Tuesday, June 27, 2006


The T-word has been enjoying an unwelcome resurgence among the online right ever since last week's disclosure of a "limited" clandestine government program to sift through terabytes of international finance records in search of terrorism leads. Its more charitable denizens have restrained themselves from levying the charge outright, instead preferring to convict the press of such blunted charges as "reckless disregard of our safety" and "sheer prurience." But the right's never been known for its rhetorical punctiliousness, and plenty of commentators have been happy to accuse journalists of treason using the word itself. Now all this may just be standard hypertext hyperbole, but to the extent that these people are even halfway serious, the allegations merits some investigation.

A cursory glance at US history reveals that the government has been exceedingly circumspect in bringing charges of treason and that such cases are extremely unlikely to result in conviction. An AP article from late 2001 on John Walker Lindh notes that our nation has seen "barely 30" cases in 225 years, suggesting that it's a crime not alleged lightly. Wikipedia maintains an international list of people convicted of treason, the American subsection of which contains just seven names. Victoria Toensing, commenting on the Lindh case for the National Review, contends that "[treason cases] are rare because they can only be brought when we are in a military conflict," and 20th-century American jurisprudence seems to bear this out. Dr. Theodore Bolema of the libertarian Mackinac Center for Public Policy buttresses this analysis with a sharp historical observation buried deep within a rebuke of Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm's misuse of the charge:

Treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution, and for good reason. The English Statute of Treasons, which was in effect in the 13 colonies prior to the Declaration of Independence, had evolved into an instrument for suppressing dissent against government policy and for punishing criticism of the king or queen. The U.S. Supreme Court discussed this history in Cramer v. United States (1945). In that decision, the Supreme Court found that historical materials from the time the Constitution was written "show two kinds of dangers against which the framers were concerned to guard the treason offense: (1) perversion by established authority to repress peaceful political opposition; and (2) conviction of the innocent as a result of perjury, passion, or inadequate evidence." Indeed, English courts later interpreted the Statute of Treasons as requiring not just words of opposition, but an act of rebellion.

Perhaps it is not too seditious to suggest that this modern understanding of treason is the right one, and that we can take comfort in knowing that the pre-Revolutionary War Statute of Treasons no longer applies in America.

Cramer, a business associate of two German saboteurs during WWII, was acquitted of treason by the SCOTUS. In a 5-4 decision, the majority found that Cramer's association with the Nazis did not rise to the high Constitutional bar set by Article III, Section 3 which defines treason as ". . . levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Justice Robert H. Jackson offered a more detailed illumination (emphasis mine):
Thus the crime of treason consists of two elements: adherence to the enemy; and rendering him aid and comfort. A citizen intellectually or emotionally may favor the enemy and harbor sympathies or convictions disloyal to this country's policy or interest, but so long as he commits no act of aid and comfort to the enemy, there is no treason. On the other hand, a citizen may take actions, which do aid and comfort the enemy- making a speech critical of the government or opposing its measures, profiteering, striking in defense plants or essential work, and the hundred other things which impair our cohesion and diminish our strength- but if there is no adherence to the enemy in this, if there is no intent to betray, there is no treason.
This overly narrow definition was erected by the Founders, Jackson argued, as a bulwark against the arbitrary and sweeping nature of traditional Anglo-Saxon notions of treason, which "might be predicated on intellectual or emotional sympathy with the for[eign nation?], or merely lack of zeal in the cause of one's own country." We were already past this point in 1787; the casual bandying-about of treason accusations today evinces a poor understanding of US history at best, and a cynical smearing of political enemies by means of a convenient legalish insult at worst. In fact, the rarity of such charges throughout US case history has shifted the word's general connotation from the criminal to the crassly pejorative—indicating that it should seldom be taken seriously, especially by those clearly using it as a weapon.

Note: William O. Douglas dissented from this opinion, claiming that "acts, though innocent by nature, may serve a treasonous plan" [quoted from Wikipedia]. A much more balanced and informed discussion of the controversy over treason's finer points can be found at Vlex. If nothing else, all this examination should impress upon us that the crime in question is far from a simple one, contrary to what many on the right would have us believe.

