Monday, June 20, 2005

BLOGGING IN THE DARK. Byron Calame's first real column as the New York Times public editor is about the limits of blogging, though he doesn't explicitly say that. He takes on the Times' recent piece on Aero Contractors, a CIA-affiliated airline that has apparently been used to fly terrorism suspects to countries where they can be tortured.

Calame begins:

A striking number of readers have denounced The New York Times for describing the Central Intelligence Agency's covert air operations for transporting suspected terrorists in a Page 1 article on May 31....

The generally strident e-mail messages demanded to know why The Times had decided to publish information that the readers believe will aid terrorists and make life in the United States less safe for everyone - especially the people carrying out the operation. Most of them didn't seem to be aware that the once-secret air operations had been mentioned in earlier articles and broadcasts elsewhere.

As you can imagine, the story has also been a cause célèbre among conservative bloggers. This blog entry on Just One Minute pulls together a lot of the anger. The weirdest line: "Yes, I find it very suspicious that this story comes out immediately after the arrest of Oliver Stone. A warning shot?"

Anyway, you get the idea: the conservative critique is that the Times exposed an ongoing CIA operation aimed at quashing terrorist operations. Thus, the argument goes, the Times has dealt a serious setback to the war against terrorism.

But wait. As Calame observes, the Times article had little in the way of real news. Rather, it pulled together previous reporting on the subject. Essentially it was the sort of "all known facts" article beloved by editors at the Times. Then there was this bombshell, from reporter Scott Shane, who e-mailed to Calame: "[A] summary of the planned story was provided to the C.I.A. several days prior to publication, and no request was made to withhold any of its contents."

Calame rightly pounces on this as the heart of what this manufactured dispute is all about. He writes:

Since the article was not published until five days after the summary was sent to the agency, the C.I.A. had ample time to protest to the reporting team or to top editors at The Times. But Jill Abramson, a managing editor who was among the top editors who approved of pursuing the project and who later cleared it for publication, said the C.I.A. never made even a "request to discuss" the article before it was published. Nor have there been complaints from the agency since the article was published, she said.

In other words, conservative outrage over the Times article is much ado about absolutely nothing.

But as I said, this is about the limits of blogging. In fact, based strictly on what had been published, and without knowing the inside machinations, the conservatives had a legitimate case to make. It's only after we learn that the Times had taken the extra step of checking with the CIA that the conservatives' case falls apart. That's the problem with blogs, including, at times, this one: what news organizations publish or broadcast is fair game. But when a blogger comments on a story without knowing what may have been going on behind the scenes, he risks making a point that falls apart.

As Calame also notes, what the Times did also raises the question of what would have happened if the CIA had cried foul. Perhaps the paper could have fudged a few details if failing to do so would have put lives at risk. But I certainly hope (and assume) the editors wouldn't have killed the story.


Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that in the three and a half years since the Patriot Act was enacted, Section 215 has been used 35 times - but only to obtain driver's license, credit card, and telephone records, not library or bookstore reading lists. Deeply invested though some of the law's critics may be in the notion that the Bush administration lives to pry into the reading habits of law-abiding Americans, there is simply no evidence to back it up. - Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, 4/10/05

Law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters since October 2001, according to a new study that adds grist to the growing debate in Congress over the government's counterterrorism powers. - Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, 6/20/05


Anonymous said...

The times CHECKED WITH THE F-ING C-I-A???!!!!

No wonder no-one cares about the First Amendment anymore. If the so-called paper of record needs government approval to *REPUBLISH facts which have already been published* then we are in worse shape than I have supposed.

This is the free press that is supposed to challenge power (ANY power, anywhere on the idological spectrum)?

The comic strips and other satires which suggest that if Watergate happened now, the Post would be cowed into silemce, aren't so far from the truth, I think.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with efg. Why is the NYTimes or any other newspaper submitting a story to the CIA for pre-publication review?

A newspaper's proper job is always to expose the CIA's deeds, not to protect them. If that causes a problem for the CIA, tough.

Anonymous said...

This concept of Public Editor is pathetic and vacuous; a doff to a nation presently subsumed by mediocracy.

The hope is that sooner or later somebody in a newsroom somewhere will be struck by the thought of pursuing truth, with probity.

Anonymous said...

