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If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘Times-watch’ Category

Oscar forecast: 51 percent chance of Sunshine?

Posted by metaphorical on 25 February 2007

Since the mathematically illiterate editors at the NY Times didn’t see fit to publish a letter I sent them on Friday, I thought I’d post it here. It concerns this article.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Oscars, and congrats, Martin Scorsese. The Departed was a thoroughly mediocre movie, but so much of your great work has gone unrecognized, especially the brilliant Gangs of New York (10 nominations, no statues), that whatever you collect tonight is well deserved.

To the Editor:

In his Oscar handicapping (“Some Hints, Before You Dive Into The Oscar Pool”), David Carr goes with “Little Miss Sunshine” in the original screenplay category, saying it “has tons of admirers, including, we guess, a majority of Academy voters.” I agree with Mr. Carr’s pick but not his prediction – with four other strong contenders, the word wanted here is “plurality.”


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The enemy within

Posted by metaphorical on 23 February 2007

Has the Bush administration been secretly making it easier for militias to take over the streets of our cities? The NY Times thinks so. So do I, but not in the way that the newspaper fears. In fact, the Times’s concern has already been refuted by a well-respected law professor. My concern has to do with the fact that the Times’s worst fears seem to have already been realized—posses reportedly patrolled the flooded streets of New Orleans after Katrina back in 2005 and shot at people.

A Times editorial earlier this week raised the concern that the Bush administration had, back in October, passed yet another of its laws “in the dead of night” that “strike to the heart of American democracy,” this one making it “easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law.”

The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a president’s use of the military in law enforcement to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights. 

The newly enacted provisions upset this careful balance. They shift the focus from making sure that federal laws are enforced to restoring public order. Beyond cases of actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any “other condition.”

There are two things a bit odd about this editorial. First, nothing has changed in the four months since this October 2006 law. Second, a rather thorough-going refutation of exactly the view that the Times expresses was made—also back in October —by Michael Froomkin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. In a blog posting that was widely circulated at the time, Froomkin first quoted the new law:

(A) so hinders the execution of the laws of a State or possession, as applicable, and of the United States within that State or possession, that any part or class of its people is deprived of a right, privilege, immunity, or protection named in the Constitution and secured by law, and the constituted authorities of that State or possession are unable, fail, or refuse to protect that right, privilege, or immunity, or to give that protection; or
(B) opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.

and then went on to show that it changes existing law very little:

But here’s the thing: the section quoted above, the vaguest and broadest part of this statute, the very part that has some folks worrying out loud about martial law, is pretty much the same as the old language, which allowed the President to call out the troops to, 

suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy, if it—
(1) so hinders the execution of the laws of that State, and of the United States within the State, that any part or class of its people is deprived of a right, privilege, immunity, or protection named in the Constitution and secured by law, and the constituted authorities of that State are unable, fail, or refuse to protect that right, privilege, or immunity, or to give that protection; or
(2) opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.

Froomkin’s conclusion is that the if the new law is problematic, so too was the old one—and it has been for a very long time.

Laws like this are always troubling because there is no practical way to challenge their application. Unless it were willing to strike down the statute as a standardless delegation — a nearly moribund doctrine — it is very hard to see a court telling the President that, say, the chaos in New Orleans after the flood, or even the limited violence in Florida in 2000 when GOP operatives attacked the ballot counters, didn’t rise to a level that “opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.” The courts are going to label that a political question, or find some other excuse for the courts to duck the matter. 

But while this sort of executive discretion is always a problem for democratic rule, as I hope I’ve shown by juxtaposing the old language and the new it’s not a new problem, not at all.

I assume Froomkin is right about this; he’s the guy who’s paid to analyze laws; I have enough trouble just abiding by all of them. What’s disturbing is that the Times doesn’t even take a sentence to answer this widely-known refutatation. That’s not the way a public debate is supposed to be done, Times Op-Ed people. If you didn’t know about Froomkin, you didn’t do any research. If you did, well, that’s just intellectually dishonest.

But what’s even more disturbing is that both the Times and Froomkin—who recently reposted his refutation to Dave Farber’s influential Interesting People mailing list when the Times’s editorial was cited there—have ignored the fact that the Bush administration has already figured out a way to get militias doing what the Times fears, in a way that completely bypasses the old posse comitatus laws, the new one, and, probably, any possible one.

It’s pretty well known that we have private militia corporations—firms like Blackwater, DynCorp, and Intercon—and that we’ve been paying them premium wages to do soldiering in Iraq. But we did the same thing in Louisiana, which, despite its parishes and deference to the Napoleonic Code, is still one of the 50 United States.

Back on 22 September 2005, with the French Quarter still underwater and the X’s still not scrawled across homes and stores, Jeremy Scahill reported in The Nation that Blackwater and other private militia services brought their Uzis, flak jackets, and $350-a-day soldiers to New Orleans.

In an hourlong conversation I had with four Blackwater men, they characterized their work in New Orleans as “securing neighborhoods” and “confronting criminals.” They all carried automatic assault weapons and had guns strapped to their legs. Their flak jackets were covered with pouches for extra ammunition.  

