Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post reports that the NSA and the White House are at odds over a proposal to increase surveillance of "critical infrastructure systems" in order to prevent cyberattacks:

The most contentious issue was a legislative proposal last year that would have required hundreds of companies that provide critical services such as electricity generation to allow their Internet traffic be continuously scanned using computer threat data provided by the spy agency. The companies would have been expected to turn over evidence of potential cyberattacks to the government.

....The NSA proposal, called Tranche 2, sparked fierce debate within the administration. It would have required an estimated 300 to 500 firms with a role in critical infrastructure systems to allow their Internet carrier or some other private company to scan their computer networks for malicious software using government threat data....NSA officials say this process would have been automated, preventing intrusion into the personal privacy of ordinary users visiting Web sites or exchanging electronic messages with friends.

....But the White House and other agencies, including the departments of Justice and Commerce, said the proposal left open the possibility that the large Internet carriers themselves could be designated critical entities. This, they said, could have allowed scanning of virtually all Internet traffic for cyberthreats on behalf of the government, opening a newly extensive window into American behavior online.

The story leaves it unclear whether Tranche 2 is dead for good, or merely needs to be retooled to place clear limits on who's required to take part. Either way, given the intense interest in cybersecurity these days, I don't expect this proposal to go away.

On a political note, it's unclear how this will break down on party lines. Obviously the GOP base is inclined to think that anything Obama opposes must be good, and they certainly supported the increased surveillance powers that George Bush gave to NSA. On the other hand, tea partiers tend to be suspcious of this kind of Big Brotherish monitoring. So it's hard to say which way they'll jump. Probably against Obama is my guess.

A few days ago, MG Siegler unleashed an epic rant about the Wall Street Journal failing to give him proper credit for a piece he wrote. Here's a taste:

I broke the news that Apple acquired the app search/discovery platform Chomp at 4:01 PM today. At 6:06 PM — over two hours later — WSJ reported the story as well. But oddly, with no mention of my original story.

This was odd both because, again, I reported the same information two hours earlier. And because it was at the top of Techmeme, which everyone in the industry reads. And every single other publication linked to my story.

[Blah blah blah]

Spare me. If you report out a big story that no one else was working on, then credit is due when others follow up your trail. But guess what? If you report a simple fact and happen to get it two hours before the rest of the world, no one cares. Journalists continue to be unhealthily obsessed by whether they reported a piece of news 15 minutes before every other news outlet in the world, but no one else is. And that's doubly true when it's a minor piece of commodity news. Does Siegler seriously think that everyone who reports on the Chomp acquisition for the next month should give him mad props for being the first by a couple of hours? Get over yourself.

I didn't bother ranting back about this at the time, but Felix Salmon reminded me of it today, and he comes to roughly the same conclusion in much more measured tones and a couple thousand more words:

As for crediting the news organization which broke some piece of news, that’s more of a journalistic convention than a necessary service to readers. It’s important enough within the journalism world, at least in the US, that it’s probably a good idea to do it when you can. But most of the time it’s pretty inside-baseball stuff. And in the pantheon of journalistic sins, failing to do it is not a particularly big deal. What’s much more important is that your reader get as much information as possible, as efficiently as possible. Which means that if you’re writing about a document or report, you link to that document or report. Failure to do that is a much greater sin than failure to link to some other journalist.

So while sometimes the failure to link is unavoidable, I look forward to a time when journalists face much more criticism for not linking to primary documents than they do for not linking to some other news organization which got the news first.

Yep. Always link to primary sources if you can. Give credit for major stories. But commodity news? I guess Felix is right to say that it's "friendly and polite" to link to whoever put it up first, but I think that's about it. If you don't do it, it's no big deal.

POSTSCRIPT: I should mention that I'm probably an outlier on this issue at Mother Jones. Writers at smallish publications routinely get annoyed when big news outlets follow up on something they wrote but don't give any credit. I understand the annoyance if the big pub basically does nothing more than rewrite the original story, but not so much if they add their own original reporting. Ideas don't belong to anyone, and readers don't much care where the inspiration for a story came from. Once it's out there, it's out there.

