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Ari Melber | The Nation

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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.

White Male Pundit Power

It's still all about the white men. Hillary Clinton's loss has renewed critiques that American political media is slanted, sexist and dominated by men. While Clinton and Obama broke barriers in the Democratic primary, swiftly dispatching white male Senators with more government experience, the race was still refereed, scored and narrated by white male commentators, an influential constituency in presidential politics. Pundits talked a lot about gender and racial progress during the campaign, of course, but the elite opinion media continues to employ, groom and promote a commentators corps that is disproportionately white and male.

The most traditional location to reach the political establishment, the Washington Post opinion section, is brazenly male-dominated. Seventeen of the 19 columnists are men; only three of the columnists are racial minorities. Guest op-eds could present more voices, but they rarely do. This year, only 12 percent of the Post's guest pieces came from women, according to a May count by ombudsman Deborah Howell. At the New York Times, eight of the ten weekly columnists are men; one is black. (The Times also recently created a bimonthly graphics column, a post filled by a black commentator.) And in an industry review last year, about one out of four columnists were women at the largest syndicates around the country, according to Editor and Publisher. As Times columnist Nick Kristoff lamented last month, even as reporting staffs diversify, white men dominate American punditry "from newspaper columnists to television talking heads."

The disparity is striking on air. Most anchors, producers and writers in television news are women, according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, 2008-06-09-msnbc4Picture17.png yet the vast majority of prime time hosts, who dominate campaign coverage and frame presidential debates, are white men. That includes all the Sunday morning hosts, all the prime time hosts on MSNBC, and all but one of the prime time hosts on CNN and FOX.

The Democratic primary did briefly boost the diversity of the pundit pool – all those segments about race and gender would have been eerie with the usual lineup. "Both MSNBC and CNN this election season have given new prominence to a handful of contributing commentators from varied backgrounds and perspectives: blacks, Hispanics and women," the Times reported in April. "Whether such moves signal real progress in diversifying the punditocracy or merely reflect the needs of a particular news cycle is the question." And while the networks obviously should not bench diverse commentators until "diversity" is in the news, the booking history for political shows is not encouraging.

According to a recent, two-year study of the four major Sunday talk shows by Media Matters, out of over 2,000 guests, 77 percent were men and 82 percent were white. The top rated show, "Meet the Press," also led the pack in male representation, at an embarrassing 85 percent. Latinos were almost completely absent, comprising one percent of the guests. Latinos make up about 14 percent of the population, and the study ran through 2006 and 2007, when immigration policy was often in the news.

Many women and minority commentators must also battle ideological discrimination. All four Sunday shows booked more conservative pundits than liberals in 2006, according to a Media Matters study. On ABC's "This Week," for example, conservative pundits dominated by 36 percent to 19 percent. So liberal guests end up competing for fewer spots. Black commentators are already underrepresented. And then, since most black commentators lean left, their booking odds plummet further. (Only seven percent of black Americans self-identify as Republicans, according to Pew.)

In fact, a 2005 Urban League study of the Sunday shows found that a staggering 69 percent of all the appearances by black guests were made by just three conservatives -- Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Juan Williams. The study found that appearances by black commentators "other than Rice, Powell and Williams account for less than 3% of all guest appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows." And out of over 600 bookings during the same 18-month period, you could count the invitations for black women on half your hand. After Rice, only two other black women appeared: PBS' Gwen Ifel and Democratic strategist Donna Brazille.

The commentariat's gender and racial disparities are perennially documented and criticized, of course. Susan Estrich, a writer and ubiquitous political pundit in her own right, sparked the last debate in 2005, after blasting the testosterone coursing through the op-ed section at the Los Angeles Times. Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post's editorial page editor, jumped in the fray by declaring, "there ought to be more women on op-ed pages in general. Over time, I intend to make that happen." (Apparently he did not have a three-year window in mind.) The Nation's Katha Pollitt has constructively published lists of female writers who would make great columnists (or pundits), just to help out any media search committees. Next month, minority bloggers are gathering at the "Blogging While Brown" conference to network the burgeoning black blogosphere – a new and largely neglected talent pool of opinionated commentators for print and television debates. And some writers say even Clinton's loss could spur gender progress. Anna Holmes, a self-described "woman of color" who blogs at Jezebel.com, recently penned a Times op-ed urging Hillary Clinton to give a major, post-campaign address about "sexism in American life." That speech could contrast the public's demonstrated support for women in actual politics – from her strong showing to the rising number of women in Congress – with the exclusion of so many women and minorities from political media. And readers, like voters, can continue to press for a political system and public discourse that actually represents the public.

