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December 25, 2005 - Now and then you have a "pile-on" day...

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Tuesday, December 20th, was one of those "Now what?" days. The transit strike in New York got underway and just about everything ground to a halt. Mayor Bloomberg was on television and very angry, and since those striking are members of a public service union and not workers for any corporation, he said the strike was illegal and he would not negotiate with these folks until they returned to work, and they'd each be docked two days pay for each day they didn't work - and a judge decided it would be a good thing to fine the union one million a day for each day the strike continued. The last strike, in 1980, lasted eleven days. This one will last a while too, given all this. Everyone is angry and no one is talking.

"Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, is amused. Such things are a matter of course over there. Who's on strike today? In the Métro shut down at the moment? He came across this on Craig's List - rideshare information for New Yorkers - and this, the union's site on exactly what's shut down and why and what the issues are. As a long-term resident of Paris he's on the case, but the high-powered Wall Street attorney with his office more then thirty floors above Battery Park, who is sometimes quoted in these pages, phoned from central New Jersey. He worked from home. Things were just fine somewhere between Rutgers and Princeton.

With all five boroughs of New York in a mess of course Tuesday was the day to pile on the New York Times. As mentioned elsewhere, late Monday here, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek had said this - "I learned this week that on December 6, Bush summoned Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office in a futile attempt to talk them out of running the story. The Times will not comment on the meeting, but one can only imagine the president's desperation."

Well, they ran the story, but after they had sat on it for a year - and there were scattered reports that there had been internal dissention at the Times, as some there felt it should have been run when they first had the story, before the presidential election - see the summary at Editor and Publisher here. That would have been interesting.

Tim Grieve here does a rant, with the obvious key points. When we all were preparing to vote thirteen months ago the Times knew the Bush administration had been lying about Scooter Libby's role in the outing of Valerie Plame. Judy Miller knew and she had discussed that with her editors and everyone agreed it was "protect your source" time. They didn't tell their readers about Scooter. At the same time it seems they also knew the Bush administration had been spying on American citizens in clear violation of an act of Congress. They didn't tell their readers - the administration told them that would compromise national security. They caved, or were patriotic, depending on your point of view. (But Grieve, to be fair, points out that the Washington Post and Time magazine also knew about White House involvement in outing that CIA agent, "but chose to let Scott McClellan's denials stand through Election Day in favor of protecting their sources.")

Grieve takes this position –


Would any of it have made a difference in November? We'll never know because journalists decided to keep the news to themselves until long after the voting was over. In the statement he released Friday, Keller said it's not the Times' "place" to "pass judgment on the legal or civil liberties questions" raised by Bush's secret spying plan. But it is the Times' place - it is a journalist's responsibility - to report the news, especially when that news involves the possibility that crimes were committed by the highest officials in our nation's government.


Yeah, and you do that and you get raked over the coals for undermining the war on terror and no Republican will ever speak to one of your reporters again. You will have no sources inside the party that holds the executive branch, both house of congress and most of the judiciary. No more scoops, but then, no more being spun and used. Gee, it's hard to decide whether you want to be the stenographer of those in power, or an outsider looking in. The Times seems caught between deciding whether to be the official historians of the Bush administration, or outsiders digging for truth, in the manner of the late Jack Anderson and the Knight-Ridder folks. Of course, the job of being the "court stenographer" of the Bush administration, has already been taken, by Bob Woodward, or so says Howard Fineman, wondering whatever happened to news reporting from the outside looking in.

Arianna Huffington is even more blunt than Tim Grieve is with this


What else is the Times sitting on? How many other instances of Bush administration illegality has the Times been "satisfied" that we don't need to know. Could we at least have a rough estimate?

There's been much talk about the bubble that George Bush lives in, but if he ever finds that his model is too porous, he should check out the one that Sulzberger, Keller, and the Times have crafted for themselves.

Even after the Miller fiasco, it's clear that those in charge of the Times still haven't figured out the fundamental nature of the crisis that has arisen between the paper and its readers. So let me spell it out for them:

The paper is in grave danger of losing its relevance because the public can no longer trust that the very first instinct of the Times when it comes across a piece of news is, "Is this something important for our readers to know?" instead of, "Who might we piss off if we publish this?"

The future of the Times hinges on its ability to convince its readers that its loyalty flows to the public and not to the powers-that-be.

After the Supreme Court freed the Times to resume publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Times managing editor Abe Rosenthal was asked whether some degree of antagonism between the government and the press was "a sign of good health in both parties." He replied: "I think it is. I don't think we'll ever see the day, nor should we see the day, when we're in bed together."

It's a tragedy that Abe's crystal ball gazing turned out to be so wrong.


That about sums it up. Some us would like a paper that has as its daily mission asking the question, "Is this something important for our readers to know?" But then you'd piss off your sources. It's a puzzle.

Would you go with something like this - in an interview with Wolf Blitzer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that the president's decision to authorize domestic spying without any warrants was fine because he had cleared it with "The Highest Legal Authority In The Country," the Attorney General? As noted here, any veteran of an eighth grade civics class can tell you the highest legal authority in the country is the Supreme Court, and "Rice's position illustrates the problem with this administration - the belief that the power of the executive is unchecked."

