Mojo - September 2007

"Humor is a Form of Common Sense": Further Notes on Franken's Minnesota Run

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 12:40 PM EDT

My story on Al Franken's Minnesota senate run hits the web today, and I thought I'd round it out with some more material on the blog.

There were three things that I heard consistently when I was on the ground in Minnesota. First, no one seemed to mind that Franken's background is an unconventional one for a Senate candidate. Here were some responses I got when I asked about it:

  • "I think a lot of comedians find real big problems in our world. And they point out problems by making humor out of them."
  • "It may be time we sent someone different to Washington."
  • "Anybody who listens to [his radio show] knows he knows his stuff. If you read his books, you know he knows his stuff."
  • "You can be a comedian and you can still be serious."
  • "Humor is a form of common sense anyway."

I was genuinely surprised that Minnesota Democrats (known as DFLers) were not more worried about Franken's history of dirty jokes and lack of public service. The national media seems to think those two factors make Franken's candidacy a non-starter, and Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, and other GOP forces are trying to play them up as much as possible.

The second thing I found is that Minnesotans deny being abnormally open to oddball candidates. It's a common media meme, based on the fact that Minnesota elected Paul Wellstone, a short, bald college professor with a fanatical devotion to extremely liberal beliefs, and Jesse Ventura, a wrestler and C-level actor. "I don't know if it's just an anomaly," Franken told me. "People embraced Paul because of his uniqueness, and I don't know if that was just… unique." He made the point that Wellstone connected in a very special way with people and was almost genetically truthful, and that voters from any state would have found him appealing. "And Ventura won in a three-way race at a point when the state was totally flush, when the economy was just tooling along, we had a surplus in the country and in the state. And I really believe that during that period... people went like, "How hard is it really to do this?"

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Subject to Debat: What did ABC Know and When Did It Know It?

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 3:41 AM EDT

In the end, it was Pascal Riché, a Paris-based former Washington correspondent for France's Libération newspaper, who uncovered a scandal at a top US television news network. On September 7, Pascal reported that an ABC counterterrorism consultant, Alexis Debat, had faked an interview with Sen. Barack Obama that he published under his name in a French journal, Politique Internationale, and that he had published other alleged interviews in the same journal with Sen. Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It turns out, ABC itself later reported, the interviews were apparently fabricated.

Riché also reported that Debat claimed to have a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne that he did not in fact complete, and that he had exaggerated his CV in other respects—claiming to be an advisor to the French Ministry of Defense on transatlantic issues, for instance, when in fact he had been a lowly desk clerk in the bowels of the ministry for less than a year; claiming to be a visiting professor at Middlebury College, when in fact he had been a visiting instructor for a short winter term at Middlebury, and other such exaggerations. Mother Jones has obtained an annotated CV of Debat's—whose claims to be a former government official have apparently long irritated the government in Paris—outlining these and other discrepancies. (ABC believed the annotated CV was prepared by the French embassy, but sources now say it may have been annotated by a Washington-based French academic.)

Though Debat, often described in the American media as "a former French defense official," insisted he would clear his name and sue Riché and his online magazine Rue89 for slander, the alleged fabricated interviews soon became a problem not just for Debat but for ABC. Since 2002, the network has employed Debat as a counterterrorism consultant and sometimes reporter, sending him to far-flung locations to report on Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. (For the past year and a half, Debat has also served as the director of the terrorism and national security program at the Nixon Center; he resigned "for personal reasons" this week, an official with the Nixon Center said.)

Sources also say that Debat claimed in the spring to have received a "large chunk of money" from the Pentagon to conduct a study concerning radical Islam; when I inquired about the contract, a Defense Department official said he would check into it.

Following Riché's report, ABC publicly announced that it had demanded Debat's resignation in June, after obtaining the annotated CV and investigating his claims to have a doctorate. ABC said it had investigated his reports then, and was undertaking a more extensive investigation upon learning of the fabricated interviews at Politique Internationale, but that to date, it was confident that all of Debat's reports for ABC had been vetted and multiply sourced and were standing up to scrutiny.

