Wednesday, March 30, 2011

DJ Megatron: The man who died twice


The news itself was disturbing enough: DJ Megatron (Corey McGriff), a well-regarded hip-hop radio personality and a host of BET’s popular "106th & Park" program, was shot to death early Sunday morning, near his home in Staten Island, N.Y. Early indications suggest that McGriff was on his way to a nearby store around 2 a.m. when the incident happened. McGriff, 32, was the father of three children.

Justin Kirkland, his manager, told The Associated Press that his former client “probably had one of the best personalities around, super-positive, happy all the time."

This latest American tragedy stands on its own as another sad commentary on modern life in this nation. But what’s made it even worse in the four days since is the reaction, via the Internet, of everyday people who’ve in many cases leaped to conclusions about the killing, conclusions that say more about the popular speculation in tragedy, and the current of rage loose in the public mood, than anything else.

Within hours of the news of the performer’s death, people across the blogosphere weighed in, most summoning the reflexive anodyne expressions of support for his parents, and his three children. These commenters, writing in The Root and The Huffington Post, among other outlets, veered from judgment to take the wider, human view: We are diminished by this loss. Their mommas raised ‘em right.



But a number of others went in a different direction, using Mega’s death as an opportunity for punitive, moralistic grandstanding about hip-hop culture in general, an opportunity for mean-spirited racial generalizations that the evidence at the crime scene didn’t support.

Jojo1983 weighed in early at The Huffington Post: “I'm not criticizing this man's life. It's unfortunate that he lost his life due to the hip hop culture that glorifies gang banging and violence. I criticize the culture, not the man.”

Mbroo, in a reply, doesn’t buy Jojo’s comment: “Where in this article does it say he lost his life due to the hip hop culture? Considering the cops don't know what happened, how are you even coming up with this ASSsumption? You are stereotyping.”

Jim Hagerman @ HuffPost: “It's more newsworthy when violence DOESN'T break out in the hip hop community, Seriously, it's friggin' ridiculous. And this has nothing to do with race (as convenient and simple-minded it is to play that card), it's about a segment of the music industry that refuses to gets it's own house in order.”

Yourbuffers @ HuffPost: “people always say ‘Sad’ and ‘Sensless’ after it happens, meanwhile they still promote thug lifsyles and ‘ganstas’ as glamourous and promote the pimping, the ultra-tough guy with guns and women and dominence as a valid way to live.”

Bexarpaw @ HuffPost: “What’s really sad is that it is black men killing black people!”

Eric Daniels (in reply): “How do you know the person killed him was black? making a lot of assumptions are we?”

Lonnie Gonsalves, commenting at The Root, called the incident “Another example of us being our own worst enemy, not the ‘white bogey man in sheets’ holding us down.”

Clarke replies: “how in the hell do YOU know WHO killed this man.”

Some people were willfully off-message. Gosner29 @ HuffPost: “Was Corey McGriff's show that bad, that someone would want to shoot him? Can't they just change the station, in New Yawk, that they're listening to? Shooting the talking head seems a bit drastic and over the top, doesn't it?”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Foreign policy in color


An MSNBC report tonight from NBC News’ Ron Allen in Jordan, unconfirmed but intriguing just the same, has it that Iranian security forces are assisting the Syrian security apparatus in suppressing a popular uprising on the streets of Syria. If that’s true (Allen’s source was a man who claimed to have this knowledge), it would be a game-changer in the current upheaval in north Africa and the Middle East — pointing to a disturbing collaboration among regional dictators for the purpose of quelling popular revolt.

It'd also further validate the moral urgency of the Obama world-view vis-à-vis the Middle East, a philosophy President Obama expressed Monday night at National Defense University, in a speech that explained and defended the attack on the Libyan government, and the United States’ role in that hostile action — quite probably a war in utero — in terms both humanitarian and practical.

The critics of the speech weighed in and piled on. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the everhawk in the Senate, got on the air shortly after the speech. “To say regime change is not going to take place by force, I certainly can’t agree with it. [Gadhafi’s] a danger to the world, and the longer he stays in power the more dangerous he becomes.” McCain told CNN. Fox News wind machine and political personality Sarah Palin® did much the same thing, in a boilerplate right-wing disquisition that didn’t advance the conversation by so much as an inch.

"The president's focus on NATO's leading role in the operation offered no assurance that American military men and women as well as American resources will not continue to play a very large part in the days to come,” Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Price told The Wall Street Journal.

Much of the criticism found in a fast and random survey of opinion pages tended to focus on the lack of certainty about the American involvement in Libya. The president’s critics wanted the comfort of assurances and certainties, clear lines of go and no go despite the fact and impact of events still unfolding on the ground. Susan Page, columnist for USA Today, seemed to distill the thinking of the speech’s critics earlier tonight on “Hardball”:

“It’s not exactly a clear, bright, primary-color kind of doctrine,” she said. “I think you could read that entire speech and not be clear on exactly the circumstances that you command U.S. military response and those that would not.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Without meaning to, Page’s assessment points to the intelligence of the Obama geopolitical philosophy. She intends it as a slam to say Obama’s thinking is “not exactly clear, bright, primary-color” without realizing that’s exactly what’s required in a profoundly unsettled, unpredictable world.

The United States can’t afford the luxury of enunciating static, monochromatic foreign policy in a world that long ago disabused itself of the notion of things in black and white.

Foreign policy isn’t that simple — hasn’t been since the end of World War II, when the triumph of the Allies, the reconfiguring of the modern world and the specter (real and perceived) of The Communist Threat made it easier to chop up the world in stark and binary shades.

For better and worse, the modern world is animated by any number of competing principles and ideologies; the United States’ place in that world is subject to the ways our values and interests mesh with — or clash with — those principles and ideologies.

Just as important: the ways in which United States grapples with how our values and interests mesh with or clash with each other.

◊ ◊ ◊

From the available evidence in this, the first major military operation bearing his administration’s brand, Obama’s emerging philosophy is one grounded in caution (albeit a sometimes maddeningly slow caution); consultation with regional neighbors and their representatives, and the United Nations; a willingness to seek consensus; an equal willingness to move fast and efficiently; a resistance of the reflexive use of force as a first resort; an embrace of the full American arsenal, including sanctions, embargoes and diplomacy, to effect a solution; and a refreshing reluctance to templatize solutions for use across the Middle East, for the sake of a cosmetic, politically palatable consistency.

These may be the “guiding principles” he set out in his book “The Audacity of Hope” as a possible solution to the foreign policy “ad hoc decisions” of the Bush White House. This may be the kernel of any so-called Obama Doctrine (an initiative for which the word “doctrine” seems, well, too doctrinaire to contain the tolerance for necessary improvisation and smart response).

