The Ugly Reviews the Good and the Bad

 Real life took over this week, so another post from my old class blog. This one written in January 2013. It’s another rambling mess on the Snowden leaks, focusing in particular on the bipartisan consensus on national security and foreign policy. The new post I’m working on is in the same vein. Until I get that up, I hope you find this interesting.

Journalists are often flummoxed when tasked with covering those in the political realm who hold viewpoints outside of the mainstream. On the one hand, one does not want to unjustly vilify such people, as they probably get enough of that already, however, one also does not want to give credence to any particular political belief through their coverage. At the same time, journalists are instructed to “test the accuracy of information from all.” Objectivity is not the end-goal, the reporting of facts is.

Greg Marx’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Covering the Fringe Candidates” offers an insightful overview into how journalists in politics attempt to navigate all three of those demands. It gets points off right away for using the label “fringe,” which implies a kooky, perhaps even dangerous minority, and excludes the possibility that, as libertarian-leaning Reason editor Nick Gillespie wrote for Time, there may be policy positions that have been embraced by a majority of Americans for years that have only recently become major issues in national political discourse.

The analysis within, however, makes up for the sigh-inducing labeling. Marx quotes from Conor Friedersdorf’s piece at the Atlantic who notes that:

a protest candidate that challenges the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, the war on drugs, or civil liberties is ignored, no matter the substantive quality of their arguments on those issues. And if their fans complain, it is pointed out that they don’t have a chance of winning. The salutary effect that protest candidates can have on political discourse even if they don’t win is completely forgotten. (Occasionally, another dodge is used: that Ron Paul, for example, disqualifies himself from serious coverage due to fringe positions he takes on the Federal Reserve or the gold standard. Suffice it to say that all sorts of candidates are covered as serious contenders despite holding positions more lunatic, as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain attest. Paul’s foreign policy critique is serious, coherent and mostly unanswered.)

He wants us to end our unsustainable wars, LOL. (GIF surprisingly not included in Marx’s article.)

Marx adds that “mainstream political reporters” are trained in strict objectivity which, “leaves them needing some outside authority to validate a losing issue position as worthy of attention—and the “bipartisan consensus” is one such authority.” Perhaps news outlets, he suggests at the end of his piece, should start using “reporters who hold a well-defined (and known-to-readers) set of political values—especially when those values are in tension with the bipartisan consensus” to cover political campaigns.

I think this idea would benefit both news/political junkies and the media illiterate. Those immersed in news and politics can read reports about what candidates are saying and doing by journalists who are familiar with the candidates’ ideas, so we might see fewer condescending and simplistic articles which sound like an explorer encountering the strange natives for the first time. Meanwhile, the lucky readers who have yet to fall down the rabbit hole might be able to identify spin and bias more easily if the journalist’s political leanings are allowed to be a part of his reportage.

There is, however, a danger if ideologues are allowed to step off the campaign trail and cover more general political stories; we may see more political hit pieces masquerading as fact-based journalism in generally reputable outlets, such as Sean Wilentz’s cover story for the New Republic.

The problems start at the title, “Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?” Right away, it implies that 1) their arguments and revelations about government surveillance are undermined by what they really think and 2) the author knows what they really think. The article consists of a variety of disparate claims, message board and chat postings, listing events and articles without context in order to convince the presumably left-leaning readership of the New Republic that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Wikileaks founder and activist Julian Assagne subscribe to the same “paranoid libertarianism” which the aforementioned readership should be frightened of. It is all very reminiscent of ‘50s era if-you-are associated-with-X-your-ideas-about-Y-are-invalid-and-can-be-dismissed-by-default sort of reasoning.

Wilentz cites (by “cites,” I mean he drops a publication name and a claim or quote, no links or authors or titles—there are only two links in the 7500-word article), chat room messages apparently made by Snowden in which he comes off as a gun nut, against leakers of classified information, and against welfare recipients.

On the gun nut angle, gun ownership has increased in both Republican and Democratic households in the last decade, so it does not necessarily appear to be a sign of the Snowden’s “developing affinities” for libertarian extremism that Wilentz seems to think it is.

