Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Above the Fold: The Speech Heard 'Round the World

Obama’s message to Cairo focuses on our common humanity

“America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

“I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

                                                                    —Barack Hussein Obama, Cairo, June 4, 2009


President Obama delivered the greatest speech of his presidency in Egypt yesterday, the best one he has given since he rescued his presidential campaign last year, by dissecting the issues of race which have fractured America since its founding.

A large part of the power of both speeches lies in Obama’s willingness to articulate facts that have previously been treated as taboos, such as America’s role “in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government,” which he mentioned in Cairo yesterday.  The president also made a revolutionary pledge to obliterate the difference between America’s public stands and its private proddings:

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

What were seen as his greatest liabilities when Obama was a candidate—a Muslim father, Muslim schooling in Indonesia, and the middle name of “Hussein”—now clearly give him the chance to be the most credible leader of the free world America has ever placed in the White House.

The speech was broadcast simultaneously around the world (only Iran tried to jam satellite transmission of it), and in Pakistan it was seen live with Urdu subtitles on TV screens throughout the country. By mid-afternoon Friday, it was available on the White House Web site in Arabic, Chinese, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. (Translations into Dari, Hebrew, and Malay are, as of this writing, still ‘in progress’; oddly, currently not included among the fourteen language options is a Spanish version.)

American journalists tended to focus on whatever there was in the speech that made right-wing Israelis unhappy, including this refreshingly forthright declaration: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”   But around the world the speech was recognized as an extraordinary effort to extract the humanity from three of the world’s great religions, to emphasize our common values instead of our constant conflicts.

The reaction of Hamas depended entirely on where you read about it.  In The New York Times, “Ahmed Youssef, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government, criticized the speech for not going far enough on Palestinian issues. ‘He points to the right of Israel to exist, but what about the refugees and their right of return?’”

But in Le Monde, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum saw “tangible change” in the president’s speech as well as “some contradictions”: “It’s a speech that plays on feelings and is filled with civility, which makes us believe he is trying to enhance America’s image in the world.”

And on the Web site of the Arab cable news network Al Jazeera, Hamas was downright cordial towards Obama: “Ahmad Yousuf, a senior Hamas official, told Al Jazeera that Obama’s speech reminded him of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech.’ About Obama stressing on the legitimacy of Israel, he said the Palestinians must have a state of their own before being asked to recognize another. But the message that America is not a threat to the Muslim world is a good signal, he said.”

Yousuf’s comparison was utterly apt.  When Obama called upon the Palestinians to emulate American blacks because “it was not violence that won full and equal rights; it was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding,” he was of course echoing King’s commitment to Gandhi’s nonviolence.

The single best analysis FCP saw anywhere was by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. Under the headline, “Barack Obama in Cairo: the speech no other president could make,” Freedland wrote that Obama had given  “a speech that demonstrated not only his trademark eloquence but also the sheer ambition of his purpose—nothing less than bridging the divide between Islam and the west…” Freedland continued: 

…the thread that ran through every paragraph was a simple but radical idea: respect for the Arab and Muslim world.  It was there in Obama’s use of the traditional Muslim greeting, met with cheering applause: assalamu alaykum. There, too, in his quotations from “the holy Qur’an”—pronouncing the word the way his Cairo audience would pronounce it.

“I know civilisation’s debt to Islam,” he declared, before listing a Muslim record of achievement that stretched from algebra to poetry.

All of this was a world away from George W Bush, who was unable to address Muslims in a tone that was not bellicose or patronizing. If Bush had said the same words, they would have sounded phoney. But Obama had the credibility of his own life story: the Muslims in his father’s family, the childhood years in Indonesia. What had threatened to be a liability for Barack Hussein Obama in the 2008 election campaign was deployed as an asset.

But it went deeper than flattery about the great Islamic past. He showed understanding, if not always acceptance, of what one might call the Arab and Muslim narrative.”