Monday, June 19, 2006

How The Web Saved Journalism (In Progess)

Pressthink's Jay Rosen has written a justifiably triumphalist retrospective piece for today's WaPo covering the highlights of the Internet's ascent as a force-to-be-reckoned-with in the big-media universe. He covers most of the bases all the cool bloggers rhapsodize about when discussing the medium, including its lower barriers to entry, increased interactivity, stronger feedback loop between audience and publisher, and the unprecedented direct pathway it opens up between newsmakers and the public. Fortunately, Rosen lets us know he understands that Big Media's major malfunction isn't ideological bias or corporate consolidation (although the latter has caused a few secondary problems), but groupthink and hubris:

The day after President Bush was re-elected in 2004, I suggested on my blog that at least some news organizations should consider themselves the opposition to the White House. Only by going into opposition, I argued, could the press really tell the story of the Bush administration's vast expansion of executive power.

That notion simply hadn't been discussed in mainstream newsrooms, which had always been able to limit debate about what is and isn't the job of the journalist. But now that amateurs had joined pros in the press zone, newsrooms couldn't afford not to debate their practices. This is disruptive because if the unthinkable cannot be ignored, professional correctness loses its power.

It should surprise no one that decades of exclusive discussion within the hermetic, rarefied circles of political journalism's most well-known best and brightest might produce a slightly skewed conception of "the public interest." How else could any "respected" practitioner of the trade say something like this and still expect to be taken seriously??
A Pulitzer-prize winning media columnist at the Los Angeles Times, David Shaw, denounced my suggestion after reading about it at Romenesko, an online gathering spot for journalists. He quoted CNN staffers as saying what a terrible idea opposition press would be. Are you nuts? It would instantly destroy our credibility!
Press opposition as credibility-killer. Truly, it boggles the mind—it would have been nice if they'd at least paid lip-service to the Fourth Estate rather than abdicating their democratic obligations straight out of hand. My intuition is that since the muckrake's heyday, successive generations of journalists have driven the profession further and further by degrees from its oppositional origins toward its current state: a quasi-political stream of pap whose main goal seems to be steering clear of criticism. It's not all reporters' and editors' faults; as I hinted earlier, corporate cutbacks have made profit a more pressing imperative, and that means spoiling the reader's appetite as infrequently as possible. But such a perspective makes it very difficult for the news industry to correct its own procedural faults, which is why the task so often falls to the more industrious bloggers out there. And since the peculiarly American journalistic ethos is so oppressively pervasive, it's extremely rare that any organization takes the initiative to break with tradition (Fox and Air America are the only significant outliers in this regard).

The Web has already begun to shake what Rosen calls the "legacy media" out of its complacent stupor, and with any luck it will continue to exert its salubrious influence at ever more fundamental levels. Whether through reform of existing organizations, the rise of new ones, or some combination of the two, the transitional trail we continue to blaze bodes more well than ill for the future.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

My First Linkdump, Part 1

Throughout my travels across the vast reaches of cyberspace, I frequently run across stories, columns, and reports that catch my attention but somehow manage to escape blogical scrutiny. So, I figured I'd do a series of short takes on all the unbroken links gathering digital moss in my Blogger drafts file since August. Here's part 1 (dates indicate when I found the item):

Network television reporters systematically ignore rural America, and then wonder why John and Jane Redstate don't trust them. Nothin' like a strong dose of media underrepresentation to make you really feel special. (9/29/05)

Last year, Newark mayor Sharpe James and the City Council hired a local newspaper to publish a weekly rags-worth of positive propaganda about the city's new community initiatives. Let's hope new mayor-elect Cory Booker will work to create good news the old-fashioned way instead of just purchasing adspace. (11/16/05)

From Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau, a field observation of the media actually doing its job . . . James Kuhnhenn and Jonathan S. Landay compare several of Bush and Cheney's assertions about Iraq to the factual record and actually dare to call some of them "untrue." Come back and read this next time the state of modern American journalism has got you down. (11/17/05)

Jack Shafer wrote yet another column about the future of the news industry back in January, but this one contains a link to a fascinating, brief scholarly history of newspaper technology innovation and industry consolidation. In short: the rise of blogs has dramatically lowered the entry barriers to the journalism business, and traditional newspapers have every reason to worry about their free-falling market share. No shit. (01/31/06)

Creationists and IDers are developing new rhetorical strategies to deal with a society that's gravitating away from their preferred accounts of human origins. Unfortunately, these techniques basically boil down to "well, you weren't there, so you can't prove it," which, if taken seriously, would toss out all pre-20th century history accounts along with dinosaurs and the Big Bang. (2/11/06)

The Bush administration spent over $1.4 billion on advertising contracts (i.e. spin) in the 2.5 years prior to February 2006.
I guess they don't call it the propaganda presidency for nothing. (2/16/06)

A recent paper by two University of Chicago economists offers evidence that media bias has less to do with ideology than concordance with the audience's prior beliefs. Tensions between the desire not to alienate the reader/viewer and the need to come off as credible frame the pursuit and presentation of journalistic "fact." Relevant as I believe lines of research such as these to be, I somehow doubt they'll convince the professional peanut-pelters at outfits like Accuracy in Media and Media Matters. (4/05/06)

More collected bloglets to come in Part 2.