Rick Santorum has been on a populist tear lately, a job made easier by running against the endlessly awkward Mitt Romney. But President Obama is his main target, and as we all know by now, he said this on Saturday:

Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and ... want to work out there making things. President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.

Set aside for a moment the fact that this isn't true. Obama, in fact, wants everyone to go to a university, a community college, a technical school, or a trade school. But the audience listening to Santorum didn't know that, and Dave Weigel reports that they're totally on Santorum's side:

Here in northern Michigan, I've found that Republican voters are 1) aware of the "controversy" and 2) totally sympatico. "I totally agree with Santorum," said Larry Copley, a retired state cop waiting for the candidate at the Streeter Center here. "College isn't for everyone."

"We see a lot of jobs going unfilled because people [aren't] being trained for them," chimed in Larry's wife, Margo. "Plumbing, construction, jobs like that."

I don't think it's hard to understand the sentiment here. Half a century ago, it's true that the working class didn't have a widespread disdain for college. In fact, it was common to hope for a better life for your kids, with college as the ticket out of the factory/coal mines/construction site. But it's also true that no one felt it was mandatory. It was something to aspire to, but if your kids weren't college material, there were plenty of other good jobs available to them. No one suggested that a kid without a degree was a loser.

But things are different today. If you're in the working class, college isn't something to aspire to because your kids probably aren't going to college. Universities are mostly the preserve of the middle class and above, and everyone in the lower half of the income spectrum knows it. And those good jobs available to high school grads? There's not so many of those anymore. And to top it all off, these days there really is a steady drumbeat from the Tom Friedmans of the world suggesting that America is doomed to be a global loser unless we all start upping our game and cranking out a lot more PhDs and college graduates. Obama himself may not be saying that explicitly, but he's part of an elite consensus that sure is. It's hardly any wonder that the working class feels besieged on all fronts lately.

The fact that Santorum is turning this into an attack on Obama is just campaign politics. No big deal, really. But the sentiment he's expressing here is real, and it's one we've heard more often from the left than the right in the past. Needless to say, I could do without Santorum's loopy stuff about Obama supporting college because it destroys religious faith (also not true, by the way), but the alienation and stagnation of the working class is real, and frankly, it's nice to hear someone on the right acknowledge this in an economic sense, not just the usual culture war sense. We could use more of this.

Check out this campaign dispatch from LA Times reporter Paul West:

"I don't come from the elite. My grandfather was a coal miner. I grew up in public housing on a VA grounds. I worked my way to the success that I had, and I'm proud of it," Santorum said Saturday in Troy, before a working-class audience gathered in the county where Romney enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Santorum didn't elaborate, but his family wasn't poor; his father, a psychologist, and his mother, a nurse, worked for the Veterans Administration — now the Department of Veterans Affairs — which provided them with an apartment.

....Santorum's latest campaign ad attacks Romney for "turning his back on Michigan workers" without mentioning that Santorum also opposed the auto industry bailout.

How about that? A campaign story that actually fact checks a candidate's statements in real time. Good work!

The rest of the story is mainly about the gobsmacking way in which a Republican primary race has pretty much turned into the class warfare they all claim to loathe so much when Democrats do it. My grandfather was a coal miner! The other guy makes a lot of money! College is for snobs! And of course, Romney is helping Santorum's cause by pandering for the NASCAR vote and then admitting he doesn't really care much about the sport but "I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners." It's an edifying spectacle.

Matt Yglesias doesn't understand the widespread dislike of jury duty:

I struggle to understand America's disdain for jury duty. I've been called twice, and both times was happy to go. All things considered, I'd much rather do my regular job day-in and day-out that do jury duty, but I do my regular job every day. I find that taking a day or two or three off every few years to go do something different is pretty fun.

....Is everyone else's job really so amazing that they can't bear the thought of a few days off to listen to testimony and pronounce on a verdict? I don't buy it. I feel like as a society we've coordinated on a pointless anti-social norm that you're some kind of sucker if you're willing to just smile and do what the judge wants even though there are no really good self-interested reasons to want out. For salaried professionals, jury duty is a paid vacation. What's not to like?