Finally, for his peroration, Obama borrowed from three of the holiest books in the world:

“The Holy Koran tells us, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”

The Holy Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Then, with his final sentence, he appealed to the humanity which is the most admirable part of all three religions:

“The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.”




Above the Fold: The One That Got Away

How The New York Times let a Watergate lead slip through its fingers

Former New York Times editors and reporters contacted yesterday were almost uniformly flabbergasted by the news that the Washington news editor of the Times had received a huge leak about the Watergate scandal from a reporter who had gone to lunch with FBI Director L. Patrick Gray exactly two months after the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee–and then did absolutely nothing to follow it up.

The revelation of the editor’s inaction was made by the editor himself, Robert Phelps, in his newly published book, God and the Editor, My Search for Meaning at the New York Times (Syracuse University Press). Phelps’s account has been confirmed by Robert Smith, the former Times reporter who had lunch with the FBI director on August 16, 1972, the day before Smith resigned from the paper to attend Yale Law School. The date of the lunch was also confirmed by Gray’s son, Ed Gray, who found the appointment for it written in his father’s date book.

According to Smith’s account of the lunch, posted on the Web site of the American Journalism Review, the newly named FBI director

told me about a guy who burned his palm, [G. Gordon Liddy] and about [Nixon campaign dirty trickster] Donald Segretti (by name). And when he intimated over the entrée that the wrongdoing went further, I leaned back against the wall on my inside banquette and looked at him in frank astonishment.
‘The attorney general?’ I asked.
He nodded.
I paused.
‘The president?’ I asked.
He looked me in the eye without denial–or any comment. In other words, confirmation.

Smith raced back to the Washington bureau and retreated into Robert Phelps’s cubby-hole office, where Smith turned on a dictation machine and Phelps took notes on everything Patrick Gray told Smith. “ ‘Bob,’ I remember beginning. ‘This is incredible,’” Smith wrote. “And for the next half hour or so–like a jumping bean, unable to contain myself–I told him about the lunch”

After that, there is nothing but a gigantic black hole in the memory of Phelps–and everyone else who was in the Washington Bureau of the Times in 1972.

Now eighty-nine years old, Phelps writes blandly in his book, “We never developed Gray’s tips into publishable stories. Why we failed is a mystery to me. In fact, while I can still picture the debriefing, my memory is fuzzy on the crucial point of what I did with the Tape.” Phelps went on vacation to Alaska for a month soon afterwards, he writes–and he has no idea whether he ever shared the information with anyone else.

“I lead the bafflement brigade,” Phelps told FCP in a telephone interview. “I have no recollection at all; and that baffles me. It is enough to make you question your sanity, of course”

Other former Times men reacted with shock to Phelps’s account. Thirty-seven years later, no other story in journalism retains as much resonance for everyone old enough to remember Watergate–especially if you worked for the Times or The Washington Post when the story unfolded.

“I can picture Abe Rosenthal [managing editor of the Times in 1972] howling in his grave, and howling loudly,” said Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of the Times himself and one of Rosenthal’s closest friends. “Rosenthal desperately wanted to get the Watergate story. He always believed that management of the Washington Bureau at that time left an awful lot to be desired, but never to the extent that we are learning now. The new facts are truly shocking”

Rosenthal’s son, Andrew, who now heads the Times’s editorial page, said his late father’s reaction to the news “would not have been suitable for a family blog.”

The fact that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke most of the important Watergate stories in The Washington Post in 1972 remained an open wound for the fiercely competitive Rosenthal, right up until his death three years ago. It was only after Seymour Hersh began writing about Watergate for the Times in January, 1973, that the paper began catching up with the Post on the story.

Bill Kovach was brought to the Washington bureau of the Times to head up its investigative unit at the end of 1972, as it tried desperately to match the scoops of Bernstein and Woodward.

