Ari Melber

Media Blows Debt Crisis Coverage With Balance Bias

Balance Bias (bal-ance bi-as) 

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Newsweek Taps Bush Aide For Obama Reporting

See if you can follow this logic.

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Obama is Courting Disaster With His New Detention Plan

 The Obama administration is rushing towards a unilateral plan to imprison people without trial, according to a huge, new jointarticle from the Washington Post and ProPublica. The proposal would completely cut Congress out of the process by using an executive order to essentially bring Gitmo stateside:

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Progressive Media Have Really Helped Stop the Spread of Dirty Political Rumors


Everyone can hear it now. This Internet-driven, hyperactive presidential race is forcing accountability on two of the oldest tricks in politics: dog whistles and secret smears.

With a "dog whistle," politicians use code words to signal unpopular stances to one target audience, while avoiding a backlash because the reference is lost on others. Many people miss President Bush's layered language for evangelicals, from hinting that legal abortion is like slavery to his odd prediction that history will see Iraq as just "a comma." (It only makes sense if you know the proverb, "Never put a period where God has put a comma.") Code words don't fool everyone, but from "states' rights" to "welfare queens," GOP campaigns have tapped racial resentment without facing widespread opprobrium. Secret smears run on a similar axis, enabling politicians to undermine an opponent without taking responsibility for the attack. But the times are changing.




From his race to his name, Barack Obama seemed like the perfect target for such coded attacks. Indeed, some Republicans were eager to run the old playbook on him. "Count me down as somebody who underestimates Barack Hussein Obama, please," said GOP strategist Ed Rogers, speaking on MSNBC's Hardball in the headier days of 2006. Yet Rogers, like the McCain campaign, underestimated not only Obama but a new media model that swiftly blasts would-be Swiftboaters.




Partisan and muckraking bloggers now fight political operatives' efforts to keep unseemly attacks below the radar. Take automated "robo" phone calls, which often deploy the sharp attacks that campaigns don't want exposed in the mass media. Previously, the calls were obscure, rarely drawing major media coverage, let alone sustained criticism. Now they can be recorded, uploaded and dissected in a single news cycle. Sites like TalkingPointsMemo and Daily Kos use crowd-sourcing by readers to track the attacks and pin them squarely on John McCain. Insider political sites, like Ben Smith's Politico blog, also disseminate the audio recordings to media and political elites, converting a "targeted" message into a mass broadcast. And organized campaigns like the National Political Do Not Call Registry use the web, Twitter and e-mail to track and map every call.




As a hub for intelligence, the web can enlist people in "bubbling up reports" of everything from robo-calls to US attorney firings, explains TechPresident co-founder Micah Sifry, a web activism expert who heralds the trend as a new era of "crowd-scouring" the presidency. He argues that information can whip around online with or without a political agenda. "Even without central direction, the crowd is scouring the world for interesting news and sharing tidbits constantly."



Once exposed, McCain's robocalls were unpalatable even to his allies in the party and the media, adding another "Hey, Rube" squabble to his already contentious campaign. Republican senators condemned the calls. Fox News's Chris Wallace pressed McCain on the issue, reminding the senator that he once denounced such tactics. Even Sarah Palin felt compelled to respond to criticism of the campaign's robocalls, telling reporters that while she did not renounce them, she would prefer to do personal and retail campaigning instead.




Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has run a sophisticated pushback operation of its own, tapping a large volunteer corps through its "action wire" to expose smears and contact local media about unfair attacks. The campaign launched two portals, FightTheSmears and BelowTheRadar, to fight what it calls a stealth Republican operation "to quietly poison voters' information with lies and fear tactics."



All this online activity has been amplified by the rapidly shifting landscape of political television. The increasingly opinionated cable news programs, always in search of conflict and fresh content, now treat debates over these tactics as a major campaign issue. This emphasis is bleeding into the broader campaign discourse, which includes minute dissection of attacks that were once considered unmentionable. A whole range of smears against Obama, for example, have been exposed under the glare of nationally televised debates. Sometimes that process has angered his supporters--as when the ABC News primary debate focused on smears regarding "patriotism" and Islam. In one of the general election debates, CBS moderator Bob Scheiffer was credited for playing a corrective role when he pressed both candidates to answer for attacks from their supporters. That is a stark contrast to the previous two presidential races, when even the most incendiary attacks drew scant calls for accountability at the candidate level.



