Monday, February 28, 2011

Libya: The entertainers

The gift that keeps on giving known to the world as the regime of Muammar Gaddafi may be nearing its end of days shortly, with the noose of armed populist outrage tightening around his stronghold, Tripoli, the capital. To go by his own unhinged statements (only slightly more so than those of Charlie Sheen), the stage is set for a Götterdämmerung event, with Libya’s world leader pretend going down in flames perhaps later this week. Or not.

But not without staining people around him, even those half a world away. Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper reported recently about world-class entertainers including Beyoncé, Usher and Mariah Carey performing for members of the Gaddafi family at various locations, for various princely sums.

Knopper’s story was a followup on a story on the same topic that appeared in the New York Post back in January; the basis for some of the disclosures stems from diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in early February 2010.

Beyoncé apparently performed a New Year’s Eve show on the island of St. Bart’s in December 2009 for Muatassim Gaddafi, one of the dictator’s sons with a fondness for celebrity and nightlife. Carey reportedly pocketed $1 million to sing four songs at another event in St. Bart’s, according to a Feb. 23 story in The New York Times. Nelly Furtado worked a gig in Italy for the Gaddafis. Lionel Richie also performed for the family in Libya, in 2006.

◊ ◊ ◊

The music-industry reaction to the wave of reports, combined with the recently accelerated violence within Libya, has been swift and generally predictable.

"When I saw Beyoncé and Usher and whoever else was out partying with these Libyan criminals … these are people who have stolen tens of billions of dollars from their nation," said Howie Klein, former president of Reprise Records, to Rolling Stone. "What they all have in common is they're all kleptocracies – they've got a family stealing all the money. And for very, very wealthy American and British pop stars to take part in this kind of thing makes me want to puke."

David T. Viecelli, the agent for Arcade Fire and other acts, was more measured, couching the disclosures in a hypothetical sense (innocent until proven guilty) and putting the revelations in a broader historical frame — considering the long arc of Gaddafi’s history, not just events of the last two weeks.

"People put a big paycheck on the table, and people don't consider where the money is coming from, or what they're at least passively endorsing," he said.

"I don't want to specifically say Beyoncé or Mariah Carey behaved unethically, because I don't know all the details,” he told Rolling Stone. “But if it's true that Muammar Qaddafi's son says, 'I've got $50 million, come and play for my buddies,' I really think you have to say no to that. Given what we know about Qaddafi and what his rule has been about, you have to willfully turn a blind eye in order to accept that money, and I don't think it's ethical."

◊ ◊ ◊

Felicia Thomas, commenting at Rolling Stone and reacting to several naysayers, was about pitch-perfect in her sense of the complex swirl of international politics and global culture:

“I find this hypocritical. These people are just entertainers, they may not be the most abreast on politics. I saw an excellent piece on CNN talking about how both American and European leaders reversed their policy on the Gadaffi regime. It was George Bush that restored diplomatic ties with them. That was the current stance of the US when these performers performed. The majority of European leaders and countries did the same thing, including the UK Prime Minster Tony Blair. I actually saw pictures of Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi laughing and chatting with Muammar Gadaffi. [...]

“This family has been throwing parties in Cannes and other private family functions for years, without so much as people batting an eye. It's mostly news because of how they're behaving now. I'm not saying that the American and European leaders did anything wrong. To my knowledge, Gadaffi was supposedly cleaning up his act. But if our leaders can be wrong about a political figure, I don't expect entertainers to be experts. The money that these entertainers got was basically ... European and American money of corporations already doing business with the country.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Thomas may or may not be right about the source of those funds; it may really be (as some in the media have called it) "blood money." But she has a grasp of the strange interplay between power brokers in the world stage. She understands: For all the breastbeating and finger-wagging in the direction of Usher, Beyoncé and the rest, they were faced with the same dilemma that’s confronted the United States government in the past — and not just about Libya.

The entertainers discovered the hard way what other students of American history and government know too well: we’ve gotten accustomed to navigating the ethical shoals between our values and our interests vis-à-vis relations with other countries. We're so comfortable doing it that when embarrassments like this emerge, there’s no recourse, no way out besides owning up to it without owning up to anything.

Precisely the situation the words “No Comment” were invented for.

Image credits: Beyoncé: Brian Prahl/Splash News. Carey: CNN.

The war to preserve the union

You’re to be forgiven if you happen to momentarily confuse what’s going on with protesters fighting for freedom half a world away, in North Africa and the Middle East, and another such battle going on, in the state of Wisconsin. Citizens thronging the streets, opposing the prevailing power structure, demanding to have their voices heard — that much has been interchangeable.

But the battle being waged between pro-union groups and ordinary people and the state’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is a thing apart. Hanging in the balance in Wisconsin is a fundamental American workers’ right. Some have characterized the battle for collective bargaining under way in Wisconsin as nothing less than the opening conservative shot against the breadth and force of the union in America.

In case you forgot, someone named MMFlint recently tweeted a history lesson: “Wisconsin gave us the 8-hr day, unemployment insur, workers comp -- so many great ideas came from Wis.”

MMFlint’s right, of course, and that thoughtful tweet might well be just another random observation from somebody in the Twitterverse.

Until you find out that MMFLint is the author, Oscar-winning filmmaker and top-rank social provocateur Michael Moore of Flint, Mich.

And until you think about what’s at stake in Wisconsin.

◊ ◊ ◊

You know the back story: Walker is seeking to advance a “budget repair” bill that would balance the state’s $3.6 billion deficit in part by stripping the rights of about 170,000 public-service employees to collective bargaining for wages and other benefits. For about two weeks now, with the tribal energy of something straight outta Woodstock, state workers have gathered at the Capitol in Madison to protest the bill, which can’t advance to law because of a quorum required in the state Senate.

Fourteen Democratic state senators have hit the road, literally, laying low at a secret undisclosed location in Illinois, stopping the bill in its tracks with their absence. (This strategy was adopted successfully by state House Democrats in a Texas redistricting case in 2003, and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2004.)

Walker’s insisted that busting the unions in his state wasn’t the intent of the bill, an assertion mightily undercut when Walker got p’wned last week by a blogger pretending to be David Koch, one of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. In Walker’s very cordial conversation with the fake Koch, Walker revealed talks with other governors considering the same strategy — and by extension, let slip the outlines of a broad strategy to use Wisconsin as a kind of legislative test lab for an experiment in the dismantling of public employee collective bargaining rights across the country.

Even after that fake-Koch revelation, one that any self-respecting politician would be embarrassed by, Walker’s been moving forward on his budget repair bill, a piece of legislation that could adversely affect union contributions from members of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, founded in Madison in 1936), SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and the state’s Education Association Council, the state teachers union that has injected more than $10 million into Democratic state races over the previous decade, according to msnbc’s Michael Isikoff.

