Tag: journalist

Dimensions of Diversity

David Boaz posed some questions about diversity promotion in American newsrooms in a post yesterday:

But if reflecting the community is essential, why are race and gender the only categories to be considered? Alexander doesn’t mention sexual orientation. Does the Post have gay (and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and questioning…) journalists in the correct proportions?

And how about ideological diversity? In the 2008 exit polls, 23 percent of voters described themselves as white, Protestant, born-again or evangelical Christians. A survey of American religion said that 34 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born-again. How many editors and reporters at the Post would describe themselves that way? I’ll bet that born-again Christians are the most underrepresented group in elite newsrooms.

I think David mostly means to offer these as a reductio of preference policies generally, but I think they’re fair enough questions on face—possibly because I’m less confident than David that there’s a useful operational concept of “merit” in reporting that can be disentangled from identity given some intransigent social facts about 21st century America. Past some threshold level of competence, a gay reporter is just going to be able to do a better job of reporting on the gay community than I am, and a black reporter is going to have an easier time covering Anacostia. And yes, a white evangelical will probably have an easier time covering white evangelicals—though it’s no mystery why editors might be more skittish about an active preference for historically privileged groups. In a better world, identity might be less important, but in the one we’ve got it’s likely to bear on a reporter’s effectiveness in certain beats. The principle has its limits—Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe are going to be brilliant covering just about anyone—but among mortal reporters you’d expect some effect.

That said, I can think of a couple reasons why religion and (especially) ideology might be less desirable diversity targets than immutable characteristics like race, sex, or orientation. First, outside the realm of screwball comedies from the 80s, there’s not all that much reason to worry about aspiring reporters trying to “pass” as black or Hispanic or (Jack Tripper notwithstanding) gay in hopes of securing a professional advantage.  Religion and politics, by contrast, are fundamentally choices we make, and a system of preferences would create an unseemly incentive to—either cynically or subconsciously—drift in the favored direction. There is, I think, something clearly distasteful about a professional environment in which (say) a mainline Protestant reporter is perpetually awkwardly aware that his chances at promotion might turn on whether he’s prepared to declare himself “born again.”

Second, because religion and political ideology are identities fundamentally grounded in belief, they necessarily go beyond the reportorial desiderata of being able to understand and get access to a community you cover. They entail a commitment to seeing one group as systematically in the right in an array of different types of conflicts or disagreements with other groups. Making that kind of intellectual commitment a prerequisite of covering certain beats might run contrary to the norms of objectivity good newsrooms try to cultivate.

So that might be a legitimate reason for papers to aim for some level of representativeness along racial, gender, or sexual orientation lines, but omit religion and ideology—from the newsroom, at any rate. Those arguments don’t apply as strongly to the editorial page—where, indeed, we do often see conscious (if not always competent) attempts to maintain some semblance of balance among perspectives.

A Columnist Sentenced to Three Years in Prison in Ecuador

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has long labeled the free press as his “main enemy.” His attitude has unfortunately resulted in official intolerance of individuals critical of the government.

The latest example is that of Emilio Palacio, the editor of the op-ed page of El Universo – the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country – who was sentenced on Friday to three years in jail for an op-ed he wrote in August 2009. Palacio accused Camilo Samán, director of a state-owned bank, of having sent protesters to El Universo’s offices after the newspaper reported on possible acts of corruption at the bank. The President has repeatedly stated that Palacio should be punished for what he wrote. In a country where everybody knows that the courts are not independent of political power, it’s not surprising that the ruling went against the editor.

I have known Palacio since I began writing op-eds for El Universo in late 2006. Although we hardly ever agree on policy issues, I certainly don’t believe he (or anyone else) deserves to go to jail (and possibly pay a fine of $3 million) for expressing an opinion. (The court actually found Palacio guilty of libel, but even if we were to agree with that finding, the punishment surely does not fit the crime.)

Correa’s government has accused at least 31 people of offending “the majesty of the presidency,” jailing many of them for short periods of time. To do so, the President revived a law that the first military dictatorship of the 1970s put into place that made such an offense a crime and that was never taken off the books.

The government regularly vilifies its critics including journalists, university students, businessmen, and indigenous leaders. For example, during his weekly national radio shows, the President has attacked Carlos Vera and Jorge Ortiz, the two most popular news anchors in the country. The government’s frequent nationally televised messages (that every TV station on public airwaves is forced to broadcast) usually have the sole purpose of attacking a person or group that opposes official policy. Sometimes these messages were broadcast during Vera’s and Ortiz’s programs, thereby keeping their viewers from watching them. In 2008 Correa took over several privately owned TV and radio stations. Last year, he apparently had his eyes set on Teleamazonas, another TV station on public airwaves. In December, the government shut down Teleamazonas for three days and now has a frivolous legal case pending against it.

