Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Winners & Sinners



Winners:   Neal Desai, Andre Pineda, Majken Runquist, Mark Fusunyan, Katy Glenn, Gabrielle Gould, Michelle Katz, Henry Lichtblau, Maggie Morgan, Sophia Wen and Sandy Wong, for authoring the most important journalistic study of the decade  for Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.  These Harvard students demonstrated that from 1930 to 2004, the leading American newspapers which had written about waterboarding “almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied that it was torture…By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterbaording as torture.  The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied that it was torture in just 2 of 143 [news] articles.  The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8 percent of articles…The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles…USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.”

    What was the only significant difference between the period before 2004 and after 2004?   In the earlier period, none of the countries torturing people this way was the United States.

    Responding to the study’s criticism,

Sinner Bill Keller clearly implied  that the failure of the Times to call torture by its proper name was a result of the assertions of  “senior officials of the Bush administration,” that waterboarding did not constitute torture. 

    Then the executive editor of the Times displayed a complete misunderstanding of what his newspaper had actually done:  “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading the Times’s coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”

    What Keller neglected to point out is, not “using a word” also “amounts to taking sides in a political dispute”–and the only reason the Times changed a seventy-year old practice of accurately describing waterboarding as the torture which it is, was the stream of lies coming from George Bush and his aides on this subject.

   The Times standards editor, Phil Corbett, wrote, “In general, when writing about disputed, contentious and politically loaded topics, we try to be precise, accurate and as neutral as possible; factual descriptions are often better than shorthand labels”–and that, of course,  is exactly what the newspaper failed to do.  The only precise and accurate term for waterboarding is torture.   The only reason the Bush administration perpetuated the lie that it wasn’t was its eagerness to avoid prosecution for engaging in a practice which is a war crime.   And by fulsomely accomodating the administration’s lie, the Times made a significant contribution to the success of that strategy.

   In a particularly pathetic column last year,  former Times public editor Clark Hoyt endorsed the decision of the news department to parrot the Bush administration’s lies.

   The only part of the Times which retained its honor on this subject was the editorial page, which routinely calls waterboarding torture–without ever putting the word inside quotation marks.

    As the great Scott Horton pointed out a couple of years ago,

As I discovered in studying the paper’s reporting over a period of year, when a neighbor plays his stereo too loudly in the apartment next door, that is “torture.” But when a man is stripped of his clothing, chained to the floor in a short-shackle position, subjected to sleep deprivation and alternating cold and heat, and left to writhe in his own feces and urine—that, in the world of the Times, is just an “enhanced interrogation technique.”

Winner: Rick Anderson, for a brilliant 4,000 word investigative piece
 in the Seattle Weekly about the multiple (and often illegal) efforts of a wide variety of government agencies to place spies among protesters all across America.

Sinner: Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, for printing yet another fact-free op-ed piece, this one by Mitt Romney, explaining the “reasons” why President Obama’s new START Treaty with Russia “could be his worst foreign policy mistake yet.”   The column was so full of misleading statements and outright falsehoods that

Winner  Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took the highly unusual step of issuing a point-by-point rebuttal of Romney’s drivel.  Excerpts:

*   Governor Mitt Romney’s hyperbolic attack on the New START Treaty in the July 6 edition of The Washington Post repeats discredited objections and appears unaware of arms control history and context.

* He cites non-binding preambular language that requires no restriction on missile defense and cannot be used to enforce an obligation under the Treaty. He also complains about a prohibition on converting ICBM silos to missile defense purposes, but fails to acknowledge that such a conversion is not part of our plans. Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, testified that converting silos would be “a major setback to the development of our missile defenses” given the high cost of redesigning existing interceptors and associated systems.

* Governor Romney offers additional treaty misreadings and myths that have been refuted explicitly in Congressional hearings. The Bilateral Consultative Commission has no power to “amend the treaty with specific reference to missile defense,” as he contends. In fact, the Commission cannot change anything in the treaty text or make changes that “affect substantive rights or obligations under this Treaty.”

* Rejecting the Treaty would guarantee that no agreement on tactical nukes would occur. It also would mean giving up our human verification presence in Russia that has contributed greatly to strategic stability under the expired START I Treaty. Having inspectors on the ground in Russia has meant that we have not had to wonder about the make-up of Russian strategic forces. New START would strengthen our non-proliferation diplomacy worldwide, limit potential arms competition, and help us focus our defense resources effectively.

Winners: T. Christian Miller and Daniel Zwerdling  for an in-depth investigation on NPR of the difficulties soldiers have encountered in obtaining proper treatment for traumatic brain injuries.  The story, a joint effort with ProPublica, may have contributed to the decision by Veterans Secretary Eric K. Shinseki
reported by the Times this week
, “that will make it substantially easier for veterans who have been found to have post-traumatic stress disorder to receive disability benefits, a change that could affect hundreds of thousands of veterans from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.”

Sinner: Diane Sawyer, for suggesting the most offensive survey on any non-Fox television network in memory:

We want to know what you think: “Should Moslems be allowed to build their mosques in neighborhoods of their chosing?”

Which naturally prompted
Winner Jon Stewart to add

And coming up next, should Puerto Ricans be allowed to lower your property values?
Should the Irish be allowed to vote?  I’m Diane Sawyer, ABC News, we’ll be right back.

Winner: Patrck Arden, for a superb investigation in Next American City magazine of the growing disparities between publicly- and privately financed parks in New York City.
Arden’s bottom line:

Public-private partnerships are widely touted as the new model for cities to build and maintain parkland, but they’re old news in New York. The Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980, has inspired similar groups in cities from Atlanta to San Francisco. Yet even in a time of leaner government budgets, a cautionary tale can be found in New York’s 36-year experience of putting public parks into private hands. The city says private investment allows it to target limited taxpayer resources to the parks most in need, creating what parks commissioner Adrian Benepe has repeatedly hailed as a “Golden Age for Parks.” But others see a Gilded Age instead, an echo of Conkling’s era in the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with wide — and growing — disparities between lavish, showplace parks for the haves and cast-off parcels for the have-nots. For every Madison Square, Bryant Park or High Line, there are hundreds of parks that depend solely on the city, and many suffer from scandalous neglect.

Sinner: CNN, for bowing to another outrageous right-wing campaign to fire its Middle East editor, Octavia Nasr, after she posted a note on Twitter expressing admiration for Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlalla.  As Nasr subsequently explained on her own blog,

It was an error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment and I’m sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah’s life’s work. That’s not the case at all.

Here’s what I should have conveyed more fully:

I used the words “respect” and “sad” because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of “honor killing.” He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam…

The far greater error in judgement:  CNN’s decision to fire her.




Hastings v. the MSM

    Above the Fold

    Was Michael Hastings’ superb piece about General Stanley McChrystal an indictment of the way the mainstream media had covered the general before that?

    This could only be treated as a serious question by the many sages living inside the beltway.  To every serious person living everywhere else, the answer was stunningly obvious: Hastings hadn’t indicted his MSM colleagues–he had humiliated them.

    As FCP first pointed out last October, virtually every profile of McChrystal had either sharply downplayed the defects in his CV or ignored them altogether, including the general’s central role in the cover up of the killing of former football star Pat Tillman by friendly fire.

    Asked about this by the Senate Armed Services Committee, McChrystal said that those involved with the Tillman cover-up “just didn’t line things up right,” adding that “it was not intentional…I didn’t see any activities by anyone to deceive.” 

    Pat Tillman’s father violently disagreed:

    The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military’s claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up “facts” and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army’s reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son’s] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful – conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.  I have absolute respect and admiration for Army Rangers acting as such. As to their superior officers, the West Point-Army honor code is: ‘I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those that do.’ They should reissue the booklet.

    Then there was the problem of the involvement of McChrystal’s troops in torture on a base outside Baghdad, which was festooned with signs reading  reading “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL,” which the Times reported were supposed to mean, “If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it”–and where officers routinely wore no nameplates, just in case some over-zealous prosecutor tried to identify them later on.

    But when McChrystal was chosen to be the new commander in Afghanistan, the Times ran a worshipful profile of him, describing the Tillman incident as “one blot on his otherwise impressive military record”–and then made no mention at all of the involvement of McChrystal’s men in torture.