◊ ◊ ◊

Walker’s apparent plan — to wait for the protesters’ outrage to cool down to something more politically manageable — hasn’t worked out. With every day the protests have held in strength and numbers, and attracted the attention of the media.

The hubris of trying to do this in any state — to ram through an agenda like this, to dismantle such a foundational part of the labor history of this nation — would have been bad enough.

To try and pull this off in the state that essentially birthed the idea of collective bargaining was an act of brazen political arrogance, even for the archest conservatives in the GOP.

◊ ◊ ◊

Walker’s hold-the-line strategy reflects sizable blunders. It starts with a misreading of the history of the state he presumes to lead, and the importance of that history to the people he presumes to lead.

Collective bargaining had its beginning in Wisconsin. In 1911, partly due to the efforts of the ardent progressive Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state was first in the nation to enact workers compensation laws, requiring employers to provide medical coverage, compensation for death or injury on the job. In 1932, the state (again first in the nation) enacted unemployment compensation.

The state approved Section 111.70, the nation’s first comprehensive collective bargaining laws for public employees, in 1959. The laws gave public employees the right of collective bargaining; it also required municipalities, school districts and the state’s university system to bargain with those workers for wages and other benefits.

It didn’t come cheap. Battles with employers occurred throughout the 1940’s, in three instances resulting in yearlong strikes forced by employer intransigence. It was through dogged persistence that the unions held the line and maintained their role in the state of Wisconsin.

Considering the deep weave of the union experience in the state’s history, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise — to Gov. Walker or anyone else — that public-sector workers would dig in their heels the way they have. The fact that he didn’t see this coming shows how short-sighted his strategy really is. How can a governor be so tone-deaf to his own state’s historical legacy?

◊ ◊ ◊

His second miscalculation stems from the first: misunderstanding where some of his presumed supporters’ loyalties truly lie. The fact that public safety unions — police, state troopers, corrections officers and firefighters — are exempt from the bill’s collective bargaining restrictions might not hold up in the long term. At least that seems to be an emerging suspicion.

There’s thinking among some in Wisconsin that the current insulation of their unions could fail, as Walker makes them the next group of state workers to lose collective bargaining in the name of “budget repair” — that Walker’s plan may ultimately echo the distillation of the fear of conquest, and an historically-based fatalism: They’ve come for me today, they’ll be back for you tomorrow.

That may begin to explain the increasing appearance of law enforcement professionals in the rotunda of the Capitol. That happened on Saturday, when hundreds of off-duty police officers and deputies joined the protesters’ ranks.

That would explain why Cord Buckner, a Wausau detective, told the Stevens Point Journal: “The aggregate effect on public employees will affect police unions eventually."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The revolution will be hashtagged:
The new rules of media engagement

“Yemen is not Tunisia.” Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, January 2011

“No, Egypt will not be anything like Tunisia.” Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman, February 2011

“Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt.” Saif Gaddafi, February 2011

In the last month, the leaders of some of the Middle East’s most repressive regimes have adopted a startlingly similar approach to the uprisings in their midst — a ring of populist fire that’s engulfed countries from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen to Bahrain. (Rumblings of less deadly unrest have also been heard in Morocco, and even Jordan, a bulwark of stability and tolerance in a region known for anything but.)

The leaders in each of the more oppressive countries all read from the same dog-eared playbook: put down the reform-minded protesters hard, violently if necessary; reassure the outside world that business as usual is the order of the day; hunker down at the palace/compound/bunker and wait for the military to do its brutal work; steadfastly deny that what’s playing out in one country will be the same as what’s already happened in another.

But the past four weeks have shown that millions of the residents of these countries are tearing up that playbook in a drive to create another one. Coincidentally, the mainstream media struggling to cover this exploding story in something close to a comprehensive way is finding that its old playbook is in for some revisions, too.

The epicenter of revolt in the Arab world has shifted to Libya, where tens of thousands of people have hit the streets in the last seven days to protest against the regime of tinpot cartoon Muammar Gaddafi, for 42 years the country’s unquestioned leader.

Tanks have been reported firing on demonstrators; other eyewitness accounts recall snipers firing on demonstrators from nearby buildings. The uprising that started in Benghazi spread, in varying degrees, to Tubruq, Darnah, Shahat and Al Baida, finally coming to fever pitch in Tripoli.

At least two pilots from the Libyan Air Force have flown to nearby Malta, defecting after refusing to fire on their own people. Several Libyan government functionaries and diplomats have reportedly resigned, including the deputy ambassador to the United Nations. The Libyan strongman recently dispatched his son, Saif, to speak on his behalf. On Monday, Abdel Elhumi resigned his post as Libya’s ambassador to the 22-member Arab League, saying that Gaddafi was “over, finished ... he lost the people.”

TechnoV at YouTube: “when you start bombing your own country with war planes ... yeah you’re going down”

Human Rights Watch, an independent organization monitoring unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere, reported Sunday that 233 people had been killed in Libya since the unrest started. On Monday, HRW researcher Heba Morayef told one news outlet that “we’re hearing right now that there may be as many as [another] 30 people killed overnight in Tripoli.”

What people in Libya and others around the region are increasingly a part of is nothing less than the 21st-century way of waging warfare.

Years ago, Gil Scott-Heron wrote and recorded the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The title was, among other things, a counterculturish snarl that railed against the banalities of conventional media as much as the improprieties of the government.

That phrase was more prescient than he could have imagined. Thanks to the viral, fluid, slippery nature of communications in the age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the populist outrage in the Middle East has dissolved geography, moving faster than governments can effectively mount measures to stop it. Journalistically, it’s a story that’s moving faster than the conventional media is able to cover it.

RT @pressfreedom: Critical Libyan journalist Atef al-Atrash, missing since #Feb17 #Libya

Because of that, the standard media outlets, barred from reporting in some countries altogether, have been forced to rely on social media tools they can’t fully control, even as they seek to embrace those tools.

They go on the air saying that reports of violence in one location or another can’t be “independently verified” because their people aren’t on the ground to see it. It’s a journalistic variation of the old dilemma about “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” — as though the existence and gravity of events was somehow dependent primarily, or even largely, on their ability to record those events.

RT @JawazSafar: Activist: North Misratah City is being bombarded by tanks #Libya #Feb17

The Egyptian revolution (shorthanded in Twitterspeak as #Jan25), the revolt underway in Morocco (dubbed #Feb20) and the Libyan uprising (#Feb17) are evidence of just how independent the process of gathering vital information can be, when it has to be.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The paradox of Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Baines Johnson was no pushover. The 36th president of the United States was any estimations a hard-charging personality, content to engage in tough negotiations with lawmakers on Capitol Hill — sometimes literally cornering his opponents in invasive, lapel-grabbing conversations that took place in a space no bigger than a phone booth.