The apparent calls of violence against leakers and the mocking of beneficiaries of the welfare system are harder to defend, but I will caution against using chat logs to derive earnest and not facetious, the thoughtful and not off-the-cuff political positions of individuals. The apparent condemnation of leakers is most damning to Snowden’s credibility for obvious reasons, but here too the inconsistency and hypocrisy Wilentz sees is shoddy. There is a difference between the leaks of intelligence operations that target Iran’s nuclear weapons program that Snowden apparently decried and a policy of surveillance on American citizens that he revealed.

I could go on, but I already passed 800 words for this post. However before I go, I would like quickly to address some of the sillier claims in Wilentz’s article. The wishy-washy insinuation that Snowden could be a spy for Russia (because after all, why is Snowden in Russia, hmmm?), ignores the fact that he could not travel because the U.S. revoked his passport, which left him stranded in Moscow. Iceland, Snowden’s initial destination, turned him down.

Finally, the journalist who Snowden has been working with to leak his information, Glenn Greenwald, is made out to be some sort of libertarian hired gun who will work with those on the left or right if their causes align with his. Wilentz says Greenwald let libertarian-leaning Republican Rand Paul off the hook for his comments on the Civil Rights Act while railing against the Democrats and Republicans. I think I found the Greenwald column in question, though I am not sure since there are no links or proper citations in the Wilentz piece:

There’s no question that Ron Paul holds some views that are wrong, irrational and even odious. But that’s true for just about every single politician in both major political parties (just look at the condition of the U.S. if you doubt that; and note how Ron Paul’s anti-abortion views render him an Untouchable for progressives while Harry Reid’s anti-abortion views permit him to be a Progressive hero and even Senate Majority Leader). My point isn’t that Ron Paul is not crazy; it’s that those who self-righteously apply that label to him and to others invariably embrace positions and support politicians at least as “crazy.” Indeed, those who support countless insane policies and/or who support politicians in their own party who do — from the Iraq War to the Drug War, from warrantless eavesdropping and denial of habeas corpus to presidential assassinations and endless war in the Muslim world — love to spit the “crazy” label at anyone who falls outside of the two-party establishment.

Later in the column:

He [Conor Friedersdorf (hey, here he is again) writing in Newsweek] goes on to note that “these disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.” Indeed, this is true of anyone who deviates at all — even in tone — from the two-party orthodoxy, as figures as disparate as Dennis Kucinich, Noam Chomsky, Howard Dean or even Alan Grayson will be happy to tell you.

Anti-progressive libertarian who you should ignore, indeed. If a person’s ideology cannot fit neatly into the left-right paradigm, it seems they are reacted to as if they are the most dangerous of all.

Go-Bags and the Gladrags

I wrote this back in February for a blog I maintained as a part of a class assignment. That blog was set to “private,” so only the instructor and a few classmates saw it. Before I delete it/forget the login info, I plan on salvaging whatever is still timely and not terrible and reposting it here. Next week’s post will be a new one expanding on the ideas in this recycled screed, and so on. As always. Thank you for reading.

If you can’t respond to their arguments, cast aspersions. Critics of National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden have resorted to retroactive well-poisoning as the increasingly indefensible activities of the U.S. government’s surveillance program are unfolded before the public.

Last summer, NBC’s David Gregory revealed what was to many another example of how the Washington press corps has sided with the government on the surveillance leaks with a shamelessly leading question to Glenn Greenwald while hosting Meet the Press and also suggesting Greenwald isn’t a journalist.

Then, two weeks ago, Mr. Gregory again gave his critics on the NSA story evidence of his deference to Washington’s elite. On a segment of January 19’s Meet the Press, Gregory interviews House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers and Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein on President Obama’s speech on intelligence reform. The transcript of the entire episode is available here. Below is a small clip from the Rogers interview. has hosted more of the Meet the Press idiocy here.

The amount of distortions and misrepresentations on top of the unfounded speculation that David Gregory fails to even acknowledge makes a proper critique of this interview rather challenging, but let us try.