The infamous Swiftboat attacks against John Kerry, for example, were barely a blip in the 2004 presidential debates. Sure, everyone knew about them, but no voters ever saw President Bush defend them. Run the tape back to 2000, and Bush was never forced to fully answer for one of his most vile political attacks, the racist smear against John McCain's family in the South Carolina primary. Today, it is hard to imagine a candidate in either party sliding through a presidential primary without a huge backlash for deploying that kind of attack.



This cycle, in fact, even faint dog whistles are called out in real time. When McCain launched a late-October attack on Obama, alleging that he would morph the IRS into a "welfare agency," MSNBC host Rachel Maddow bore down on the line. "Welfare? Where'd that come from?" she asked on her MSNBC show, slamming McCain for invoking a "great racially divisive codeword from the '80s and '90s [with] no bearing whatsoever on Barack Obama's tax policies."




As Election Day approaches, Republicans claim their final flurry of attacks on Obama are simply about his foreign policy and judgment. One controversial new McCain ad shows Obama superimposed on maps of the Middle East, questioning whether he would "accept Iran's demands" to destroy Israel, among other things, as music evoking the Muslim call to prayer plays in the background. Another last-minute GOP mailer grafts Obama's face over a map of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. And Sarah Palin is using her closing arguments to link Obama with Rashid Khalidi, a respected Columbia University professor and Palestinian advocate. (Khalidi has minor links to both presidential nominees, as it happens.)



It is not hard to decipher the strategy. McCain has concluded his only road to Washington runs through Tehran--if he can convince voters that's where Obama belongs.




On Wednesday, The Huffington Post, which now draws more traffic than The Drudge Report, was all over the case. Under the banner "McCain's Last Ditch Effort: Tying Obama to Muslim World," Sam Stein reported, "McCain's campaign is making what appears to be a final, full-throated effort to paint Barack Obama as a sympathizer with the Muslim world." There is no equivocating debate or time-lapse delay. An influential driver of political news is exposing McCain for doing exactly what he pledged to avoid--stoking bigoted, racial and religious division to turn people away from his opponent. With sustained attention on these attacks, it appears that voters are increasingly recoiling from McCain's offensive.



"Thanks to YouTube--and blogging and instant fact-checking and viral emails-- it is getting harder and harder to get away with repeating brazen lies without paying a price, or to run under-the-radar smear campaigns without being exposed," contends Arianna Huffington, whose website pulses with a constant, two-way debate of news and opinion. "The McCain campaign hasn't gotten the message," she added, "hence the blizzard of racist, alarmist, xenophobic, innuendo-laden accusations being splattered at Obama."




Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who endorsed Obama and recently appeared in his prime-time infomercial, told Huffington that we are witnessing the "end of Rovian politics." That is probably one step too far.



This new media environment undermines political attacks that turn on coded meanings and hidden messages, because now anything can be exposed and cheaply disseminated. Observers used to worry that the web would fragment our media consumption into private little silos--that famous "Daily Me." Yet in presidential politics, an inverse dynamic is emerging. Small groups of people are using the web to expose the targeted appeals of the analog world, and then injecting them into the mass media for the whole nation to assess. And many voters do not like what they see.




Like any other transparency measure, however, this process only enhances the potential for accountability. It does not automatically halt any conduct. It does not ensure, as Schmidt may imagine, that "Rovian" attacks are now futile--or that voters will always recoil from them. Instead, it simply means that candidates will increasingly have to answer for their code words and targeted appeals. Operatives will worry more about how a "secret" smear will play when it is exposed, since it probably will be. Attacks that turn off large swaths of the electorate, like smearing a candidate's family, will keep fading. "Rovian" ploys that hammer more vulnerable targets, however, will not be cut down by exposure alone. (Consider how the GOP has excelled by open gay-bashing, including Rove's own gay marriage strategy in 2004, with no code words needed.) So more transparency is a welcome development, but as Obama can tell you, real "change" only comes from the bottom up.

