Monday, February 27, 2006

Junk food corrupts absolutely

Is this due to the seductive power of Doritos?

TOPPLED Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has ended his hunger strike on health grounds.

The former dictator began his hunger strike earlier this month to protest against the conduct of his trial.

His chief lawyer Khalil Dulaimi, who met Saddam for seven hours in Baghdad yesterday, said: "The president maintained his hunger strike for 11 days but was forced to end it for health reasons."

He's certainly good at table-thumping, but not so convincing when it comes to matters of principle.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Once and future secrets

The U.S. government is reclassifying archived documents that it previously declassified, which puts anyone who copied the documents in potential legal jeopardy:

Mr. Aid said he believed that because of the reclassification program, some of the contents of his 22 file cabinets might technically place him in violation of the Espionage Act, a circumstance that could be shared by scores of other historians. But no effort has been made to retrieve copies of reclassified documents, and it is not clear how they all could even be located.

"It doesn't make sense to create a category of documents that are classified but that everyone already has," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University. "These documents were on open shelves for years."

No, it doesn't, but you've got to give them credit for chutzpah.

Although this smacks more of mid-level cubicle-dwellers in the CIA and other agencies needing something to show for the thankless assignment they were given. As the piece notes, it's logistically problematic to retrieve the unsecret copies that are floating around out there - all the more so now that some of the documents have been conveniently digitized by GWU's National Security Archive. The situation presents certain epistemological problems. If someone possesses public knowledge, and a veil of secrecy descends over it, what is the nature of the knowledge? You get into a Rumsfeld-type regression of "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Out there

Isn’t Johnny Weir’s coyness about his sexual orientation the smart PR move? It's driving his media coverage. Multiple outlets are profiling him, leaving the question open while furiously telegraphing their answer in code (But isn’t "flamboyant" more than just code in this case? He really is flamboyant in the both the classic and the modern campy-kitschy-gay sense of the word.).

Now media graybeards have started debating about whether it’s OK to ask him whether he’s gay:

"The first question is: What's the journalistic purpose of reporting someone's sexual orientation, especially against that person's will -- why does it matter?" says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a leading journalism research group. "I think the answer has to be more than, 'It's just interesting.' A news organization that publishes very private information like that, even about public figures, has a responsibility to be transparent about their news judgment."

This is faintly ridiculous. Maybe – maybe – it applies to someone in politics or the business world, where there is a clearer distinction between the job and private life, and that wall remains more or less intact. But Weir is a figure skater and celebrity. Self-expression is his job, and “gay” refers not only sexual preference but to identity. Weir has chosen to hype his own personality quirks, and is evidently enjoying this immensely. It’s also entirely to his advantage to be asked about sexual orientation, and to be coy about it. If he denied it, it would look like he was lying or in denial. If he said he was gay, the story would be over.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Illegible

Jay Rosen elaborates on the meaning of Quailgate, noting that the White House, partly at Dick Cheney’s instigation, has systematically marginalized the national media and particularly the White House press corps. Given that the WHPC does have more than its share of prima donnas, who appear obnoxious even when they are actually acting in the nation’s best interest, there is no political downside to dissing them, as there once was. Quite the opposite:

The public visibility of the presidency itself is under revision … More of it lies in shadow all the time. Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it. What Dan Froomkin calls the Bush Bubble is designed to keep more of the world out. Cheney himself is almost a shadow figure in the executive branch. His whereabouts are often not known. With these changes, executive power has grown more illegible under Bush the Younger— a sign of the times in Washington.

Cheney has long held the view that the powers of the presidency were dangerously eroded in the 1970s and 80s. The executive “lost” perogatives it needed to gain back for the global struggle with Islamic terror. “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam both during the 70’s served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area,” he
said in December.

Some of that space was lost to the news media, and its demand to be informed about all aspects of the presidency, plus its sense of entitlement to the star interlocutor’s role. Cheney opposes all that, whereas Fitzwater accepted most of it. That’s why Fitz is appalled and Cheney is rather pleased with himself.The people yelling questions at Scott McClellan in the briefing room, like the reporters in the Washington bureaus who cover the president, are in Cheney’s calculations neither a necessary evil, nor a public good. They are an unnecessary evil and a public bad— ex-influentials who can be disrespected without penalty.

Where is all of this going? Is the MSM on a trajectory toward complete irrelevance, to replaced by Fox News and right-wing bloggers as the conduit for political news? To the extent the media’s current problems are the result of multiplying competition and declining audiences, perhaps. But the Bush/Cheney pushback may end up being short-lived, as the White House’s treatment of the media depends entirely on the occupant of the White House. If John McCain is elected, for instance, things will change – at least until the media inevitably turns on him. If a Democrat is elected (s)he will not be able to turn to the phalanx of puffed-up talk-show hosts and other right-wing news outlets Bush/Cheney use to get their story out.

But having been shut down so effectively during the Bush years, the White House press corps will probably never regain the privileges or respect it once got from the institution it covers.

Cheney and Britney

So Cheney had it both ways: He yielded to the public obligation to provide an explanation for shooting a man, while at the same time flipping the bird (as it were) to the media.

Now, according to the Hotline, the Cheney vs. Media conflict is escalating:

We hear that major television networks and some print entities are trying to figure out a way to follow the Vice President during his weekend sojourns.

Typically, Cheney is unmolested by the media on weekends. No one, aside from a protestor or two, stakes out the Naval Observatory in DC and his staff keeps his schedule closely held.

