Watchdog Blog

Herb Strentz: Be Sure Your Emails Will Find You Out

Posted at 1:34 pm, July 9th, 2012
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DES MOINES–An ongoing sex-riddled saga and scandal in Central Iowa and its attendant news coverage call to mind the tagline for the 1963 Billy Wilder comedy “Irma La Douce” – “ A story of passion, bloodshed, desire and death…everything, in fact, that makes life worth living.”

Only in the Des Moines area, it might be: “A story of passion, desire, public records, military heroism, government secrecy, educational leadership and newsroom decision making – much, in fact, that makes journalism worthwhile.”

The most recent developments are summarized in a story in the Sunday Des Moines Register. In a nutshell, the woman superintendent of the Des Moines Independent School District and an Army captain featured some two years ago in a 60 Minutes report on his heroism and leadership as part of the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan have seen their careers severely damaged, if not destroyed, by the disclosure of sexually explicit emails they exchanged during a six-week affair.

The superintendent, Nancy Sebring, was about to take a new job in Omaha when the emails came to light in mid-May as part of a public records request by the press. She resigned her Des Moines post ahead of time and also resigned from the Omaha superintendency before showing up for work there. Capt. John Hintz has been relieved of his duties as commander of a recruiting unit while the Army investigates his involvement with Sebring and whether he sent his emails while on duty.

The Register and television news identified Sebring from the outset but the paper and one station held back on identifying Hintz by name until he was relieved of command and the Army announced its inquiry.

There’s enough going on here to provide case studies in journalism ethics, access to government information and newsroom judgments for months.

For example, Register editor Rick Green explained to readers why the paper was not identifying Hintz at the outset of the story in May, even though the newspaper later filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing Hintz’s (then known as Interested Party) petition to have his name kept secret. The thrust of his explanation was that Hintz, as far as was known, did not violate any public trust or policy in his part of the exchange. (Although given the 60 Minutes attention and honors he had received, he had a measure of public-figure status.)
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Gilbert Cranberg: Scalia boggles the mind

Posted at 3:49 pm, June 27th, 2012
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“Everyone needs an editor,”a veteran editor advised me. I count that among the most useful advice I encountered in a lengthy career. It is pertinent not only for journalists. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could have benefited the other day from a fresh pair of eyes reviewing his written reaction to something President Obama said at a news conference, presidential comments which were totally outside the record of the case. Scalia added that a portion of the court’s immigration opinion “boggles the mind.”

Scalia’s rebuttal of press conference remarks raises a question: Who copy edits high court opinions? Among the most valuable contributions of a copy editor is to ask questions. Even a cursory reading of Scalia’s opinion should have prompted a question: Since when is a president’s press conference comments relevant to a court case? Any skilled copy editor would have raised that question.

Nor would a good copy editor allow “boggles the mind” to go unchallenged. The cliché is so tired it was ready for the retirement home long ago. Justice Scalia is fond of colorful speech, and it is refreshing to have him depart from the usual drab high court jargon, so “boggles the mind” must have been a relapse. With or without a high court copy editor, it’s possible to be plain spoken, accurate and relevant.

Barry Sussman: Obamacare in the Roberts Court, and Journalism Lessons from Spain

Posted at 5:59 pm, June 23rd, 2012
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Any day now the Roberts court will release its Affordable Care Act ruling. It could be 5-4 against all or some of Obamacare, or as much as 6-3 in favor. Some people see Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote and that of course is possible. I’d look to Chief Justice John Roberts instead. I think he may have been torn in making his decision – but on politics, not points of law.

Roberts has never faced an issue of this sort. Always ruling on behalf of corporations and the Republican leadership, he hasn’t had to choose between the two because their positions have been one and the same, jointly formed. That may not be the case here. The Republicans opposed the Affordable Care Act long before it was written. They can’t let such an achievement by Obama stand. Clumsy and incomplete as it is, health care for almost all Americans is not a lesson they want the people to take from his presidency.

Many business leaders may not feel that way. Corporations could have something to gain if, gradually, health insurance is no longer linked to employee benefits – and that is a prospect under Obamacare. So what Roberts has had to weigh is a relentless demand for repeal by Republican chieftains but possibly a more restrained, mixed position held by corporate leaders.

