Saturday, May 21, 2005

Fool Me Twice? 

By now, it should be clear to anyone watching the Bush Administration that the when the White House starts firing over the bow of the working press— in fact, singling out a particular foe in the press, it's indicative of one sure thing. There’s something big to hide. Creating a major distraction is of the essence.

This week’s episode of Three Card Monte is no exception. Remember when the Boston Globe blew the National Guard story open? No, probably not, since when it happened, during the height of the national election campaign, the Administration promptly launched a struggle to the death with, no, not the Boston Globe, but with Dan Rather and the 60 Minutes production team for the use of a dubious memo in a story with the same angle, effectively shutting down discussion about the actual subject— er, the President’s National Guard service (or lack of it).

We’re presently faced with a similar bombshell in the form of the Downing Street Memo. It nails the Administration for ‘fixing’ intelligence to a preordained policy of invading Iraq—in July of 2002! Wow. Incredible. Weren’t we still debating whether to go to war even in February of 2003, still checking under Saddam’s hood for WMD? Or was that all for show?

But wait, let’s not discuss this. There’s a story that the White House is really, really worked up over just now. It’s about whether some soldiers in Guantanamo flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet. People DIED over this!

No, Scott McClellan can’t even take time to read the Downing Street Memo. So what if it was written by the head of British Intelligence. No reason to either confirm or deny it directly. No matter about the probably 100,000 people's lives or the 170 billion US dollars spent in Iraq. No, some fundamentalists killed fifteen people in, well, somewhere in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it’s all because of a Newsweek reporter!

Wake up everyone. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…?

Downtown Marshall Plan 

It’s interesting to see the relationship discussed here on Thursday being drawn between the West Side stadium development and Downtown revitalization echoed in comments by Assembly Speaker Silver yesterday. Silver’s comments to a meeting of the Association for a Better New York called for a Marshall Plan for Downtown, at the expense of the stadium plan.

The Tightening Circle Around Iraq Intelligence Deception..and a program note 

I must digress for a moment before discussing a recent Juan Cole article to make a policy statement for the Big Diamond. Until now, I’ve refrained from linking to paid subscriber sources, hoping that this would help readers get information on the web from free sources. I’m afraid that this policy has become pretty hard to stick to, given the economics of the web. In the future, I’ll try to quote enough of the gist of any paid subscriber links to keep readers from getting lost without them, but I think I’d be leaving out too much of the web world if I don’t link to any pay-to-read sources.

The announcement that the New York Times will be going to a paid subscriber model soon was the kicker for me. I’ve subscribed to Salon.com and to the Wall Street Journal site for a while now and they’re both great, but I could live without them. Salon in particular has been fascinating and the Journal kept me up on business perspectives I might otherwise ignore at my peril. I haven’t linked to stories on these sites from the Big Diamond, however, because readers need a break from the paid media in the blogosphere. But how can a New Yorker (or anyone who reads good journalism) leave the Times out of blog posts about the city and the country? I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the Washington Post and others follow suit; it’s unfortunate to see how much of our information has become ‘pay-to-read.’

Alas, while I spend all my available cash on news, I’ll have to bow to reality and include some links to these sources; readers can decide on whether to click on them. I’ll try not to make them the main staples here. Nonetheless, everyone who writes or photographs or shoots video for a living has had the experience of realizing that the dead tree and location-specific versions of our work are becoming scarcer. If writers are to make a living, most have to include a web model as well. I guess the Times is looking at the same picture in a corporate way and realizing that they’ve got to make the web pay, since the printed version isn’t growing anymore.

So, with apologies, let’s move on to Juan Cole…

Professor Cole's excellent Salon article on the Downing Street Memo ties together several threads that have been part of the Bush Administration’s Iraq scheming, clear to many of us, but apparently still murky to the mainstream US press, even now. The coincidental happenings around the Newsweek story about the Koran seem to have drowned it out, along with some important questions surrounding one bug-eyed girl’s cold feet on her wedding eve.

The Downing Street memo, as we’ve mentioned here, is the latest smoking gun to show how the Bushies planned for war even before 9/11. The Brits, the memo shows, realized this and planned for it, as early as July of 2002. Cole points out that probably Blair had been painfully aware even in the direct aftermath of September 11 that Saddam was above Bin Laden on the hit list. Remembering the September 11-15, 2001 accounts of insiders Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke, Cole postulates that Blair had to convince Bush to focus on Afghanistan and Al Queda first, in return for his later support for a war on Saddam. With London no doubt on Bin Laden’s short list of targets, the Brits felt they needed to convince Bush to focus on the real threat first, even if it came at the expense of hyping Saddam later.