See, This Is What I Was Talking About

Per my spectacularly sage recommendation, eccentric self-made billionaire Mark Cuban is investing in a new investigative journalism web site that will specialize in exposing the seamy underbelly of corporate America for the benefit of everyone with a stake therein, i.e. everyone. Ever the calculating capitalist, Cuban plans to make advance use of the muck his reporters rake together as the basis for investment decisions, which renders the site somewhat epiphenomenal. But hey, if it helps keep the content free, who are we to complain, right?

Remember the address: Sharesleuth.com. Should be interesting, if nothing else.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Terrorism and Media Coverage Thereof: The Vicious Cycle

The WaPo's Richard Morin spotlights a new economic study offering "unequivocal" evidence that news coverage reinforces and promotes terrorism, while terrorism boosts the unit sales, ratings, and eyeballs upon which journalism bases its business. Comparing the number of articles about terrorism in the New York Times and the Swiss Neue Zuercher Zeitung between 1998 and 2005 to worldwide terror attacks during that same period, the authors concluded that the two phenomena both caused and resulted from each other. The terrorists get their message out to their adversaries, and the news industry profits—economists call this kind of alignment between agents with disparate interests a "common-interest game."

The results of this study certainly jibe with the instincts of anyone who's been paying attention since 9/11: obviously the very point of terrorism is to propagate terror throughout a given populace, and I'd bet that time-series data would show that the frequency of terror attacks in the 20th century increased as the mass media extended its reach around the globe. Still, it's difficult to blame journalists for doing their job, and the authors don't: one suggests keeping the identity of the attackers secret in news reports to deny them the publicity they so obviously desire. But even if a few countries could get laws or informal industry agreements to that effect into place, someone somewhere would let the cat out of the bag and onto the Internet, defeating the entire purpose. Besides, keeping secrets only increases the demand for the sequestered information—so the media's grand plan could actually attract more interest to terrorism than would have resulted under business as usual.

Those who advocate ignoring terrorism as a deterrent strategy have stumbled upon a good start, but they fail to take account of the lessons of 7/7: the famous British "stiff upper lip" may have helped the population cope with the tragedy, but it did little to prevent it. There's also the possibility that merely brushing off conventional terrorism may help push its purveyors toward ever-deadiler feats of villainy in the hopes of provoking the existential fear and curtailment of civil liberties that is their ultimate goal. Living without fear is important, but it can't stop terrorism by itself. Implementing effective anti-terror strategies will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century, but unfortunately we haven't found anything that really works yet—and until we do, it, like car wrecks and cancer, will continue to threaten our lives.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

On Structural Media Bias

Ran across an underrated take on the question of media bias today—the author argues that the news industry's prejudices stem not from liberal J-school indoctrination or from unconscious right-wing storylines, but from its own explicit bylaws. Andrew Cline of Missouri State University's argument crystallizes several inchoate media musings that have been floating around in my head for awhile now, the crux of which is that the "structural biases" of journalism tend to predict the ways in which raw political information will be processed, packaged and delivered better than any alleged ideological favoritism. By structural biases Cline means that the capitalist nature of major US media organizations leads them to, inter alia, favor the negative over the positive, the concrete over the abstract, the timely over the ongoing, the unusual over the usual, and to impose narrative wherever possible without regard to propriety. Perhaps most importantly, journalists take every opportunity to promote and reinforce a pro-establishment world view (whether or not this is avoidable is up for debate). They tend only to discuss a narrow, mainstream-focused range of social and political possibilities, and they pass on that blinkered view to their customers, most of whom remain none the wiser.

A couple points came to mind while reading the piece: first, that the status quo bias, while pervasive, doesn't appear to apply to certain types of stories. For example, despite the fact that poll after poll indicates that at least 50% of Americans do not believe in evolution, journalists continue to report news that flatly contradicts the beliefs of this non-trivial contingent. Similarly, the dire tone of recent global warming coverage is at odds with the national majority opinion on the issue. The crucial distinction between these two cases is that the press stands a far greater chance of influencing views on the latter, a complex scientific phenomenon with few religious implications, than on the former, over which most Americans are incorrigibly resistant to persuasion. Such considerations can help us moderate the amount of indignation we decide to muster at the myriad ways in which amorphous facts are hammered and sculpted to fit journalistic conventions.