It was this style of direct, in-your-face, horse-trader politics that helped secure Johnson’s presidential legacy: creator of the Job Corps, architect of the Great Society and the War on Poverty; and a catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — two of the landmark pillars of the civil rights era that black and minority Americans are heir to today.

His relentless pursuit of those two landmark laws have helped secure for LBJ a credible claim to being the most effective president on behalf of the civil rights agenda. ...

But throughout the public record, and according to the work of presidential scholars, it’s possible to see glimpses of the LBJ who exhibited a personal aspect at odds with the political. The man had his blind spots. ...

Read the rest at theGrio

Image credit: Johnson: Arnold Newman

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Not standing on enough shoulders:
'Disintegration' reviewed

That resilient, inventive composite of the American demographic collectively called black America has put the children of many sociologists, musicologists, cultural anthropologists and statisticians through college. The different ways black Americans have survived and thrived in the United States (since before the United States existed) has been subject to slicing and dicing by a wide range of scholars stretching back generations.

Some of that analysis has been necessary; less of it has been inspired. But if these works of explanation, either scholarly or popular, are to mean anything, their explanation of where African Americans are as a people has to fully relate to how African Americans got to this point — this golden stair, this slough of despond — in the national life.

The sound analysis of African American history embraces the idea that, to borrow the saying, “Everyone stands on someone’s shoulders.” How it is that "Disintegration," Eugene Robinson’s periodically diverting study of African Americans a decade into the 21st century, seems to grasp this so intermittently is anyone’s guess. ...

Read the rest at PopMatters

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Revolt of the day:
The drive for reform beyond Egypt

Has anyone seen Hosni Mubarak? News reports have been circulating speculations as to his whereabouts. It’s been generally assumed that the former president of Egypt has been ensconced at his villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, since being ousted from power on Feb. 11. But The Washington Post cited someone who said Mubarak had boarded a plane to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and was headed from there to Germany.

Anything’s possible. This is the age of jet travel. He could be anywhere on the planet. DJ Hosni Fayrow could be kickin’ it in Malibu, puffing a blunt with Snoop right now, for all we know.

If Mubarak is absent for the time being, what’s very much front and center is the spirit his ouster has unleashed, both domestically and elsewhere in the region. The downfall of Mubarak, rather than the end of a process, appears to be anything but, as people in other countries across the Middle East mount aggressive drives for governmental and social reform.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the last month, we’ve seen demonstrations in Tunisia — the so-called Jasmine Revolution — that led to reforms in the government there. In the last 10 days, Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said he won’t run for re-election again — a pre-emptive move no doubt spurred by events in Egypt.

In the last 72 hours, we’ve seen demonstrations in Algeria, resulting in a pledge from the government of Abdulazaiz Bouteflika to end a 19-year-old state of emergency.

In Yemen, protesters pressed for reforms despite the promise of President Ali Abdullah Saleh not to seek re-election in 2013.

In Bahrain, protesters spanning the generations called for a new constitution and a more representative parliament.

◊ ◊ ◊

And in the last 24 hours, in Iran, protesters hit the streets in an echo of what sparked the tumultuous events of June 2009.

AP reported Tuesday of a pushback against Iranian pro-reform protesters, with Iranian lawmakers in parliament seeking to have opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami put on trial and sentenced to death — a reflex response to Monday’s skirmishes between government opposition protestors and Iranian security forces. One person was killed and about 1,500 people were arrested in the clashes, AP reported.

On Monday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, visiting Iran, offered advice to the governments in the region, a statement of that which should be perfectly obvious. "When leaders and heads of countries do not pay attention to the demands of their nations, the people themselves take action to achieve their demands," Gul said, as quoted by IRNA, Iran’s state-run news agency.

◊ ◊ ◊

Gul’s statement explains both the current reality and the wider expectation, shared among analysts and Arab scholars, that what’s happened already changes the game, alters the rules of engagement — mainly the rules by which the citizens of the Arab world get engaged in the process of saving itself.

Robert Malley, Mideast program director of the International Crisis Group, said this Saturday on CNN:

“Arab states have been basically mute, basically absent from diplomacy, from anything they say mattered to them: the future of the Palestinians, the future of Iran, the future of Iraq, the future of Sudan, on issue after issue, the Arab world has been dead. I think what we’ve seen on the streets of Cairo is the first act of trying to reclaim their own destiny.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Implicit in Malley’s analysis is the idea that if those states continue to be the passive observers he says they’ve been in the past, the door would be ajar (if not wide open) to the instabilities of fundamentalism, or the dangers of terrorist bad actors pressing the advantage of a momentary regional chaos. Action trumps inaction, which is exactly what a power vacuum requires.

For all the sleepless nights that Washington and Tel Aviv have had over the last three weeks, it should give them some peace of mind that, whatever their long-term prospects might be, these uprisings had genuinely populist beginnings. Despite the claims that the U.S. government played the puppetmaster of events in Egypt, there’s far more evidence that the Egyptian Revolution was a fully organic, indigenous expression of the Egyptian people. It was their show, start to finish.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

'Incognito': One man's way to self-discovery

Michael Fosberg was busy sprinting from one airport in one city to another, one interview followed by another. "January and February are booked solid," he told theGrio over the weekend, acknowledging his increase in bookings at high schools, colleges and arts festivals for events tied to observances of the Martin Luther King holiday and Black History Month.

It's high season for Fosberg, actor, writer, theatrical producer, storyteller and a man who discovered a wholesale change in his racial identity in the time it took to make one phone call.

Fosberg is the author of Incognito, a one-man, 12-character play that chronicles his world-changing discovery, what led up to that moment when he, a man whose outward appearance marks him as white, finds out his biological father was black. A book of that journey distills his story in book form, and examines how the nation navigates the same turbulent waters. ...

Read the rest at theGrio

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt: Liberation squared

“Every Egyptian is a different Egyptian today.”
                   — Mohammed ElBaradei, Feb. 11, 2011

Sometimes, contrary to the old saying, the future doesn’t “sneak up on you.” On certain occasions, it has a way of roaring up and announcing itself unmistakably, in a Cairo minute: “It’s time. I’ve arrived ... deal with it!”

That happened today in Egypt, when Omar Suleiman, the new vice president of the nation of 80 million people, announced that Hosni Mubarak, for 29 years and three months the president of Egypt — the only leader about 40 percent of its people had ever known — had been ousted from his office, sent packing (a day after vowing to stay in office) to Sharm el Sheikh, his in-country Elba on the Red Sea. Game over.

The way’s now open to the second presidential election in the history of Egypt, a vote with the potential to solidify Egypt’s arrival as a democratic force for change in a volatile part of the Middle East.