    On the other hand, it did quote a retired general who said that the new commander was “lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier” who has “all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.”

    Subsequently, the normally excellent Dexter Filkins did another puff piece  about the general in The New York Times Magazine, in which he so sharply downplayed the Tillman incident and the involvement of the general’s troops in torture that FCP wrote him a lengthy e-mail querying him about all the things he had left out of his article to make the General look better.

    Filkins never replied.

    And just two weeks after that, David Martin did a 12 minute and 43 second profile of the general for 60 Minutes, which did not include a single sentence of criticism–much less a mention of Tillman or torture.  Martin did, however, make these hard-hitting observations:

* In another life he could have been a monk.

* It’s hard to keep pace with McChrystal as he races through his marathon days.

* He is perhaps this country’s most battle-hardened general and a one-of-a-kind commander.

    The problem is that nearly all of these pieces are written by reporters on the Pentagon beat, who know from experience that anything resembling a tough article can make it a great deal more difficult for them to do their job in the future, if their Pentagon sources decide to stop talking to them.

    David Martin is a parody of this problem. According to his official CBS biography, Martin has been covering “defense and intelligence matters” continuously for thirty-three years–first for Newsweek and then, for the last twenty-seven years, for CBS News.

    Is it possible for a reporter on the same beat for more than three decades to remain tough or even objective about the people he is supposed to be covering?

    No, it is not.

    But the mindset of Martin and his fellow Washington reporters was captured perfectly by the truly outlandish comments of his CBS colleague, Lara Logan, and Howard Kurtz, on CNN’s Reliable Sources last Sunday.

    First Kurtz peppered Michael Hastings with brilliant queries like this one:

   “When you are there that much, you don’t think it’s likely that McChrystal and his team assume that some of their joking, that some of their banter would be treated by you as off the record?”

    To which Hastings quite logically replied,

   “It’s not much of a mystery.  If someone tells you something is off the record, I don’t print it.  If they don’t tell me something is on  the record, then it’s fair game.”   

    Hastings added that McChrystal had been “the subject of a series of glowing profiles… And that was a game that General McChrystal’s team played very well, that if you write us a good story, we’ll give you good access.”

    Then Kurtz sat down with Lara Logan to explain how real Washington reporters conduct their craft:

Kurtz: When you are out with the troops and you’re living together and sleeping together, is there an unspoken agreement –

Logan: Absolutely.

Kurtz: – that you’re not going to embarrass them by reporting insults and banter?

Logan: Yes.

    Logan then proceeded to say that she was shocked–shocked!–that Hastings had engaged in the most fundamental part of a reporter’s craft: trying to ingratiate himself so that his subject might let his guard down and actually say something interesting or newsworthy:

    And what I find is the most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said in your interview is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and, you know, he’s laid out there what his game is. That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do.

    That may be the most idiotic comment about journalism FCP has ever heard. Matt Taibbi felt exactly the same way: read his tirade against Logan and Kurtz here.

    Kurtz, of course, has for many years been the most corrupt reporter in Washginton, covering the press for The Washington Post, and simultaneously collecting a hefty paycheck from Time-Warner, the owner of a large chunk of his beat.  As FCP has asked many times before, would The Washington Post allow its Detroit correspondent to be a paid employee of General Motors?

    No, it would not.

    Then there was Martha Raddatz, the pentagon flak who masquerades as a Washington reporter for ABC, who, on the same night the Hastings story broke, composed yet another deep, wet kiss for McChrystal to run on World News.  “Few journalists have watched General McChrystal as closely as you,” Diane Sawyer gushed to Raddatz.

   ““If there is one word used most often to describe General McChrystal it is ‘discipline,’” Raddatz said in her piece.  “So it is baffling that he and his top aides would be so open with Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.” 

 Martha Raddatz offers yet another puff piece of the general 

     Of course it isn’t baffling at all–and it is the one thing about the mainstream media for which Hastings should be genuinely grateful.  It was precisely because the General had successfully seduced everyone from Dexter Filkins to David Martin that it never occurred to him that a reporter might exist who would approach his record differently.

    That’s why it was so easy for Hastings to get him and his aides to say so many indiscreet things about their bosses and their colleagues.

    The great David Brooks predictably longed for the good old days before Watergate, when there was a wonderful “culture of reticence”:

    What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

    But now we have what Brooks identified as “the culture of exposure”:

    By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him. The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

    This, of course, is absolute horseshit. Brooks is conflating the media’s unfortunate obsession with the sex lives of public officials (which FCP also abhors) with a series of comments that represent an unmistakable challenge to civilian control of the military.  So while it is true that there is no hard evidence that all of our best presidents never cheated on their wives, it also true that our democracy depends on the willingness of every president to fire every general who makes the kind of incendiary remarks that McChrystal made.

    Finally, we come to Michael O’Hanlon, the most reliable cheerleader for war in all of the Nation’s Capital–and, together with the president of Afghanistan, and his distinguished brother, one of only three public figures who argued fiercely for keeping McChrystal in his job after his obvious insubordination.

    Writing in the Washington Post, O’Hanlon cleverly recited all of America’s recent failures  in Afghanistan–and then used them, abra kadabra, to show that we’re really winning there!

    This column reinforced O’Hanlon’s claim to becoming the modern version of Jack Crabb, the Indian scout played by Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, Arthur Penn’s iconic anti-war movie of 1970.

    Crabb is determined to see General George Armstrong Custer massacred by the Indians.   So when the general idiotically asks for Crabb’s advice about whether to advance into the gigantic trap the Sioux and the Cheyenne have set for him, Crabb famously advises,

    “You go down there, General!”   

    Then Custer, his two brothers, a nephew and 264 others were massacred by the Indians.

    All those still following O’Hanlon’s advice are guaranteed a comparable outcome.



   Once again, we leave the last word to Jon Stewart, America’s premier press critic: 

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Tom Wallace is Bullish on the Magazine Business

Above the Fold

The next twenty-four months could be the most exciting time in the history of the magazine business.”
                                          –Tom Wallace, Editorial Director, Condé Nast Publications

    FCP sat down for lunch with Tom Wallace this week in the Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria at 4 Times Square, and found himself across from the most upbeat media executive FCP has met in several years.

    The immediate cause for Wallace’s fervor is the new version of Wired magazine. Introduced last month for the iPad, the June issue sold a remarkable 90,000 copies through iTunes, for $4.99 a copy.  With a 70/30 revenue split with Itunes, that meant an immediate jump in circulation revenue for Condé Nast of $314,370.

    And because Condé Nast convinced the Audit Bureau of Circulation to certify its new electronic sales to count the same as its newsstand sales, the new version has more than doubled its newsstand sales overnight–if that electronic sales number holds up.  (Perhaps to help the momentum, the July issue–pictured above–has just gone on sale  for only $3.99.  A CN spokeswoman said “the pricing will continue to evolve and change.”)

    Wallace is hopeful that electronic sales will continue to rise, partly because, while there were two million iPad owners in June, Apple is forecasting there will be ten million by January 1–and some analysts are expecting a total of 60 million tablets from all manufacturers in consumers’ hands by 2015.

    Since there was no discernible decline in Wired’s traditional newsstand sales of roughly 80,000 last month, Wallace believes that virtually all of the iTunes sales were to new customers.  “The cannibalization–if there is any–is not evident,” he said.

    The new version was made possible by a collaboration between Condé Nast and Adobe.  Wired was chosen as the first to use an Adobe platform, partly because its headquarters is two blocks from Adobe’s in California.  “The Adobe people are nice guys, and they’re sensitive to how we work,” said Wallace.  “A couple of their engineers moved into the Wired editorial offices and studied how we make magazines.”

    The Adobe engineers assumed that their main contact would be with the editorial side of the magazine, but Wallace “made it clear from the outset that we wanted this medium to be as friendly and as productive for our advertizing partners as it was for us editorially”–because 80 percent of CN’s revenues are from ads.

    In the new Wired, clicking on an ad leads you to the advertiser’s website–and can also yield the same kind of video or slideshow available on the editorial pages.  Equally exciting for the advertiser: very early data suggests users spend 140 minutes with Wired on an iPad–versus 90 minutes for the printed versions.

