Watchdog Blog

Barry Sussman: ‘We Probably Could Have Saved Ourselves’

Posted at 9:09 am, August 24th, 2012
Barry Sussman Mug

Today is this website’s last day. I’ve already said goodbye – on Monday – but since then I’ve gotten some nice, even moving emails from folks and I’d like to share a few of them. I’m leaving out the names of the writers.

“Hi Barry–You should feel as proud as a peacock for the quality of journalism produced by the Nieman Watchdog Project. I always looked forward to each set of offerings, knowing I could count on substance. That’s an ingredient hard to find these days, especially on such a consistent basis.”

“Dear Barry,
I just read your farewell column and find it hard to believe the Watchdog will no longer be offering its insights. You, Dan (Froomkin) and all of your writers have provide a valuable service for many years that will be greatly missed.”

“Congratulations on a magnificent creation and body of work with Nieman Watchdog! Personally, I am very sad to see that it will no longer be the brilliant stand alone you created with others. However, I know that change happens whether I like it or not.”

This is one I treasure:
“I write to express my gratitude. Your work has been an affirmation of the values I fell in love with as a young girl. There are many more like me and many more better than me out here in the ether who see your work as a charge to keep and a reason to hope.”

“Thanks for all your work. I am very sorry to see this happen. I also wish I could agree with you on the NYT.” (I had praised the Times, in effect putting it in a class by itself.) “Among others; they have done nothing but disgrace itself on national security issues…”

And finally…

“you’ve done the lord’s work. . .

“and, as gene mccarthy used to say, once you’re past the biblical limits of three score and ten you are no longer required to carry out the good book’s rules. . .

“the only problem is that it’s not as much fun to break them. . .

“thanks for all you’ve done and tried to do. ..

“as for the unfinished business, i like kurt vonnegut’s suggested last words of humans to be carved perhaps on the grand canyon for ‘flying saucer creatures or angels or whatever’:


Y’all take care.

Herb Strentz: Iowa as the Center of the Political Universe

Posted at 12:32 pm, August 14th, 2012
Herb Strentz Mug

DES MOINES – Everyone wants a turn in the spotlight. Small states and smaller towns in particular position themselves as, say, the World’s Sock Capital (Fort Payne, AL), Artichoke Capital (Castroville, CA) Paddlefish Capital (Fort Thompson, SD). Indeed, you could excite spouse and family by saying next year’s vacation will be to world capitals. Even if they sigh when you say you’re going to start off with the Kiwi Fruit Capital, they’ll at least look forward to the New Zealand trip, until finding themselves in Gridley, CA., (population 6,600).

But I digress.


The point is that Iowa is not so peculiar when every four years at caucus time it declares itself to be the political capital of the nation. But even the Des Moines Register expressed some surprise (go to Aug. 13 issue) Monday that Iowa found itself again “the center of the political universe” — no small worldly thinking here — with visits by President Barack Obama and GOP vice presidential designee, Rep. Paul Ryan.

Still for all the clamor and glamour , two other events — one of them scary — help provide context for the role of Iowa as a “swing state capital of the nation” in the 2012 president election.

The first is an insight that Mike Glover, retired AP political reporter in Iowa, offered as to the future of the Iowa caucuses. Glover covered the caucuses for most of his 30 years with the AP, the most experienced caucus reporter there is. He told a Des Moines Kiwanis Club that the future of much criticized caucuses rested upon who wins the presidential election. Obama wins: Iowa stays first in the nation in 2016. Mitt Romney wins: Iowa’s future as a quadrennial center of the political universe is in question. That’s because, Glover said, Democrats take the caucuses seriously; Republicans don’t.

Glover’s comments, naturally, went unreported. Little is newsworthy about perceptive comments when it comes to political campaigns. On the other hand, a scary development received lots of coverage and will continue to do so because the religious right, now joined by the Iowa GOP, has renewed its war
against the Iowa Supreme Court for a 7-0 2009 ruling that the Iowa constitution makes it illegal for the state legislature to ban same-sex marriages. In 2010, the religious right led the successful campaign against retention of the three justices on the ballot. In 2012 the target is Justice David Wiggins, the lone Supreme Court justice up for retention.
Read the rest of this entry »

Herb Strentz: Why Not a Few Golds for NBC

Posted at 10:13 pm, August 12th, 2012
Herb Strentz Mug

For all the brickbats tossed NBC’s way for its tape-delayed coverage of Olympic highlights, there certainly were a few gold medals for the network to deservedly sink its teeth into — in the cliché shot that photographers demand .
This assessment comes with some caveats and idiosyncrasies in that (a) I did not faithfully attend to all of the Olympic coverage, tape delayed or on-line; (b) when I did watch it was often with the sound off in the wake of the political commercials cluttering TV, given Iowa’s status as a swing state and (c) my new recliner is nap-inducing.
Even with those handicaps, one had to be impressed by:

• John McEnroe and his accomplishment in not asking an athlete even once, “How do you feel?” Rather, McEnroe had a delightfully candid and enjoyable conversation with Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and another with the mens tennis gold medal winner, Brit Andy Murray. What was impressive about the latter is that McEnroe did not mention, or even allude to, the fact that the day before or so he had all but predicted a Murray upset of Roger Federer.