Yeah, it's a minor thing. Rice keeps saying in these interviews, "I'm no lawyer, but...."

No kidding, Condi.

On the other hand, the Times sort of redeemed itself Tuesday, December 20th, with this item from Eric Lichtblau, sure to piss off the FBI - "Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show."

The Times is reporting on the fruits of a series of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Now Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, pretty much the official voice of the Bush administration, has said the ACLU are terrorists - he thinks they're sort of Nazis. The Times, reporting this, now seems willing to incur the wrath of Roger Ailes' Fox News and the FBI and the rest of the administration by reporting on this. What's up with that?

Of course they do report that FBI said Monday that their investigators "had no interest in monitoring political or social activities and that any investigations that touched on advocacy groups were driven by evidence of criminal or violent activity at public protests and in other settings."

The rest of the item undermines that assertion –


After the attacks of September 11, 2001, John Ashcroft, who was then attorney general, loosened restrictions on the FBI's investigative powers, giving the bureau greater ability to visit and monitor websites, mosques and other public entities in developing terrorism leads. The bureau has used that authority to investigate not only groups with suspected ties to foreign terrorists, but also protest groups suspected of having links to violent or disruptive activities.

But the documents, coming after the Bush administration's confirmation that President Bush had authorized some spying without warrants in fighting terrorism, prompted charges from civil rights advocates that the government had improperly blurred the line between terrorism and acts of civil disobedience and lawful protest.

One FBI document indicates that agents in Indianapolis planned to conduct surveillance as part of a "Vegan Community Project." Another document talks of the Catholic Workers group's "semi-communistic ideology." A third indicates the bureau's interest in determining the location of a protest over llama fur planned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.


The Times is entertaining the idea that the administration sometimes doesn't tell the truth? How odd. One suspects they need to regain some appearance of "investigative journalism" to remove the sense that they'd become administration stenographers. So for the last week the ACLU provided the Times with the goods, and they ran with it.

As you recall, the FBI had previously turned over a few documents on antiwar groups, showing their interest in investigating "possible anarchist or violent links" in connection with antiwar protests and demonstrations at the time of the nominating conventions. A little suspicious, and earlier this month, the ACLU Colorado chapter released other documents involving the FBI keeping files on people protesting logging practices at a lumber industry meeting three years ago. Damn, those terrorists are everywhere.

Times scoop is that the latest batch of documents, released Tuesday, shows the FBI has files on the animal rights group PETA, the environmental group Greenpeace and the Catholic Workers group - as they promote antipoverty things and "social causes."

And note the details –


One FBI document indicates that agents in Indianapolis planned to conduct surveillance as part of a "Vegan Community Project." Another document talks of the Catholic Workers group's "semi-communistic ideology." A third indicates the bureau's interest in determining the location of a protest over llama fur planned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.


The FBI has been busy on the terrorism front, depending on how you define terrorism. Maybe spending money and manpower on the protest over llama fur is a stretch, but al Qaeda is devious. You never know.

Anyway, the Times is deadpan here and devastating. It's as good as the previous MSNBC scoop on the military, the Pentagon's field activities folks, keeping close watch on the educational group at the Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth, Florida - those mothers and grandmothers having a potluck dinner to discuss how they felt about military recruiting at local high schools. Well, they might have been dangerous terrorists, no? The Defense Department refused to comment on how it obtained information on the Lake Worth meeting or why it considers a dozen or so anti-war activists a "threat." Mum's the word.

The Washington Post piled on too with their item on the ACLU files. They noted the FBI compiled a contact list of students and peace activists who attended a 2002 conference at Stanford University about ending sanctions then in place in Iraq. And they note the ACLU files showed the FBI was keeping files on the ACLU itself. Cool.

Those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh know the Post-Gazette is a thin excuse for a newspaper, but their editorial on the NSA domestic spying scandal on the 18th ended with a curious contention - "The idea that all of this is being done to us in the name of national security doesn't wash; that is the language of a police state. Those are the unacceptable actions of a police state."

That was before the ACLU released what the got from their FOIA requests. We'll see what they say next in Steel City.

But wait. There's more.

We see here that the Pentagon's anti-terror investigators labeled gay law school groups a "credible threat" of terrorism. Well, who would have imagined!

That's from the source document MSNBC obtained from the Pentagon, and note this


Only eight pages from the four-hundred page document have been released so far. But on those eight pages, Sirius OutQ News discovered that the Defense Department has been keeping tabs NOT just on anti-war protests, but also on seemingly non-threatening protests against the military's ban on gay service members. According to those first eight pages, Pentagon investigators kept tabs on April protests at UC-Santa Cruz, State University of New York at Albany, and William Patterson College in New Jersey. A February protest at NYU was also listed, along with the law school's gay advocacy group "OUTlaw," and was classified as "possibly violent."

All of these protests were against the military's policy excluding gay personnel, and against the presence of military recruiters on campus. The Service Members Legal Defense Network says the Pentagon needs to explain why "don't ask, don't tell" protesters are considered a threat."


Well, these folks shouldn't ask. They won't be told.

But something is up here. The news organizations, even the New York Times, seem to be looking into some mighty odd things. And that fifth-rate paper in Pittsburgh may have actually nailed it.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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