Mojo - October 2010

Where's WikiLeaks' Iraq Data Dump?

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 2:11 PM EDT

Didn't WikiLeaks promise us a dump of hundreds of thousands of classified Iraq War data today? Not according to the site's shadowy editor in chief. On his Twitter account this morning, Julian Assange took some potshots at the mainstream media for hyping a secret-document bonanza that ain't happening. (He also trumpeted a claim that WikiLeaks could have prevented 9/11. So they've got that going for them.) Assange's rant:

Where do all these claims about WikiLeaks doing something on Iraq today (Monday) come from? A single tabloid blog at Wired Magazine!

That's right. Over 700 articles, newspapers all over the world, and newswires fooled by a tabloid blog--and each other.

Of course you won't see this blog cited, generally, in the mainstream press articles, because that would lessen the credibility of these articles back to where the belong -- unsubstantiated, and indeed, false claims made by a source that is not credible. What is journalism coming to?

But, Wired's blog is not just any source that lacks credibility. It is a known opponent and spreader of all sorts of misinformation about WikiLeaks...

Now, I'll try not to quibble too much with Assange's fundamental misunderstanding of media terms (a tabloid is a style of printed newspaper, man, not a blog). And I'll just ignore for now the irony of a guy who advocates information democracy totally trashing a viral story, and denouncing Wired's Threat Level and Danger Room blogs as "mainstream media." (OK, they are owned by Conde Nast. But Seymour Hersh, that guy who uncovered that My Lai thingy and the Abu Ghraib dealy, writes for the Conde-owned The New Yorker, and I wouldn't quite call him mainstream.)

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Why Can't Gay Teenagers Get Into Foster Homes?

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

The recent flood of gay teen suicides—kids like Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, Raymond Chase, and Seth Walsh—is sadly not surprising. LGBT youth are significantly more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to the American Public Health Association. The recent explosion of  suicides has inspired a nationwide "It Gets Better" campaign. Launched by Dan Savage, editor of Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, and joined by a variety of celebrities, it encourages men and women who were bullied as kids to create videos reassuring gay teenagers they are not alone; that you can and will get through this hell—and when you do, your life is going to be way better.

But things are especially tough for kids whose families turn on them. Another recent study, with the wonky title Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes, concluded that adolescents rejected by their families over sexual identity were more than eight times as likely to report having attempted suicide. With these cases, the rejected teen may have nowhere to turn. In "Queer and Loathing," MoJo contributor Jason Cherkis documents what happens to gay teens caught up in the child-welfare system, telling the story through a young man named Kenneth Jones who struggles to navigate foster care in the District of Columbia. The majority of foster families, Cherkis reports, simply refuse to welcome gay kids into their homes, and when they do, these teens are often subjected to verbal harassment and violence.

While the crisis facing gay youth has not gone unnoticed, we're still a long way away from ensuring that LGBT kids are treated with the same dignity, love, and respect as their straight counterparts. Here's hoping that this, too, will get better.

Read: Queer and Loathing: Does the Foster Care System Bully Gay Kids?

Voter Registration Dropping Amid Attacks from the Right

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 11:16 AM EDT

The GOP has revived its perennial crusade against voter fraud, this time enlisting the tea party to root out (real or imagined) Election Day shenanigans, as I explain today. Democrats fear that the effort could end up suppressing votes or discriminating against voters likely to support them. But it looks like the conservative anti-fraud campaign has already had an impact on the elections by going after voter registration organizations—mostly notably ACORN, which dissolved last year amid allegations from the right that it promulgated massive voter fraud. Partly as a result, the Washington Independent notes, the number of new voter registrations has already dropped in a few states, especially in areas more likely to support Democrats:

Dramatically fewer groups are engaged in registering voters during the current election cycle than in previous midterm elections, and fewer voters, especially in poorer areas that are traditionally underrepresented…are registering to vote as a result.

Registration patterns vary significantly from state to state, but 26.7 percent fewer new voters have registered in Florida this year than in 2006, along with 21.4 percent fewer in Maryland and 16.9 percent fewer in Tennessee, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at New York University. And while there’s no single cause for the decline, experts point out that many independent organizations are withering under a combination of public attacks by conservative activists alleging voter fraud and new state laws making it difficult for such groups to operate...