Sadly, Correa is following the pattern of his fellow populist Hugo Chávez in curtailing freedom of speech, though receiving virtually no international scrutiny.

Every Time I Say “Terrorism,” the Patriot Act Gets More Awesome

Can I send Time magazine the bill for the new crack in my desk and the splinters in my forehead? Because their latest excretion on the case of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and its relation to Patriot Act surveillance powers is absolutely maddening:

The Justice Department won’t say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act’s fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law’s provisions weren’t directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker “Jihad Jane” is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That’s because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Sadly, this is practically a genre resorted to by lazy writers whenever a domestic terror investigation is making headlines. It consists of indulging in a lot of fuzzy speculation about how the Patriot Act might have been crucial—for all we know!—to a successful  investigation, even when every shred of available public evidence suggests otherwise.  My favorite exemplar of this genre comes from a Fox News piece penned by journalist-impersonator Cristina Corbin after the capture of some Brooklyn bomb plotters last spring, with the bold headline: “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” The actual article contains nothing to justify the headline: It quotes some lawyers saying vague positive things about the Patriot Act, then tries to explain how the law expanded surveillance powers, but mostly botches the basic facts.  From what we know thanks to the work of real reporters,  the initial tip and the key evidence in that case came from a human infiltrator who steered the plotters to locations that had been physically bugged, not new Patriot tools.

Of course, it may well be that National Security Letters or other Patriot powers were invoked at some point in this investigation—the question is whether there’s any good reason to suspect they made an important difference. And that seems highly dubious. LaRose’s indictment cites the content of private communications, which probably would have been obtained using a boring old probable cause warrant—and the standard for that is far higher than for a traditional pen/trap order, which would have enabled them to be getting much faster access to more comprehensive cell records. Maybe earlier on, then, when they were compiling the evidence for those tools?  But as several reports on the investigation have noted, “Jihad Jane” was being tracked online by a groups of anti-jihadi amateurs some three years ago. As a member of one group writes sarcastically on the site Jawa Report, the “super sekrit” surveillance tool they used to keep abreast of LaRose’s increasingly disturbing activities was… Google. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the FBI could’ve handled this one with pre-Patriot authority, and a fortiori with Patriot authority restrained by some common-sense civil liberties safeguards.

What’s a little more unusual is to see this segue into the kind of argument we usually see in the wake of an intelligence failure, where the case is then seen as self-evidently justifying still more intrusive surveillance powers, in this case the expansion of the “lone wolf” authority currently applicable only to foreigners, allowing extraordinarily broad and secretive FISA surveillance to be conducted against people with no actual ties to a terror group or other “foreign power.” Yet as Time itself notes:

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

Which, of course, is a big part of the reason we have a separate system for dealing with agents of foreign powers: They are typically trained in counterintelligence tradecraft with access to resources and networks far beyond those of ordinary nuts. What possible support can LaRose’s case provide for the proposition that these industrial-strength tools should now be turned on American citizens?  They caught her—and without much trouble, by the looks of it. Sure, this domestic nut may have invoked to Islamist ideology rather than the commands of Sam the Dog or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… but so what? She’s still one more moderately dangerous unhinged American in a country that has its fair share, and has been dealing with them pretty well under the auspices of Title III for a good while now.

A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees

newspapersThe Associated Press reports:

The federal government is wading into deliberations over the future of journalism as printed newspapers, television stations and other traditional media outlets suffer from Americans’ growing reliance on the Internet.

With the media business in a state of economic distress as audiences and advertisers migrate online, the Federal Trade Commission began a two-day workshop Tuesday to examine the profound challenges facing media companies and explore ways the government can help them survive.

Media executives taking part are looking for a new business model for an industry that is watching traditional advertising revenue dry up, without online revenue growing quickly enough to replace it. Government officials want to protect a critical pillar of democracy—a free press.

“News is a public good,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

Language mavens, observe the lede: The federal government is “wading into deliberations.” I infer that in Newspeak, this may mean something like “trying to spend more money.” Perhaps I should look forward to the federal government wading into deliberations over my salary? (On second thought, maybe not.)

Some of the proposals aimed at saving traditional journalism are relatively innocuous, like letting newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofits. At least this wouldn’t do too much harm, and, given recent performance in the industry, it approaches being fiscally neutral.

Other ideas, like forcing search engines to pay royalties to copyright holders, would have far more serious consequences. It’s hard to see whom this proposal would hurt worse, the search engines, socked with massive fees, or the copyright holders themselves – if search engines don’t index you, you don’t exist anymore.

The surest loser, though, would be the rest of us. Restricting the flow of news for the financial benefit of Rupert Murdoch seems a far cry from our Constitution, which allows Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Burdening search engines seems only to inhibit the progress of science and the useful arts, while enriching a small number of people. It might pass the letter of the law, but I doubt that this is what the founders had in mind.