Getting to the September elections, however, will be a period of relative instability, as the country’s new interim military leader tests his muscle, and any number of political organizations outlawed or muzzled under the Mubarak regime try to find their voice and their message. At the same time, there’s the potential for this relative vacuum to be exploited by the bad actors and bombers whose brutal work defines so much of the Middle East.

◊ ◊ ◊

You didn’t have to be an analyst or a foreign-affairs professional to see that Mubarak was pretty much finished from the jump. Shortly after this started on Jan. 25th, that fact was as plain as observing the crowds that occupied Tahrir Square and  Liberation Square in Cairo, and the city of Alexandria — crowds visible from the live streaming video of the crowds from Al Jazeera, among other networks, as visible in the photographs from The Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images.

Of course there were the usual children of revolt: young, testosterone-driven, rebellious by nature and chafing especially badly in a battered economy even more battered in the wake of 18 days of revolution. These were the ones who exploded the conversation, the ones who viralized the revolution on Twitter and Facebook, shrinking the world and riveting our attention on a square in central Cairo like it was the only place in the world.

But there were others. Solid nuclear families, middle-aged or older, middle-class or nearly so by Egyptian standards: mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, toddlers and young girls in tow, all driven to witness their country in an act of transformation as profound and, in some ways as immediate, as the morphing of a chrysalis into a butterfly.

That combination was irresistible. It spanned the national demographic of age and gender, and effectively put the lie to Mubarak’s early claim that all the trouble was the work of a knot of malcontents bent on overthrow. ElBaradei’s presence and statements gave the revolution an internationalist voice; it was the diversity of the pro-reformist population that gave it credibility.

When the Usual Suspects and the Silent Majority are on the same side against you, you’re in trouble.

◊ ◊ ◊

That there’s been a liberation of the Egyptian people is obvious. What will have the chinpullers on the Potomac working overtime will be how the fairly rapid outcome of the Egyptian situation plays out in Washington.

Practically speaking, it’s not much of a debate. The relatively swift resolution of the crisis redounds nicely on the Obama administration. They had to do a tightrope walk worthy of the Flying Wallendas: supporting the pro-democracy movement while careful not to be seen trying to crowbar Mubarak out of the presidency; working the backchannels to ratchet up pressure not on Mubarak directly, but on the institutions he relied on (chief among them the army) for power.

The result for the White House: a successful outcome. "The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same," President Obama said at the White House. The outcome wasn’t bloodless by any measure, about three hundred people died in the 18 days, scores more were wounded. Egypt has taken a huge short-term hit in tourism, its true stock in trade, and in the world of global business.

◊ ◊ ◊

And a lot can happen in the next seven months.

Al Jazeera: Pharaoh-by-the-Sea

Al Jazeera reporting that Mubarak has left the presidential palace for the digs at Sharm el Sheikh:

Egypt: 'The critical juncture'

Now it all moves very fast, faster than usual. The Associated Press and The Huffington Post has reported the following within the last hour or so:

CAIRO - Egypt's military threw its weight Friday behind President Hosni Mubarak's plan to stay in office through September elections while protesters fanned out to the presidential palace in Cairo and other key symbols of the authoritarian regime in a new push to force the leader to step down immediately.

Meanwhile, Mubarak's whereabouts were unknown. Widespread reports indicate that he has left Cairo. ... Al Arabiya retracted an earlier report that the president had left the country.

Meanwhile, shortly after that moved, HuffPost moved a breaking-news ribbon that said the wannabe Pharaoh, who apparently pulled off a vanishing act over the last several hours, is now thought to be at his Red Sea hideaway.

All while throngs continue to gather at Tahrir Square on what some have said will be a pivotal moment. "Tomorrow's going to be a decisive day in determining whether this revolution is going to go the full course or not," said Yasser el Shimy, a former Egyptian diplomat now with Catholic University interviewed on Thursday. "Right now Egypt is at the critical juncture."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt: Watch this space

This is an apparently wide-open live feed from Egypt via The Associated Press.

Contrary to previous reports — and apparently previous understandings by pro-reform spokesmen and the White House — President Mubarak has refused to step down from office, instead granting powers to Omar Suleiman, the new vice president.

A live stream from Al Jazeera is available here.

On CNN, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former United Nations nuclear weapons chief, said that with his refusal to step down, President Hosni Mubarak was "gambling with the destiny of his country," calling Mubarak’s speech tonight "an act of deception on a grand scale."

He tweeted this a few hours ago:

Watch this space for more developments later.

A Current_ affair

We were well into studying the case of the vanishing Keith Olbermann, toying with the various speculations: When would CNN drop the bomb? Was Murdoch bluffing when he said Never in Hell at Fox? Would Keith go Hollywood?

Just like that, there’s nothing to study anymore.

On Tuesday, it was announced that Olbermann would be moving to Current TV, to helm a one-hour news show sometime in “late spring,” probably late May. There’s no name for the program yet, but at least two name-specific Internet domains have been secured. In a conference call with reporters, Olbermann described the forthcoming program as "an improved, amplified and stronger version of the show that I just did at my previous network," MSNBC, whose name dared not cross KO’s lips.

According to The Hollywood Reporter (which covered this thing like a blanket), Current is in the development and production process with Olbermann, including the hunt for the right executive producer.

Tim Goodman may have got it right in HR: “[W]hat we have here is either Olbermann poised for the greatest comeback since Lazarus or one enormous cable renovation project that might need more hammers, drills and saws than the world has available.”

◊ ◊ ◊

On its face it’d seem to be a knockout for Olbermann and for Current. For Olbermann, it returns him to prime-time television for more of the day’s events filtered through his topical, kaleidoscopic lens. It’s his chance to jump back into the national discourse now that things are really cooking: the 112th Congress is in session, Egypt is in turmoil and Sarah Palin is ramping up her game (have her lawyers formally adopted the Sarah Palin® device I’ve used here forever?).

It’s surprising all this came together so soon after his leaving MSNBC at the end of January. Shortly after his departure, speculation was rampant that Olbermann would be barred from television for some time as a non-compete condition in the exit agreement; some estimates put Olbermann’s TV exile at six months or longer. (We can only guess what the negotiations were like to let Olbermann go back on the air this quickly — a different thing from the strict NBC noncompete that Conan O’Brien had to endure before he finally showed up on TBS.)

This time Keith comes with extras. Olbermann is reportedly to receive an equity stake in Current TV, a potentially huge payout if the network succeeds. And he comes to Current TV bearing the vaguely kapo title of Chief News Officer; he’ll be in charge of directing the arc of much of Current’s news programming, including the programs that bookend his own.

He wouldn’t characterize it so grandly, but this could amount to an instant empire, Olbermann’s best opportunity to impart his fiercely populist stamp on a prime-time news program with a minimum of the chafing with corporate he encountered at MSNBC.