Internet Gurus Flock to Harvard Conference

Before the Internet changed everything, the Berkman Center was there. Founded as a different kind of research lab about ten years ago, Harvard Law School's unusual project – blending think tank freedom with academic rigor – is celebrating its first big anniversary this week. The sold-out conference features celebrities in the world of Internet culture, like professors Yochai Benkler and Jonathan Zittrain, and actual celebrities catapulted by Internet culture, like Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales, named one of the world's most influential people by Time magazine.

Jonathan Zittrain, nicknamed Jay-Z by techies in attendance, kicked things off by explaining his new book, "The Future of the Internet; And How to Stop It." As more web appliances restrict user choice, like iPhones, he warned that people will have less power to impact the web. That's because these popular "tethered appliances" can only be modified by their parent companies. Zittrain argues that the web will foster less innovation under this system, freezing the current landscape and reducing the prospect for "generative" developments.

Networked politics was a hot topic in several sessions. Jesse Dylan, who directed "Yes We Can," the music video drawing lyrics from a speech by Barack Obama, spoke about how the creators were surprised by the viral success of the project. (I spoke on the same panel, about the youth vote in 2008.) Another presenter discussed a fascinating April study of the Iranian blogosphere, mapped by link patterns and topic areas:

2008-05-15-Picture7.png

Iran's political blogosphere has more elected participation than most countries; the circled dots are the blogs of Iran's current and former president. The large size of the dots reflects their many incoming links. The discussion of wired international activism turned to Jeff Ooi, a popular Malaysian blogger elected to Parliament this March. And as more governments restrict political speech online, one participant said activists abroad need more flash drives and portable storage systems that can save and spread political dissent, even when governments scrub it from the open Internet.

Today Harvard also announced it will pluck Berkman from the law school and elevate it to a "university-wide, interfaculty initiative." That bureaucratic shift reaffirms the Center's culture, which is more dynamic and interdisciplinary than any curriculum cabined in a single graduate program. You know, like the Internet.

Pentagon Propaganda & Antiwar Analysts (Updated)

The Sunday Times' article detailing the massive, secret coordinated campaign by the Pentagon and all the leading television news channels to sell and defend the administration's Iraq policy is a critical piece of investigative journalism. David Barstow provided meticulous and aggressive reporting, even referencing how The Times'amplified Pentagon "surrogates" without sufficient disclosure for readers. The Times also deserves credit, both for running the lengthy piece and suing the government to obtain related documents. (Read the whole thing here, or try this YouTube excerpt.)

The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel is urging Congress to investigate the program exposed by the article:

In its rigorous documentation of the relationship between the government, the networks and retired military analysts, the lineaments of the corrosive structure and impact of a new military-media-industrial complex are exposed. This corrupt complex demands investigation by all relevant Congressional committees...

 

Glenn Greenwald, who has written extensively about the media's pro-war bias and undisclosed conflicts of interest, flags the galling (non)-response of several news organizations, near the end of the article:

 

The most incredible aspect of the NYT story is that most of the news organizations which deceived their readers and viewers by using these "objective" analysts -- CBS, NBC, Fox -- simply refused to comment on what they knew about any of this or what their procedures are for safeguarding against it. Just ponder what that says about these organizations -- there is a major expose in the NYT documenting that these news outlets misleadingly shoveled government propaganda down the throats of their viewers on matters of war and terrorism and they don't feel the least bit obliged to answer for what they did or knew about any of it.... The single most significant factor in American political culture is the incestuous, extensive overlap between our media institutions and government officials.

 

The article reports that most of the news organizations either didn't know or didn't care about their paid analysts taking direction from the administration while claiming to neutrally assess its policies; or taking expensive trips paid by the administration; or meeting secretly with senior administration officials and plotting military or political strategy; or competing for military contracts.

So what does it take to disqualify a former general from on-air analysis?

Criticizing President Bush.

While the article does not cover this incident, CBS did fire Maj. Gen. John Batiste (Ret.) for criticizing President Bush's Iraq policy in a television ad. As the former commander of the Army's First Infantry Division, which was deployed to Iraq in 2003, Batiste had unassailable credentials, but his views were too much for CBS. This larger context is key, because while the Times exposed a sophisticated, deceptive domestic propaganda campaign for the administration, the flip-side is harder to document. But antiwar perspectives are routinely marginalized or scrubbed from televised debate, even when offered by our nation's brave military leaders.

