Wednesday, July 28, 2010

92,000 government secrets aren't secret any longer

Something there is that doesn't like secrecy in government.
Democracy. That's what.
Journalism in its moments of freedom can be the strong right arm of government by the people, for the people and of the people.
The other strong arm is a standing army under civilian control.
The result: Conflict, thy name is warrior vs. journalist.
Soldiers have a fundamental right of secrecy to protect their own lives from disclosure of troop movements, tactical strikes before they happen and critical knowledge that would give aid and comfort to an enemy.
Reporters have a fundamental need and right to transmit a broad picture of the battlefield so people will know what their citizen-soldiers are up to and up against.
The proper balance between the competing values of a warring democracy seems intact after a huge test disclosing government secrets from the interminable war in Afghanistan. 
We are hearing the predictable screams about lack of patriotism by leakers of secrets.
When values of military good order and the citizen right to know collide, however, you can make a case that it's honorable to publish -- as long as no one gets hurt.  
The publication of  -- how many? -- 92,000 low-level classified documents from the war in Afghanistan makes me feel better about our balanced freedoms.
The same act must set teeth on edge in the Pentagon.
The price of democracy is bruxism by the generals.
The military-political complex responded to the document disclosure by WikiLeaks in the predictable, quaint way of the past.
"Nothing new...old stuff...threat to national security...could endanger soldiers."
Yeah, well, if the information is obsolete, how can it endanger anyone?
Disclosure provides the Taliban an enemies list, officials say.
You mean to tell me the enemy needs our help to list victims for ambush and assassination and roadside bombs all on its own?
WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 documents until it could redact names of individuals whose lives really could be endangered. 
Critics also said the information didn't advance the public debate abut the war. Their point is the benefit didn't outweigh the danger of disclosing stolen secrets.
Actually, we've never had as good a look at the war and the rationale for or against prolonging it still further. That's partly because disclosure coincided with a congressional vote on continued war funding. The leaked secrets proved their worth by that timing alone.
The reporting lacked credibility, another complaint goes, because official sources didn't approve the release of information.
Yeah, well, government never was going to reveal what the leakers did. And Washington itself doesn't enjoy credibility with the people. Too many secrets!
The New York Times, which along with The Guardian in England and Der Spiegel in Germany had a head start on parsing over the secrecy archive, verified information in the trove with its own reporting for the sake of credibility.
Still, a whistle-blowing competitor labeled WikiLeaks an "information vandal."
That's a really nice phrase someone manufactured there. But "information rebel" seems more to the point.
If we're to make our way democratically in this time of information revolution, we'll need more data patriots to do their jobs.
"All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people," The Times quotes the website.
"We believe this scrutiny requires information."
War ordinarily demands secrecy.
But Afghanistan  is our longest conflict ever without solid purpose, goals or resolution.
We've waged it with both of our good, democratic arms tied behind our back: It's not the people's war they know enough to understand or to support, and their military mightily labors against treacherous allies who aid the furtive enemy on uncertain moral and geophysical terrain. 
We've been climbing the Hindu Kush with a backpack full of dead weight and an ammo pouch filled with rocks.
The transparency WikiLeaks and the cooperating news media strive for should actually help the cause by opening the eyes of Americans. Their involvement then could aid the prosecution of the war or hasten withdrawal.
Resolution at last! One way or another.
Quit grinding your teeth, generals. The armed forces are better off either way. 
Oh, it's irksome to government for documents to be compromised -- possibly by a PFC under suspicion. A private first class? Really!
Logic inquires who bears the greater blame -- the leaker or the officials who preside over such a readily compromised treasury of secrets.
The degree of official pique over the publication is a measure of Washington's distance from its own democratic roots.
We have a need to know, we the people do. And government has a need for our informed consent of its wars, if conflicts are to be won.
"Beware the fury of an aroused democracy," Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the Nazis in 1942. Ike presided over the secrecy of D-Day to our great joy and success in World War II. But he knew enough to cultivate media so the home front would fall in step behind the military push.
Freedom feeds on disclosure. Oddly, so does war when waged by a people aroused by information.
The equation of secrecy and disclosure balances itself out in a healthy democracy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Privacy in Wonderland: We all wonder where it went