• Mary Carillo and her whimsical and witty pieces on the people and the history of Great Britain. Her commentary and use of the TV medium approached the Thurberesque and apparently so caught NBC off guard that they put much of it in a time slot way, way late into the evening. Carillo, too, enjoyed what she was doing so much that she complimented herself on a segue she came up with to bridge a piece on Wales and the Welsh language to a segment on the woman’s hammer throw.

• Bob Costas and how over the decades he has managed so well the transition from the upstart to the avuncular. Finally, we had the opening parade of the athletes without the commentator getting all hot and bothered or dramatic and dogmatic about whether the U.S. flag bearer would dip Old Glory in deference to the host nation. What a wonderful change of pace that was. His wrap-up interviews at the end of his part of the telecasts were perceptive and enjoyable. (And he knew when to shut up, too, like not being constrained to find a suitable riposte when Carillo told him it cost her $15 to get the official sketching of the Costas’ family coat of arms.)

• Tom Brokaw’s commentaries — although belabored at times — on Anglo-American relations and on the Churchillian resolve of the English-speaking people.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, with regard to the above folks, never have so few done so much to make TV so enjoyable for so many.

Gilbert Cranberg: Want Some Votes, Mitt? Here’s How.

Posted at 1:31 pm, August 8th, 2012
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Here is what Mitt Romney should say without further delay:

I hereby make public all hitherto unpublished information about my income taxes. It was a lapse of judgment on my part not to have done this sooner. I am proud to pay taxes. As the press will learn when it examines the records I have released, there is nothing in this material that denotes any illegality.

I hope that my example will be followed by others. In fact, the press, which clamored for the action I have now taken, should get behind a move to make tax returns public records generally. Much more personal financial information is disclosed to strangers routinely by Americans every time they apply for credit. As Justice Louis Brandeis correctly observed, sunlight is an effective disinfectant. The amount of tax cheating in this country is a national disgrace, all of it aided and abetted by the secrecy surrounding the payment of income taxes. The U.S. treasury loses an estimated $300 billion a year to the cheats.

Americans rightly abhor the national debt. They can reduce it markedly without paying a penny in added taxes. All they need to do is tell their lawmakers they should insist that the freeloaders pay their fair share. Mark my word, in a Romney administration freeloading will be a thing of the past.

Herb Strentz: Time to Cut Back on Violence, Not Just Analyze It

Posted at 5:04 pm, August 7th, 2012
Herb Strentz Mug

In the wake of the killings at the Sikh temple near Milwaukee, Bob Schieffer on the CBS evening news wondered what the killer’s motive possibly could be.
And in today’s Des Moines Register, a headline over a front-page column said we had to stop this cycle of “retribution.”

Motive? Retribution? Is the press that clueless? A white supremacist guns down people and we wonder about his motive? A lunatic kills people at worship and we cast it as an act of revenge for 9/11?

Those news media responses called to my mind two recent postings on this site by Dan Froomkin and Gil Cranberg. They wondered why the press and others accepted the arguments that recent efforts to block voting by minorities and the poor were simply needed efforts to protect the integrity the ballot.
Likewise, I wondered about the quest for a motive or counseling against taking revenge in the Wisconsin atrocity.

Good night, we have a violent society increasingly fueled by bigotry and racism, and we wonder about supposed motives and revenge?

What also crossed my mind was whether the press was obsessed with motives and explanations for civil rights murders in the 1960s and lynchings before and after that. When folks like James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County, Miss., in 1964,
did we wonder about a motive? When Viola Liuzzo was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the Selma Voting Rights march in Alabama, who wondered about the motive?

We have hate-filled people with ready access to combat weapons and we wonder about motives?

The press routinely quotes those opposed to sane gun-control laws as saying tougher laws will not keep guns away from all the crazies. But here’s a scoop for the press: Laws against burglary don’t stop all burglars. But those laws speak to public concerns, public policy and the need for lawful statements of sanity about what we expect from one another — and we should be able to expect that our neighbor does not stock his home with weapons designed for one purpose: killing other people.

Enough of the soap box. Here’s a bit of history, still being reenacted.

The feds and others have been well aware of the domestic terror threat from the right wing crazies for 30 or 40 years or more.

When my brother was in the FBI 25 or 30 years ago, he said the right was far more difficult to monitor than the left when it came to terrorism. The far left would have meetings and take votes as to how many favored whatever disruption was proposed on the agenda or suggested from the floor. Who knows? Maybe the Department of Justice could subpoena the minutes of a meeting.

