’s equivalent of the Spanish Civil War?

NewsIn the 1930s, the war against fascism attracted the support of 35,000 foreign fighters who traveled to Spain from as many as 53 nations to join the International Brigades.

In the U.S. media, the foreigners drawn to Syria are generally branded as jihadists or terrorists and their motives assumed to be extreme or fanatical. That for many of them their motives might be comprehensible to others who are not Muslim, seems to require a leap of imagination outside the reach of Washington, the press or most news consumers on this side of the Atlantic.

Channel 4 News in the UK, however, has the editorial gumption to frame the following report in a way that none of their American counterparts would dare:

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A Canadian journalist is in an Egyptian jail and nobody seems to care

NewsVice reports: If there’s anything that usually galvanizes journalists, it’s the mistreatment of one of their own. But more than a month after an Al Jazeera journalist was arrested in Egypt for “broadcasting false news,” most Canadians are probably still unaware of Mohamed Fahmy’s case.

Fahmy was the acting Cairo bureau chief when he was arrested Dec. 29 along with Australian correspondent Peter Greste and producer Bader Mohammed. Egyptian by birth, Fahmy was raised in Montreal, has previously worked for the New York Times and CNN and is, by any definition, a respected mainstream journalist, not some ink-stained pamphleteer looking for trouble.

So far, neither Prime Minister Stephen Harper nor Foreign Minister John Baird have said a word about the Canadian citizen currently being held in deplorable conditions abroad. Even journalists have largely ignored the case, with only a handful of reports written about Fahmy in the first weeks of his imprisonment.

Prosecutors have yet to formally lay charges against the three journalists and on Jan. 22 their detention was extended by 15 days, which Fahmy’s family says has left them feeling helpless.

“We have contacted the Canadian government and pressured them to take action, hired one of the best lawyers in town, reached out to the media, reached out to the human rights groups, contacted friends working with the Egyptian authorities, etc,” Mohamed’s brother Sherif wrote in an email to me on Monday. “After all this we are back to square one again.” [Continue reading...]

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Has the digital medium become the message?

David Carr writes about Ezra Klein’s departure from the Washington Post. Klein, the Post’s highest profile blogger, is “going to Vox Media, the online home of SB Nation, a sports site, and The Verge, a fast-growing technology site.”

In making the switch, Mr. Klein is part of a movement of big-name journalists who are migrating from newspaper companies to digital start-ups. Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher left Dow Jones to form Re/code with NBC. David Pogue left The New York Times for Yahoo and Nate Silver for ESPN. At the same time, independent news sites like Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Vox have all received abundant new funding, while traffic on viral sites like Upworthy and ViralNova has exploded.

All the frothy news has led to speculation that a bubble is forming in the content business, but something more real is underway. I was part of the first bubble as a journalist at Inside.com in 2001 — an idea a decade ahead of its time — and this feels very different.

The web was more like a set of tin cans and a thin wire back then, so news media upstarts had trouble being heard. With high broadband penetration, the web has become a fully realized consumer medium where pages load in a flash and video plays without stuttering. With those pipes now built, we are in a time very similar to the early 1980s, when big cities were finally wired for cable. What followed was an explosion of new channels, many of which have become big businesses today.

The same holds true for digital. Organizations like BuzzFeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post, Vice and Vox, which have huge traffic but are still relatively small in terms of profit, will eventually mature into the legacy media of tomorrow.

More and more, it’s becoming apparent that digital publishing is its own thing, not an additional platform for established news companies. They can buy their way into it, but their historical advantages are often offset by legacy costs and bureaucracy.

In digital media, technology is not a wingman, it is The Man. Kenneth Lerer, manager of Lerer Ventures and one of the backers of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, says that whenever he is pitched an editorial idea, he always asks who the technology partner is. How something is made and published is often as important as what is made.

Carr declares: “Great digital journalists consume and produce content at the same time, constantly publishing what they are reading and hearing.”

That’s true if “great” means popular and fast.

But speed is the fetish of the digital religion and there’s no merit in being able to get everything fast if the price is that it becomes stripped of value.

The commercial success of digital journalism may well depend on the creation junk media that’s just as palatable as junk food — cheap, fast, and with little nutritional value. But maybe what we really need is something less tailored to mass appeal — a counterpart to the slow food movement, where content is carefully prepared, chewed slowly, digested well, and less inclined to cause heartburn.

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The kidnapping of journalists — further evidence of collusion between Assad and al Qaeda?

It would appear that whoever is behind the kidnapping of journalists in Syria doesn’t welcome the press coverage they’ve been getting during the conflict. It’s reasonable to assume that there is some kind of underlying rationale. So given that ISIS is generally believed to be the prime culprit, one has to ask: how does this benefit the al Qaeda group?

After all, for members of al Qaeda in Syria or anywhere else there’s little if any friendly press coverage. Likewise, most of the coverage ISIS gets tends to inflate perceptions of the group’s power, so in a sense all coverage, however grizzly, can be seen to serve the group’s interests.

The overall impact of the spate of kidnappings has been to greatly diminish the number of foreign journalists willing to enter Syria and to amplify the international perception of rebel-controlled Syria as a lawless and hostile environment. Who benefits from both of these factors? The Assad regime. Yet if the regime was believed to have a direct role in the kidnappings, this would seriously undermine the PR campaign that it has been waging with increasing success on the international stage. Much better to outsource the task to a group that has no image to protect.

Press Freedom Now: Syria is currently the most dangerous country for journalists. In fact, all of us at Press Freedom Now have never seen anything like it and have never had so many colleagues go missing before.

For those of us who have worked in Syria, this conflict zone makes previous experiences covering conflict look a bit like walks in the park. At least 30 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria or disappeared since the start of the conflict in 2011.

Early in the Syrian Civil War it appeared that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the kidnappings of journalists. In recent months however, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has risen in prominence in Syria, it has become clear that ISIS is responsible for most kidnappings of journalists.[Continue reading...]

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