Interviews with journalists, think tank associates, and a former government official indicate that there were warning signs about Debat for years—even within the network itself. Two journalists familiar with Debat's work point to ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross not only as the victim of Debat's alleged deceptions, but as an enabler, who has promoted sensational stories—including some that Debat brought the network—at the expense at times of rigorous journalism standards. (Ross did not return Mother Jones' phone call by press time, although an ABC executive has been in touch by phone and email.) They also say that they do not believe ABC has properly investigated Debat's reporting at all.

The War as They Saw It

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 5:19 PM EDT

Two of the seven non-commissioned officers who penned a New York Times op-ed that called the war in Iraq the "pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends" were killed yesterday when their vehicle turned over on a road near Baghdad. After hearing the news, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) sent a letter to the President. It reads, in part:

The tragic irony is that before their deaths, these two soldiers were not only trying to give us direction on how to end this war honorably, but they were also calling on us for help.... Mr. President, you didn't listen to Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora while they were alive. I hope that you will listen to them now, as they have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

A Preview of Hillary Clinton's Health Care Plan

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 5:14 PM EDT

From yesterday's "presidential mashup": "I intend to dramatically rein in the influence of the insurance companies," she said, "because frankly I think that they have worked to the detriment of our economy and our health-care system."

—Nick Baumann

188 More Species Deemed Near Extinction

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 5:09 PM EDT

Today the World Conservation Union (also known, for reasons too arcane to go into, as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources or IUCN) came out with its "Red List" of species threatened with extinction. There are 188 additions to the list, bringing the total up to 16,306. There's particularly bad news about great apes and coral reefs, but across the taxonomic board, the news is "quite bleak," said Jane Smart, who heads the group's species program.

As Mother Jones' Julia Whitty wrote in Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth's Vanishing Biodiversity:

1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 3 conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less thoroughly analyzed, but fully 40 percent of the examined species of planet Earth are in danger, including up to 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants.
By the most conservative measure—based on the last century's recorded extinctions—the current rate of extinction is 100 times the background rate. But eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson and other scientists estimate that the true rate is more like 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. The actual annual sum is only an educated guess, because no scientist believes the tally of life ends at the 1.5 million species already discovered; estimates range as high as 100 million species on Earth, with 10 million as the median guess. Bracketed between best- and worst-case scenarios, then, somewhere between 2.7 and 270 species are erased from existence every day. Including today.
We now understand that the majority of life on Earth has never been—and will never be—known to us. In a staggering forecast, Wilson predicts that our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by the year 2100.
You probably had no idea. Few do. A poll by the American Museum of Natural History finds that 7 in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence, a more serious environmental problem than even its contributor, global warming, and that the dangers of mass extinction are woefully underestimated by most everyone outside of science. In the 200 years since French naturalist Georges Cuvier first floated the concept of extinction, after examining fossil bones and concluding "the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some sort of catastrophe," we have only slowly recognized and attempted to correct our own catastrophic behavior.

The rate of extinction is due to a variety of factors, but nearly all are human induced, including climate change, habitat loss, invasive species (transported by us), the plight of the oceans, and so on. As Julia notes:

All these disappearing species are part of a fragile membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin, writes E.O. Wilson, that it "cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered." We owe everything to this membrane of life. Literally everything. The air we breathe. The food we eat. The materials of our homes, clothes, books, computers, medicines. Goods and services that we can't even imagine we'll someday need will come from species we have yet to identify. The proverbial cure for cancer. The genetic fountain of youth. Immortality. Mortality.
The living membrane we so recklessly destroy is existence itself.

Read Julia's article. It will haunt you. As will the accompanying photo essay by Richard Ross.

GOP-Supported California Ballot Measure is Unconstitutional

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 5:07 PM EDT

Remember how the GOP's law firm in California is supporting a ballot measure to change the way the state awards electoral votes? (A move that could hand the Republicans the Presidential election.) Well, it turns out that it's "patently unconstitutional". Doug Kendall explains in Slate:

The U.S. Constitution prohibits a ballot measure that would trump a state legislature's chosen method of appointing electors. In Article II, Section 1, the Constitution declares that electors shall be appointed by states "in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." That's legislature.

Tough luck, guys. Guess this race goes back to "Leans Democratic."