YouTube for Smart People



You are what you watch. That's what the "Kill Your TV" people used to say. But if TV is mindless, where does that leave YouTube?






Apart from search engines, YouTube is now the second most popular website in America, drawing the average visitor for a solid sixteen minutes of video surfing -- a web eternity. The site hosts a long tail of clips on every item imaginable, but the top videos actually track the vices of television: sex, celebrities and sensationalism. And as the web morphs from endless text to an increasingly video-focused platform, YouTube is ground zero for some of the dumbest crap online. Yet web videos don't have to be vapid, according to the entrepreneurs behind Big Think, YouTube for the Harvard set.






After working as producers for The Charlie Rose Show, Harvard grads Peter Hopkins and Victoria R.M. Brown saw an opening for thoughtful, short-form intellectual videos targeting online audiences. The idea was simple: take the brightest, most creative thinkers alive, plunk them down for a conversation straight to camera -- reality-show style -- elide the moderator and provide an intimate window into the "big ideas" of our time. The erudite site drew investments from heavy hitters like Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and Facebook angel investor, and Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and treasury secretary.




Compared with the experts on serious television, let alone the pundit circuit, Big Think's interview subjects have remarkable depth, diversity and credentials. There are famous professors and renowned writers, award-winning scientists and prominent theologians, political activists and tech futurists. In other words, the site is full of intellectuals with ideas that can make for compelling video -- but without the sound bites and sizzle that dominate TV and YouTube. (There are also interviews with traditional newsmakers like senators, governors, former government officials and celebrities.)



The prolific author and conservative Judge Richard Posner, for example, offers a meandering but intriguing answer to the open-ended question "What's your counsel?" After lamenting the cost of the Iraq War, he notes that only government can tackle existential problems like global warming and disaster prevention. "It's actually kind of heresy, but I think the American people are undertaxed," he says in a low-key confessional. It's the kind of policy-driven argument that would rarely make a cable news debate, let alone a viral hit. "We ask a range of questions that are open-ended, forward-looking and nonpartisan," explains Brown, who works out of one of the spare photo booths in Big Think's Manhattan office. The start-up does not have enough desk space for its five employees.





Big Think strains to transcend traditional media framing, self-consciously shunning categories like "news" and "opinion" for more trippy headings. A "physical" section lists videos on architecture and music, while a "meta" category covers concepts like identity, wisdom, death and inspiration. It's more nuanced than YouTube, but also more confusing. (Why is "justice" meta? Why is "media" physical?) Yet Big Think is not just striving to be a hipper PBS, blasting highbrow content at enlightened Millennials. The founders say they're aiming for a meaningful, interactive dialogue -- the kind of audience participation that makes good blogs lively, social networking sites sticky and YouTube profitable.




In an interview with TechCrunch, an influential Silicon Valley site that analyzes Internet firms, Hopkins, the 24-year-old Big Think co-founder, said his site is special because it empowers visitors "to contribute actively and in the same manner as our invited participants." So while any media company can deliver "lots of high-quality content in one direction," he explains, "Big Think is about using some high-quality content to begin an exchange of ideas in two directions." A great goal, but it's not happening yet.




After a three-month beta run, it is too early to judge the site's interactive potential. So far, however, the vast majority of videos feature handpicked experts. Unlike on YouTube, user videos are quite rare. And most visitors choose to reply to featured videos through written comments, like on any blog. Big Think drew roughly 22,000 unique visitors in February, according to the web analysis firm Compete.com, with an average visit of six minutes. For comparison, Bloggingheads.tv, a wonky hub for lengthy video debates founded in 2005, drew 17,000 unique visitors in February.



Developing an interactive video dialogue with the public is a new challenge, since Internet debates are anonymous by default. Most people use pseudonyms to write blogs or comments. Video obviously requires more intense exposure; fewer people publicize their personal and political views when the cost of entry is sharing their faces, voices and identities. On YouTube, even users who post video "responses" don't usually provide a linear dialogue, let alone intellectual discourse. (Many people post random replies to popular videos to boost their channel's traffic.) There are exceptions. In the summer of 2007, for example, a random user's YouTube query generated twenty-seven direct, logical video responses -- and an impressive 6 million views. The question: "What is the best sex you have ever had?"



