Freedom of the Press

There is more than one way to erode the freedom of the press guarantee of the Constitution’s First Amendment. As a reminder, this brief Amendment reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment need not be eroded by Executive Branch subversion and challenges to the freedoms it grants. It can be eroded by the failure of the members of the press to investigate and report what they find. A single reporter faces enormous institutional pressures. These pressures come from major corporations that own broadcasting networks and newspaper facilities; from the routine, everyday sources for meeting deadlines; and from the “high-level” sources who, it is hoped, provide something new, however laden with spin. It is not easy to be a reporter, and it is even less easy to be an independent publisher of print media.

How this works is beautifully detailed in an article on the Media Matters website by Eric Boehlert, titled “Scooter Libby and the Media Debacle.” In careful prose he cites name after name of well-known reporters who were aware of the source of the information that Joseph Wilson, former Ambassador in Africa, had a wife who was an active undercover CIA agent, and that her name was Valerie Plame. In addition, some of these reporters knew that the story emanating from Libby and others in the Office of the Vice President was false. Their collective failures to report what they knew are carefully documented in Boehlert’s article, without flaming liberal prose.

In a similar vain, I have noted here Eric Umansky’s article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) on the U.S. record on torture, which asks “How Well Has the Press Covered Torture?”

<>The previous doctortwo comments on issues and articles connected with press freedom can be found under the titles “Press Freedom” and “Reason and Responsibility.”
<>The lack of press responsibility on the issues of compromising the CIA, and on torture, in the major, most used press outlets  means that as citizens we have a heavy burden of due diligence. This burden is the time-consuming search for alternate news sources, and failing (or suspecting) those as well, for reporting on the newsmakers themselves, and the newsmaking process.

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The Imperial Presidency

The role of President of the United States is the ultimate in the fantasy of political power.  Legislators who are frustrated and disgusted by the process of producing laws, and further frustrated by an Imperial Executive who disdains to carry out the laws and directives of the legislative branch, look at the unrestrained power of the Chief Executive and wish to gain it for themselves.  Of course, they will do different things with the power.

Others, the Arlen Specters and Ted Kennedys and Russ Feingolds and, dare I say it, Orrin Hatches, in the Senate have settled down to do what is within the power of the Senate to do. I hesitate to name members of the House of Representatives, other than Nancy Pelosi, because the frequency of scandal discourages me from endorsing particular members, lest they later be tainted by some misdeed or other.  Nominations will be taken from the floor, on this.
<>The power of the Presidency is a different thing, somewhat unwritten, somewhat written, and perhaps unwriteable. In particular, since we (probably) will not use the power to impeach,  this power can be self-defined. Because of the ambiguity in the role definition, which leads Presidents to define and redefine the Presidency, we are potentially and actually in the uncomfortable position of being citizens of a country governed by a Presidential fantasy.

<>For a further discussion of the definition of the Presidency, please see this article by Garrett Epps, in Salon.

The Clash

I wrote the following two days ago; since then I have seen two articles which use the word “clash” to describe current political events. One of them, using “clash” repeatedly, is this article from Salon by Garrett Epps. My remarks below turn the word clash into an hypostasis, a living symbolic word for the present and coming period, The Clash.

<> We are less than two years from the installation of a new President, not George Bush. In looking at the varied events of the past two weeks, which include a number of announcements of presidential campaigns, and Bush’s State of the Union Address, I foresee a period of Clash. This next period of Clash may well undermine the presidency of whomever follows George W. Bush.A mobilized Peace Movement will clash with the efforts of those who have national office, not only in the Executive Branch, but in the Legislative Branch as well.

Efforts of centrists in the Democratic party will clash with the partially out-of-power progressives, to the point that they do not talk or work out a joint agenda. Instead, they will probably pull in opposite directions.

The troop surge and its purpose of securing Baghdad and then Al Anbar province will become a Platonic ideal. What is actually not too bad an idea of exerting our responsibilities for a usable solution to the chaos WE have brought to Iraq will fail in its execution. The reason it will fail is not that it is a bad idea, but that it has been proposed by a President who no longer has the political power he may have had at one time. There is nothing he can do to bring people together behind this idea.

The political attacks on the President will clash with the laudable aim of securing Baghdad so that people can live ordinary lives in the city, obtaining food and water and electricity and fuel and educations and jobs.

The next president will inherit the results: Bush will not have let go of Iraq, the securing of Baghdad will not have been accomplished, Global Warming will not have been slowed and stopped, New Orleans will not have been rebuilt, our national debt will be out of sight, and yet there will be still greater need for spending on intelligent programs

The need to make debate points will clash with the need to govern. I don’t follow Nancy Pelosi’s day-to-day activities; I observe, on limited information, that she provides a political outburst about once every three weeks. The rest of the time she is paying attention to how to carry out the responsibility of the House of Representatives to legislate responsibly.

<>I would add that the Constitutional imperative to impeach, to remove a dangerous and lawless president, will clash with our recent experience of stalled governing during the effort to impeach Bill Clinton.

<>The effect of the Clash Period will be the expectation that a new President will lead us in a Restoration. Unless such a restoration is truly an expression of national will, beyond political posturing, the next President will go down in flames attempting to resolve the problems s/he inherited from The Clash.

Press Freedom

In lieu of a year-end review, I want to call attention to two articles. The first is in Slate, not quite midyear, early May of 2006. The author, Jack Shafer, reviews the press-suppression tools used by the presidency of George W. Bush. He encourages reporters and editors to continue to seek out information from leakers inside and outside the administration.

Read Shafer’s article.

At a similar time, the Columbia Journalism Review published an examination of the military’s clash between the need to create disinformation, and the need to communicate a clear understanding of events on the ground. In both cases the press becomes an instrument.

Read Schulman’s CJR article, “Mind Games.”