The most obvious cause for the decline in voter registration is the shuttering of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN… At its height, ACORN had a budget of close to $35 million and was credited with registering approximately half a million voters in 2008 alone.

A few new organizations have tried to step up registrations in urban areas like Houston since ACORN's demise, but conservatives activists are working to quash them as well, making the same allegations of voter fraud. And Democrats could suffer as a result, as these new registration drives typically net young and minority voters—groups that the party is already struggling to bring back to the polls.

Joe Miller and the Literal, and Figurative, Handcuffing of the Press

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 9:41 AM EDT

New media platforms have empowered ordinary citizens to take reporting, transparency, and accountability into their own hands. They've also enabled politicians to get their message out and energize partisans without ever having to deal with traditional media or tough questions. That's how we ended up with candidates like Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Christine O'Donnell, and Sarah Palin, who avoid traditional media almost entirely. Candidates are taking their media-dodging to almost absurd heights: Joe Miller, the tea party Republican candidate for US Senate in Alaska, said last week that he would no longer answer any media questions about his personal or professional background. That's probably the root cause of this

The editor of the Alaska Dispatch website was arrested by U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller's private security guards Sunday as the editor attempted to interview Miller at the end of a public event in an Anchorage school.

Tony Hopfinger was handcuffed by the guards and detained in a hallway at Central Middle School until Anchorage police came and told the guards to release Hopfinger.

Hopfinger has not been charged but the owner of the Drop Zone, the private security firm that's been providing Miller's security, accused Hopfinger of trespassing at the public event, a town hall sponsored by the Miller campaign. The owner, William Fulton, also said Hopfinger assaulted a man by shoving him.

Anchorage Police who responded to the call said they would leave it to the District Attorney's office to decide whether to prosecute. They spent more than an hour taking statements, then left.

If Miller had more interaction with national or even Alaska-based media, he would have already had to deal with the questions that Hopfinger was trying to ask. There would have been much less incentive for the blogger to try to chase him down at a public event. I understand that such confrontational tactics make politicians feel uncomfortable. But if candidates are unwilling to answer questions about the most controversial parts of their records and backgrounds, what are reporters supposed to do? Just move on to something else? Yup.

Candidates ignore the press because, well, it works. The economic pressures on reporters—especially newspaper reporters—create an overwhelming incentive to move on to something else if you can't get the story on the double. After all, there will always be a PR guy willing to hand you a story that you can do quick-and-dirty. Here's Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman on the media "Hamster Wheel":

[W]e are living in a time of P.R. ascendance. In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols estimate that, even in the 1970s, when newspapers were in their heyday, the percentage of news generated from press releases was in the 40 percent to 50 percent range, a fair-enough guess. Since then, while journalism has withered, P.R. has bloomed like a rash. The authors document that in 1980, the ratio of P.R. people to news reporters was manageable, about 0.45 P.R. specialists and managers per 100,000 population to about 0.36 journalists. Today, P.R. towers over journalism, with 0.90 pros per 100,000 to just 0.25 journalists.

Now, apparently, the flaks have security goons to make sure candidates don't have to answer questions the flaks don't want them to answer. You should read Starkman's whole piece—it demonstrates how media companies are complicit in the demise of their influence. But here's the bottom line: every year, the media beast needs more copy, reporters have less time and fewer resources, and politicians and their PR teams have more power. And if politicians don't have to answer the New York Times' questions, they're sure as hell not going to answer yours.

Listen to Tom Brokaw! We're Still At War

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 9:26 AM EDT

Tom Brokaw has an excellent op-ed in Monday's New York Times. Here's the gist:

Notice anything missing on the campaign landscape?

How about war? The United States is now in its ninth year of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest wars in American history. Almost 5,000 men and women have been killed. More than 30,000 have been wounded, some so gravely they’re returning home to become, effectively, wards of their families and communities.

In those nine years, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion on combat operations and other parts of the war effort, including foreign aid, reconstruction projects, embassy costs and veterans’ health care. And the end is not in sight.