Cole recounts stories from other sources like Arab-American journalist Osama Siblani, who cite Bush’s explicit promises early in the 2000 primary campaign to Arab-American Republicans that his Administration would take out Saddam. This, Cole notes, occurred well before Bush was privy to any intelligence briefings. On the televised hustings, this promise was never repeated to the mainstream American press, since Bush was cast as the humble candidate who wouldn’t follow in Clinton’s interventionist ways.

Later, during the Afghan military campaign following September 11, Bush was already savoring the Oedipal next step he’d been awaiting since his father’s Administration:

“On Nov. 27 Howard Fineman of Newsweek reported a conversation with Bush aboard Air Force One in the wake of the successful Afghanistan campaign. "He wants to avoid the more profound mistakes his dad made.... his failure, at the end of the Gulf War, to stop -- once and for all -- Saddam Hussein in Iraq from threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction."

While none of this is particularly new, the proof of the deception begins to become undeniable with the Downing Street Memo. As should be clear from tightening the various loose ends around the intelligence, it’s time for some serious, hard questions to be asked and answered. They center on when Bush planned the war, why the intelligence was ‘fixed,’ and what information was kept from the American public in an effort to sell the war to the press and the people.

Despite his unwillingness to engage, Scott McClellan should be asked to take his time, read the Downing Street Memo, speak with his superiors at the White House, and start providing detailed answers to honest questions.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Tale of Two Boondogles 

Our politicians need to get together and decide which endangered development enterprise has priority in Manhattan. Will it be Downtown, the redesigned (or de-designed) Freedom Tower, which seems destined to be occupied only by New York State and Port Authority workers when finally built, since practically no one else seems likely to move in? Or perhaps the Barons or New York will want to put the full weight of their development muscle behind the fabulous Jet’s stadium on the West Side, where paralyzing Midtown traffic, while draining the Metropolitan Transit system of hundreds of millions in cash to give the property to a football team that seats only the wealthiest (see Bob Herbert) ticket holders is on tap?

The cinch is they can’t do both without killing one project’s chances at the expense of the other. Mayor Bloomberg seems to have all his chips on the table for the stadium, in the hopes that NYC will attract the Olympics by having a stadium in Midtown. Governor Pataki has dispatched his chief of staff to see that the Freedom Tower is thrown up, whatever the consequences. But no one seems ready to discuss the insane competition between the two for funding and infrastructure support that has been set up by this dynamic.

It's clear that the two development schemes are in trouble and that both of their cornerstone edifices are probably more trouble than they’re worth. But both together are completely insane for New York. Isn’t it time we started asking our leaders to choose between their sandcastles?

At least the plans for downtown have been developed in a pseudo-open process and address the gaping hole that September 11th left in our city. The plans for the West Side seem more motivated by needing a larger scheme that will satisfy the main goal of having a glistening stadium that the Mayor can call his own. While not a fan of the redesigned Freedom Tower, I can at least get behind the rest of the plan to build a memorial, a museum , and an arts center, along with accompanying office space and housing that will make Downtown whole again, not to mention bringing improved subway and rail transit back.

What will happen to the push for attracting tenants and services to the Ground Zero area when the West Side Stadium plan begins to siphon off more and more development money? What will happen to subway rehabilitation and metropolitan rail work when demands for a subway extension to the Stadium in time for the hypothetical 2012 Olympics ramp up (while the West Side sale gives the MTA only a bargain basement price for their land there)? What will give? How much of what has to give will come out the pockets of New Yorkers who will benefit the least?

As for developing the West 40’s, wouldn’t it make sense to let that area remain open for discussion long enough to entertain plans other than a stadium and to get something approaching the value of the property currently owned by the MTA there in return for letting it go? Can no one think of concepts that could benefit the whole city more than putting a sports arena there? Surely an open competition would generate some options to choose from.

But hey, I’m not running for office, so probably I’m missing the big picture. No doubt I’m missing out on some major contributions as well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A War Unseen 

What’s the value of a picture? If it’s a picture of war, the value is staggering. The main reason the Vietnam conflict became a millstone around the neck of successive American administrations probably wasn’t that it was so pointlessly misbegotten. It was more likely our most unpopular war because it was easy to see how misbegotten and brutal the war was. Every night.

Sydney Schanberg writes in the Village Voice this week about the way this administration has succeeded in keeping the reality of the conflict in Iraq out of our homes. Yes, the embedded reporters showed the rapid progress of the military into Baghdad and the fall of Saddam’s government (and statue). But the pictures of the now routine daily carnage of the occupation have largely stayed off the front pages of our newspapers and the screens of our televisions.