But anyway…. shame on Americans for our “growing reliance on the Internet”! Don’t we realize that, as the article notes, “a free press is a critical pillar of democracy” – and that a free press only counts, apparently, if it’s on dead trees?

I’m all in favor of the good the press can do, but it strikes me as shortsighted to think that this good can only be done in the traditional media. It also seems foolish to me to think that tying the press more closely to the government will make it more critical and independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites:

In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.

… That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.

Tell me again, who’s the parasite here? And why should taxpayers bail out yet another industry that isn’t delivering what we want?

Week in Review: Health Care Battles, Pay Caps and North Korean Prisoners

Will Obama Raise Middle-Class Taxes to Fund Health Care?

President Obama is promoting an expansion in federal health care spending, and Democratic leaders are scrambling to find ways to pay for it. The plan is expected to cost about $1.5 trillion over the next decade, but the administration has promised that health care legislation won’t add to already huge federal budget deficits. In a new paper, Cato scholars Michael D. Tanner and Chris Edwards argue that expanding government health care will likely involve huge tax increases on the middle class.

Tanner warns of “Obamacare” to come, saying that Obama’s new health care plan will give “government control over one-sixth of the U.S. economy, and over some of the most important, personal, and private decisions in Americans’ lives.” Don’t miss Tanner’s in-depth analysis of the new health care plan that is making its way through Congress, which “would dramatically transform the American health care system in a way that would harm taxpayers, health care providers, and — most importantly — the quality and range of care given to patients.”

A part of the plan would include “public option” (read: government-run) health care, which would allow the government to compete against private health care providers. Tanner says it would be the first step toward wiping out the private insurance market as we know it:

Regardless of how it is structured or administered, such a plan would have an inherent advantage in the marketplace because it would ultimately be subsidized by taxpayers. It could, for instance, keep its premiums artificially low or offer extra benefits, then turn to the U.S. Treasury to cover any shortfalls. Consumers would naturally be attracted to the lower-cost, higher-benefit government program.

…It is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist under such circumstances. America would be firmly on the road to a single-payer health care system with all the dangers that presents. That would be a disaster for American taxpayers, physicians, and—most importantly—patients.

Treasury Seeks to Control Executive Pay Across the Private Sector

Fox Business reports, “The Treasury Department on Wednesday took new steps to rein in executive compensation, saying the Obama Administration would introduce legislation that could create stricter limits on pay; it also appointed an official to head up efforts on the issue.”

In a 2008 Policy Analysis Ira T. Kay and Steven Van Putten explain the misconceptions many people have about executive pay, and why the market is a better arbiter than any bureaucrat in Washington:

Such populist sentiments are often based on misunderstandings about the role of corporate executives in the economy and the vigorous competition that exists for these highly skilled leaders. In the past, federal regulatory efforts based on such misunderstandings have generated unintended consequences, which have damaged the economy and hurt the ability of the market for executives to self-regulate over time.

The labor market for executives and the associated pay levels are already subject to high levels of regulation. Indeed, U.S. corporations are subject to more stringent executive pay disclosure requirements than corporations anywhere else in the world. Before additional regulatory and legislative efforts are unleashed, policymakers should examine the rationale for current pay structures and the strong links between executive pay and corporate performance.

In a Washington Times op-ed, Alan Reynolds says efforts to cap executive pay are wholly misguided:

Congressional hearings to barbecue Wall Street executives are as fun as a circus, but with more clowns. Presidential politics is now taking such political distractions to a lower level.

…Most top executives who were actually in charge during the craze of overinvestment in mortgage-backed securities have been fired. Executives who are fired are not in a position to be “giving themselves” anything.

In reality, top executives are mainly paid by accumulating a big stockpile of company stock and stock options. Estimates of annual CEO pay that Congress and the press have been focusing on look as high as they do only because of the high value of restricted stock or stock options at the time.

Writing in 2007 (before the first round of major bailouts), Cato scholars Jerry Taylor and Jagadeesh Gokhale took it a step further: “Pay Bosses More!”:

Excessive executive compensation harms no one but perhaps the stockholders who put up with it. And stockholders put up with it because there’s good reason to believe that sizable CEO compensation packages help – not harm – corporate performance, which redounds to their benefit, and that of the firms’ workers.

Companies pay workers what they must to deliver their products and services to the market, and supply and demand establishes executive compensation packages the same way it establishes consumer prices. Any overcompensation comes out of the firm’s bottom line – at a loss to the shareholders, not the workers.

North Korea Sentences Two U.S. Journalists to 12 Years Hard Labor

Two American journalists were convicted of entering North Korea illegally while on assignment, and exhibiting “hostility toward the Korean people.” This week, a North Korean court sentenced them to 12 years in a labor prison.