As ABC News was reminded last week, the public expects more integrity and substance from these news organizations. They are egregiously late in even commenting on these new reports, let alone reforming their policies, which demonstrates why Congress must investigate this propaganda program -- and the marginalization of experts who are critical of the war or the government.

(Updates below after the video.)

Update 2: On Monday afternoon, Free Press launched a petition urging Congress to investigate:

The pundits trade on their access to the media and the White House to secure high-paying jobs as lobbyists, consultants and contractors -- vying for hundreds of billions of dollars in military business generated by the war. An administration secretly forcing favorable views via the press is not a partisan issue. This is a violation of every conceivable standard of journalism -- and possibly of federal law.

 

Update 1: Some commenters argue the Democratic Congress will not investigate, since so many members voted for the war and they'd rather not revisit this history. Mask writes: "the media will turn on them and point out all the conservative Dems who VOTED FOR the war and ask 'What's worse, folks?'"

But a majority of Democrats in the House voted against the war -- a fact that is often forgotten, since the Congress has failed to alter war policy or rein in many of the administration's abuses. There are many reasons to still be pessimistic about the Congressional leadership, of course, but plenty of House Democrats would benefit by probing this Pentagon propaganda. And commenter Darladoon points to the Democrats' progress in confronting "Bush on telecom immunity" as another example where aggressive leadership actually worked -- undercutting the pessimistic conventional wisdom.

Facebook: There Will Be Blood

Can Facebook, the popular social networking site, solve America's blood shortages?

Takes All Types, a group billing itself as the first bottom-up blood donor experiment, is tapping social networks to find out. The group's Facebook application explains:

The mission is to improve communities' local blood supplies by amassing a network of blood donors across the United States and then we send personalized alerts targeted by geography and blood type when our users are needed to donate.

2008-03-10-Picture1.png

 

TechCrunch's Michael Arrington offers more context:

About 43,000 pints of blood are donated each day... Total donations aren't adequate to satisfy demand, though, and shortages occur regularly. When a patient is in need of blood that isn't available, it becomes a life and death situation. Historically the Red Cross will make efforts to alert the public during a shortage. But there may be a better way - leverage the social networks to get the word out. If shortages of a certain type of blood occur in a certain zip code, having a database of willing donors in that zip code to contact may be the most efficient way to solve the problem quickly.

 

The group's Facebook application just launched here; it currently has 19 "fans." Facebook, which has 65 million users, also ranked near the top of a new report listing which companies collect the most data on consumers. Accoring to comScore, a research firm, Facebook collects data on each user an average of 525 times per month. Yahoo collected data the most often, at 2,520 a month, followed by MySpace, AOL, Google and then Facebook.

As users upload private and medical information, of course, these companies have an even greater duty to protect privacy and proactively disclose how they collect, use and monetize that information.

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Photo Credit from The Library of Congress: "Two Navy wives, Eva Herzberg and Elve Burnham, assemble bands for blood transfusion bottles at Baxter Laboratories in 1942."

House Dems Near Surrender on Bush Spying

Tuesday's Washington Post reports that House Democrats are close to granting all of President Bush's demands for more domestic spying powers and telecommunications amnesty, in exchange for, well, nothing:

 

House and Senate Democratic leaders [say they are close to a bill giving the President] more domestic surveillance powers and grant[ing] phone companies some form of immunity for their role in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program...

 

Unlike the Senate leadership, senior House Democrats have been fighting Bush's demand that telecommunications companies receive blanket amnesty for warrantless surveillance. Even when Bush refused to sign an extension of the surveillance bill without amnesty, the Democrats held firm and let the measure expire, drawing attack ads and fear-mongering from the G.O.P. By surrendering now, Democrats would not only ratify the administration's assault on the rule of law. They would also be practicing a self-destructive brand of political cannibalism that thins their ranks and enervates their base. Salon's Glenn Greenwald explains it in crushing detail, which I think is worth quoting at length:

 

The signs are unmistakably clear that what was always inevitable -- full compliance by the House Democratic leadership with Bush's demands on warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty -- is now imminent... There's very little point anymore in writing about how the Congressional Democratic leadership is complicit in all of the worst Bush abuses, or about how craven they are. All of that is far too documented....But what is somewhat baffling in all of this is just how politically stupid and self-destructive their behavior is. If the plan all along was to give Bush everything he wanted, as it obviously was, why not just do it at the beginning? Instead, they picked a very dramatic fight that received substantial media attention. They exposed their freshmen and other swing-district members to attack ads. They caused their base and their allies to spend substantial energy and resources defending them from these attacks.