I don’t know if it’s my own biases or Roberts’s behavior that makes me feel his decision will be based on his loyalties, with legal principle twisted to fit. I think it’s entirely him. He’s the one who at his confirmation hearings said how much he respected precedent but since then has, whenever he could, gone out of his way to upend it. He’s the one who wrote the opinion that corporations have the same First Amendment free-speech rights as people.

On a related matter, I noticed that the chief of the supreme court in Spain was forced to resign the other day in a scandal having to do with lying on expense accounts. He was turned in by a colleague. The other jurists, according to the New York Times, voted not to pursue the matter, citing a lack of evidence.
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Gilbert Cranberg: Ethics for Newspaper Owners, with Buffett as Teacher?

Posted at 7:54 am, June 21st, 2012
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When Warren Buffett invests, investors pay attention. So when the Oracle of Omaha recently put his Berkshire Hathaway money into newspapers, it was bound to cause others to take a second look at this neglected financial sector. And a good thing, too. Newspapers are too important to the health of communities for them to be allowed to wither and die. Among the newspapers Buffett rescued recently are his hometown Omaha World-Herald, the small-town Bryan-College Station Eagle in Texas and a flock of publications from the Media General and Lee Enterprises chains.

If tycoons ride to the rescue of struggling local papers that would be good for the press but not without its drawbacks. The situation in San Diego is a troubling case in point. The new ownership at the U-T San Diego seems to be clueless about its journalistic obligations to readers and the community. The New York Times reported recently how the paper flogs its critics and supports favored candidates in front-page editorials, without being bashful about touting positions that favor its business interests.

The Times quotes a new owner, John T. Lynch: “We are doing what newspapers ought to do, which is to take positions.” The Times quotes an alternative voice in town “There is a very real fear here that it will not be advocating for the public’s good, but for the owner’s good instead.”

Encouraged by Warren Buffett’s willingness to plow money into the newspaper business , a lot of new ownership types are likely headed for newspaper offices. But newspapers are not simply another way to make money, although newspaper company executives have neglected to explain why it’s a different kind of business. By taking their companies public, and listing them on stock exchanges, newspaper executives have made them into just another commodity in the marketplace subject to the bottom-line pressures common to all public companies.

Newspapers are a different kind of business because they serve a public purpose. If the new interest in investing in newspapers isn’t to boomerang, the new breed of owners will have to develop an understanding and commitment to journalism ethics. The nation’s journalism schools can help by offering courses in ethics for owners. If a newspaper changes hands, the new owners ought to announce to readers a determination to abide by strict ethical precepts. Who better to design and teach such a course than Warren Buffett?

Dan Froomkin: How Does This End? And 38 Other Questions Congress Should Ask About Afghanistan

Posted at 11:46 am, June 19th, 2012
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Were they the least bit interested in exercising any oversight at all into the war that American soldiers are still fighting and dying in — and that Chinese bond buyers are still providing the cash for — members of Congress wouldn’t have to go very far to find some excellent questions.

Congress’s own think tank has come up with some doozies. Actually a lot of doozies. Thirty-nine by my count.

Just a few weeks ago, Army Col. Danny Davis, the active-service whistleblower who broke ranks to debunk official reports of progress in Afghanistan, wondered on this website: Why does Congress refuse to even ask the right questions about Afghanistan?

Now, a new Congressional Research Service report, Next Steps in the War in Afghanistan? Issues for Congress, (unearthed by the Federation of American Scientists) offers a cheat-sheet for any members who might be coming around to the idea of probing the administration’s gameplan.

All of these questions are taken directly from the report, written by CRS international security expert Catherine Dale. First come the broad strategic questions:

  • What fundamental national security interests does the United States have in Afghanistan and the region?
  • What minimum conditions — political, economic, security — would need to pertain in Afghanistan in order for those U.S. interests to be protected?
  • How appropriate are current and projected future U.S. approaches, until and after 2014, for helping Afghans establish those conditions?
  • When and to what extent are Afghans likely to be able to sustain those conditions with relatively limited support from the international community?
  • Ultimately, how important is this overall effort — given its likely timeline, risks, and costs — compared to other U.S. government priorities?

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Gilbert Cranberg: U.N. Monitors for American Elections?