Shirley Sherrod could bring a libel suit against her tormentor.
She suffered loss of reputation. She suffered job loss. She suffered.
The African-American civil servant in the Georgia office of the U.S. Agriculture Department started a perfectly ordinary week in wonderful anonymity.
But she tumbled into the blogosphere as innocently as Alice assailed by a Mad Hatter and the madding crowd of the right wing wonderland.
Then she emerged with an apology from President Obama, a better job offer from Ag Secretary Vilsack and vilification as racist turned on its head into stoic civil-sainthood. She was never the person portrayed by a blogger.
No wonder there's talk of libel.
The whole case presents itself as a study in the politics of vilification abetted by the digital speed of the modern communication mode measured more by moments than calm reason.
Too many tick-tock white rabbits running down too many media holes.
No wonder lawyer talk is out and about.
A defamation court, however, would have to deal with the fact Ms. Sherrod fell into a Georgia privy but emerged sweet-smelling and clutching the reward of a better job offer and notoriety transformed into celebrity. Where is the damage now? A judge must ask.
How much better for her and for us if she were to bring a privacy suit for being dragged unwilling into false light.
The invasion of her right to keep to herself, do her job and control her own destiny suffered permanent harm. She forever will endure indignity as victim-symbol of quick-trigger misinformation.
Tremble, all you who enter the new world of communication. (That's all of us, if you wonder.)
FOX news and its imitators -- collectively a causative factor in the media climate raining rabid cats and mad dogs all over Shirley Sherrod -- long ago cost us any expectation of fairness and accuracy in public affairs reporting.
Truth is no longer an expectation.
The one comfort any of us might retreat into had been the expectation of privacy: If we were not a public person, "they" couldn't get to us.
The experience of a no-longer-private person in government service shows any of us could suffer the same loss of a basic right.   
"They" can get to a nameless, faceless bureaucrat. "They" can get to any of us.
And who is "they?" Anyone with an Internet connection and a story to bait media attention.
A judicial ruling to counter privacy invasion would do our New Media society far more good than libel damages, if any.
We are all Alice, tip-toeing through the  media mind-field of sinkholes leading to anguish, not tea parties. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Get camera. Make documentary. Be a journalist.

Documentary film is in.
Reality storytelling is all over HBO, Hulu, Netflix and Redbox.
(What wonderful names we have for our new-style movie distributors! Makes you wonder what would happen if newspapers had catchy names more with the present media age!)
Sundance and filmfests that wish they were Sundance feature documentaries alongside fictional films. The corollary is book publishing where houses are saying new taste turns to non-fiction over fiction.
Narrative non-fiction in book length is some of the best journalism around.
Documentarians who use film to produce journalism deserve the same respect.
Michael Moore, the polemicist filmmaker, doesn't always get a lot of respect because of his ambush interview technique. He gets called names by the executive class of companies and government. They consider themselves his victim more than subject. In truth they make themselves into Moore's camera fodder.
A lot of people chafe under the treatment they get from CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" too. But no denies Morley Safer and Mike Wallace are journalists.
Ken Burns may look like a history documentarian. But his topics -- civil rights, baseball, the national parks -- have an edginess that comes with a point to be made by a journalist. 
One weird way to be sure if a media producer is a journalist is to look in federal court.
Joe Berlinger thinks he won a First Amendment ruling on outtakes to his film, "Crude."
Chevron wanted all his unused footage from the documentary about that company's legal fight with Ecuadoreans who allege an oilfield contaminated their water.
Berlinger will have to give up some but not all his film Chevron originally sought from his cutting-room floor. He'll have to meet the legal standard all journalists can face of surrendering material necessary to administer justice in a court of law.
The court by extension established this documentary filmmaker is an investigative journalist as surely as one employed by a newspaper or network in old media days.
Berlinger won the courtroom concession to stand in journalism's ranks by the way he partially won and partially lost the case over what journalists want to think are sacred but are not necessarily -- their notes.  
The media industry likes to say it's hard to tell exactly who is a journalist in these new media days. People who believe they control or at least speak for the industry want to control who can be in it.
Like an over-controlling parent, naturally, they are losing control.
With an implied journalism license issued by central-control figures such as media execs and narrow minded journalism practitioners, perhaps not everyone deserves the benefit of the First Amendment, goes that unfortunate logic.
But every citizen does deserve the protection of freedom of expression.
This digital age makes any person with a camera and a computer into a citizen journalist with equal opportunity to be discovered on YouTube if not HBO, Hulu, Netflix and Redbox via Sundance and all the rest.
We all may become documentarians in this ComRev as I call the communication revolution.
In that case we will all be journalists with the same right of free of expression some would reserve only to themselves.
The whole concept sounds as though it would make a good documentary film.
Documentaries are in, you know.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fill all the shadowlands with public access sunshine

