2009 - %3, December

The White House Print Pool

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 4:42 PM EST

Politico's Michael Calderone has an interesting story today about the members of the rarified White House press pool whining about the recent inclusion of Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post in their exclusive club. The press pool, as Matt Yglesias ably explains, is "basically a mutually agreed upon plaigiarism pact" in which a large group of news organizations agree to pool their resources. Instead of having 20 reporters follow the president to his golf game on Sunday, the pool sends just one to cover the president's activities for the day. The pool reporter of the day (the responsibility rotates among the members of the pool) files detailed just-the-facts updates that the rest of the pool organizations rely on when putting together their own stories. Apparently some White House reporters are worried that the presence of TPM and HuffPo in the pool will make people doubt other pool members' credibility:

White House reporters have privately discussed and debated the recent addition of sites like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post into the White House in-town press pool. It’s not that reporters are criticizing the work of either Christina Bellantoni or Sam Stein, but some have expressed concerns about pool reports coming from left or right-leaning news organizations that will then be used by the rest of the press corps.

"This is really troubling," said New York Times reporter Peter Baker in an email to POLITICO. "We’re blurring the line between news and punditry even further and opening ourselves to legitimate questions among readers about where the White House press corps gets its information."

Baker said he has no problem with outlets like Huffington Post, which he described "an important part of the marketplace of ideas." But the site, he said, has a mission "to produce pieces with strongly argued points of view" and that puts the Times—or other non-partisan news organizations—"in a position of relying on overtly ideological or opinionated organizations as our surrogate news gatherers."

Critics of including HuffPo and TPM in the pool claim that they're not accusing Stein or Bellantoni of being unprofessional or misleading, they're just worried about the appearance of bias. But this really stems from something else: the belief by the so-called "mainstream media" that their reporters (and only their reporters) are somehow magically endowed with the ability to write and report without making any subjective judgments. The bit in Baker's email about "overtly ideological" organizations is especially revealing. Is it better that news outlets are covertly ideological? The Washington Times is part of the in-town press pool—and Bellantoni previously wrote pool reports when she was that paper's White House reporter. Fox News is part of the television pool. Does anyone really think the Washington Times is non-ideological? What's the disqualifying difference between the Washington Times and TPM? TPM's not on paper? TPM's leans left instead of right? Peter Baker used to work for the Washington Times but not for TPM?

In any case, if the inclusion of TPM and Huffington Post in the press pool hastens the public's realization that all reporting involves points of view, that would be a good thing. Reporters are not robots. We make decisions all the time that affect the way our stories come out. Reporters' decisions about who to talk to, how to describe events, and what kind of credibility to give to different sources (Judy Miller, anyone?) all affect the final product. Does anyone seriously argue that opinion judgments never appear in New York Times stories? What about the paper's judgment to avoid using the term "torture"? What about this or this or this or this or this or this or this? Good journalists do their best to report the truth. And even New York Times reporters make judgments about what, exactly, that is.

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Inhofe Calls Europeans "Dumb"

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 3:54 PM EST

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) paid a surprise visit to the Heritage Foundation Thursday, dropping in for a panel discussion on his favorite subject: climate change. The Senate's most virulent global warming denier, Inhofe was greeted with cheers of "our hero!" at the conservative think tank. After launching in to his usual spiel about climate change as the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people, Inhofe went on to criticize President Obama's decision to address the upcoming climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen next week. He said he thought the Europeans must believe Obama is some sort of king considering the way they are gushing over his promise to commit the US to reducing greenhouse gasses. "You would be shocked about how dumb some of these guys over there are," he said.

Inhofe said he's been making the rounds of Danish radio shows to explain that just because Obama says the US will commit to greenhouse gas reductions doesn't mean it actually will cut emissions. Observing that Obama doesn't have the votes for a cap and trade bill, he said he was appalled about how little the Europeans understood the critical importance of the American Congress. Inhofe reiterated his plans to attend the meeting in Copenhagen as a "one-man truth squad," (though he admitted his squad will actually have three other people on it). With a few more snappy one-liners about how global warming hysteria is a pretext for population control and some digs at George Soros, Inhofe dismissed talk that he would be the Richard Pombo of 2010, and then took off for a vote on the Hill.