“Bob Phelps never said to me, ‘Patrick Gray might be a good guy to hook up on or anything,’” Kovach told FCP yesterday. “Phelps had a little cubby-hole office in the front of the bureau. And he said, ‘That’ll be your office; I’ll clean out my desk and I’ll turn over all my files on the investigation.’ And he never mentioned any tape, he never mentioned Bob Smith. So far as I know, nobody in the bureau and nobody in New York ever said anything to me about it. I can’t imagine how he–thirty-seven years after the fact, when he’s writing his memoirs–remembers this interview with L. Patrick Gray, and it could have been dynamite. And didn’t remember it three or four months later to tell me. Why the hell would you ask someone to run the investigative operation–and we were still trying to catch up with Watergate at the time–and not tell him that? I mean, Jesus, it’s a real surprise to me.”

When Smith went off to Yale Law School, he continued to read the Times faithfully, but he never saw any stories about what the FBI director had told him. FCP asked him why he never called any of his former colleagues to find out what had happened to his leads. “I assumed they’re working on it,” Smith told FCP, “or they’ve checked it and it’s wrong.”

Smith said, “I’ve always liked Phelps enormously and respected him enormously as an editor.” But he is as baffled as everyone else by Phelps’s apparent failure to follow up on any of the blockbuster leads Smith had given him. “He has absolutely no explanation for it–for not having spilled one syllable. I don’t understand it. This is not a person who took drugs or alcohol. He was sane, conservative, very self contained.”

Max Frankel was the Washington Bureau chief in 1972, and he admitted in his own memoirs that his bureau’s coverage of the Watergate scandal was one of his failures. “We were too sluggish even after the White House was implicated,” Frankel wrote.

So you might expect Frankel to be the most shocked of all by Phelps’s account. But Frankel told FCP that he wasn’t shocked at all.

“I wasn’t around then,” said Frankel, explaining why Phelps might not have told him immediately about the leak from the FBI Director. “I was at the Republican Convention in the period they were writing about.” However, Patrick Gray’s diary says the lunch took place on Wednesday, August 16, and the Republican Convention did not begin until the following Monday, on August 21. “If he had been at the convention, I would have been at the convention, too,” Phelps said yesterday. However, Phelps added that he had no recollection of sharing the leak with his boss at the time.

In any case, Frankel said he did not believe that the FBI Director “was leaking.”

“I don’t know what happened,” Frankel said. “I’m skeptical about the whole thing. I think he was schmoozing”

But didn’t Frankel wish that Phelps had told him what Gray had told Robert Smith over lunch?

“No,” said Frankel. “I think Bob had good news judgment and whatever it was, I doubt that it was very important.”

Informed of Frankel’s non-reaction, Smith said to FCP, “You’re joking. I’m stupefied. Does he not know now that this was important? He was running the Washington Bureau that got trounced on this story, and he went on to run The New York Times! How can he say that?”

Smith said that he had never discussed his lunch with Gray publicly because he felt bound by an implied promise of confidentiality, even after Gray’s death. Three years ago, a Hollywood producer called Smith and demanded that he tell him what he knew about Watergate at the time, but Smith said he has no idea how the Hollywood producer might have been tipped off.

“He became quite threatening,” Smith remembered; but the former reporter, now a lawyer and a mediator, refused to cooperate. Smith said he called the general counsel of The New York Times after being contacted by the Hollywood producer, and asked the Times lawyer whether he thought Smith should continue to be bound by his vow of secrecy, even after Gray’s death. “He agreed that I still was,” Smith said.

Only after he learned that Phelps was going to publish the whole story did Smith decide to write his own version of these events–in an op-ed piece that he submitted to The New York Times. Smith said he submitted the piece without contacting anyone at the paper, and he never received any response to it. Andrew Rosenthal told FCP yesterday that the op-ed page could not find any record of ever having received a piece from Smith. After failing to place it in the Times, Smith offered the piece to the American Journalism Review, which this week posted it on its website.

Four years ago, former deputy FBI Director W. Mark Felt revealed that he had been Woodward and Bernstein’s “deep throat” in the Watergate affair. But Bernstein insisted that Felt’s guidance had been no substitute for old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting–the kind the Washington Bureau of the Times proved incapable of in 1972.