Highbrow video can also work, at least when its high-powered. The Davos Economic Forum launched a YouTube channel last fall, drawing more than 100 user videos about how to "make the world a better place in 2008." The forum also uploaded ideas from stars like Bono and world leaders such as Hamid Karzai and Henry Kissinger. But who cares about your global vision when Bono is one click away? "There is a tension between the wisdom of the crowd and wisdom of experts," explains John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. After looking over Big Think for The Nation, Palfrey said that by making expertise a priority, the site may have a harder time fostering a participatory culture.




Everyone knows video is taking over the web. The question is whether that augurs the triumph of a warmed-over broadcast model -- the one-way communication of Hulu -- or something more interactive, like YouTube's grassroots carnival and the experimental Current TV, with breathing room for the long tail niches of specialized online communities and salons like Big Think.






"As TV and the Internet converge into something generically known as broadband, the distinctions between the two will soon become nugatory from a consumer point of view," writes Michael Hirschorn, a former VH1 executive and prescient technology journalist. "But will this resulting hybrid be more like TV, plus interactivity; or more like the Internet, plus TV?" he asks, predicting that eventually one format will offer the desired medley of user-made, broadcast and web-exclusive video. That billion-dollar blend, Hirschorn contends, will be the "Web 3.0." Hopefully, it will still be big enough for big ideas from the bottom up.

Will Democrats Restore Our Liberties Stolen in the Bush Era?

Does the Democratic Party still stand for human rights and civil liberties?

Yes and no.

Most rank-and-file Democrats strongly support constitutional rights, from grizzled ACLU liberals to Iowa Caucus voters to MoveOn's web enthusiasts, and the issue regularly competes with Iraq as a top priority for party activists. Yet Democratic leaders are much more ambivalent. The Democratic Congress buckled in its largest civil liberties clash with the White House, passing legislation to expand warrantless spying in August. And while Democratic presidential contenders are better -- they all opposed the surveillance bill and the administration's unconstitutional Military Commissions Act -- few have used the full power of their office to advocate constitutional rights. As the Bush era of radical secrecy, unitary executive power and openly unconstitutional leadership draws to a close, the Democrats are still debating how to restore rights and liberties while waging a more effective battle against terrorists.

In the presidential field, Chris Dodd has outlined the most thorough civil liberties platform. The 26-year Senate veteran is the author of major legislation to restore habeas corpus and repeal the Military Commission Act. He also led the congressional battle against retroactive immunity for telephone companies that illegally assisted the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance. Joe Biden has staked out a leadership role on civil liberties as well. He was the first presidential candidate to back Dodd's pledge to filibuster Bush's surveillance bill -- later Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton followed suit -- and he was the first Democrat to introduce legislation reversing the controversial July executive order authorizing "enhanced interrogation techniques." Biden's legislation, "The National Security with Justice Act," would also close U.S. government "black sites," require that all interrogations comply with the Army Field Manual and provide oversight to constrain the administration's use of "rendition" (the practice of outsourcing torture to other countries). Yet the bill does not have a single Senate co-sponsor -- an indication of how reticent Democratic leaders are in this area.

The remaining Democratic frontrunners do not prioritize civil liberties much on the campaign trail, though they do advocate constitutional rights in contrast to the Bush administration. Obama, Clinton and John Edwards each say that if elected, for example, they will restore habeas corpus, close Guantanamo and halt illegal domestic spying. Obama and Clinton have both cosponsored stand-alone legislation to restore habeas corpus. And unlike Clinton, Obama has signed on to Dodd's more comprehensive bill, the "Restoring the Constitution Act," which has 13 co-sponsors. Edwards, a former senator, has not specifically spoken out on the bill, though he has endorsed several of its proponents in several addresses challenging the entire doctrine of a "Global War on Terror." Clinton also categorically ruled out the use of torture during a presidential debate in September, withdrawing her previous position that torture could be justified in a ticking time-bomb scenario.