When asked what authority they were operating under, one guy said, “We’re on contract with the Department of Homeland Security.”

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Posted in journalism, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | 1 Comment »

Where are the journalist reorientation therapies?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 February 2007

It’s hard to know how much to condemn an article in today’s NY Times—either a lot, or just quite a bit. What’s wrong with the article is hidden by its title, “Some Tormented by Homosexuality Look to a Controversial Therapy.” If it were only about the poor deluded souls taken in by $240-a-session therapists, that would be one thing. But the article doesn’t get around to saying what bullshit these therapies are until the 7th or 8th paragraph, and then spends all to many subsequent paragraphs taking them seriously.

To be sure, the 8th paragraph is a TKO all by itself, or should be.

“There’s not a debate in the profession on this issue,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and former chairman of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association. “This is like creationism. You create the impression to the public as if there was a debate in the profession, which there is not.”

It’s too bad its in the mouth of someone identified as, in effect, an advocate for homosexuality. That’s a tactic of a writer unwilling to write anything about a controversy that might look as if it takes one side or another. That’s just the wrong way to go when one side is 100% ideology and 0% science; even if the other side has some ideology as well, it also has 100% of the science going for it. I call it a tactic because it’s obviously deliberately done: it’s not as if it would have been hard to get an unaffiliated expert to similarly lift sexual reorientation therapy from the ever-replenishing pile of contemporary fad therapies and place it on the same dustbin of discarded psychological ideas as phrenology, Skinnerism, and hysteria.

Why do we need another 34 paragraphs to dismiss these therapies as a blend of religious wishful thinking and unadulterated nonsense—not that the writer ends up dismissing it at all, more’s the pity. Speaking of pity, the Times admirably looks the people desperate to put their psyches, their future happiness, and a not inconsiderable chunk of their wallets, into the hands of charlatans:

Despite the skepticism about whether ex-gay programs can work, there is no denying the struggle of those involved. Among them are evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Roman Catholics and others often driven by deeply held religious beliefs that run counter to societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay. It is unclear how many people participate in these programs, but a leading Christian organization in the movement, Exodus International, estimated in 2003 it had 11,000 in its affiliated ministries.

It’s a common tactic by the religious right to portray themselves as the oppressed minority, but it’s hard to remember the last time a Greenwich Village fundamentalist teenager was robbed, severely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. Why the Times would buy into the 180-degree spin of reality suggested by the phrase “societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay” is a question only its editors can answer.

Then there’s the term “ex-gay,” which is itself interesting in a troubling way. It’s introduced earlier, in this way:

Nevertheless, these efforts, commonly called the “ex-gay” movement, have become increasingly visible across the country, where the battle over gay marriage and sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have brought the divisive issue of homosexuality to the forefront in recent years.

The term presumes the conclusion that the therapists want and that science refutes: That a gay person can be made un-gay. Here, its usage is somewhat unassailable: these efforts are sometimes called by this name. Thus introduced, however, the writer is then enabled by some weird and difficult to articulate standard of contemporary mainstream journalism to freely use it to describe the therapies as if they merited the name. War is peace; freedom is slavery, and perpetual motion machines will solve the problem of global warming.

Naturally, the sexual reorienters have some pseudoscience to counter the overwhelming scientific evidence opposing them.

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Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, Times-watch | 3 Comments »

“Why did the press fail in its pre-war reporting?”

Posted by metaphorical on 10 February 2007

Gilbert Cranberg asks all the right questions—11 of them, as it happens—concerning “why the press failed in its pre-war reporting” of the Iraq war.

Cranberg spent 33 years at The Des Moines Register, during its heyday as one of the best newspapers in the country. For a while he was in charge of its editorial pages; I think he had that gig during the three years I was at the University of Iowa. He also taught journalism at the university and is still there as an emeritus professor.

I’ve reproduced them all below, but his choice of a top question is particularly interesting:

Q. Why did the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau’s “against-the grain reporting” during the build-up to war receive such “disappointing play,” in the words of its former bureau chief?

Knight Ridder got top marks, in hindsight, for questioning the justifications for war before the fact. It calls to mind their excellent coverage of Katrina as well. It’s no surprise, then, but vastly disappointing, that in corporate media’s inexorable merging into fewer and fewer larger and larger corporations, K-N has been broken up like the Oakland A’s of the 1970s. Bits and pieces were swallowed up by other companies, other parts are floating around, unanchored, and their survival is in doubt. It’s impossible to believe that the individual pieces will retain the quality and integrity of the whole.

To see how extraordinary K-N’s coverage was, contrast it with some of Cranberg’s other questions, which ask about the guilliblity of the NY Times, the Washington Post, and, as it turns out, the Associated Press, about which Cranberg asks this:

Q. Why did the Associated Press wait six months, when the body count began to rise, to distribute a major piece by AP’s Charles Hanley challenging Powell’s evidence and why did Hanley say how frustrating it had been until then to break through the self-censorship imposed by his editors on negative news about Iraq?

I hadn’t known the AP had done that; indeed, Cranberg’s questions raise issues I wasn’t even aware of.

Here are all of them:

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