Various matters

The NYT routinely violates its own policy. The drug war debate continues to evolve. The Obama DOJ opts for important disclosures on torture.

Published March 22, 2009 12:39PM (EDT)

(updated below)

(1) The New York Times Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, has a column today on a topic I've written about more times than I can count:   that the NYT routinely grants anonymity without any justification whatsoever and, more notably, does so in flagrant violation of its own policy on anonymous sources.  Hoyt compiles numerous recent examples, ranging from the trivial to the consequential, in which anonymity was granted in exactly the ways the paper's own policy prohibits, and concludes:  "I think it is time again for a forceful rededication to the newspaper’s own standards."  But Hoyt notes what has become increasingly obvious:

Getting anything to change there won’t be easy.  The Obama administration, which promised new transparency in government, has fallen into old Washington ways, sometimes providing officials for comment only if they are not named and holding background briefings for large groups of reporters at which the public cannot be told who did the talking.

The arguments Hoyt advances against these casual uses of anonymity have been frequently covered here, but note the justification for this practice which he includes after speaking with numerous reporters and editors:

Times journalists daily face unpleasant choices: acceptinginformation without being able to name the source, or refusing it at the risk of shortchanging readers and seeing it reported elsewhere.

This excuse is akin to having a policy which prohibits making payments to sources, then violating that policy, then justifying it on the ground that doing so is necessary to ensure that readers aren't "shortchanged" by denying them information that might appear elsewhere.  The whole premise of having journalistic guidelines is that it is not true that "more information is better." Some information is unreliable and false.  Practices that are likely to produce unreliable and false information -- such as paying sources or casually granting anonymity -- are prohibited for exactly that reason. 

Except in those extremely rare cases where it is justified, anonymity allows people -- including powerful government officials -- to spout anything they want without any accountability.  The last NYT Public Editor, Byron Calame, also documented the paper's failure to adhere to its own anonymity policies back in 2006 and, when doing so, noted "the cost to The Times’s credibility of adding yet another anonymous source to the next day’s paper."  The fact that Drudge, Politico, and People do it is hardly an excuse for why the NYT should.

What makes the NYT's constant, reckless violation of its own anonymity policy most notable is that the policy was promulgated in 2004 as a response to two NYT scandals:  the Judy Miller/Michael Gordon Iraq "reporting" and the Jayson Blair fabrications.  The more stringent anonymity policy was ostensibly designed to assure the public that the NYT was committed to avoiding a future repeat of those debacles.  So what message would a rational person infer from the fact that the NYT now routinely violates and ignores that policy?

One other point to note:  complaints to the Public Editor from bloggers and blog readers definitely have the potential to spawn columns such as Hoyt's today.  A reader of this blog who has been regularly bombarding the Public Editor over these anonymity issues emailed me this week to say that Hoyt had notified him that he intended to address these issues in his next column.  A 2005 column from Calame criticizing the NYT's use of anonymity cited a complaint about anonymity from blog reader (and sometimes blogger) Jay Ackroyd.  Blog criticisms about Michael Gordon's ongoing use of baseless anonymity led to a 2007 chiding of Gordon by the Public Editor.  None of this seems to have had much of an effect on the NYT's reckless grants of anonymity to political officials, but the more the issue is discussed -- especially in the NYT itself -- the more awareness there will be of how credibility-imparing this practice is.


(2)  The Toronto Star's Washington Bureau Chief, Mitch Potter, has an excellent and comprehensive article today examining the changing debate in the U.S. over drug policy.  It features, among other things, the report I'll be presenting on April 3 at the Cato Institute in Washington on the effects of drug decriminalization in Portugal (a report I wrote about here, and event details and RSVPs for which are here).  As the Star article documents, drug policy is one area where early signs from the Obama administration, though still very preliminary, are, at least in limited ways, encouraging.  


(3)  The ACLU has been waging a litigation battle for a long time to pry out of the Government's hands the Bush-era OLC memos justifying everything from torture and CIA black sites to warrantless eavesdropping and rendition.  Two weeks ago, the Obama DOJ released nine DOJ memos that were so extreme that they caused substantial angst even in establishment circles.  But there are still numerous critical documents -- including three specific, particularly egregious torture memos vividly detailing the techniques that were authorized by the DOJ and used by the CIA -- which remain concealed and which the ACLU is now focused on obtaining.