◊ ◊ ◊

Page thinks the Obama speech betrayed a lack of certainty about when to exercise American military might and when not to. Frankly, it damn well better. How could a president be certain of when and how to use that military muscle before the need arises? The fact that Obama has no ready, automatic tripwire for taking military action isn’t a flaw or a problem; it’s the implied intention to respond to a threat in a way that’s consistent with the scope of the threat, or with whether it’s a threat at all.

How unlike the foreign policy of the previous eight years, captivated by a knee-jerk rush to judgment, a unilateral cowboy bravado that alienated our friends and emboldened our enemies. That one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter, with-us-or-against-us doctrine (promoted by a president who probably couldn’t say “nuanced,” much less do it) is one we’ll be paying for for a long time. It’s nothing we should be eager to repeat.

President Obama said as much to NBC News’ Brian Williams in an interview tonight. “What is absolutely true is that when you start applying blanket policies [to] the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In conventional terms, we may not be so close to the endgame in Libya. Latest reports have rebel advances repelled by a steady counterattack by Gaddafi’s forces, reversing the impressive gains made over the weekend. The relatively sudden end of air support from NATO forces is apparently the reason why.

The tide of battle shifts, and shifts again. The process in which the United States has negotiated the details of this offensive with those with skin in the game (the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council), and worked with NATO and the United Nations on implementing it, has a lot of moving parts. Its cultural sensitivity rubs up against our prejudice for Western interpretation; its complexity frustrates our desire for simplicity and the immediate certitude of cause & effect.

Page is right, it’s not “primary colors.” What it is, or appears to be, is an intelligently cautious, regionally sensitive, internationally collective approach to fighting a known threat to thousands of people, someone whose actions may have already crossed the line into “crimes against humanity.”

Clarity of outcome can’t precede the event that makes clarity of outcome possible. In a world of a fractious rainbow of ethnicities, loyalties and animosities, foreign policy in primary colors isn’t nearly colorful enough.

Image credits: Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. Susan Page screengrab: "Hardball,": MSNBC. Big Three at Yalta, February 1945: public domain. Audacity of Hope cover: Vintage Books. Bush: White House portrait. Map of Libya: CIA Factbook.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Presidential resolution


President Obama will address the nation tonight, speaking about the situation in Libya from the National Defense University in Washington. Weekend news reports from Libya found the rebels making swift advances, moving west at lightning speed from Benghazi (their stronghold) to Ajdabiya to Brega to Bin Jawwad to Ras Lanouf to the outskirts of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown — more than 150 miles of advance in a weekend. Patton never moved this fast, and he had a real army.

The movements of the rebel forces are getting a big assist from NATO air strikes on Gaddafi’s artillery and armor. “Now because of NATO strikes on (the government's) heavy weapons, we're almost fighting with the same weapons,” one rebel commander said today.

With NATO in full operational control of the no-fly zone, and coordinating with the United States on actual attacks on Gaddafi targets, there may be a breeze at the president’s back when he speaks tonight at NDU, if not exactly a full-blown wind. So far the Libyan incursion, and the NATO handoff that followed, have been as close to surgical as these things get for the U.S. military.

Much of the bipartisan debate that precedes his speech has been about what some lawmakers see as a brazen overreach of his constitutional authority. Much of that debate concerns a perceived confusion of motives. The stock question being asked by lawmakers and analysts: “Is this a humanitarian mission or a military mission?”

Maybe the more important question stems from that one: When the spark for a possible humanitarian crisis is the avowed intention of a dictator to use his army to slaughter his own people, how can you address the humanitarian challenge without facing down the military challenge? How’s it possible in the real world to separate the two? On paper, in theory, it might be easy to effect differences between them; in reality, and clearly in this case, any distinction between them is artificial.


Critics of the White House actions in Libya have coalesced around their belief that Obama defied the language of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, which don’t specifically address or allow for regime change as a method for rescuing the Libyan people.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is big on drawing that line in the sand. “NATO will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less,” he said over the weekend. “Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Gaddafi regime.”

Another NATO official tried to reinforce a distinction without a difference, insisting that regime change was not the mandate. “NATO will always remain impartial. NATO does not take sides,” a NATO diplomat told Press TV.

But as a purely practical matter, it’s hard to see how the suffering of the Libyan people can be relieved without dealing with the source of that agony. “Impartial”? NATO-led and directed air strikes couldn’t be more partial — to the rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime, and the civilians who support them.

◊ ◊ ◊

The current debate over the president’s methods doesn’t address how the humanitarian and the military have historically pursued the same goals. More than once since the end of World War II, for example, the United Nations itself has reinforced its wider pacifist intentions with boots on the ground under blue helmets, from Israel to Korea, from the Suez Canal to El Salvador, from Cambodia to Mozambique.

Any answer to the other burning question — “What happens if it all goes south?” — is purely conditional on events on the ground. But the continuing expansion of NATO membership to nations well beyond the organization's  historically European contour, and the military experience of its original signatory nations, are sound reasons for NATO to take the lead in Libya. They’ve certainly done no-fly zones before. NATO enforced one over Bosnia in early 1994, stopping  Serbian atrocities by air; and NATO forces directed another no-fly campaign, over Bosnia-Herzegovina, for more than two years.

The assumption of primary Libya responsibilities by NATO would just continue the extension of NATO’s scope, something that’s been in progress in fits and starts at least since the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact in 1991.

◊ ◊ ◊

By acting in Libya, the White House and the NATO coalition have certainly averted not only additional deaths at the hands of Gaddafi’s forces, but also the kind of escalating, wide-scale crisis that would call for a huge humanitarian footprint of airlifts and aid distributions in the middle of an armed conflict.

The administration will have to address the dark fears and suspicions of those who, on the basis of historical evidence, think the United States’ real concern in Libya is more about the country’s vast oil reserves than the plight of its people.

Setting aside the cynicism built into assessments like that, it’s reasonable (or certainly predictable) that obeying the humanitarian reflex can have benefits beyond the humanitarian; geopolitically enlightened self-interest is not to be ignored. The mechanized nations of the world deserve to be concerned when an oil-rich despot’s actions against his own people, and their reactions to him, could turn Libya into a killing ground for months to come.

Protecting that oil — more than 63 years’ worth, for domestic consumption — also means insuring that the Libyan people have an economic foundation on which to build a post-Gaddafi Libya.