We do a lot of national security, contracting, and military reporting here at Mother Jones. (We also try to keep the wars on peoples' minds with the War Photo of the Day.) But there's only so much one outlet with limited resources can cover. So please, read your Danger Room and your Army Times and your Tom Ricks and your Crispin Burke and so on. Politicians may not be paying attention to the wars. But you can still keep yourself informed. 

Afghanistan: Progress or Mess?

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 9:04 AM EDT

The headline above could have been used for any sum-up of the Afghanistan war over the past years. This has become the United States' longest war, and there have yet to be any decisive turns. On Saturday, The Washington Post ran a story headlined, "U.S. military, civilian officials claim progress in Afghan war." The opening:

KABUL - With a year-end report card coming due, top U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan have begun to assert that they see concrete progress in the war against the Taliban, a sharp departure from earlier assessments that the insurgency had the momentum.

Despite growing numbers of Taliban attacks and American casualties, U.S. officials are building their case for why they are on the right track, ahead of the December war review ordered by President Obama. They describe an aggressive campaign that has killed or captured hundreds of Taliban leaders and more than 3,000 fighters around the country in recent months, and has pressured insurgents into exploring talks with the Afghan government. At the same time, they say, the Afghan army is bigger and better trained than it has ever been.

Sounds like a major progress, right? But halfway through the article, there's this:

Yet even as U.S. officials here echo [Defense Secretary Bob] Gates's [optimistic] assessment, they have offered relatively little evidence to back up their claims of progress, and many still hesitate to say that successes against the Taliban in certain pockets add up to the war's pendulum swinging their way. Indeed, one week last month broke the nine-year war's record for violence, as the Taliban sought to ambush parliamentary elections: NATO forces logged more than 1,600 attacks nationwide, 500 more than in the previous worst week.

In other words, never mind. So we have talk of progress, but no concrete signs of progress. Perhaps this should have been the central point of the article, not the unproved claims of advances.

Meanwhile, there's hard evidence of what's not going well. The recent parliamentary elections were chock-full of fraud, and Afghan and Western officials estimate that nearly one-quarter of the votes will have to be trashed. Anti-corruption efforts are lagging. And US soldiers accused of murdering Afghans for sport have said they were merely following orders from a commander who fancied collecting body parts as trophies.

The real question at hand is how much improvement can there be between now and next July, when Obama's promised downsizing in Afghanistan is supposed to start. Crunch time is fast approaching.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 18, 2010

Mon Oct. 18, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Capt. Marie Orlando shows Afghan girls photos during their weekly Girl Scout meeting at Forward Operating Base Finley-Shields, Afghanistan, on Oct. 9, 2010. Orlando is the information operations officer with the agriculture development team assigned to the base. DoD photo by Master Sgt. Bill Gomez, U.S. Air Force.

Foreclosuregate's Price Tag: $70 Billion?

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 9:37 AM EDT

The growing foreclosure debacle, involving a host of lenders caught filing dubious paperwork, has finally caught up with the stocks of major banks. This week, Bank of America's stock sank by 5 percent, while JPMorgan Chase's dipped 3 percent. More staggering, though, are financial analysts' predictions on just how much the foreclosure disaster will end up costing Wall Street.

One analyst with Connecticut-based Rochdale Securities told the New York Times' Nelson Schwartz that "Foreclosuregate," as it's being dubbed, could cost banks $1.5 billion a quarter. Another analyst with FBR Capital Markets estimated $6 billion to $10 billion altogether. Offering the doomsday prediction is San Francisco-based Branch Hill Capitol, which surmised that Bank of America alone could bleed $70 billion from pools of mortgages (known as mortgage-backed securities) that it may be forced to repurchase from the largely taxpayer-owned, government housing corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (The banks would have to repurchase the loans because they were executed in a deceptive, fraudulent manner.) "We think this is a very important issue, and the liability will be substantial," a partner at Branch Hill told the Times. "There has been pervasive bad behavior throughout the system."

To a degree, Wall Street's big banks are bracing for the pain. As the Times reported, JPMorgan has set aside an additional $3 billion in reserves to cover the repurchasing of mortgage loans. Still, no bank has $70 billion in reserves, and as some rightly fear, a prolonged foreclosure crisis could cripple some of the country's largest financial players.