Yet across the country, Democratic voters support a constitutional rights agenda much more forcefully than their elected leaders. According to survey that Belden Russonello & Stewart conducted this September, 81 percent of Democrats oppose torture, 70 percent favor restoring of habeas corpus, and 69 percent want to close Guantanamo. Iowa's pivotal (and knowledgeable) Democratic electorate supports these priorities at even higher rates than the national averages, including 94 percent opposition to torture and 88 percent support for habeas corpus. Democrats would not alienate swing voters on this score, either. The national survey found Independents had similar views, including higher support for habeas corpus (80 percent) and opposition to torture (87 percent) than Democrats across the country.

Civil liberties advocates say these positions, among Democrats and independents alike, are animated both by frustration with Bush's failures and a desire for new leadership that wages a battle against terrorists the "American way." That is the philosophy behind a new liberal group, the American Freedom Campaign, calling on all the presidential aspirants to affirm American values in the Constitution by strongly backing a freedom "pledge." That includes a policy commitment to restore habeas corpus, secure rights of the accused, ban all torture and defend personal liberties. With backing from MoveOn.org, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights, among others, the group has already elicited letters of support from each of the leading Democratic presidential candidates.

Yet even that important list of priorities is not sufficient to restore the rule of law in the post-Bush era. Though members of Congress rarely admit it, and the public may not appreciate it, the most significant rejections of President Bush's counterterror policies have actually come from the courts -- not from Congress or elections. The conservative Supreme Court has twice rejected Bush's detention policies at Guantanamo in the landmark Rasul and Hamdan decisions. Lower federal courts have also rebuffed executive programs to detain a U.S. citizen without trial and spy on Americans without the required warrants. Yet Bush has repeatedly responded by maligning court oversight as a barrier to national security and attempting to circumvent the rulings. Congress has reinforced that approach, even after the Democrats took control this year, by passing legislation to validate surveillance rebuffed by the courts; granting immunity to potential war criminals and contractors in Iraq; and stripping habeas corpus in the Military Commissions Act, which responded to the Hamdan decision in 2006. (The State Department also secretly granted immunity to Blackwater bodyguards, as the Associated Press reported this week.)

These congressional acts are counterintuitive, under traditional models of American government, because Congress is complicit in the reduction of its own power. The founders envisioned each branch of government asserting itself by checking the others -- "ambition must be made to counteract ambition," as James Madison declared in the Federalist Papers. Under both Republican and Democratic control, however, Congress has let its power ebb -- and assisted executive encroachments on the judicial branch. Thus civil libertarians must move on two fronts, advocating policy priorities (like habeas corpus) and pressing politicians to address vital -- but vague -- notions of restoring the proper constitutional separation of powers.

The next president should work with Congress to strengthen the branch of government that makes the law work: the courts. Civil libertarians can press candidates to outline their specific policies to strengthen judicial oversight -- including potential misconduct in the next White House. The public is also entitled to know how a candidate would select judges with fidelity to the law -- not deference to the executive branch. Another sleeper judicial issue for the campaign agenda is the administration's expansion of the "state secrets privilege," often referred to as a "nuclear" doctrine in government circles. The Bush administration has shut down scores of important cases by radically expanding the state secrets privilege, a Cold War doctrine allowing the executive to completely preempt a case by asserting that state secrets are jeopardized. Thus cases die without judges ever reviewing the underlying claims, or descriptions of the alleged secrets. (Here conservatives have swapped "judicial activism" for judicial torpor.) The American Bar Association has criticized the administration's abuse of this doctrine, and the bipartisan Constitution Project is advocating major reforms to the privilege. The issue sounds obscure now, but if evangelical activists could popularize their fight over "strict constructionist judges," civil libertarians can show peace and human rights activists how this doctrine has prevented accountability for numerous allegations of torture, rendition, detention and spying -- fortifying a model of executive power that is remarkably unaccountable to the public.

There is a common theme in all of these measures. They affirm American values and enjoy wide support among Democratic and independent voters, but remain largely neglected by Democratic leaders.