In the past, one legitimate beef was the way jury duty was run: calling in for days at a time over the course of a month, never knowing if you could make plans or if you'd get called in. Here in my neck of the woods things are now much better: you call in once, or at most three or four days in a row, and you're either called in or not. That's not nearly so bad.

Beyond that, there's the problem of long trials. Getting called into muni court isn't so bad. Trials rarely last more than a few days. Superior court is a different story. These are bigger cases, with trials lasting weeks at a time. That can be a real grind, and on the occasions I've been called downtown I usually do whatever I can to avoid getting called for a case.

What else? It's pretty boring. For someone like me, it's really tedious stuff waiting around, then waiting around some more while the lawyers play their voir dire games, then sitting around while they present their endless cases. I suppose the lawyers in my audience will disagree, but to a lot of us these trials seem like they should take about three or four hours, not three or four days (or weeks). And while trials are tedious in one direction for those of us with interesting jobs, I suspect they're tedious in a different direction for people who aren't used to sitting all day and thinking about evidence.

And of course, some people don't get paid for jury duty. That sucks. Plus the hours are inflexible, which might cause problems that your regular job doesn't. Or maybe you don't work at all, and jury duty means needing to scrounge up daycare that you don't normally need. Or maybe your job is one where the work will pile up and have to get done when you get back, which means facing a gigantic in-basket once the trial is over.

And speaking solely for myself, the one jury I've ever been on went a long way toward wrecking my faith in the criminal justice system. It was a case that shouldn't even have gone to trial, let alone sucked up four days of my time, the judge's time, and the bailiff's time. I suppose that's a lousy attitude, but I hated the idea that so many of us were having so much of our time wasted over a case that was only in court because some rich dude could afford a fancy lawyer to take a flier on weaseling out of a pretty obvious violation of the law.

Anything I've missed? Any reason I should love jury duty? You know where to tell me.

My take on the Oscars: 2011 was not a great year for movies. The Academy's decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten has never looked more pathetic. Especially since they could only come up with nine this year.

That said, I thought The Artist was clever, but ultimately little more than a bon bon. I'm hard-pressed to understand the lavish praise it got. Tree of Life was ambitious and had some sparks of brilliance, but in the end it didn't work. The Descendants was good; mainstream but good. However, it was a little too overtly manipulative for my taste. Midnight in Paris was a cute trifle, but just a trifle. Moneyball was very good, but just a little too ordinary to play in the big leagues. I didn't see The Help, War Horse, or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

By process of elimination, that means my pick for Best Picture this year is.....Hugo. I didn't like all of Hugo, but I liked a lot of it, and if the Academy is going to give the big prize to a valentine to Hollywood, I'd pick Hugo over The Artist. Needless to say, I expect to be pretty disappointed this evening.

Did the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United produce the recent explosion of Super PACs and their flood of independent money from rich donors into the 2012 campaign? There's been a bit of a cottage industry lately claiming that this is a myth, followed by a bit of a counter-cottage industry insisting that it's true after all. In a nutshell, the mythbusters claim (correctly) that Citizens United affected only the ability of corporations and unions to make independent campaign expenditures, but most of the money flowing into Super PACs has comes from private individuals, who have been able to spend unlimited sums for years. The counterclaim is that Citizens United really did unleash expenditures from individuals, but did it indirectly. Legally, the chain goes from Citizens United to SpeechNow, which was the case that removed all previous limitations on private expenditures. Andrew Sprung has a pretty good summary of the arguments here.

So which is it? In the end, I think the argument is inherently a little metaphysical. Remember 527s? Prior to Citizens United, rich people who wanted to spend lots of money on campaign ads either did it themselves or contributed to 527 groups. That's how the Swift Boat folks were organized, for example. But here's the thing: legally, 527s were allowed to raise money for "issue advocacy," but not to explicitly advocate for or against a federal candidate. This was, needless to say, a crock: 527s routinely ran ads that viciously attacked and supported candidates. They just stopped (barely) short of expressly saying, "On Tuesday, vote for John Doe."