And U.S. concerns over oil needn’t be just viewed through an economic lens. With more than 47 billion barrels of proven oil reserves at Gaddafi’s disposal, the potential has existed, until very recently, for his forces to destroy some or much of that reserve as an act of monstrous spite — compounding military and humanitarian challenges with an environmental challenge that would complicate either of the others by orders of magnitude.

◊ ◊ ◊

When the president speaks tonight, he’ll be compelled to offer the nation an explanation of what’s happened already with U.S. forces in yet another global conflict, and where we go from here.

Whatever the specifics of his rationale, whatever grief he gets from Congress and the conservative media echo chamber, he can take comfort in having attached the United States to an internationally-sanctioned action consistent both with its loftiest principles and its most brutally pragmatic interests — an action preventing attacks on civilians that, according to both of the UN resolutions, “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

There are few things easier for a president to defend.

Image credits: Obama: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press. Rasmussen: Press TV. UN peacekeeper: Mikhail Evstafiev.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Leaning sideways


The recent supersurplus of news from several of the world’s incendiary zones hasn’t equally benefited the news organizations covering those events. As events in Egypt, Libya and Japan have exploded round the clock over the last two months, the viewer ratings have reinforced the highest, best use of the news model created for those events.

That’s not good news for MSNBC.

Bill Carter, the go-to reporter for all things television at The New York Times, reported Wednesday that CNN has set the pace for international coverage of the recent upheavals, a stellar ratings success “mostly at the expense of MSNBC, which has fallen into third place across the board because of CNN’s surge.”

The numbers tell the story. Carter reports:

“In prime time Saturday, CNN averaged 678,000 viewers among the audience most desired by news advertisers, ages 25 to 54. MSNBC averaged 254,000, while Fox News drew 353,000. On Sunday, CNN averaged 442,000 viewers; MSNBC, 298,000; and Fox News, 344,000.”

CNN’s leverage on the weekends is leaching into weeknights, Carter says. “For more than two years, MSNBC has consistently beaten CNN in prime time on weeknights. But for March, CNN has moved ahead from 8 to 11 p.m., beating MSNBC in every hour among the 25-to-54 audience.”

Despite having a new prime-time lineup in a time period that’s seen numerous major events foreign and domestic — low-hanging fruit for journalists — MSNBC hasn’t advanced its agenda in the headcount of viewers.

◊ ◊ ◊

One reason may be the man they fired in January, Keith Olbermann, creator and host of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” once MSNBC’s true prime-time tentpole and a major ratings success for the network. In the world of TV news, irony piles on irony. It would seem impossible that a cable network without a sharp, definable public identity would fire the man who gave them one. Just as improbable is the likelihood that that man could now have as much to do with that network’s prime-time success as he did when he worked there.

What may be developing is a holding action by viewers who fled MSNBC after Olbermann was relieved of “Countdown,” viewers hungry for Olbermann’s next move: a prime-time news and commentary program on Current TV, set to air in the May-June time frame.

MSNBC’s prime-time numbers suggest that viewers haven’t fully developed a destinational passion for its latest prime-time lineup. A read of reactions to the Olbermann firing in comments at various web sites finds many people stung by the dismissal, and suspicious of involvement by the management at Comcast, the cable giant that formally took over NBC Universal days before Olbermann left the GE Building.

Assuming that Olbermann’s appeal is as transferable now as it's been in the past, the upside for Current could be huge; the fledgling network is available in far more homes than actually watch it. With Olbermann’s singular style and the right marketing brought to bear, he could regain the catbird seat at eight o’clock, at a network that's as much an upstart now as MSNBC was in 2003.

◊ ◊ ◊

But the Olbermann issue is in some ways the least of MSNBC’s concerns. One of their pressing matters is the competition that’s on the air right now.


CNN’s Anderson Cooper is one of the few U.S. cable journos to set the standard for the kind of on-air presence fundamental to being taken seriously as a news player in a 24/7 age.

Whether being chased and assaulted by a mob in Cairo or reporting that very event with a Flip camcorder in a striking slice of reportage, he’s defining 21st-century, on-the-ground newsgathering. He may parachute in, but Cooper hangs around for more than a photo-op, and he doesn’t back down. The ratings confirm that, for viewers, Cooper and various colleagues (Ben Wedeman, Nic Robertson and select others) have been the team to beat. Even the Fox can’t catch ‘em on a properly global scale, despite the deep international reach of media velociraptor Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

“This is where CNN excels,” Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, told Carter. “This is in their bull’s-eye, and they’ve done a great job. Even Fox News, which dominates them, gets beat by CNN at times like this.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Then there’s this other matter for MSNBC, nothing less than a weekend identity crisis. For five nights a week, the network does a creditable job in prime-time, with anchors Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews weighing in with news, commentary and intelligent guests speaking on the day’s hot political and national issues.

But on Friday nights (starting at 9 p.m. on the West Coast) and continuing on Saturdays and Sundays, MSNBC basically loses its mind. Viewers are transported from the daily world of news into the world of “Lockup,” the network’s documentary series exploring life inside several of the toughest American prisons. A series that MSNBC first aired in 2005 and has been diligently repurposing ever since.

“This is our strategy for weekends, and it has worked well for us,” Griffin told Carter.

Others aren’t charitable about MSNBC’s efforts in weekend news. Carter quotes Judy Muller, an educator and former journalist, who put things tartly:

“I think MSNBC really blew it,” said Muller, a former network news correspondent, now an associate journalism professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Libya: Beginning the endgame


In the week since the Obama White House ordered 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be launched against Libya, as part of an international coalition brought to bear against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s been whipsawed from concern to doubts to cautious optimism. Shock and awe didn’t make an appearance, and apparently they won’t. The high-explosive grandstanding that took place eight years earlier, in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, had been replaced by something more surgical than a drone strike.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that, effective sometime in the coming days, “transition of command and control” of a no-fly zone over Libya would be transferred to the 28 member nations of the NATO alliance. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also jointly agreed to participate, with 14 aircraft committed to non-combatant roles.

This followed President Obama’s earlier, bigger announcement of the start of the military offensive against Libya. "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy," Obama said Saturday from Brazil, while on a five-day Latin American trip.

“Our consensus was strong, and our resolve is clear. The people of Libya must be protected, and in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians our coalition is prepared to act, and to act with urgency," the president said.

◊ ◊ ◊

With nick-of-time precision, French fighter jets hit Gaddafi forces on the ground at Benghazi, the opposition stronghold, repelling them from a foothold established earlier in the day. Since then, French and British forces have taken out artillery and armored vehicles near the bitterly contested town of Ajdabiya.

And on Friday, The Globe and Mail reported that Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard of the Canadian Air Force would take control of the no-fly zone, effectively becoming the face of the international coalition against the forces of Gaddafi and the current Libyan government.