 

And now, after picking this fight and letting it rage for weeks, they are going to do what they always do -- just meekly give in to the President, yet again generating a tidal wave of headlines trumpeting how they bowed, surrendered, caved in, and lost to the President. They're going to cast the appearance that they engaged this battle and once again got crushed, that they ran away in fear because of the fear-mongering ads that were run and the attacks from the President. They further demoralize their own base and increase the contempt in which their base justifiably holds them (if that's possible). It's almost as though they purposely picked the path that imposed on themselves all of the political costs with no benefits.

 

The Post even floats one Democratic ploy to hide the ball: a "procedural move would allow many Democrats to vote against immunity but still make its approval all but certain." I don't think Democratic voters will be fooled by that "move." Even if you don't follow the floor rules closely -- and Speaker Pelosi can prevent most of Bush's demands from coming to a vote at all -- it's obvious when the Democratic Congress caves. It's especially striking on issues like Constitutional rights and Iraq, where Democrats cave after loudly declaring their commitment to fight. Back in October, I wrote about this tendency to "Rage and Cave":

 

If you believe the papers, Congressional Democrats have spent the better part of the past seven years vacillating between shock and outrage. They are thunderstruck by every White House scandal, stunned to discover another lie from the Bush Administration and positively livid each time they realize Bush is negotiating in bad faith. That is, of course, until they cave again. The Democrats' current rush to pass the President's intelligence bill repeats this sorry pattern.After roughly three years of outrage over illegal domestic spying--complete with [Sen. Pat Leahy's] roars of "Shame on us!"--Democrats are now pushing legislation to validate more warrantless surveillance of American citizens.

 

It's only gotten worse since October. Just this week, Bush's attorney general flatly refused to enforce contempt citations issued by Congress to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by White House officials. House Democrats say they are outraged and they will fight the attorney general. But the spying bill grants the attorney general new powers to prevent courts from reviewing the administration's conduct.

In the end, the Democrats have not offered a coherent explanation for this policy or their political surrender. After following this issue closely, I can't explain it either. As Greenwald writes, even on the most cynical terms, this was the worst possible route. And on principle, of course, there is no defense for retoractive amnesty, which stymies court oversight and undermines the rule of law.

Google Puts Your Data in a Corner

Facebook is still feeling the heat over its Hotel California data policy, which hordes users' private information even after they try to desert the site. The Times' Maria Aspan has been all over this story, and her latest article reports that media and user pressure is forcing Facebook to finally let people completely extract themselves from the site. The company says this is a "technical" challenge, talking up codes and glitches. But the real motivator is money, of course, since social networking sites are in the business of monetizing the social graph. That means people are traffic and personal information is content. 2008-02-18-Picture2.png As Adam Cohen explains in The Times editorial section, Facebook has not exactly friended "privacy rights":

It's no secret why Web sites like to spread information of this sort: they are looking for more ways to make more money. Users' privacy is giving way to Web sites' desire to market to their friends and family. Technology companies are also stockpiling personal information. Google has fought hard for its right to hold on to users' searches in a personally identifiable way. What Web sites need to do -- and what the government should require them to do -- is give users as much control over their identities online as they have offline. […] Protests forced Facebook to modify Beacon and to ease its policies on deleting information. Push-back of this sort is becoming more common. No one should have personal data stored or shared without their informed, active consent.

 

Amen. I advocated a similar proposal in my recent feature on Facebook:

A simple way to address one of Facebook's privacy problems is to ensure that users can make informed choices. Taking a page from the consumer protection movement, Congress could simply require social networking sites to display their broadcasting reach prominently when new users post information. Just as the government requires standardized nutrition labels on packaged food, a privacy label would reveal the "ingredients" of social networking. For example, the label might tell users: "The photos you are about to post will become Facebook's property and be visible to 150,000 people--click here to control your privacy settings." This disclosure requirement would push Facebook to catch up with its customers. After all, users disclose tons of information about themselves. Why shouldn't the company open up a bit, too?

Debates over privacy and social networking often slip into variations of "blame the victim," especially when older luddites scorn young users for abdicating privacy and responsibility online. But these ongoing Facebook disputes reveal how companies can use technology to mislead users and preempt people from making responsible choices. And even with good information, it's still complicated. While Facebook is fighting to prevent users from fully removing their information from the site, other digital rights can run in the opposite direction. Web expert Danah Boyd recently stressed how millions of people trust companies like Google to store tons of vital information, but what happens if your digital identity is "disappeared"? She recounts how a friend lost his entire Google account and was told he had no recourse by customer service. After all, there may be no contract or back up files available:

When companies host all of your data and have the ability to delete you and it at-will, all sorts of nightmarish science fiction futures are possible. This is the other side of the "identity theft" nightmare where the companies thieve and destroy individuals' identities. What are these companies' responsibilities? Who is overseeing them? What kind of regulation is necessary?