—Nick Baumann

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If We Had Only Known

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 4:56 PM EDT

"The good intentions of the statesmen of Iraq, whose political experience is necessarily small, it is to be feared that serious difficulties may arise out of the differences which in some cases exist in regard to political ideas between the Shiites of the South and the Sunnites of the North, the racial differences between Arabs and Kurds, and the necessity of keeping the turbulent tribes under control.... These difficulties might be fatal to the very existence of the State if it were left without support and guidance."

Where did such prescient advice come from? A 1925 League of Nations report on Iraq that Roger Cohen, noted in his column this morning. The GOP loves to accuse the anti-war left of having 20/20 hindsight. Looks like foresight is 20/20, too.

—Nick Baumann

More on L'Affaire Debat

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 3:14 PM EDT

In his piece on the Alexis Debat controversy -- the ABC consultant and French counterterrorism expert who apparently faked several interviews with political figures and luminaries such as Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Michael Bloomberg oh and Kofi Annan -- the WP's Howard Kurtz failed to contact Pascal Riche, who broke this story of the faked interviews. Kurtz's piece seemed a bit thinly reported, featuring mostly Debat saying he was scammed, and Brian Ross saying he was scammed. What about the substance? Perhaps he was in a hurry.

But there's much substantive to consider. For instance, among other details, this is a guy telling the world media from several respected perches that there's a three day blitz planned to bomb Iran. It's not an uninteresting question, whether the information is solid, or is embellished, or is fabricated. It certainly creates a big echo, and is an interesting example of how misinformation or even disinformation can work. Kurtz didn't for instance, raise the question I raised here, which is blindingly obvious: did ABC bend the rules by paying a source who also served as their reporter while having a full time appointment elsewhere, smoothing over any complications by calling him an all purpose "consultant"? How much did Brian Ross approve the unusual arrangement and independently verify the information Debat was bringing from the dark corners of Pakistan? IF, and I emphasize if, Debat faked interviews for a French journal, what was to keep him from faking interviews that informed multiple stories for ABC? I fiind it implausible that ABC has independently re-reported all that stuff so quickly and determined it's kosher.

I also had an amusing, if slightly surreal, experience interviewing the real Rob Sherman - a Chicago radio talk show host - who has the same name and rough geographic location as the person who Debat claims conducted an interview with Barack Obama for him. You will not be surprised to learn, perhaps, that the real Rob Sherman says he has never heard of Debat, although he has interviewed Obama. One thing I am learning -- there's a bit of truth in many of the apparent fabrications.

The September 11th Tourist Attacks

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 3:01 PM EDT

This video will make you hate everyone. And it will make you vomit. It will make you hate everyone while you vomit.

But it has to be seen. When else are you going to hear the line, "The tourist attacks. September 11th. Is Iraq."

So grab a barf bag, click the link, and remember: we are all Ms. South Carolinas today.

Political Situation in Iraq Going Backward: Oil Law Dissolving

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 2:16 PM EDT

Let's see Ambassador Crocker try to put a positive spin on this:

A carefully constructed compromise on a draft law governing Iraq's rich oil fields, agreed to in February after months of arduous talks among Iraqi political groups, appears to have collapsed. The apparent breakdown comes just as Congress and the White House are struggling to find evidence that there is progress toward reconciliation and a functioning government here....
Mr. Shahristani, a senior member of the Arab Shiite coalition that controls the federal government, negotiated the compromise with leaders of the Kurdish and Arab Sunni parties. But since then, the Kurds have pressed forward with a regional version of the law that Mr. Shahristani says is illegal. Many of the Sunnis who supported the original deal have also pulled out in recent months.
The oil law — which would govern how oil fields are developed and managed — is one of several benchmarks that the Bush administration has been pressing the Iraqis to meet as a sign that they are making headway toward creating an effective government.
Again and again in the past year, agreement on the law has been fleetingly close before political and sectarian disagreements have arisen to stall the deal.

The Iraqis' attempts at oil sharing laws have never been impressive — and have often been suspiciously advantageous for multinational oil companies. But at least there was something, before recently, that the Iraqi government had come together to achieve. Now, even that moderate success is gone.