◊ ◊ ◊

For Current, the channel co-founded by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt in 2005, the acquisition of Olbermann gains them what every network needs: a face that defines the brand. In this respect, this is a match made in heaven.

Analyst Matthew Harrigan, interviewed by HR’s Georg Szalai, estimated that Current’s current average primetime viewership — right around 23,000 — could increase 10 times or more. "Keith Olbermann obviously was the man who made MSNBC, and he has got a very loyal audience," said Harrigan, of Wunderlich Securities. "This is huge for Current."

For years now Current has been laying in the cut, making its mark with Vanguard, a series that highlights riveting work from a young and daring documentary unit, as well as Ira Glass' “This American Life” and other, fluffier fare like “InfoMania,” a satiric take on the news and too clever by half.

Up to this point, the most visible face connected with Current isn’t even on the air. Right now to the public at large, Current equals Al Gore. While that's true enough on one level, it’s a problem in trying to establish an identity in the language of modern television.

With Olbermann aboard? Identity issue addressed. His presence at Current gives the fledgling network more cred as a mainstream entity; Current by default becomes a louder voice in the mediasphere. "It is the first thing Current TV has done since launch to put itself on the map. It's been a non-factor in terms of programming … for the first time, this puts Current on the map as a real player." Larry Gerbrandt, principal at Media Valuation Partners, told HR's Szalai.

Given Current’s relatively poor ratings numbers, that’s probably a good thing. Despite being available in somewhere between 30 million and 60 million homes, Current is being actively watched during prime-time by about 23,000 households. There’s public-access channels showing bad performance art with audiences bigger than that.

Olbermann can help turn that around.

◊ ◊ ◊

And with the political season dead ahead, there’s something more going on. November’s tie-up of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, last month’s acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast; Monday’s acquisition of The Huffington Post by AOL and Current’s appointment of Olbermann indicate the advance of a basic realignment in the power centers of journalism, moving away from the legacy entities of media (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc.) and moving toward eager, deep-pocketed, tech-savvy relative newcomers who aren’t captive to the institutional lethargies of the old guard (if for no better reason than they haven’t been around long enough for that to happen).

Tina Brown launched The Daily Beast in October 2008. Comcast’s big NBCU buy represents its first (and deeply concerning) foray into the content end of the communications business; the current iteration of AOL was birthed at the end of 2009. And Current didn’t go on the air until August 2005.

The fact that these newcomers are bulking up so quickly on known media players and properties less than two years before a presidential election (one that promises to be, at the least, memorable) says they mean to be contenders in the evolving media universe during the white-hot intensity of the next campaign for the White House.

Over the past year, AOL’s Patch project has wired together a series of 500+ community Web sites into a vast hyperlocal news network that reports news that’s pertinent to local communities — well off the radar of the major newsgatherers. And Current TV’s current programming, strongly directed at the youngest voting demographic, has long since tapped into social media and Google’s search tools.

Count on nationally granular hyperlocal news and social media to play a bigger role in both the electoral process and the journalism that monitors and reports that process next year. Count on these newcomers to find ways to leverage new-media tools into journalism that breaks further out of the mainstream media box.

◊ ◊ ◊

And watch for the Olbermann-MSNBC conflict to go from hot war to cold war. "He had no choice but to go to a place like Current because his non-compete excluded just about every other place," an MSNBC insider told HR, dismissing Olbermann’s move.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Now we know the short-term cost of standing up for yourself in Egypt.

The bloodbath the world expected to wake up to last Friday in Tahrir Square didn’t materialize. The “day of departure” arrived with only the comings and goings of the thousands of people at that Cairo site, and no departure from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reportedly at his vacation digs at Sharm el-Sheikh, taking a break from the presidential palace six-odd miles from the epicenter of his people’s revolt.

But we may be getting a bloodbath in slow motion. According to a Human Rights Watch report released on Monday, at least 297 people have been killed since the uprising started two weeks ago.

The death census compiled by the U.S.-based human rights organization is based on visits to seven hospitals in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, and contact with the medical staff who are in a position to know: doctors and morgue inspections. The count includes 65 deaths outside Cairo.

Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Cairo, provided the information on Monday to The Associated Press.

With Sunday’s return to something approaching normal, there’s been what seems like a lull under way, an entr’acte before we get to the third-act gunplay. Days earlier, of course, it was ugly and strange. Journalists assaulted on the street; Molotov cocktails and stones exchanged. Gangs of pro-Mubarak thugs roaming the square and its environs and attacking at will; Mubarak supporters riding camels through the square at a fast clip, charging and lashing their way through like an attack party in the ancient souk.

◊ ◊ ◊

Since then, the dance of the governments has started for real. Mubarak has made grudging concessions to reform, among them naming his first vice president and reportedly considering meeting with opposition leaders.

On Saturday, members of Mubarak’s ruling party resigned. But not the man in the big chair. The Egyptian leader is playing a waiting game, hoping that time erodes the passions of the opposition. “Dictatorship has its own pathologies,” said Fouad Ajami, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, on CNN Feb. 2. “This man doesn’t really believe his people want him to go. He thinks these are a bunch of rabble rousers. ...”

The United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton very much on point, is navigating a tricky position, apparently solid behind the demonstrators but equally committed to the idea of a shift to the now-inevitable post-Mubarak era. The phrase “orderly transition,” which both President Obama and Clinton have used in recent days, seems to be the operational descriptor for that process.

On Sunday, the new and first Egyptian vice president, Omar Suleiman, met with pro-reform representatives in what appears to be the first credible attempt at addressing the long-term concerns of opposition groups — among them more press and media freedoms, and an end to the so-called emergency laws, the broad grid of restriction and authority so long and so much a part of Egyptian life, its very name has warped the boundaries of where “emergency” even begins or ends.

◊ ◊ ◊

But it’s Monday’s news that stays with you. With all the feints and weaves, moves and countermoves,  seems the only people in this evolving drama with the best idea of what’s at stake are the people in the square.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The heartbreak of public brain-flatulence

She’s sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, and she’s won five Grammys, but Christina Aguilera is one of us. She proved it on Sunday night in her performance singing the National Anthem before the start of Super Bowl XLV.

Aguilera was in her usual vocal swoops and arabesques singing the song she’s said she has performed since she was 7 years old. Then it happened. Aguilera replaced the proper phrase — "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming" — with "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last gleaming." Which manages to screw up an attempted repeat of a phrase in the first verse (“watched” should be “hailed”).

You remember the “so gallantly streaming” phrase. It’s the one scrawled in the folds of your cerebellum as indelibly as the Lascaux cave drawings in France, that phrase you committed to memory when you were, what, five or six?

Nowhere to be found on Sunday night.