It is an old fissure within the party. The 2000 Democratic Platform, for example, was notable for its prescient emphasis on how terrorism challenges an open society. The platform proposed to "disrupt terrorist networks" before they attack while protecting the "civil liberties of all Americans" and securing "the rights of the accused, even under the unusual circumstances of the investigation of threats to our national security." The document even singled out Osama Bin Laden as a key target for the United States, while the Republicans' 2000 platform does not mention him.

Yet even if the Democrats' 2000 platform reflected popular opinion within the party, it obviously did not drive party leaders after 9/11. Today, the question is whether the failures of the Bush administration have finally shown Democratic leaders what their constituents -- and many other Americans -- already believed. The United States can wage a battle against its enemies without sacrificing freedom, justice and democracy at home.

Hillary Clinton Leads In Yet Another Worthless Poll

This post, written by Ari Melber, originally appeared on The Nation

Hillary Clinton now leads her rivals in the crucial state of Iowa -- according to a meaningless poll released this weekend. Just last week, of course, politicos were buzzing about another worthless poll that showed Barack Obama leading the Iowa pack. These polls will continue to fluctuate wildly because it's very hard to determine likely caucus attendees at this point. But most Iowa polling is worthless anyway, since it doesn't factor in the state's unusual caucus and "viability" rules. (For more details, see my piece last week, Obama Leads in Worthless Poll.)

Even the professionals have trouble keeping all these polls straight. Here's how the AP described the Democratic horse race this weekend:
Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken the lead among Democratic presidential candidates in an Iowa poll, an encouraging sign of progress toward overcoming a big hurdle in the race.
And here's how the AP described the race, well, this weekend:
[Clinton is in] a much closer race in Iowa, where she is in a tight three-way contest with Barack Obama and John Edwards.
Clinton leads Iowa! No, it's a tight three-way race! No, Obama leads Iowa!

Cut Cheney a break?

This commentary originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

The Cheney shooting is inspiring many reporters to finally confront the Bush Administration. White House press briefings are newly "combative," reporters are shocked the White House kept them in the dark about something, and TV anchors sound like they won't let this story be stonewalled to death. But just as things are heating up, some critics want to contain this rare outbreak of assertive journalism.

And not just Cheney apologists, who whine that the "Cheney-hating press corps" should cover other news and the shooting "affects no one," but serious writers like HuffingtonPost's Robert Schlesinger. He argues this exercise will only distract from more important issues, so people should give Cheney "a break."

Now I also wish the media confronted Bush's policy failures with same vigor it covers shark attacks and hunting accidents, but that's no reason to give the Vice President "a break" when he shoots someone in the face, refuses to disclose it, sends out surrogates to joke about it, and now, after causing two trips to the ICU, still won't come before the public to answer questions on the growing scandal. (Even the Wall Street Journal editorial board is worried this "cover-up is worse than the crime.")

Of course, the shooting is not as constitutionally damaging as illegal domestic surveillance. It's not as deceitful as the lies that led us to war in Iraq. It's not as scary as Cheney's support for torture. All those issues merit more public outrage and media coverage. But they are not in direct competition for a finite amount of outrage and coverage. If anything, a sustained public discussion of one problem is likely to lead into others. For journalists, this could encourage a reassessment of how to cover this dishonest Administration, or at least unloading the emotional "baggage" of being bullied for so long, as Arianna proposed." For citizens, one salient incident can become a constructive metaphor for larger failures. Craig Gordon explores this idea in today's Newsday, with some hard data to explain the opinion landscape:
Already, some are questioning whether Cheney's accidental shooting of Austin lawyer Harry Whittington on Saturday will harden into metaphor, like Jimmy Carter confronting a rabbit on a golf course or Gerald Ford's stumbling - relatively insignificant events that crystallize the public feelings about a presidency. In this case, secrecy surrounding wiretaps and questions of competence surrounding Hurricane Katrina and Iraq could become wrapped up in the errant shot of a vice president whose approval ratings are among the lowest in the administration - just 24 percent in a recent CBS News-New York Times poll.
So the next time you hear this scandal is not receiving the perfectly proportional amount of coverage it deserves, don't sweat it. Cheney is finally in a corner for something, and he deserves every minute of it.
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