Who's Our (Sugar) Daddy?
So I appeared on a panel about the blogosphere and the media yesterday morning with Arianna Huffington, Chris Cilizza, Jonathan Alter and ... Gregory Maffei? When I was introduced to him, I assumed that he was a writer with whom I was unfamiliar, which seemed odd, considering the nature of the discussion. It turns out he isn't a writer. He is this guy.
Why, you ask, would a program at the Democratic Party Convention include someone who is a big McCain contributor? Welll.... it turns out that he is president of Liberty Media, which owns Starz, which is a sponsor of the program. Liberty Media is run by John Malone, who Al Gore famously dubbed Darth Vadar. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
He didn't seem to think too highly of the blogosphere. And he was very, very worried about the future of journalism since nobody was paying for content. Very worried. Indeed, one might almost think that he had an agenda, although it was never explicitly discussed. It was very odd, but to be expected, I guess. Corporate sponsorship of political events isn't actually free, now is it?
The rest of the panel was pretty much the usual boilerplate "bloggers are vituperative" etc. (Jonathan Alter said we have a psychological condition called "disinhibition" --- like Alzheimers patients.) I had planned to say some things about the village and Cokie's Law and Rush and Drudge, but the opportunities to speak were quite limited.
I did find one thing quite interesting, which is that Alter insists that nobody listens to the gasbags and pundits so we shouldn't worry about them. I asked him how he thought people got their information about politics and he said from their talkative coworker or politically engaged relative and things like chain emails. It's apparent that many in the mainstream media have not see the documentation and analysis that's been done online about how the stories and themes of elections, as conceived by political operatives and political pundits, dominate the campaigns and color the voters impressions of the candidates. Maybe the inside of the bubble is too heady a place to be able to see the connections.
(In the meantime, perhaps I should just direct everyone to Bob Somerby...)
I find it difficult to keep my patience with the inevitable discussion about how the news media is losing money and can't afford to do the all important news gathering on which we internet parasites depend. It's as if this problem has happened in some vacuum in which journalism itself has no culpability. They brought a lot of it on themselves, particularly when they gleefully allowed Drudge to rule their world and Rush to be feted and groomed by mainstream conservative politicians without raising an eyebrow. (Live by the wingnuts, die by the wingnuts.)
Ari Melber asked the pertinent question about how a reporter can possibly fail to call out illegal and immoral acts like wiretapping and torture for what they are, under some misguided definition of objectivity or neutrality. Cilizza answered the question honestly, admitting that they don't do a good job of it. Had there been time, I would have loved to have asked Alter what his feelings were on that subject when he wrote this piece back in 2001.
In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to ... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history. Right now, four key hijacking suspects aren’t talking at all.
COULDN’T WE AT LEAST subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap? (The military has done that in Panama and elsewhere.) How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings? (As the frustrated FBI has been threatening.) Some people still argue that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly “Sept. 10”—living in a country that no longer exists.
One sign of how much things have changed is the reaction to the antiterrorism bill, which cleared the Senate last week by a vote of 98-1. While the ACLU felt obliged to quibble with a provision or two, the opposition was tepid, even from staunch civil libertarians. That great quote from the late Chief Justice Robert Jackson—”The Constitution is not a suicide pact”—is getting a good workout lately. “This was incomparably more sober and sensible than what some of our revered presidents did,” says Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer, referring to the severe restrictions on liberty imposed during the Civil War and World War I.
Fortunately, the new law stops short of threatening basic rights like free speech, which is essential in wartime to hold the government accountable. The bill makes it easier to wiretap (under the old rules, you had to get a warrant for each individual phone, an anachronism in a cellular age), easier to detain immigrants who won’t talk and easier to follow money through the international laundering process. A welcome “sunset” provision means the expansion of surveillance will expire after four years. That’s an important precedent, though odds are these changes will end up being permanent. It’s a new world.