    The Adobe platform makes 360-degree imagery possible, so you can take 60 pictures of a single object and view all of them.  And it’s a big step up from the Apple application Condé Nast is using to sell Vanity Fair and GQ on iTunes–both of which have done absolutely nothing to capture the consumer’s imagination.

    Typical iTunes reviews:

    “I love Vanity Fair but this interface is flawed, unintuitive and poorly thought out.”

    “I bought GQ thinking was like the Wired appl, which is great, and this is nothing close.  The layout is just like the paper magazine but in a pdf-like form.  It’s slow!”

    Next up on the Adobe platform: The New Yorker, sometime this fall.

    “We’re feeling good about the future of publishing,” said Wallace, who dealt with the impact of the recession last year by folding Portfolio in April and Gourmet in October.  “The September 2010 issue of Glamour is the largest in twenty-five years, Vogue is up a hundred pages in September from last year, and Vanity Fair is up almost a hundred pages.”

    “The question in everyone’s mind with the economic downturn is how much of this is cyclical, and how much of it is some kind of long-term shift in the media business.  I can’t pretend to know the answer; but in this year so far a fair portion is already showing itself to be merely cyclical.  But we’re not back to the height of 2007.”

    Meanwhile, last week Sports Illustrated released its own highly-hyped iPad app.
Its first issue (also at $4.99) includes a slideshow of photos from the Los Angeles Lakers championship celebration, as well as an eight-minute documentary about a high school baseball team from Macon, Ill.  A single click in many places opens up all of a player’s stats–but only when you have an Internet connection.  Unlike Wired, SI can only be read with wi-fi–partly to reduce the amount of space it takes up on your iPad.

    But while all the big news for the future is digital, last week Rolling Stone proved you can still make big money in the magazine business the old-fashioned way–with a single, blockbuster story.  Michael Hastings’ profile of runaway General Stanley McChrystal  instantly made the venerable magazine the hottest thing on newsstands everywhere.  Even though Rolling Stone almost immediately made the story available online–after Time magazine and Politico had briefly stolen it for their websites–an RS spokesperson told WWD that the new issue had already sold “at least five times the number we normally sell on newsstand, and that’s a conservative estimate.”

    And with average single-copy sales of 104,855, that would mean a whopping 400,000 copy bonus for Jann Wenner from the current double issue–which will be on newsstands for a full month.






The President and his General.

 Above the Fold

Update: Wednesday, 3:30 P.M.:   The president took the necessary step of accepting General McChrystal’s resignation this afternoon, and he did so for exactly the right reason:

    The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general.  It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.  And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

    Go here to read the full text of the President’s remarks this afternoon.

    For the best explanation of why this had to happen, see the great Bob Dallek on the op-ed page of today’s Times  

    For the dumbest of all on-air commentaries last night, see George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s  World News, as he blithely ignores all of the essential constitutional issues and declares, “if the president fires McChrystal, he risks looking thin-skinned and petulant.”

    Equally bad: Martha Raddatz’s wet-kiss profile of the general on the same broadcast–exactly the kind of coverage which allowed McChrystal to be repeatedly promoted, long after he should have been fired–first for tolerating torture by his troops, and then for being at the heart of the cover-up of the killing of Pat Tillman by friendly fire.


From Tuesday….

    The early headlines about Michael Hastings’s superb piece in Rolling Stone  are all about the outright insubordination of General Stanley McChrystal and his staff, who openly belittled the president, the vice president, the American ambassador in Afghanistan, and the president’s special envoy to the region, Dick Holbrooke, during the month they spent in the company of the Rolling Stone reporter.  

    After the details from “The Runaway General” lit up the blogosphere this morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly declined to say that McChrystal is safe in his post.  If Barack Obama genuinely believes in one of the central tenets of American democracy–civilian control of the military–he will fire McChrystal when he shows up at the White House tomorrow to explain himself.

    Here are some of the things McChrystal and his entourage told the Rolling Stone reporter about their civilian bosses and colleagues:

* When he first met Obama, McChrystal thought “he looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass,” and when he met him a second time, a McChrystal aide said the general was again disappointed because “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him.”

* As he was about to deliver a speech at a French military academy, McChrystal and his staff joked about how he might deflect a question about the vice president: “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”

* Like Biden, Karl Eikenberry, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, wisely opposed McChrystal’s demand for a troop surge.  In a leaked telegram to Washington, Eikenberry dismissed Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai as “not an adequate strategic partner,” and warned, “We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves.”  McChrystal told Rolling Stone he felt “betrayed” by the leak, and added, “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ “

* A McChrystal aide called national security advisor Jim Jones “a clown” who remains “stuck in 1985.”

* McChrystal cringed upon receiving another e-mail from Dick Holbrooke, and another military aide quipped, “Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg.”

    Hastings does a fine job of capturing the general’s aura in just a few sentences:

    His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you’ve fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.
    “I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” McChrystal says.
    He pauses a beat.
    “Unfortunately,” he adds, “no one in this room could do it.”

    And this is how he describes McChrystal’s entourage:

    The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts. They jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority.

    Hastings made a  chilling discovery in the archives of a literary magazine at West Point to which McChrystal was a regular contributor.  In a story by the young cadet called  Brinkman’s Note “the unnamed narrator appears to be trying to stop a plot to assassinate the president. It turns out, however, that the narrator himself is the assassin, and he’s able to infiltrate the White House: ‘The President strode in smiling. From the right coat pocket of the raincoat I carried, I slowly drew forth my 32-caliber pistol. In Brinkman’s failure, I had succeeded.’”

    The immediate question today is how McChrystal and his staff could have been so dumb as to be so un-guarded in front of a reporter.   The most Machiavellian explanation is that the general already realizes his mission is doomed, and therefore wants to be fired so that he can go home.

       “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal,  told the Rolling Stone reporter. “This is going to end in an argument.”

    But the guess here is that McChrystal is so used to seducing reporters he never imagined that one might finally come along and tell the truth about him.   In sharp contrast with Dexter Filkins’ squishy-soft profile  of the general in The New York Times Magazine last fall, Michael Hastings does not gloss over any of the details of McChrystal’s central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire, or the multiple abuses committed by his troops at the “Nama” base outside Afghanistan, where they routinely tortured prisoners, and festooned the base with signs reading “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL,” which Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall reported in 2006 “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’” (For more on all of this, see FCP’s McChrystal post from last October.)

    NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski and Richard Engel reported today  that McChrystal may actually have been a victim of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.   Hastings told the NBC men he was supposed to spend just two days with the general in Paris, but then he and his entourage got stranded by the volcano, and they ended up spending ten days with the reporter. “As the ash disrupted air travel, Hastings ended up being ‘stuck’ with McChrystal and his team for 10 days in Paris and Berlin. McChrystal had to get to Berlin by bus. Hastings says McChrystal and his aides were drinking on the road trip ‘the whole way.’”

      But the new article’s details about McChrystal’s shortcomings are not the only reason that it is vastly superior to the piece Filkins wrote last fall.  What is most important about the Rolling Stone article is the convincing evidence it presents of the utter hopelessness of the American effort in Afghanistan.

     Hastings writes that McChrystal’s vaunted new counterinsurgency strategy, know as COIN

    calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve.”

    “The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” said Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

    Although the White House refused to give the general a vote of confidence today, he did receive enthusiastic support from a handful of Afghan “experts.”  A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai told the Associated Press that the Afghan leader thinks McChrystal “is a person of great integrity” and he hopes Obama will not replace him.  

    Karzai’s deeply corrupt half-brother,  Ahmad Wali Karzai, stongly supported the president’s position.  He said McChrystal “is active. He is honest. He does a good job, a lot of positive things have happened since he has come.”

    And then there was this from Michael O’Hanlon, the senior fellow at Brookings who is one of the most craven and most consistent supporters of America’s permanent war.  McChrystal made a big mistake, O’Hanlon told Politico, “but he is a fantastic general, and not only that but a modest man who is respectful of others…We need him, and Ambassador Eikenberry, for this effort, and I am confident knowing both men well that they can put these issues behind them for the greater good.”