There’s been pressure to keep reporters inside the military’s perspective of the war and away from the faces of the dead. Even for the pictures that are out there, opportunities to see the true ravages of the war are slim in the American press overall. Early on in 2003, the alarm over whether a picture might be aired in advance of a military casualty notification served to begin a process that kept the focus on the legitimacy of showing the consequences of the conflict, rather than on why the public has been shielded from it.

In a column that includes some of David Leeson's Pulitzer Prize winning (but not widely seen) photographs from Iraq, Schanberg asks:

“If we believe that the present war in Iraq is just and necessary, why do we shrink from looking at the damage it wreaks? Why does the government that ordered the war and hails it as an instrument of good then ask us to respect those who died in the cause by not describing and depicting how they died? And why, in response, have newspapers gone along with Washington and grown timid about showing photos of the killing and maiming? What kind of honor does this bestow on those who are sent to fight in the nation's name?”

It's a question we all ought to be asking.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Indie Media 

New Independent Media. Yes, that’s what they’re calling the movement to take small media to the people. I keep hearing great things about the conference sponsored by Free Press on media reform and I’m excited to know that people are gelling around the idea of promoting and collaborating to support indie media, but I’m also concerned that we may be conceding too much of the good old media to multinational corporations and to the right.

One thing strikes me as problematic in the new media excitement and perhaps in the progressive movement generally. I keep hearing the descriptions of projects revolving around terms like “unfunded.” One description in a generally exciting synopsis of the Free Press confab in St. Louis by Peter Rothberg on the Nation site today describes a new progressive TV news network in the following way:

“Operating online and on TV, the idea is to deliver independent news and real debate--without funding from governments, corporations or commercial advertising.”

A progressive network is a great thing; don’t get me wrong. I’m glad people are doing this. Hey, I’m an unfunded blogger. But I’m concerned that in the effort to go around the big media, there’s a basic verity being missed, “Them that has, have the tools to communicate to the most.”

I hope in the effort to put together new independent media, we keep asking the question, “How can we make this self-sustaining?”

Air America, for example, is not commercial-free, but it operates (so far) on the assumption that there is an audience for progressive points of view on the radio airwaves. The bigger blogs are sustained by Blogads, which also help sell other media products to audiences of like mind. The think tanks, which sustain policy wonks, have worked on funding channels to stay alive.

The entrepreneurial thinking of funded progressives may sometimes be culturally incongruous-looking in the indie media movement, but if indie media is to succeed, we need more of it. The Right has made a long-term commitment to tithing cash out of sympathizers in industries, conservative families, direct mail supporters from the middle-class, and for their efforts, they’ve built a movement that threatens to set back American politics back into the dark ages.

Hopefully, progressives can exercise some of the same kind of long-term strategic thinking to bring us forward into the light.

The Right’s campaign to take the media over hasn’t been an overnight success and it may ultimately backfire. But the role of working from their funding channels, training new entrepreneurs to run their own media and political shops, supporting each other through cross-selling their intellectual capital, and the like is undeniably clear in the success they’re having.

All this is simply to say that I hope progressives don’t forget the work that needs to be done to sustain indie media over the long haul. All hail indie media! Let’s keep thinking about innovations that support more of it.

Right Turn on the Air 

The state of our public airwaves is beginning to get more attention, some of it from the targets of attacks on its liberty to operate free of government interference. Bill Moyers spoke out yesterday in St. Louis about the CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s secret snooping, badmouthing, and political labeling of his “NOW with Bill Moyers” guests and their political inclinations:

“The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party gets," he explained. "That's because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth."

Meanwhile, big media consolidation is back in the FCC’s future if the new chair on that board is one of its boosters. Robert McChesney, John Nichols, and Ben Scott, writing for the Nation Magazine, noted that the frontrunner to succeed Michael Powell is a longtime shill for even bigger media, if not exactly a political or policy powerhouse:

“…something of a bandwagon for the appointment of Becky Klein--a former head of the Texas Public Utility Commission--with whom the industry has already developed a cozy relationship. When Klein challenged Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett last year, the Austin Chronicle described her as "a horrible candidate" who appeared to be less serious about winning a House seat than "auditioning for her next GOP patronage job." Despite that fact, Klein collected more than $800,000 in campaign contributions, with a substantial portion coming from telecommunications and energy companies--more, in fact, from those industries than any other first-time GOP candidate in the country. Klein earned just 31 percent of the vote, but as Gene Kimmelman, a senior director of Consumers Union, explained, "Clearly, the companies are investing in the future."