“Don’t expect a kinder, gentler mission just because he’s Canadian,” said a senior Canadian officer to The Globe and Mail’s Paul Koring. “Choosing Bouchard makes a lot of sense – he has high credibility with the American leadership,” the officer added, alluding to Bouchard’s experience as commander of Canadian Air Force operations and deputy commander of NORAD.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s been set in motion may be as much the beginning of something as the end of something else.

For Gaddafi, the operational handoff to NATO complicates his prospects of surviving the current civil unrest in Libya; the overnight multiplication of international forces actively and passively opposing his regime accelerates the likelihood that, after 42 years in power, Gaddafi is done and done.

For the Obama White House, the coming transfer of some operational responsibilities ushers in the start of a new position for American military leadership in global conflicts: in a supporting role more central than the word “supporting” would indicate — as first among equals in a coalition, but inarguably first in the technology and expertise needed to make that coalition work.

◊ ◊ ◊

Before Clinton’s handover notice, things did not look good. There was a war on clear language. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reported Wednesday that, in a briefing on Air Force One, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes justified the U.S. response to a looming humanitarian crisis, noting that “kinetic military action” would be necessary, “particularly on the front end.” This, of course, begs the question of what non-kinetic military action looks like.

President Obama inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from his predecessor, but the war in Libya could have had the Obama signature. The president has prevented that with a dignified handoff of responsibility underway, but even before the handoff, the trademark Obama caution was in full effect. No action was taken until after consultation with any number of like-minded partners, the United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League.

This wasn’t just playing for time; it was foundational to understanding the complexities of the immediate situation, its moving parts and conflicting loyalties. The time it took to put this together points to a reliance on the power of diplomacy and statecraft in the 21st century — an understanding Bush #43 never had.

When the Obama White House made the decision to attack, it was swift and reasoned. The threats of mass slaughter made by Gaddafi in recent off-the-hook statements; his proven recent willingness to murder his population in the hundreds and thousands; and earlier unhinged actions that cost unknown Libyan lives over the previous 42 years of his autocratic rule all provided the Obama White House with a solid rationale for acting militarily to slow Gaddafi’s march to the killing ground, first with a no-fly zone over much of the country.

◊ ◊ ◊

While absolutely defensible from a humanitarian perspective — in a more perfect world, the only perspective that would matter — the decision that indicated Obama’s moral compass heading confronts matters of constitutional procedure and comprehensive vision.

Constitutionally, President Obama may not have been on the firmest footing. You can slice and dice and parse the language forever with phrases like “limited military action” and “kinetic military action,” but war is still war. The attacks of March 19th opened the door, if only a little, to charges of the Obama White House engaging in the same precipitate, provocative action as the Bush White House, eight years earlier.

For a while, the president got his longed-for congressional consensus, just  not the one he wanted. Before the handoff announcement, criticism of the Obama Libya plan was as bipartisan as he could ask for. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer was cautiously optimistic, but Jane Harman of California rebuked the move being made without congressional consult. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a fellow Democrat, said Obama's decision "would appear on its face to be an impeachable offense."

◊ ◊ ◊

On Sunday, it took House Speaker John Boehner (of all people) to offer a note of caution that was, regardless of political motivations, astonishingly circumspect:

“The President is the commander-in-chief, but the Administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished. Before any further military commitments are made, the Administration must do a better job of briefing members of Congress and communicating to the American people about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.”

Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, as rock-solid an Obama supporter as you’ll find in Congress, said much the same thing on Monday. “I think it is important that we show that we’re a powerful country who is willing to step in and for those who are not able to protect themselves,” Weiner told WCBS. “I do believe, though, that the president should have and still should come to Congress for authorization.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The King hearings:
Variations on an extremist theme


The way they both happened together, at what felt like the same moment, seems like something out of a script: On March 9, Kevin William Harpham was arrested in the town of Addy, Wash., suspected of the attempted Jan. 17 bombing of a Martin Luther King unity rally in Spokane, 55 miles south of Addy. Harpham, a known white supremacist with past and possibly current ties to the neo-Nazi National Alliance, was charged by federal agents of building a "weapon of mass destruction" — the bomb found in his backpack — and planting it on the rally route hours before it started.

The next day, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the new chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, convened the first of his congressional hearings on the radicalization of Muslim Americans and the potential for domestic terrorism. In his opening statement, King stated that “not one terror-related case in the United States in the last two years involved neo-Nazis.”

That disconnect between fact and assertion highlights a more troubling one: the congressman’s high-profile attention to one form of American terrorism at the expense of exposing the dangers in another. ...

Read more in theGrio

Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan: A tragedy in three acts


For ten days now, it’s been the Event whose breadth and magnitude and capacity for everything human was so vast, a blogger couldn’t get his arms around it. This blogger, anyway. The chain of events that started at roughly 2:46 p.m. on March 11 in northern Japan cascaded within days from the frightening betrayal of the earth itself to the tsunami, the leviathan wave that did more damage than the earthquake did, to the most precipitous nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. The late, great Irwin Allen couldn’t have scripted a more improbable scenario for a disaster movie. But this was the realest of real life.

In the first days after, the human toll came slowly, single digits at first, then tens and twenties and hundreds, at this writing about 8,800 people known to have died, with another 12,600 missing and another 370,000 people displaced, living in shelters or fending for themselves in a wasteland, amid the worst and deadliest natural disaster since the Great Kanto earthquake killed at least 100,000 people and laid waste to Tokyo in September 1923.

Then came the third catastrophe. The earthquake and the resulting tsunami led to the rupture of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant 155 miles northeast of Tokyo. Cooling systems that are meant to protect the Fukushima plant's six reactors from a potentially disastrous meltdown were knocked out by the tsunami, and engineers have been calling in water drops over the affected reactors, fighting to control rising temperatures around spent uranium fuel rods.

As the survivors struggle to pick up the pieces after the two parts of a compound disaster that hopefully won’t get any worse, the nuclear drama is unfolding on an almost apocalyptic scale. Even while crews clad in radiation protection suits fought to restore electricity to the reactors, there was damage already done. Radiation, albeit in low and non-dangerous levels, has been found in spinach and milk in the affected areas. Agence France-Presse reported that radioactive iodine and cesium-137 has been found on fava beans in Taiwan.

◊ ◊ ◊

As the crisis worsened, there’s been concerns about how much and how quickly the Japanese government was telling its people about the damaged reactors — a consequence of the relationship between the Japanese government and the Japanese news media.