“The difficulty I have with all of this is this notion of leaks,” Bernstein told FCP. “The story didn’t work that way. If you read All the President’s Men [the book Bernstein co-authored with Woodward] the point is, by and large, what Mark Felt did was, he confirmed for us information that we had gotten elsewhere. He gave us very little original information such as Pat Gray was supposedly giving to Bob Smith.”

“I can’t believe we’re still talking about this stuff,” Bernstein continued. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Schanberg Reports: Journalism At A Precipice – Google Et Al Vs. Newspapers

There have been, in recent years, some whopping negatives that temporarily diminished the credibility of the mainstream press – the most egregious of them being the failure to debunk the Bush Administration’s false intelligence that led the nation into the Iraq war.

But the threat that faces the press now has nothing to do with our professionalism or reporting skills. The dark cloud this time is the economic meltdown in the newspaper industry, which is literally strangling the reporting profession.

Computer screens connected to the internet, not newspapers, are where more and more people around the world are getting their news. And the advertising that once supported the newspapers’ biggest expense – the salaries of the reporters and editors necessary to produce professional, reliable information – has also migrated to the Internet. So newsrooms have been shrinking at a hastening pace, as more and more staffers have to be laid off. A number of papers have already folded, while others have gone into bankruptcy proceedings. The staff cuts across the country are so numerous that they are now almost daily news stories themselves.

The bitter paradox of this sea-change is that the news stories that appear on the Internet now are still coming from the same beleaguered newspapers. But not a penny is paid to the papers. The looters simply “aggregate” the news stories by linking to the papers’ own websites. “Aggregation” is the new-age euphemism for grand theft.

Isn’t this illegal? I think so. But the papers were slow to band together and go to court to defend their copyrighted material. They seemed to give up the ghost, accept the looting and begin groping for a new “business model” to replace the lost advertising revenue. As I write this article, with the situation deteriorating, there are some stirrings in the print world to coalesce, get mad and go after the looters. It’s the only way to bring about some fairness, since the “aggregators” are still insisting that their free ride is completely legal.

The biggest violator is Google, the multi-billion-dollar information gatherer and dispenser that sits atop the Internet business world, its coffers over-flowing despite the tanked national economy. As the saying goes, the Google slickers have been laughing all the way to the bank.

And there are a myriad of smaller Internet news and commentary sites doing exactly the same thing.

A leading example is the Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington, a smart, ambitious person on the move, has created a successful website whose advertising supports the comfortable lives of herself and her financial partners. The Huffington Post presents a daily smorgasbord of stolen stories and the blogging rants of Arianna’s wide collection of celebrities and friends who don’t mind not being paid as long as their names and faces are out there.

Arianna has only a handful of paid employees – mostly the worker-bees and techies who do the aggregating and tend to the digital mechanics. After a barrage of criticism that she initially ignored, Arianna recently announced that she plans to spend nearly two million dollars to build an investigative team that will produce original work. It’s about time, Arianna. Let’s see what it produces.

Tina Brown is another, but somewhat different, example. Late last year, the writer and magazine editor started up a competitive news website called the Daily Beast. Though she, too, appropriates stories she also immediately began publishing and paying for original content. Kudos to her – in the hope that she will eventually pay for her purloined content as well.

Those who contend that the Internet will fill whatever gaps are left by the demise of newspapers have been, however, unable to answer the key question: If newspapers become faded relics, who will do the serious investigative journalism that holds government and other power centers accountable? That kind of journalism – so critical to a democracy – has been diminished by the newspaper layoffs, and the Internet has shown little interest in taking on this challenge. Investigative stories are labor intensive. They often take several months or more for a duo or team of reporters to produce. In short, deep-digging journalism is costly. And newspapers have always done the bulk of it.

The cheerleaders for Google and its free-loading sister souls (who include Drudge and Yahoo) say that the Internet was invented to make all information free. Some of these acolytes talk as if they’re rooting for newspapers and their product to die off entirely. But if newspapers disappear and the Google world continues to refuse to do its own original reporting, where will serious journalism come from? Hollywood? Lobbyists? Derivative brokers?