The President, by contrast, almost always has a full protective pool of print and television reporters accompanying him -- even when he attends completely private events, such as a fundraising reception at the home of Sen. Maj. Leader Bill Frist last week, or one of his impromptu outings to a favorite Tex-Mex joint in Cleveland Park.

But when Cheney wants to get out of town, he can come and go as he pleases. Major media organizations have tried to keep track of Cheney informally but have had little success. (The last time the media camped out on Mass. Ave was during the '00 recount -- when Gore was in office.)
So the networks are thinking about establishing an informal pool to stake out the Naval Observatory and to exchange, on a limited basis, editorial information to facilitate that pool.

Print outlets will also ramp up their coverage.

This is either harrassment or the plot of a bad sitcom. But these private trips are sometimes newsworthy even when no one gets shot. Cheney is arguably as powerful as the president, yet operates almost completely out of public view. It's a shame that it's come to this. There ought to be some basic understanding between the media and the White House that would allow a basic flow of information. The coverage needn't be intrusive. It helps no one, especially Cheney, when the media resort to paparazzi antics. This is getting into Britney Spears territory. Is a Sean Penn moment that far away?

Meanwhile, a TPM reader raises a good question:

Here's a painfully obvious observation. Untold millions of tax dollars are spent on secret service agents and what-not, and the veep is prancing around the wilds with a bunch of other men of a certain age, all carrying GUNS? Let's assume that there isn't anything particularly different about Mr. Cheney that would cause him to make this kind of mistake, which then means that any of his hunting buddies could have been the one to go oops, and he could have been on the business end of the fire-stick. Boom! What were they thinking?

The Secret Service must be thinking hard about what happened. Between his minders there and the media, Cheney will likely end up paying for the shooting mishap with some of his freedom of movement.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cheney, Miss Manners and Watergate

Official Washington is amazed at the vice president's unwillingness to make any sort of public explanation or statement of contrition about shooting a man:

"I cannot believe he does not look back and say this should have been handled differently," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is close to the White House. Weber said Cheney "made it a much bigger issue than it needed to be."

Marlin Fitzwater, a former Republican White House spokesman, told Editor & Publisher magazine that Cheney "ignored his responsibility to the American people."

These criticisms reflect a certain post-Watergate, information-age etiquette. If Cheney followed the commonly-accepted rules for vice presidents-who-shoot-people, he would have promptly disclosed the incident, then come out before the cameras, said he's sorry and wished his friend a speedy recovery. Then the media and the public would, as they say, get closure and move on.

The etiquette presupposes a certain compact between public officials, the media and the public. It's often silly, but it until recently it worked reasonably well. It's predictable (public officials will screw up in spectacular and unexpected ways, necessitating explanation and contrition that go beyond mere spin – for example, when Reagan admitted trading arms for hostages). It gives public a brief glimpse past the carefully-buffed image. If done right, it lets officials get on with actually governing. Even Bush has (reluctantly) observed these rituals from time to time.

But Cheney is out to destroy the post-Watergate consensus in its various forms, from the commonly-accepted definition of the separation of powers on down. He rejects this etiquette and the compact that underlies it. Cheney despises the media. His attitude toward the public is obscure: Paternalistic? Contemptuous? Oblivious? In any case, he simply doesn’t care to observe this ritual, no matter how useful it might be. That is part and parcel of his overall aim to degrade the basic machinery of accountability that has emerged over the past 30 years.

He would care if this made any difference in terms of his ability to wield political power. That depends solely on the president, and how much he values the basic civility that the etiquette embodies.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Surely the words "Dan Quayle" can be worked into this somehow

Rob Corddry: Jon, tonight the vice president is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. According to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be a 78-year-old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face. He believes the world is a better place for his spreading buckshot throughout the entire region of Mr. Whittington's face.

Jon Stewart: But why, Rob? If he had known Mr. Whittington was not a bird, why would he still have shot him?

Corddry: Jon, in a post-9-11 world, the American people expect their leaders to be decisive. To not have shot his friend in the face would have sent a message to the quail that America is weak.

Stewart: That's horrible.

Corddry: Look, the mere fact that we're even talking about how the vice president drives up with his rich friends in cars to shoot farm-raised wingless quail-tards is letting the quail know "how" we're hunting them. I'm sure right now those birds are laughing at us in that little "covey" of theirs.

Stewart: I'm not sure birds can laugh, Rob.

Corddry: Well, whatever it is they do -- coo -- they're cooing at us right now, Jon, because here we are talking openly about our plans to hunt them. Jig is up. Quails one, America zero.

At some point, the veep will come out and make an apologetic statement topped off with a self-deprecating joke (he is capable of this when politics demands it, the past 48 hours notwithstanding), and this will be over. At least until then, it will be highly amusing and emblematic in that Carter vs. killer rabbit kind of way.

Will this herald a new era of liberal dominance by helping America wake up at last? Nah.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The coma patient was listed in "very relaxed" condition

Dick Cheney's hunting accident saga has apparently occasioned the invention of new hospital terminology for describing a patient's condition:

The hospital listed Whittington's condition as "very stable."

No doubt the "very" is intended to be reassuring, but the effect is just the opposite. It sounds like they're trying a little too hard to be reassuring, and something may be wrong. Do we really need spin in this situation?

"Stable" itself is a word that obscures more than it reveals:

The term “stable” is not particularly helpful and its use is specifically discouraged by the American Hospital Association. The problem with “stable” is that it simply means that a person’s condition is not changing: One person could be terribly ill and another ready to go home, and both are “stable.”