21st Century Yellow Journalism

July 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

From Foreign Policy

Turning on Fox, CNN or MSNBC or opening any well respected news website yesterday would have informed you not just of global affairs, but of the sorry state of Western news media. The top headlines consisted of updates on Casey Anthony, News of the World and Derek Jeter, stories that are designed to be attention grabbing and money making (or, in the case of News of the World, were about other media outlets pursuing those ends). Profits are a necessary evil for media outlets in the West, but overstating their importance shifts the balance away from informative news to pop-culture melodrama.

In the late nineteenth century, the competition over news media predominance in New York between Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal led both media outlets to increasingly turn to sensationalism and scandal-mongering in addition to their typical,  more serious stories in order to drive up demand for circulation (for more historical details look here). These tactics were described as Yellow Journalism by critics of the two media outlets, a term that refers to the exaggeration of the more eye-catching, entertaining aspects of daily news for the sake of popularity or profits. The problems with this approach to media should be clear: by focusing the newspaper’s resources towards these ends, informative and research driven news was undermined and readers were presented with a biased, unrealistic portrayal of the world. The Pultizer and Hearst competition was over one hundred years ago, but viewing any and all of the most popular media sources yesterday (or today, or tomorrow) would lead one to conclude that Western media has ignored its lesson.

Dominating the headlines on July 7, 2011, alongside more useful stories concerning Libya and the US deficit debate, were the conclusion to the Casey Anthony trial and the News of the World scandal involving unethical journalistic practices. The former story likely needs no explanation; by this point most of us have been saturated with intimate details concerning Casey Anthony’s social life, the mysterious death of her child and the subsequent trial. The latter story originates with much the same type of journalism. News of the World, in an effort to get a leg up on the competition, hacked a missing girl’s cell phone in order to hear her voicemail messages, and even deleted messages when her mailbox was full in order to maintain the flow of headline-worthy details. Additionally, News of the World has been accused of bribing political officials and hacking the phones of others, including deceased military personnel and their families, all of which has led to the shutdown of the media organization by its owner, Rupert Murdoch. These stories share an unsavory link that we are all, to a certain extent, complicit in: the profitability of scandal and sensationalism driven news.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave a press conference today where he admitted he and members of his administration and of his precursor’s administration shared blame in the News of the World scandal. Additionally he called for three inquiries, one into this specific scandal, one into future regulation of the press and one into the culture of media and politics. Here are some excerpts from his speech:

“This second inquiry should look at the culture, the practices and the ethics of the British press. In particular, they should look at how our newspapers are regulated and make recommendations for the future. Of course it is vital that our press is free. That is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life. But press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law.” … “So I believe we need a new system [of regulation of the press] entirely. It will be for the inquiry to recommend what that system should look like. But my starting presumption is that it should be truly independent … independent of the press, so the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves. But vitally, independent of government, so the public will know that politicians are not trying to control or muzzle a press that must be free to hold politicians to account.” (The full text of this speech is available here)

Cameron is proposing that the British government will finance a not-for-profit third party regulatory institution to monitor not only all of British media, but also the media’s connections to politicians, police officers and other government officials. The Prime Minister’s move suggests that our media can no longer be trusted to adequately fill its role as a monitor of both business and government, and curiously he has turned to civil society  to meet this need (non-profit, non-governmental organizations are by definition a part of civil society). The fact that the Prime Minister turned to civil society to act as a third party arbitrator of government and the press is not only indicative of the problems associated with for-profit culture, but of our growing reliance on the non-governmental, non-profit sector for regulating human affairs. This, however, is a subject for future discussion.