 

Good questions.

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Photo of campus poster: Inju Flickr

Iraq Divides Clinton and Obama in Electability War

Now that John McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is increasingly focused on who can beat him.

Team Obama is psyched about several hypothetical "head-to-head" surveys – which are often unreliable – that show him faring much better against the hawkish Arizona Senator. The trend is evident in a battery of recent polls, and Obama aides have been blasting reporters with a CNN segment on the results. So Clinton dispatched her top aides to discuss the darker side of electability this week. Pollster Mark Penn made Hillary's case in a conference call and 1,100-word memo, but since current data does not support her electability, he issued predictions instead. His five key points were:

 

The GOP Attack Machine Will Redefine the Democratic Candidate; Hillary Has Withstood That Process.

 

Sen. McCain Will Run on National Security; Hillary Wins That Argument.

Sen. Obama's Negatives Will Rise; Hillary's Are Already Factored In.

The Resiliency of Sen. Obama's Coalition Will Be Tested; Hillary's Coalition Is Stronger.

Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms. (emphasis added)

 

Plenty of pollsters are known for bluster over data, so maybe Penn should get candor points for not even mentioning numbers in his five points. In a charitable comparison of the campaigns' arguments, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza concludes that "the central difference in the electability appeals by the two campaigns is temporal." You know, like one appeal is based on today's data, and the other is based on a crystal ball. Cillizza continues:

 

The Obama campaign argues that the way to best understand who is the more electable is to look at current polling and past results to see who leads the likely Republican nominee and who is better able to lure crucial independents to the Democratic cause. The present is what matters, says Obama. For Clinton, it's the future that's the issue. Sure, they argue, Obama may be ahead right now, but Republicans have only begun to define him, a process that would strip away much of his independent support and leave him on the losing end of a race against McCain.

 

But wait -- for the vast majority of this campaign, Clinton aides touted her huge lead in past and current polls as proof of her "inevitability." Most independent pollsters and journalists swallowed that line, reporting items like this: "The conclusion drawn by the polling experts appears to be: Forget about Iowa being close, Clinton's inevitable, she's going to be the Democratic nominee." (That's from December.)

So at a minimum, reporters and pollsters must acknowledge that the Clinton Campaign has abandoned the case it pushed for over a year. Instead, it is now asking everyone to trust their predictions over current polls, past polls or their past arguments. We can't just ignore a massive shift in the central political argument for their candidate.

But that doesn't mean they are completely wrong, either.

There are two key issues in the "new" Clinton case: First, their explanation of the huge favorability gap is basically correct, and our political class should digest that reality. Second, their national security argument is wrong, and it offers an arresting reminder of the political and substantive problems with Clinton's foreign policy.

Penn told reporters that Obama's favorability ratings are temporarily inflated:

...time and time again the GOP attack machine redefine[s] the Democratic candidate. Hillary has withstood this process. She's lived through it. The attack machine has been built and honed over decades – it is formidable.. she has withstood this type of attack...

 

From a pure PR perspective, this is undeniably true. Clinton's negative ratings stem from a decade of sustained, presidential campaign level attacks on both her and her family. Obama has yet to receive such attacks -- he did not even face a viable opponent in his Senate race -- and his toughest Right Wing assault so far was an unfunded effort to lie about his Christian faith. If he is the nominee, sure, he could run a unifying campaign drawing a larger majority than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter ever built. But his negatives would still rise like every other Democratic nominee in the modern era. If reporters and voters don't get that now, however, and Obama wins the nomination, then get ready for a spate of summer hand-wringing about the "surprising" spike in his negatives.

Then there is the security argument, where the Clinton Campaign reveals it is ready to repeat the mistakes of Kerry 04. On this front, Penn's memo is breathtaking:

Based on what they know of her and her experience, voters believe Hillary is fully ready to be commander in chief. She will be strong and right...The Republicans will not be able to play the national security card against Hillary Clinton, like they are now doing against Senator Obama, and that makes her a fundamentally stronger candidate against John McCain. (emphasis added)

 

Got that? The campaign that "knows the Republican attack machine better than anyone" actually thinks their candidate is magically immune to the GOP's first line of attack.