  • Rogers begins with a patently ridiculous analogy comparing Snowden to a janitor at a bank who “figured out how to steal money.” Rogers then declares that Snowden “was a thief, who we believe had some help, who stole information the vast majority had nothing to do with privacy.”

It’s impossible to prove a negative, but all of the NSA documents made public so far deal with surveillance which is inherently related to privacy, or more precisely, the elimination of it.

  •  “Our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines have been incredibly harmed by the data that he has taken with him and we believe now is in the hands of nation states.”

Rogers repeated this assertion elsewhere in the interview, elaborating that terrorists have changed their methods, making them harder to monitor, which puts our military at risk. That claim would have more credence if intelligence agencies hadn’t already issued public reports which explain that terrorists avoid online communication services from companies that have been known to provide access to the U.S. government on request. Terrorists tend to use the “Deep Web,” parts of the Internet not indexed by search engines, and have been using use encrypted messaging software to communicate since at least 2007.

Gregory catches the accusation and asks “Who helped him?”

To which Rogers says, “Well, there were certain questions that we have to get answered. Where some of this aid, first of all, if it was a privacy concern he had, he didn’t look for information on the privacy side for Americans. He was stealing information that had to do with how we operate overseas to collect information to keep Americans safe.”

If I may adapt Rep. Roger’s analogy, this is like the bank’s management, after the janitor revealed they were lying to investors, asserting the leaked information was vital to the bank’s operations.

The Michigan Congressman continues saying, “that begs the question. And some of the things he did were beyond his technical capabilities. Raises more questions.” Some of readers might have identified the rhetorical technique Rogers is employing here.

See anything familiar? Screenshot by author.

Actually, how Snowden obtained many of the documents was revealed last November: colleagues at the NSA gave him logins and passwords after he asked for them.

Next, Rogers drops some sexy spycraft jargon. Rogers said he was investigating how Snowden “arranged travel before he left. How he was ready to go, he had a go bag, if you will.”

How? He bought a plane ticket to Hong-Kong, ultimately headed for Iceland. WikiLeaks and Russians with ties to the Kremlin only reached out to Snowden after he became stuck at a Moscow airport when the U.S. government revoked his passport (source). I’m still waiting for evidence of foreign orchestration in all this.

Now for this “go-bag” business. What could that be? It couldn’t be an actually fairly innocuous item about which information is widely available, including public information pages on government websites, could it? Indeed, as Snowden says in this interview with the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, he had one packed for his work. I would be surprised if the members of Rep. Rogers’ security detail didn’t have go-bags packed and ready too.

Gregory then asks Rogers to speculate on his speculation asking, “But how high level, do you think?”

Rogers indulges Gregory, declaring “I believe there’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, number one.”

It certainly isn’t a coincidence that Snowden needed Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer with ties to the Russian security services (assuming anyone can do anything in Russia without ties to the security services). He was stuck in the Sheremetyevo airport because his U.S. passport was revoked.

Gregory states flat-out what the Congressman is insinuating: “You think the Russians helped Ed Snowden?”

To which Rogers dodges with “I believe there’s questions to be answered there.” The Congressman should get the answers to those questions before attacking someone’s reputation on national television.

Click on the above image to see Cartman’s impersonation of Rep. Mike Rogers. Image courtesy of Comedy Central Press.

David Gregory reminds the viewers that this is “a significant development if it’s true.” A good journalist reminds his audience that unverified allegations are just that. Whether they could be “significant” is immaterial if there is no proof.

Gregory then lets Rep. Rogers give a final, unchallenged string of untruths and deception:

The oversight that is conducted, that’s what is the interesting thing about this. With all the disclosures, we find out, holy mackerel, the court’s involved. Both the Senate and the House committees are involved. There was plenty of oversight of the programs. And it was very restrictive, only 288 times that they even used the business records in 2012.

It turns out the “involved courts” were deceived about the data the NSA was collecting, our fully-briefed Congress has to bring in outside experts to get a grasp on the NSA’s capabilities, and government agencies don’t need to request business records when they have broken into private data centers anyway.

And not one peep from Gregory.