What was interesting for the purposes of this post was what the Prime Minister did not address in his speech. It appears that Cameron blames the News of the World scandal on a lack of regulation, but history suggests a more pervasive issue. The news stories that led to the scandal were those typical to Yellow Journalism: sensationalism, scandal-mongering (irony?), and the blurring of news and entertainment. Similarly, News of the World turned to those tactics for the same reasons that Pulitzer and Hearst did: for the sake of greater profits relative to their competitors. What was at stake for News of the World on a day-to-day, edition-to-edition basis was not the quality of its news stories or the knowledge of its reader base (it was, after all, a tabloid newspaper) but profits. News of the World did not hack the voicemail mailboxes of deceased soldiers or missing girls because the people working there felt the information gained by that violation of privacy would enlighten their readers in any manner, but because it would yield provocative and novel information that would give their newspaper a better headline than whatever The Sun was publishing that day.

Reading Cameron’s speech, one might believe that establishing a third party regulatory watchdog that is designed to occasionally say “hold on there, the items in that news story were acquired through unsavory means and corruption!” will be a realistic solution to the problem. In my opinion, this is not the case. The real problem here is the pervasiveness of profit-driven culture. Today, government officials appear more concerned with acquiring greater political clout relative to their opponents than they are with solving real problems (for example: US deficit reduction, climate change, etc.), Western media outlets appear more concerned with providing the best entertainment (for what other reason are Fox News and MSNBC so unabashedly partisan?) and so on and so forth. Replace “political clout” and “entertainment” with “personal gain” and “profits” and the two become synonymous.

Establishing a non-governmental regulatory agency to monitor news media is, at best, a bandage on an infected wound for Britain. The real issue is the ubiquitous perception that short term gains in profits or influence are more important than the long term pursuit of knowledge and resolution of real problems. Of course, profit will likely always be a necessary reality for our media, but the goal should be to tilt the balance from pure profit-driven decisions to a strategy that pursues profits without sacrificing journalistic integrity or over-selling pop culture sensationalism or ideological demagoguery. Until we in the West stop paying to be distracted by frivolous issues like the Casey Anthony trial or the intimate details of a missing person story, and until we decide that what we want from our news media is a thorough, unbiased report of the day’s most pressing issues, we will have to suffer the dysfunctional and unsavory media culture that we all have helped perpetuate.

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The Efficacy of Torture Post-Osama

May 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

Following news of the death of Osama Bin Laden after an American military raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, former White House officials for the Bush administration were quick to praise President Obama. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a rare moment of appreciation for our current president, noted that he wanted “to congratulate President Obama and the members of his national security team,” while former President Bush released a statement saying he had called Obama personally to offer congratulations.

But amid congratulations for the felling of the 9/11 mastermind, some Bush officials took a moment to remind the nation that they too played a role in Bin Laden’s capture and subsequent death. Paul D. Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense, noted that the succesful capture of Osama Bin Laden “also rested heavily on some of those controversial policies” of Bush’s administration. Additionally, Keep America Safe (Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol) gave credit to “the men and women of America’s intelligence services who, through their interrogation of high-value detainees, developed the information that apparently led us to bin Laden.” Those controversial policies mentioned by Wolfowitz and the interrogations credited by Keep America Safe, of course, were the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects and the use of waterboarding and other means of torture to extract intelligence.

Based on Wolfowitz and Keep America Safe’s account of the intelligence leading to the death of Bin Laden, one might believe it’s time to reopen the books on torture and break out the water barrels, rags and immobilization rack. A close look at the process through which Bin Laden was found, however, fails to suggest that torture led to any evidence that would have been otherwise unattainable.

Vital to the process of tracking down Bin Laden’s location were stories that led to the tracking of one of Bin Laden’s couriers. A New York Times article outlining the process of gathering intelligence on Bin Laden’s location noted:

“Prisoners in American custody told stories of a trusted courier. When the Americans ran the man’s pseudonym past two top-level detainees — the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; and Al Qaeda’s operational chief, Abu Faraj al-Libi — the men claimed never to have heard his name. That raised suspicions among interrogators that the two detainees were lying and that the courier probably was an important figure.”

The article goes on to explain that, after hearing of the courier in 2002, Bin Laden’s trail would later appear to have “gone cold” until CIA agents in the field were able to get the family name of the courier sometime after 2005. From there, more details emerged, including the courier’s full name, his license number, and eventually the compound housing Bin Laden that he frequented.