Posted at 6:08 pm, June 14th, 2012
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Republican lawmakers are fond of talking about voter fraud to justify measures to make it harder to vote. Wendy Weiser of New York University’s Brennan Center of Justice put her finger on the nation’s biggest source of voter fraud when she said, “Every year, election officials strike millions of names from the voting rolls using processes that are secret, prone to error and vulnerable to manipulation.” So in the name of combating scandal officials perpetuate it by denying Americans one of their most precious rights. And instead of correcting the abuse, partisan lawmakers are busy erecting still more obstacles to voting.

The organized effort to suppress voting has reached the point that bona fide nonprofits are fearful of registering voters lest they face prosecution. If it isn’t already a criminal offense, it should be made one to knowingly deny anyone access to the voting booth without persuasive evidence. Cases of actual voting fraud are so few and far between that claims of suspected fraud should be viewed with utmost suspicion.

If lawmakers persist in attempting to suppress voting, extreme measures may be justified. One such step might be appealing to the United Nations to monitor the conduct of U.S. national elections. Super-patriots could be expected to create an uproar over foreigners having a say on U.S. elections, but the U.N. monitors elections all the time. Besides, if everything is on the up and up, there’s no harm in having disinterested monitors validate U.S. election procedures.

Knowing that the U.N. is in the wings just might rein in the partisan hotheads in state legislatures who would stop at nothing to win an election.

Dan Froomkin: Stop Criminalizing Investigative Reporting

Posted at 1:13 pm, June 12th, 2012
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Criminally investigating the kinds of leaks that are the bread and butter of national security investigative reporting is a noxious overreaction by hyper-controlling government officials who don’t want us to know what’s being done in our name.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he has assigned two U.S. attorneys to lead criminal leak investigations into recent media reports about topics including how drone attacks are approved at the White House and how a computer virus attack was launched against Iran’s nuclear program.

There is such a thing as a criminal leak — for instance, when an administration official intentionally outs a covert CIA operative in an attempt to discredit an administration critic.

But leaks that expose secrets that have momentous public policy implications need to be treated differently, because they are a critical part of our nation’s system of checks and balances. Knowledge is essential to the public’s ability to restrain executive (and legislative) power.

In this case, part of the pressure for an investigation came from Congress — from Sen. John McCain, who accused the Obama administration of leaking for political gain, and from the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, whose most righteous anger seems to be reserved not for violations of international law, torture statues or civil liberties, but for those occasions when the public, thanks to aggressive reporting by journalists, knows more than they do about something.

If President Obama is truly concerned about these leaks — which I’m not at all sure he is  — there’s a very simple solution. He can call in top national security staffers and other top officials and demand to know what role they played in these stories. If they leaked, and did so without his implicit or explicit approval, and he really thinks that was the wrong thing to do, he can fire them. If they lie to him (like Karl Rove did to George Bush about his role in the Valerie Plame leak) then Obama has bigger problems with his staff than leaks.

Outsourcing the investigation to the Department of Justice instead is a cowardly ducking of responsibility — with tremendously dangerous potential. This is especially the case because under Obama and Holder, the DOJ  — presumably to build up good will with the intelligence community — has taken to charging such leaks as violations of the draconian Espionage Act, a 1917 law intended for the prosecution of people who are aiding the enemy. Furthermore, the official DOJ position now seems to be that there is no reporter’s privilege at all in such maters, and therefore no need to even consider the nature of the leak, how much if any damage it actually caused, what the intentions of the leaker were, and how much it served the public interest.

The six previous times the Obama administration has charged government officials who leaked to the press with Espionage Act violations — more than all previous presidents combined — have already sent a chilling message to investigative reporters and the whistleblowers they depend on.

That is ultimately not a good thing for our democracy. And one would have hoped that a president ostensibly devoted to transparency would recognize that.

Myra MacPherson: War Kaleidoscope

Posted at 10:24 am, June 10th, 2012
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While waiting for a plane in Dallas airport I read the New York Times staggering article that suicides among active-duty military personnel have eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle. These suicides among soldiers while still on active duty are “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, citing a “survey of its 160,000 members that found that 37 percent knew someone who had committed suicide.”

A great many Americans have no personal involvement in a lingering war that is supposed to be ending and veterans groups and their supporters remain frustrated by the too little, too late response of the military to suicides, PTSD and the horrific brain rattling effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s). The media of late have emphasized the severe effects of TBI’s on the mental and physical health of veterans but little has been written about the need to prevent traumatic brain injuries from happening in the first place.