    On the other hand, Joe Scarborough–yes, that Joe Scarborough– said, “This general has to be fired, he has to be gone by the end of the day,  Gates and Petraeus have to come out and fire McChrysta.l”

     Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham also failed to support the general.  They called McChrystal’s comments “inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander-in-chief and the military.  The decision concerning Gen. McChrystal’s future is a decision to be made by the president of the United States,” they said.

    Tomorrow we will learn whether the president has the guts to finally get rid of him.


Gulf Lessons

 Above the Fold

 “I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown: in this case, a $20 billion shakedown.”

                                                                             –Congressman Joe Barton, Texas (R)

    Let us now praise Congressman Joe Barton, representative of the 6th District of Texas, and the first Republican with the gumption to declare his supreme devotion to all corporations, foreign and domestic, now doing business in these United States.

    Now it is a fact that big business regularly rents the sentiments of congressional Democrats. But it is also a fact that corporate America owns the Republican party–lock, stock and (oil) barrel.  That was why it was so refreshing to finally hear a Republican publicly declare the love that (normally) dares not speak its name.

    Of course the House Republican leadership was appalled by this dangerous burst of candor, and immediately threatened Barton with the loss of his position as the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee unless he immediately put this corporate cat back  into its bag.

    That was the only reason Barton retracted his remarks in the afternoon, making his previous statement “inoperable,” just the way the Nixon White House regularly did during Watergate, three-and-a-half decades ago.

    Meanwhile, the un-elected Republican establishment left no doubt that Barton’s first statement was the true Republican boilerplate, rather than the retraction that followed.

* Pat Buchanan: “Barton made a very courageous statement in my judgment..To have anyone stand up and even indirectly defend [BP] and say that they were a victim of a shakedown shows some political courage.”

* Laura Ingraham: “I think Joe Barton, before he apologized, had a legitimate point…This administration has taken a very aggressive and strong arm approach to industry across the board.”

* Fox commentator Andrew Napolitano: “That is a classic shakedown. The threat to do something that you do not have the authority to do. ”

* Newt Gingrich: “That a president is directly engaged in extorting money from a company…. What it says to the world is be very careful about investing in the United States because the political class may take the money away from you.”

* The Wall Street Journal editorial page: “Meanwhile, BP’s agreement sets a terrible precedent for the economy and the rule of law, particularly for future industrial accidents or other corporate controversies that capture national outrage. The default position from now on in such cases will be for politicians to demand a similar “trust fund” that politicians or their designees will control.  There was in particular no reason for BP to compound its error and agree to spend another $100 million to compensate the oil workers sidelined by the Administration’s policy choice to impose a drilling moratorium. BP had no liability for these costs, and its concession further separated its compensation from proper legal order.  BP deserves to pay full restitution for the damage it has caused, but it ought to do so via legal means, not under what Texas Republican Joe Barton rightly called the pressure of “a shakedown” yesterday…BP at first sounded arrogant and now is so obsequious it won’t even stand up for its legal rights. “

    In the end, the Journal concluded, “it’s hard to know who is more unlovable, BP or its Washington expropriators.”

    This wonderfully rational notion from Gingrich–that unless the Obama administration stops beating up on the big corporations, they will take all of their marbles away and simply abandon the biggest economy of the world–is exactly what you would expect from the idiot talking heads like Gingrich whom Fox News (and too often, Meet the Press) are so addicted to.

    On the other hand, one doesn’t expect this idea to be embraced by the chief Washington correspondent of the The New York Times.  The week the Obama administration finally responded to the Gulf crisis with an action which was dramatic, substantial, and genuinely great–forcing BP to guarantee that it would pay at least $20 billion to the victims of this catastrophe–Timesman David Sanger offered the very worst kind of  “on the one hand, on the other hand news analysis” –a piece that inexplicably led the newspaper.

    According to Sanger, Barton’s farcical apology (his first one) had given “voice to an alternative narrative, a bubbling certainty in corporate suites that Mr. Obama, whenever faced with crisis that involves private-sector players, reveals himself to be viscerally antibusiness.”  Sanger then followed up with a quote from a former Clinton official about how Obama risked losing the big companies he needed to revive the economy.  This made the “alternative narrative” sound like a serious idea–instead of right-wing Republican claptrap coming mostly from the likes of Gingrich and Ingraham.

    Although Sanger never quoted Gingrich in his story,  the Times reporter ended by echoing him, with this ludicrous conclusion: Obama “will have to avoid painting with such a broad brush that foreign and domestic investors come to view the United States as a too risky place to do business, a country where big mistakes can lead to vilification and, perhaps, bankruptcy.”

    WHEN TEXANS LIKE JOE BARTON DISTINGUISH THEMSELVES BY APOLOGIZING  to a foreign oil company which has just caused the greatest domestic environmental catastrophe of the 21st Century, FCP immediately asks: “What would Molly Ivins say?”–if only she were still with us to comment on the Congressman’s shenanigans.

    Fortunately, Ivins’ clips tell us exactly how she viewed the great Congressman from the 6th District.  Three and a half years ago, Ivins wrote of her delight about the way Congressman Barton was reaching  out to some of his more prosperous constituents:  

    He’s going to spend next weekend aboard a private train with lobbyists who pay $2,000 for the privilege. After a seven-hour run from Fort Worth to San Antonio, there will be cocktails, an evening tour of the Alamo, dinner and breakfast on Sunday.

    The Dallas Morning News reports the invitation reads, “During the ride, we’ll have lots of time to talk, play some Texas Hold ‘Em, and enjoy some great down home Texas food. This is about as good as it gets.”

    It’s the delicatesse of the invite that I appreciate, and I think the price is right, too — only $2K for hours of uninterrupted access to the chairman whose committee has jurisdiction over about half of what Congress does — including oil policy, pro baseball, Medicare and environmental regulation.”

    The year before that, Ivins applauded a

no-cost sweetener to encourage oil and gas companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico – and who needs more encouragement these days than the oil companies? The poor things are making hardly any money at all. Just have the federal government waive the royalty rights for drilling in the publicly owned waters. Turns out this waiver will cost the government at least $7 billion over the next five years.” 

    And who was the prime mover behind this great good government move: Joe Barton, naturellement.

    Ivins wrote,

    I roared with laughter upon reading that Texas Rep. Joe Barton had assured his colleagues the provision of energy bill was “so non-controversial” that senior House and Senate negotiators had not even discussed it. That’s one of the oldest ploys in the Texas handbook of sneaky tricks and has been successfully used to pass many a sweet deal for the oil industry.

   “The big lie about this whole program is that it doesn’t cost anything,” Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey told The New York Times. “Taxpayers are being asked to provide huge subsidies to oil companies to produce oil – it’s like subsidizing a fish to swim.”

    All of which reminds us of one more sorry fact: Ivins was much more reliable about the inner workings of Washington than most of the reporters who live there.


    Fortunately, we still have non-Washington reporter Jon Stewart to sum things up for us:

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Above the Fold

     On May 25th John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, was invited into the New York studio of NBC’s Nightly News to make a striking proposal.  Brian Williams introduced the retired executive’s plan this way: “You’re an advocate of something that has worked in the Arabian Gulf, which is surrounding it with super tanker ships.” 

    Hofmeister replied, “There was an unpublicized spill, in the early ‘90’s in the Arabian gulf, where there was so much oil–far larger than anything we’ve seen in this country–where a fleet of supertankers was put to work with powerful pumps inside these supertankers to both pull in oil, and push it out.   Depending on the need.  You can take these supertankers in formation, take water and oil together off the surface, a million barrels per copy, go unload it in tanks, separate the water and the oil, discharge the water back into the sea.  I think we should be seriously considering some kind of tank formation, with three, four five supertankers, get this oil off the surface, so it doesn’t wash up into the wetlands.”

    It was a striking idea–exactly the kind of bold proposal the White House had failed to come up with, the sort of thing which–if it actually worked–might obliterate the ghost of impotence which so far has shadowed all of the efforts to contain the disastrous spill in the Gulf.

    So it seemed perfectly logical, a couple of days later, when ABC’s Jake Tapper included the tanker issue in his question to the president at his White House press conference:

    “You say that everything that could be done is being done, but there are those in the region and those industry experts who say that’s not true….There are industry experts who say that they’re surprised that tankers haven’t been sent out there to vacuum, as was done in ‘93 outside Saudi Arabia.”