The Bush administration’s controversial tactics might appear to have made a minuscule contribution to locating Bin Laden. The most important detail that is suggested as originating from interrogations of detained terrorist suspects is the existence of the courier, but his name, location and movements were all gathered through clandestine operations in the field. Detailing this, Armando at Daily Kos writes “The first tip as to this hideout arrived six months ago and was due to “following the money.” How this connects to a “torture” success is not at all clear to me.” The Times article also only implies that the existence of the courier was found out through interrogations, it does not state directly that this piece of evidence was acquired during a waterboarding session or any other “harsh interrogation” allowed by the Bush administration. Thus, the one piece of evidence that MIGHT have come from torture cannot be directly traced to these methods, and, additionally, it would be impossible to argue that “harsh interrogations” would have been the only possible method of acquiring this intelligence if they were proven to be its origin.

Torture constitutes a breach of international law, domestic law, basic human principles and as many other judicial, religious or moralist texts that one could imagine. It has also yet to prove to be of any use whatsoever. Aside from the lack of any clear connection between “harsh interrogations” and the capture of Bin Laden or prevention of any terrorist attack, the use of these methods have also led to substantial legal complications in bringing terrorist suspects to trial, as any evidence against them acquired through torture cannot be used in court, military or civil. Hence, the “efficacy of torture post-Osama” is just what it was pre-Osama: nonexistent.

Bin Laden News Roundup

May 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

It will probably be a few days before it makes sense to do any kind of long form analysis, so in the mean time here are some links from around the internet. I think the most interesting thing right now is the location of the Osama Bin Laden’s mansion: just outside Islamabad. An area so close to Pakistan’s Capitol certainly suggests some amount of Pakistan Intelligence involvement.

The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great

The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable.

the forever war

You should be reminded of all the wrong turns we took following 9/11, and you should be worried now. Even if you don’t feel a little discomfort at national glee over human death, you might remember how much these moments have cost us and will continue to cost us. There’s no wondering if this action was legal; nobody cares. That’s the sort of thing successful terrorists do to a free people.

Detective Work on Courier Led to Breakthrough on Bin Laden

A trusted courier of Osama bin Laden’s whom American spies had been hunting for years was finally located in a compound 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, close to one of the hubs of American counterterrorism operations. The property was so secure, so large, that American officials guessed it was built to hide someone far more important than a mere courier.

What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden

Now that Osama is dead, the most intriguing question is this: Did any Pakistani officials help hide him?

Detroit-area Arab Americans, Muslims rejoice at death of bin Laden

“The world is definitely a better place without the patron of all terrorists,” said Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, head of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, the largest mosque in a city that has the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the U.S. Qazwini called bin Laden “the world’s most infamous thug.”

Osama is Dead; Photos from a historic party at Ground Zero

Twitter Live Tweets Obama Bin Laden Raid (And Didn’t Know It)

It speaks for itself. A real time twitter event, that just turned out to be one of the most dramatic military event ever conducted. Expect the live footage from the Navy Seals Assault team, shortly. Until then, this is very dramatic by itself.

Yes, Bin Laden’s Death Will Help Obama, but for How Long?

I’m not sure that the magnitude of the bump that Mr. Obama might get in the Gallup tracking poll is going to be especially predictive of how much the residue of this news might produce for him 19 months from now.

Why Bin Laden’s Death No Longer Really Matters

Bin Laden may have desperately sought the mantle of champion of Muslim resistance to the West, and a traumatized American media culture may have briefly granted him that role in the months that followed the horror of 9/11, but where it mattered most, among his own people, Bin Laden was an epic failure.

Hamid Karzai says search inside Afghanistan was wrong

“Again and again, for years and every day we have said that the war on terror is not in Afghan villages, not in Afghan houses of the poor and oppressed,” Mr Karzai said.

“The war against terrorism is in its sources, in its financial sources, its sanctuaries, in its training bases, not in Afghanistan,” Karzai said.