Secondly, the insight that the press's most pressing bias is structural rather than political suggests alternative strategies for would-be media reformers. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) insisting that news organizations attempt to balance themselves ideologically, perhaps we should concentrate on cultivating a new journalism free of some of the old school's more restrictive principles. Unapologetically partisan blogs offer a hint of what a broader definition of journalism might include, but their potential will remain limited as long as most of them rely upon the newspapers, TV, and radio for raw material. Blogs and other journalistic dissidents will not comprise a true alternative to the likes of CNN and the New York Times until they accrue the resources necessary to rake muck at the same level, which won't happen until enough people get sufficiently incensed at the establishment to start materially supporting innovative news ventures. And until we reach that point, we will continue to deserve the media we get.

Friday, June 02, 2006

What Is the Essence of Quality Journalism?

What is the essence of quality journalism? Can it be fulfilled by a press held captive by market imperatives? Do people even care about being challenged and confronting inconvenient truths, or are they just seeking to have their preexisting beliefs confirmed? Did they ever??

Bill Moyers attempted to answer all three questions in a recent address (link via Kevin Drum) to attendees of PBS’s annual meeting, and though he kept an optimistic tone throughout, his speech left me unconvinced that principled, nonpartisan journalism has much of a future. Moyers approvingly quotes Lyndon Johnson praise of the American public’s “appetite for excellence” and “enlightenment” at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, but that characterization was probably far too generous even at the time. He invokes Salman Rushdie’s assertion that “[s]kepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked, and it is the skepticism of journalists, their show-me, prove it unwillingness to be impressed … that is perhaps their most important contribution to the free world,” but it seems today that skepticism is only marshaled against the man on the opposite side of the debate, so that he is always wrong and we are always right. And when Moyers says he wants to “balance the spin with the evidence, the rhetoric with the record, and opinion with reporting,” he sounds like just another pitchman hawking a product no one wants to buy. And to put it bluntly, that’s precisely what he is.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Moyers—my personal opinion is that he’s a fine journalist—but his definition of what constitutes “good” reporting is hopelessly out of step with the times. Perhaps he might have had a sound argument back in the days of the almighty network triumvirate, long before the Internet allowed non-moguls to take some of the media power back. But people patronize the media sources they consider most worthy of their attention, by whatever criteria they choose to use, and none of the top political blogs offer anything close to PBS’s brand of “objectivity” (the one that comes closest is probably BoingBoing, but that’s written from a center-left nerd/free-culture/hacker perspective). The public loves to carp on and on about spin, but their behavior belies the undeniable fact that they crave it—as long as it's revolving their way.

Just as in other areas of in life, people tend to seek out and attend to those journalisms (and journalists) that pander to their biases, for better or worse. The observation that political information today functions more like entertainment than a critical ingredient for democracy is hardly original, but it's important to note that many other info-markets don't suffer from this problem. When was the last time you heard anyone hurl allegations of bias at Bloomberg, Forbes, or the Wall Street Journal's hard-news coverage? Because investors all share the same goal—increasing their returns—regardless of which side of the political divide they stand on, they can't afford to dismiss news they don't like. Any journalistic interpretation of how the day's business goings-on will affect stock prices would be oriented toward serving that goal. When a given constituency has many interests, some news sources (i.e., political blogs) will choose one subgroup to address, and some (i.e., the MSM besides Fox News) will choose none in particular—but none can choose to satisfy all.

And this is why modern journalism finds itself under such concerted attack these days. The business is facing the first real competition it has ever dealt with, and it is not reacting fast enough to stave off the criticisms advanced by the online upstarts. Bloggers get what the papers and newscasts (again, excluding Fox) don't—people simply aren't interested in engaging with a Habermasian public sphere, they just want their own views reinforced. I agree with Bill Moyers that non-ideological, anti-authoritarian journalism is a high-minded ideal to which reporters ought to aspire, but most of America disagrees with us. We cannot force them to adopt our conception of news quality, nor should we. If the antiquated notion of objectivity in reporting should slip away into the history books, there's not much we can do to stop it. If nothing else, we should find whatever consolation we can in the possibility that more people may be drawn out of political apathy by the new, proud opiners.