Five years after IED’s, improvised explosive devices, began being used widely against the U.S. in Afghanistan, the military is finally looking into redesigning helmets with more protective padding. But they are issuing these to only a small number – 5 percent of combat soldiers – according to R. Todd Dombrowski of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. “For everyone else the Army decided against immediate implementation because of the extra weight the change would incur,” wrote Monica Friedlander in Science and Technology Review. However, the military is hard at work devising lighter helmets because, as Dombrowski described it, “every year, we want to get a better helmet, period.” Perhaps they will include the extra padding.

What struck me when I Googled this information was an adjoining blog that urged citizens to help buy pads to send to troops to cushion their helmets. The Army-issue helmets are so hard and heavy that soldiers sometimes remove them in danger zones, risking even more injury and death. One could deduce that redesigning helmets to prevent brain injuries was obviously not a top priority for the past five years.

Suddenly I was catapulted back 32 years to when I was researching a book on the Vietnam generation. Shades of the indifference and scorn of the military and Veteran’s Administration! Back then Agent Orange was dismissed as causing nothing but “teenage acne” and PTSD wasn’t considered anything but a fake excuse for “losers” and “crybabies.” Back then the veterans had to invent and create for themselves the Vet Centers to deal with troubled veterans because the VA didn’t. Today, there are veterans campaigning on blogs for contributions to provide padding for helmets to stop brain injuries. What has changed?

The major difference – as speakers said repeatedly at Memorial Day services around the country – is that returning veterans are treated nicely, not like those returning from Vietnam. Great lip service is given to our “brave men and women in combat.” But a National Center for PTSD offers grim and sorrowful statistics not factored into wars’ budgets: The Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Brain Injury Center estimates that 22 percent of all casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan have brain injuries, compared to 12 percent of Vietnam related combat casualties. A whopping 60 to 80 percent of soldiers who have other blast injuries may also have traumatic brain injuries. Studies indicate that patients with TBI often meet the criteria for PTSD, compounding suffering and treatment concerns.

With such thoughts on my mind as I walked through the airport I found myself looking at all the young, attractive soldiers in their camouflage uniforms – the tan, grey and pale green pattern that is supposed to blend into desert terrain. Four young women were in one cluster, three males in another.

In line at Starbucks was a handsome, dark haired young man keeping in touch with his world on a cell phone. You should see this airport, he told a friend, enthusing about its three terminals and many restaurants. He was on his way to meet buddies in San Antonio. We started talking. He was from Oregon, his name was Tony and he was going to Afghanistan in November. He was a medic and would be working with Medevac units and also would be deployed on the ground. I mentioned the New York Times article on suicide. He had read it, too. And he was aware of the articles on PTSD. He was concerned for those who were victims but had the confidence of youth regarding his own future. He had become a medic because he loved helping others. He might want to be a doctor someday.

I told him “good luck.”

“Don’t worry,” he said with a radiant smile, “I’ll be back in a year.”

Myra MacPherson is the author of Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation.

Herb Strentz: God, Checking in on the Iowa GOP

Posted at 10:59 am, June 4th, 2012
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Intrigued by Republicans who say GOP stands for God’s Own Party and that the Iowa GOP is controlled by the religious right, the Almighty is considering sending Archangel Gabriel to Des Moines to take in the Iowa GOP state convention, Saturday, June 16. Such a visit might result in this exchange between Gabe and the Almighty (OMG in the vernacular).

OMG: So how’s it going?

GABE: Well, Sir, it’s not exactly what we had thought in terms of ‘God’s own…”

OMG: Well, that’s not surprising that our expectations are not met. Been there; done that. But there must be a lot of John 3:16 signs, right? I mean, it’s interesting how those signs show up even at football games.

GABE: Yes, but 3:16 is about You loving the World and these folks are into American exceptionalism, not concerns about others in the world. They see global concerns as some sort of United Nations plot with a diabolical scheme called Agenda 21 to deprive them of their freedom. Paranoid, if you ask me.

OMG: Agenda 21? Oh never mind, but what about the grace offered through My giving of My Son?

GABE: That’s another thing, Lord, they condemn just about anything they can characterize as a handout.