This sentence in the CJR article tells me a lot about how to read the press on Iraq and Afghanistan:

Information warriors often formulate what they call “truth-based” messages — information that is often vague and one-dimensional, sometimes misleading, and frequently includes statements that are subtly derogatory.

So as soon as I notice that vague feeling that comes when reading a piece that is short on details, I should stop, and go find the details.

The relevant Year-End Review

My hat-tip goes to Dahlia Lithwick’s opinion piece, “The Bill of Wrongs,” for calling attention to Jack Shafer’s Slate article, which sent me on to the CJR article, and some musing about what is happening in the war.

Dealing with Managed Information

1. Too vague to verify.

2. Too specifically favorable to a country, an individual, an organization, to be credible.

3. Attempt to understand the sourcing.

4. Develop a sense of regional and global background, beyond Borat . . . Kazakhstan.

Chance to have input

The web site democrats.com has a straw poll on the issues of most concern to those who have registered with their site. The site is not the official site of the Democratic Party, but is one affiliate of a loose conglomerate that includes / began with the afterdowningstreet.org site.

I am impressed that the top vote-getter of the many choices is restoring the powers involved in using a writ of habeas corpus in the United States Courts. The next most frequently endorsed is establishing a higher minimum wage. Also in the top four is ending the war in Iraq.

Otherwise, I have to say, this straw poll, with its legitimate choices, is a device of the “impeach George Bush and Dick Cheney” element, not those in newly elected congressional Democrats who are dedicating their efforts to governing the country.

This list does provide an assemblage of priorities that would be helpful to use in a letter to your congressperson, and to the new leadership of Congress. I am not assuming that you are a committed Democrat; some very important issues cross party lines and are of concern to conservatives as well as liberals.

I am also not completely disavowing the effort to impeach Bush and Cheney; I look at this long list as a potential agenda that can be delayed or even swamped by an impeachment circus. Both justice and governance are necessary and desirable. Governance looks to be the more politically possible.

Text of Arlen Specter letter/email of October 25, 2006

Emailed letter “Dear Friend” dated October 25, 2006.

——— Forwarded message ———-
From: Senator_Specter@specter.senate.gov <Senator_Specter@specter.senate.gov>
Date: Oct 25, 2006 10:09 AM
Subject: Re: Demand Fair Trials for Guantanamo Detainees
To: petersig@gmail.com

<>Dear Friend : <>
Thank you for contacting my office regarding the treatment of prisoners detained by the United States in connection with the global war on terrorism. I appreciate hearing from you. <>
The United States has no higher priority than the war against terrorism. In the course of this struggle, we must make every effort to detain those who engage in acts of terrorism and to obtain information from detainees that will enable us to prevent future attacks. At the same time, it is imperative we wage the war in a way that upholds the values the United States has always advanced, making clear by our actions and our example that we stand for freedom and fairness. <>
In the June 2006 Supreme Court decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld , the Court held that military commissions used in prosecuting enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay must be authorized by Congress and must obey the legal obligations of the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article III and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The decision explicitly urged Congress to legislate a solution by properly establishing military commissions to try alien unlawful enemy combatants. <>
Following the Hamdan decision, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee worked with President Bush to craft legislation to establish military tribunals. I generally supported the legislation dra fted by these Senators and the a dministration, however, I had serious reservations about a provision in the bill which eliminated detainees’ right to habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is the right of those in custody to challenge their detainment in court. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I held a hearing on September 25, 2006 to specifically address habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees. During the Senate’s consideration of the legislation, I offered an amendment which would have guaranteed habeas corpus for detainees. Unfortunately, the amendment failed on a narrow 48-51 vote. <>
On September 28, 2006 the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act by a vote of 65-34. Although my amendment was rejected, I voted in favor of the bill because I believe without this legislation, the ability of our government to effectively fight the g lobal war on terrorism would be hindered. I am confident the courts will address the legislation’s constitutionality by ruling on the provision limiting habeas corpus. <>
The Military Commission Act is consistent with previous legislation prohibiting torture. The bill stipulates the military commissions must be established in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions. Finally, it establishes specific guidelines for the use of hearsay evidence and coerced testimony and the handling of classified information. <>
As a member of the United States Senate, I have a consistent record of voting to ensure we adhere to the same values we fight to protect. On October 5, 2005, I voted in favor of an amendment introduced by Senator John McCain to the Fiscal Year 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Act prohibiting “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of detainees. This amendment passed on a 90-9 vote in the Senate and was signed into law by President Bush on December 30, 2005. During consideration of the Fiscal Year 2005 Defense Authorization Act, I supported an amendment offered by Senator Leahy that stated it is policy of the United States to treat prisoners in its control humanely. Furthermore, I cosponsored an amendment offered by Senator Durbin reaffirming prisoners of war and enemy combatants must not be tortured or treated inhumanely. In light of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq , I cosponsored the Senate resolution that condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and called for a full and complete investigation to ensure justice is served. <>
On June 25, 2003, I wrote to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice expressing my concern over the mistreatment of enemy combatants in the custody of the United States . Our reputation has been significantly marred by the abuse of some detainees. The images and stories appearing in both the American, and perhaps more significantly, the Arab and international media have the potential to damage America ‘s standing as the unquestioned champion of human rights and the rule of law. <>
I believe the United States should make it clear that all interrogations of enemy combatants are conducted in a manner consistent with our obligations under the “Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” This treaty, ratified by the United States , provides the most widely accepted definition of torture and other forms of unlawful mistreatment. <>
Thank you again for contacting me. The concerns of my constituents are of great importance to me, and I rely on you and other Pennsylvanians to inform me of your views. Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact my office or visit my website at http://specter.senate.gov .

Sincerely,

 

<> Arlen Specter