Can we assume that Jeff Jacoby penned his screed before the new report of some 200 FBI inquiries into reading habits came to light? If so, it may be an honest, if misguided, outrage at turning seeming molehills into mountains. If, however, the newer report was available, then Jeff either didn't perform due diligence in researching his comments or he was playing partisan shill. Having read Jacoby for many years now, either is possible.

Anonymous said...

That's genius. I suppose that even where it would matter, say battle plans to subdue an insurgent stronghold - if the Times got hold of them, they would simply be entitled to publish them, regardless of consequences.

That sort of silly apology for 'rights' demands a definition of the thing being defended.

A right doesn't exist qua such simply because one asserts that it does.

- also, aren't library records *public* anyway? Supported by public funds, it's not clear to me why they're anything but public records, available to any citizen who asks about them.

Anonymous said...

Not to change the subject, but your observation on "public libraries" just rung a bell in my head about the current battle over public radio (and TV).

Both public broadcasting and public libraries are indeed gov't-subsized (although I argue that, through tax breaks and various other political lobbying, Clear Channel is gov't-subsized, too...but I digrees).

Both receive a ridiculously tiny fraction of money from the government, I might add.

Both are supposed to be for the entire public, although with both the public has somewhat self-selected to be patrons of both, and both have adjusted themselves to better serve those who do make use of the resource.

Both are a wealth of diverse information that inherently challenge the status quo.

Both have earning potential, but generally neither is a real money-maker. Despite recent expansion and large gifts from burgermeisters, it's important to remember that nobody is getting filthy rich off public broadcasting. Making an upper-middle class living? Certainly. Even an upper-class living? For a few, of course. But not really *rich*. Not Lowry Mays (head of Clear Channel) rich, anyway.

Yet for some reason the Republican right-wing idealogues feel the need to enforce "balance" on CPB, PBS and NPR.

If the Bushies tried to hire ombudsman to ensure "balance" at our public libraries people would be screaming in the streets about censorship. WHY AREN'T THEY ALL DOING THE SAME WITH PBS/NPR!?!?!

Maybe NPR & PBS folks should draw the parallel more loudly about finding "balance" in our libraries...because sooner or later someone will try to do just that.

Anonymous said...

It's tough to defend Republicans on their anti-NPR/PBS vitriol. For one thing, apart from being just another word for nothing left to lose, freedom should tend to mean the ability to say what you like without worrying about the ideology police. NPR and to a lesser extent PBS probably do lean a little to the left of Joe Sixpack - but so what? The news programs tend to be quite good, and that's all that should matter. Were they to the left of Michael Moore - then it might be reasonable for Congress to withold funding, but we're not even close to that.

If we should be irritated with PBS, it should be with their importation of inferior British comedies and dramas, and a tendency to put on programs for us 'Micks' right around Pledge Drive time and PD time only.

But then, shitty taste in comedy shouldn't bring in the federales, either.

Anonymous said...

To efg, Ron Newman:

There's nothing to get apoplectic about re: the NY Times vetting this story with the CIA. Allowing a source to review all or part of a story, while not a common journalist practice, does frequently occur when the subject of a report involves a matter of national security or undercover operations, such as in this instance. As Calame noted in his column, the Times was not giving the CIA veto power over any part of the story. Rather, they were providing the agency with a chance to raise an objection if it felt any of the information in the piece would endanger its operations if made public. If the CIA had objected to something, the Times's editors could have said "OK, we can leave out that detail without undermining the piece" or alternately, they could have said "We don't think your objection holds water, we're publishing as-is." By checking with the CIA beforehand, the Times ceded none of its editorial control. In fact, it did the responsible thing: it covered its ass. This sort of thing goes on, not just at at the Times, but at any good news organization reporting on a highly-sensitive matter. It's the hack journalists, like Robert Novack, who go to print with information that endangers US security or undercover operatives.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Dan, I'm surprised to see you defending the conservative bloggers on this (i.e. "without knowing the inside machinations, the conservatives had a legitimate case to make")... Come on! These guys operate under the assumption that anyone who questions the government during a time of war is a traitor who is undermining the anti-terror effort and providing "aid and comfort" to the enemy. There's a complete disrespect for dissent and for the concept of the public's right to know. Of course, though, this only applies to Republicans. When you're dealing with Democrats in power, it's investigate, investigate, investigate!

Anonymous said...

damn right...