Citing a December 1995 incident at the Monju fast-breeder reactor site in Tsuruga, Japan, in which the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) falsified reports and a video of the event, Michael Hirsh of National Journal observed that “All governments tend to dissemble a bit and play down disasters when they occur.” But cultural traditions play a part: “You have in Japan, despite nominal democracy there, a much more hierarchical approach, where the government plays a paternal role and decides what and what not to transmit to its citizens,” Hirsh said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”


David Sanger of The New York Times said much the same on the same program: “In Japan you have a news media that, while much more independent than it used to be, still organizes itself around government ministries and is far more dependent on the government for official news.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It strains the mind to think that such an in-progress catastrophe almost biblical in scope could have any upside. But there is. Of course there are the stories of survivors pulled from the rubble, still kickin’ against all odds. And people are pouring money into a number of international charities for Japan relief.

The upside gets better, maybe. The New York Times reported Dec. 13 that Japan was preparing new military readiness guidelines that would prepare for a shift of armored and artillery forces from targeting Russia to a more nimble response to China’s emerging presence.

The Times’ Martin Fackler writes: “The new guidelines also call for acquiring new submarines and fighter jets, the reports said, and creating ground units that can be moved quickly by air in order to defend the southern islands, including disputed islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That was then. Now is a very different place. Xinhua reported that China had very recently sent 10,000 tons of gasoline and 10,000 tons of diesel fuel to Japan — just the thing to power the heavy-lift-capable machinery needed to rebuild the battered region.

Xinhua also reported, on Friday, a statement from Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto: “Japan-China relations are of great importance to the two nations, the Asia-Pacific region and the international community at large.”

"With an eye to the peace and prosperity in region as well as economic cooperation between the two nations, Japan is willing to proceed from the overall situation of bilateral ties to substantialize the Japan-China strategic and mutually beneficial relations."

It’s a safe bet that the military realignment Japan was contemplating last year has been tabled, probably indefinitely — a tacit acknowledgement of a fact that, astonishingly, it often take a disaster to recognize: natural calamity is the great leveler of all great nations. When the water that is seven-tenths of this planet imposes its horrific will, hands across that water may be your only saving grace.

Image credits: Rikuzentakata: via The Bangkok Post. Gas mask, Koriyama: Associated Press. Otsuchi: Reuters. Bottom image: via The Huffington Post.

Monday, March 14, 2011

How to lose by winning (Scott Walker method)


Half a world away from events in Libya, another strongman (this one elected) was flexing his muscle late last week. After a three-week impasse with a group of Democratic senators whose absence postponed his legislation, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, with the aid of GOP state senators, employed legalistic gymnastics to take a vote without the absent Democrats, and signed into law a bill that strips unions of collective bargaining rights on matters of pensions and health care, limits pay raises of public employees to the rate of inflation, and ends automatic collection of union dues by the state.

It was a devastating defeat for union members and Wisconsin’s progressive community in general, and — cruelest irony — it all went down in the state that practically birthed the concept of collective bargaining, unemployment compensation and other workers’ rights.

Walker was the sanctimonious soul of fiscal rectitude at the signing ceremony on Friday. "Some have asked whether this is going to set a national precedent," he said. "And I don't know ... but if along the way we help lead a movement across the state for true fiscal reform, true budgetary reform to ultimately inspire others across this country, state by state and in our federal government, inspire others to stand up and make the tough decision to make a commitment to the future so that our children across all states don't have to face the dire consequences we face because previous leaders have failed to stand up and lead, I feel that is a good thing."

Walker walks away a winner in this bout; you watch, it’s just a matter of time before someone floats his name as a presidential contender in 2012. But the governor’s victory, possibly contestable in the courts (that’s still being debated), requires compliance with the law of unintended consequences.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was one of the things that was most striking as you watched the daily protests inside the statehouse in Madison, Wisc., these last few weeks: Just like in the recent protests in Egypt, a sizable percentage of these protesters aren’t in the high-hormonal demographic of teenagers and young adults. They're families, with children; they're seniors, or citizens very nearly so. They run the gamut of the state’s population. They're police officers, state troopers, corrections officers, firefighters — the public employees most necessary to keep a society running.

Looked at collectively, the protesters form the very backbone of Walker’s constituency, many of whom almost certainly voted for him last November. In less than ten weeks, Walker has managed to alienate at least some of the people who elected him; many of them will be working against him now.

The next move against Walker is likely to be a broad drive to have him recalled. In a labor-conscious state like Wisconsin, where progressivism runs deep, that may be no idle threat. Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Time Magazine that recall-petition signatures amounting to 25 percent of the original election’s voters — about 540,000 signatures — were necessary to trigger the recall process, which couldn’t happen until at least next Jan. 3.

It’s worth more than a mention that on Saturday — the day after Walker signed the bill into law — more than 100,000 demonstrators showed up at the statehouse to welcome the return of the 14 Democratic senators whose stand on principle won’t be forgotten. You could probably just about bet those 100,000 people signed recall petitions, or they plan to.

And consider: Time’s Dawn Reiss reported that even “the threat of a recall — to Walker and his allies — could keep the governor in check. Democrats need to gain three seats in the state senate to win back control of the body; there are eight GOP senators who are now eligible for recall.” Sheila Harsdof, Randy Hopper, Luther Olsen, Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich and Dan Kapanke better watch their backs.

Passions are high in Wisconsin, even in defeat. “It was pretty clear that the protests, as massive as they got, weren’t going to change the governor's mind,” Mayer told Time. “Even though they didn't succeed in getting what they wanted, they mobilized a lot of people and made this a salient issue. A protest doesn't have to succeed in its immediate goal to have a long-term impact."

◊ ◊ ◊

And that’s the other known unknown that’s dangerous to elected Republicans and the deep-pocketed corporate donors who help feather the nests of their campaigns: What’s been aroused in Wisconsin is about more than policy, it’s about principle. For the protesters and more besides, it’s about what you stand for.

To judge from the consistently passionate, engaged and generally peaceful protests of the last three weeks, what’s been awakened in Wisconsin is a new surge of populism on behalf of fundamental American workers’ rights — a populist passion that’s both immediately transferable to other states whose public employees face the same statehouse standoffs; and genuinely indigenous to the people of every particular state (unlike the Tea Party’s Astroturf DNA).

Count on unions such as AFSCME, SEIU and others to be the recipients of more small-donor donations from everyday citizens — the same “twos and fews” strategy of $25 and $50 donations and regular checking-account debits that fueled the grassroots economic engine of the Obama campaign in 2008.