Trouper that she is. Aguilera toughed it out the best she could; Lady Gaga’s not the only poker face around; Aguilera brought sincerity and conviction to most of the rest of the song, as befits a professional. But still. This is one for that blooper reel of pop-culture fails that you just don’t want to be on.

At least she owned up quickly. "I got so lost in the moment of the song that I lost my place,” she said in a statement to The Associated Press “I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through."

Hot Boudain, commenting at HuffPost, ain’t having any. His reaction was, well, pitch-perfect: “I hate when singers try to make the National Anthem sound like an altar call at the New Zion Holiness Tabernacle and Pomade Emporium Baptist Church.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s a funny thing about the National Anthem — and almost any of the more popular entries in the cultural songbook. Our first experience with those songs usually isn’t by way of a lyric sheet, it’s more likely to have occurred audibly, through an open window or the dopplerized version heard coming out of a passing car.

So the lyrics are often as not something we recall almost in a rote, primitive kind of ordinal expectation. We’ve heard them before, we know the inflections, their prosody and rhythms. We seem to know almost intuitively, what the next word is and the next word and the next after that. We don’t so much know what the words say as we know how the words “go.”

Sometimes we get it right, like Aguilera did when she sang the Anthem and nailed it at the age of 11, before an NHL playoffs between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Black Hawks in May 1992.

Sometimes we don’t, like Aguilera did in 2007, at an NBA All-Star Game.

She had another outbreak of cerebral flatulence, so gallantly screaming, on Sunday.

◊ ◊ ◊

Well ... It happens to all of us — usually in the relative privacy of a drunken night out with friends in a half-empty bar, or the absolute privacy of the shower stall. Not in front of at least 100 111 million people planetwide in the United States. No pressure there, right?

Brain farts while singing are an equal opportunity thing. And everybody brain-farts singing the Anthem. Goofing it up is as much a national pastime as singing the damn thing in the first place.

It’s all right, Christina. Five Grammys on the mantelpiece outweigh this by just a lil’ bit.

But next time, girl, be sure. If you’ve been doing this since the age of seven, you need to nail it. Find the lyrics; they’ll fit on a 3x5 card. Get the hard copy. Look at it. Pretend they’re the words from that hot dope single by Francis Scott MC Key, the one that’s been on the charts for forever.

You’ll remember 'em then.

Image credit: Aguilera: FOX/National Football League

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Ed and Jon Show

It’s a rule of thumb that’s often holy writ: Company takeovers often mean a new broom sweeps clean. The new managers at MSNBC have selectively enforced that in their shuffle of the network’s prime-time lineup, and ardently aggressive progressive Ed Schultz, host of “The Ed Show,” is still standing after last month’s management shakeup.

Schultz, it seems, is still girding for battle, but with the wrong people.

The Huffington Post reported Friday on a minor dustup he had with Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Stewart mocked Schultz on the Thursday "Daily Show," in his "Olbertunity Knocks" segment. Lamenting the departure of Keith Olbermann from the MSNBC lineup, Stewart did a quick rundown of MSNBC show hosts in search of find a suitable replacement for Olbermann’s presence.

◊ ◊ ◊

Claiming there was an "Olbermann-shaped hole" in the national discourse, Stewart said Rachel Maddow (of the “Rachel Maddow Show” wasn’t confrontational enough (this from a man who launched a “Rally to Restore Sanity” in American life?), Chris Matthews (of “Hardball”) wasn’t creative enough in his jabs at conservatives, and Lawrence O'Donnell (“The Last Word”) was too oratorically slow.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Olbertunity Knocks
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Then Stewart went after Schultz, taking issue with his sometimes over-the-top nature, alluding to the problems with a "heavy-set man shouting at you" on television, and saying that Schultz could play the on-air role of "Olbermann's id."

Ed got all ... Ed on Stewart in a tweet he hurled at Stewart the next day:

Schultz is clearly feeling his oats. You’ll recall what happened back on August 12, according to The New York Post and other news outlets, when he found out that he apparently wasn’t to be included in MSNBC’s election-night promos. Schultz is said to have gone ballistic, going on a rant in the newsroom at 30 Rockefeller Center and threatening to “torch this fuckin’ place” if he wasn’t added to the pundits’ promo roll for the November election.

On the one hand, you can’t blame Schultz for sticking up for himself in the face of a clearly exclusionary situation. No one wants to be left behind when the sweeteners of such a high-profile job in television are being doled out. If that’s what really happened, give Ed credit for standing up on his hind legs and calling BS on a situation that deserved it. Even if he wasn’t exactly, uh, linguistically politic about how he did it.

Egypt: The clock ticks on the street
and at the bank

Hosni Mubarak has announced that “I will die in Egypt” as his way of reinforcing his intention not to be pried out of the Egyptian presidency before September, pursuing a passive-aggressive course of action that could undo not just the progress of his country but the greater Middle East, too.

There’s a practical reason why playing for time won’t work. Strategy like that necessarily calls for a shorter time frame than seven months; Mubarak surely knows that a game of attrition is most effectively wielded on a short-term basis, while more tenable options are explored, pursued or discarded. Seven months? Not even Richard Nixon hid out in the White House that long during the height of Watergate.

The clock's ticking on the population’s patience. Already angry after 12 days of protest, his people are confronting the shortages — of food sources, of working ATMs, of the necessities of a functional infrastructure — that could move them toward more confrontational measures, and fast. This kind of deprivation also yields the sort of instability that, if left unchecked, could metastasize into a breeding ground for Islamist fundamentalism.

Patience is running out among world leaders, too. President Obama, Sarkozy in France and Cameron in the United Kingdom have weighed in against Mubarak’s regime. It can’t have escaped the attention of the would-be Pharaoh that certain right-wing elements in the United States (not in power, lucky for us) have already called for U.S. military intervention.

◊ ◊ ◊

But if nothing else, if Mubarak isn’t budged by moral suasion, if the cultural and geopolitical forces don’t move him, it’s a safe bet economic forces will. It’s not just the matter of $1.3 billion in military aid coming from the United States — an open flow of money that could slow down, if only slightly, the longer this goes on. That’s bad enough.

More concerning should be a story this week from BBC News. The story, borrowing from an analysis from Credit Agricole S.A., (the largest retail banking operation in France, a country with deep financial interests in Egypt), finds that the current unrest is costing Mubarak’s country at least $310 million a day.

The bank’s economists have revised downward their economic growth forecasts for Egypt this year from 5.3 percent to 3.7 percent.

According to the report: "Prolonged political uncertainty and perceived violence could have a destructive impact on tourism earnings this year. Tourism accounted for 6 percent of GDP in 2010 and... receipts could easily retract to pre-2004 levels of less than $5.5 billion.”

Egypt's new vice president Omar Suleiman said Thursday on state television that the unrest had cost his country $1 billion in tourism over the first nine days.