So what impact have Super PACs had? On the one hand, you can argue that they really haven't changed anything on the ground. They run pretty much the same kinds of attack ads as the 527s used to, and the only change is that they don't have to worry about legal challenges anymore. On the other hand, you can argue that the added freedom is genuinely important. Being able to explicitly raise money for candidates, instead of pretending to be an issue advocacy group, makes a real difference.

So which is it? Obviously there's a bit of truth to both sides, and which argument you give the most weight to is mainly a matter of temperament and attitude. For myself, I think it's fair to say that Citizens United really did have an impact on individual expenditures, but probably didn't empower rich people quite as much as popular legend has it.

That said, there are also a couple of other points to make. First, Citizens United obviously did unleash spending by corporations and unions. In the 2010 election it seemed as though the impact of Citizens United on corporate spending had turned out to be a bit of a dud, but this year it looks as though it's finally taking off. Second, one of the commonest complaints about Super PACs is that they're allowed to hide the sources of their contributions. But this has nothing to do with Citizens United. It has to do with the legal requirements of 501(c)(4) groups, which have become major funding sources for Super PACs. The FEC has declined to force 501(c)(4)s to disclose their donors, and the IRS has declined to enforce the law that says they can't have electoral politics as their primary purpose. Both of these problems could be fixed tomorrow by legislative means if Congress wanted to. Rick Hasen has a pretty good summary of the current state of play here.

UPDATE: Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21 emails to point out that, in fact, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was fined $300,000 by the FEC for violating campaign rules. Likewise, America Coming Together, which got substantial funding from George Soros, was fined $775,000.

These are fairly modest sums compared to the amounts raised (nearly $7 million for the Swift Boat group and $137 million for ACT). So again, you'll have to decide for yourself if these fines mean (a) 527 groups really did operate under meaningful legal constraints or (b) they were a joke and had no real impact.

Regardless, I had forgotten about these fines, and they do suggest that there was at least a little bit more oversight on the old 527 groups than I originally suggested.

There is unquestionably a sort of kabuki-like level of hypocrisy that's routine in Washington DC. The party in the majority routinely rails against the obstructionism of the minority, but flips around and extols the filibuster as a cornerstone of democracy when they're in the minority themselves. The president's party always votes for debt limit increases, but flips around and attacks them as signs of fiscal malfeasance when the other guys occupy the White House. We can argue about which party abuses this more, but basically both of them do it. It's genuine hypocrisy, but as these things go it's also fairly harmless.

But there's a different kind of supposed hypocrisy that's not so genuine: changes of position that are based on changing sets of alternatives. If you give me a choice between a carrot and a radish, I'll tell you that carrots are wonderful. If you give me a choice between a carrot and a chocolate bar, suddenly I don't care for carrots so much. I've changed my mind, but only because my options have changed.

This kind of faux hypocrisy is common in politics too. In 1993, when Clintoncare was polling well and seemed like it might well become law, Republicans were big fans of a less statist solution that incorporated private healthcare and an individual mandate. In 2009, when defeating healthcare reform entirely seemed like a feasible alternative, suddenly the mandate became a tool of Satan. But this isn't hypocrisy. The individual mandate was always a second-best option for conservatives, and when their first-best option seemed attainable, they ditched it.

Ditto for cap-and-trade. In 2006, when Al Gore was flying high and EPA regulation of carbon seemed like a real possibility, cap-and-trade was appealing to conservatives as a more efficient, less statist solution. By 2010, when it was clear that the EPA was unlikely to take more than modest action, they ditched their support for cap-and-trade. From their point of view, it was a good idea compared to the EPA, but a bad idea compared to doing nothing. Likewise, Medicare cuts that help pay for universal healthcare strike liberals as a good trade (hooray Obamacare!). Medicare cuts that pay for tax cuts on the rich seem like a lousy trade (boo Ryancare!). 