 

 

Fiore Cartoon: Obama's Afghan Surge

Thu Dec. 3, 2009 3:16 PM EST

Obama's plan for Afghanistan has some serious contradictions: How can you do deescalate by escalating or exit by entering?

Watch satirist Mark Fiore's take on the prez's least-worst plan of terribleness below:
 

GOP Exploits ClimateGate

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 2:00 PM EST

Republicans in Congress are trying to use the recent release of hacked emails written by UK climate scientists to delay government action on climate change—despite the fact that nothing in the emails challenges the science of global warming. A group of GOPers wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday asking it to "conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the questions raised by the disclosure of emails from Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia" and to halt all work the agency is doing to address greenhouse gas emissions.

The letter comes from GOP Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and James Sensenbrenner (Wisc.), and Senators John Barrasso (Wy.) David Vitter, all well-known climate-change skeptics. They want the EPA to withdraw a finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health, new emissions and fuel economy standards for automobiles, and a proposed rule on the scope of greenhouse gas regulations "until the Agency can demonstrate that the science underlying these regulatory decisions has not been compromised."

And because scientists involved in the leaked emails contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the preeminent scientific panel assessing global climate change—the Republicans want a reassessment of the entire body of climate science. They're also demanding that the EPA turn over "all documents and records related to the communications or other interactions" with the Climate Research Unit dating back to March 2007.

In an excellent post on the email incident (now being called ClimateGate or Swifthack, depending on where you stand) Kevin Drum makes the essential points: the emails don't challenge climate science, and skeptics are getting way more mileage out of this affair than it merits. And with the topic surfacing in both Senate and House climate hearings yesterday, ClimateGate isn't going away anytime soon.

What's the Plan for Afghanistan?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 1:29 PM EST

One of my frustrations with Barack Obama's Afghanistan speech was that he didn't explain what the strategy for deploying all those new troops was going to be.  Luckily, Joe Klein asked him that question:

I asked him what instructions he had given the military to make the next 30,000 troops more effective than the 21,000 troops he sent last March, whose presence didn't seem to improve the situation on the ground at all. "Look, the fact that there were increased casualties this year I think is to be expected from increased engagement by our forces." True enough, but the NATO coalition lost ground to the Taliban this year, by Obama's own admission. And the President could only come up with speed of deployment and a clearer sense of mission as strategic game changers. Later, when I asked him about what changes he had ordered for the training of the Afghan army and police — a frustrating proposition, so far — he deferred to his commanders in the field but said the new order of battle would include "a partnering situation, a one-to-one match between Afghan troops and U.S. troops" in combat, which "produces much stronger results."

That's pretty discouraging, especially since Klein says that (unsurprisingly) Obama was well briefed and obviously understood the problems at hand.  But Klein's question is clearly the central question, and surely one that Obama must have anticipated.  If, after months of planning, he still couldn't come up with a decent answer, that's bad news.

It's not clear that the surge in Iraq is a good model for success in Afghanistan in the first place, but to the extent that it is, you have to at least understand the model.  Petraeus didn't just send in a bunch of extra troops.  He had a plan for how to use them in an inventive way.  The vast bulk were sent to Baghdad, where they represented a doubling of the American presence.  Separation walls were constructed all over the city.  Counterinsurgency tactics were implemented up and down the line.  Sunni tribes were bribed coopted into supporting us.  Even at that the jury is still out on whether it will ultimately succeed, but at least it provided some additional security and gave the Maliki government a shot at making things work.

But I still haven't heard anything like this for Afghanistan.  There are plenty of people out there with ideas, but I have no idea which of those ideas Gen. McChrystal is planning to try out.  Unfortunately, it looks an awful lot like Obama doesn't know either.

Why They Hate Us

Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:58 PM EST

Stephen Walt pushes back on Tom Friedman's view that Muslims ought to realize that over the past couple of decades "U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny."  After estimating the fatalities in various conflicts, he figures that since 1983 Muslims have killed about 10,000 Americans while Americans have killed about 300,000 Muslims:

I have deliberately selected "low-end" estimates for Muslim fatalities, so these figures present the "best case" for the United States. Even so, the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost. The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of "excess deaths" in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.

[Several paragraphs of caveats.]

....If you really want to know "why they hate us," the numbers presented above cannot be ignored. Even if we view these figures with skepticism and discount the numbers a lot, the fact remains that the United States has killed a very large number of Arab or Muslim individuals over the past three decades. Even though we had just cause and the right intentions in some cases (as in the first Gulf War), our actions were indefensible (maybe even criminal) in others.