    The president ignored that part of Tapper’s question, and so the question lingered–why wasn’t the administration pursuing this bold move?

    When Brian Williams solicited “frequently asked questions” about the disaster from his viewers, FCP replied with this one:

    “What has the administration said in response to the retired Shell president on your air who said a flotiilla of super tankers should be deployed to suck up the oil?  The president was asked about it at his press conference but never answered.   What has NBC done to get an answer?”

    FCP’s inquiry seems to have reached Williams’s personal producer, and may have sparked the first serious effort by the news organization to answer this question. 

   Apparently, it didn’t take very long to find the answer: the consensus of most experts is that the super-tanker suck-up strategy only works on extremely contained oil spills–and therefore isn’t a practical approach to the vastly dispersed catastrophe in the gulf.   This news became part of  the Nightly evening news budget–but then got cut for time around 5:30 PM.

    However, Williams still had the perfect opportunity to set the record straight and resolve the mystery of why the administration had apparently rejected the supertanker recommendation, because the ex-Shell president was back on the broadcast that night.   But instead of challenging Hofmeister’s plan with the new information gathered by NBC’s staff, Williams greeted Hofmeister this way:

       “When you were last on the air with us I asked you about the idea that some have proffered about surrounding it with supertankers–you said it wouldn’t work with this kind of spill.”   

    That, of course, was the exact opposite of what Hofmeister had said.   Why did Williams exonerate his guest by re-inventing his original statement, instead of challenging him on it or asking him to retract it?

    FCP put that question in e-mails to Nightly executive producer Bob Epstein and senior broadcast producer Aurelia Grayson, as well as Williams’s personal producer Subrata De, NBC spokesperson Summer Wilkie, and NBC Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker.

    Having heard nothing back from anyone at NBC, after twenty-two hours FCP telephoned Summer Wilkie’s office, to make one more effort to determine whether anyone thought it mattered that the managing editor of Nightly had said something flatly false on the air.  Finally, at 2:14 today, Williams issued this statement to FCP:

    “I made an honest mistake while anchoring from the field and interviewing John Hoffmeister [sic] via remote.  He had appeared on our broadcast before–I confused his view on supertanker efficacy with that of a previous guest.  I’ve apologized to John.”

    A spokesman for Williams said he would acknowledge this error on his blog sometime Tuesday–but that would still leave nearly all of the viewers of Nightly in the dark.  On the air would be the proper place for this correction.

    MEANWHILE, OVER AT THE NEW YORK TIMES, the letters department was tying itself in knots, trying to straighten out the latest prevarication of David Blakenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, and star opponent of marriage equality last winter in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the constitutional challenge to California’s ban on gay marriage being brought by David Boies and Theodore Olson.

    Blakenhorn was eviscerated in that trial on cross-examination by Boies, who, among other things, elicited the fact that this so-called “marriage-expert” had never taught a single course at any college or university, had no degrees in anthropology, psychology or sociology–and whose only peer-reviewed paper was a study of two cabinetmakers’ unions in 19th-century Britain.

    Boies also deepened the mystery surrounding Blakenhorn’s opposition to gay marriage, after getting the witness to acknowledge that he believes “that adopting same-sex marriage would be likely to improve the well-being of gay and lesbian households and their children,” that “the principal of human dignity musty apply to gay and lesbian persons,” and, finally “that we would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were the day before.”  Apparently, Blankenhorn would prefer us to remain less American.

    Money may actually be the answer for why Blankenhorn offered himself as an expert witness opposed to gay marriage, but more on that later.

    Like every other opponent of marriage equality, Blankenhorn has been desperate to distance himself from George Rekers, another so-called expert in this field, ever since Rekers was caught by Miami New Times returning from a ten day jaunt in Europe with a 20-year-old companion he had found for himself on

    This was more than a little embarrassing, since Rekers has spent most of his professional life arguing that homosexuality is a curable disease–and he was a co-founder with James Dobson of the Family Research Council, a major force within the religious right, and one of the most virulently homophobic institutions in America.

    Rekers may have made more money than anyone as an expert witness for bigotry, having collected $200,000 from the state of Florida for his testimony in support of a state law banning adoptions by gay people, and another $60,000 for his appearance at a similar case in Arkansas.

    So naturally, Blakenhorn was mortified when Frank Rich pointed out that a court document filed in the California case revealed that the star witness had read one of Mr. Rekers homophobic screeds before offering his “expert” testimony.

    Rushing to protect his reputation, Mr. Blankenhorn simply ignored the naked fact of his Rekers connection, and dispatched a letter to the Times declaring, “I have never met Mr. Rekers or read any of his writings…This matter is particularly important to me, since in my report to the court, as well as in my testimony on the stand, I clearly and emphatically rejected the anti-gay views that Mr. Rekers has apparently expressed.”

    The trouble was, as Mr. Blankenhorn revealed in his own blog, thirteen days after his letter to the Times was published, Mr. Blankenhorn had read one of Mr. Rekers reports–and Mr. Blankenhorn had actually sworn to that fact in a deposition taken by opposing attorneys.

    That fact, Blankenhorn wrote, was also “reported to the court in a separate document…containing a list of everything that I as an expert witness had ‘considered’ in preparing for my role in the case.’”

    When some alert reader at the Times noticed this posting, a letters editor asked  Blankenhorn to write a new letter, correcting the previous one, in which he had falsely accused Frank Rich and the author of a news story on the same subject of making a connection Mr. Blankenhorn had pretended did not exist.

   That second letter appeared on June 5.  But afterwards, in his own blog, Blankenhorn remained unrepentant.  The Times, he said, has “strict standards, especially when those standards suit them.”

    In other words, when you write a letter that directly contradicts your own sworn deposition, the Times will ask you to write another letter correcting yourself.  What will they think of next?

    In the hope of clarifying some of Mr. Blankenhorn’s motives, FCP e-mailed him, asking what kind of checking Mr. Blankenhorn had done before sending his first furious letter, and how much he had been paid for his testimony in the California trial.

    Mr. Blankenhorn declined to answer any of FCP’s questions.  

    FCP regrets Mr. Blankenhorn’s silence, because it makes it impossible to answer one more important question: Has Mr. Blankenhorn’s career as an expert witness been as profitable as Mr. Rekers’ was?

Finally, A Chance for Equality

 Above the Fold


Second Update: History In the Making: (11:36 PM Thursday) So far, the Service Chiefs are getting exactly the attention they deserve: none.  In an historic action, the House of Representatives voted today 234 to 194 to repeal the loathsome policy which has forbidden gays and lesbians from serving openly for decades.  Two hundred and twenty-nine Democrats and 5 Republicans voted  in favor; 168 Republicans and 26 Democrats voted against.  Bravo! to Congressman Patrick Murphy of Pennslylvania, the Iraqi veteran who led the fight in the house.   And kudos to Joe Lieberman and Carl Levin in th Senate, who achieved the same result in the Senate Armed Services Committee, by a vote of  16 to 12.

Bottom line,”  said Joe Lieberman, “thousands of service members have been pushed out of the U.S. military not because they were inadequate or bad soldiers, sailors, Marines or airmen but because of their sexual orientation. And that’s not what America is all about.” 

Which proves that if you live long enough, you can hear anything–even a noble statement from the Independent Senator from Connecticut.

Update: (1:07 AM Thursday):   In act as despicable as it is extra-constitutional, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marines wrote letters to Senator John McCain late yesterday, directly challenging the position of the President, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all of whom have endorsed the compromise legislation before Congress to repeal don’t ask don’t tell.

In the letters solicited by McCain,  the chiefs asked Congress to delay voting on the bill until after the Pentagon completes its wholly superfluous review of the current, disastrous policy.

Together with everything else he has said and done this year, this action makes McCain as craven as any other slave of the lunatic fringe of his party.

If anything like this had happened when Harry Truman was president, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Naval Chief of Operations Admiral Gary Roughead would surely have been fired for outright insubordination.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman John M. D. Shalikashvili immediately fired back at the Service Chiefs in a letter to Senators Carl Levin and Joe Lieberman.  Shalikashvili wrote  “there is nothing in these letters that gives Congress any reason to delay enacting the legislative compromise that was proposed this week….It is not only preferable, but essential that 10 U.S.C. § 654 be repealed in order for the service chiefs to retain the very authority they require to do their jobs effectively.”