The export-import trade in First Amendment freedom thrives as an issue, not a sure thing.
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, went a little beyond his Middle America territory. Al got press and governments in Zambia and Botswana debating the merit of public access to government records.
Funny thing: The Anniston, Ala. schools reporter lamented to me at the same time how handicapped she is by the board of education she covers. Superintendent and elected school officials won't let her see the documents they are working from until after they vote on an issue.
She is unable to alert her online and print audience of the problems under discussion until it's too late.
Her state enacted one of the earliest and best -- on paper -- open records and open meeting laws. She has a supporting attorney general's opinion  to wave under the noses of the poobahs of old-school think. Yet the free press values Al Cross promoted in Africa constantly need tending right here all the time, as the education reporter re-discovered.
Maybe Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of expression, as the Bill of Rights states, but local high-pockets work all the time to stymie reporters.
Yes, it's much worse abroad.
As a Fulbright Professor at American University in Bulgaria, I taught journalism in Blagoevgrad at a Stalinist building that previously housed the Communist Party, which was founded on that spot.
My eastern European and near-Asian students included Serbs and Croats, Muslims and Christians from throughout the Balkans and beyond not long after the last war just over the Bulgarian border with Macedonia.
Those journalism students would have loved to struggle against our school board problems instead of contending for their lives in that rough neighborhood.
Tell me I was wrong. The message I taught was to make sure it's worth your own life or personal freedom before you perform American-style journalism in the barely post-communist world as we do in the U.S.
National life is much more what Al Cross had in mind.
He's a friend and colleague. I advise his Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. And we worked together at the old Courier-Journal in Louisville, where Al as chief political writer was always causing the sun to shine in on furtive government and politics.
With an election coming up in Zambia, the current University of Kentucky professor picked the ideal time and the ideal message to propose a U.S.-style Freedom of Information Act.
Not that our FOIA is perfect in every instance of execution.
But it's a good starting point for the ruling-party officials and journalists Al addressed as a guest of the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Botswana.
He was denounced as an outsider, of course, by a lieutenant general who also is the official Zambia spokesperson. That was so expectable as to be ho-hum.
I say there is no "outside" where liberty is concerned.
And Al's message was supported publicly by a leader of the Press Council of Botswana. The gentleman got his point that everyone stands to gain from open records -- not just reporters.
People generally and mistakenly believe press freedom exists only to benefit not average citizens but the relatively few who make their living in media.
Al seems to have spoken over the heads of journalists and public officials to the African public: Plain folk are the ones who always benefit from openness.
That was the whole point of the Alabama education reporter who merely wanted to tell her audience what's going on with the schools they finance for the elected but clandestine school board to run.
Al Cross is a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is quite right to call on American journalists to promote the role of news media in  democratic -- and I would add "other" -- societies.
I merely stop short of sending reporters to pointless deaths, Al.
But I am proud to be a part of the freedom export business.
Now, let's talk about importing the value of press access to shadowlands such as the local school board.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Enlightened journalism feeds the soul and the body

"You don't go into a bar to get sober," said Larry Werner.
He wasn't just a common sense drinker.
Larry surfed the wave of consumer reporting that rose in the 1960s and 70s at enlightened newspapers. He developed the beat for The Courier-Journal, which in those days never saw a rising tide in journalism it didn't want to crest from its Kentucky seaside of distinguished publishing.
The separation between news and advertising at papers sliced through media waters sharper than fins on a surfboard. So it was only natural to create a reporting beat that actually worked against advertiser interests.
Today's media have made an, ahem, accommodation.
Always true has been that journalism enjoyed all the ethics it could afford. As publishers and broadcasters and Internet entrepreneurs quest for an elusive, new business model for themselves, the balance shifts from consumer interests to commercial interests.
Truth in advertising, truth in labeling, truth in contracts used to create targets for consumer reporters who honed in on abusive practices like sharks on a surfer's toes.
Their movement reversed the old caveat emptor into "let the huckster beware."
The spirit is willing in broadcast, print and online newsrooms. But the flesh is weakened along with all beat reporting. The economy, you know. And the com-revolt. It's remaking reporter-made news into audience participation news.
Still, the cycles of media attention (let's not put them down as mere fads, shall we?) still function to expand the topics of journalism.
Food journalists are the new consumer  reporters. Not recipe writers. Food journalists. Real food. Real journalism.
And the guy at the top of his form is Michael Pollan, author of five books and the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
Now, he is a common sense drinker. And eater.
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," is the mantra of Pollan's In Defense of Food, An Eater's Manifesto. (Penguin Books, 2008, ppb., $15).
The way he parses those three ideas in 244 pages creates a stylist's model for journalists in developing their ideas. As in The Omnivore's Dilemma and especially The Botany of Desire, the writer's wit is the sucrose that makes the fiber go down.
And the plain talking trinity of concepts -- true food, not much, mostly plants -- hands everybody a flashlight in the grocery gloom of our plentiful but unhealthful eating habits.
If a package says "nutritional," it probably isn't. If a single serving size could feed a half dozen, let those other six people have it. If processed food is the way you get your veggies, roll your grocery cart over to the produce section or better yet to the local farmers market.
Pollan proves we have industrialized and marketed our food chain until it's wrapped around our obese and diabetic necks.  What we eat in the way we eat and in the amount we eat it is killing us.
You can't say, "Listen to your Mom," Pollan warns, because corporatization of our corporeal-ty goes back so far it sucked the old girl in too.  
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm turned off by the goody-two-shoes admonitions of consumer-ites about "read your insurance contracts" and "mind your peas" and fast food queues.
I don't need baleful finger-wagging or excited arm-waving.
Give me common sense. Pollan does.
He makes my wife's spinach gently braised in olive oil and tossed with mushrooms and chevre with a nice glass of Cabernet on the side go down smoothly because of -- not in spite of -- his scientific reporting.
News organizations rattle their chains, locked into ethical conflicts of interest with grocery ads and cereal commercials and spots for the food web of restaurants -- scene of our crimes against the nourishment of our own bodies.
So Pollan and other food journalists have an impact in counter-intuitive stories that promote healthful eating. Student journalists show an interest in taking up the cause.
Oh, contrarian journalism looks like a drop in the bucket of greasy fried chicken, reprocessed potatoes layered with hydrogenated fats and 20 secret chemical and synthetic additives.
But the history of movements in media is that crusading journalism works when the facts are right, the message is simple and the warning is commonsense.
You don't go into supermarkets and fast food restaurants to get healthy, you know.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Classic lit for soldiers, football players and journalists