Of course, either candidate will face a withering assault on security, "patriotism" and the Democratic passion for "protecting of rights of people who want to kill us" -- as a Fox pundit put the question to President Bush this weekend. The key difference is that Clinton is wedded to the "yes-but arguments" that failed Kerry. (The Nation's Ari Berman has more on this today in "Clinton Running Like It's 2002.") Take her Iraq defense in the last debate:

 

I believe that it is abundantly clear that the case that was outlined on behalf of going to the resolution -- not going to war, but going to the resolution -- was a credible case. I was told personally by the White House that they would use the resolution to put the inspectors in. I worked with Senator Levin to make sure we gave them all the intelligence so that we would know what's there. Some people now think that this was a very clear, open-and-shut case. We bombed them for days in 1998 because Saddam Hussein threw out inspectors. We had evidence that they had a lot of bad stuff for a very long time, which we discovered after the first Gulf War. Knowing that he was a megalomaniac, knowing he would not want to compete for attention with Osama bin Laden, there were legitimate concerns about what he might do. So I think I made a reasoned judgment. Unfortunately the person who actually got to execute the policy did not. (emphasis added; transcribed by The New York Times.)

 

So even today, she sees a "credible case" for the war, but she is also against the war. She made a reasoned judgment, but Bush did not. And when facing Iraq criticism, she mentions Osama bin Laden.

Yet for this entire campaign, while many focused on Obama's style and charisma, he advocated the policy and political imperative of challenging the fundamental premises of neoconservative foreign policy. He says it in every stump speech. (It's a huge applause line.) He hammered on the point in his speech on Super Tuesday -- an important choice since the televised address was one of his largest media opportunities to reach new voters:

 

And if I am your nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, because I didn't -- (cheers) -- or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, because I haven't -- (cheers, applause) -- or that I support the Bush-Cheney doctrine of not talking to leaders we don't like, because I profoundly disagree with that approach. (Cheers, applause.) And he will not be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether or not it's okay for America to use torture, because it's never okay. That is the choice in this election. (Transcribed by The Federal News Service.)

 

That is not only the most powerful argument for winning -- providing a strong, clear contrast instead of the Democratic doubletalk of 2004 -- it also prioritizes policy leadership on the campaign trail, not blurry pandering. Even apart from Iraq, when is the last time you heard a top Democrat lean in to confront Republicans on torture and Iran, rather discussing the issues on defense?

Most of the time, electability is a parlor game for insiders, who shift from (irrelevant) past polling to the titillating speculation of (even less reliable) projection polling. But this week's debate could be more meaningful, since voters can weigh Clinton's blunt claim that her war record would fare better in November. The Clintons have long eyed McCain warily -- the former president even said he "might be the most electable" Republican in a December interview on ABC. (The clip is still the second most popular item out of 166 videos on McCain's YouTube channel.) And Clinton was probably right.

Now Democrats are girding for a battle against a formidable but flawed political figure. McCain's shortcomings are well known, as an unrelenting advocate of the failed Rumsfeld plan in Iraq and the failed Bush approach to global terror. Given a clear alternative, Americans just might elect someone else.

Update: Nation reader SRJENKINS debunks another line from Penn:

 

Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms.

 

Is going from the inevitable candidate to almost being out of the race called "overperformance" these days? Let me go check my dictionary. Or going from, "Is this guy serious?" to contender, underperformance?

 

 

Does Facebook Own You Forever?

In a recent feature article on Facebook and the "new privacy," I stressed how the company's invasive data policy seizes lots of information from users, even after they quit the site:

 

Even if users terminate their membership, pictures of them posted by others remain online. But users can't really quit, anyway. Like guests at the Hotel California, people who check out of Facebook have a hard time leaving. Profiles of former members are preserved in case people want to reactivate their accounts. And all users' digital selves can outlive their creators. As the company's "terms of use" explain, profiles of deceased members are kept "active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by us to allow other users to post and view comments."

 

The issue has generally received far less media scrutiny than user revolts over programs that spread people's information, such as the "feed" controversy and protests against "social ads," though bloggers and social media observers have flagged this problem before. DavidNYC posted one of the more memorable pleas in December, "Delete My Bleeping Account, Facebook!"

Today the New York Times weighs in, with an excellent article by Maria Aspan:

 

Some users have discovered that it is nearly impossible to remove themselves entirely from Facebook, setting off a fresh round of concern over the popular social network's use of personal data. While the Web site offers users the option to deactivate their accounts, Facebook servers keep copies of the information in those accounts indefinitely. Indeed, many users who have contacted Facebook to request that their accounts be deleted have not succeeded in erasing their records from the network. "It's like the Hotel California," said Nipon Das, 34, a director at a biotechnology consulting firm in Manhattan, who tried unsuccessfully to delete his account this fall. "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." It took Mr. Das about two months and several e-mail exchanges with Facebook's customer service representatives to erase most of his information from the site, which finally occurred after he sent an e-mail threatening legal action. But even after that, a reporter was able to find Mr. Das's empty profile on Facebook and successfully sent him an e-mail message through the network.