     For the last time–please god!–there is no serious reason grounded in policy or politics to prevent gays and lesbians from serving openly in the United States military.

    The current policy damages national security, baffles most soldiers under 30, has cost taxpayers $1.3 billion–and is opposed by at least 75 percent of American adults, according to recent polls for CNN  and ABC and The Washington Post

    Will this be the week when the White House finally demonstrates that it has understood that?

    So far, the indications are murky at best.  Although the White House did sign off on a compromise which would allow Congress to repeal the current law–but let the president decide exactly when that repeal will take effect–it announced its support in the most tepid way possible.

   As Kerry Eleveld pointed out at, “Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag joined Defense Secretary Robert Gates in saying that ‘ideally’ the Pentagon’s study would be completed prior to a vote. But since ‘Congress has chosen to move forward with legislation now,’ Orszag conceded the proposed amendment “meets the concerns” that have been voiced by Defense secretary Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

    That’s a position that puts the White House several steps behind Senator Joe Lieberman on an issue of common sense and fundamental human justice. Several steps behind Lieberman isn’t a bad place for the White House to be on this subject–it’s a humiliating and disgraceful place.

    Barack Obama promised dozens of times during the presidential campaign that he would repeal this idiotic policy, and repeated that promise in his most recent State of the Union message–promises which prompted Jon Stewart to point out that “‘yes we can’ doesn’t mean that we will.”

    Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen gave courageous testimony  last February calling for repeal of the policy, and declaring, “the great young men of our military can and would accommodate such a change–I never underestimated their ability to adapt.” And speaking to graduating Air Force Cadets today, Mullen reiterated: “Few things are more important to an organization than people who have the moral courage to question the direction in which the organization is going–and then the strength of character to support whatever final decisions are made.”

    Meanwhile, three openly gay officers from Holland, Sweden and Great Britain ridiculed the current policy in a piece in Politico.  Among their points:

* Though we maintain a respect for the American people, their military and political process, we share a sense of puzzlement — and a sort of shock — at the rhetoric we heard surrounding “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”..We are aware of colleagues in our own militaries who don’t like it that gays and lesbians serve openly. However, despite considerable fears before we enacted these policies, such attitudes are rare.

* Moral opposition to homosexuality, while real, is just not allowed to undercut our militaries’ missions. Nor do we think it will have any impact on yours after you repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

*This is an important point, because many Americans seem to believe that ending anti-gay discrimination in European and Israeli militaries faced no resistance because our cultures are more tolerant. In fact, our polls, rhetoric and even threats of mass resignations were quite similar to the continuing resistance in America. Yet none of the doomsday scenarios came true.

    And as anyone with regular contact with modern American officers will tell you,  many field grade officers think the ban should be lifted, and virtually all of them recognize that most of today’s younger troops see nothing wrong with openly gay service. The climate is very different today from what it was in the early 1990s.

    It is time for Barack Obama to prove once and for all that he realizes that discrimination against gay people is just as heinous as discrimination against African-Americans–and to show the same kind of gumption that Harry Truman demonstrated when he integrated the Armed Forces after World War II

   Idiots like Republican congressman Mike Pence say “the American people don’t want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda”–but 75 percent of the American public say they disagree with him.  As Rachel Maddow asked last night, “Do 75 percent of the people even believe that the earth is round?”

    The most courageous man in this fight has been Patrick Murphy, an Iraq veteran and a Pennsylvania Congressman who has fought tirelessly to get the current law repealed.  Passage of the reform law in the House this week seems likely.  The outcome in the Senate Armed Services Committee remains in doubt.

   Aaron Belkin and Nathaniel Frank have spent most of the last decade laying the intellectual groundwork for this change.  “If this goes through the Senate, this is going to be historic,” Belkin told FCP today. “Forecasting is an inexact science but hopefully we will have reason to celebrate soon.”

    Since the passage of health care reform, we have known that this White House is capable of twisting arms on Capitol Hill when it thinks it is necessary.   Now is the time for Barack Obama to prove to his progressive constituency that at least some of their ideals still matter to him.  Late this afternoon, Senator Ben Nelson announced his support for the compromise–a very good sign indeed.

    But if the president fails to convince the Senate to pass the necessary amendment to the Defense appropriations bill this week–an amendment supported by three quarters of the public–none of us should ever forgive him.


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The Times and Its Sources

Above the Fold

         The New York Times reported yesterday that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had lied about serving in Vietnam, although he was a member of the Marine Corps reserves during the Vietnam War.

     The next day, the Times reported that his best-financed Republican opponent, Linda McMahon–the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, who promises to spend up to $50 million of her own money in the campaign–had taken credit for feeding the story about Blumenthal to the Times.

          “Ms. McMahon’s campaign sought to claim credit for aspects of The Times’s article, apparently in a bid to impress Republican delegates that her resources would give her the greatest chance of defeating Mr. Blumenthal, who had seemed invincible,” David M. Halbfinger and James Barron write in today’s paper.

    All of which left this reader with one glaring question: Was it true that the Times was prompted to do this hatchet job on Blumenthal by one of the candidate’s mortal enemies?

   If McMahon’s campaign was the source of the original story, it probably made a deal with the reporter to shield its identity.  But once the story had appeared and her campaign had taken credit for it on its own website, clearly the Times was no longer bound by any such agreement.  So why did it report that she “sought to take credit for aspects of The Times article”–but then failed to tell the reader whether she really was the source or not?

   FCP telephoned Times metropolitan editor Joe Sexton, and was told that he was off for the day.   Then David Halbfinger told FCP he would “not be interviewed for a blog,” and referred FCP to the metro political editor, Carolyn RyanJames Barron  also referred FCP to Ryan; then Barron went off the record–to refuse to provide FCP with Ryan’s e-mail address.  By happy coincidence, ten minutes later, FCP received an e-mail from another Times editor which just happened to include Ryan’s address.

   FCP then left a voicemail for Ryan, and followed up with an e-mail, both of which were apparently passed to Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty, who wrote FCP: “As a matter of general policy, The Times does not discuss sourcing for its stories. The reporting about AG Blumenthal’s Vietnam War era service was based on many sources and countless hours of research.”

   Of course, the truth is, a reporter’s first obligation is to reveal as much as he can in his own story about who his sources are–which is why the paper requires every reference to an anonymous source to include an explanation of why the source needed to be anonymous.

   In any case, McNulty’s statement ignored the fact that the author of the original Times story, Ray Hernandez, had discussed the sourcing of his story on the Brian Lehrer Show  on NPR yesterday, when Hartford political reporter Colin McEnroe pressed him on whether or not McMahon’s campaign had been his original source.

   “In general I don’t discuss this level of detail” about his sources, Hernandez said.  Pressed again, Hernandez said, “Did this story have its origins in the McMahon campaign? The answer is no.  This story was the product of independent, dogged reporting.”  But then Hernandez seemed to undercut his own denial when he added, “So, the point of the question is what?  Does it mean what you see or reading is not so?”

   As one former top editor of The Times e-mailed FCP this evening, “Hernandez on Brian Lehrer sounds very lame–unprepared to deal with the sourcing issue.”  And another former top editor of the paper agreed that it was outrageous for the Times not to tell its readers in its own story whether or not McMahon was its source–especially after reporting that her campaign had said that it was.

   It is certainly true that on one occasion–and only one occasion which the Times could document–Richard Blumenthal did say the words “I served in Vietnam.” And a couple of other times he said ambiguous things about his service in the Marine Corps Reserves that might or might not imply that he served in Indochina.  But it is also true that during a debate with another Senate candidate, Blumenthal made it clear that he had not served in Vietnam.

    Today a new Ramussen poll showed Blumenthal’s support plummeting because of the Times story.  But many of Hartford’s most senior political reporters said they had never heard Blumenthal misrepresent his military service.

    For example, on Hartford’s Channel 8 tonight, the station’s veteran political reporter, Mark Davis, declared, “I’ve covered him for 30 years and I’ve never, ever heard him say he served in Vietnam.”