British boys schools and American military academies assign Homer as must-reading for plebs.
Soft young minds need the bloody joint-crunching of the Trojan War to juice up the impulse to wage war for queen and country or for flag and country.
Classical literature stands as the best military field manual ever written. How violent is the species human. Always has been.
Hand-to-hand combat starts in the mind that transforms what otherwise would be the anti-romantic, organized maiming of enemies into socially acceptable pretense of civility.
War is what Carl von Clausewitz called diplomacy by other means. How politically correct-sounding.
The NFL is gladiator society that will do until we next demonize another foreign enemy and set upon him with spear or pike or bayonet.
We have to be taught to hate, says a line in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.
We have to be taught to transform hatred into battle and to settle between wars for their somewhat milder alternative, American football.
All the tactics and strategy and attempts to intellectualize the game -- or the battlefield -- cover up the effort to hurt the other guy before he can hurt you.
So I'd simply give freshmen and cadets chapter one of The Blind Side by narrative journalist Michael Lewis.
Journalists should read the passage to see the less banal side of sports and to envy the style of the writer. His timing and controlled release of information condenses the violence of pay-for-view bone-breaking into 12 white-knuckle pages.
They begin: "From the snap of the ball to the snap of of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five."
And the opening is prelude only -- a back story of how the left tackle position evolved to fend off the  bonecrusher Lawrence Taylor and his imitators coming after quarterbacks. By extension the account  explains how Michael Oher rose from impoverished obscurity to protect the blind side of his own Achilles every Sunday.
Everyone knows the book, because they saw Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock in the soft and sweet movie.
The flick is good. But the more serious, blood-spurting book is great narrative journalism (W. W. Norton & Co., 2009, ppb., 339 pages, $13.95), the kind that explains what you didn't know enough to ask about.
Oh, the ancient Homer is stick-to-the-ribs more filling as a writer.
But for bustin' up those ribs and teaching soldiers to soldier and players to play and writers to narrate, Michael Lewis produces a modern classic in war, uh, ahem, sports journalism

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bias behind the gusher in the Gulf is the people's call

Look out for the language. The spoken tongue ends in a sharp point.
Listen to what we call the environmental catastrophe of our time.
We might have had "The Gulf Oil Spill."
Or we could have named it "The Deepwater Horizon Spill."
I'm wistful about "The Dick Cheney Oil De-reg Spill."
Based on a recent book, there's the "Why We Hate Oil Companies Spill."
But the judge-and-jury vernacular favors "The BP Oil Spill" over alternative, generalized, non-directed names.
Why raise the issue? Because with the name goes the liability. All of it.
Other terms recede. Increasingly the company that bears the blame also bears the label like a smear of crude.
You can't merely and evenhandedly suggest BP "may" be the responsible party, because British Petroleum lends its name to reckless ir-responsibility. That pointedly is as mild as descriptions get.
So "BP Oil Spill" pronounces accusation like an indictment from a grand jury composed of the whole country.
Lawyers will coat those waters like a five-state oil slick the BP Spill has become.
Court cases aplenty will try to escape spending the last farthing on clean-up.
PR image manipulators will try to convince reporters to find an alternative to the virtual trademark with its informal corporate logo, the oil-covered pelican.
Media will profess lack of bias.
But there is a prejudice, undeniably. The public made up its mind and rendered a verdict journalism conveys in what we call this disaster: "The BP Oil Spill."
It's not merely a plain and simple accident. Not an industry mishap. Not a failure by the consortium at the wellhead. Not the fault of negligent regulators -- although ironically it's all those things too.
 "The BP Oil Spill." That's what it is.
The people speak.