 

That means the company is collecting potentially permanent digital dossiers for tens of millions of users, without their knowledge or consent. Set aside search engines, and Facebook is the third most popular website in the country. Over eight out of ten college students are registered on the site -- it's considered weird to be on campus without a Facebook profile nowadays. Yet despite its reach and remarkably aggressive data policies, few parents, universities or regulators have stepped up to consider what policies can protect the Facebook generation from Facebook.

Update: Facebook's Brandee Barker sent in a response to this post:

"There are two different ways to remove your information from Facebook. The first is to deactivate an account. Once a user deactivates the account, his or her profile becomes inaccessible on the main Facebook service, and the data is kept by Facebook only to allow easy reactivation. The second option is to delete the profile altogether. When a user deletes his or her profile, personal information -- such as name and all email addresses associated with the account -- is deleted from Facebook servers. If a user decides to join Facebook again, he or she would need to create a new profile. We are working to better explain the simple deactivation process, and to ease the deletion process for those who want their personal information removed from our servers.

 

 

Dems Fight Spying with Clinton and Obama MIA

A trio of Democratic House Committee Chairmen are stepping up the fight against President Bush's surveillance bill this week, vowing to beat back a controversial proposal to grant retroactive amnesty to companies accused of illegally spying on Americans.

Congressmen John Dingell, Ed Markey and Bart Stupak are circulating a letter urging their colleagues to stand firm and keep amnesty out of the final spying bill. The House already passed a bill without amnesty, but the Senate is scheduled to pass a bill with retroactive amnesty as early as Tuesday. That would trigger a fight to resolve the issue in a conference committee of Democratic leaders. While a majority of Democrats in both Houses have voted against amnesty, Senators Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller have fought hard to keep the proposal on the table, quailing at Bush's repeated threats to veto the bill if it does not include amnesty.

The House Democrats' letter explains that amnesty is distinct from the surveillance bill, which grants the administration more spying powers and weakens judicial requirements for warrants. "The issue of immunity for phone companies that chose to cooperate with the President's warrantless wiretapping program deserves a separate and more deliberate examination by Congress," reads the letter. "No special urgency attaches to the question of immunity other than the Administration's general eagerness to limit tort liability and its desire to avoid scrutiny of its own actions, by either the courts or the Congress."

Last week, over two dozen House members hammered the same point in a letter toPresident Bush:

Corporations that handed over their customers' records without a valid court order [...] undermined fundamental civil protections and privacy rights of Americans. Congress as a whole was kept in the dark for years about these activities, and to this day, the overwhelming majority of House Members and Senators have never been briefed on these activities. We cannot be asked to immunize these actions before we know the full extent of what occurred.

 

According to several civil liberties groups, the developments in the House suggest that at least some Democrats are now willing to draw a line in the sand to stop Bush's abuse of executive power. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing telephone companies over domestic spying, characterized the House letters as "a significant shift in the political debate over telecom immunity." An ACLU spokesperson told The Nation that the action by House leaders is the only "ray of hope" to scuttle amnesty, because the Senate is considered a lost cause. 2008-02-11-Picture1.png "We need the House to stand strong and not bless this multibillion dollar giveaway to the telecommunications companies," said the ACLU official.

Most observers agree that the spying bill and retroactive amnesty are distinct issues. After all, the bill governs surveillance policy going forward, while the amnesty amendment dismisses cases challenging past surveillance. Apart from one's view on each issue –- I oppose both the underlying White House bill and amnesty, as I explained in this November op-ed –- it would be highly irresponsible for Congress to rush amnesty without basic information about what happened. Yet the administration refuses to brief members, even in classified sessions, as the House committee letter explains:

For the past five months this Committee has asked, in a bipartisan manner, the phone companies and the Administration to [provide factual and legal information that] would justify Congress telling a Federal judge to dismiss all lawsuits…Surprisingly, even at this late date, the Administration has not deemed it important enough to respond to our repeated inquiries or even to brief the Committee Members in closed session.

 

But there's nothing surprising about the administration's contempt for the rule of law at this point. Are Democratic leaders just figuring this out?