Actually, the world hasn’t changed as much as we have. The Israelis have been wrestling for years with the morality of torture. Until 1999 an interrogation technique called “shaking” was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect’s head in a dark room, then applying scary psychological torment. (To avoid lessening the potential impact on terrorists, I won’t specify exactly what kind.) Even now, Israeli law leaves a little room for “moderate physical pressure” in what are called “ticking time bomb” cases, where extracting information is essential to saving hundreds of lives. The decision of when to apply it is left in the hands of law-enforcement officials.
Short of physical torture, there’s always sodium pentothal (“truth serum”). The FBI is eager to try it, and deserves the chance. Unfortunately, truth serum, first used on spies in World War II, makes suspects gabby but not necessarily truthful. The same goes for even the harshest torture. When the subject breaks, he often lies. Prisoners “have only one objective—to end the pain,” says retired Col. Kenneth Allard, who was trained in interrogation. “It’s a huge limitation.”
Some torture clearly works. Jordan broke the most notorious terrorist of the 1980s, Abu Nidal, by threatening his family. Philippine police reportedly helped crack the 1993 World Trade Center bombings (plus a plot to crash 11 U.S. airliners and kill the pope) by convincing a suspect that they were about to turn him over to the Israelis. Then there’s painful Islamic justice, which has the added benefit of greater acceptance among Muslims.
We can’t legalize physical torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.
I would hope that he has thought some about that since then, considering that torture has now been thoroughly mainstreamed. If I see him around this week, I'll ask him.
A lot of people became irrational after 9/11 and said things they probably wouldn't say today. But unlike your average person, those with national stature as political writers and analysts have a professional duty to keep their heads about them. It is probable that the result of that very public musing about torture by "eventheliberal" Jonathan Alter was that the Bush administration believed it had far more latitude than the government had ever had before under law and custom. They did, at least from the media:
Media Stoke Debate on Torture as U.S. Option
By Jim Rutenberg
New York Times
November 6, 2001
NEW YORK In many quarters, the Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter is considered a liberal. Yet there he was last week, raising this question:
"In this autumn of anger," Mr. Alter wrote, "even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to ... torture." He added that he was not necessarily advocating the use of "cattle prods or rubber hoses" on men detained in the investigation into the terrorist attacks. Only, "something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history."
The column, titled "Time to Think About Torture," is worrying to human rights groups. The sense of alarm was heightened because Mr. Alter is just one of a growing number of voices in the mainstream U.S. news media raising, if not necessarily agreeing with, the idea of torturing terrorism suspects or detainees who refuse to talk. On Thursday night, the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith introduced a segment asking: "Should law enforcement be allowed to do anything, even terrible things, to make suspects spill the beans? Jon DuPre reports. You decide."
A week earlier, on the CNN program "Crossfire," the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson said: "Torture is bad. Keep in mind, some things are worse. And under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because some evils are pretty evil."
The legitimacy of torture as an investigative tool is the latest in a progression of disturbing and horrific topics that news outlets are now presenting to audiences, like the potential of a biological attack on an American city or a terrorist nuclear strike, the kind that, as an article in The Economist put it in its latest issue, could cause the disappearance of a large part of Manhattan.
Some human rights advocates say they do not mind theoretical discussions about torture, as long as disapproval is expressed at the end. But they say that weighing the issue as a real possible course of action could begin the process of legitimizing a barbaric form of interrogation.
Journalists are approaching the subject cautiously. But some said last week that they were duty-bound to address it when suspects and detainees who have refused to talk could have information that could save thousands of lives. Plus, they added, torture is already a topic of discussion in bars, on commuter trains and at dinner tables. And last, they said, well, this is war.
Considering what actually happened, this was a big mistake, perhaps even bigger than the misjudgment about the war. You don't have to be a philosopher or a priest to know that torture is immoral and illegal. A taboo was broken and I don't know what it's going to take for it to be reinstated.
*Oh, and just for the record, the four suspects Alter said refused to talk and so required psychological torture, sodium pentathol, "shaking" or perhaps "deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings," all turned out to be innocent.
Love this comment:
"Disinhibition is a term in psychology used to describe conditions of a person being unable (rather than disinclined) to control their immediate impulsive response to a situation."
Like thinking torture was a reasonable response to 9/11.