A Glass-Steagall Act For Journalism

I haven’t written anything about politics for quite some time, even though that is more on my mind than probably any other topic during this Trump crisis in America. That will probably change. Along with everyone else I know, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we got to this point and how we can recover. For one thing, it seems that we have suffered a great crash in journalism, akin to the great stock market crash of 1929. In particular, I am referring to print journalism, and to further refine, the print journalism of our elite newspapers, e.g., the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

One of the remedies to the great crash was the Glass-Steagall act, which created a hard separation of commercial and investment banking. If we could implement something similar in journalism, with a hard separation of news and opinion, that would be a step in the right direction. Much of the news reportage in the elite newspapers is still of fairly high quality. News reportage of political events is a little trickier, in large part because journalists haven’t figured out how to report on a president who lies most of the time. But opinion content, especially, and most importantly, in the top elites, has probably never been of poorer quality. In addition to the poor quality of the opinion columnists, we now also have the illiterate, nonsensical toxic garbage which comprises the comments section, which inexplicably accompanies almost every article.

Fire the opinion columnists. Turn off the comments sections forever. Set a target of 100% factual accuracy in reporting. That’s a newspaper I would subscribe to, one that might help our democracy in crisis, and would that would have a legitimate claim to being the “paper of record.”

Covert Propaganda

There’s a substantial piece in today’s NY Times about the current Bush administration’s unprecedented efforts to sway public opinion by distributing fake news reports to the major televsion networks, and by putting pundits on the payroll. Fake TV news in particular seems to be a favorite ploy of this administration–remember the RNC last summer when pretend reporters “interviewed” people on the convention floor?

To date, the Bush administration has spent over $250M on a PR firm which helps them to produce the “Video New Releases”. The VNRs are then distributed to TV news stations, who often run the pieces unedited and without attribution. Even worse, stations will sometimes redo the narrations using local talent, which really makes them seem like legitimate new pieces. The Times reports that the administration was called on this practice last year by the GAO:

Yet in three separate opinions in the past year, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper “covert propaganda” even if their origin is made clear to the television stations.

The next part of the story is a little strange, because there’s no shortage of diehard Bush apologists among the conservative babbling class. And yet, the Bush administration still felt the need to buy a little help. In January, we found out about three pundits on the Bush payroll. First there was Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist who was given $240,000 by the administration to promote No Child Left Behind.

Then came Maggie Gallagher, another conservative columnist and talking head. Gallagher had previously garnered a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote Bush’s $300M pro-marriage initiative. She then received $20,000 from the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 for writing a report titled “Can Government Strengthen Marriage?” Often appeared on television backing the “take marriage rights away from gay people” amendment.

And then a few weeks later came the story that was by far the funniest of the lot. James Guckert, a.k.a Jeff Gannon: a pretend journalist from a fake news agnecy who was somehow given a Whitehouse press pass under a false name. Known for lobbing incredibly softball questions to Bush during the all-too-rare presidential press conferences. The blogs have latched on to this story in particular because of Guckert’s alleged other line of work, which was to run gay military-themed prostitution services and pornography web sites (and he wasn’t just the president, he got in on the action himself). And perhaps it’s partly because all the images here are X-rated that this story didn’t hit big outside of the internets.

Here’s a typical example of a Guckert pitch to Bush:

“Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy: Harry Reid, who’s talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and there’s no crisis there. You’ve said you’re going to reach out to these people. How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”

Tough question, Jeff. Tough, but fair.

Cyril Rugby is cyberkrunk’s (pretend) senior political correspondent.

The Rice Filibuster

Seeing Condi on MTP this morning reminds me of the method preferred by the current administration for dealing with the press, namely to avoid any direct answer to questions, but instead to filibuster them with long responses peppered with talking points. Condi is one of the true masters of this technique, owing to her ability to instantly begin a long speech on any subject. Ideally, the response is long enough that your eyes begin to glaze over, and you forget what the question was. Journalists, whose prime directive now seems to be to protect their coveted access, play along with this game, and rarely press them on the tactic.

At the end of Tim Russert’s interview with Rice today, he raised the point that six secretaries of state have gone on to become president. How interesting would it be to have a Rice vs. Clinton face off in 2008?

Bush himself invariably, and quite clumsily, resorts to the filibuster style. You can find examples pretty much every time he deals with the press. The April 2004 prime time press conference was particularly good example, since he was given many very direct questions. Here’s an example, taken more or less randomly:

Q Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?

THE PRESIDENT: I feel incredibly grieved when I meet with family members, and I do quite frequently. I grieve for the incredible loss of life that they feel, the emptiness they feel.

There are some things I wish we’d have done when I look back. I mean, hindsight is easy. It’s easy for a President to stand up and say, now that I know what happened, it would have been nice if there were certain things in place; for example, a homeland security department. And why I — I say that because it’s — that provides the ability for our agencies to coordinate better and to work together better than it was before.