Bin Laden Compound Video

Obama Offers His Alternative

April 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

An abbreviated version of this post originally appeared at nextgenjournal.com.

Last week, I wrote about Paul Ryan’s plan – dubbed the “Path to Prosperity” – for reducing and eliminating America’s national debt. I criticized it for doing too little to hold down health care costs, choosing instead to reduce the deficit by placing the burden of increased costs onto Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a speech outlining his competing vision for eliminating America’s national debt and unveiled a plan which would reduce the debt by $4 trillion over the next 12 years. While Obama’s plan contains fewer changes to the Health Care status quo than Ryan’s, he proposes a few key changes to Medicare and Medicaid which would help to solve the nation’s fiscal crisis by effecting systemic changes to bring down the rate of growth in health care costs as a whole.

Obama’s plan seeks to obtain nearly $500 billion dollars in savings from Medicare and Medicaid reforms. To accomplish this, he first alters the mandate of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) created under last year’s health care reform bill (PPACA). This board is tasked with creating proposals to hold down Medicare’s growth rate. These proposals are automatically adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services unless Congress is able to pass an equally effective plan, allowing the board to bypass legislative gridlock. Obama’s plan would change IPAB’s spending target from GDP + 1% to GDP + 0.5% and would give the board new powers to help them achieve this goal.

The most important of these new powers would be the ability to structure Medicare so that it pays differently for treatments of different value – an idea called value based insurance design. This structuring would allow Medicare to pay more for cost-effective treatments, thereby encouraging their use. For example, in the case of a patient with high cholesterol levels, Medicare could reduce the co-payment for cholesterol lowering medicines and thereby obviate the need for a more costly surgical intervention later.

Obama’s plan would also work to slow growth in health care costs by reducing the price of prescription drugs. It does this in two ways: leveraging the Government’s purchasing power to negotiate for lower prices and shortening the patent on new drugs from 12 years to 7. Finally, Obama would implement recommendations from the National Governor’s Association task force for reducing costs in Medicaid.

Perhaps the most important difference between Obama’s plan and Ryan’s, however, is what Obama’s plan would not do: repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Rather than relying on a private insurance market whose costs have consistently increased at a rate faster than Medicare, PPACA seeks to use the Government’s power in the health care market to effect delivery changes which will reduce costs in the system as a whole.

These changes – from incentives for Accountable Care Organizations to penalties for hospitals with too many costly hospital acquired infections – will bring down the government’s spending on Medicare and Medicaid by effecting changes across the health care system. In contrast, Ryan’s plan contains no proposals for reducing health care costs, instead reducing government spending by funding a smaller proportion of these costs over time and thereby pushing costs onto beneficiaries.

However, it is possible that Obama’s target of GDP + 0.5% is also too low. As societies become wealthier, they naturally commit a larger share of their income to health care. Consider the following graph using OECD data:

There are two outliers here – the United States, which spends 16 percent of our GDP on health care, and Luxembourg, which has the second highest GDP per capita in the world. The other countries in the OECD follow a distinct trend: as GDP per capita increases, so too does the portion of GDP committed to health care. On an intuitive level this makes sense – the dead don’t benefit from increased incomes, after all. The United States, as an outlier on this growth curve, could certainly do a lot to restrain costs but it is unlikely that we will see a reduction in the share of our economy committed to health care outside of a radical shift in our system – and certainly not without even the modest reforms in Obama’s plan.

For this reason, Obama’s target for a Medicare growth rate of GDP + 0.5% is a more credible approximation of the actual growth in health care costs than Ryan’s target of inflation + 1% and it is made even more so by the concrete proposals it offers. While Ryan’s plan would cut taxes for the wealthy and pay for them partially through Medicare and Medicaid cuts, Obama’s alternative would allow the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire and use the extra revenue to chart a more sustainable course for health care costs. The health care reform bill passed last year begins the process of managing health care spending in the United States, and Obama’s plan, in giving this process a chance to work, is a reasonable way forward.

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