Those of us who care about maintaining an independent media need to keep track of the multi-pronged assault that is underway against smaller and more independent voices on the public airways. If not, we might wake up too late, only to find that the only voices heard by most Americans on free media are bankrolled by the far right or by corporate multinationals.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Covering for Predators, Good...Discussing Theology, Bad 

We’ve referred recently to the chill coming over Catholicism's more progressive intellectuals with the ascent of Cardinal Ratzinger to the Papacy. One of the Cardinal’s last moves prior to his election was the subject of serious concern.

Fr. Tom Reese’s dismissal as editor of America Magazine came in for a pointed response from Tom Roberts, Editor-in-Chief of the National Catholic Reporter on NPR’s On the Media.

Roberts’ comparison of Reese’s punishment for promoting free discussion of serious church issues, as paired with former Boston Archbishop Cardinal Law’s quiet kick upstairs to Rome for presiding over the biggest sex abuse scandal in the Church, was the coup de grace.

The interview is worth a listen— at the link above. “Order from on High— May 13, 2005 broadcast.

Censor's Chill Spreads to NPR 

The Republican effort to censor public broadcast media continues. Stephen Labaton reports today in the New York Times on CPB chief Tomlinson’s efforts to fight ‘bias’ at NPR. Tomlinson has his minions counting stories with what he considers a ‘pro-Arab’ slant on Middle East coverage by NPR.

If anyone was wondering if his position with US government-run media was really a conflict with his position overseeing public broadcasting, look no further. The same story reports:

“Besides his role at the corporation, Mr. Tomlinson heads the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises most United States government broadcasts overseas, including those of the Voice of America. He has continued the policy of his predecessors on that board of blocking NPR from putting its programs on a Berlin station that the German government gave to the United States in the early 1990's after reunification. NPR, which has a significant presence overseas, has long sought to enter Berlin, the largest radio market in Western Europe.”

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Static at CPB 

CJR Daily and Paul McLeary in particular have covered the recent coup at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with insightful detail. Kenneth Tomlinson, the former Readers Digest executive and longtime Republican Party propaganda expert at VOA, is now the Chairman of CPB. His censoring habits as the head of another board are now coming in for scrutiny.

In his latest piece on Tomlinson and CPB, McLeary writes:

“…it's curious that little of the coverage has mentioned that he is also the chairman of the influential Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all non-military U.S. international broadcasting. The BBG, which shares $1 billion in federal funding with the State Department, controls the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East Television Network (MTN). While reporters who work for VOA and the other government-funded networks have long asserted that they are producing journalism, as opposed to government propaganda, given Tomlinson's performance at CPB, one wonders about the wisdom of putting him in a position to oversee both pro-government foreign broadcasting and non-partisan domestic broadcasting. While the two are certainly separate, this smells of a conflict of interest that might warrant some more press coverage…”

Let’s hope it does.

If the Brits Knew, Why Didn't Most Americans? 

The Washington Post has finally picked up a story from across the pond that shows British Foreign Intelligence briefed PM Tony Blair in July 2002 that the Bush Administration had already decided to go to war with Iraq. Blair would have to decide whether to get on board or break with his American counterparts in the aftermath of September 11.

"The case was thin," summarized the notes taken by a British national security aide at the meeting. "Saddam was not threatening his neighbours and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

The notes were first disclosed last week by the Sunday Times of London, triggering criticism of Blair on the eve of the May 5 British parliamentary elections…”

Blair’s Labour Party came out of the recent elections with a government greatly weakened by his lack of candor over Iraq, which most Britons oppose him on.

“The notes of the Blair meeting...disclose for the first time that Britain's intelligence boss believed that Bush had decided to go to war in mid-2002, and that he believed U.S. policymakers were trying to use the limited intelligence they had to make the Iraqi leader appear to be a bigger threat than was supported by known facts.”

Readers should thank Juan Cole for following the migration of this story from the Times of London to Knight-Ridder and finally to the Post. Once again, the British know more about what our government is doing than we do.

UPDATE: 'Meet the Press' has taken up the question this morning as well, with the BBC's Katty Kay bringing up the subject of the intel report in response to Russert cheerleading that Blair and Bush have put all this faf about Iraq to rest. Kay mentioned that the "one question" in Britain now is when Blair will step aside for Gordon Brown.

MORE UPDATE: For the entire text of the Downing Street Memo, click on the link.

Link via Richard Cranium.

STILL MORE UPDATE: Paul Krugman writes in Monday'sTimes about the Downing Street memo. It's on.

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