Gov. Walker better savor the sweetness of this tough win. Considering the broad and building outrage  of Wisconsin voters who opposed him on a piece of legislation that dismantles the very labor history the state has prided itself on for generations, it may be the last big win he ever has as governor. The passion to save collective bargaining is every bit as exportable as the reach of collective bargaining itself — and the reach of those who would dismantle it. That fact may cost Walker his job in Madison; it’ll certainly complicate the Republicans’ drive for the White House next year.

Image credits: Walker: Associated Press. Wisconsin solidarity rally: MoveOn.org. AFSCME logo: AFSCME.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

How to lose by winning (Gaddafi method)


By Friday it was clear, according to the conventional wisdom and a lot of available evidence on the ground, that the forces of Libyan enforcer Muammar Gaddafi were getting the upper hand.

In a moment of unscripted candor (one the White House has since indicated was off-message), Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that to senators on Thursday. “I just think from a standpoint of attrition, that over time, I mean – this is kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think over the longer term that the (Gaddafi) regime will prevail,” he said.

Whether you agree with Clapper’s assessment or not, it suggests that the talk in high places is shifting from debating the likelihood of a post-Gaddafi Libya to discussing the prospects for a Libya with Gaddafi presiding over a civil war, nominally in charge of a country that’s a different place from the one he ruled two weeks ago.

That could still be premature: The rebels still hold Benghazi, but forces loyal to the regime are preparing for what could be a final assault on Libya’s second-largest city. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of Libya’s revolutionary council, told The Guardian (UK) that if Gaddafi's forces were to reach Benghazi, it would mean “the death of half a million” people.

In the narrow and immediate calculus of winning and losing, Gaddafi has brutally exacted a series of triumphs on the battlefields that once were cities and towns. But stepping back and looking at things through a wider lens, it’s clear that Gaddafi’s victory, if and when it truly arrives, may be narrower and even more impermanent than he thinks.

◊ ◊ ◊

The last two weeks has shown Libyans the worst side of Muammar Gaddafi. His citizens — more than 45 percent of whom weren’t alive when he took over 42 years ago — have been witness to a ruthlessness most of them haven’t seen before.

It’s one thing to experience day-to-day deprivations that, bad as they are, may be difficult to causally connect to a dictatorship bent on suppressing the drive for personal liberty and initiative. It’s quite another to see that dictatorship’s power literally brought to bear against innocents throughout the country in a variety of ways, from air strikes to veritable firing squads in the street.

Nothing makes the abstraction of raw dictatorial power real like blood on your shirt. Your neighbor’s blood, your daughter's blood or your own.

Now that they can see Gaddafi for what he is, now that they’ve accepted what’s at stake for themselves and their country, the pro-reform activists will keep up the fight, alone if necessary, with sporadic acts of wildcat revolt meant to incrementally destabilize the Gaddafi regime (in a word: insurgents).

◊ ◊ ◊

But the enemy within is only half his problem. The prospects for a NATO-led no-fly zone are still strong, despite Gaddafi solidifying his control of events on the ground.

Events in Libya of recent days have the full attention of the White House, NATO and the Arab League, the 122-member confederation that’s called on the United Nations Security Council to institute a no-fly zone over Libya, to shield Libyans from being attacked by their own air force.

At least $30 billion in Libyan assets, what probably amounted to the contents of the Gaddafi family ATM, was frozen in U.S. banks late in February. That happened during a new round of the sanctions Libya is all too familiar with. All in all, measures intended to make Gaddafi more of a global pariah than he’s long been (despite his brief flirtation with world-stage respectability not so many years ago).

Barring the deus ex machina event of some foreign country’s boots on the ground, Gaddafi likely stays in control of his country. But the people of his country, having found out his true nature, will never deal with him the same way. That means a host of challenges he’s never had to deal with before, at this scale.

◊ ◊ ◊

News reports today have Gaddafi trying to work his way back into the hearts of his people with huge cash distributions, street money circulated in or near the same places where the fighting was fiercest a week ago.

That may quell some of the unrest in the short term; the coin of the realm does that very well. But the underlying injustices and incivilities of Libyan life won’t be forgotten just because he’s givin’ away a million in prizes and battlefield amnesties. It’s inescapable: the uprising of late February didn’t begin for no reason.

While it’s safe to assume the resistance may soon go underground — hooking up with each other and the rest of the world via Skype and Twitter — information about their battle for liberation is viral above ground too, and has been from the beginning. On Al Jazeera and on mainstream networks in the West, there’s a new 24/7 global attention being paid to Libya’s changes, and it don’t stop.

Gaddafi is fighting to win the right to preside over a country beset by external sanctions and a smoldering internal passion for reform. If he does win militarily, he’ll lose whatever respect they once had for him (or  what little respect they had already). They’ll know what he’s capable of doing, and what he’s capable of doing again when it suits him. And eventually, no-fly zone or not, the hundreds of thousands of Libyans who revolted, will do it all over once more.

Having had a whiff of the heady possibilities of free expression, having raised their voices in the world’s public square, they’ll never be satisfied with the old Libya again. In the longer term, the populist energies that made the uprising possible in the first place won’t be extinguished, only delayed.

Image credits: Gaddafi top: Ben Curtis/Associated Press. Libyan protest: Al Jazeera. Map of Libya: CIA Factbook. Gaddafi bottom: Still from Libyan state TV.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Campaign 2012: Help Wanted


A decision from the Supreme Court of the United States is now de facto law, never mind the de jure part: The Campaign Strategists, Consultants and Analysts Full Employment Act of 2010 (otherwise known as the Citizens United v. FEC ruling) is in effect.

From Jan. 21, 2010 — the day that ruling was announced, effectively placing citizens and corporations on the same existential footing with respect to campaign donations — it was thought that the SCOTUS decision would be a canary in a coal mine for determining the intrusion of deep-pocketed corporate donors in presidential politics. Some new and recent estimates from various sources are telling us just how bad it may be about to get.

According to one estimate reported early this week by Bloomberg News, total campaign spending for the 2012 races will be between $4 billion and $4.5 billion, about 38 percent above the $2.5 billion to $3 billion spent in the 2008 presidential race.

But get ready to drop your jaw a little lower. Those figures may be lowballing both the money anticipated next year and the money actually raised in 2008. Late last year, Katy Bachman at Brandweek reported a preliminary estimate from PQ Media indicating that “political media spending will hit $5.6 billion during the 2012 election—a 25 percent boost over 2010 and a 35 percent jump from the last presidential election in 2008.”

What Bloomberg’s Juliana Goldman called a “campaign stimulus program” will apparently be as close to a bipartisan experience as there’s been on Capitol Hill since … the last presidential derby. Goldman reported that the campaign for President Obama hopes to raise $1 billion for the 2012 contest, about 25 percent more than the mindblowing $750 million it generated in 2008.