Now, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reports that Eric Holder has decided -- over "furious" objections from Bush CIA Director Michael Hayden -- to release those three memos, which an Obama official (granted anonymity by Isikoff) describes as "ugly" and likely to "embarrass the CIA."  Other anonymous officials "predicted they would fuel demands for a 'truth commission' on torture." 

There is real pressure from the intelligence community being exerted on Holder to keep these memos concealed.  According to Isikoff, they are "arguing that any public release might still compromise 'sources and methods.'"  We are clearly nearing a tipping point where these disclosures are so disturbing and embarrassing that even establishment venues can no longer argue against investigations, and disclosure of these specific torture memos can only help that process.

There is much that the Obama DOJ has done to shield Bush-era practices from disclosure and judicial review, and they have deservedly received much intense criticism for that.  But Holder deserves credit for releasing those OLC memos two weeks ago, and will deserve even more credit if he brushes aside the CIA's pressure, discloses these three memos, and finally allows the country fully to see and read what its Government has been doing to detainees.


(4)  This Haaretz article claims that the U.S. is "furious" at Israel for its latest round of demolishing East Jerusalem homes.  It quotes an Israeli government source as saying that "the matter represents a serious disagreement between Israel and the U.S."   There are now enough reports of growing U.S./Israel tension on several issues to conclude that, however inadequate it might be, there is at least an increased willingness on the part of the Obama administration to insist upon a distinction between American interests and Israeli interests and to criticize Israel when American interests demand that.  It remains to be seen how substantial that change will be, but it's hard not to notice the shift.

Relatedly, Haaretz continues its excellent investigation of the brutality of the IDF in Gaza by reporting on a note instructing Israeli troops to fire on Palestinian civilians and Red Cross rescue workers.  That paper reported yesterday that IDF rabbis instructed IDF soldiers that the invasion of Gaza was a "religious war" mandated by God to "expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land."  Perhaps worst of all, Israeli officials in Jerusalem yesterday forcibly shut down various Palestinian cultural events after they had begun, including a children's march at a schoolyard, citing "a ban on Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem."

There's an aspect of these stories that actually reflect well on Israel.  Its media outlets are the ones uncovering and criticizing these actions because Israel is, albeit imperfectly (like most countries), a generally open and democratic society.  Its undemocratic impulses towards its Arab citizens are often checked by a reasonably well-functioning judiciary.  In fact, there is far more dissent and criticism of Israeli actions inside of Israel than is tolerated in the U.S. (and there is more meaningful criticism within Israeli establishment media circles of Israeli wars than there is of American wars and national security policies within the U.S. media).  Still, with the advent of a right-wing government dependent upon a faction so extremist and racist that even Marty Peretz and Jeffrey Goldberg are offended, the face that Israel is showing to the world with its actions will inevitably worsen even further how it is perceived, and will increase the pressure on the U.S. to cease its decades-long (and self-destructive) policy of uncritically enabling whatever that country does.


(5)  John Cole confesses to what he acknowledges is a "Get off my lawn" sentiment in questioning the purpose, value and appeal of Twitter.  At the risk of appearing as crotchety as he does, I share that bewilderment.  About Twitter messages, John says "they all read like cell phone text messages between 12 year olds," and indeed, the only purpose I can discern is that it provides a format for expressing thoughts that are too inconsequential to merit a stand-alone article or post.  For precisely that reason, it is unsurprising that Twitter has become a huge hit among our media stars, for whom triviality is a guiding principle.

But, pre-Twitter, did we really have a shortage of venues devoted to petty musings?   I'd say the opposite is true.  In any event, for those interested, I do have a Twitter feed which I've been using sporadically in a thus-far-futile attempt to find any real purpose to it (though it does seem to work reasonably well for concise derision).  Those interested can find and follow my Twitter feed here, though I recommend as worthwhile neither Twitter generally nor (at least thus far) my Twitter observations specifically.



(6) Speaking of crotchety John Cole, every last syllable of this outburst, on the state of modern conservatism, contains absolute truth.


(7)  In comments, the aforementioned Jay Ackroyd makes the case for the value of Twitter.  And on Twitter itself, The American Prospect's Adam Serwer says that the only way someone would doubt the value of Twitter is if one has not been reading Christopher Walken's Twitter page.  Having just perused it, it's hard to argue with Serwer's point.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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