OMG: Well, okay, so long as they take steps to help one another. You know, the Good Samaritan kind of thing.

GABE: Well, your supposed party isn’t into Luke 10 as much as it is into Platform Planks 1.9 and 4.7. As I read those, they want to make sure that people don’t have to help those they disagree with — like renting to them or providing medicine. I know Your Son socialized with tax collectors and sinners but that’s a tough sell here. Tax collectors especially. And “socialize,” too.

OMG: But there is concern with the needy, right? “The first shall become last, and the last shall become the first”

GABE: I don’t know how to put this Sir, but Plank 4.1 is against any redistribution of wealth, or sharing the good things in life, I suppose. And despite the manifold healings performed by Jesus and his disciples, Plank 18.3 says being healthy is “a privilege.”

OMG: Is there any bit of scripture they abide by?

GABE: Oh, I suppose, Mark 14.7. You know, “The poor you will always have with you.” That seems to be sort of a mission statement here.

OMG: Enough, Gabe! Enough! Give me some good news.

GABE: Sure. Let’s see. Well, under Plank 26.23 when the meek inherit the earth they won’t have to pay an estate tax. And Plank 12.11, among others, calls for posting the 10 Commandments all over the place and Planks 6.13 and 12.10 support voluntary prayer.

OMG: Oy Vey! Look, the 10 Commandments weren’t my best work, didn’t accent the positive enough and then Moses loses his temper and breaks the first set. How about the new commandment given by my Son, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I thought we made it clear in Matthew that “all the law and the prophets” depend on that. And what’s so great about supporting voluntary prayer? We’ve never been much on coerced prayer up here.

GABE: Pardon me, Lord, but don’t blame the messenger. Oh, and maybe in terms of good news, Plank 12:12 is for preserving “In God We Trust” and other signs of the Almighty, like “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — preserving those phrases in public life.

OMG: Okay, to recap: You think John 3:16 is likened to a devilish UN scheme, the Good Samaritan isn’t a role model, not much concern with helping the poor and the sick, but lots of support for “In God we trust.” That about do it?

GABE: Well, maybe I shouldn’t mention it, but Plank 17.8 would allow people to carry concealed weapons into services where they worship You — something to keep guns handy in case anyone tries to drive out the moneychangers, if you get my drift. They don’t much care for government protection against bullies — none of this “don’t cast the first stone” Oh, and they’re pretty much against separation of church and state.

OMG: Against separation of church and state? Seems to me the platform you’ve described does a pretty good job of separating love, concern, hope and compassion from politics.

GABE: Uh, I’m heading home Sir. This isn’t heaven. It’s the Iowa GOP.

Gilbert Cranberg: An Apology is Still Needed for the Run-up Coverage

Posted at 10:00 am, May 21st, 2012
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Colin Powell’s latest book, clumsily titled, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership, confesses to “one of my momentous failures.” The failure: his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations urging war against Iraq. That speech, he belatedly admits, was heavily larded with falsehoods.

Public opinion was divided about the advisability of war against Iraq before Powell spoke. Opinion veered sharply in favor of war after his speech. In a real sense, Powell talked the country into the Iraq war.

If Powell misled the American people into war, as he assuredly did, so then did the press. Here are a few representative samples of editorial comment on Powell’s infamous speech: “Powell’s evidence…was overwhelming…” “an ironclad case…incontrovertible evidence,” succinct and damning evidence…the case is closed” “Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein,” “masterful.” “if there was any doubt that Hussein…needs to be…stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest.”

The press did more than simply report and amplify Powell’s address. It authenticated it. In a way, the press did as much or more to get the country into an unnecessary war than did Powell.

The press as an institution has yet to confess its guilt for the Iraq War. Here and there a few mea culpas have been heard, but no major journalism organization has called the press to account for its conduct.

It is not too late. The release of Powell’s book, with its confession of error, ought to prompt the press to follow suit. Every paper that editorialized favorably on Powell’s speech ought to reprint the editorial with apologies for the publication’s gullibility and lapse of judgment. Editorial page editors also should frame the editorial and hang it prominently in their departments to remind staffers of how mistaken they can be.

The press’s failure was as massive as it was costly. The press cannot fully make amends, but it can at least make the effort, as Colin Powell has done, to acknowledge culpability.