Circumstances can change in other ways too. During the Bush administration Democrats mostly criticized the big budget deficits he ran. In 2009, suddenly they suddenly became big fans of deficits. But circumstances had changed: orthodox liberal economic theory suggests that you try to balance the budget over the course of an economic cycle. That means you should run surpluses during an economic expansion (2002-08) and deficits during a downturn (2009-present). Democrats weren't hypocrites, they were just taking their own models seriously.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I think Ezra Klein goes too far when he charges both parties with routine hypocrisy over issues like this. I think it's fair to call Republicans cynical over their abandonment of cap-and-trade and the individual mandate: even though their early support was halfhearted at best, they milked it in order to persuade the public that they weren't just pure obstructionists. There's a lot of political calculation there, but not really a lot of hypocrisy. Likewise, you might doubt that Democrats are really all that dedicated to running budget surpluses during good economic times. But again, that's not a sign of hypocrisy. It's just normal human weakness.

I see that the LA Times will soon be putting in place a paywall — oops, I mean a "membership program" — for its online readers:

Starting March 5, online readers will be asked to buy a digital subscription at an initial rate of 99 cents for four weeks. Readers who do not subscribe will be able to read 15 stories in a 30-day period for free. There will be no digital access charge for subscribers of the printed newspaper.

....Other news outlets that have begun charging for online journalism include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News. Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company, this week announced plans to launch a similar program at 80 publications, saying it could boost earnings by $100 million in 2013.

After the first month, the price goes up to $3.99 per week, which seems a wee bit steep to me. The New York Times charges me $2.60 per week and the Wall Street Journal charges me $3.99 per week, and meaning no offense, those are much better papers with far more content. It doesn't really matter to me, of course, since I already subscribe to the print edition, but I have my doubts that there are thousands of new subscribers itching to pay that kind of money for the LAT.

As it happens, the trend toward paywalls is a particular problem for me, since I'm a blogger and rely on access to lots of news sources on a regular basis. But I already subscribe to the Times and the Journal, since they provide content that's genuinely unique/valuable, and also to the LA Times, mostly out of habit and residual loyalty. But that's about all I can afford. I'd like to read the Financial Times more regularly too, but $700 per year in newspaper subscriptions has me tapped out. As other papers start erecting paywalls, it's going to make my job ever harder.

At the same time, although I think the LA Times is overpriced, I don't really blame them or anyone else for putting up a paywall. The conventional wisdom among the digerati, as near as I can tell, is that paywalls are always and forever bad things, but why is that? I'd say just the opposite: I've never entirely understood why most newspapers offer online editions at all. I've heard dozens of strained arguments about how online editions don't cannibalize sales of the paper edition, but come on. Of course they do. There's always been a strong whiff of special pleading to these arguments: we don't want to pay for news, therefore it must be bad to charge for news. Online editions are good PR! They draw in new readers! Etc. We heard the same arguments for years in the music biz, and guess what? Online piracy/sales cannibalized the hell out of existing channels.

The same thing is almost certainly true of newspapers, and as the digital generation grows up cannibalization will increase. But what do do? Even after more than a decade of dotcom experience, online advertising still doesn't cover the cost of producing your average metro daily. Not even close. I'm not sure online advertising even covers the marginal cost of running a website. So you either charge or die.

Of course, "die" is going to be the choice for a lot of news outlets. Most of them do a crappy job of reporting national and international news, and sports and gossip are available from a million places. That leaves purely local news, which is a pretty tiny niche.

But they might as well try. It's not like there's some cosmic law that says news outlets are required to give away their products for free. The advertising model isn't working, and maybe no other model will either, but they might as well start experimenting. It's either that or give up.

A few weeks ago we started requiring registration with email verification for commenters. So how has that worked out? Here are the basic stats from our tech wizards:

  • 22% decrease in total comments
  • 22% increase in Twitter logins
  • 257% increase in Facebook logins
  • 45% decrease in comments our moderators decided to delete

So there you have it. We're getting fewer comments, but not a lot fewer, and anecdotally, the tone of the comments section seems much more civil.

The moral of the story is: Register today! You can use your Twitter or Facebook login, but you don't have to. Just submit your name, you'll get an email address with a verification link to click, and you're good to go. You only have to do it once.