    In a post on the Harford Courant website, Colin McEnroe–who is another widely-respected political reporter–made the following points, all of which FCP heartily agrees with:

* Raymond Hernandez’s story is paper-thin and overplayed. No question, he’s got one video clip in which Blumenthal says he was in Vietnam. And he’s got, five years earlier, a quote attributed to Blumenthal where he says “we” in way that’s at least open to multiple interpretations. And that’s it. That – and those recollections by Jean Risley who has apparently repudiated the Times’s reporting – are the whole basis for his huge above-the-fold page one story. In all the other times that Blumenthal put his military service on the record, as far as I can tell, he’s been truthful about who he was. Certainly, in his debate with Merrick Alpert, he clearly said he did not serve in Vietnam.

*  If Blumenthal can produce extensive evidence that he’s been truthful, repeatedly, about his service record, it would be fair to ask whether the Times has taken one stumble or slip of the tongue and turned it into a page one story alleging, without really proving, a pattern of deception.

*  I’m disturbed by the divergence in accounts between the McMahon campaign and Hernandez about where this story came from. Hernandez’s defensiveness with me on the Brian Lehrer show was odd, especially his insistence that he does not discuss in detail how he gets his stories. I thought the drift of the Times, post-Jayson Blair, favored full disclosure of sources unless there were a material reason for letting them go off the record. Certainly the McMahon campaign doesn’t seem to have considered itself off the record.

*  Some of you asked whether the provenance of the information matters. It’s not the primary issue in this story, but it does matter. The SPJ Code of Ethics is clear that the motivation of sources matters. I think there’s a difference between a story that is the fruit of hundreds and maybe thousands of hours of opposition research, combing tapes and transcripts for a Blumenthal slip-up, and a story that evolves organically in the way Hernandez is claiming this one did, after he “had heard varying stories” about Blumenthal’s inflation of his record.

   And then there is this.  Hernandez wrote in his piece that “in early1968” President Johnson “abolished nearly all graduate deferments and sharply increased the number of troops sent to Southeast Asia.”  But only half of that statement is true.

    Johnson did abolish nearly all graduate deferments–but LBJ (very famously) rejected William Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 additional troops, on top of the 510,000 already serving in Vietnam in March of 1968.  Instead, Johnson withdrew from the race for the presidency, and approved only 13,500 additional troops for the war–an increase of less than 3 percent over the number already there in March of 1968.

    On this point, Times night metro editor Peter Khoury told FCP, “I spoke with Ray Hernandez, who provided me with figures showing the number of US troops in Veitnam went from 485,000 at the end of 1967 to 536,100 at the end of 1968, an increase of more than 10 percent.  We feel the wording was appropriate.” 

   Whether or not a 10 percent increase is “sharp increase,” there’s another problem with Khoury’s statement: According to The New York Times of October 9, 1967, the number of troops in Vietnam at that moment was 500,000–not the 485,000 Hernandez told his editor.

   You could look it up–in your own archive.

Martha Ritter contributed essential  reporting from Hartford.




Update: Colin McEnroe is now reporting that he has heard from nine senior Connecticut reporters today–all of whom said they had either heard Blumenthal describe his military service correctly, or, they had never heard him say he had served in Vietnam.   Just one photographer remembered things differently.

Second Update: It’s interesting that Carolyn Ryan was willing to go on MSNBC’s  Morning Joe to promote the Hernandez story yesterday, but refused to answer any questions from FCP about it today.

Winners & Sinners : 60 Minutes Scoops the World


The week’s Biggest Winners: 60 Minutes producers Solly Granatstein and Graham Messick, and correspondent Scott Pelley, for the most revealing story anywhere about the catastrophic oil rig explosion in the Gulf.

   It’s a very rare event, nowadays, when a network news division scoops everybody else on the biggest story of the moment, but that’s exactly what 60 Minutes did last night, when it found  two key people who could blow the Deepwater Horizon story wide open. 60 Minutes did not draw this conclusion, but the implication of criminal malfeasance by BP permeated the broadcast.

   Mike Williams was the chief electronics technician, working for Transocean on the rig, and he exudes the kind of all-American-Atticus-Finch-authenticity that makes him a uniquely credible witness.  He was also one of the last men to leave the rig alive.  His appearance on the double-length 60 Minutes segment was edge-of-your-seat television from start to finish.   According to the overnights, 11.5 million viewers tuned in.

    Williams said he was pinned down by two different three-inch-thick, steel, fire-rated doors–after each of them was blown off its six stainless steel hinges by successive explosions on the rig–before he finally managed to get outside and jump one hundred feet into the ocean.

    After he hit the water, Williams thought, “I must have burned up, ‘cause I don’t feel anything, I don’t hear anything, I don’t smell anything. I must be dead.’ And I remember a real faint voice of, ‘Over here, over here.’ I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’ And the next thing I know, he grabbed my lifejacket and flipped me over into this small open bow boat. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know where he’d come from, I didn’t care. I was now out of the water.”

    But just as dramatic as Williams’ survival is his account of the successive mishaps on board the giant rig that led inexorably to the final catastrophe.  These were the story’s key findings:

* The tension in every drilling operation is between doing things safely and doing them fast; time is money and this job was costing BP a million dollars a day. With the schedule slipping, Williams says a BP manager ordered a faster pace–bumping up the rate of penetration of the ocean floor.

 *Going faster caused the bottom of the well to split open, swallowing tools and the drilling fluid called “mud.” “We actually got stuck. And we got stuck so bad we had to send tools down into the drill pipe and sever the pipe,” Williams explained. That well was abandoned and Deepwater Horizon had to drill a new route to the oil. It cost BP more than two weeks and millions of dollars

*  Williams says there was an accident on the rig that has not been reported before. Four weeks before the explosion, the rig’s most vital piece of safety equipment, its blowout preventer, or BOP, was damaged.

* The BOP is used to seal the well shut in order to test the pressure and integrity of the well, and, in case of a blowout, it’s the crew’s only hope. A key component is a rubber gasket at the top called an “annular,” which can close tightly around the drill pipe.

* While the BOP was shut tight, a crewman on deck accidentally nudged a joystick, applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of force, and moving 15 feet of drill pipe through the closed blowout preventer. Later, a man monitoring drilling fluid “discovered chunks of rubber in the drilling fluid.”

* Williams asked the supervisor if  the chunks of remember were unuusal, and he said, “‘Oh, it’s no big deal.’”  And Williams thought, “How can it be not a big deal? There’s chunks of our seal is now missing.”

*The BOP is operated from the surface by wires connected to two control pods; one is a back-up. Williams says one pod lost some of its function weeks before the explosion.

* A representative of Transocean was explaining how they were going to close the well when the manager from BP interrupted.  “I had the BP company man sitting directly beside me,” Williams remembered.  “And he…said, ‘Well, my process is different. And I think we’re gonna do it this way.’ And they kind of lined out how he thought it should go that day. So there was short of a chest-bumping kind of deal.”

* Several BP managers were on the Deepwater Horizon for a ceremony to congratulate the crew for seven years without an injury. While they where there, a surge of explosive gas came flying up the well from three miles below. The rig’s diesel engines, which power its electric generators, sucked in the gas and began to run wild.  After that there were “take-your-breath-away type explosions, shake your body to the core explosions. Take your vision away from the percussion of the explosions.”

* 60 Minutes asked Dr. Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, to analyze Williams’ story. The White House has also asked Bea to analyze the Deepwater Horizon accident.  Bea previously investigated the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster for NASA and  Hurricane Katrina  for the National Science Foundation.

* “According to Williams, when parts of the annular start coming up on the deck someone from Transocean says, ‘Look, don’t worry about it.’ What does that tell you?” Pelley asked Bea.

“Houston, we have a problem,” Bea replied.

* “So if the annular is damaged, if I understand you correctly, you can’t do the pressure tests in a reliable way?” Pelley asked.

“That’s correct,” Bea explained. “You may get pressure test recordings, but because you’re leaking pressure, they are not reliable.”

*In finishing the well, the plan was to have a subcontractor, Halliburton, place three concrete plugs, like corks, in the column. The Transocean manager wanted to do this with the column full of heavy drilling fluid - what drillers call “mud” - to keep the pressure down below contained. But the BP manager wanted to begin to remove the “mud” before the last plug was set. That would reduce the pressure controlling the well before the plugs were finished.