The terrorism from the right, on the other hand, came from guys who, at their meetings, stoked up mutual grievances and decided to go out and do something about it. (Without taking a vote.)

Instead of pondering motives of the domestic terrorists, the press would be better served to report what’s going on and confront the lunatics and those who abet them.

Gilbert Cranberg: International Monitors Needed for U.S. Elections?

Posted at 8:50 am, August 5th, 2012
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Not long ago, the emphasis was on encouraging voter turnout. Nowadays, it’s on shutting down access to the polls. The efforts have become so numerous that New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has taken to keeping a running tally of the restrictions. A recent count:

• “At least 180 restrictive bills introduced since the beginning of 2011 in 41 states.”
• “47 restrictive bills currently pending in 12 states.”
• “ 24 laws and two executive actions passed since the beginning of 2011 in 19 states.”
• “16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election…These states account for 214 electoral votes, or nearly 79 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.”

The threat of rigged elections has made it common for international monitors to observe more and more elections to assure their integrity. It would be humiliating if monitors are called in to observe our own 2012 presidential election, but if state lawmakers persist in playing partisan games to prevent every vote from being cast and counted it may be necessary for a nonpartisan organization like the League of Women Voters to turn to something like the European Commission and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to monitor our voting. If nothing else, the prospect of international vote monitors observing and issuing reports might temper some overzealous tampering with the franchise.

Dan Froomkin: You Know What the ‘Voter ID’ Push Is All About, So Say So

Posted at 10:21 am, July 30th, 2012
Dan Froomkin Mug

Does any journalist who is not an overt shill for the right actually believe that Republicans are pushing voter ID laws because they’re concerned about  voter fraud?

No, of course not.

And for good reason. Voter fraud simply isn’t a problem in this country. Studies have definitively debunked the voter fraud myth time and again.

In Pennsyvlania, which just adopted a tremendously restrictive photo-ID law that could disenfranchise 1 in 10 votersstate officials conceded they have no evidence of voter fraud, nor any reason to believe it could become a problem.

By contrast, there is ample evidence that voter ID laws inhibit voting, particularly among minorities and the poor — two major demographic segments that tend to vote Democratic.

And that’s hardly a coincidence. Consider the recent bragging by the Pennsylvania House Republican leader that his state’s voter ID bill “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

This is not simply another gratuitously partisan act by the GOP. This is an attack on the very notion of democracy. The voter ID push, along with intimidation of voter registration groups and purges of voter rolls have only one goal: blocking legitimate but probably Democratic voters from exercising their constitutional rights. It is a poll tax with a new twist.

And the pursuit of this goal ostensibly in the name of voter fraud is an outrageous deception that only works if the press is too timid to call it what it really is.

For reporters to treat this issue like just another political squabble is journalistic malpractice. Indeed, relating the debate in value-neutral he-said-she-said language is actively helping spread the lie. After all, calling for someone to show ID before voting doesn’t sound pernicious to most people, even though it is. And raising the bogus issue of voter fraud at all stokes fear. “Even if you say there is no fraud, all people hear is ‘fraud fraud fraud’,” said Lawrence Norden, a lawyer at the  Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Think about it. If you were covering elections in another country, and one political party was actively trying to limit voting in the name of a problem that objectively didn’t exist, would you hesitate for a moment to call out that tactic — and question that party’s legitimacy? Hardly.

Modern American journalists strive for impartiality, but there is a limit. Mainstream journalists shouldn’t be afraid of being accused of taking sides when what they’re doing is standing up for basic constitutional rights. Indeed, the greater danger is that readers condemn them — or even worse, stop paying attention to them — for having no convictions at all, and no moral compass.

The GOP has taken increasingly radical positions, confident that the media’s aversion to taking sides will protect it from too much negative coverage. But failing to call out the voter ID push is like covering the civil rights movements and treating “separate but equal” as if it was said with sincerity.

All reporters should get every candidate they can on the record about the issue of ballot access, make it clear to readers whether those candidates want to make voting easier or harder, and then assert the simple truth that there is no plausible justification for making it more difficult to vote, other than partisan trickery at the expense of the rights of minorities and the poor.

Dan Froomkin: Big Questions — Not Just Leaks — About National Security

Posted at 2:19 pm, July 25th, 2012
Dan Froomkin Mug

Two recent books about national security have incited an overwrought kerfuffle about leaks. But what they should have done is provoke a vigorous debate about the startling policies they describe, and the many things that remain unknown.

I reviewed the two books — “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power“, by New York Times reporter David E. Sanger, and “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency“, by longtime Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman — for Huffington, the Huffington Post’s new weekly iPad magazine.