This entire mess, you'll remember, began when GMAC Mortgage, a subsidiary of Ally Financial, admitted in a leaked message that there were "defects" that were "technical" in its foreclosure filings. That was the first domino to fall. From there, it emerged that GMAC's "technical" problem was in fact not technical at all: It stemmed from the admission by a "document execution" employee that he and his co-workers signed tens of thousands of foreclosure legal filings without reading them or knowing what they said, a violation of federal rules of civil procedure. And when it came out that plenty of mortgage companies used "robo signers" like GMAC's, the full extent of the foreclosure debacle became clear. (For a fuller rundown of the issue, read here, here, and here.)

Now, state attorneys general and regulatory officials in all 50 states are investigating the mortgage servicing industry's practices. One question they'll be asking is: Where were the servicing industry's regulators during all of this? As it happens, Mother Jones was asking that question in January of this year, in an investigative piece on this industry. As I reported in our January/February 2010 issue,

Oversight of this troubled industry is spotty. "This is a very underregulated part of the system," says Jack Guttentag, an industry expert and professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School. "It shouldn't be, because it's the part where the consumer has no place to protect themselves." Federal law allows servicers to send borrowers only one account statement a year—even if there are scheduled interest rate increases or new fees added during that time. If a borrower has a problem, HUD encourages her to first file a complaint with the servicer, and if there's no resolution after nearly three months, she can then appeal to the agency—assuming she hasn't been evicted in the meantime. While HUD can step in to fix the problem, it lacks the power to impose tough sanctions on servicers.

The White House Gets One Right

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 9:34 AM EDT

Via Mike Allen's Playbook, I see that someone in the White House is thinking the right way about the whole Chamber of Commerce/foreign money/corporate campaign donations flap:

PLAYBOOK QUIZ: Why did the White House invest so much capital in the "foreign money" issue? a) stoke the Dem. base; b) make donors think twice before writing a check to a GOP-friendly outside group; c) delegitimize GOP victories; or d) "We actually think there is something wrong with millions of dollars of undisclosed special interest money being funneled through shadowy groups to buy elections. Foreign money is a part of the problem, but it's only part." Good job! D is correct!  

This is exactly right. It is wrong for individuals and corporations to anonymously buy elections by funnelling millions of dollars through front groups. But as I've said before, if the Democrats really want to take on this issue, they need to go after the domestic corporations and the super-rich individuals who are providing the bulk of the money.

It's easy to anonymously tell Mike Allen that you think something is bad. The hard part is making the case to the American people. But if President Obama really wanted to launch a serious national conversation about money in politics and political corruption (on both sides of the aisle), I think many Americans would welcome it.

Terror Trial Update: Baby Lulu and the Two Ahmeds

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the Ghailani trial here.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, there were three of us in the visitor's gallery for the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the first and could-be only trial in civilian courts of a Guantanamo detainee. The day's narrative was focused on the purchase of the vehicle that delivered the explosives used in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. The jurors are attentive, leaning forward, taking notes. They seemed to be growing accustomed to their role here.

The tone for the day, however, was set by Judge Kaplan, who the previous night had released the (redacted) long version of his opinion barring the testimony of a government's key witness, Hussein Abebe. In an opinion that reasoned backwards to Deuteronomy and forward, in theory, to any future Guantanamo cases where the prosecution might attempt to bring witnesses identified via the torture of the defendant, the judge asserted not just his expertise in legal philosophy and precedent, but confidence in his ability to assess the witness's credibility. Throughout his opinion, he refers to the testimony of Abebe as "inaccurate," "incredible," "inconsistent," and consisting of "prevarications."

As if on cue, Thursday's proceedings focused on credibility. Two FBI agents took up most of the morning session. Both were factual, calm, and methodical in relating their findings. Special Agent Gregory Carl testified to the forensic work he did in the days following the attack on Dar es Salaam. Heavy set, gray-haired and matter-of-fact, he told the jury that he had been an explosives expert in the investigations of the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988; the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He held up a five-foot piece of a steel from the alleged bomb-delivery vehicle. On the wreckage, the FBI had found the car's VIN number, which was associated with a white Nissan truck the prosecution says was purchased by Ghailani.