Cato scholar Doug Bandow comments:

Washington should publicly downplay the controversy and present the issue to the Kim regime as a humanitarian matter. The Obama administration should indicate its willingness to open a broader dialogue with North Korea, but indicate that positive results will be possible only if Pyongyang responds with cooperation instead of confrontation. Releasing the two journalists obviously would provide evidence of the former.

Regrettably, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are political pawns. As such, Washington’s best strategy to achieve their release is to simultaneously reduce their perceived value to Pyongyang and ease tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Patience may be the Obama administration’s highest virtue and Ling’s and Lee’s greatest hope.

In a Cato Daily Podcast, Bandow discusses what can be done for the American prisoners, and how the U.S. government should react.

Why Should We Pity These People?

A couple of weeks ago, I ripped apart a factually anemic but all-too-typical USA Today article decrying the plight of student debtors. Today, the grand journalistic tradition of anecdote-and-pity laden reporting on student debt continues with offerings from Business Week and The New York Times.

In an article about tight times for student loan forgiveness programs, The Old Gray Lady sticks with the journalistic tried-and-true by leading with an extreme anecdote that readers, presumably, are supposed to see as illustrating typical suffering:

When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both special-education teachers — were in trouble.

“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that they expected the program to help them repay over five years.

Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this year was next to nothing.”

Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg, Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just eat.”

Please, Mr. Gay (and Mr. Glater, the author of this heart-string puller)! You, and presumably your wife, are only in your mid-twenties, have what appears to be a very nice home according to the picture accompanying the article, and yet have the nerve to assert that taxpayers should eat your student loans lest you not eat at all!

Excuse me if I don’t start singing “We Are the World.”

This is simple greed – you know, the stuff for which the media regularly excoriates “big business” – but readers are expected to see it as suffering because it involves recent college grads. Oh, and grads who have gone into teaching, according to Glater “a high-value but often low-paying” field. That the Gays have felt wealthy enough to buy a house despite holding much greater than normal student debt – and the fact that on an hourly basis teachers get paid on par with comparable professionals – doesn’t present any impediment to the reporter repeating the baseless underpaid teacher myth. It’s all just part of the standard narratives.

Business Week’s piece isn’t much better than the Times’, though at least reporter John Tozzi had the decency not to start off with an emotionally manipulative anecdote of supposed human suffering. His third paragraph, however, centers around “analysis” from the student-centric Project on Student Debt, and he rolls out the ol’ Tale of Woe right after:

“It’s just so frustrating,” says Susan D. Strayer, director of talent acquisition for Ritz-Carlton in Washington. “They tell you to be self-made. They tell you get yourself a good education and you can get yourself into a pretty big hole.” Strayer, 33, has $90,000 in student loan debt from her bachelor’s at Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Washington University. She also has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which she earned on a full scholarship—but skipped two years of earnings to acquire. Strayer says her monthly loan payments of $600 barely budge the principal on her debt. She doesn’t regret her educational decisions, although she says the debt load has made her put off plans to pursue a consulting side business full-time.

So Ms. Strayer chose one of the most expensive schools in the country —George Washington — for a Master’s (in what we do not know); we have no information about why she chose to finance her education through loans (she and her parents bought new cars, clothes, and stereos instead of saving for college, perhaps?); but we are supposed to feel it is a terrible thing that at 33 she hasn’t been able to start a full-time consulting business. Why is that, exactly?

Thankfully, though he frontloads anecdotes and pity parties, Tozzi ends his piece with a clear, if far too rare, voice of reason:

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh, I have all this student loan debt,’ but I chose to take it and I have to deal with the consequences of that choice,” [24-year-old] Patricia Hudak says. “So many people in my generation think of everything as a short-term investment with immediate return.”

Finally, someone I can truly feel sorry for! Why? Because with journalists cheering it on, Ms. Hudak is exactly the kind of person that our political system will punish, making her pay not only for her own choices, but those of the Gays, Ms. Strayer, and countless other student debtors who really do think that everything, and everybody, should give them an immediate — and huge — payoff.

Update on Roxana Saberi

saberiRoxana Saberi

For readers interested in the ongoing case of Roxana Saberi, an American journalist imprisoned in Iran on highly dubious charges, this sad story will get you up to date.  After having given unofficial indications that she would be released shortly, the Iranian government sentenced Saberi to 8 years in prison on April 18.  She is now apparently 5 days into a hunger strike.  Trita Parsi runs down some informed speculation about the relationship between the upcoming Iranian elections, the U.S.-Iran situation, and Saberi’s arrest here.

Please keep Roxana in your thoughts and prayers.   Evin prison is bad news, and she doesn’t belong there.