Sanger actually does a pretty good job of summing up the questions his own book raises — and fails to answer:

“What is the difference — legally and morally — between a sticky bomb the Israelis place on the side of an Iranian scientist’s car and a Hellfire missile the United States launches at a car in Yemen from thirty thousand feet in the air? How is one an ‘assassination’ — condemned by the United States — and the other an ‘insurgent strike’? What is the difference between attacking a country’s weapon-making machinery through a laptop computer or through bunker-busters? What happens when other states catch up with American technology — some already have — and turn these weapons on targets inside the United States or American troops abroad, arguing that it was Washington that set the precedent for their use? These are all questions the Obama team discusses chiefly in classified briefings, not public debates.”

Those are the questions reporters should be asking, nonstop, until we get answers. But apparently that’s not as much fun as taking stenography from members of Congress whose “outrage” over leaks is overtly either political (the Republicans) or pouty (Dianne Feinstein and Joe Lieberman).

Klaidman’s book raises what are in some ways even more disturbing questions, about just how politicized national security decisions are in the Obama White House. I remember paling at the thought that Karl Rove was sitting in on national security meetings, but apparently in this White House as well, political calculations are omnipresent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Gilbert Cranberg: A Criminal Justice Problem in 1958, and in 2012 Also

Posted at 11:34 am, July 24th, 2012
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

The New York Times reminded its readers recently of the enormous part played by guilty pleas in the criminal justice system – 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases are decided by pleas rather than trials. The Times called the statistics “stunning.” The Times and its readers might be even more astounded if they knew how many of those guilty pleas are made without the benefit of a lawyer’s advice. My hunch is that vast numbers plead guilty and are sent to prison without ever consulting an attorney.

The hunch is based on a report I did several years ago – well, a little more than several – 54 years ago, to be exact – on inmates of Iowa’s maximum security penitentiary. There were 1815 inmates in the state’s three main prisons at the time and information was available on 1687 of them.

I found that 329 of these felons were imprisoned after guilty pleas made without the assistance of counsel. All of them had a right to be represented by a lawyer, but had waived it. My article about it ran March 2, 1958.

Why would anyone pass up a constitutional right? Basically, out of ignorance of the value of an attorney. Many of the Iowa offenders figured they had committed an offense, so why bother with a lawyer? It’s a major shortcoming of the legal system that people whose reasoning is this shallow are especially in need of assistance, but waive it.

I was led to examine guilty pleas in Iowa after learning that an Iowa judge admitted to sentencing a young man to life for bank robbery in the mistaken belief that life terms were mandatory for robbing banks. The mistake came to light after I wrote about the life sentence and the judge responded that he had no choice. I then wondered why the accused’s lawyer didn’t pick up on the error when he argued for a lenient sentence for his client, who had robbed the bank on impulse after being jilted by his fiancé. I learned there was no defense lawyer, because, seeing no need for a lawyer, the accused waived his right to have one appointed. That’s when I found, after further digging, that this misguided offender had plenty of company in the Iowa penal system.

Fast forward to March 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the accused have a right to the effective assistance of a lawyer during the plea bargain phase of criminal proceedings. Entering a guilty plea looks to me like a close cousin to a plea bargain, and both require the effective assistance of counsel. The courts aid and abet ignorance when they too readily agree to allow waivers of the right to a lawyer. Given the prevalence of pleas, the press ought to be paying close attention to the extent to which waivers by the unwitting are undermining the right to counsel.

Herb Strentz: The Hypocrisy of Division 1 Sports

Posted at 6:48 pm, July 18th, 2012
Herb Strentz Mug

Like Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca, sportswriters and the NCAA are “shocked, shocked” by the revelations that continue to tumble out of the child-molestation scandal at Penn State. How could such a travesty unfold in the billion dollar business of NCAA Inc.?

Judging from coverage and commentary it’s as though no one who is involved with Division I athletics ever heard of altered academic transcripts, under-the-table payments to “student athletes” or sexual abuse of women students by male basketball and football players.

Official response has become totally twisted; an Iowa police chief once told me that if he had a daughter who was raped by an athlete, he’d advise her to transfer universities rather than go through the frustration and humiliation of taking her case to the cops and judicial proceedings.

That institutions like Penn State and people like Joe Paterno were shining examples of what NCAA Inc. is really about only added to the hypocrisy.

Missing from coverage of Louis Freeh’s lengthy report about the Penn State mess was any suggestion that maybe the press should be indicted as an un-named co-conspirator.

The generally uncritical, if not slavish, nature of the coverage of Division I football and men’s basketball coaches testifies to why Joe Pa and his colleagues and their fans believe the coach is always to be revered, never reviled, and always to be unquestioned, never unappreciated. Oh well. Maybe next time. And there will be a next time. That’s because boosterism is the watchword for much of “news coverage” of the coaches and almost all of the commentary by talking heads on sports shows and by those broadcasting football and basketball games.
Read the rest of this entry »