◊ ◊ ◊

Goldman, citing other sources, said the Republicans hope to raise about the same amount. But while the estimates for Democrats coalesce around a known quantity — the man in the White House right now — estimates that the GOP will raise the amount have to be highly fungible assumptions.

Campaign donations are the most visceral and immediate evidence of the galvanizing passion, the emotional support that people have for a candidate. Without knowing who that candidate will be on the Republican side, to say nothing of how enthusiastically the base will support that candidate, that billion-dollar calculation is a highly conditional guess.

The Republican fortunes for 2012 are gathering around a handful of possibles, none of which has formally declared. Each has problems that might not get them out of the primary season, much less into the velocity of the general election campaign.

Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and once & future flamethrower for the hard conservative right, has doubled down on a bid to conflate the GOP’s usual cultural values aspect with a call to fiscal morality, and the need to make budgetary decisions based on a moralistic code (one that apparently the Bush White House wasn’t bound to respect).

But Gingrich, three times married, has his own problems. As a serially married man (he pressed divorce matters on his first wife while she was recovering from uterine cancer surgery) and someone suspected of extramarital dalliances, Gingrich has serious cultural-values issues. The word “baggage” scarcely expresses the amount of freight the Newt 2012 campaign plane would have to deal with from day one.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Krispy Kreme enthuisiast (whose recent girth suggest he may have fallen off that dietary wagon) is also on the short list of possibles, but he may not be much better.

Huckabee’s recent embarrassing Obama = Muslim dogwhistle to the birthers and a sanctimonious cheap shot at Natalie Portman for her pregnancy out of wedlock are blatant pitches to the evangelicals and rural voters, cohorts that may help him in the primary season but whose numbers aren’t expendable in a general election. Unless the country develops a taste for putting Elmer Gantry in the White House, his appeal won’t break through.

The name of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has been tossed around a lot. Barbour, bless his heart, might win the nomination, but a victory in the general election isn’t happening. Recent missteps, including some about Southern history and African Americans’ place in that history, are just some of the reasons why.

There are others: Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China (in the Obama administration); Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator; Sarah Palin, the tireless political personality. Rudy Giuliani may make another run at it. New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg could get into this, despite his denials. And God help us, even Donald Trump has been making candidate noises recently.

That’s why any billion-dollar fundraising forecast for the GOP is premature. They may need to raise that much to stay competitive, but until the blizzard of speculative names is winnowed down in the months to come, it’s not a lock that they will. Raising a billion dollars in donations may not be a lock even then; it’s hard to imagine everyday Republicans and independents standing in line to open their wallets to fund a 2012 campaign for Bloomberg (2011 net worth: $18.1 billion).

◊ ◊ ◊

The forecast for online political ads is a little more certain. Bloomberg’s Goldman quoted an estimate from Borrell Associates, a media and marketing research firm, that forecasts about $100 million will be spent on online political ads in 2012, with social media utilities like Facebook and Twitter expected to take in between $30 million and $35 million.

The online ads estimate includes money to be spent by such progressive grassroots organizations as MoveOn.org. But that estimate came out right before the now-successful power grab by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans; their vote to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights, and similar actions contemplated by other states, will certainly make MoveOn and other grassroots groups beat the bushes even more aggressively for donations from the Democrats that form their core of support.

It’s early yet, but what’s known for sure is that whoever the final contestants are, huge amounts of money will be spent not only on the campaigners but also on the supporting cast.

Just like a professional sports team generates income not only for itself but also for the sports bars and hotels near the stadium, a presidential campaign supports various required satellite industries. (We’d love to know the presidential campaign-dollar multiplier effect — how many dollars spent directly on a campaign are regenerated elsewhere in a local economy.)

Consultancy, punditry, analysis, book publishing — they’ve all got more of a stake in the campaign than in the outcome.

Here’s an if-only way to jump-start the economy for sure: hire the American people as consultants and analysts.

Why not. We’ve got more of a stake in the outcome than anything, or anyone, else.

Image credits: Flag: Adbusters via angelfire.com. Gingrich: Kyle Casady. Huckabee: © 2008 David Ball. Pawlenty: Jim Greenhill, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license Generic. Facebook logo: © 2011 Facebook.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Seattle PD's identity crisis:
Use of force and its implications


The Seattle Police Department chose to release its comprehensive special report on police officers’ use of force on March 7, despite its having been completed since last summer. The decision was made to postpone its August release in the wake of the deadly police shooting of a Native American woodcarver on a downtown street, later that month.

Ironically, the report’s release four days after the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles accidentally underscored the scope of the problem, 20 years ago and now.

The Seattle department’s report comes after a series of events that have aroused the scrutiny of civil rights groups — and possibly the Justice Department — and the ire of citizens.

In 2010, a year peppered with altercations between minorities and the Seattle Police Department, the American Civil Liberties Union called for a Justice Department investigation of the SPD in the wake of two Oct. 18 videotapes — showing an SPD detective kicking an African American male in a downtown convenience store, and stomping on another man outside.

Read the rest at theGrio

Image credit: Kelly O/The Stranger

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The 'Information War’ and how to fight it


Earlier this morning it was reported that Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi may be ready to step down. While the official Libyan state TV apparatus denied that any deal is in the works, it was confirmed reported that Gaddafi has approached leaders of the opposition proposing a deal in which his family would be protected, and the dictator would resign and hand over power to a transitional body in a meeting of the Libyan parliament.

Gaddafi reportedly wants immunity from domestic prosecution and a sizeable amount of cash, presumably some of the billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues Gaddafi is thought to have secreted over the last 42 years in power.

“He has too much blood on his hands,” said Mohammed Ali of the Misurata Opposition Council. “This is a mad dictator.” Later in the morning, it was reported that the Libyan National Council had generally agreed to Gaddafi’s demands if he steps down in the next 72 hours.

Clearly, a major news story — one you'll hear about everywhere later today. But what’s also unusual is the source of this news. The story didn’t break on the small screen by way of any of the American alphabet networks. It originated on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic television network that makes news by simply being what it is.

◊ ◊ ◊

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got the American media in an uproar on March 2 in her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.



“We are in an information war, and we are losing that war,” Clinton said. “I’ll be very blunt in that assessment. ...

“Al Jazeera is winning, the Chinese have opened a global English-language and multi-language television network, the Russians have opened up an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive.”



“During the Cold War, we did a great job in getting America’s message out,” she claimed. “After the Berlin Wall fell we said ‘OK, fine, enough of that — you know, we’ve done it, we’re done.’ And unfortunately we are paying a big price for it. ...