One of Google’s most active cheerleaders is Jeff Jarvis, who teaches at the CUNY Journalism school, does consulting and maintains a blog called “Buzz Machine.”

In early April, Jarvis composed and posted on “Buzz Machine” the “get-lost” speech that he thought the Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, should deliver bluntly to the nation’s newspaper publishers. The latter were then gathered in San Diego at the annual meeting of the Associated Press, a news service co-operative formed by newspapers in 1846.

The running theme of Jarvis’s proposed speech, addressed to the publishers and repeated several times, was: “You blew it.” The language was hostile, nasty and dismissive.

Here are some samples: Jarvis says, referring to the publishers: “They’re preaching up at their own choir loft with angry, self-righteous fire and brimstone about their plight…Well, gentlemen –and that’s pretty much all I see before me: angry, old, white men – you have no right to anger. Instead, you are the proper objects of anger. The public should be angry with you for the poor stewardship you have exercised over the press and its service to society….Yesterday, you delivered a foot-stomping little hissy fit over Google and aggregators. How dare they link to you and not pay you?….Google and aggregators and bloggers are bringing value to you; they should be charging you for the value they bring. You should rise up today and give Mr. Schmidt a big thank you for not charging you. But you won’t, because you’ve refused to understand this new business reality. You blew it.”

Schmidt, who spoke to the publishers on April 7, didn’t deliver the ugly Jarvis speech, but he didn’t offer any olive branches either. His address was narcissistic and self-serving. He told the newspapermen they should reinvent their businesses to be more like Google and the aggregators. He gave no ground on his use of newspaper product without paying.

On the day before Schmidt’s speech, William Dean Singleton, chairman of the Associated Press, had addressed the publishers’ meeting and announced that his news service and its member newspapers (which include the nation’s largest papers) would henceforth take legal action against websites that took the work of news organizations without first gaining permission and agreeing to share revenue with them.

“We can no longer stand by,” said Singleton, “and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.” (The Singleton speech was what Jarvis had labeled “a foot-stomping little hissy fit”)

So, belatedly, the inevitable legal clash has begun.

I hope the story rustlers are made to stop stealing. They give rustling a bad name. But it’s hardly a sure thing.

Google bases the legality of its behavior on something called the “fair use” doctrine that evolved in copyright cases over the years. But this doctrine is now just as antiquated as the typewriter, linotype machines and carbon paper that used to put out newspapers. Just as newspapers have had to revamp themselves because of the new electronics that have utterly transformed the delivery of information, so too must the “fair use” practice be brought up to date to fit today’s technological realities. “Fair Use” allowed someone to use a few paragraphs of someone else’s published work. Now Google and the other appropriators give you a link to the entire text while keeping all the advertising income for themselves.

Still, some key newspaper executives seem hesitant about mounting a serious fight to create a fairer playing field. The other day, Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, chose to disagree with Robert Thompson, his counterpart at The Wall Street Journal, who had said publicly that Google and other aggregators function like “parasites or tech tapeworms.”

According to The Observer, where Keller’s remarks appeared, the Times editor said instead, “Google is one of those companies that we generally refer to as frenemies,” – which he defined as a force that while self-interested was at the same time an “ally” of newspapers. “On balance,” he said,“ they’re driving a lot of traffic to us. I don’t think most of what Google does in that regard could be described as parasitism or piracy.” But what about the other things that Google does that do seem ever-so-much like piracy?

Keller didn’t go near that murky lagoon. He said that The Times was rather pursuing a “carrot approach” in which the paper and Google would collaborate to improve the paper’s web advertising revenue. The idea is to imbed the ads in the text of the articles and thus increase the audience when someone links to the articles from other sites.

While the two sides visibly strain to make nice in public, I can’t help thinking that until the Times gets serious in this struggle, only one side will be carrying a big stick.

A version of this piece was first published in The Silurian News.

FCP November 2008 - May 2009