The past few months of the spying debate do reveal, in a depressing sort of way, both the promise and residual frailty of this (mildly) resurgent Democratic Party. There are leaders who now go to the mat against Bush, even on counterterrorism policy and even when few are paying attention. That includes people like Senators Dodd and Feingold, and the House leaders fighting this week. But even when they summon a majority of their caucus, as they have on amnesty, they are sold out by a few well-placed members of their own party. So Senate Democrats watch the spectacle of Jay Rockefeller doing his best Joe Lieberman impression, and listen to Harry Reid say that he opposes amnesty while rigging floor votes to pass it.

Meanwhile, the two remaining presidential candidates have finessed the issue with such precision, it's the surest proof that their promises of "change" do not include restoring the rule of law until the election is over. Clinton and Obama did vote the right way this summer, but they missed recent key votes, and they have refused to use the enormous megaphone they share to get anything done. Just this weekend, President Bush peddled more attacks and disinformation about spying in an interview with Fox News. The Obama Campaign was quick to rebut Bush's attack on the Senator's foreign policy, and the Clinton Campaign is plenty aggressive when counter-punching to protect The Clintons. Yet neither campaign so much as released statements from aides to rebut the President's surveillance comments, let alone launch a battle plan to protect civil liberties in the looming fight.

Both campaigns talk about how history will view their unprecedented candidacies -- and breaking political glass ceilings is no small feat. Yet history tends to judge not only one's candidacy, but one's character, assessing whether leaders acted on the conviction to do right when pressed with the choice. Amnesty is on the table now. If Congress sends this legislation to President Bush, next January will be too late. There will be no accountability for domestic spying and few levers for a thorough investigation. And the next President will inherit an office with growing power and receding legitimacy, a dynamic reinforced by Congress and unlikely to abate when even would-be presidents refuse to stand up for the rule of law.

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Photo credit: Takomabibelot

 

Defending Clinton’s Virtual Town Hall

Hillary Clinton is under fire again for planted questions, but this time she did nothing wrong.

Clinton pulled a Perot this week, buying a full hour of national television to directly address voters before Super Tuesday. Her campaign convened a virtual town hall, "Voices Across America," and broadcast it on the Hallmark channel and HillaryClinton.com. On the scale of managed presidential campaign events, it was moderately participatory: more than a one-way stump speech, less than an open coffee klatch in Iowa. Specifically, the campaign screened submitted questions, and then Clinton spoke with selected voters, who were sometimes flanked by endorsers or supportive crowds.

Yet the event was the "opposite of interactive," blogs Zephyr Teachout, former Internet director for the Dean Campaign:

By spreading a video message instead of handling press questions, she used the internet to actually reduce interactivity, instead of increase it--she didn't have to interact with [live] questions...

 

Teachout is a sharp, passionate analyst of web politics -- I'd recommend her new book about the Dean Campaign to anyone who wants to understand what really went down in 2004. But I think it's a mistake to knock a political event simply because it is not 100% interactive. Sure, one potential benefit of Internet politics is deeper interaction between citizens and their leaders. But another is using the web to route around the filters and elites that separate the candidate from the public. Clinton's town halls and web chats enable voters to hear directly from her, just like Obama's one-way YouTube address. And as I've documented before, the public shows a remarkably high interest in hearing directly from these candidates. We can learn a lot about candidates' plans, policies and character by listening to them, even if it's not in a conversation.

2008-02-09-Picture7.pngVoters in San Francisco watch Clinton's virtual town hall. Photo: Cynthia Anne Kruger

Another key dimension is disclosure, which Teachout also raises. The questions appeared pre-selected, but neither the Hallmark program nor Clinton's website provided much information on that front. The Times' Brian Stelter explains:

Mrs. Clinton participated in what amounted to a one-woman debate. A casual viewer could have mistaken the paid programming, purchased last week by her campaign, for a news broadcast, save for a disclaimer at the beginning ("I'm Hillary Clinton, and I approved this message") and a logo in the corner of the screen that rotated between the words "Hillary" and "Vote Feb. 5."

 

That approval disclaimer is required by federal law for TV ads. But the FEC has not caught up to virtual campaigning. The rules should require on-screen disclaimers for the entire broadcast, so that all viewers know what they're watching. A banner reading "paid political program" would do the trick.

We can't wait around for campaigns to explain their managed events, either. The FEC should require campaigns to prominently explain the format of these virtual events on their websites. There is nothing wrong with culling questions in advance. (Academic and political panels do it all the time, on the theory that you can only take so many questions about a 9/11 conspiracy.) But obviously, the public has a right to know whether questions are live or pre-selected.

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