"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," she said. "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."

Clinton said Al Jazeera’s influence in the United States has been growing “because it’s real news.” And no matter what one thinks, she said, “it is really effective.” 



◊ ◊ ◊

As you might expect Fox News political provocateur Glenn Beck reacted a few days later. “You have the Secretary of State of the United States of America saying you cannot get real news here in America,” Beck said his radio program on March 4. “This is insanity."


Beck, who knows a few things about insanity, called Al Jazeera the “propaganda arm” of Islamic extremism. But his reactionary reaction to Clinton’s perception of the Al Jazeera news model was strictly from patriotism, a reflex of the American water’s edge.

And for media critic Jeff Jarvis, that’s precisely the problem.

Jarvis wrote this in January: “What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV.

“Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English NOW!

“It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it. Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.

“Yes, we can watch AJE on the internet. But as much of an internet triumphalist as I am, internet streaming is not going to have the same impact — political and education impact — that putting AJE on the cable dial would have,” Jarvis wrote Jan. 30 on his blog BuzzMachine.

◊ ◊ ◊

Jarvis’ point is well taken. In a 24/7 digital global media environment, it no longer works to continue marketing news with the comfortable, analog-era branding conventions that still persist among the legacy carriers from television’s golden age (and their offspring). Some of the American networks get that already. They’ve done tie-ups with SkyNews and ITN. CBS has flirted with a formal news alliance with CNN on and off for years.


Why, then, is the line apparently drawn at doing a hookup with Al Jazeera? Watching Al Jazeera English — the network has an Arabic-language counterpart as well — it’s clear the network has the look, style and conversational rhythms of a U.S. network down cold.

With its powerful brand presence in north Africa and the Middle East, Al Jazeera certainly has entrée to areas Western journalists can’t get into as easily. Al Jazeera is now basic to the Arabic culture, fundamental in a way that means Al Jazeera news reports will bear the stamp of the region even as they reach beyond the region with news that’s important to everyone.

Secretary of State Clinton put the issue in the context of warfare, which probably makes sense, given what’s at stake, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Today — six months and three days from the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States — we’re no less provincial, no less willfully isolated from parts of the world we don’t understand than we were in 2001. Our media certainly isn’t.

“We are in an information war, and we are losing that war,” Clinton said. But it’s not a matter of losing or winning it. In many ways we’re not even fully invested in  fighting that war. Bringing Al Jazeera into the mix of mainstream newsgathering partners would be a solid way to start.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Poll positions: Scott Walker
and the Wisconsin 14


They’ve come to be known as the Wisconsin 14, a name that recalls the heyday of revolutionaries who animated American life in the 1960’s. Remember the Chicago 7?

But the group of 14 renegade senators from the Badger State is standing on principles while trying to work within the legal system, at least the legal system according to Wisconsin, the state that’s very much ground zero in the battle over collective bargaining as a basic right of American workers. A new poll finds that the citizens of Wisconsin are, by and large, in their corner.

The Democratic senators bolted from their state a few weeks back, denying the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, a quorum needed before a vote in the Republican-dominated state Senate to dismantle collective bargaining. Since then, the tug-of-war between Walker and the vagabond senators (now self-sequestered in or near Chicago) has played out as much in the media as in the statehouse, where thousands of Wisconsinites protest every day against the governor and his plan.

The poll released Sunday by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute validates their sentiments. The poll finds that 51 percent of the 603 respondents oppose Walker’s so-called budget repair bill, a measure intended to close the state’s $3.6 billion shortfall, in part by curtailing the collective bargaining rights of the state’s 170,000 public employees.

Today, one of the Democrats in exile, state Sen. Mark Miller, sent Walker an olive branch of sorts, requesting a meeting with the governor “near the Wisconsin-Illinois border” for the purpose of pursuing “serious discussions” meant to resolve the impasse with a “bipartisan, negotiated compromise.”

Walker wants none of that. In another of his windy, self-important news conferences, Walker dismissed Miller’s outreach as “ridiculous” and stuck to his previous position: No compromise.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s been some thought that this thing has run its course. Some people feel that, having attained a national level of attention, having widened the scope of the debate over collective bargaining, having cost Gov. Walker some of the hair he is clearly losing, it’s time for the Wisconsin 14 to return to Wisconsin.

That view’s supported to some extent by the WPRI poll, which found that 47 percent of poll respondents approve of the Democrats’ move while 51 percent of respondents disapprove. (With a margin of error of ±4 points, though, this is essentially a statistical dead heat.)

But this wasn’t a move by the Democrats to make a point; the senators who vacated the state could have done that by writing a, shall we say, collective op-ed piece for the Wisconsin State Journal. It wasn’t about making a point. They did it to make an impact, a legislative impact meant to directly alter the emerging conservative dynamic vis-à-vis public workers’ rights — to short-circuit the most ruinous legislation against collective bargaining in the last 50 years.

The citizens of Wisconsin understand that, too. That’s why, in the same WPRI poll, 65 percent of those responding said Walker should compromise with the Democrats; 33 percent said he should not. And exactly 50 percent say they think limiting bargaining rights does littler or nothing to change the state’s budget situation; 43 percent think otherwise.

◊ ◊ ◊

Walker has other problems. The new Wisconsin governor faces an ethics complaint alleging that he illegally coordinated campaign expenditures and solicited campaign contributions from his office — charges stemming from the news about a phone call he had with prankster blogger Ian Murphy, who pretended to be billionaire David Koch. It’s the same Feb. 23 phone call in which Walker laid bare his plans to choke off the air supply of public employee unions in Wisconsin, part of a wider GOP strategy to dismantle such union influence around the country.

That may be one reason why 53 percent of those responding to the WPRI poll have an unfavorable view of Walker’s job performance since he took office nine weeks ago.

The standoff continues; Walker, doing his best apocalyptic Chicken Little imitation, is threatening layoffs of thousands of state workers if he doesn’t get his way. Such an action is as likely to redound badly for him as it is for the Democrats who oppose him in the statehouse in Madison. The WPRI poll found that 66 percent are somewhat or strongly opposed to state layoffs; 30 percent support such an action.

How this statehouse imbroglio ultimately plays out in the court of law is the great unknown right now. But some Wisconsinites are clearly feeling voters’ remorse; efforts to recall the governor next year are underway. To go by the WPRI poll results, the governor is losing the battle in the court of public opinion. That ruling, distilled in the Sunday poll, may be as big as anything ever handed down from the bench.

Image credits: Walker: The Associated Press. WPRI logo and poll snapshots: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
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