*Asked why BP would do that, Bea told Pelley, “It expedites the subsequent steps.”

“It’s a matter of going faster,” Pelley remarked.

“Faster, sure,” Bea replied.

Bea said BP had won that argument.

* “If the ‘mud’ had been left in the column, would there have been a blowout?” Pelley asked.

“It doesn’t look like it,” Bea replied.

*Weeks before the disaster they know they are drilling in a dangerous formation, the formation has told them that,” Pelley remarked.

“Correct,” Bea replied.

“And has cost them millions of dollars. And the blowout preventer is broken in a number of ways,” Pelley remarked.

“Correct,” Bea replied.

* Asked what would be the right thing to do at that point, Bea said, “I express it to my students this way, ‘Stop, think, don’t do something stupid.’”

*  They didn’t stop. As the drilling fluid was removed, downward pressure was relieved; the bottom plug failed. The blowout preventer didn’t work. And 11 men were incinerated. One hundred and fifteen crewmembers survived.

The Bottom Line:
Who is responsible for the Deepwater Horizon accident?

Bea said, BP.”


Winners: Stephen Colbert and veteran Daily Show correspondent Lewis Black for doing what the mainstream press consistently fails to do: giving Glenn Beck exactly the treatment he deserves.  Black focuses on Beck’s Nazi Tourette Syndrome, while Colbert describes Beck’s pornographic plan to gather his supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial next August–on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

See them both below:


The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Glenn to the Mountaintop
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck’s Nazi Tourette’s
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Kagan, Obama, and the Uses of Distortion

Above the Fold

    President Barack Obama has nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be the 112th justice of the United States Supreme Court.  If the Senate confirms her–which today seems highly likely–she will also be the third woman, the third Jew, and the fourth New Yorker among the current justices.

    Kagan is acknowledged by nearly all sentient beings to be a brilliant lawyer, an extraordinary teacher, an impressive scholar, one of the most successful deans in the history of the Harvard Law School, and an extremely competent solicitor general.

    Presidents naturally gravitate toward people whom they fell comfortable with; and Obama obviously sees a great deal of himself in a highly intelligent, fiercely disciplined, and unabashedly ambitious lawyer who he has known since they were colleagues together at the University of Chicago, almost twenty years ago.

    Barack was famous for bringing harmony to the Harvard Law Review; Elena is famous for bringing harmony to the Harvard Law School.

    New York Times columnist David Brooks concedes that Kagan is, “smart, deft and friendly” and “a superb teacher” who “has the ability to process many points of view and to mediate between different factions.”   But, according to Brooks, she is also “apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious.”   And “strategic.”

    Good god!  A prudential, deliberate and cautious Supreme Court Justice.  What could be more dangerous than that?  Apparently not much, in the mind of the Times columnist, because he concludes his analysis by stating that “her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, [is] kind of disturbing.”

    In other words, because she has apparently wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice for a really long time (she’s already wearing robes in the photo of her in the Hunter College High School yearbook), she realized that her chances of reaching that goal would be greatly enhanced if there weren’t a hundred published opinions the Senate could grill her about when she was nominated.   So she has been relatively reluctant to express herself.

    This reticence has been twisted by Brooks and others into proof that she has never had any strong opinions (and actually “suppressed” her mind.)   Then, over on the left, the usually estimable Glenn Greenwald, sees “disturbing risks posed by Kagan’s strange silence on most key legal questions,” as well as “serious red flags raised by what little there is to examine in her record.”  Greenwald has also asserted that Kagan’s appointment “would shift the Court substantially to the Right on a litany of key issues (at least as much as the shift accomplished by George Bush’s selection of the right-wing ideologue Sam Alito to replace the more moderate Sandra Day O’Connor)”–a statement for which FCP frankly sees no convincing evidence whatsoever.

    What we actually have here are knee-jerk conservatives like Brooks, who are eager to invent any impediment they can to prevent Kagan’s confirmation, and knee-jerk liberals like Greenwald (who FCP usually admires), who may be making Kagan a vessel for all of their other disappointments with Obama, from his failure to get a public option included in the health care reform bill, to his embrace of some of the more egregious elements of George Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.

    On Cable TV, of course, the reductum ad absurdum is already everywhere, with great Americans  like Bay Buchanan regurgitating the right-wing talking-point du jour, which is that Kagan is exactly like Harriet Myers–“except for the Ivy League part.”

    Jon Stewart explained what Buchanan said really meant:  the two women are exactly the same “except for the dumb part.”  Stewart added Tuesday night, “that’s just like saying the only difference between me and Michael Jordan is athletic ability.”

    Stewart also boiled down soundbites from everyone from John Heilemann to Diane Sawyer into just two sentences: “She’s a reckless blank entity with no paper trail” and “She’s a short, chimney-smoking, beer-guzzling poker player.”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Release the Kagan
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

    Of course, everything is relative, which means that some paperless trails are a good deal less paperless than others.    So while it is true that Kagan has only published a handful of scholarly articles, it is also true that  her article on Presidential Administration is 67,000 words long (How’s that for “mind suppression,” Mr. Brooks?)

    The heart of Kagan’s argument in that article is that Bill Clinton “made the regulatory activity of the executive branch agencies into an extension of his own policy and political agenda. He did so, primarily, by exercising directive authority over these agencies and asserting personal ownership of their regulatory activity–demonstrating in the process, against conventional wisdom, that enhanced presidential control over administration can serve pro-regulatory objectives.”

    Enhancing presidential control to serve pro-regulatory objectives strikes FCP as a firmly progressive position, and even Greenwald concedes that “what Kagan was defending back then was many universes away from what Bush/Cheney ended up doing, and her defense of Clinton’s theories of administrative power was nuanced, complex and explicitly cognizant of the Constitutional questions they might raise.”

    But then, in the same post, Greenwald goes on to quote approvingly from Neal Katyal, (currently Kagan’s deputy) who, Greenwald wrote, “emphatically criticized Kagan’s theories in that law review article as executive overreach and even linked them to the Bush/Cheney executive power seizures.”     A link which FCP frankly finds preposterous.

    Harper’s Scott Horton has been much more sensible than everyone else on the left about Kagan’s nomination.   Horton has been just as vitriolic as Greenwald about Obama’s embrace of some elements of his predecessor’s anti-terrorism policies.   And Horton is not unsympathetic to Greenwald’s argument that “Obama has missed the opportunity to appoint a worthy successor to Stevens to lead the fight against rampaging executive power.”

     However, Horton also describes  Kagan’s lengthy article on presidential administration as “a beautiful, extremely perceptive work, closely observed, brilliantly reasoned, and cautious.  In it, Kagan notes the increase of presidential power as Congress builds the administrative and regulatory state.  The powers that Congress vests in regulatory agencies are necessarily assumed and controlled by the president.  Kagan writes as a detached observer, yet there is much to suggest her admiration for the evolution of the strong presidency in the period after World War II.”

    Then Horton gets to the heart of the matter about Kagan’s nominaton, and in the process ends up sounding more sensible than anyone else FCP has read on this subject so far:

    The test is not whether Elena Kagan is the candidate each critic would have picked but whether she has the essential qualifications to be a justice of the Supreme Court and if so, whether she has any views on constitutional doctrine that are so far from the mainstream that they are disqualifying. Kagan will clearly pass this test, and civil libertarians need to get over their distrust of her capacity to listen to and understand conservatives with whom they disagree. That’s an admirable quality for a judge, and it will serve Kagan well on the Supreme Court.

   That is also a quality which may enable Kagan to get Justice Anthony Kennedy to vote with the liberal bloc on the Court at least as often as Justice Stevens did.  Since Kennedy’s swing vote is the only thing that presently makes progressive decisions possible, that capacity is more important to the future direction of the Court than anything else.   



For everything else you need to know about Kagan’s record, go here on the New York Times website, or here at

Special thanks to FCP contributor SRS.


Update: As the estimable James Barron points out on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times, if Kagan is confirmed, Staten Island will be the only one of New York City’s five boroughs without its own personal representative on the high court.   “Kagan is so Manhattan, Scalia is so Queens, Ginsburg is so Brooklyn and Sotomayor is so Bronx,’”  Joan Biskupic told The Times.