The damage may well be more than locally collateral. “Local as well as international investors will demand an early exit as political instability and lack of clarity looms," the CA report said. "Those that have not opted for capital outflow strategies over the past few years will do it now.”

Translation: Look for foreign investors to start repatriating billions of dollars worth of their home currencies, or putting their money into safer places elsewhere abroad.

Credit Agricole also estimates Egypt's budget deficit this year might hit 12.3 percent, up from an earlier estimate of 8.2 percent.

◊ ◊ ◊

Another story, by the Saudi Gazette puts things in even starker terms, calling on facts from Egypt’s recent history:

“A depreciating currency would lead to higher import costs, especially food imports such as wheat. Global food commodity prices are on the rise and that is likely to translate into additional burdens for the local economy. Inflation will continue to be the ‘untameable beast’ that the government failed to stabilize despite concerted efforts. Food inflation of around 17 percent — which accounts for 44 percent of the inflation basket — is a major issue for the government,” the CA report said, mentioning the food riots that broke out in Cairo in January 1977 (when people protested against an end of state subsidies on staple foods) and April 2008 (when high food prices and depressed wages sparked another uprising).

The Egyptian army had to step in on both occasions, putting down the riots with predictably bloody results.

The CA report’s dire outlook gets even more gravity when you look at the shares of the Credit Agricole Egypt mutual fund, which have taken a major hit from almost the moment things in Cairo began going south at the end of last month.

The bottom line? That's right. The bottom line may be the storied tipping point, the thing that makes the pivotal difference in the current unrest. After all the other arguments have been brought to bear, what could topple the Mubarak regime may come down to money. The likelihood increases that — sooner rather than later — Mubarak will exit from the presidency of Egypt because, when all’s said and done, Egypt literally can’t afford to let him stay.

Image credits: Cairo unrest: via The Huffington Post. Credit Agricole logo and stock chart: ©˙ 2011 Credit Agricole.

Friday, February 4, 2011

American IED: An updated history (from theGrio)

As the nation observes Black History Month 2010, it’s possible to note the dovetail of history and current events in the recent past. One of those happened at a ritual observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday — one of the parades to which we’ve become accustomed, the tributes that are almost par for the course. It pretty much fell off the immediate radar of major media. It didn’t bleed, so it didn’t lead.

The story began on Jan. 17, at the northeast corner of Washington Street and Main Avenue, on the route of the MLK Unity March in Spokane, Wash., 270 miles east of Seattle. Well before the march began, city public utilities workers found a Swiss Army brand backpack containing a remote-controlled explosive device under a bench on the route where thousands of people would soon walk past.

The backpack was sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that the sophisticated bomb included a mix of shrapnel — bolts, nails and random small metal — and a remote detonator. Other reports that it included a chemical commonly found in rat poison have been disputed.

“It definitely was, by all early analysis, a viable device that was very lethal and had the potential to inflict multiple casualties,” said Frank Harrill, the special agent in charge of the Spokane FBI office. Since then, authorities have been very tight-lipped about what they’ve found; Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire was briefed by those officials on Jan. 28, but nothing from that briefing’s been made public.

“This was an attempt to murder scores of people at a Martin Luther King Day march,” Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told theGrio. “This was a sophisticated antipersonnel device built to hurt as many people as possible. This was an attempted domestic terroristic attack based on race.”

For Potok, it was also something else. “It was an IED. That’s exactly, technically, what it was.”

Read the rest at theGrio

Image credits: Backpack: Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Crouching 'Fighter,’ Hidden 'Speech’?

In the 2001 Oscar race for Best Picture, it came down to four. “Traffic,” the edgy, surreal and excellent Steven Soderbergh film exploring the drug trade through a weave of multiple storylines, was thought to be a lock. Its ripped-from-headlines topicality and the originality of Soderbergh’s direction of Stephen Gaghan’s fierce, muscular script were thought to give it an edge over contenders like Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” the tale of betrayal and vengeance set in ancient Rome and starring the indelible Russell Crowe.

Soderbergh seemed to double his chances for Best Picture with his directing “Erin Brockovich,” the Julia Roberts vehicle about one determined environmental crusader going up the system (based on a true story). And then there was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Ang Lee’s lush, visionary story of four warriors in the Qing dynasty, was the other top contender, one that had already won a raft of international awards.

In his wisdom, Oscar has a way of splitting the difference, of dividing the golden spoils between several worthies; the big technical awards go one way while the Golden Dudes for acting, directing and the purely creative work go another. It was much the same that year, but with a twist that confirms just how important demographics can be.

◊ ◊ ◊

"Crouching Tiger" won for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography; it was dissed for the other Oscars on the basis of a thin story (and correspondingly thin dialogue), and on the strength of Soderbergh’s double-barrel directorial triumphs, which pretty much included Ang Lee out of a Best Director nod. Still, and clearly, Lee wouldn’t walk away from Oscar night empty-handed.

Partly for that reason, the three left were easier to decide: Roberts would win Best Actress for “Erin Brockovich”. That took the heat off Oscar as far as giving Soderbergh his just due. He wouldn’t walk away from Oscar night empty-handed, either.

So it came down to “Gladiator” and “Traffic” for Best Picture, and here’s where demographics may have played a hand.

In his 2003 book “All About Oscar,” author Emanuel Levy writes: “There is at least one generation between Academy members and active filmmakers (those nominated for awards) and two generations between Academy members and average filmgoers … Age differences and generations gaps inevitably make the Academy vote more conservative, lagging behind the industry’s aesthetic and technical innovations. This built-in conservative bias in the Academy vote, which is reflected in the kinds of movies that won Best Picture, is almost inescapable.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This, to some extent, is why “Traffic” was a longer shot than people may have thought, despite its critical acclaim and box-office success (more than $100 million in box office).

The fact that “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” were both nominated for Best Picture automatically meant one of them wouldn’t make it. But look at it demographically:
 Academy voters tend to be older and more conservative — more of the era in which vast, big-canvas historical epics like “Ben-Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia” were held up as the ne plus ultra of movie entertainment. This gave “Gladiator” a decided edge.

Now consider: Soderbergh’s two Oscar hopefuls were essentially pulled from modern-day life and the evening news; for those older voters, who had (and still have) a strong presence in the Academy, Soderbergh’s films shackled them to the world’s real-life everyday agonies.

For these voters, the Best Picture choice was really pretty clear: “Gladiator” was a movie whose subject matter was what you went to the movies for. “Traffic” was a movie whose subject matter was what you went to the movies to get away from.

“Gladiator” wins.

◊ ◊ ◊

The 2011 Oscar derby may not come down to slicing and dicing voters’ age-related rationales that finely, but you never know. “The King’s Speech” and “The Fighter” are classic stories of overcoming obstacles, and the low expectations of others, in order to succeed.