....Some degree of anti-Americanism may reflect ideology, distorted history, or a foreign government's attempt to shift blame onto others (a practice that all governments indulge in), but a lot of it is the inevitable result of policies that the American people have supported in the past. When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries — and sometimes for no good reason — you shouldn't be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge. After all, how did we react after September 11? 

Raw numbers like this obviously aren't the whole story.  On the other hand, when you get beyond the raw numbers it's not as if the scales suddenly tip overwhelmingly in our favor.  So whole story or not, it's a data point worth keeping sharply in mind.  Click the link for Walt's entire list.

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Haitian Thug Leader Toto Constant Liable for Rape, Torture, Murder

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:51 PM EST

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $19 million judgment Tuesday against Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, a former Haitian paramilitary leader who had been found liable for crimes against humanity committed under his watch—including torture, and rape as a mode of torture. As noted in “Constant Sorrow,” Bernice Yeung’s account of her jailhouse interactions with the disgraced (and deluded) thug boss, Constant had been sued by Haitian refugees after fleeing to the United States. The three women said they had suffered gang rapes and other atrocities at the hands of Constant's minions. Here are more details from the Center for Justice and Accountability, the human rights group that brought the original lawsuit:

Cheap Oil!

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:35 PM EST

A headline today from CNN Money:

Why cheap oil is here to stay

Bruce Bartlett says this must mean that oil prices are due for a runup.  Sounds right to me.

Just Another Day in the Senate

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 11:59 AM EST

The LA Times reports on Ben Bernake's confirmation hearings for a second term as Fed chairman:

Reflecting the antagonism Bernanke faces in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont placed a hold on the Fed chief's nomination late Wednesday.

The move by Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Senate's Democrats, isn't expected to derail Bernanke's confirmation.

Aside from my general dislike of the whole hold process, this is a pretty good example of a big specific problem with it: namely that I don't think Sanders has even the slightest hope that his hold is genuinely going to keep Bernanke from being confirmed.  I mean, Paul Krugman and Dean Baker both favor his reappointment, for God's sake.  So all this does is gum up the gears and force the Senate to spend time on Bernanke instead of the million other things it should be spending time on.

Alternatively, I suppose maybe Sanders is just using this to get leverage for something he wants.  I still think holds are a lousy way to do this, but I suppose some good could come out of it if it raises public awareness of the fact that the Fed is supposed to bear some responsibility for maintaining full employment, not just controlling inflation.  Unfortunately, it's more likely to raise public awareness of cranky Ron Paul-esque Fed bashing, which doesn't do anyone any good.  (Except for Ron Paul, of course.)  All in all, just another day in the Senate, the world's worst legislative body.

The Political Ecosphere

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 11:45 AM EST

Glenn Greenwald on Jane Hamsher:

“I think Jane’s success in a prior career has made her immune to the rewards of access — and fear of punishment — which keep most younger inside-the-Beltway progressives obediently in line,” he said. “She’s not 26 years old and desperate to work for a DC think tank, a Democratic politician or a progressive institution. She doesn’t care in the slightest which powerful people dislike her, but rather sees that reaction as vindication for what she’s doing.”

Matt Yglesias objects to this because he's 28 years old and works for a DC think tank.  Fair enough.  But the bigger problem with this quote, I think, is that it misapprehends the incentive structure at work in political activism.  Implicitly, the idea here is that Jane sits outside that structure completely, but that's really not true.  Just as beltway types have incentives that generally lead them to compromise in a centrist direction, base activists have incentives that push them in exactly the opposite direction.  They can get ostracized for being too accomodating exactly the same way that think tank folks can get ostracized for being too shrill.

In any case, I really think temperament drives most of this stuff in the first place.  After all, I'm in pretty much the same situation as Jane.  Maybe more so, in fact, since I live 3,000 miles away from DC and rarely even socialize with other bloggers.  And yet, obviously, I have a pretty moderate, accommodating blogging style.  But that's more because of who I am than because of who I work for.

Anyway, I generally like both the activists and the beltway types and figure they have symbiotic roles in the political ecosphere.  So more power to both of them as long as they're roughly on my side.  How's that for accommodating?