I think the hearings will show that the Patriot Act is an important change in the law that will allow the FBI and the CIA to better share information together. We were kind of stove-piped, I guess is a way to describe it. There was kind of — departments that at times didn’t communicate, because of law, in the FBI’s case.

And the other thing I look back on and realize is that we weren’t on a war footing. The country was not on a war footing, and yet the enemy was at war with us. And it’s — it didn’t take me long to put us on a war footing. And we’ve been on war ever since. The lessons of 9/11 that I — one lesson was, we must deal with gathering threats. And that’s part of the reason I dealt with Iraq the way I did.

The other lesson is, is that this country must go on the offense and stay on the offense. In order to secure the country, we must do everything in our power to find these killers and bring them to justice, before they hurt us again. I’m afraid they want to hurt us again. They’re still there.

They can be right one time; we’ve got to be right a hundred percent of the time in order to protect the country. It’s a mighty task. But our government has changed since the 9/11 attacks. We’re better equipped to respond; we’re better at sharing intelligence. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

But back to Condi. I watched as much of the 9/11 commission hearings as I could. Thanks to C-SPAN, that was pretty much all of it. Lee Hamilton, the second commissioner to speak that day, did his best to set the tone by asking Condi questions along the lines of “Dr. Rice, please speak at length on a topic of your chosing.” It was a great tactic, but Richard Ben-Veniste wasn’t playing along and repeatedly pressed Condi to actually answer his questions:

BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president, at any time prior to August 6th, of the existence of al-Qaida cells in the United States?

RICE: First, let me just make certain …

BEN-VENISTE: If you could just answer that question, because I only have a very limited …

RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but it’s important …

BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president …

RICE: … that I also address …

(APPLAUSE)

It’s also important that, Commissioner, that I address the other issues that you have raised. So I will do it quickly, but if you’ll just give me a moment.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, my only question to you is whether you …

RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but I will …

BEN-VENISTE: … told the president.

RICE: If you’ll just give me a moment, I will address fully the questions that you’ve asked.

First of all, yes, the August 6th PDB was in response to questions of the president and that since he asked that this be done. It was not a particular threat report. And there was historical information in there about various aspects of al-Qaida’s operations.

Dick Clarke had told me, I think in a memorandum “I remember it as being only a line or two” that there were al-Qaida cells in the United States.

Now, the question is, what did we need to do about that?

And I also understood that that was what the FBI was doing, that the FBI was pursuing these al-Qaida cells. I believe in the August 6th memorandum it says that there were 70 full field investigations under way of these cells. And so there was no recommendation that we do something about this; the FBI was pursuing it.

I really don’t remember, Commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

RICE: I remember very well that the president was aware that there were issues inside the United States. He talked to people about this. But I don’t remember the al-Qaida cells as being something that we were told we needed to do something about.

It was later that session that Bob Kerrey actually brought up the “F” word. What’s interesting is that if you read the transcripts, there was a good amount of back and forth between Rice and Jerry leading up to this exchange. I got the sense that Kerrey was as much reacting against the way Rice was responding to other panel members. (Kerrey, btw, clearly had Richard Clarke on the brain and repeatedly referred to Condi as “Dr. Clarke.” Condi eventually made a nice little quip about it.)

KERREY: Let me move to another area.

RICE: May I finish answering your question, though, because this is an important…

KERREY: I know it’s important. Everything that’s going on here is important. But I get 10 minutes.

RICE: But since we have a point of disagreement, I’d like to have a chance to address it.

KERREY: Well, no, no, actually, we have many points of disagreement, Dr. Clarke, but we’ll have a chance to do in closed session. Please don’t filibuster me. It’s not fair. It is not fair. I have been polite. I have been courteous. It is not fair to me.

(APPLAUSE)

I understand that we have a disagreement.

RICE: Commissioner, I am here to answer questions. And you’ve asked me a question, and I’d like to have an opportunity to answer it.

The fact is that what we were presented on January the 25th was a set of ideas and a paper, most of which was about what the Clinton administration had done and something called the Delenda plan which had been considered in 1998 and never adopted. We decided to take a different track.

RICE: We decided to put together a strategic approach to this that would get the regional powers the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have a good counterterrorism person.

The problem was you didn’t have an approach against Al Qaida because you didn’t have an approach against Afghanistan. And you didn’t have an approach against Afghanistan because you didn’t have an approach against Pakistan. And until we could get that right, we didn’t have a policy.

KERREY: Thank you for answering my question.

RICE: You’re welcome.

Back to the journalists. By not pressing members of the administration to give clear responses to their questions, the way Ben-Veniste and Kerry tried to, they do us all a great disservice. In fact, they create the dangerous illusion that we the public have full access to our highest government officials, when in fact we don’t–they put up a smoke screen. The journalists are supposed to serve the public, but instead serve up free air time to the government for political speech-making; this is why people like Condi are so willing to go on the Sunday shows every week. We need to call the Condis on it, but we need especially to call the Tweeties on it.

Cyril Rugby is cyberkrunk’s senior political correspondent.