Academy voters might say: “Never mind “The Social Network”; the saga of that Facebook contraption is a little too bloodless, too hermetic to get our hearts around.” Academy voters have proven they love a tale of the Comeback Kid, the little guy who claws his way to victory against all odds ... the outsider on the rails who beats the smart-money favorite, by a little or a lot.

This year, could that scrapper be King George VI or a determined kid from Boston looking for a title shot? It ain’t over til the envelope opens, on Feb. 27.

Image credits: Oscar: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Gladiator poster: © 2000 DreamWorks/Universal. The King's Speech poster: © 2010 The Weinstein Company. This piece was first published in Culcha.

Egypt: The impact of surprise

It’s been something of an article of faith among the punditburo now weighing the fate of Egypt, the Middle East and the geopolitical posture of the wider region, Israel and the United States: The Obama administration was flat-footed, slow off the mark, slow to the punch — pick your cliché for being surprised. But the best way to answer these scribes’ main question — How could the White House not see this coming? — is to ask another one: How is it they, the journalists, didn’t see it coming?

The fact is that, when it all blew up in Egypt on or about Jan. 24, the mainstream journalism establishment was also caught by surprise by the speed and intensity with which events unfolded in Tahrir Square and Liberation Square in Cairo, and in Alexandria.

On Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program, an exchange between host Howard Kurtz and Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent of The Atlantic, as they discuss the relative absence of an organic MSM focus on events in Egypt and its implications for the wider region:

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It's actually unbelievable, because long term, everyone knew that this regime wasn't viable, and yet -- 

KURTZ: But I didn't see that reflected in the coverage. 

GOLDBERG: It's interesting, isn't it? I think part of it goes to your point about not having a -- the numbers of reporters that we used to have in the Arab world in the Arab world. And also, by the way, because of that, and partially because of that, you don't have the same amount of coverage on the nightly news, you don't have the same amount of coverage in newspapers anymore. So, I mean, most things are going to come to us as surprises these days.

That’s the engine powering the rise and force of social media options like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and alternate programming sources like al Jazeera and al-Arabiya. They’re filling the vacuum created by the relative absence of the larger, less nimble, more economically beholden mainstream American media players.

The Pew report on the State of the Media 2010 took note of how ABC News had learned to adapt:

None of the networks had a bureau in Tehran when protests erupted over disputed Iran’s presidential elections [in June 2009]. With no correspondents in the country, and with the government barring their entry, the networks turned to nonjournalistic sources, including cellphone video and social networking websites. An ABC News’ digital correspondent, Lara Setrakian, covered the protests by monitoring Twitter from her base in the Persian Gulf.

(Setrakian’s also, or now, with Bloomberg.)

Kurtz described it on CNN as a “boots on the ground” matter, and it is, but it doesn’t just apply to matters beyond our water’s edge.

Domestic bureaus of newspapers and magazines and major Web sites have taken a huge hit. For years now, in the United States and abroad, major news orgs have been closing bureaus outright, or priding themselves on having converted full-fledged bureaus into mini-bureaus, consisting of nothing more than a reporter with a laptop and a notepad, in a drive to hitting the numbers on the bottom line.

That drive got stronger for ABC. In February 2010 the network announced plans to close all of its physical bureaus around the country except Washington. ABC News President David Westin confirmed in an interview with Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times that the number of network correspondents, which Gold said at that time “number several dozen,” would be cut in half.

ABC planned to shutter bricks-and-mortar bureaus in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Boston, and ask remaining staff to work out of local affiliates, the Times reported.

In June 2010, USA Today, owned by Gannett, announced plans to closed down its bureau in Washington, the nation’s capital, and replace it with a more economical space. Most of USA Today’s editorial staff now work at offices in Tyson’s Corner, Va.

And in November 2009, at his day gig as a reporter for The Washington Post, Kurtz himself wrote about the closure of all of the last of the physical news bureaus of the paper he works for — in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Over the previous decade, he reported, The Post had already closed bureaus in Austin, Denver and Miami.

◊ ◊ ◊

All these surgeries may well be fully defensible on the basis of economics (and fealty to shareholders), and are entirely justifiable actions from a purely journalistic perspective. Ultimately, a reporter, a pen and a camera are the indispensable tools that journalism comes down to anyway.

"The fact is we can effectively cover the rest of the country from Washington," Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli told Kurtz. "We have for years been able to cover issues around the country for our readers with a corps of traveling reporters. It's more possible than it's ever been to cover the issues that matter to our readers from a Washington perspective."

One suspects that Brauchli might like to revisit that grand think. It may well work at the domestic level, within the friendly confines of the United States. As a global newsgathering strategy, however, the idea of a troupe of “traveling reporters” has vulnerabilities built into it. There's a price to be paid when the news happens where you’re not, or where there’s not as much of your presence as there was before. Surprises  happen.

Even for the best journalist in the field, the support, the respect that flows from having a solid bricks-and-mortar presence in a given city, however marginal, is inescapably enabling. Being part of a city or a region in a foreign country, a fixture people recognize, must have its newsgathering advantages over being someone who parachutes in from nowhere with swagger and bright lights and questions about the government’s affairs.

That’s when journalists look like foreigners. Like outsiders. Because to the locals, and in point of fact, that’s exactly what they are.

◊ ◊ ◊

CNN’s Anderson Cooper knows the impact of surprise, literally. Much of the CNN broadcast between 7 and 10 p.m. ET tonight included replays of an incredible video document, already one of the best news videotapes of this young year. Shooting with a Flip video camera, which you can get at Best Buy for $200 or less, Cooper shakily records his movements in the fractious, volatile streets of Cairo in the moments before, and the moments after, he and his camera crew are attacked by supporters of Egyptian President and Pharaoh manqué Hosni Mubarak on their way back to their hotel. Shouts, outrage, more than a few blows to Cooper's blond dome.

It wasn't just Cooper. Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, someone whose gravitas in the Middle East is deeper than most other journalists out there, was also accosted yesterday in a crowd in Cairo; she and her camera crew were bundled off in another direction at the insistence of the protesters. CBS News' Mark Strassmann got jacked on camera too.

Those riveting images have been bouncing around the globe for more than a day now. They may well signal the arrival of new terms of engagement between the electronic media and a Middle East in the midst of transforming itself while we watch.

But they certainly point to the ways surprise is an equal opportunity deployer — and how it’s possible for everyone, from the President of the United States to a journalist clawing through a Cairo crowd to save his own life, to get blindsided by the wholly unexpected.

Image credits: Anderson Cooper in Cairo: Huffington Post via Getty Images via CNN. Mubarak: Nile TV via CNN. Twitter sign: via The Huffington Post. ABC logo: © 2011 ABC. Washington Post logo: © 2011 The Washington Post Company. Amanpour in Egypt: ABC News via The Huffington Post. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...